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Shakespeare & Beyond

Helena Modjeska, a shining Polish-American star

Born on October 12, 1840, in Kraków, Helena Modjeska was a shining star in two theatrical worlds that were very far apart. After becoming a leading lady in Warsaw, where she learned and performed Shakespeare primarily in German, Modjeska moved with her husband to a Utopian agricultural community in Anaheim, California. She then embarked on a second career as a widely recognized actress who toured large and small theaters throughout the United States and in London. Today, Modjeska is also remembered for a delicious candy that was named the Modjeska in her honor.

Byron Company, New York. Detail from a photograph of King John, starring Madame Modjeska and Elita Proctor Otis. After 1900.

In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Modjeska was among the many topics included in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, a Folger exhibition at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. The exhibition’s co-curator Stephen Dickey, a senior lecturer in the English Department at UCLA, shared some of his thoughts on her story—and what he had been surprised to learn about Modjeska as he prepared the exhibition—with Barbara Bogaev in our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode Shakespeare in California.