Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Trial of Dali by Andrew Kolo, Theater Fantazja from Sydney, Australia (Vol. 10, No. 4)

Trial scene from The Trial of Dali, with Andy Warhol, Isabelle, Judge, Maya, Gala and Dali

In June 2019, the Hollywood Fringe Festival presented a new play by Polish American artist-poet-playwright Andrew Kolo (Andrzej Kolodziej) performed by a troupe from Sydney, Australia - Teatr Fantazja -  and directed by its Artistic Director, Joanna Borkowska-Surucic. The play, its staging, and performances were superb in my opinion. I liked this spectacle so  much that I went to see it twice, and did not feel that I wasted my time.  The play is set in the 1950s in New York and Spain, where Dali went after losing all his money (partly due to the spending habits of his wife Gala, addicted to shopping).

Dali's Lobster Phone. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

After a prologue with young mustacchioed Dali beautifully playing an electric violin (Sebastian Banasiak Adaji), the play starts with Dali and Gala packing in a New York hotel. The are constantly interrupted by farewell visitors and phone calls, answered by Dali on a "lobster phone" with "this is Dali, the one and only, the incomparable genius of the universe." Though funny, these lines are actually true of each one of us. We are all "incomparable geniuses" each "one and only" - except Dali had the courage to say it aloud.  In many brief conversations we learn of the eccentric genius's sense of humor and grandiose self-appreciation of his own talent, as well as meet some of his well-connected friends (Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol).

Guard, Warhol, Gala, Izabelle, Judge and Maya in the trial scene. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

After this farewell to America, Dali and Gala settle in a small town in Spain, where he is surprised by a lawsuit brought against him by a former lover, Izabelle, bitter and jealous of his talent. She turns out to be a prosecutor who accuses the surrealist painter of indecency and of attacking morality. Strangely enough, his exaggerated sex drive, expressed through flirting with and seducing several women (well captured in hot and steamy scenes with Marilyn and Maya, a local paralegal) is not a target of the lawsuit. The focus is on his art, which is accused of being immoral and subversive to the state. In General Franco's fascist Spain, consequences could have been dire for the artist, who faced incarceration for may years - as his spiteful, vengeful accuser wished for. During the ridiculous trial, however, it turned out that the accuser-prosecutor herself was a failed painter who had lots of artistic problems and was accused of plagiarism herself, among other issues. Upon the discovery of this fact, the trial ended with the exoneration of the artist.

Characters of Andy Warhol, Gala, Judge, Maya and Dali in a trial scene. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

The witty play, with surprising twists of the plot and humorous dialogue, contains more serious reflections on the role of art and artist in society - is art just for sale? does art have a serious function of spiritual illumination? Is artist entitled to being supported by society? Kolo focuses on defending artistic freedom, the key to liberty and enlightenment.  Artists are like canaries in a coal mine; they notice and bring to light serious societal issues that need to be addressed at many levels.  The setting of the play in the dark times of fascist General Franco leading Spain towards World War II, with severe curtailing of personal freedoms, and intense prosecution of dissenters by the police state highlights the dangers we all live in.

James Domeyko (DALI),  Shakira Lambell (MAYA). Photo by Andrew Kolo.

Our freedoms of speech and thought are now under attack by the PC thought police, a movement of those easily offended being offended by everything. They tend to  extend accusations of hate speech for words, texts or actions that are not approved by their own "Generals Francos."  In other words, we do live in Orwellian times of the Big Brother, double-speak, and the inversion of meaning, when men can identify as women and participate in women's sports, when murder of innocent babies is redefined as freedom of choice for women, when climate change hysteria (a global financial scam based on "carbon credits") is promoted by teens, while the air, water, soil, and food are polluted by toxic chemicals that are still "legal" to use... It felt liberating to laugh so much at the antics of Dali and his surreal entourage. It felt rewarding to see an outright defense of common sense, creativity, artistic and personal freedom, as well as the open condemnation of totalitarian state oppression and the violence of war. The latter was found in a notable scene animated with electronic music and flashing lights, while actors presented mimed imagery of war and violence, Dali himself under attack.

The cast consisted of the following actors who each contributed to its astounding success. Tall and "darkly handsome" (like a character from a Harlequin romance) James Domeyko played SALVADOR DALI with a frantic energy and true star's charisma. The YOUNG DALI (Sebastian Banasiak Adaji) was memorable with his fancy fake mustache and beautiful performance on electric violin. Jola Szewczyk was the genius painter's manipulative and older, yet elegant and savvy wife, GALA. Marta-Kiec Gubala played IZABELLE in a full revenge swing for her past abandonment by Dali. Shakira Lambell was a young, beautiful paralegal MAYA who decided to save Dali in the court trial and hoped to persuade him to paint her portrait, by seducing him with her youth (and the glowing beauty of her long, lustrous hair that she kept showing off). Boguslaw Szpilczak appeared as taciturn ANDY WARHOL, who filmed the trial, and actually filmed or photographed everything that was going on, with the camera as his appendage. Davey played the young, athletic and handsome court GUARD who had no friendly feelings for Dali; this character was the epitome of respect for law and order, no matter  how absurd. Also, young and extremely fit, the Guard was the focus of attention of both older women, Isabelle and Gala, who admired his vitality and the well defined musculature of his body - to a comedic effect.

Maya watches the Torreadore in a brief, absurd dance. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

Andrew Switakowski played PABLO PICASSO, who came surreptitiously to Spain (he was on the "hit" list by the Dictator Franco) to save Dali financially. Ela Chylewska, played the JUDGE in the trial and let justice prevail. Kamila Dudek or Yassica Switakowski changed into the beautiful and seductive MARILYN MONROE, flirting with Dali, and getting a portrait by Warhol out of the whole hullabaloo. Wieslaw Rogolinski was a SPY sent to Dali, dressed up as a bullfighter, he provided a humorous relief in a comedy.  There were many such "laugh out loud" moments in the play, thanks to the comedic talents of the cast, and the funny dialogue.

