MoboReader > Literature > Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3)

   Chapter 8 JOHN KEMBLE.

Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3) By John Doran Characters: 50770

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04

On the 1st of February 1757, John Philip Kemble was born at Prescot, in Lancashire. His father's itinerant life not only led to his appearance on the stage when a child, but to his being placed at school at Worcester, whence he passed through Sedgley to Douay, where he was remarkable for his elocution. He had for college fellow Miller, or Milner, as he chose to call himself-and who, when a Roman Catholic prelate, used to affirm that, in point of elocution, he was considered equal to Kemble!

In 1776, the year in which Garrick retired, Kemble may be said to have made his first public appearance as an actor at Wolverhampton, and Boaden thinks he was too good for his audience. In various northern towns he endured a stern probation, and made sundry mistakes. He played Plume, Ranger, and Archer, which were totally unsuited to him; and he was actually laughed at in tragedy-by some persons of distinction in the boxes at York. He resented this with such dignity, that the York fine people, who could not understand the latter feeling, insisted on an apology; and when the rest of the house declared he should make none, he thanked them with such a weight of heavy argument to show they and he were right, that those bewildered Yorkists demanded of him to beg pardon immediately.[63]

Subsequently, John Kemble published fugitive poems, which he was afterwards glad to burn; wrote a tragedy, "Belisarius," and a comedy, the "Female Officer;" composed a Latin ode, Ad Somnium, and a Latin epitaph for his dead comrade, Inchbald; laid the foundations of friendship with the Percys; gave lectures on oratory; and, at twenty-three, made an attempt to improve Shakspeare's "Comedy of Errors," by turning it into a farce, called "Oh, it's impossible!" the chief point in which was that the audience should be as puzzled about the two Dromios, of whom he made a couple of niggers, as their masters themselves.

If, at York, the admirers of the now forgotten Cummins contended that he was superior to Kemble, so in Ireland those who remembered their old favourite Barry, were slow to admit Kemble's equality. But, though he nearly made shipwreck of his fame by playing comedy, he rose in Irish estimation by his acting in tragedy; and he won all hearts by his finished performance of Jephson's "Count of Narbonne," in which he represented the Count, to the Adelaide of Miss Francis-the Mrs. Jordan of later years. Jephson was an Irishman, and Dublin was grateful to the actor who helped him to a triumph. Black Rock, I dare say, is to this day proud of the author.

On the 30th of September 1783, John Kemble first appeared in London, at Drury Lane, as Hamlet. The fierceness and variety of the criticism denote that a new and a great actor had come before the critics. His novel readings were severally commented on-some of them were admirable, but bold. The utmost one critic could urge was that the player was "too scrupulously graceful;" and objection was fairly made to his pronouncing the word "lisp," to Ophelia, as "lithp." Boaden calls this "a refinement;" but he is forced to allow that it was "below the actor."

Just previous to this successful début at Drury Lane, John Kemble's brother Stephen had very moderately succeeded in Othello, at Covent Garden, where the management had secured the big, instead of the great, Mr. Kemble. Just subsequent to the former first appearance, two sisters of these players, Elizabeth and Frances Kemble (afterwards Mrs. Whitelock and Mrs. Twiss), made an attempt to share in a theatrical and family glory, in which, however, they had no abiding part.[64] These ladies passed away, and left that glory to be divided by John Kemble, and his sister, Mrs. Siddons. But some time elapsed before the latter were permitted to play in the same piece. Smith had possession of parts of which custom forbade his being deprived; and it was not till each had played singly in various stock pieces, that they came together in "King John," and subsequently in the "Gamester."[65] Previous to Kemble's undertaking the former character, the old actor, Sheridan, read the part to him as Sheridan was used to play it; but grandly as the King was played, the Constance in the hands of Mrs. Siddons was the magic by which the audience was most potentially moved. It was the same in the "Gamester;" the sufferings of Mrs. Beverley touched all hearts; but the instability, selfishness, cowardice, and maudlin of the wretched husband, excited both contempt and execration-but that was precisely what the author, as well as the actor, intended.

This union of genius was not, however, permanent; when Mrs. Siddons played Lady Macbeth, Smith acted, with graceful indifference, the Thane; and it was not till March 1785, that brother and sister appeared together in another play,[66] and then in "Othello"-the Moor and Desdemona being assigned to them. Neither player was ever identified with the character respectively acted; but what could even John Kemble do, who performed the Moor in the uniform of a British general of the actor's own time? He made a more certain flight by selecting "Macbeth" for his benefit, and playing the chief part to his sister's Lady; but it was only for one night. The Thane belonged by prescriptive right to Smith, and as long as he remained a member of the company, the original Charles Surface was entitled to one of the sublimest parts in all the range of tragedy. Even when Mrs. Siddons selected the "Merchant of Venice" for her benefit, and played Portia, Shylock fell, as by right, to King, and John Kemble had to be content with Bassanio![67]

He had his revenge; not in playing the insipid heroes of the new tragedies, which were then more or less in fashion, but in acting Lear to his sister's Cordelia, on occasion of her benefit in January 1788. The greatest admirers of Garrick confessed that Kemble's Lear was nearly equal to that of their idol; but Boaden records that he never played it so grandly and so touchingly as on that night.

