Who was Helena Modrzejewska? Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Polish theater actress

The Google Doodle on Tuesday, October 12 celebrates the life and career of Helena Modrzejewska (known professionally as Helena Modjeska), the late Polish actress who was considered one of America’s greatest Shakespearean performers of late from the 19th century.

Born as Jadwiga Benda that day in 1840 in Krakow, Poland, the actress is said to have celebrated her 181st birthday today.

During her prolific 46-year career, Modrzejewska has seen her perform almost 300 different roles in over 6,000 plays, both in Polish and English, performing in over 300 cities around the world.

She made her theater debut in 1861 in a one-act comedy titled The White Camellia.

While she was well received by critics and audiences in Poland’s major cities, the actress felt that the full spectrum of her talent was limited by the scale of the country’s small theaters.

In July 1876, citing ill health, the actress left the Imperial Theater in Warsaw to take a one-year leave of absence in the United States, according to a 2010 essay in the Theater journal, a peer-reviewed academic credential.

An image of Polish actress Helena Modjeska from 1899.
Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

By the following August, she had memorized two roles in English, including Adrienne lecouvreur, a French tragic play by Ernest Legouvé and Eugène Scribe, and the famous play by William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet.

In 1877, she made her U.S. debut at the California Theater in San Francisco under the Americanized name of Helena Modjeska, embarking on the path to American stardom that would last for nearly three decades.

Her unprecedented success in the United States far exceeded the expectations of the Polish actress. When she first left for America, she only hoped that launching a career in English alongside her career in Polish would help her land regular concerts on the London theater scene.

But according to the Theater review, “Modrzejewska’s perceived provenance as an elegant ‘aristocratic’ European, a Polish very different from the immigrant peasants who then flocked to the United States, made her attractive and intriguing to the American public.”

Modrzejewska revived theatrical productions across the country with his many Shakespearean roles. Sometimes she would have toured for up to 30 weeks, doing eight to nine productions a week.

She has taken on several other roles beyond lead actress on her tours, also working as a director, producer, costume designer and publicist on her tours.

The role Modrzejewska played the most throughout her career was Lady Macbeth, whom she played 520 times. While continuing her busy acting career, Modrzejewska also nurtured her love of nature as a botany enthusiast and gardener.

An image of Polish actress Helena Modjeska.
An image of Polish actress Helena Modjeska, known for her Shakespearean roles, from 1899.
Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

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