Author, director, stars with audiencemembers after the play. L to R: Andy Kolodziej, James Domeyko, Joanna Borkowska Surucic, Liliana Tademar, Shakira Lambell. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

The music was mostly written by the star, James Domeyko, a charismatic actor and composer, with an almost infinite, frantic energy, intense stage presence, and a great musical talent. He kept surprising the other cast members and the audience with sudden turns and gestures, just as the whole play surprised and delighted the audience. Apparently, the original performances in Australia did not have so much music. The addition of many musical selections enriched the play and deepened its meaning and impact. (As a graduate of Chopin University of Music's "sound engineering" department, I am fully aware of the importance that music plays in any theatrical or film performance. Sounds touches our emotions directly and colors each scene, making it seem funny or poignant, or dangerous.) In addition to various recorded segments in Spanish flamenco or experimental electronic styles, the music appeared on the stage live: the play opened with a "young Dali" playing the violin (11-year old Sebastian Banasiak-Adaji). The stage was decorated with slide projections of Dali's paintings in the back and actual paintings by Andrew Kolo placed all around - for Dali to comment upon, improve, scratch excess paint from, and otherwise engage with.

James Domeyko as dashing, self-cofident and ever-surprising Dali.
Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

The play packaged its serious and important message, in defense of our First Amendment rights of free speech, free expression, and liberty for all, into a light-hearted, somewhat surreal, somewhat absurd guise of a comedy, well staged and presented by the experienced theatrical troupe from Australia. The actors, though Australian (and Polish), did not speak with their local accents, but rather enriched their characters with a variety of French-inflected (Picasso), Spanish-inflected (Dali), or plain-vanilla American (Warhol) accents, which were as entertaining as their antics and dialogue. All together - well done!

Andrew Kolo, Maja Trochimczyk, James Domeyko with actor Marek Probosz and his wife.

The Teatr Fantazja actors and crew were welcomed to  Los Angeles by the Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club that after a matinee performance on June 15, 2019 brought them to the Polish Day at Hellada Gallery in Long Beach for a reception and a taste of Polish American culture.  We wish all actors and artists lots of success in the future, unmarred by severe curtailing of freedoms that are now under way worldwide, promoted by fake news media and governments bought out by billionaires with a nefarious agenda. As Dali won his trial, so we shall win, even after a prolonged and fierce spiritual battle for freedom and liberty for all!

Here are some quotations from earlier reviews of this play after its performances in Hollywood and Sydney, Australia. More information:

Modjeska Club's President Maja Trochimczyk, Andrew Kolo, Joanna Borkowska-Surucic and Witold Sokolowski, VP of the Modjeska Club after the performance.

"The Trial of Dali” is a spiritual homage to one of the greatest artists of our time. It’s is strange and other worldly, full of Dali’s humor and brilliance and love. It’s quite an achievement, to bring to life such a master and not to fall into obvious sycophany or sad mimicry. This play is honest and wacky, fascinating and odd, tender and true…Bravo!
~ Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros, Theater Critic, Hollywood
"Director, Philippe Mora, and I both enjoyed the play, though it was an innovative and entertaining take on Dali."
~ Michael Blaha, Hollywood Movie Producer

“An unforgettable evening of Poetic Theater.”
~ Paul Vangelisti, Poet & Prof. of Literature-Otis Art Institute

I attended The “Trial “at Zenith Theatre last night and must compliment you on steering a wonderful ship through a complicated play. Stagecraft, setting and overall abstract visualization were superb. My compliments to the surreal cast who brought their craftsmanship to the fore. I was the next morning that it all became homogenous. Thank you for the joy and appreciation of your directional skills.
~ Eli Beverly, Willounghby News, Sydney

"The Trial of Dali ticks some interesting boxes: new, definitely European sensibility at work in it though not of a classical kind, yet fresh, anarchic and American enough to offer something different to an Australian audience. The trial process itself is a variant of courtroom farce, with hysterical or seductive counsel, a biased judge, and a guard who seems to have strayed in from a Muscle Beach Robot video game. The performance I saw struck me, in some way, as still a work in progress. The moments of choreographed dance, with stark lighting variations and intense movement, were brilliant, completely appropriate to the surrealistic potentials of the play."
~ John Stevenson, Theatre Critic, Sydney


Dali hugs Maja with Malgorzata and Marek Probosz looking on.
Photo by Andrew Kolo.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Grande Valse Brillante - Tuwim, Konieczny, Demarczyk and Chopin (Vol. 10, No. 3)

Ewa Demarczyk

Do you know the Grande Valse Brillante? The original magical waltz by Chopin? Here's a recording by Valentina Lisitza, thankfully without any ads to ruin the experience...

One listener commented on YouTube: "Most contemporary pianists, unfortunately play Chopin's music to fast,the essence of harmony gets diffused by the clatter of the keyboard's action,Valentina in this video plays a very moderate and appropriate tempo for this piece,that demonstrates the cheer elegance of this composition,sensible approach from this pianist,a very enjoyable experience!"

Another listener remembered that "For me it all started as a very young kid watching a Tom & Jerry episode where this lovely piece of piano masterpiece is included, and 27 years later hearing this again is just magnificent. A firm favorite."

National Chopin Institute in Poland posts the following introduction to this work, dedicated to Laura Horsford, and composed in 1833, two years after  Chopin's arrival in Paris. There are three mansucripts and three different published versions of Op. 18. Chopin was known to make changes when preparing a publication in a different country. Schlesinger published the French edition, Breitkopf & Härtel the German one, and Wessel & Co. issued the Waltz in England.

"The Waltz in E flat major, published as opus 18, is of a profoundly Parisian character, not of the sentimental Viennese variety. It shimmers with the gaiety of elegant society. It was written – ostensibly – in a form consisting of a succession of dance themes – now alike, now incongruous. In essence, however, it is an integral whole, in which one theme passes imperceptibly into another, ends, then returns, building up the drama in grand style. ‘It is a true ballroom picture,’ notes Huneker, ‘spirited and infectious in rhythms.’