Kemble is said to have been so much attached to Miss Phillips (afterwards Mrs. Crouch), that he was exceedingly moved on reading the epitaph on her tomb, by Boaden. He is reported also to have been tenderly affected by Mrs. Inchbald-for he composed a Latin epitaph for the tomb of her defunct husband. I find further mentioned "a young lady of family and fortune at York," whose cruel brother interfered menacingly in the matter, and also that "the daughter of a noble lord, once high in office, was strongly attached to him, and that the father bought off the match with £3000. It is certain that Mrs. Siddons was highly offended at the alliance (subsequently with Mrs. Brereton)-perhaps she looked with anxious hope to a consanguinity with the noble house of G--." So sneers old legend, and here follows truth.

The lady he did marry was a very excellent lady indeed. Her own parents had fought their way well through life, for Mr. Hopkins was a strolling player when he married the daughter of a Somersetshire Boniface; but the bridegroom became Prompter, and Mrs. Hopkins a respectable actress at Drury Lane. One of their daughters, Priscilla, subsequently belonged to the company, when young Brereton persuaded her to take his name, and share his fortunes. Whether excess of admiration for Mrs. Siddons, with whom he frequently acted, drove Brereton mad or not, his widow kept her senses under cool control, and about a year after the death of her first husband, one of Garrick's ineffective pupils, she said to Mrs. Hopkins, "My dear mother, I cannot guess what Mr. Kemble means: he passed me just now, going up to his dressing-room, and chucking me under the chin, said, 'Ha, Pop! I shouldn't wonder if you were soon to hear something very much to your advantage!' What could he mean?" "Mean!" the sensible mother answered-Adolphus so styles her-"why he means to propose marriage; and if he does, I advise you not to refuse him."

The wedding was dramatic enough. Mrs. Hopkins, her daughter, Jack Bannister and his wife, walked from Jack's house in Frith Street, to John's in Caroline Street, Bedford Square, to breakfast with the bridegroom, who did not seem to expect them. Thence, on a December morning, 1787, in two hackney coaches, the party went to church and were married by "the well-known Parson Este." The bride-no dinner having been thought of by any one else-dined early, the bridegroom late, at the Bannisters'; at whose house Kemble remained with Mrs. Bannister, or rather taking his wine without her, while Mr. Bannister and Mrs. Kemble went to Drury Lane, where they had to act in the "West Indian." The lady's former name was in the bill. On her return to Frith Street, Kemble took his good wife home, and the next acting day, Monday, Lady Anne was acted by Mrs. Kemble to the Richard of Mr. Smith. On the 14th, man and wife played together, Sir Giles and his daughter Margaret; the delicate audience seizing on a marked passage in the play, and laughing as they applauded, to indicate they knew all about it. Sir Giles remained grave and self-possessed.

Subsequently, Kemble attained the management of Drury Lane, succeeding King, who had been merely the servant of the proprietor, in 1788-89. He could now play what parts he chose,-and his first character was Lord Townly; his second, Macbeth.[68] In the first, he was second only to Barry; in Macbeth, from the weakness of his voice, he failed to rise to an equality with Garrick. Leon followed, with some state; Sciolto, in which he rendered the stern paternal principle sublime; Mirabel, in which he was to be altogether distanced by his brother, Charles; and Romeo, in which he never approached the height of Barry. On his first revival of "Henry VIII.," he left Bensley in possession of his old part, Wolsey, and for the sake, it is said, of giving a "duteous and intelligent observance" to his sister in the heavier scenes, doubled the parts of Cromwell and Griffith, in his own person. His great Wolsey triumph was a glory of a later time; so was the triumph of his Coriolanus,-not yet matured; but in which he was not only never surpassed, but never equalled. His first season as manager was a decided success, as regards the acting of himself and sister, and also the novelties produced.

His second was marked by some revivals, such as "Henry V." and the "Tempest," and adaptations of the "False Friend" of Vanbrugh, and the "Rover" of Aphra Behn. In the first piece, in which Kemble played the King better than he did his other Kings,-Richard and John, he made a fine point in starting up from prayer and expression of penitence, at the sound of the trumpet. In lighter pieces he was less successful. His Don John, the Libertine, was as far beyond his powers as were the songs of C?ur-de-Lion in Burgoyne's pretty recasting of "Sedaine". How he cared to attempt such a feat as the last is inexplicable-but did not droll little Quick, George III.'s favourite actor, and almost personal friend, once play the Hunchback Richard? and did not Kemble play Charles Surface? and also take as a compliment Sheridan's assurance that he had "entirely executed his design?"

Nevertheless fortune attended the Kemble management, although George III.'s especial patronage was bestowed on the rival house. It had its perils, and once brought him to a duello with James Aikin, a spirited actor, who had caused the destruction of the Edinburgh Theatre through his refusal to beg pardon of the audience on his knees. His only offence was in having succeeded a favourite, but discharged actor, named Stayley. In this duel, fought in Marylebone Fields, with Jack Bannister as sole second to both combatants, Aikin's fire was not returned by his manager, and the adversaries were soon reconciled.

With a short interval John Kemble was manager of Drury Lane till 1801.[69] In the following year he went abroad, the affairs of Drury having fallen into confusion; and in 1803, having purchased a sixth share of Covent Garden, he succeeded Lewis in the management of that theatre, and remained there till his retirement in 1817, at the close of the season in which Mr. Macready made his first appearance in London, as Orestes; and Lucius Junius Booth, as Richard, flashed promise for a moment and straightway died out.

