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MEMOIR OF JOHN PHILIP KEMBLE, ESQ.
- Docuit magnumque loqui, nitique cothurno.'-HOR.
THE recent decease of the most eminent of those English actors who have for many years contributed to the public delight would of itself, perhaps, form a sufficient apology for introducing on the present occasion some notice of his life. Mr. Kemble's rank as a scholar and a literary man, however, fairly entitles him, without any such apology, to the place we have assigned him in the present Number. If our theatres hold, as they unquestionably do, a high and original character among those of Europe, it is mainly to the good taste and unremitting exertions of that gentleman that our present distinction may be attributed. Fallen as we are in every species of dramatic composition, almost below contempt; reduced to borrow, from the scanty materials which French melo-drames can furnish, all the novelties of our theatre; and basc as the public appetite, which can batten on such garbage, has become; still there is a propriety in the costumes and a taste for splendour in the decorations which are absolutely necessary to a theatre, and to which, until modern times, the English stage was unaccustomed; and for these improvements we are indebted to Mr. Kemble.
JOHN PHILIP KEMBLE, the eldest son of Mr. Roger Kemble, a manager of a provincial company of actors, was born at Preston, in Lancashire, in 1757. His father was desirous that none of his numerous family should adopt his own profession; and if his intention in this respect was thwarted in almost every instance, it was not for want of his most strenuous exertions to accomplish his purpose.
The subject of the present memoir was intended for the Roman Catholic priesthood, and was first placed in the seminary of that order at Sedgeley Park, in Staffordshire. Here he displayed considerable talents, and so much promise, that he was sent at an earlier age than usual to the Jesuit College at Douay, for the completion of his education. He completed his academical studies with considerable reputation, and particularly distinguished himself here by his powers of elocution. At this period of his life, when the human mind seems particularly open to such impressions, the love of the stage haunted him like a passion;' he renounced the prospects which an academical life presented to him, and returned to England, bent on adopting the profession of his choice. It was, perhaps, well for himself that he made this selection; for he established a well earned reputation, and gained an easy and sufficient fortune; it was certainly in a happy hour for the English theatre that he resolved upon it; for he exalted its importance and respectability to a pitch which might have produced most fortunate results. It cannot be imputed to him as a fault that circumstances, which it is not our province here to discuss, have frustrated his labours, and disappointed those results.
Mr. Kemble's exertions were for a long time confined to the provincial theatres. While thus occupied he varied his histrionic labours with literary pursuits. At the theatre at Liverpool he produced a tragedy called Belisarius, and at that of York he brought out alterations of the New Way to Pay Old Debts and The Comedy of Errors. Here he also published a volume of Poems; but, with a feeling of severity which he not unfrequently carried to fastidiousness, he destroyed nearly the whole of the impressions. They are said, though not very remarkable for poetical talent, to have deserved less rigorous treatment. At Edinburgh he was held in considerable estimation, and gained some reputation among the literati of that city by a Lecture which he delivered on Sacred and Profane Oratory; it is said to have been at once eloquent and profound.
It was in 1783 that he first appeared in London, on the Drury-lane stage, in the character of Hamlet. The approbation which he won on that occasion continued increasing and deserving to increase, until his age and his desire for a tranquil retirement induced him to quit the theatre. Under his management the theatre assumed an appearance altogether different from that of preceding times; the important points of costume and scenery for they are both of vital importance to the drama, and although only accessories, upon them depends its prosperity or its ruin-now for the first time received the benefit of the attention of a person of knowledge and refinement. The system of favoritism, and the prescriptive right of holding characters by players who had outlived their qualifications, was gradually abolished. Drury Lane became then the classical theatre, and the public patronage was deservedly showered upon that theatre which was adorned by the labours of Sheridan, Siddons, and Kemble. The period of his management was one of uninterrupted prosperity for the drama, and such as we do not expect shortly again to
The affairs of the theatre unfortunately became the subject of litigation; the Court of Chancery has never exercised a favorable influence over dramatic establishments, and in the year 1801 Mr. Kemble found it expedient to resign his management.
He employed the leisure which this secession afforded him to make a continental tour, during which he visited Paris and Madrid. This excursion occupied twelve months; and, with that ardour for all subjects relating to his profession which ever distinguished Mr. Kemble, he did not fail to collect all that was worthy of note in the theatres of the countries which he visited. He returned to England in 1803, and shortly afterwards purchased a sixth share of Covent Garden, the management of which he assumed. The opening of this theatre, after the calamity of its destruction by fire, and the disturbances which the increased prices occasioned, placed Mr. Kemble in a very disagreeable position. It was impossible not to encounter a considerable portion of public disapprobation; but it must be remembered to Mr. Kemble's credit, that during the whole of this affair he did nothing to diminish his own reputation, nor to weaken the good opinion of his friends. We never could see either the justice of the mob who amused themselves by demolishing his theatre, nor the grounds upon which they accused Mr. Kemble of want of respect to their most venerable body. The excitation of the public mind at this period was unnecessarily increased by a profusion of false stories and squibs, which the newspapers, and other equally incautious publications,
circulated with great eagerness, and which happened then to suit the public appetite excellently well. These are, however, now forgotten, and even at the period to which we allude, were not believed,
Mr. Kemble continued in the discharge of his managerial functions until within a few years, when, finding the infirmities of age made some attack upon him, he chose to relinquish his profession. An asthmatic complaint had long affected him, and rendered it necessary for him to seek a milder atmosphere. He took up his abode at Lausanne, where, with the exception of one visit about two years ago to England, he resided until his death. He had an extensive acquaintance among the first people in Lausanne, and was held in no less estimation by his countrymen, of whom there is a considerable number resident in that town, than by the other inhabitants. He was charitable to the poor, obliging to his friends, and with a feeling which, notwithstanding the example of a noble poet to the contrary, we believe is peculiarly English, he was delighted to receive his countrymen, with no other introductions than their worth and respectability.