Each of the dance themes (there are seven in all) brings a different melodic character and dance motion. The way is led by the opening theme in E flat major, consolidating the rotary waltz step in a distinctive manner (bars 5–16). It is followed by a little theme in A flat major, lively and scherzotic, which acts as a vignette (bars 22–30). The theme in D flat major brings our first breather, a switch from rotary to rocking movement, from leaping to singing (bars 70–78). It also has its lively opposite (bars 86–95). A new singing theme appears, taking the dance to ecstatic raptures (bars 118–134). Its complement is in the purest brillant style: the lively melody is bejewelled with acciaccature (bars 136–144). Just before the end, we hear a fluent, undulating theme (in B flat minor), shrouded in sentimental mist (bars 169–177). The introduction to the E flat major Waltz, barely four bars long and exceedingly simple, was brought in to set the rhythm; it did not portend such an impressively elaborate finale, which is at once also the stretta of the themes presented earlier (bars 243–270).

The dedicatee of the Waltz in E flat major, the first of the Parisian waltzes, is one of Chopin’s pupils, Miss Laura Horsford, sister of Emma, to whom Chopin dedicated another work: the Variations, Op. 12. The edition, most aptly, carries the title Grande Valse Brillante. Huneker perspicaciously wrote of Chopin’s Parisian waltzes: ‘There is a high-bred reserve despite their intoxication’. The reviewer of the Gazette musicale de Paris summarised his opinion as follows: ‘Although particularly suitable for dancing, this waltz is among the most brillantes, and it deserves to hasten its way onto pianos whose rests are not in the least bit accustomed to holding vulgar music.’ Schumann went a step further: ‘It should be danced, at the very least, by countesses’.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski

An entirely different interpretation in poetry and music is a poem by Julian Tuwim, set to music by Zygmunt Konieczny and performed by Ewa Demarczyk. Known as "Grande Valse Brillante" the text is a fragment of "Kwiaty Polskie"  - a long and angry poem by a young, poor Polish-Jewish poet protesting the injustices of the world, and the unfaihtfulness of his would-be bride, seduced by the glitter of money. It is not a pretty picture, not a charming, elegant, salon romance. It is the fury and frenzy of a jilted lover... Would Chopin approve? Probably not...

But Tuwim's Polish text has been reversed to become Demarczyk's song: in his version the "I" is the poor poet with holes in his shoes and pennies in his pockets who asks his beloved if she remembers dancing with him. In the song it is the woman who asks the question of her lover, "do you remember me?" With this reversal the irony of the poem becomes a humiliation by a triumphant and unfaithful femme fatale who abandoned him for riches of a banker and the luxuries that money can buy... In any version, the anger, nay, rage of the abandoned man is palpable. But when you listen to Demarczyk, you do not think of the meaning of the words at all. It all becomes a frenzy of dancing, an amazing whirlwind of sound and movement. The music by Konieczny, the passionate, intense interpretation by Demarczyk - yes, to this Chopin would have said yes, even though this piece has no trace of his music. Yet, there is sorrow, there is passion, there is love...

Grande Valse Brillante 

Julian Tuwim (fragment of "Kwiaty Polskie" - Polish Flowers)
Translated by Maja Trochimczyk

I - vodka after vodka in the buffet -
Look around the wood-paneled room -
And my heart is pounding.
(Do you remember?)
Into silence
And tells us
That soon
(Do you remember how with you ...?)
My eyes already
Found your eyes,
I'm coming -
Stumbling along the way -
In a moment…
(Do you remember how I danced with you ...?)
I approach
On my toes
And suddenly
I'm kidnapping you - for life and death - for dancing
Grande Valse Brillante

Do you remember how I danced the waltz with you,
Miss Madonna, the legend of these years?
Do you remember how the world went to dance,
The whole world, that fell into my arms?
Terrified blasphemer,
I embraced, with my whole heart
Flowering, hidden, these two,
Hovering hot,
United in breath,
Like all you, in conjecture and mist.
And these two over two,
What they are, but they are gone,
For they're covered with lashes and down,
As if they were there
And they caressed with the blue,
The one, the other one, half and half.
Thundering of strings and trumpets
Circles grow in the rapture of hands,
Holding waist tighter and tighter
With greedy arms that captures,
And holds  -  a blasphemy
Of a trembling hand on the bud
Bright suns of trumpets resound,
Encircling circles expand,
And rush back, speeding
In dizziness, twirling like a whirlwind.

When I roll through the ceiling -
My nose touches the stars,
When I grind on the ground,
I pretend to be a strongman.
I strain my feeble muscles,
I flex my weak chest,
You will have an athlete
And a hussar for husband.

Exalted gibberish -
I'm muttering something,
You will have for a husband
A complete idiot.
You're listening, cool and distant,
A wonder-boy, jumping around
That you would have as a husband
A sophisticated celebrity.

And here, my leg got stuck,
A long splinter in the shoe-hole.
He has a hole in his shoe-sole
Your pretender of a husband.
But I pull it, jerk it, break it -
And now I am free, it is gone,
And I waltz, shuffling along
With a rolled back shoe-sole.

With a devilish grace,
Of Hungarian Csardas,
I twirl in devil's circles
With those damned soles,
I shake my patched pants,
I have a patch on my face,
Six kopecks in my pocket
And nothing else.

Fingers of my left hand,
Bravely move to the side,
To twirl between your fingers.
They find a ring.
They clamp like crab claws -
Though you scream, they squeeze tight!
Let it hurt you, the mean one,
Your ominous ring.

I will give you another ring:
I will wrap your beautiful neck
In my unhappiness even
Before your wedding.
I will tighten the loop of vengeance
Around this swan neck, this fragrance,
You will dance on the noose,
You, unfaithful Madonna.

The rope turns round, rises and tightens,
Your pretender husband-to-be dances wildly, like crazy,
And then, into this circle, the factory locust dances in,

Sir owner, proprietor, coach-owner, diamond-owner.
As if from the infernal pit, the fat ones pop out,
They take you away from me, they steal, these thieves, scammers,
Their plump paws will catch you - quick, into a knot, rope loop!
And you looped in a knot, the secret street of Berlin!

