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date: 01 October 2023

Kemble, John Philipfree


Kemble, John Philipfree

  • Peter Thomson

John Philip Kemble (1757–1823)

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1801 [as Hamlet]

© Tate, London, 2004

Kemble, John Philip (1757–1823), actor, was born in Prescot, then a small Lancashire town between Liverpool and Warrington, on 1 February 1757, the second child and first son of Roger Kemble (1722–1802) and Sarah Ward (1735–1807).

The Kembles and the Wards

Although Kemble's parents owe their posthumous recognition to their children, they were not undistinguished in their own time. Roger Kemble was the son of a Hereford barber and the inheritor of a notable Roman Catholic tradition. A recent ancestor, Father John Kemble, had been executed in 1679 for his supposed part in the Popish Plot, and the Captain Richard Kemble who was with Charles II's army at the battle of Worcester in 1651 was Roger Kemble's grandfather or great-grandfather. Roger Kemble was already thirty when he abandoned barbering for the theatre. In 1752–3 he joined a company of players under the management of John and Sarah Ward. Ward was an Irishman with a reputation as a disciplinarian. His company, though sometimes known as the Warwick Players, toured extensively: to Coventry, Worcester, Leominster, Hereford, Gloucester, Brecon (where Roger Kemble's first child, later famous as Mrs Siddons, was born in 1755), Carmarthen. Surprisingly, in view of the later reputation of Methodists, he was also an early supporter of John Wesley's call for spiritual renewal. By 1753 he was entrusting the female juvenile leads to his daughter Sarah, already tall, stately, and refined while still in her teens. Like most of the children she would later have, young Sarah Ward was headstrong on the matter of marriage. Her father may have wanted a fine husband for her, may even have extracted a promise that she would never marry an actor, but her head was quickly turned by the handsome bachelor from Hereford. On 6 June 1753, evidently without parental approval and perhaps after the sentimental romance of an elopement, they were married in Cirencester.

According to Kemble family legend, John Ward comforted himself by saying that Roger Kemble was no actor. If that is true, it is all the more surprising that he took the young couple back into his company. The probability is that he needed them. He had expansive ambitions. During the 1750s his company performed as far south as Bath and as far north as Liverpool. The birthplaces of the first five of the Kembles' children (Brecon, Prescot, Kington, Hereford, Warrington) chart the itinerary of touring players. But Roger Kemble had ambitions of his own. From 1761 to 1763 he broke away from his father-in-law to set up a company of his own, and in 1766, when Ward retired, he took over the management, sustaining it to general approval until his own retirement in 1781. The Kemble children were born into the theatre; and they were born, also, into a family of religious compromise. Their parents agreed that the sons would be brought up in Roger's faith and the daughters in Sarah's. It was from their mother that the best-known of the children inherited their strong features and physical grace, but an inbred awareness of alternative and equally powerful pulls is a discernible influence on their approach to dramatic character.

Early years and theatrical apprenticeship

Roger Kemble did not intend his eldest son for the theatre, though the exigencies of management led him to cast the ten-year-old John as the young Duke of York in William Havard's King Charles the First at the King's Head in Worcester on 12 February 1767. Discretion may have been overruled by necessity on other occasions, but a Catholic education was the priority. In November 1767 Kemble entered Sedgley Park School, near Wolverhampton, to begin a period of intense study that would culminate at the English College in Douai from 1771 to 1775. Fluent in French, and grounded in Latin and Greek, he developed literary ambitions rather than the calling to the priesthood that his father had probably envisaged. When he returned to England in 1775, it was with a determination to act and to write. It was probably his sister Sarah Siddons (1755–1831), already making her way in the theatre, who negotiated his engagement with a minor touring company, and he made his adult début at Wolverhampton on 8 January 1776 in the purple-versed title role of Nathaniel Lee's Theodosius. Over the next eighteen months he had first-hand experience of the strolling player's hand-to-mouth rootlessness and developed the habit of palliative drinking that was his lifelong bugbear.

Kemble's first secure employment was with Joseph Younger's company, based in Liverpool. Younger had the wit to recognize the young actor's hunger and the acumen to exploit it. Between June 1777, when he and Sarah (already married to William Siddons) went together to Liverpool, and September 1778, Kemble accumulated an impressive portfolio of roles in tragedy and comedy, including Othello (to Sarah's Desdemona), Laertes (to Sarah's Hamlet), King Lear, Brutus, Shylock, Posthumus in Cymbeline, Pierre in Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd, Ranger in Benjamin Hoadly's The Suspicious Husband, and Archer in George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem. All these were listed in the repertory of 126 roles (sixty-eight in tragedy, fifty-eight in comedy) that he sent to Tate Wilkinson at York in a letter of application dated 21 June 1778. (The letter is now in the collection of manuscript letters in the Folger Shakespeare Library.)