With Kemble's departure from Drury Lane closes the first part of his career. He had begun it with £5 per week, and ended it with a weekly salary strangely reckoned of £56, 14s. He had borne himself well throughout. He had a lofty scorn of anonymous assailants; was solemn enough in his manners not to give a guinea, for drink, to the theatrical guard, without stupendous phrases; but he could stoop to "knuckle down" at marbles with young players on the highway; and to utter jokes to them with a Cervantic sort of gravity.

He addressed noisy and unappreciative audiences with such neat satire that they thought he was apologising, when he was really exposing their stupidity. I do not know if he were generous in criticism of his fellow actors; he said of Cooke's Sir Pertinax, that comedy had nothing like it. This had been called "liberal;" but it looks to me satirical; and he certainly never praised Cooke's tragedy. The utmost, indeed, he ever said of Kean was, that "the gentleman was terribly in earnest." On the other hand, his own worshippers nearly choked him with incense. Boaden may not have been far wrong when he said that Kemble was at the head of the Academics, but he certainly was so in describing Cooke as merely at the head of the vulgar; and he approached blasphemy when he tells us that Kemble's features and figure as the Monk in "Aurelio and Miranda" reminded him, and could only be compared with, those of One, to name Whom would be irreverent!

Kemble's secret of success lay in his indefatigable assiduity. In studying the part of the Stranger he neglected for weeks, that for which he was particularly distinguished,-neatness of costume. Whatever the part he had to play, he acted it as if it were the most important in the piece; and, like Betterton, Booth, Quin, Barry, and Garrick, he made his impersonation of the Ghost[70] as distinct a piece of art as Hamlet, when that character fell to him, in its turn. Even in Earl Percy, in the "Castle Spectre," an inferior character, he took such pains as nearly to break his neck, and in the scene of the attempted escape, fell back, from the high window to which he had climbed, to the sofa below, from which he had painfully ascended, with the agility and precision of a harlequin.

Rolla would have seemed to me unworthy of him, but that I remember Pitt, on seeing him in that character, said, "there is the noblest actor I ever beheld!" Sheridan had almost despaired of Kemble's success in Rolla; but Kemble felt that everything was in his favour, and gave all his own admiration to his sister, who, in Elvira, rendered so picturesque "a soldier's trull."

I have heard eyewitnesses describe his Octavian, not as a heart-rending, but a heart-dissolving display, the feelings of the spectators being all expressed by tears; and yet he could win a laugh from the same spectators in Young Marlow, and shake their very hearts again in that mournful Penruddock, his finest effort in comedy; but in comedy full of tragic echoes.

Next to Penruddock, Boaden classes his Manly, for perfection; I have heard that parts of his Lord Townly surpassed them both. There the dignity and gravity were of a quality quite natural to him.

In Henry V. he was so much the King that an earl, Guilford, wrote an essay by way of eulogy on it; and his Hotspur had but one fault, that of being incorrectly dressed. In Roman parts, and in the Roman costume, he seemed native and to the manner born. His Coriolanus and Hamlet are the characters the most associated with his name. Nevertheless, I do not discern any great respect, on Kemble's part, for Shakspeare, in his revival of Coriolanus or of any other of the plays of the national poet. The revival of Coriolanus was a mixture of Thomson and Shakspeare's tragedies, with five of the best scenes in the latter omitted, and what was judicious in the former, marred. I cannot help thinking that Kemble had only that sort of regard for Shakspeare which people have for the picturesque, who tear away ivy from a church tower in order to whitewash its walls.

Then, again, in that matter of Ireland's forgery of "Vortigern," as Shakspeare's, it is not clear what opinion Kemble held of it previous to the night of its performance. Mrs. Siddons declined to play Edmunda; but Kemble's consenting, or rather resolving, to play the principal character in the tragedy, would seem to indicate that, at the best, he had no opinion, and was willing to leave the verdict to be pronounced by the public. I take from a communication to Notes and Queries, by an eyewitness, an account of what took place on that eventful night when an alleged new piece, by William Shakspeare, was presented to the judgment of a public tribunal.

"The representation of Ireland's tragedy took place on Saturday, April 2, 1796. Being one of those who were fortunate in gaining admittance and a seat on the second row in the pit, I am anxious, while my life is spared, to state what I saw and heard on this memorable occasion. The crowd and the rush for admittance were almost unprecedented. I do not think that twenty females were in the pit, such was the eagerness of gentlemen to gain admittance. Mr. Ireland's father, I remember, sat in the front box on the lower tier, with some friends around him. His son was behind the scenes. There was little or no disapprobation apparently shown by the audience until the commencement of the fifth act, when Mr. Kemble, it was probable, thought the deception had gone on long enough." Such, I think, was Ireland's own opinion; for in his Confessions, published in 1805, I find the following account of the disapproval of the audience given by himself.

"The conduct of Mr. Kemble was too obvious to the whole audience to need much comment. I must, however, remark, that the particular line on which Mr. Kemble laid such a peculiar stress was, in my humble opinion, the watchword agreed upon by the Malone faction for the general howl. The speech alluded to ran as follows; the line in italics being that so particularly noticed by Mr. Kemble:-

"'Time was, alas! I needed not this spur.

But here's a secret and a stinging thorn,

That wounds my troubled nerves. O Conscience! Conscience!

When thou didst cry, I strove to stop thy mouth,

By boldly thrusting on thee dire Ambition:

Then did I think myself, indeed, a god!

But I was sore deceived; for as I pass'd,

And traversed in proud triumph the Basse-court,

There I saw death, clad in most hideous colours:

A sight it was, that did appal my soul;

Yea, curdled thick this mass of blood within me.