Heart now (have mercy, have mercy),
Echo now (love me, love),
Have mercy, forgive me, regret it,
Take me into a dark forest - and kiss me.
In a whisper now, a quiet persuasion,
Secret whisper, sorrow-mourning,
Flowing melody - slowing down -
I dance you into the forest, Madonna ...
A secret whisper
Do you remember,
How with you
I entered the dark forest of my life -
Do you remember how I danced with you
A waltz -
My dearest -
And the farthest -
And the farthest -
You danced with a stranger - with your husband ...
With your husband ... with that boy
And slowly
Into this forest
On your toes
A waltz ...

- And how behind us, a slithering serpent,
Moving in compression and expansion,
Hissing, eternal, invisible,
He slipped into a wooded forest,
With drunk foam rolling from the muzzle,
He - the hateful Fatal Reptile

What a strange poem. Hateful. I do not like it at all. I did not hear these words of hate, anger, hurt. These threats of murder. Somehow they are not audible or easily noticed in the beautiful, soaring melody of the song.

Here's the Polish original. It does not sound like the Demarczyk song, the ending especially is different. Somehow when she sings it, it becomes touching, compassionate, almost loving...

Grande Valse Brillante 

Ja — wódkę za wódką w bufecie...

Oczami po sali drewnianej —
I serce mi wali.
(Czy pamiętasz?)
że zaraz
(Czy pamiętasz, jak z tobą...?)
już znalazł
mój wzrok twoje oczy,
już idę —
po drodze zamroczy —
już zaraz
za chwilę…
(Czy pamiętasz, jak z tobą tańczyłem…?)
na palcach
i naraz
nad głową
do walca
o porywam — na życie i śmierć — do tańca
Grande Valse Brillante

Czy pamiętasz, jak z tobą tańczyłem walca,
Panno, madonno, legendo tych lat?
Czy pamiętasz, jak ruszył świat do tańca,
Świat, co w ramiona mi wpadł?
Wylękniony bluźnierca,
Dotulałem do serca
W utajeniu kwitnące, te dwie,
Unoszone gorąco,
Unisono dyszące,
Jak ty cała, w domysłach i mgle.
I tych dwoje nad dwiema,
Co też są, lecz ich nie ma,
Bo rzęsami zakryte i w dół,
Jakby tam właśnie były
I błękitem pieściły,
Jedno tę, drugie tę, pół na pół.
Rośnie grom i strun, i trąb,
Rośnie krąg i zachwyt rąk,
Coraz więcej kibici
Chciwie ramię ochwyci,
Świętokradczo napełza
Drżąca ręka na pąk
Huczą słońca grzmiących trąb,
Kołujący rośnie krąg,
Pędzi zawrót
Po elipsie
Jednomętnym rozpływem wiruje jak bąk.

Gdy przez sufit przetaczam –
Nosem gwiazdy zahaczam,
Gdy po ziemi młynkuję,
To udaję siłacza.
Wątłe mięśnie naprężam,
Pierś cherlawą wytężam,
Będziesz miała atletę
I huzara za męża.

Wniebowziętym bełkotem
O zabawie coś plotę,
Będziesz miała za męża
Skończonego idiotę,
Słuchasz, chłodna i obca,
Cudo-chłopca, co hopsa,
Żebyś miała z męża
Wytwornego światowca.

A tu noga ugrzęzła,
Drzazga w dziurze uwięzła,
Bo ma dziurę w podeszwie
Twój pretendent na męża.
Ale szarpnę się, wyrwę –
I już wolny, odeszło,
I walcuję, szurając
Odwiniętą podeszwą.

Z jakąś gracją diabelską,
Czarcie kręgi zataczam
Tą przeklętą podeszwą,
Trzęsę tyłkiem łatanym5
I na pysku mam łatę,
Sześć kopiejek w kieszeni
I nic więcej poza tem.

Palce lewej mej dłoni,
Dziarsko w bok odrzuconej,
Między palce twe wchodzą
I znajdują pierścionek,
Zaciskają się kleszcze —
Choć krzyknęłaś, to jeszcze!
Niech cię boli, ty podła,
To kółeczko złowieszcze.

Ja ci inny dam pierścień:
Ja ci moim nieszczęściem
Śliczną szyjkę owinę
Jeszcze przed tym zamęściem.
Mściwą pętlą zacisnę
Tę łabędzią, tę wonną,
Będziesz tańczyć na stryczku,
Wiarołomna madonno.

Krąży koło powroźne i podnosi się, zwęża,
Po wariacku wywija twój pretendent na męża,
A w to koło się wtańcza fabrykańcza szarańcza,

Pan właściciel, posiadacz, kareciarz, brylanciarz!
Jak z piekielnej czeluści, wyskakują ci tłuści,
Odbijają cię, kradną, ci złodzieje, oszuści,
W pulchne łapska cię chwycą — żywo, w supeł, pętlico!
I ty w węzeł, berlińska tajemnicza ulico!

Sercem teraz (zmiłuj się, zmiłuj),
Echem teraz (miłuj mnie, miłuj),
Zlituj się, daruj, pożałuj,
Weź w ciemny las — i zacałuj.
Szeptem teraz, cichą namową,
Szeptem tajnym, żalem-żałobą,
Płynną melodią — zwolnioną —
W las cię wytańczam, madonno...
Tajnym szeptem
Czy pamiętasz,
jak z tobą
W ciemny las mego życia wkroczyłem —
Czy pamiętasz, jak z tobą tańczyłem
walca —
Moja najbliższa —
i najdalsza —
i najdalsza —
Tańczyłaś z obcym — z twoim mężem...
Z twoim mężem... z tamtym chłopcem
I powolutku
w ten las
na palcach

— I jak za nami, sunąc wężem,
Ruchami sprężeń i rozprężeń,
Syczący, wieczny, niewidzialny,
Wśliznął się w leśne uroczyska,
Pijaną pianę tocząc z pyska,
On — nienawistnik, Gad Fatalny

I remember listening to this song and the whole Demarczyk album over and over again in my teens, in our Polish apartment in Warsaw - on the tenth floor of a very ugly cement block with a square window where I watched clouds passing, while lying on my back, under the avalanche of Konieczny's music and the river of Demarczyk's passionate voice.... Other songs were my favorites, but the building frenzy and passion of the Grande Valse Brillante was irresistible, too.