The shrewdest of all provincial managers, Wilkinson had already benefited from the quality of Mrs Siddons, and he cherished his reputation as a starmaker. He would come to value Kemble as 'a choice root from my botanical garden' (Wilkinson, 4.75), but the relationship over the three years from 1778 to 1781 was not uniformly easy. Kemble's quest for personal dignity made him prickly, even as a young man, and his response to anything he considered an insult was unyielding. Wilkinson recounts a potentially dangerous confrontation in the York theatre in April 1779. A Mrs Mason was making her début opposite Kemble in Arthur Murphy's Zenobia, and their performances were audibly derided by the daughter of a local baronet in the stage-box. With her continuing laughter accompanying the death throes of the final act, Kemble 'made a full and long stop' and, when urged to go on, 'with great gravity, and a pointed bow to the stage-box, said he was ready to proceed with the play as soon as that lady had finished her conversation, which he perceived the going on with the Tragedy only interrupted' (Wilkinson, 2.20–21). Confident of support from most of the audience, Kemble refused the call for an apology clamorously led by officers of the North Riding militia. The scandal rumbled on for a week, though Kemble knew well that he could bring it to an end by apologizing for the lèse-majesté of a mere player. But he, not the lady, was the aggrieved party. In the end, to his gratification, the York audience exonerated him without an apology. By the time he left Wilkinson's company he had won the admiration of audiences at York, Leeds, Hull, and, briefly, Edinburgh. He had also presented himself as a playwright, with his tragedy Belisarius (manuscript in the Huntington Library), which had been earlier performed in Liverpool, and a farce called The Female Officer, first performed for his own benefit at Manchester on 25 March 1778. A small collection of his poetic Fugitive Pieces was published in York in 1780, to his later, justifiable, embarrassment.

Kemble had still a lot to learn about his own strengths and limitations when he left York in the winter of 1781 to work for £5 per week with Richard Daly's company at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. He was tall, dark-eyed, strong-featured, and athletically graceful. Importantly, too, he had acquired a habit of diligent study in preparation for the performance of major roles, which he would always copy out for himself. Tate Wilkinson was one of the earliest to observe that he excelled 'where sternness is requisite, more than in the tender passions' (Wilkinson, 2.6). Romeo, then, was not a part for him, but neither, in general, was he suited to comedy. Perhaps envious of Garrick's famed versatility, or that of his own near-contemporary John Henderson, Kemble would never abandon comedy, but it was as Hamlet that he made his Dublin début on 2 November 1781, to modest approval. As Sir George Touchwood, though, in Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem, he was at best damned with faint praise. Significantly, it was as Raymond in The Count of Narbonne, Robert Jephson's dramatic treatment of Horace Walpole's Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, that Kemble first caught the imagination of the Dublin public. The Gothic was a mode that suited him well—he was a master in the portrayal of brooding intensity, as he later demonstrated in roles he made his own: Penruddock in Richard Cumberland's The Wheel of Fortune, Octavian in the younger George Colman's The Mountaineers, above all the eponymous Stranger in Benjamin Thompson's version of a play by Kotzebue, in which, according to James Boaden, 'he bore … a living death about him' (Boaden, 2.215). Kemble's friendship with Jephson gave him access to the cream of Dublin society, and his stock rose higher in the wake of Mrs Siddons's trumpeted triumph at Drury Lane in October 1782. These were early signs of a durable social acceptability.

The Dublin company included such seasoned professionals as West Digges and Anne Crawford, but it was with younger members that Kemble's future would be linked. His sentimental attachment to Elizabeth Inchbald, which dated back to his earliest year on the stage, had matured into mutual admiration. She later painted an impressionistic portrait of him as Dorriforth in her novel A Simple Story (1791), a portrait that would mingle with the Byronic hero in influencing Charlotte Brontë's creation of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. A much better actress than Inchbald, though never so sterling a friend to Kemble, was the youthful Dorothy Francis—soon, as Dorothy Jordan, to become the acknowledged queen of English comedy. Never assured in his relationships with women, Kemble was too solemnly self-important for her taste. Nor did he succeed in his pursuit of the young singer Anna Maria Phillips. In her years of fame, when, as Mrs Crouch, she was the acknowledged mistress of the brilliant tenor Michael Kelly, she was Kemble's hostess on many a convivial evening, but in Dublin she was the resistant partner in what even James Boaden, a reticent biographer, admits was 'a very zealous friendship, perhaps a little romantic on his side' (Boaden, 1.46). On balance, though, the Dublin seasons served Kemble's career well. By the end of the theatrical year 1782–3 Daly had doubled his salary, and he was ready to join his sister in London.

