Tuesday 17 March 2015

A Salon Guest: The Amazing Kembles

It's my pleasure to welcome William Savage to the salon, with a tale of the Kembles, particular favourites of mine!


The Amazing Kembles
The Leading Theatrical Dynasty of the Eighteenth Century

Nowadays, we are well used to family dynasties of actors and screen stars, whether in Hollywood or on the British stage. Yet few today could match the amazing Kemble dynasty, which dominated the theatrical world between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.

Sarah Siddons and John Phillip Kemble in Macbeth, 1786
Sarah Siddons and John Phillip Kemble in Macbeth, 1786
I cannot recall a time when I was not familiar the name of the Kemble family. This is not because I was precociously interested in the theatre. I knew of them in the same way that everyone who was born and brought up where I was knew of them, for my home town is Hereford, on the borders of Wales, and that is where the Kembles originated.

As an aside, Hereford also claims to be the birthplace of Nell Gwynn. There was definitely a family of that name in Hereford at the right time and a plaque may be found on a wall near the cathedral marking the place where the supposed house of her birth once stood. Whether you accept that ‘pretty, witty Nell’ was also a local girl depends, I suspect, on whether or not you were born in Hereford.

The Theatrical Kembles

Sarah Kemble, later Siddons, was born in Brecon, across the Welsh border, but that was mere chance, in the same way that David Garrick (who will figure a good deal in this story) was born in Hereford as well: at The Angel public house in the same street as my own place of birth, less than a hundred yards from the house where I lived until the age of 10. In both cases, their theatrical families were on tour and they were born where their mothers happened to be staying when labour began. Garrick always claimed Litchfield as his home, since that was where he grew up. Sarah Kemble, as she was then, was a true Hereford girl, regardless of her birthplace.


Sarah Siddons’ great-great-uncle, Fr. John Kemble, was a Catholic priest, executed in 1679 in Hereford, aged 80, at the time of the Popish Plot, then canonised in 1970. His mummified hand is still displayed in the main Catholic Church in Hereford and is claimed to have performed a miracle as recently as 1995. The family remained Catholic, though not aggressively so. When Roger Kemble married a Protestant member of the Church of England, they reached an odd but amicable agreement. All the sons were raised as Catholics, while the daughters were brought up as Anglicans.

Roger Kemble and Sarah Ward

It was Roger Kemble who began the family’s links to the theatre. His father was a fairly prosperous barber and wig-maker in Hereford and Roger began adult life as his apprentice. Then he became stage-struck and started acting at the age of 30, first joining a group of travelling players then forming and managing one.

Roger Kemble became one of the most famous theatre managers of his day. His wife, Sarah Ward, was an actress and the daughter of the manager of the Warwickshire acting troop Roger joined.

Mrs. Sarah Siddons

Sarah was the eldest of the children of Roger Kemble and Sarah Ward. Almost all their siblings made their living from the theatre to varying degrees, but she was without doubt the greatest and best of them as an actress. I wrote an extensive post recently about Mrs. Siddons, so this section will be more of a summary of key aspects of her life and career. Please refer to the other post for more detail.

Sarah Siddons had started her career in the provinces, specifically in the theatres of various small cities and towns along the Welsh border. From this, along with the rest of her family, she had progressed to more fashionable venues like Cheltenham Spa. Then, David Garrick ‘discovered’ her in 1775 and brought her to London’s Drury Lane Theatre of which he was the manager. It was a disastrous debut. She arrived mid-season, aged just 21, and delayed by being heavily pregnant with her second child. She had no experience of such demanding and sophisticated audiences, and she was put forward in parts that did not suit her acting style. Indeed, she began to suspect that the main reason for Garrick’s flattering attentions and ostentatious support was to upset his other three leading ladies, who were causing him a good deal of grief at the time. This may well have been true enough, since Garrick wrote thus to the critic and dramatist Henry Bate at the time:

‘If any lady begins to play at tricks, I will immediately play off my masked battery of Siddons against her.

Sarah made a terrible début as Portia. One critic wrote:

‘On before us tottered, rather than walked, a very pretty, delicate, fragile-looking young creature, dressed in a most unbecoming manner, in a faded salmon-coloured sack and coat and uncertain whereabout to fix either her eyes or her feet. She spoke in a broken tremulous tone; and at the close of a sentence her words generally lapsed into a horrid whisper, that was absolutely inaudible.’

In another production, the three slighted prima donnas upstaged her en masse, so that Garrick himself had to come on stage and lead her to the front of the stage. At the end of that season, Garrick retired from the stage, as he seems to have intended all along, and left her high and dry. She returned to the provinces and that seemed to be that.

It was another 6 years before she returned to Drury Lane, now under the management of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Good reports of her performances had been coming in to London for some time and he seems to have hoped that bringing her back might revive the flagging state of his business.

The theatre was packed for her first night. Reports of her talents had preceded her from Bath, where she had been receiving great acclaim, and Sheridan had been doing a great deal of his own ‘puffing’ of her ability as well. Despite horrendous stage-fright, this time she was a triumph. She was instantly idolised. The cream of London society flocked to see her. The rush to get seats for her performances began at breakfast and late-comers joined in fist-fights trying to get in. She was that cliché of clichés, an overnight sensation.