I just heard it performed by a singer from the group "Sami Swoi" from Las Vegas (concert Qui Pro Quo at South Pasadena Library, organized by Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club) and, surprisingly to myself, after all these years, I was able to sing along with her. "Do you remember...?"

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Who Was Helena Modjeska? Lecture at Laguna Art Museum, March 28, 2019 (Vol.10, No. 2)

.. A short answer to the question "Who Was Helena Modjeska?" is that Helena Modjeska was Helena Modrzejewska,  a Shakespearean actress born in Krakow, Poland, on October 12, 1840 (as Jadwiga Benda, baptized as Jadwiga Helena Opid); who emigrated to California in 1876, settled on an estate in Santiago Canyon, Orange County (that she called Arden) and died in Newport Beach, California, on April 8, 1909 after an illustrious acting career spanning two continents and consisting of over 4,000 performances.

Modjeska's illustration of an escape by a balloon bird from her tale.

A longer answer, illustrated with 80 slides of her photographs, costumes, letters, memorabilia, and gardens at Arden, is given in my lecture as Modjeska Club President, entitled "Who was Helena Modjeska?" This lecture accompanied a unique exhibition of Modjeska's 1896 handwritten bilingual morality tale written and illustrated for her grandson Felix Modjeski (son of Ralph Modjeski the famous engineer). The Lecture took place on Thursday, 28 March 2019 at 6 pm. at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651; tel. (949) 494-8971.

As it turns out Modjeska was not only actress, writer, illustrator, but also theater director, producer, costume designer, costume maker, star-maker (Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Wladyslaw Benda), artist and artists' muse (writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, painters, poets Richard Watson Gilder and John Steven McGroarty), interior designer, icon of style, businesswoman, and marketer.

Then, she also was farmer, landowner, gardener and the boss of one of the most famous gardeners of the 29th century, Theodore Payne (of Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants). She was even a rosarian!

Of course, she was a devoted daughter, sister, mother, favorite great aunt and grandma... and a legend during her lifetime and after her death... A lot of roles for 68 years of life!

Let us start the review of the multitude of roles she played in her life, not only on the stage, from that of a POET'S MUSE - here is a poem "Modjeska" by 19th-century American poet Celia Thaxter (1835-1894), and depicting the actress while she listens to a Chopin recital at the home of journalist Eugene Field in Boston:


Deft hands called Chopin's music from the keys.
Silent, she sat, her slender figure's poise
Flower-like and  fine and full of lofty ease;
She heard her Poland's most consummate voice
From power to pathos falter, sink and change;
The music of her land, the wondrous high,
Utmost expression of its genius strange, -
Incarnate sadness breathed in melody.
Silent and thrilled she sat, her lovely face
Flushing and paling like a delicate rose
Shaken by summer winds from its repose
Softly this way and that, with tender grace
Now touched by sun, now into shadow turned, -
While bright with kindred fire her eyes burned.


Jadwiga Helena Misel (b. 12 Oct. 1840 in Kraków). Mother – Józefa Benda (1803-1887), baptized as Jadwiga Opid with the last name of her godfather Michał Opid; father – unknown. Some speculated that she was  illegitimately fathered by Prince Eustachy Sanguszko, and later people looked for similarities between his daughter Helena and Modjeska. She remained in close contact with her half-brothers Benda – actors Józef and Feliks, and the Opid family: Adolf+Kazimiera, their children Ludwik and Maria, and granddaughters Felicia and Helena, that she treated as her own.

Helena and Gustaw Zimajer Modrzejewski, 1861

Around 1860 she started a relationship with Gustave Sinnmayer (Zimajer) Modrzejewski (1825-1901) a much older theater director, actor and manager of a troupe touring provincial Galicia. This was not a formal marriage but they presented it as such. In 1861, Modjeska had a son with Sinnmayer, Rudolf (1861-1940) (later known as Ralph Modjeski), who became a civil engineer in the United States, and a daughter Maria (Marylka) who died as a baby.   After their separation in 1865, Sinnmayer kidnapped Rudolf who stayed with his father for several years; only after winning him back, could Modjeska leave Poland. 


Sinnmayer used the name "Modrzejewski" on stage and thus, Helena's Polish stage name was born, "Modrzejewska" with the feminine ending "a" instead of "i" used for men. Sinnmayer supervised her early education and promoted her fledgling acting career. In 1861 she made her first onstage appearance in a one-act comedy named The White Camellia. The Modrzejewskis toured provincial towns in Galicia under Austrian rule – more lenient towards Polish culture than Prussians and Russians. Nowym Sącz, Przemyśl, Rzeszow, Brzeżany.  In 1862-1863 she was engaged to perform in Lwow theater, in Juliusz Slowacki romantic drama Balladyna. She also played Barbara Radziwiłłówna in a tragedy by Alojzy Feliński; Ludwika in Intryga i miłośc (Intrigue and Love) by Friedrich Schiller, Amelia in Mazepa by Juliusz Słowacki; and Maria Stuart in Maria Stuart by Juliusz Słowacki.