Kemble at Drury Lane

Mrs Inchbald was away from London when Kemble arrived in mid-August 1783, but she made her rooms in Leicester Fields available to him for the preparation of his Drury Lane début as Hamlet on 30 September 1783. It was not the most sensational of occasions, but most critics were respectful, and the rival theatre in Covent Garden felt sufficiently challenged to put up its star, John Henderson, as an oppositional Hamlet. Compared with Henderson, Kemble was slow and deliberate, his speaking of the familiar lines punctuated with pauses, designed to carry the meaning across to the audience. 'To be critically exact', wrote Boaden, 'was the great ambition of his life' (Boaden, 1.158). Always indolent in his management of Drury Lane, Sheridan allowed his new acquisition a range of Shakespearian opportunities: not only Hamlet, but also Richard III, King John (with Mrs Siddons as Constance), and Shylock. His benefit on 13 April 1784 brought him £290, less house charges of £107. There were, as there would always be, cavillers. People who looked back to Garrick, or across to Henderson at Covent Garden, complained of a lack of fire, of a studiousness that toppled sometimes into tedium. Already as Hamlet, Kemble was developing his own particular style, which Bertram Joseph has defined as 'his way of working himself into a part, of pulling it together into one overwhelmingly concentrated and classical drive forward' (Joseph, 214), and not everyone had the patience to wait to see what he was driving towards.

Even so, it was undeniable that Kemble had made an auspicious beginning, and his second Drury Lane season maintained the momentum. After returning to Liverpool and Joseph Younger for the summer of 1784, he negotiated with Sheridan a salary increase to 10 guineas per week, and opened as Hamlet on 21 September 1784. Equally significant was his success in the title role of Joseph Addison's Cato, the first of the Roman heroes with whom he became increasingly identified. Hazlitt, with a mixture of exasperation and admiration that characterized his commentaries on Kemble's acting, later described his Cato as 'a studied piece of classical costume—a conscious exhibition of elegantly disposed drapery, that was all: yet, as a mere display of personal and artificial grace, it was inimitable' (Rowell, 17). Not short of the necessary vanity of the major actor, Kemble not only looked good but also knew he looked good in a toga. He had the Roman nose and handsome head to match it. He also had the confidence to put himself forward as an adapter of plays. The 1784–5 season saw the first of well over thirty performed reworkings of ‘old’ English plays, most of them Shakespearian. Twenty-six were published in the collected edition of 1815.

Towards the end of his second season at Drury Lane, Kemble played a 'not easily moved' Othello to his famous sister's Desdemona, and, for his benefit on 31 March 1785, Macbeth to her Lady Macbeth. The production coincided with the publication of Thomas Whately's influential Remarks on some of the Characters of Shakespeare. Kemble was sympathetic to Whately's argument that the individual is a product of the interplay between a predominant principle of behaviour and coincidental subsidiary qualities. He made no secret of the fact that his study of Shakespearian character aimed to identify the leading passion of each tragic hero. But he disagreed with Whately's presentation of Macbeth as the 'type' of a coward. The Scottish tyrant was, for him, a victim of his own unvarying intrepidity: his crimes were consistent with his acts of heroism. Kemble's publication of Macbeth Reconsidered in 1786—an articulate, if sometimes confused, rebuttal of Whately—added to his scholarly reputation. Henderson's untimely death in 1785 had made Kemble the almost undisputed leading tragedian of the London stage, though he had not yet played either King Lear (21 January 1788) or the role which was, by general consensus, his finest, Coriolanus (7 February 1789). But he did not wish to be confined to tragedy, and his new roles in the 1786–7 season were mostly in comedy. In General John Burgoyne's Richard Coeur de Lion (24 October 1786) he even sang, though the popularity of this piece owed more to the voices of Mrs Crouch and Mrs Jordan. In Cymbeline on 29 January 1787, with his sister as Imogen, he played 'by a thousand degrees, the best Posthumus of my time' (Boaden, 1.344) and, on 14 April 1787, another Gothic brooder in Robert Jephson's Julia.

