Friday, February 11, 2011

Two Pioneering Women of the American Stage

On the left, Mary Anderson (1859 -1940) and on the right, Helena Modjeska ( 1840-1909)

MARY ANDERSON was born in Sacramento, California. The family soon moved to Kentucky, and her father died a young confederate soldier in the American Civil War. Anderson became a notable actress of stage, although her career was only about fifteen years long. She was said to have been a friend of Tennyson, as well as Longfellow. In the play, "Farewell Pygmalion, Farewell", she played the role of Galatea, a stone statue who comes to life and then returns again to stone. At the age of 30, and after a grueling number of years on the theatrical circuit she collapsed on stage with severe nervous exhaustion, and subsequently retired. She died in a home she had built in the U.K in 1909.

HELENA MODJESKA was born in Poland in 1840, and was known as Poland's greatest actress of all time. In 1876, she immigrated to America to escape Russian censorship of her plays. She sailed across the Atlantic, and then on down the Eastern coast, crossed the Isthmus of Panama by rail, and then spent three weeks aboard a wooden paddlewheel steamer that brought her eventually to San Francisco. It did not take her long to be recognized as one of the greatest actresses of the Victorian era. She performed on the 19th century theatre circuit playing primarily Shakespearian and tragic roles. For nine months of every year she was traveling and performing. To travel in those days was primarily by train, steamship, and horse drawn carriages. Most venues she played were gas-lit. She later became a star on the New York stage, and also in London. After her death, Saddleback Mountain, in Orange County, California was re-named Modjeska Peak. Her home, in Santiago Canyon is still maintained as a National Historic Monument, and the portion of the canyon where it sits is now known as Modjeska Canyon.

While hand-written notation on the back of the photos shown here seems to indicate that Mary Anderson and Helena Modjeska performed together in a play called "There Were Giants", so far I have not been able to track that production, or where it was staged.


  1. How fascinating! It's a shame that the theater is so non-mainstream, especially when one can just queue up a movie at home. Santiago Canyon brings back great memories for me. It is a gorgeous road cycling route, especially in the fall. I wish I had known about Helen when I lived in The OC. I would have visited her home there. Next time I get to Orange County I'll stop in and get us a few shots.

  2. Cool that you know of the canyon, Stickup! I would imagine its quite pretty there!