“To get out of myself, to forget all about Helena Modjeska, to throw my whole soul into the assumed character, … to be moved by its emotions, thrilled by its passions, …—in one word, to identify myself with it and reincarnate another soul and body, this became my idea.”
—Helena Modjeska, from her "Memories and Impressions" (1910)


In 1865 left Zimajer and moved to Krakow, joined the troupe directed by Stanislaw Kozmian – learned the principles of team performance without the star- caste system. First role: Sara in the drama Salomon by Wacław Szymanowski. Other roles: Anna Oświęcimówna by Mikołaj Bołoz Antoniewicz (1865); Princess Eboli in Don Carlos (1866) and Amalia in Robbers by Schiller (1866)
Portia in the Merchant of Venice, first role in  Shakespeare (1866); Ophelia in Hamlet [C] and Dona Sol in Hernani by  Victor Hugo (1867); Adrianna Lecouvreur by Eugene Scribe and Ernest Legouve (May 1867).

Adrianna Lecouvreur in Poland

From a review in Kurier Warszawski: "She came across as the kind of actress who is hard to find even on the stages of great capital cities, an artist who, through work and enlightened management, could join the first ranks of her profession. Mother nature has been generous with her. She has given her all an artist needs: a beautiful appearance, figure and voice, and most importantly, the gift of artistic perspicacity, which makes an actor instinctively feel what a role needs." (1867)


Poster of Modjeska's roles by Regulski, 1860s.

Since the fall 1868 a star at the Warszaw Government Theaters (under Russian control), played in Warsaw to 1876, for eight years, appearing in 95 performances, starting from Adrianna Lecouvreur.  
Had definite impact on the repertoire and made it more serious. Increased the number of Shakespeare and Slowacki plays: Hamlet in 1871 (Ophelia), Mazepa in 1872 , Othello in 1873 (Desdemona), and   Much Ado About Nothing in 1876 (Beatrice).  Other roles: Aniela in Maiden’s Vows by Aleksander Fredro, Severyna in a play by Alexander Dumas son 1872, and guest performances in Krakow and Lwow.


On September 12, 1868, Modjeska married a Polish nobleman, Karol Bożenta Chłapowski. Known in America as "Count Bozenta," he was not a count but a nobleman. His family belonged to the untitled landed gentry. Later, in the United States, they adopted the name "Count and Countess Bozenta" to gain publicity. "Bozenta" was easier to say than "Chłapowski." Chłapowski was the editor of a liberal nationalist newspaper, Kraj (The Country), owned by Prince Adam Sapieha and  Mr. Sammelson.  Modjeska wrote that their home "became the center of the artistic and literary world [of Kraków]." Poets, authors, politicians, artists, composers and other actors frequented their salon.


In her "Memoirs and Impressions" Modjeska thus described the decision to emigrate: “My husband's only desire was to take me away from my surroundings and give me perfect rest from my work ... Our friends used to talk about the new country, the new life, new scenery, and the possibility of settling down somewhere in the land of freedom, away from the daily vexations to which each Pole was exposed in Russian or Prussian Poland. […] My husband, seeing the eagerness of the young men, conceived the idea of forming a colony in California on the model of the Brook Farm. The project was received with acclamation.”

Other colonists: Julian Sypniewski with family, Łucjan Paprowski, and Henryk Sienkiewicz (winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905). Stanisław Witkiewicz (father of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz) and Adam Chmielowski (the future St. Albert) were also to come with Modjeska's group, but they changed their plans.


Shack at Arden, from Theodore Payne's book, 1962

Purchased a ranch near Anaheim, CA, because most of émigrés spoke German.  Planted olives, oranges, kept bees, had some cattle. Modjeska and Chlapowski worked physically on tending the ranch, others not so much.  Bad weather caused various losses. Sold the ranch to purchase “Arden” in Santiago Canyon from Henry Pleasants, who earlier sold them a portion of that land. The men lived in a shack initially (Chlapowski, Paprowski, and Ralph Modjeski). 


Her costumes were one of her stage "weapons" that made her a star. Some designed to her specifications and made in Paris, some made by herself, she embroidered many decorations... Examples include costumes for Juliet, Cleopatra, Magda, Dalila, Maria Stuart and many others. 

Modjeska as Juliet with detail from a modern reproduction of her costume.


After several months of intensive English studies with Jo Tuholsky (she started English lessons in Poland), she auditioned in front of the theater director  and was engaged for the first cycle of appearances in her flagship role as Adrianna Lecouvreur. Stage debut at The California Theatre in the title      role of Adrianna Lecouvreur. After the first night she sent a cable to her husband: “Victory. Modjeska."  Henryk Sienkiewicz reported in "Gazeta Polska" as follows “Everybody was in a frenzy... Nobody left their seats after the show was over, which is unheard of in America. Contrary to local custom, the actress was called back eleven times... America was taken by storm.” 


  • First tour 1878 – 5 months, 17 cities
  • Second tour  1878/9 – 35 weeks, 240 shows, 50 cities, first one by train – her own car “Poland”
  • Third tour 1882/3 – 38 weeks, 20+ cities (“farewell”)
  • Fourth tour 1883/4 – 40 weeks, second “farewell” with Chlapowski as manager, hired Stinson
  • Fifth tour 1885/6 – 80 cities, 245 shows
  • TOTAL: 26 tours to 1907, with Sargent, Stinson and then “Helena Modjeska Company

Cleopatra. Modjeska Opid Family Papers at the Huntington Library
  • 18 roles and 15 of them in English, 11 in both languages.
  • Of all 4,300 performances she gave, 2,250 were in Shakespeare
  • Of all 3,800 American performances, over 2,000 in Shakespeare
  • Lady Macbeth – 520
  • Rosalind – 440
  • Beatrice –  200
  • Julia, Viola, Portia – 160 times each
  • Ophelia and Cleopatra – 100 times


Tours since 1879 to 1903 as a guest performer: Kraków, Lwów, Warsaw, as well as Poznań, Tarnów, Łódź, Lublin and Stanislawów. Polish interpretations of Shakespearean roles (Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing), and later performances as Rosalind in As You Like It, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Viola in Twelfth-Night, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Imogen in Cymbeline. In other plays she was Margaret Gauthier in Alexandre Dumas fils' Camille, Octave Feuillet's Dalila and Victorien Sardou's Odette; Nora, Magda and Silvia Settala in plays by Henrik Ibsen, Hermann Sudermann and Gabriele d'Annunzio. Continued to appear in Polish dramas, by Juliusz Slowacki and Stanisław Wyspiański Warszawianka (Varsovienne) and Protesilas and Laodamia.