At the age of thirty Kemble was near the top of his stressful world. There were, however, problems. His winter performances were particularly affected by a troublesome cough and his summer performances by asthma, and he dosed himself with alcohol and opium. Furthermore, Sheridan's erratic management led often to the non-payment of wages; a few years later, according to a manuscript in the British Library, Kemble was owed £1367 in back pay. And, though convivial outside the theatre, he was lonely. It was probably this last condition that lay behind his precipitate marriage on 8 December 1787. The wife he chose was an undistinguished Drury Lane actress, the widow of William Brereton and the daughter of a Drury Lane prompter, William Hopkins. The marriage survived until Kemble's death, but the overwhelming impression is that Priscilla Kemble (1758–1845) never deeply engaged her husband's emotions. He did nothing to promote her career, and did not oppose—indeed, he may even have proposed—her retirement from the stage in 1796. If he were to continue to rise in society he needed a hostess, and that is a job the childless Priscilla managed tidily. Marriage to Kemble was a step up for her, and his awareness of that was evidently important to him. But the theatre was more important. Drury Lane needed him, and when, at the end of the 1787–8 season, Sheridan's exasperated acting manager Thomas King resigned, Kemble agreed to replace him. In his manuscript journal he wrote against the date of 23 September 1788, 'This day I undertook the management of D. L. Theatre' (BL, Add. MS 31972).

As acting manager of Drury Lane, Kemble had every intention of restoring the glory of the Garrick years. It was to be the home of the classic drama, above all of Shakespeare. The new drama mattered much less to him. Kemble signalled his intentions on 25 November 1788 with a lavish production of Henry VIII. In his own performance (initially as Thomas Cromwell, later as Cardinal Wolsey), in the demands made on scene and costume designers, and in his careful disposal of the hoards of extras he was at last able to experiment with 'visual rhetoric' (Bate and Jackson, 99). Odell's claim that Kemble was 'the first great “producer” of Shakespeare on the English stage' (Odell, 2.85) has substance. There was further evidence of that with the opening of Coriolanus on 7 February 1789. There was virtual unanimity of acclaim for Kemble's playing of the title role, and he would certainly have repeated it throughout the 1790s had not political events in France rendered the play unpalatable to the English censors.

Henry VIII and Coriolanus were by no means isolated triumphs of Kemble's management. Joseph Donohue has itemized his opulent 1794 production of Macbeth (Donohue, Kemble's production of Macbeth), with its sixteen painted scenes and seven scene painters, and David Rostron has shown the care he took over the 1795 staging of King Lear (Richards and Thomson, 149–70). Despite the cares of management, he continued his private study of the roles he assumed. He was playing to audiences who applauded the detailed 'points', vocal and gestural, of leading actors, and it was in detail that he excelled. 'He never pulls out his handkerchief without a design upon the audience', wrote Leigh Hunt (Rowell, 11). But the decorum he valued in performance and in his public life concealed personal stress. There was the rebuilding of the condemned theatre to cope with, and the rehousing of the company from 1791 until the reopening on 12 March 1794. It was a period of extreme national tension, and Kemble was anathema to whigs and radicals. His Shakespearian productions implicitly harnessed the national poet to traditional values, and his personal aloofness often offended. Try as he might, he could not avoid scandal. He fought a farcical duel with the actor James Aickin in 1792, outraged the whig Sheridan by cancelling a performance on 25 January 1793 as a sign of respect to the executed Louis XVI, and lapsed all too frequently into bouts of excessive drinking that exacerbated the gout from which he was beginning to suffer. The abiding problem, though, was Sheridan, whose interventions at Drury Lane were as unpredictable as his failures to act in a crisis were predictable. With the grand new theatre opened in March 1794, and the style of spectacular staging that its massiveness demanded launched, Kemble was approaching the end of his tether.