Full fifty breathless bodies struck my sight;

And some, with gaping mouths, did seem to mock me;

While others, smiling in cold death itself,

Scoffingly bade me look on that, which soon

Would wrench from off my brow this sacred crown,

And make me, too, a subject like themselves:

Subject! to whom? To thee, O sovereign Death!

Who hast for thy domain this world immense:

Churchyards and charnel-houses are thy haunts,

And hospitals thy sumptuous palaces;

And, when thou wouldst be merry, thou dost choose

The gaudy chamber of a dying king.

O! then thou dost ope wide thy bony jaws,

And, with rude laughter and fantastic tricks,

Thou clapp'st thy rattling fingers to thy sides:

And when this solemn mockery is o'er,

With icy hand thou tak'st him by the feet,

And upward so; till thou dost reach the heart,

And wrap him in the cloak of 'lasting night.'

"No sooner was the above line uttered in the most sepulchral tone of voice possible, and accompanied with that peculiar emphasis which, on a subsequent occasion, so justly rendered Mr. Kemble the object of criticism (viz., on the first representation of Mr. Colman's 'Iron Chest'), than the most discordant howl echoed from the pit that ever assailed the organs of hearing. After the lapse of ten minutes the clamour subsided, when Mr. Kemble, having again obtained a hearing, instead of proceeding with the speech at the ensuing line, very politely, and in order to amuse the audience still more, redelivered the very line above quoted with even more solemn grimace than he had in the first instance displayed."

During John Kemble's fourteen years' connection with Covent Garden, he created no new character that added to his fame, except, perhaps, Reuben Glenroy, in Morton's "Town and Country." His other original parts were in poor pieces, more or less forgotten. In old characters which he assumed for the first time during his proprietorship in Covent Garden, the most successful was Gloucester, in "Jane Shore," to which he gave a force and prominency which it had never previously received. His Prospero was a marvel of dignity and beautiful elocution, and his Brutus perfect in conception and execution. Of other parts his Pierre was good, but his Iago was below the level of more than one fellow-actor; his Eustace de St. Pierre was, perhaps, as fine as Bensley's, but his Valentine, in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona," could have been better played, even then, by his brother Charles.

In judgment, he sometimes erred as Garrick did. He peremptorily rejected Tobin's "Honeymoon," which, with Elliston as the Duke Aranza and Miss Duncan as Juliana, became one of the most popular comedies of the day. He acknowledged his mistake; and he was as ready to acknowledge the sources of some of his best inspirations. His Wolsey, for instance, was one of his finest parts, but he confessed that his idea of the Cardinal was taken from West Digges. He was sensitive enough as to public criticism, and when about to try Charles Surface, he wrote to Topham, "I hope you will have the goodness to give orders to your people to speak favourably of the Charles, as more depends on that than you can possibly be aware of." The act was facetiously characterised as "Charles's Martyrdom," rather than "Charles's Restoration," and Kemble himself used to tell a story how, when offering to make reparation to a gentleman, for some offence, committed "after dinner," the gentleman answered that a promise on Mr. Kemble's part never to play Charles Surface again, would be considered ample satisfaction. Wine is said to have always made Kemble dull, but not offensive. Naturally dull he was not, though he was styled so by people who would have called Torrismond dull, because he said, "Nor can I think; or I am lost in thought!" Kemble was lively enough to make a good repartee, when occasion offered. He was once rehearsing the song in "C?ur-de-Lion,"-which he used to sing to the blaring accompaniment of French horns, that his voice might be the less audible,-when Shaw, the leader, exclaimed, "Mr. Kemble, Mr. Kemble, you really murder the time!" "Mr. Shaw," rejoined the actor, taking coolly a pinch of snuff, "it is better to murder Time than to be always beating him, as you are."

He bore misfortune manfully. When Covent Garden, Rich's old house, with the royal arms in the centre of the curtain, which had hung on the old curtain at Lincoln's Inn Fields, was burnt down after the performance of "Pizarro," on the night of the 19th of September 1808, he was "not much moved," though, in the fire, perished a large amount of valuable property. Mrs. Kemble mourned over the supposed fact that they had to begin life again, but Kemble, after long silence, burst into a rhapsody over the ancient edifice, and straightway addressed himself to the rearing of that new building which has since gone the way of most theatres. In the completion of that second playhouse on this spot, he was nobly aided by his patron, the Duke of Northumberland, who lent him £10,000, and at the dinner by which the opening was celebrated, sent the actor his bond, that he might, as a crowning effect, commit it to the flames. It was a princely act, and he who was thought worthy of being the object of it, must have been emphatically a gentleman.

In earlier days, Kemble was accustomed to be with the first of gentlemen. One of the finest of the few left makes some record of him. Walpole notices Kemble twice; and we find that he held him superior to Garrick in Benedick, and to Quin in Maskwell. In September 1789, Walpole writes from Strawberry Hill to the Miss Berrys: "Kemble, and Lysons the clergyman, passed all Wednesday here, with me. The former is melting the three parts of 'Henry VI.' into one piece. I doubt it will be difficult to make a tolerable play out of them." The only other notice is dated April 1791; when the writer says to Miss Berry: "Apropos to Catherine and Petruchio, I supped with their representatives, Kemble and Mrs. Siddons, t'other night, at Miss Farren's ...," at the bow-window house in Green Street, Grosvenor Square. "Mrs. Siddons is leaner, but looks well. She has played Jane Shore and Desdemona, and is to play in the 'Gamester,' all the parts she will act this year. Kemble, they say, shone in Othello."