While her career blossomed after the fall of the January Uprising (1863-4), Modjeska performed Polish repertoire wherever she could, starting from Slowacki's plays, and including those by Stanislaw Wyspianski and less known writers.  In the 1870s, some of her Warsaw performances were turned into patriotic manifestations by audiences, including students, still thinking of independence for the country that so recently fought for over a year against the Russian and Prussian occupiers.

Often expressed patriotic sentiments in interviews and sometimes on the stage, as during the tour of Ireland, where she compared the fate of Ireland under the British rule to the fate of Poland ruled by Russia.

In 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she made a 45-minutes speech about women in Poland, including in her speech not only an overview of famous Polish women, from  the 17th century onwards, but also very strong patriotic and anti-Russian accents. She complained about the powers that "endeavor to obliterate from the annals of humanity the history of Poland, to restrict if not entirely prohibit the use of our language, to hinder the development of every progress; be it economic, intellectual or social." And named this hostile power the Russian government


As Camille in a play adapted from Dumas

In 1880 – first series of guest performances in England. Well received, except Juliet and Ophelia (considered too old). Much as she wanted to conquer Shakespeare's birthplace with Shakespearean roles, she was preferred in French melodramatic repertoire, Adrianna Lecouvreur, Camille, etc. 
Return guest performances in England in 1881, 1882 and 1885. 

After performances in Boston, American poet  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote to her:
 "I have seen many actresses play Camille, but you, my dear, are far superior to all of them.“


A United States citizen in 1883; she continued acting to1907 (age 67) to support husband and extended family.  She went on twenty-six tours with her companies – hiring co-stars, support cast, and booking appearances along railroad routes, first produced by Sargent, Stinson, then “Helena Modjeska Company”.  Modjeska directed and produced performances, including her beloved Cleopatra that was extremely costly to produce and move around (costumes, number of cast)
Liked idealized “symbolic” approach to acting, not “realistic” with lots of stage decorations and details.  She felt that a “magnetic” emotional impact on audiences was the most important and team work, of the whole troupe, not just being a lone star. 


Among her protegees were Ignacy Jan Paderewski, pianist composer, Wladyslaw Benda, artist (and her nephew), and pianist prodigy Jozef Hoffman. 

In 1884, helped define Paderewski's stage image as a mysterious and mystical red-headed archangel. Introduced him to British artists, Edward Burne Jones (drawing above) and Laurence Alma Tadema who perpetuated the Paderewski Archangel myth. In the U.S., Modjeska introduced him to American men and women of letters, including Henry Gilder and his wife. 

Modjeska sponsored the education and first steps in America of Wladyslaw Benda, her nephew, who became a painter and illustrator with an extensive American career. 


One of Modjeska's stage costumes from contemporary plays
 (perhaps Adrianna Lecouvreur, note the blond hair)


First donor, 1,200 zloty from performances of Ibsen’s Nora at the Old Theater in Krakow.   Her partner, author of bylaws and curator was dr Tytus Chałubiński. The Board of Directors: Modrzejewska, Róża hr. Krasińska, Franciszek Neužil, Leopold Czubernat, father Józef Stolarczyk
Now called Krajowa Szkoła Koronkarska – opened 1 May 1883 and still active. 


BOTANIST - Drawing plants from nature, examples Opuntia "Berbery fig" cactus and California Buckwheat.


ROSARIAN. Favorite antique roses: Papa Gontier, Catherine Mermet, Madame Caroline Testout, Marie Van Houtte, Maman Cochet, Payl Neyron, Magna Charta, Ulrich Brunner, Prince Camille de Rohan, General Jacqueminot (previous page), Captain Christy, American Beauty, Reve d’or, Lamarque, Beauty of Glazenwood, Reine Marie Henrietta, White Banksia. 


From England, spent first two years in the U.S. working at Arden (1893-5), hiked, went to old silver mine, killed rattlesnakes, and enjoyed horseriding. he was responsible for decorative gardens and commercial projects, such as honey production. Payne became interested in native plants, started collecting seeds. he later owned a seed and nursery business in LA, established Santa Ana and Descanso Gardens native gardens. In 1960 retired and established Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants.

Arden during Modjeska's lifetime and in 2011.


Sold Arden in 1906 and moved to Bay Island in Newport Beach. Benefit organized by Paderewski, star-studded benefit performance, New York, 1905.
Memoirs, written in English, published in 1910 “Memories and Impressions.” Polish translation, “Wspomnienia i wrażenia”, in 1957. Heavily edited by her husband.
Despite official “retirement” continued making appearances at special events in Los Angeles where the Opid family of her “step-father” lived with two grand-nieces, Felcia and Helcia.


She was celebrated in life and death, by poetic tributes, biographies, newspaper profiles, interviews.

To Modjeska

By Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909)

Here are four sisters known to mortals well,
Whose names are Joy and Sorrow, Death, and Love:
This last it was who did my footsteps move
To where the other deep-eyed sisters dwell.
To-night, or ere yon painted curtain fell,
These, one by one, before my eyes did rove
Through the brave mimic world that Shakspere wove.
Lady! thy art, thy passion were the spell
That held me, and still holds; for thou dost show,
With those most high each in his sovereign art,--
Shakspere supreme, Beethoven and Angelo,--
Great art and passion are one. Thine too the part
To prove that still for him the laurels grow
Who reaches through the mind to pluck the heart.

Gilder was an American writer and editor of The Century Magazine, and Member of American Academy of Arts and Letters. He published many volumes of poetry including "How Paderewski Plays..."  Modjeska introduced Paderewski to Gilder, thus starting another helpful artistic friendship.

Another notable American poet wrote an eulogy for her funeral, published in Los Angeles in 1909.


 by John Steven McGroarty (1862-1944)

The curtain falls, and hushed the sighing
    Of violet strings; the crowds depart.
The Queen is dead, her white hands lying
    At peace upon her quiet heart.