The problems were not immediately apparent. On 9 June 1794 Kemble's own musical afterpiece Lodoiska began a successful run which continued into the 1794–5 season. It is a Gothic farrago which, while pandering to popular taste, reveals more of Kemble's own taste than is generally recognized. His Penruddock in Cumberland's The Wheel of Fortune belongs to the same genre. Before that play's triumphant opening on 28 February 1795, Kemble had been forced to make a public apology for his assault, perhaps attempted rape, of a young actress. Undoubtedly he was drunk on that evening in January 1795, and certainly he was ashamed of himself, but the episode had a disturbing sequel. Maria De Camp, victim of the assault, fell in love with Kemble's younger brother Charles Kemble (1775–1854). Their betrothal was announced in 1800, but it is claimed that Kemble opposed the match, forcing a delay until Charles reached the age of thirty. The couple were eventually married on 2 July 1806. Whatever the detailed facts, behind this broad outline there is an emotionally troubled man. Kemble escaped to Ireland with his wife at the end of the 1794–5 season, earning, as he had felt forced to do every summer, a star's money in the provincial theatre. 'Though he is not a miser', wrote Tate Wilkinson, 'yet I believe he will own he does not hate money' (Wilkinson, 3.66).

When he returned to London in August 1795 Kemble was about to experience the worst year of his theatrical life so far (worse was to come with the Old Price riots). Beset by debts, Drury Lane was in crisis, and the season was a flat one until the opening of the younger Colman's The Iron Chest on 12 March 1796. Kemble and Colman had been friends at least since 1793, when the playwright's The Mountaineers had provided the actor with one of his finest roles, but Kemble found nothing to please him in the Gothic guilt of Sir Edward Mortimer in The Iron Chest. Disdain as well as illness and opium contributed to his disastrous performance, and Colman was probably justified in attacking him in print when the second edition of the play was published. Kemble did not defend himself, but the episode took the heart out of his resistance to Sheridan's determination to stage Vortigern. This Shakespearian manuscript, ‘discovered’ by a youthful admirer of Chatterton called William Henry Ireland, had been denounced as a forgery by Kemble's friend the Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone, but Sheridan cared more about the publicity than the manuscript. Bound by contract to play the title role, Kemble mischievously suggested that they should open on April fool's day, but it was on 2 April 1796, before a crowded house, that the travesty was enacted. According to eyewitnesses, Kemble's weighty delivery of the fifth-act line 'And when this solemn mockery is o'er' convulsed the audience, but he was sensitive to the insult to his status as a Shakespearian. He had been threatened with imprisonment for debts that were properly Sheridan's at the end of the previous year. Vortigern was the last straw. At the end of the 1795–6 season Kemble resigned from management and sailed for Dublin.

This was not the end of Kemble's Drury Lane career. He bargained with Sheridan for a weekly salary of £24 and continued as leading actor until the end of the 1801–2 season. He was even enticed, by promises of the right to purchase a share, to resume the management in 1800. During his final season he faced, for the first time since the death of Henderson, serious competition from Covent Garden in the person of the erratic George Frederick Cooke. His annual money-making forays into the provinces augmented a Drury Lane salary that, in 1799–1800, amounted to £1112. Openly ambitious to share the financial control of one of the patent theatres, he was bent on building his resources, and when his negotiations with Sheridan fell through he accepted the offer of a one-sixth share in Covent Garden, then under the principal management of Thomas Harris. The price was £22,000, of which £10,000 was to be paid in cash (borrowed from his banker friend Robert Heathcote) and the remaining £12,000 set against salary and future profits.

Kemble at Covent Garden

Kemble's years at Covent Garden ought to have been, and in some ways were, his finest. He was a partner in, as well as acting manager of, a strong company which he had the personal pull to augment almost at will. To begin with, though, he needed a holiday. Leaving his wife to care for his ageing parents (her widowed mother had died in October 1801) and to manage the fine house in Great Russell Street that he had bought some years earlier, he set off with Robert Heathcote in July 1802 for a tour of the continent that would last until March 1803. The trip included a visit to the sadly dilapidated college at Douai, the start of an abiding friendship with the leading French actor Talma, hobnobbing with the nobility in Paris (since the revolution there were more English than French aristocrats there), and crossing the Pyrenees to visit Madrid and to sojourn with Lord Holland in Valencia. He was in Spain when he heard news of the death of his venerable father, and there is genuine affection in the letters he wrote to his brother Charles in response. The Kembles were a close family, so ready to promote each other's interests as to stimulate critics into charges of nepotism.

On his return to London, Kemble completed negotiations with Thomas Harris that would assure him a management salary of £200 per year and an acting salary of nearly £38 per week. Since the season would not open until September 1803 he spent part of the summer performing in Bath and Bristol and part, according to Boaden, buying books. Over the years Kemble accumulated a theatrical library that was unrivalled. After his retirement he sold his collection of 4000 plays and forty volumes of playbills to William Cavendish, sixth duke of Devonshire, and they now provide the nucleus of the Devonshire collection at the Huntington Library. A residue of 1677 titles, 181 prints and drawings, as well as manuscripts and notebooks, was auctioned by Evans in Pall Mall over ten days from 26 January 1821.