For some time before his death his health had been in a declining state; he was on the 23d ult., however, somewhat recovered, and had sent a message by his hair-dresser, to an intimate friend, that he was much better. On the following morning he breakfasted in good spirits, but shortly afterwards was observed by Mrs. Kemble to totter to a chair; he took up Galignani's English paper, which lay on the table, but soon became so much worse, that he was compelled to send for his physician. Dr. Schole, who was his intimate friend as well as his medical attendant, shortly afterwards arrived, and found that he had experienced a severe attack of paralysis: he directed him to be carried immediately to bed; but as this was doing, a repetition of the attack ensued, and he became speechless. From this time until the moment of his death, which took place on Wednesday, the 26th of February, about forty-eight hours after the first attack, he did not recover his speech sufficiently to articulate any other words than the name of his old servant, George, who had lived with him many years. It is the opinion of his physician, that during his last moments he had become insensible to pain. The house in which he resided was extremely neat and convenient, and his residence was remarkable for the beauty of his garden, to which he paid a constant personal attendance, and in which he found great delight and amusement for all those hours which were not employed with his books.
Mr. Kemble's style of acting is within the recollection of most of our readers. Without instituting a comparison with any living professor, it cannot be denied that he was, while he continued on the stage, a first-rate actor. He had many natural and more acquired qualifications for the profession he had chosen. His person was manly, his features striking and full of intelligence; his deportment dignified even to majesty, and his voice full and sonorous, though it sometimes failed him. He had much natural good taste, which had been refined by study and observation; more knowledge than falls to the lot of most persons of his profession, and a critical skill, the chief fault of which was its minuteness. acting was always satisfactory-often astonishing; there was perhaps too much of effort in his best parts, but this was an error on the right side. His elaborate judgment led him to attach importance to parts overlooked by other tragedians, but which had been overlooked from a want
of the skill to comprehend them. In the more heroic parts he has never been approached by any competitor; and if he was less excellent in those of pure tenderness and sentiment, it was because his soul was of a more severe and stern temperament than the character to be represented. His bursts of lofty passion were sometimes appalling; nothing can exceed the effect which he occasionally produced upon an audience; but it must be added these were transient effects, and were rather exceptions to his general style of acting.
Mr. Kemble did much to make the profession of an actor respected, by setting the example in his own person of perfect respectability. He redeemed it from the too well merited imputations of profligacy, idleness, and ignorance, and added another proof to that illustrious one afforded by Garrick, that an accomplished and honorable man might devote himself to it without discredit. He showed that it was not necessary that a theatrical company should be composed of discarded unjust serving men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters; but that it might be as much an object of esteem as of amusement.
Mr. Kemble drew upon himself considerable animadversion for an attempt which he made to rectify some, as he thought, mispronunciations. In several instances he was decidedly and absurdly wrong,-in others he had every authority on his side, except the practice of the most learned and refined men in the country, and that custom which has in all ages been the jus et norma loquendi, the rule for pronunciation, from which there is no appeal. It should be at the same time recollected that the public is indebted to him for the restoration of some of the valuable passages from our earlier dramatists, which caprice or neglect had omitted. Under his judicious selection, many of the plays of Shakspeare were restored to the stage in such a form as rendered them universally popular, and altogether unobjectionable; and many of the works of authors of less pretension were rescued from the unmerited neglect into which they had fallen.
It will be long, probably, before an actor of such various excellences shall again put forth his claim to public patronage. But whether we are to see a successor equal to the departed actor or not, the name of Kemble is inseparably connected with the English drama, and his reputation must last as long as that is remembered.
THE TRIALS OF MARGARET LYNDSAY.
BY THE AUTHOR OF LIGHTS AND SHADOWS OF SCOTTISH LIFE.
WE not unfrequently hear persons express considerable surprise at the rapidity with which authors now-a-days put out their claims to the public attention, but we never share in that surprise. We do wonder-but it is, first, that literary men can set themselves about such tasks as the present; and, secondly, that there can be found readers for their works. The compilation of such books as the author of The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay has for some years been sending in rapid succession into the world, has hitherto been confined to those ineritorious persons who write for the use of children, from Mrs. Goodchild to Priscilla Wakefield. Such labour is fitted to such hands: we neither doubt nor would disparage their usefulness; but it is no more fitting that a tall fellow' of the masculine gender should trench upon that field hitherto so peculiarly their own,