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MODJESKA

By HELENA MODJESKA

In the fall of 1876 I arrived in California, accompanied by my husband and son. We settled in a little farming colony, but our artistic temperament was ill-fitted to meet the every-day exigencies of a roughing, far-western ranch life. The exhaustion of our material resources soon compelled us to exchange our dreams of peace for a new struggle for life.

To confess the truth I was regretting my artistic career. Not only did I think of it during the day, but at night dreams of the theater haunted my couch. It was in vain that I endeavored to divert this monomania by calling the horses and dogs with names of my repertoire, and by reciting the most effective bits of my parts to the chickens and ducks when feeding them. Instead of assuaging my longing, I only succeeded in making it more poignant.

Oppressed by this continual brooding, and having lost my illusions in regard to the prosperity of our colony, I formed the bold decision to go to San Francisco to study English, and try my forces on the American stage. Hardly was the plan formed, before it was put into execution. The traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal was partaken in Anaheim with our whole colony, but the New Year 1877 found me already in San Francisco. There I met several Polish friends, and in the house of one of them, Captain Bielawski, made my first abode.

When I communicated my plans to them, they seemed frightened at my boldness, and their fear acted like cold water on my enthusiasm. I could speak but a few words of English, and even those

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were entirely mispronounced. All my knowledge had been acquired by a few lessons taken in Warsaw a few weeks before my departure, according to the method of Ollendorf. I had learned phrases like this: "Did you see my hat?” “No, but I have seen the books of your brother-in-law," etc., etc. On the steamer and during my short stay in Anaheim we held ourselves secluded, and if we happened to talk to a stranger, it was mostly in French or German. I made a sad blunder the first day on the steamer; desiring some soup at the dining-table, I asked the waiter for “soap.” It made me diffident of my pronunciation for a long time.

As I said above, all my Polish friends dissuaded me strongly from my bold attempt; and their arguments seemed conclusive. Several of them had acquired the English language and spoke it like natives, but, then, they had spent twenty years or more in the United States. One of them, an excellent old gentleman, known all over California as the Old Captain, had come to America before 1840. He had been almost forty years in this country, understood and knew the language perfectly, but had a pronunciation of his own. He said "housband" instead of husband; "vyter and alvise," instead of waiter and always. “Why should I break my tongue and adopt a spelling which is not based upon any phonetic rules, but merely upon fancy? I pronounce according to my own taste, and yet people understand me,” he would say.

The example of the Old Captain was not encouraging. Why should I succeed, where a man of culture, who had spent the greater part of his life here, had failed. At the bottom of this lack of courage, there was the innate Slavonian diffidence. As a modern French writer says in substance, we Slavs are not well equipped for the struggle of life. A majority of our race, and in the first place, my own nationality, belongs to the vanquished of modern history. We do not possess that superb confidence in our own forces, which is the beginning of success. We do not believe with sufficient energy

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in our lucky star, in the superiority of our country above all others, in the complicity of the God of armies in our battles. With us patriotism is not aggressive, and it is not circumscribed by certain well fixed geographical limits. It is more like a family feeling, a brotherhood of common suffering. It has reached its present exaltation through resistance to oppression. There are in our patriotism more elements of resignation than of national conceit.

It was then, I suppose, this common feature of our race, which made my friends so timorous as to the result of my attempt. Personally I was not unaffected by its influence. In times gone by, while I was in Poland, it had prevented me from accepting invitations to foreign stages. As far as 1869, two of the most prominent French dramatic authors, MM. A. Dumas' son and Legouve, had urged me to try my fortunes on the French stage. I was sorely tempted to do so, as I possessed some knowledge of the language, and it would have been comparatively easy to complete my study of it. That a success in Paris could assure a reputation through the whole world, was well known to me. But

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diffidence was stronger than my ambition. The appreciation of my countrymen seemed to satisfy all my desire for glory, and I refused the invitation.

And now, in San Francisco, I had to deafen my ears to that lurking voice in the deep recess of my heart, that whispered to me: “Beware"; however, necessity, which is the mother not only of invention, but also of enterprise, stimulated my ambition and my longings for a return to the boards. Besides I suppose those misgivings, inherent to my Polish nature, were ,counterbalanced in me to a degree, by a dash of venturesome spirit, the result of some drops of gypsy blood inherited from a Hungarian grandmother.

I assumed an air of calm self-assurance very much in contrast with my innermost perplexities, and quieted the anxieties of my friends.

I at once began to prepare for my work. I was stopping at the house of Mr. Bielawski, kind old gentleman, whose wife was an English lady, and in whose house only English was spoken. My first teacher was a German. In a few weeks I could converse a little in English, but with a strong German accent.

In the middle of February my husband and son joined me in San Francisco and from that time either one or the other remained with me. We took private lodgings, and I changed my teacher. By a singular stroke of good fortune, I happened to meet a young lady of Polish extraction but born in America, Miss Tuholsky, who spoke excellent English. She consented to give me a daily lesson of one hour, but through her friendliness this hour lasted the whole day. From eight in the morning till eight in the evening we toiled together with hardly any interruption.

I began at once to study the part of Adrienne in the language which was to be henceforth my own. After a short time I felt sure I should be able to master the tongue sufficiently to accomplish my self-imposed task.

This point being settled in my mind, another perplexity began to agitate me. Shall I succeed? How will my acting be received by these audiences, so strange to me? I had occasion to see some excellent actors, as Charles Coghlan, William Florence, and above all, Edwin Booth, whose performance encouraged me. Dramatic art, as represented by those exponents, appeared to me as being the same in America as in Europe. But I saw also some bad acting, and its success frightened me. And then, will not my lack of familiarity with the language interfere with my performance? Will not my foreign accent, my native intonation, render my utterances ridiculous ? Shall I be accepted and recognized, or only laughed at ? How often did I brood over it, looking at the waves of the beautiful Bay of San Francisco, and thinking if I should fail, they would tender me the welcome denied to me by the inhabitants of this foreign country.

Another more urgent and more practical question arose, How should I obtain an opening? By the kind intermediation of General Kryanovski, a countryman of mine who had made himself a position in the United States Army during the Civil War, and of his friend Governor Salomon, I became acquainted during my first passage through San Francisco in October, 1876, with John McCullough, then manager of the California Theater. Mr. McCullough had been very courteous to me, but unfortunately he was absent from town in the first part of the summer of 1877, when I presented myself at the theater. His place was occupied by his partner and stage manager. This gentleman had never heard of me, and simply took me for one of those ambitious amateurs, whom every manager meets by hundreds, and whose importunities interfere greatly with his daily business. He always avoided talking English to me, and answered me in French. Supposing I was a lady of society struck with a strong attack of stage fever, he did not much credit the story of my theatrical experience in Poland. I had not many scrap-books with me, as I never indulged much in collections of press comments, and what I had were written in Polish and not intelligible to him. True, I had a letter from the younger Dumas, quite complimentary and written in French ; but unfortunately it was not explicit enough, and the compliments based on hearsay, so it did not destroy the incredulity of Mr. Hill, though it may have shaken it a little.' Bitter experience both with foreign actors and amateurs, perfectly justified the manager's reluctance to listen to one whom he knew to be a foreigner and suspected to be an amateur.

How often did I call without being received at the manager's office! How often, when I happened to meet him, was I dismissed with a few polite words which, although not put in the shape of a direct refusal, did not, however, contain any satisfactory promise. To my sense of increasing discouragement was joined a feeling of

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