Othello was one of Kemble's effective, yet not his most successful character; but his figure was well formed for

it. He bore drapery with infinite grace, and expressed every feeling well, by voice, feature, and glance of the eye-though in the first, as with his brother Charles, lay his chief defect. It wanted strength. We are accustomed, perhaps, to associate him most with Hamlet, and old playgoers have told me of a grand delivery of the soliloquies; a mingled romance and philosophy in the whole character; an eloquent bye-play, a sweet reverence for his father, a remembrance of the prince, with whatever companion he might be for the moment, of a beautiful filial affection for his mother, and of one more tender which he could not conceal for Ophelia. When Kemble first appeared in Hamlet, the town could not say that Henderson was excelled, but many confessed that he was equalled. That confession stirred no ill-blood between them. "I never had an opportunity," said Kemble, later, "to study any actor better than myself, except Mr. Henderson."

Of the grandeur and sublimity of the passion-tossed Orestes he gave so complete a picture that it was said-by that single character alone he might have reaped immortal fame.

On the other hand, his Biron was only a respectable performance; his Macbeth on a level with his Othello; his Richard and Sir Giles very inferior to Cooke's, still more so to those of Edmund Kean; and in comedy, generally, he was a very poor actor indeed, except in parts where he had to exercise dignity, express pathos, or pronounce a sentiment of moral tendency.

"Whene'er he tries the airy or the gay,

Judgment, not genius, marks the cold essay."

The judgment was not always sensibly exercised, for Kemble was undoubtedly

"For meaning too precise inclined to pore,

And labour for a point unknown before."

I think, in the old Roman habit he was most at his ease; there art, I am told, seemed less, nature more. In this respect he was exactly the reverse of Garrick, who could no more have competed with him in delineating the noble aim of the stern Coriolanus, than Kemble could have striven successfully against Garrick's Richard, or Abel Drugger.

And yet all the characters originally played by him, and successfully established on the stage, are of a romantic and not a classical cast. The prating patriot Rolla, the stricken, murmuring, lost Octavian, by which he sprung as many fountains of tears as his sister in the most heart-rending of her tragic parts; his chivalrous C?ur-de-Lion, his unapproachable Penruddock, his Percy ("Castle Spectre"), his Stranger, his de l'Epée, his Reuben Glenroy (the colloquial dialogue of which character, however, was always a burthen to him), and his De Montfort, are all romantic parts, to many of which he has given permanent life; while more classical parts for which he seemed more fitted, and in plays of equal merit at least, such as Cleombrotus ("Fate of Sparta"), Huniades (which certainly is not romantic),-his Pirithous, and his Sextus ("Conspiracy"), are all forgotten. That his sympathies were classical, may in some sort be accepted from the fact, that he began his public life in 1776 (the year of Garrick's farewell), at Wolverhampton, with Theodosius, and closed it, at Covent Garden, in 1817, with Coriolanus. That Kemble's own departure from the stage did not, as was once expected, prove its destruction, is to be gathered from the circumstance that while his farewell performances were in progress, Sheil's tragedy of the "Apostate" was produced at the same theatre, with a cast including the names of Young, Macready, C. Kemble, and Miss O'Neill!-and Kean was then filling Drury Lane with his Richard, Shylock, and Sir Giles.

Kemble's nearest approach to a fiasco was on his playing Sir Edward Mortimer. The "Iron Chest" had been ill-rehearsed, and Kemble himself was in such a suffering condition on the first night that he was taking opium pills as the curtain was rising. The piece failed, till Elliston essayed the principal part; and, on its failure, Colman published the most insulting of prefaces to the play, in which he remarked that "Frogs in a marsh, flies in a bottle, wind in a crevice, a preacher in a field, the drone of a bagpipe, all-all yielded to the inimitable and soporific monotony of Mr. Kemble!"

In one class of character Kemble was pre-eminent. He was "the noblest Roman of them all." His name is closely associated with Coriolanus, and next with Cato. He was not a "general" actor, like some of his predecessors, yet he excelled in parts which Garrick declined to touch. A contemporary says of him, "He is not a Garrick in Richard, a Macklin in Shylock, a Barry in Othello, or a Mossop in Zanga," and adds, that "there is more art than nature in his performance; but let it be observed that our best actors have always found stage trick a necessary practice, and Mr. Kemble's methodical powers are so peculiar to himself, that every imitator (for there have been some who have endeavoured to copy his manners) has been ridiculous in the attempt." Nevertheless, there was a Kemble school, the last of whose members is Mr. Cooper, who made his first appearance in London, at the Haymarket, in 1811, and has not yet, after more than half a century of service, formally retired from the stage. Not the least merit of actors formed on the Kemble model, was distinct enunciation, and this alone, in our large theatres, was a great boon to a listening audience.

As a dramatic author, Kemble has achieved no great reputation; he was, for the most part, only an adapter or a translator, but in both he manifested taste and ability, save when he tampered with Shakspeare. His solemn farewell, on the 23d of June 1817, in Coriolanus, was made not too soon; his great powers had begun, after more than forty years assiduous service, to fail, and he becomingly wished, "like the great Roman i' the Capitol," that he might adjust his mantle ere he fell. The memory of that night lives in the heart of many a survivor, and it lived in that of its hero till he calmly died, after less than six years of retirement at Lausanne, in February 1823. The old student of Douay never formally withdrew from the Church, of which his father once destined him to be a priest, but he remained a true Catholic Christian, with a Protestant pastor for friend and counsellor, who was at his side, with a nearer and dearer friend, when the supreme moment was at hand. Such was the man. As an actor, he lacked the versatility and perfection of Garrick and Barry; and, says Leigh Hunt, "injured what he made you feel, by the want of feeling himself."

