1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kemble

KEMBLE, the name of a family of English actors, of whom the most famous were Mrs Siddons (q.v.) and her brother John Philip Kemble, the eldest of the twelve children of Roger Kemble (1721–1802), a strolling player and manager, who in 1753 married an actress, Sarah Wood.

John Philip Kemble (1757–1823), the second child, was born at Prescot, Lancashire, on the 1st of February 1757. His mother was a Roman Catholic, and he was educated at Sedgeley Park Catholic seminary, near Wolverhampton, and the English college at Douai, with the view of becoming a priest. But at the conclusion of the four years’ course he discovered that he had no vocation for the priesthood, and returning to England he joined the theatrical company of Crump & Chamberlain, his first appearance being as Theodosius in Lee’s tragedy of that name at Wolverhampton on the 8th of January 1776. In 1778 he joined the York company of Tate Wilkinson, appearing at Wakefield as Captain Plume in Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer; in Hull for the first time as Macbeth on the 30th of October, and in York as Orestes in Ambrose Philips’s Distressed Mother. In 1781 he obtained a “star” engagement at Dublin, making his first appearance there on the 2nd of November as Hamlet. He also achieved great success as Raymond in The Count of Narbonne, a play taken from Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Gradually he won for himself a high reputation as a careful and finished actor, and this, combined with the greater fame of his sister, led to an engagement at Drury Lane, where he made his first appearance on the 30th of September 1783 as Hamlet. In this rôle he awakened interest and discussion among the critics rather than the enthusiastic approval of the public. But as Macbeth on the 31st of March 1785 he shared in the enthusiasm aroused by Mrs Siddons, and established a reputation among living actors second only to hers. Brother and sister had first appeared together at Drury Lane on the 22nd of November 1783, as Beverley and Mrs Beverley in Moore’s The Gamester, and as King John and Constance in Shakespeare’s tragedy. In the following year they played Montgomerie and Matilda in Cumberland’s The Carmelite, and in 1785 Adorni and Camiola in Kemble’s adaptation of Massinger’s A Maid of Honour, and Othello and Desdemona. Between 1785 and 1787 Kemble appeared in a variety of rôles, his Mentevole in Jephson’s Julia producing an overwhelming impression. On the 8th of December 1787 he married Priscilla Hopkins Brereton (1756–1845), the widow of an actor and herself an actress. Kemble’s appointment as manager of Drury Lane in 1788 gave him full opportunity to dress the characters less according to tradition than in harmony with his own conception of what was suitable. He was also able to experiment with whatever parts might strike his fancy, and of this privilege he took advantage with greater courage than discretion. His activity was prodigious, the list of his parts including a large number of Shakespearian characters and also a great many in plays now forgotten. In his own version of Coriolanus, which was revived during his first season, the character of the “noble Roman” was so exactly suited to his powers that he not only played it with a perfection that has never been approached, but, it is said, unconsciously allowed its influence to colour his private manner and modes of speech. His tall and imposing person, noble countenance, and solemn and grave demeanour were uniquely adapted for the Roman characters in Shakespeare’s plays; and, when in addition he had to depict the gradual growth and development of one absorbing passion, his representation gathered a momentum and majestic force that were irresistible. His defect was in flexibility, variety, rapidity; the characteristic of his style was method, regularity, precision, elaboration even of the minutest details, founded on a thorough psychological study of the special personality he had to represent. His elocutionary art, his fine sense of rhythm and emphasis, enabled him to excel in declamation, but physically he was incapable of giving expression to impetuous vehemence and searching pathos. In Coriolanus and Cato he was beyond praise, and possibly he may have been superior to both Garrick and Kean in Macbeth, although it must be remembered that in it part of his inspiration must have been caught from Mrs Siddons. In all the other great Shakespearian characters he was, according to the best critics, inferior to them, least so in Lear, Hamlet and Wolsey, and most so in Shylock and Richard III. On account of the eccentricities of Sheridan, the proprietor of Drury Lane, Kemble withdrew from the management, and, although he resumed his duties at the beginning of the season 1800–1801, he at the close of 1802 finally resigned connexion with it. In 1803 he became manager of Covent Garden, in which he had acquired a sixth share for £23,000. The theatre was burned down on the 20th of September 1808, and the raising of the prices after the opening of the new theatre, in 1809, led to riots, which practically suspended the performances for three months. Kemble had been nearly ruined by the fire, and was only saved by a generous loan, afterwards converted into a gift, of £10,000 from the duke of Northumberland. Kemble took his final leave of the stage in the part of Coriolanus on the 23rd of June 1817. His retirement was probably hastened by the rising popularity of Edmund Kean. The remaining years of his life were spent chiefly abroad, and he died at Lausanne on the 26th of February 1823.

