Who Was Helena Modrzejewska? Today's Google Doodle Celebrates the Polish Theater Actress

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

Born as Jadwiga Benda on this day back in 1840 in Krakow, Poland, the actress would have marked her 181st birthday today.

Modrzejewska's prolific 46-year career saw her portray nearly 300 different roles in more than 6,000 plays, both in Polish and English, performing in more than 300 cities globally.

She made her theatrical debut in 1861 in a one-act comedy called The White Camellia.

While she was well-received by critics and audiences in Poland's major cities, the actress felt the full range of her talent was limited by the scale of the country's small venues.

In July 1876, claiming poor health, the actress quit the Warsaw Imperial Theater to take a year's leave of absence in the U.S., according to a 2010 essay in the Theatre Journal, a peer-reviewed academic title.

An image of Polish actress Helena Modjeska.
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 William Shakespeare's famed Romeo and Juliet.

In 1877, she debuted in America at the California Theater in San Francisco under the Americanized name Helena Modjeska, embarking on a road to American stardom, which lasted nearly three decades.

Her unprecedented success in the U.S. entirely surpassed the Polish actress' expectations. When she first set out to America, she'd only hoped launching an English-language career parallel to her Polish one would help her land some regular guest tour gigs in the London theater scene.

But according to the Theatre Journal, Modrzejewska's "perceived provenance as an elegant 'aristocratic' European, a Pole very different from the peasant immigrants then flooding into the United States, rendered her attractive and intriguing to American audiences."

Modrzejewska revived theater productions across the country with her many Shakespearean roles. At times she was said to have toured for up to 30 weeks, performing eight to nine productions per week.

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

The role that Modrzejewska played the most throughout her career was Lady Macbeth, which she performed 520 times. While pursuing 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, who was known for her Shakespearean roles, from 1899. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images