Of John Kemble's brothers, Stephen and Charles, the former was the less celebrated, but he was not without merit. The fame of his sister induced him to leave a chemist's, or an apothecary's counter, for the stage, as, later in life, the reputation of the eldest brother tempted Charles Kemble to abandon an appointment in the Post Office, in order to try his fortune as a player. In these respective trials Stephen was less fortunate than Charles. Born in 1758, on the night his mother played Anne Boleyn, he was by seventeen years the elder of the latter. His theatrical life commenced in Dublin, after an itinerant training; but there John extinguished Stephen; and when, in 1783, he appeared at Covent Garden, as Othello, to the Desdemona of Miss Satchell, afterwards his wife, whatever impression he may have made, Stephen was speedily swept from public favour by the greater merit of John. After subsequently playing old men at the Haymarket, Stephen opened a house in Edinburgh, against Mrs. Esten at the established theatre. The opposition led to, in some sense, a dignified strife. The Duke of Hamilton loved Mrs. Esten, and the Duke of Northumberland was a friend to the Kembles. In the law proceedings which followed, each Duke gave material support to his favourite, and here was the old feud of Douglas and Percy again raging in the north!

Ultimately Stephen left Edinburgh with no great amount of luck to boast of, and, after a wandering life, appeared, in 1803,[71] at Drury Lane, as Falstaff, after the delivery by Bannister of a heavy set of jocular verses, making allusion to his obesity, which enabled him to act Falstaff without stuffing! He did not act it ill; but Henderson had not yet faded from the memory of playgoers, and Stephen Kemble could not attain higher rank than a place among the best of the second class of actors. Again he disappeared from the metropolis, but returned, and played a few of the parts to which he was suited, rather by his size than his merits; and in 1818, at Drury Lane, where he assumed the office of manager, opened the season by introducing his son Henry, from Bath, as Romeo. In 1819 he played Orozembo; and "therewith an end." The theatre was then let to Elliston; Henry Kemble sank from Drury to the Coburg,[72] and Stephen withdrawing to a private life, not altogether ill provided, died in 1822.

In that last year his younger brother Charles had attained, had perhaps rather passed, the zenith of a reputation of which his early attempts gave no promise whatever. Hard work alone made a player of him. He could not have been a post-office clerk long after he left the Roman Catholic College at Douay, for he was but seventeen when he first acted, at Sheffield, in 1792, Orlando, in "As You Like It." He began with Shakspeare, and he ended with him; his farewell being in Benedick, at Covent Garden, in 1836. On both occasions he played the part of a lover, and at the end of forty years he probably played it with more grace, tenderness, ardour, and spirit, than when he began.

There was much judgment in selecting Malcolm for his first appearance in London on the 21st of April 1794, on the opening of New Drury Lane Theatre, the house built by Holland, and burnt in 1809,-to the Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of John Kemble and Mrs. Siddons. He had little in his favour but good intentions. He was awkward in action, weak in voice, and ungraceful in deportment. All these defects he corrected, except the weakness of voice, which he never got over. It did not arise from the asthmatic cough which so often distressed his brother, but from simple debility of the organ, and this weakness always marred parts in which he was called upon for the expression of energetic passion.

Gradually, Charles Kemble became one of the most graceful and refined of actors. He was enabled to seize on a domain of comedy which his brother and sister could never enter with safety to their fame. In his hands, secondary parts soon assumed a more than ordinary importance from the finish with which he acted them. His Laertes was as carefully played as Hamlet, and there was no other Cassio but his while he lived, nor any Faulconbridge then, or since, that could compare with his; and in Macduff, Charles Kemble had no rival. Rae's Edgar was considered one of that gentleman's most effective parts, but Charles Kemble may be said to have superseded him in it. In the tender or witty lover, the heroic soldier, and the rake, who is nevertheless a gentleman, he was the most distinguished player of his time. Of all the characters he originated, that of Guido, in Barry Cornwall's "Mirandola," was, perhaps, his most successful essay: it was certainly among the most popular of his performances during the run of that play. I find his Jaffier, indeed, praised as being superior to that of any contemporary; but whatever be the character he represented, I also find critics occasionally complaining of a certain languor, and now and then a partial loss of voice, after it had been much exercised, which interfered with the completeness of the representation. Sheridan always thought well of him, particularly after his performance of Alonzo in "Pizarro;" the grateful author used to address him as "my Alonzo!"

Charles Kemble's Hamlet was as fine in conception but inferior in execution to his brother's. Such, at least, as I am credibly informed, was the judgment delivered by Mrs. Siddons. That it was finely conceived, yet weaker in every point than Young's, I can well remember. In tragic parts there was a certain measured, however musical enunciation, of which Charles Kemble never got rid, and in the play of the features, the actor, and not the man represented, was ever present. This was particularly the case in Hamlet, in which his assumed seriousness rendered his long face so much longer in appearance than ordinary, that in the rebuke to his mother his eyebrows seemed to go up into his hair, and his chin down into his waistcoat.