See Boaden, Life of John Philip Kemble (1825); Fitzgerald, The Kembles (1871).

Stephen Kemble (1758–1822), the second son of Roger, was rather an indifferent actor, ever eclipsed by his wife and fellow player, Elizabeth Satchell Kemble (c. 1763–1841), and a man of such portly proportions that he played Falstaff without padding. He managed theatres in Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Charles Kemble (1775–1854), a younger brother of John Philip and Stephen, was born at Brecon, South Wales, on the 25th of November 1775. He, too, was educated at Douai. After returning to England in 1792, he obtained a situation in the post-office, but this he soon resigned for the stage, making his first recorded appearance at Sheffield as Orlando in As You Like It in that year. During the early period of his career as an actor he made his way slowly to public favour. For a considerable time he played with his brother and sister, chiefly in secondary parts, and this with a grace and finish which received scant justice from the critics. His first London appearance was on the 21st of April 1794, as Malcolm to his brother’s Macbeth. Ultimately he won independent fame, especially in such characters as Archer in George Farquhar’s Beaux’ Stratagem, Dorincourt in Mrs Cowley’s Belle’s Stratagem, Charles Surface and Ranger in Dr Benjamin Hoadley’s Suspicious Husband. His Laertes and Macduff were hardly less interesting than his brother’s Hamlet and Macbeth. In comedy he was ably supported by his wife, Marie Therèse De Camp (1774–1838), whom he married on the 2nd of July 1806. His visit, with his daughter Fanny, to America during 1832 and 1834, aroused much enthusiasm. The later period of his career was clouded by money embarrassments in connexion with his joint proprietorship in Covent Garden theatre. He formally retired from the stage in December 1836, but his final appearance was on the 10th of April 1840. For some time he held the office of examiner of plays. In 1844–1845 he gave readings from Shakespeare at Willis’s Rooms. He died on the 12th of November 1854. Macready regarded his Cassio as incomparable, and summed him up as “a first-rate actor of second-rate parts.”

See Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1855; Records of a Girlhood, by Frances Anne Kemble.

Elizabeth Whitlock (1761–1836), who was a daughter of Roger Kemble, made her first appearance on the stage in 1783 at Drury Lane as Portia. In 1785 she married Charles E. Whitlock, went with him to America and played with much success there. She had the honour of appearing before President Washington. She seems to have retired about 1807, and she died on the 27th of February 1836. Her reputation as a tragic actress might have been greater had she not been Mrs Siddons’s sister.

Frances Anne Kemble (Fanny Kemble) (1800–1893), the actress and author, was Charles Kemble’s elder daughter; she was born in London on the 27th of November 1809, and educated chiefly in France. She first appeared on the stage on the 25th of October 1829 as Juliet at Covent Garden. Her attractive personality at once made her a great favourite, her popularity enabling her father to recoup his losses as a manager. She played all the principal women’s parts, notably Portia, Beatrice and Lady Teazle, but Julia in Sheridan Knowles’s The Hunchback, especially written for her, was perhaps her greatest success. In 1832 she went with her father to America, and in 1834 she married there a Southern planter, Pierce Butler. They were divorced in 1849. In 1847 she returned to the stage, from which she had retired on her marriage, and later, following her father’s example, appeared with much success as a Shakespearian reader. In 1877 she returned to England, where she lived—using her maiden name—till her death in London on the 15th of January 1893. During this period Fanny Kemble was a prominent and popular figure in the social life of London. Besides her plays, Francis the First, unsuccessfully produced in 1832, The Star of Seville (1837), a volume of Poems (1844), and a book of Italian travel, A Year of Consolation (1847), she published a volume of her Journal in 1835, and in 1863 another (dealing with life on the Georgia plantation), and also a volume of Plays, including translations from Dumas and Schiller. These were followed by Records of a Girlhood (1878), Records of Later Life (1882), Notes on some of Shakespeare’s Plays (1882), Far Away and Long Ago (1889), and Further Records (1891). Her various volumes of reminiscences contain much valuable material for the social and dramatic history of the period.

Adelaide Kemble (1814–1879), Charles Kemble’s second daughter, was an opera singer of great promise, whose first London appearance was made in Norma on the 2nd of November 1841. In 1843 she married Edward John Sartoris, a rich Italian, and retired after a brief but brilliant career. She wrote A Week in a French Country House (1867), a bright and humorous story, and of a literary quality not shared by other tales that followed. Her son, Algernon Charles Sartoris, married General U. S. Grant’s daughter.

Among more recent members of the Kemble family, mention may also be made of Charles Kemble’s grandson, Henry Kemble (1848–1907), a sterling and popular London actor.