Thus it continued for the rest of her time on the stage. Lord Byron believed she outshone not only all other women but also men in the theater. He saw Siddons at the end of her career and described her performance as:

‘The “beau ideal of acting”: [N]othing ever was, or can be, like her.’

When she retired from the stage in her late 50s, William Hazlitt wrote:

‘Who shall give us Mrs. Siddons again? Or who shall sit majestic in the throne of Tragedy – a Goddess, a prophetess and a Muse? Who shall stalk over the stage of horrors, its presiding genius, or play the hostess at the banqueting scene of murder? … Who shall make tragedy once more stand with its feet upon the earth, and with its head raised above the skies weeping tears and blood? That loss is not to be repaired. While the stage lasts, there will never be another Mrs. Siddons!’

John Philip Kemble

John Philip Kemble, eldest son of the Kemble family, first trained as a priest at Douai, then quickly left the church for acting and became the leading male actor of his day. He was famous as actor and manager and many times shared the stage with his sister, Sarah Siddons. However, even he admitted she left him in the shade. Nonetheless, she helped him a great deal, as she did all her siblings. So much so that, by 1783, no less than five members of the Kemble family were playing on the London stage, prompting one newspaper to publish this piece of doggerel:

‘With Kembles on Kembles they’ve choked Drury Lane
The family rubbish have seized public bounty
And Kings, Queens and Heroes pour forth from each county.
The barns are unpeopled – their half-famished sons
Waste the regions of taste like th’irruption of Huns.’

Aside from the obvious, this verse contains a typically London-oriented jibe at the ‘rustic’ origins of the family. Barns were where poor companies of strolling players usually set up in villages and country towns. The writer is implying that’s where the Kembles belong: out in the sticks with the peasants!

Between 1788 and 1800, Kemble was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, as well as acting. However, he and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the proprietor of the theatre, did not form a harmonious team. In late 1801, there was a major falling-out between the two of them, leading to Kemble’s complete withdrawal.

Maybe Kemble should have stuck to acting, because his next foray into management also ended badly. In 1803, he took a one-sixth share in ownership of the Covent Garden Theatre and became its manager. When the theatre burned down in 1808, he lost a good deal of his money. He re-opened in a rebuilt theatre in 1809, but ran at once into a major row with the public when he tried to raise ticket prices, presumably to offset his losses. Following noisy demonstrations and riots, he was forced to back down. However, the theatre had been closed for more than three months by the rioting and Kemble was virtually ruined. He was only saved from bankruptcy by selling his excellent library and obtaining a large loan – later made a gift – from the Duke of Northumberland.

Kemble’s career on the stage was cut short in 1817 in part by illness (he suffered from severe gout) and in part by the arrival of Edmund Kean. As Kean’s star rose, Kemble’s waned. His style of acting – precise, studied and grandiose – was eclipsed by Kean’s tempestuous energy, which was far better suited to the growing Romanticism of the age. Nonetheless, Kemble had been a decided star in his time, an idol like his sister. If her posthumous fame has far eclipsed his, it is in part a genuine reflection of their respective talents. Byron, for one, thought Mrs. Siddons worth more than Kemble and Kean put together.

The Other Sons

Stephen George Kemble, also became an actor and theatre manager. Yet another, Charles Kemble, was an actor, theatre manager and playwright. He married the actress Maria Theresa De Camp and the eldest of their two daughters was the actress and author Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble.

None of these ‘lesser’ Kembles achieved anything like the prominence of the two eldest siblings. Indeed, I suspect they would be even less remembered were it not for their association with them. Both turned fairly quickly to management, but neither were especially successful in that field either. Charles was the better actor, with a more gentle and romantic style than his elder brother. However, he lost a great deal of money as manager of The Covent Garden Theatre and was rescued largely by the success of his daughter, Fanny Kemble, in the USA.

Ann Julia Kemble

The youngest Kemble sister, Ann, is worth a post in her own right. It is impossible to do justice to her tempestuous life in the space available here. For the moment, I will summarise by saying she was a poet, author and (not very good) actress. Meeting with poverty as the result of a bigamous marriage, she advertised for donations and tried to kill herself in Westminster Abbey as a means of drumming up support. When this failed, she turned to more traditional sources of money for hard-up young women and became a ‘model’ in a London bagnio or brothel. During her time there, she was was accidentally shot in the eye, but happily survived. Her next scheme was to give lectures for a quack sex doctor who sold nights in an “electrical bed” to promote sexual pleasure and fertility.

In 1792, she married again, went to America, then Canada, then back to Britain, finally settling in Swansea, where she ran a dancing school and wrote reams of verse and no less than 14 gothic romance novels under the pseudonym ‘Ann of Swansea’. Her last book was published in 1831 and she died in 1838. She was in many ways typical of the Kembles: larger than life.


About the Author

William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. His first in the series, “An Unlamented Death”, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published in Spring 2015.

Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, publishing them via his blog “Pen and Pension”. He is also on Twitter as @penandpension.

Written content of this post copyright © William Savage, 2015.


Regencyresearcher said...

Enjoyed it very much. A talented family.
Was surprised by the agreement of the Catholic and Protestant that the girls would be Protestants. It usually was the other way ariound with the sins being Protestants and the girls Catholic to avoid the males having their lives limited by penal laws.

Catherine Curzon said...

An unorthodox approach!

Unknown said...

A worthy post,Sir! Bravo!!

Catherine Curzon said...

Merci, sir!