Add to all this varied life the English passion for the theater, which rages to this day. And even as now the dramatists were of but minor worth, and the actors were the play. The inescapable competition of Shakespeare seemed to discourage the writing of tragedies; after the heyday of Sheridan and Goldsmith the best new comedies were mortal efforts like Thomas Holcroft’s The Road to Ruin (1792) and Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows (1798), which clung to the frail line of middle-class sentiment rather than the virile strain of Jonson’s lethal laughter or Shakespeare’s philosophic fun. Only the actors were still at the top of their form.
They seemed at first glance to be all of a family, which walked the boards from Roger Kemble, who died in 1802, to Henry Kemble, who died in 1907. Roger sired Sarah Kemble, who became Mrs. Siddons; John Philip Kemble, who joined the Drury Lane company in 1783 and became its manager in 1788; and Stephen Kemble, who managed the Edinburgh Theatre from 1792 to 1800.
Sarah was born in 1755, in the Shoulder-of-Mutton Inn at Brecon, Wales, as an incident in the tour of her father’s troupe. As soon as she could act she was given a role; she became a seasoned actress by the age of ten. Amid her hectic life she managed to get considerable education; she became a woman of mature and cultivated mind as well as professional excellence and ageless charm. At eighteen she married William Siddons, a minor member of her company. Two years later Garrick, having heard of her success in the provinces, sent an agent to watch her perform. The report being favorable, Garrick offered her an engagement at Drury Lane, and she appeared there as Portia on December 29, 1775. She did not do well, partly through nervousness, partly, perhaps, because she had recently given birth. She was thin, tall, and grave; classic in features and restraint; and her voice, accustomed to smaller theaters, failed to fill the immense theater. After a disappointing season she returned to the provincial circuit, and for seven years she labored patiently to improve her art. In 1782 Sheridan, who had succeeded Garrick as manager, persuaded her to return to London. On October 10, 1782, she took the lead in Thomas Southerne’s century-old The Fatal Marriage; and her success was so complete that from that evening she moved on to become the finest tragedienne in British history. For twenty-one years she ruled at Drury Lane, and for ten more she was the undisputed queen at Covent Garden. To see her there as Lady Macbeth was the culminating experience of a theatergoer’s life. When she retired from the stage, on June 29, 1812, at the age of fifty-seven, she played that role, and the audience was so moved by her performance of the sleepwalking scene that it preferred to applaud her through the rest of the evening rather than let the play go on.59 For nineteen years thereafter she lived in quiet retirement, cheating town gossipers by her marital fidelity. Gainsborough triumphed with his painting of her, and she reigns to this day in the National Portrait Gallery.
Her brother John Philip Kemble, born like her in a provincial inn, was destined by his parents for the Catholic priesthood, perhaps in the popular theory that a member in holy orders would gain heaven for all the family. He was sent to Douai to study in its Catholic college and seminary; there he received a good classical education, and there he acquired a clerical solemnity that later clung to nearly all his roles. But in that quiet environment the exciting career of his father kept a secret fascination for him. At eighteen (1775) he left Douai and returned to England; a year later he joined a theatrical troupe; by 1781 he was playing Hamlet in Dublin. There for a time his sister Sarah joined him, and thence she brought him with her to Drury Lane.60 His debut there as Hamlet (1783) was only a moderate success; the London public found him too sedate for its taste, and the critics condemned him for not only abbreviating but emendating Shakespeare’s text. However, when he joined Mrs. Siddons in Macbeth (1785) their performance was hailed as an event in the history of the English theater.
In 1788 Sheridan, then chief owner of the Drury Lane, appointed Kemble manager of the company. He continued to fill the leading roles, but Sheridan’s gay despotism and financial unreliability made the sensitive actor uncomfortable. In 1803 he accepted the management of the Covent Garden Theatre, and bought a sixth share of the enterprise for £ 23,000. In 1808 the edifice burned down. After a costly idleness Kemble assumed management of the rebuilt theater; but when he tried to offset the unexpectedly high cost of the new structure by raising the price of admission, the audience stopped his next performance by persistent cries of “Old prices!”; he was not allowed to continue until he promised to restore them.61 The Duke of Northumberland saved the company with a gift of £10,000. Kemble struggled on, increasingly challenged by younger actors. With a final triumph in Coriolanus, when the same public that had hooted him in 1809 shook the theater with acclaim, he left the British stage, and surrendered his crown to Edmund Kean. The classic style of acting disappeared from England with him, as it was disappearing from France with his friend Talma; and the Romantic movement triumphed in the theater as it was doing in painting, music, poetry, and prose.