That his voice ill-fitted him for passionate, tragic heroes they will recollect who can recall to mind his Pierre and that of Young! Charles Kemble looked the part to perfection, and dressed it with the taste of a gentleman and an artist. Nothing could be finer, more gallant, more easy and graceful, than his entry; but he had scarcely got through "How fares the honest partner of my heart?" than the pipe raised a smile; it was so unlike the full, round, hearty, resonant tone in which Young put the query, and indeed played the part.

Nor was Charles Kemble invariably successful in all the comic parts he assumed. His Falstaff I would willingly forget. It was a mistake. When Ward, as the Prince, exclaimed "Peace, chewet, peace!" the command seemed very well timed. But his Mercutio! In that he walked, spoke, looked, fought, and died like a gentleman. Some of his predecessors dressed and acted it as if this kinsman to the Prince and friend to Romeo had been a low-bred, yet humorous fellow, cousin to the lacqueys, Abraham and Peter; but Charles Kemble was as truly Shakspeare's Mercutio as ever Macklin was Shakspeare's Jew. In comedy of another degree; in Young Mirabel, for instance, in the "Inconstant," he was unequalled by any living actor. Indeed his spirits here sometimes overcame his judgment; as in the last scene, when he is saved by the arrival of the "Red Burgundy," he leaped into the air like a man who is shot, and snapping his fingers, danced about the stage in a very ecstasy of delirium, too great, I thought, for a brave young fellow extricated from an awful scrape. But, whatever may be the worth of such thought, it is certain that in his Mirabel the delighted audience saw no fault; and who ever did in his Benedick?

Happy in his successes, he was thrice happy in his pretty and accomplished wife. Maria Theresa Decamp was one year his junior; and, like himself, was born in the purple. Miss Decamp's real name is said to have been De Fleury. She was a Viennese by birth. Her family belonged to the ballet and the orchestra, and she herself, at six years of age, was dancing Cupid in Noverre's ballets at the London Opera House; and, ultimately, was a leading, very young lady in those at the Circus, now the Royal Surrey. From the sawdust of the Transpontine Theatre she was transferred, on the recommendation of the Prince of Wales, it is said, to figure in similar pieces, at Colman's house in the Haymarket.

She was reserved, however, for better things than this: but Miss De Camp was not to attain them without study; she had to learn English-to speak and to read it; music, and other accomplishments. By a genius all this may be speedily effected; and Miss De Camp, in the season of 1786-87, appeared at Drury Lane as Julie, in "Richard C?ur de Lion," her future brother-in-law playing the King. At this time she was scarcely in her teens; but she was full of such promise, that she bade adieu for ever to ballet and the sawdust of the Royal Circus, and henceforth, and for upwards of thirty years, belonged to the regular drama. A score of years was to elapse before she was to change her name; but long previously she had made that first name distinguished in theatrical annals. She had exhibited unusual merit in singing and acting Macheath to the Polly of Charles Bannister, and the Lucy of Johnstone; and she created characters with which her name is closely associated in the memory of playgoers or playreaders. She was the original Floranthe in the "Mountaineers," Judith in the "Iron Chest," Irene in "Bluebeard," Maria in "Of Age To-morrow," Theodore in "Deaf and Dumb," Lady Julia in "Personation," Arinette in "Youth, Love, and Folly," Variella in the "Weathercock," and Morgiana in the "Forty Thieves."

And while the glory she derived from this last performance was still at its brightest, Miss De Camp in 1806 married Mr. Charles Kemble-some rather tempestuous wooing, for so tender and gallant a stage-lover, but for which he rendered public apology, not impeding the match.[73] In the year of her marriage Mrs. C. Kemble joined the Covent Garden Company, and on making her appearance as Maria in the "Citizen," she was congratulated, on the part of the audience, by three distinct rounds of applause. Between this period and 1819, when she withdrew from the stage, she created two parts in which she has had no successor, Edmund in the "Blind Boy," and Lady Elizabeth Freelove in "A Day after the Wedding;" and, in the last year of her acting, Madge Wildfire in the "Heart of Mid-Lothian."

Ten years later, Mrs. Charles Kemble returned to the stage (October 5, 1829), to do for her daughter what Mrs. Pritchard, on a like occasion, had done for her's-namely, as Lady Capulet, introduce the young débutante as Juliet. This one service rendered, Mrs. Charles Kemble finally withdrew.

She had a pleasant voice; charming, but not powerful in her early days, as a vocalist. In sprightly parts, in genteel comedy, in all chambermaids, in melodramatic characters, especially where pantomimic action was needed, she was excellent. Genest, who must have known her well, remarks, that "no person understood the business of the stage better; no person had more industry; at one time she almost lived in Drury Lane Theatre. The reason of her not being engaged after 1819 is said to have been that she wanted to play the young parts, for which her time of life, and her figure (for she had grown fat), had disqualified her; whereas if she would have been contented to have played Mrs. Oakly, Mrs. Candour, Flippanta, and many other characters of importance, which were not unsuitable to her personal appearance, it would have been greatly to her own advantage, and to the satisfaction of the public."

Charles remained on the stage till December 1836, but he returned for a few nights, a year or two later, when he went through a series of his most celebrated parts, for the especial gratification of the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria, and for the gratification of the public generally. Occasionally he reappeared as a "Reader," in which vocation, his refined taste, his judgment, and his graceful, though not powerful elocution, were manifest to the last.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kemble added something to our dramatic literature; the lady's contribution to which, "A Day after the Wedding," still affords entertainment whenever it is performed. Her other piece, "First Faults," is now forgotten. Charles Kemble's additions to the literature of the stage, comprise the "Point of Honour," "Plot and Counterplot," and the "Wanderer;" the first two being translations from the French, and the third from the German.