Kemble made his Covent Garden début as Hamlet on 24 September 1803. He later played Richmond to Cooke's Richard III, the King in 2 Henry IV, Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor (still hankering after versatility), and Antonio to Cooke's Shylock. Despite a tactful preparedness to play second fiddle to Cooke, Kemble could not win over all of the Covent Garden old guard. Theatres are jealous places, and there was predictable hostility to his importation of his brother Charles and his nephew and niece Henry and Harriet Siddons. No one, surely, would have dared voice an objection to the additional presence in the company of Henry's mother.

It was evidently among the Covent Garden employees that the nickname Black Jack began to stick to Kemble, whose pleasure in his second season was seriously marred by the craze for the Young Roscius, Master Betty. His motives for promoting the thirteen-year-old Betty at Covent Garden were solely commercial, and he was taken aback by the public's adulation of the beautiful boy. The seasons of 1805–6 and 1806–7 were largely devoted to re-establishing for Kemble and his theatre a reputation for serious devotion to the classics. It was as Prospero in his own mangled version of The Tempest (8 December 1806) that he risked the ridicule of audiences by insisting on pronouncing 'aches' ('Fill all thy bones with aches') as a two-syllable word, ‘aitches’. The reason, as with most of the curious pronunciations for which he was notorious, was metrical, but his stubbornness was ominous. As his health failed through the 1807–8 season, when gout and the telling cough—or the alcohol and opiates he consumed to appease them—reduced his appearances, there were signs that his popularity was on the wane. The new century, as the old king's hold on reality weakened and the heir to the throne caroused with the whigs, was less wedded to decorum and propriety than the old one had been under the eyes of Beau Nash and the earl of Chesterfield. Kemble, perhaps, suffered by association: 'his patrician air became less representative as England became more industrial' (Bartholomeusz, 150).

Disaster may have been imminent, but when it struck it was by accident. On 20 September 1808 Covent Garden was destroyed by fire. Insurance covered less than half of the £100,000 loss. It was the generosity of friends and their own Sheridan-free speed of reaction that saved the proprietors. Just less than a year later, on 18 September 1809, a new Covent Garden, designed to represent Kemble's classical taste by the Greek revivalist Robert Smirke, was ready to open with Kemble and Mrs Siddons in Macbeth.

The sixty-seven nights that followed are famous in the history of popular intervention as the Old Price riots. They followed the decision of the proprietors, taken on the grounds of predictable income, to raise prices for the pit and boxes and, with a dangerous hint of élitism, to reduce the capacity of the gallery by introducing an additional twenty-six private boxes. Marc Baer selects, as the two key elements in gathering support for the rioters, 'the sense that an important didactic function of theatre was being undermined; and that something of the English character was at stake in this conflict' (Baer, 192). Not immediately, but increasingly and then almost exclusively, Kemble became the object of mob hatred and mass ridicule among the astonishingly well-organized rioters. He was caricatured as King John and Black Jack in the viciously satirical prints that proliferated. Popular songs were rewritten to incorporate him:

Your displeasure and groans he regards as mere trash,And he spits in your face while he pockets your cash.

Baer, 71–2His hunger for aristocratic recognition was pilloried:

With Lord O'Straddle I drink hop and nob,And I am hand and glove with my Lord Thingumbob.

ibid., 72Confronted each night by a mob set on drowning the play with their chanting, Kemble did his best to respond with dignity, but his body language was read as disdain. It was like York in 1779, but on a much larger scale and without the assured support of the majority of the audience. What had begun as a theatrical dispute had developed into a trial of the nation's liberty, and the outcome, however long delayed by Kemble's stubbornness, was inevitable. On 14 December 1809 Kemble formally accepted the demands of the rioters at a banquet in the Crown and Anchor tavern. The Old Price riots had widened the split between whigs and tories, and it was only the whig papers that announced John Bull's triumph over King John.