Kean’s life included all the vicissitudes of his high-strung profession, all its humors and tragedies. He was born in a London slum in 1787, as one result of a night’s outing between Aaron (or Edmund) Kean, a stagehand, and Ann Carey, who earned a minimal living on the stage and the street. Deserted in early childhood by his parents, he was brought up by his father’s brother, Moses Kean, a popular entertainer, and more formally by Moses’ mistress, Charlotte Tidswell, a minor actress at Drury Lane. She trained him in histrionic art and tricks, while Moses made him study Shakespearean roles; the boy learned everything that could hold a provincial audience, from acrobatics, ventriloquism, and boxing to Hamlet and Macbeth. But he had waywardness in his blood, and ran away repeatedly; at last Charlotte bound a dog collar around his neck, inscribed “Drury Lane Theatre.” By the age of fifteen he had shed the collar, and strayed off to an independent career as an actor of any part, for fifteen shillings a week.
For ten years he lived the hectic, exhausting life of a strolling player, nearly always poor and humiliated, but burning with confidence that he could outperform any man on the English stage. Soon, to forget his toil and torments, he took to alcohol as favoring his dreams of his supposedly noble birth and his forthcoming victories. In 1808 he married Mary Chambers, a fellow trouper; she gave him two sons, and clove to him through all his bouts with whiskey and women. Finally, after many years of degrading alternations between Shakespearean parts and impersonating an agile chimpanzee, he received an invitation to a trial appearance at Drury Lane.
For his debut there (January 26, 1814) he chose the difficult role of Shylock. He poured into the role some of the resentments that life’s indignities had stored up in him. When Shylock said, in scorn and sarcasm, to the Christian Venetian merchant asking for a loan,
Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?,
Kean seemed to have forgotten that he was anyone other than Shylock; and the passion, the violence, that he poured into the part put an end, almost in two lines, to the classic era in English acting, and opened on the London boards the era of feeling, imagination, and romance. Gradually the audience, sparse and skeptical, was carried away by this unknown actor, himself carried away by immersion in his part. Scene by scene the response and applause grew, until, at the close, that half-audience surrendered to him ecstatically. William Hazlitt, ablest critic of the age, hurried off to write an enthusiastic review. Kean, rushing home to his family, embraced his wife and child, saying to the one, “Now, Mary, you shall ride in your carriage,” and to the boy, “My son, you shall go to Eton! “62
At Kean’s second performance in The Merchant of Venice, the house was full. After the third the reigning manager, Samuel Whitbread, gave Kean the contract they had agreed upon for a three years’ engagement at eight pounds a week; Kean signed; Whitbread took it and changed the eight pounds to twenty. The time would come when Kean’s contract would call for fifty pounds per night. He played almost all the famous Shakespearean roles—Hamlet, Richard III, Richard II, Henry V, Macbeth, Othello, Iago, Romeo. He succeeded in all but the last; the delicate shades of Romeo’s aristocratic character eluded an actor too hardened and embittered by the ruthless inequalities of life.
When it came his turn to see young actors waiting eagerly to take his place, he squandered his earnings in drink, fed on the idolatry of tavern habitués,63 joined a secret movement for “the damnation of all lords and gentlemen,” and was successfully sued for adultery with the wife of a city alderman (1825).64 He paid the charges, and labored to win back his place in the theater; but his mind lost hold of the parts he played, and more than once he forgot his lines. The audience was as merciless as it had been idolatrous; it shouted insults at him, asked him why he drank so heedlessly. He left England, toured America triumphantly, made another fortune, squandered it. He returned to London, and agreed to play Othello to his son’s Iago at Covent Garden (1833). The audience acclaimed Iago, received Othello silently. The effort, unsupported by applause, was too much for Kean; his strength ran out, and he neared collapse. After speaking the line “Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone” he fell into the arms of his son, and whispered to him, “Charles, I am dying; speak to them for me.”65 He was taken home; the wife whom he had once abandoned took loving care of him. Two months later he died, May 15, 1833, only forty-six years old. Life had broken in midlife the greatest actor—barring Garrick—in English history.