John Philip Kemble

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 woli 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 role 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 roles, 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 Co vent 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).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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