Helena Modrzejewska was a Polish actor who excelled in Shakespearean plays both in Poland and America and who was best known for her portrayal of Lady MacBeth.
She is honored with a Google Doodle on October 12, 2021, what would have been her 181st birthday. Her name is sometimes given as Helena Modjeska.
“Widely regarded as one of the best actors in Polish history and one of the late-19th century’s greatest Shakespearean stage performers in America, Helena Modrzejewska (known professionally as Helena Modjeska) portrayed nearly 300 different roles in over 6,000 plays—both in Polish and English,” Google wrote with its tribute.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Helena Modrzejewska Was Born in Poland & Had Several Name Changes
Throughout her life, Modrzejewska was known by several different names.
Modrzejewska “was born as Jadwiga Benda on this day in 1840 in Krakow, Poland and was soon renamed Helena Opid,” Google wrote. According to Polish History.pl, she was the daughter of a wealthy Polish widow. Her father was not known.
By 1961, she had gotten her start in theater. Google says that was in a one-act comedy called “The White Camellia.” By this point, she had a stage name, Google reported – Modrzejewska.
2. She Was Known as Poland’s ‘Brightest Theater Star’
In her era, Modrzejewska earned a lot of acclaim in her home country, becoming known as Poland’s “brightest theater star,” according to Polish History.pl.
According to the site Culture.pl, she was “a living legend in her time as a star both in Poland and America.”
The site quotes a reviewer from her era as writing about “the unquestionable talent of Mrs Modrzejewska who, while still coping with the difficulties of her profession, puts so much work and diligence into every stage appearance that over time she may become the star of the very best theatres.”
3. The Great Actress Had a Son
According to Polish History.pl, the actress did have a son in 1861 who was called Rudolf Modrzejewski. His father was
Gustaw Zimajer, an actor and director .
The site describes how Zimajer helped mentor Modrzejewska and she improved her voice. The son they had together “became a famous engineer,” the site reports.
She broke up with Zimajer, though, and ended up marrying a “wealthy landowner, Karol Chłapowski,” the site reports.
4. The Actress Moved to America, Where She Died
After dominating Polish theater, Modrzejewska moved to America to try her hand at the stage there.
It was there that she died, on April 9, 1909, in Bay Island, Newport Beach, near Los Angeles, California, according to Britannica.
By the time she died, her “repertory included 260 Shakespearean and contemporary roles, some in both Polish and English,” the site reported.
The Polish Embassy in the U.S. tweeted a recognition of her birthday, writing, “Happy Birthday to Helena Modrzejewska (#Modjeska)! The renowned Polish-American actress was born #OnThisDay 1840.”
5. Modrzejewska Was Known for Playing Lady MacBeth
Lady MacBeth is obviously one of William Shakespeare’s best-known characters, and Modzejewska made that character a signature role.
Culture.pl describes her many roles, however, including: “Modrzejewska’s most important roles at the time included that of Anna Oswiecimowna in a play by Mikołaj Boloz Antoniewicz (1865), Princess Eboli in Don Carlos (1866), Amalia in Schiller’s The Robbers (1866) and, the same year, Portia in The Merchant of Venice – her first Shakespearian role.”
She starred in productions in Krakow, Warsaw, and Vienna. Although she initially ran a farm when she came to America, she found her way back to the stage in San Francisco and was a major success. One Polish correspondent wrote at the time, according to Culture.pl, “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.”