It took all of Kemble's considerable courage to play out the remnant of the 1809–10 season. Over the summer he rested and drank with his friend Francis North, fourth earl of Guilford, in the North family's opulent home, Wroxton Abbey, near Banbury. Kemble was gratified by the warm reception given him at Covent Garden in 1810–11, but the season was essentially one of recuperation and the playing of familiar roles. It was not until 29 February 1812 that he attempted his next, and last, new role, that of Brutus in Julius Caesar. As always with Shakespeare, Kemble radically reworked the text in order to present it in the shape he had predetermined, but the outcome, however questionable by Shakespearians, was 'one of the most significant revivals in the play's history. … Throughout the next eighty years audiences saw no production which did not owe a direct and profound debt to the 1812 revival' (Ripley, 73). Kemble's intelligence may not have been strictly literary, but it was still formidable. Mrs Siddons retired at the end of the 1811–12 season, making her farewell as Lady Macbeth opposite her brother. Kemble's tears on the occasion may have been tinged with envy. He was about to resign from active management and take two years leave from Covent Garden. Apart from a short visit to Paris in autumn 1813 it was not a leave from acting. Having failed to find a buyer for his share in Covent Garden he filled his purse with provincial appearances in Liverpool, Edinburgh, Dublin, Bath, Bristol, and Dublin again. He was preparing for retirement, and his final seasons at Covent Garden had a valedictory air. Even fully fit, he would have been hard-pressed to meet the challenge of Edmund Kean at Drury Lane. Only twelve days separated Kemble's return to Covent Garden as Coriolanus on 15 January 1814 from Kean's sensational début as Shylock on 27 January. For Leigh Hunt, under the spell of Kean, Kemble 'appears to submit everything to his judgement, and exhibits little of the enthusiasm of genius' (Rowell, 8). For his farewell performance as Coriolanus on 23 June 1817, Kemble shrugged off the ill health that had dogged him. Rapturous applause and shouts of 'No farewell!' followed the fall of the curtain. Four days later there was a dinner in his honour at the Freemasons' Tavern (Kemble had been a mason since 1808): 336 people paid 2 guineas each for a ticket.

Mostly through sheer hard work, Kemble had saved enough for a comfortable retirement. After some months of travel in Scotland and through France, he and his wife settled in Toulouse early in 1819. His fragile health improved: 'I have never had a cough since I have been at Toulouse', he wrote on 27 February 1820, 'my spitting of blood has, I am willing to persuade myself, entirely ceased; and my fits of the gout have been for this twelvemonth past so slight, that I make a pish at the sufferance' (Boaden, 2.566). Relations between France and England, though, were still tense in 1820, and the Kembles thought it prudent to move to Lausanne in the spring. The death of Thomas Harris in November 1820 brought Kemble back to London, where he took the opportunity to make his will. The disposal of his Covent Garden interests, though, was not so easy. In the event he made a gift of his share to his brother Charles. 'My father received the property with cheerful courage and not without sanguine hopes of retrieving its fortunes', wrote Fanny Kemble many years later, 'instead of which it destroyed him and his family' (Ransome, 11). There was no malice in the gift, but it was typically canny of Kemble to rid himself of an awkward entanglement. He was back in Lausanne for Christmas 1820, settling in to a routine of reading, gardening, and receiving occasional visitors. In autumn 1822 he paid a reverential first visit to Rome, but the trip tired him. Back in Lausanne he suffered a stroke on 24 February 1823, and he died there on 26 February. Boaden, on no very convincing evidence, believes that he had converted to protestantism before his death (Boaden, 2.580). He was buried in the Lausanne cemetery, and a statue in the character of Cato, after Flaxman, was erected in Westminster Abbey, where it remained until 1865. His widow received an annuity of £1000 per annum and the interest from £17,000 as well as household goods. After her husband's death she returned to England, where she lived in comparative seclusion until her death in 1845.

Kemble and the theatre

Because he came between Garrick and Kean, Kemble has suffered by comparison with both, not least because historians have tried to pin him to a single style. He is presented as coldly classical, surrounded on either side by ‘hot’ actors:

Precise in passion, cautious ev'n in rage,Lo Kemble comes, the Euclid of the stage.

Kelly, 193His mastery of Roman characters has counted against his posthumous reputation, spreading a picturesque stillness that is wholly imaginary over every role he performed. The probability is that he adapted his technique to the vast new Drury Lane in 1794. Audibility was a problem there, even for actors untroubled by breathing difficulties and a persistently threatening cough. The energetic movement that characterized his early performances would have made things worse.

A hugely attractive subject for painters, Kemble came to represent the transition from Reynolds to Lawrence. He was, at his most tragically impressive, both representative of what is typical in human nature and what is splendid. At a time when history painting was rated above all other kinds, he pictorialized himself as history in an honest quest for the sublime, and if he sometimes mistook Gothic gloom for sublimity he was not alone in that.