She hears no more the shout and clamor
    Of mimic armies, hurrying fast
To shield her throne in war's wild glamor;
    Their swords are rust, their splendor past.

The play is done, told is the story
     Of life and strife, or love and trust.
Scattered the hosts, and gone their glory,
     Their trumpets still, their banners dust.

She was the Queen, that laughed at danger.
    Who, far from the native hills had flown
To bind the heart-stings of the stranger
     In alien lands, around her own.

Bright was the throne her feet ascended -
     Her soul was fair, and fair her face;
Nor yet, though now her reign be ended
     Another comes to take her place.

No more the salvos madly leaping
     To greet her ears in triumphs wan-
The Queen, her last long sleep is sleeping:
     The lights are out, the plays is done.


While that might be true, the posthumous fame continues. The morality tale is an interesting example of Polish-American bilingual creative writing. The viewers of the pages filled with monsters and horrors often commented - how horrid... what sick imagination, or what an awful person... In our times, positive pedagogy is the goal, and the scary tales of the past belong to the past and the movies. But in Modjeska's time there were plenty of examples of perfectly horrible, cruel stories, filled with death and torture, that were meant to straighten up the wayward youth and keep them on the straight and narrow. 

Let's start from the story. On a faraway planet, two small boys Titi and Nunu do not get along and commit an accidental murder of a Butterfly, by tearing it apart while fighting for it. As punishment they turn a weird purple color and get lost with their wagon and their favorite six-legged blue dog called Klembolo.  Their adventures soon take them beyond the threshold of the unknown and they go from trial to trial, from one danger to next, gradually shedding their Vices and acquiring Virtues, and finally, when their transformation is complete, their skin regains a normal color and they return home, saved by angels in a bird -balloon, that takes them back to where they have a Christmas tree, and sleep safely in their own beds under the wide-spread wings of a watchful Guardian Angel. 

The adventures feature an attack by nighttime snakes and weird monsters dispelled by strong light emited by the eyes of Klembolo, another attack by huge octopus-like monster from the lake that follows them and waits to eat them at the bottom of the tree they climbed; a save by a two headed giant who, alas, takes the boys home where they are tortured and almost killed by his huge and stupid daughter. When they are locked up in a dark box without a way out, they reach the Nadir of the story, the moment of Death and Resurrection, and finally act together to escape from the giant's home and run back where they belong. The return way also includes help from angels, flight in a balloon and answered prayers. The dangers also include being profusely bitten by enormous mosquitoes, and watching cannibals who are eating a small boy for dinner...

As pedagogy, not a very useful way of learning Moral Lessons: Four Cardinal Virtues (Fortitude and Justice, Prudence and Moderation); Love your brother; Be kind to everyone; Do not harm living creatures; Repent and you’ll be forgiven.  The approach is "be good or you’ll be punished" and the 
Life Lessons  also include things every child should know: Your dog is your best friend; Stay away from strangers; Pray and you’ll be heard; Angels will protect you. 

Let's look at the context. From the fables by Aesop and Jean de La Fontaine, fear of punishment is the key approach in teaching the right path. In the ancient tales, animal personifications show Vice punished  and Virtue rewarded: donkey, lion, dog, monkey go through their special trials. Later on we have the cruelty of horrible punishments and threat of death in tales by the Grimms Brothers – Hansel and Gretel,     Snow White, Red Riding Hood. The pious Johann Christian Andersen  brings his crop of cruelty – Red Shoes (that never stop dancing and kill their owner), Little Match Girl (who dies of cold at night), Little Mermaid (threatened by the ugly sea monster, dies alone at the end). 

In the 19th century German children's literature we have Heinrich Hoffmann  with his horrible Der Struwwelpeter, where Little Suck a’Thumb  has his fingers chopped off with enormous scissors. In English children's literature, even Peter Rabbit (1902) who is naughty is constantly running from death, as gardener Mr. MacGregor tries to kill the pest. But if you read Squirrel Nutkin or Samuel Whiskers, you'll know how creepy her imagination really was. Beatrix Potter (1866-1933) was a gardener and a morality poet, but the undercurrent of death, deception, danger is very strong in her tales. 

Of course there were some positive tales, but few and far between: Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, with illustrations John Tenniel (1872) is an adventure of the mind, a lesson in topology, time travel, and various mathematical concepts, as well as a satirical depictions of structured society with rules that lead to endless tea parties with the Mad Hatter, and children's poems make no sense. "Off with her head" screams the Queen constantly, yet her soldiers are just a deck of cards, harmless like a flurry of leaves... 

We have to wait to the 1920s for the arrival of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne (1926), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), with the first appearance of Edward the Bear in a book of poems When we were very young (1924) . Milne created a remarkable world in his Hundred-Mile Forest, a world of friends, without enemies, where adventures caused by Vice end without cruelty and the punishment is simply funny - as when Winnie eats too much honey and gets stuck in Rabbit's hole for a week of slimming down.  These are stories of universal compassion where nobody is condemned, everyone understood in their silliness and faults. 

If we look beyond Western European tradition, we find the ancient Jataka Tales (Buddhist) with lessons of kindness, and lots of great Native American stories, also without the mandatory punishment for the evil ones. 

There is another context for Modjeska's tale, that of the "Hero's Journey" - an ancient myth that permeates all cultures of the world.  In this myth, the Hero embarks on a quest, goes through trials and tribulations, wins the prize of self-revelation, and returns home transformed. Also known as “monomyth” this archetypal story-line was described by Carl Jung and studied by Joseph Cambell; found in many cultures around the world, it is an essential aspect of the human experience. 


  • Theodore Payne, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties  Los Angeles: Kruckenberg Press, 1962.
  • Maja Trochimczyk, "An Archangel at the Piano: Paderewski and his Female Audiences" (Polish American Studies, 2011)
  • Wikipedia - Hero's Journey illustration