In his later days Charles Kemble was afflicted with deafness, so complete that he could not hear the pealing thunder, but could fancy it was in the air; for, as he once remarked amid the crash, "I feel it in my knees!" It was, perhaps, this affliction which occasionally gave him that look of fixed melancholy which he occasionally wore. Of anecdotes of his later time, there are few known to me of any interest, except the following, which I cull from the Athen?um. It is in reference to his son, Mr. J. M. Kemble's Lectures at Cambridge, On the History of the English Language, which were unsuccessful. "After making a good deal to do about them," says the correspondent of the Athen?um, "he obtained the use of the Divinity School to lecture in, and it was pretty well crowded at the first lecture; but the lecture itself was such a sickener, and so unintelligible, that at the second, myself, and I think two others, formed the whole audience. The appearance was so absurdly ridiculous in the large room, that Kemble gave notice, in announcing the day of his third lecture, that in future he should deliver them at his own private apartments. Meanwhile his father, Charles Kemble, the actor, came to see him, and on the day fixed for the third lecture, nobody was there to hear him but his said father and I; upon which, when we had waited in vain nearly an hour for an increase of audience, I moved, and his father seconded the proposal, that instead of inflicting the lecture upon us two, the lecturer should send into Trinity College buttery, as it was then the hour it was open, and procure a quantity of ale and cheese, for the excellence of both which Trinity College was celebrated, and with the aid of these we passed the afternoon. Such was the end of Kemble's lectures."

Rogers has left in his Table Talk some record of the Kembles, which, as coming from an eye and ear witness, may find admission here. From this we learn that Mrs. Siddons, to whom he had been telling an anecdote showing that, when Lawrence gained a medal at the Society of Arts, his brothers and sisters were jealous of him, remarked:-"Alas! after I became celebrated, none of my sisters loved me as they did before!" And then, when a grand public dinner was given to John Kemble on his quitting the stage, the great actress said to the poet, "Well, perhaps, in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this." "She alluded," says Rogers, "to the comparatively little sensation which had been produced by her own retirement from the boards; and, doubtless, she was a far, far greater performer than John Kemble."

When young, she had superseded Mrs. Crawford (Barry), then in her old age, and she rejoiced in being rid of so able a rival; but when other competitors crossed her own path, Mrs. Siddons rather unfairly remarked that the public were fond of setting up new idols, in order to mortify their old favourites. She had herself, she said, been three times threatened with eclipse; first, by means of Miss Brunton (afterwards Lady Craven); next, by means of Miss Smith (Mrs. Bartley); and, lastly, by means of Miss O'Neill-"nevertheless," she is reported to have said, "I am not yet extinguished." She then stood, however, with regard to Miss O'Neill exactly as Mrs. Crawford (Barry) had stood with respect to herself-the younger actress carried away the hearts, the older lived respected in the memories of the audience. But over audiences, Mrs. Siddons had, in her day, deservedly reigned supreme; and that should have been enough of greatness achieved by one whom Combe remembered to have seen, "when a very young woman, standing by the side of her father's stage, and knocking a pair of snuffers against a candlestick, to imitate the sound of a windmill during the representation of some harlequinade."

When she had departed from the scene of her glory, the remembrance of that glory did not suffice her. When Rogers was sitting with her, of an afternoon, she would say, "Oh, dear! this is the time I used to be thinking of going to the theatre; first came the pleasure of dressing for my part; and then the pleasure of acting it; but that is all over now." This was not vanity, but the natural wail of an active spirit forced to be at rest. There was less dignity in the retirement of John Kemble, if what Rogers tells us be true, that "when Kemble was living at Lausanne, he was jealous of Mont Blanc; and he disliked to hear people always asking, 'How does Mont Blanc look this morning?'"

The two greatest rivalries that John Kemble had to endure, before the final one, in which Kean triumphed, emanated from two very different persons-George Frederick Cooke and Master Betty. The success of both marks periods in stage history, and demands brief notice here.


[63] If this means that his supporters changed about and asked him to apologise, it is a strange perversion of the story.

[64] These ladies appeared in the beginning of 1783, previous to both brothers' appearances.

[65] The "Gamester" preceded "King John," being played on 22d November, while "King John" was not played till 10th December.

[66] They almost certainly played in the "Countess of Salisbury" together on 13th April 1784; they undoubtedly were both in "Tancred and Sigismunda" on 24th April 1784, in the "Carmelite" on 2d December 1784, and in the "Maid of Honour" on 27th January 1785.

[67] This must refer to Kemble's benefit, 6th April 1786.

[68] Dr. Doran evidently considers that Kemble became manager about 10th October 1788-the date of his address to the public on the subject of his new position. On the 30th September he had acted Hamlet; on 16th October he played Macbeth; on 20th October Lord Townly.

[69] Kemble and Mrs. Siddons retired from Drury Lane in 1802.

[70] I can find no record of his having played this part.

[71] 7th October 1802.

[72] Henry Kemble sank into abject distress; he and his wife were glad to be allowed to take care of unoccupied houses.-Doran MS.

[73] Is Dr. Doran not thinking of John Kemble's public apology?

* * *


(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top