Kemble was an immensely thoughtful actor, but his thinking preceded his playing. Leigh Hunt, who found much in his acting to criticize, conceded that 'no player, perhaps, understands his author better' (Rowell, 11). But it is important to recognize the aim of Kemble's study. Believing that all human behaviour is explicable, he sought to discover the ruling passion that dictated the reactions (more often than the actions) of the character he was to play. Once that discovery had been made, he reshaped the text to show that passion in conflict with circumstance. It was an intensifying of human experience, but representative of it. As Hazlitt recognized, Kemble aimed always to build intensity towards an explosive climax. Psychologically drawn and physically suited to stoical Romans, he excelled also where pathos and melancholy were dominant and with the fierily single-minded (he was a fine Hotspur). As Joseph Donohue has keenly argued, Kemble strove, both as actor and producer of plays, to present in dramatic form the essence of human nature and its relationship to the outside world as the Romantic age consistently viewed it. No actor is for all time, but Kemble was the supreme actor for an age.


  • J. Boaden, The life of John Philip Kemble, 2 vols. (1825)
  • H. Baker, John Philip Kemble: the actor in his theatre (1942)
  • T. Wilkinson, The wandering patentee, or, A history of the Yorkshire theatres from 1770 to the present time, 4 vols. (1795)
  • M. Baer, Theatre and disorder in late Georgian London (1992)
  • J. Donohue, Dramatic character in the English romantic age (1970)
  • D. Bartholomeusz, Macbeth and the players (1969)
  • J. Ripley, Julius Caesar on stage in England and America, 1599–1973 (1980)
  • L. Kelly, The Kemble era (1980)
  • J. Williamson, Charles Kemble: man of the theatre [1964]
  • E. Ransome, ed., The terrific Kemble (1978)
  • G. Rowell, ed., Victorian dramatic criticism (1971)
  • G. C. D. Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 2 (1920)
  • K. Richards and P. Thomson, eds., The eighteenth century English stage (1972)
  • J. Bate and R. Jackson, Shakespeare: an illustrated stage history (1996)
  • B. Joseph, The tragic actor (1959)
  • J. Donohue, ‘Kemble's production of Macbeth’, Theatre Notebook, 21 (1966–7), 63–74
  • S. West, The image of the actor (1991)
  • A. Sprague, Shakespeare and the actors (1944)
  • E. Inchbald, A simple story, ed. J. M. S. Tompkins (1967)
  • MS journal of John Philip Kemble, BL, Add. MS 31972


  • BL, letters to third Lord Holland and Lady Holland, Add. MSs 51821–51825, 51846–51848
  • BL, corresp. with Samuel Ireland, Add. MS 30348
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to William Godwin
  • Hunt. L., Devonshire MSS
  • RA, corresp. with Thomas Lawrence
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to Sir Charles Hotham-Thompson
  • V&A, letters to Elizabeth Inchbald


  • oils, 1794, V&A
  • T. Lawrence, oils, exh. 1798, Guildhall Art Gallery, London
  • T. Lawrence, oils, 1801, Tate collection [see illus.]
  • T. Lawrence, pencil study, 1801, NPG
  • H. Hone, copper miniature, 1809, Garr. Club
  • G. H. Harlow, oils, exh. 1815, Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Museum, Stratford upon Avon
  • J. Flaxman, sculpture, 1826, Westminster Abbey
  • W. Beechey, oils, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
  • R. Cosway, miniature, V&A
  • S. De Wilde, oils (as Penruddock in The wheel of fortune), Garr. Club
  • J. Flaxman, bust, Sir John Soane's Museum, London
  • J. Gibson, bust, Sir John Soane's Museum, London
  • J. Gibson, pencil drawing, BM
  • G. H. Harlow, group portrait, oils (Court for the trial of Queen Catherine), Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Museum, Stratford upon Avon
  • T. Lawrence, oils (as Cato), Garr. Club
  • W. Owen, oils, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield
  • G. Stuart, oils, NPG
  • theatrical prints, BM, NPG
  • theatrical prints, V&A, theatre collections

Wealth at Death

considerable: will, Boaden, Life vol. 2, pp. 589–94

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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Harvard theatre collection, Harvard University, Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Harvard University, Houghton Library
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Royal Academy of Arts, London
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Huntington Library, San Marino, California
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University of Hull, Brynmor Jones Library
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British Library, London
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British Museum, London
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC
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Garrick Club, London
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P. H. Highfill, K. A. Burnim, & E. A. Langhans, , 16 vols. (1973–93)