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JOHN KEMBLE AND THE BRITISH STAGE.*
THERE is something peculiar in the interest with which we regard the personal history of actors. If it is less refined and exalted than that sentiment of admiration which is excited by high and permanent works of art, it is more cordial and endearing. The masterpieces of poetry and painting may convey no idea of the individual by whom they are produced; but the actor is inseparable from his works. His form, his countenance, the tones of his voice, the temperament of his moral nature, those very circumstances which create friendship, or which friendship chooses as its favourite symbols, are presented to us on the stage. We sympathise not only with the artist but with the man, and contract with him an imaginary acquaintance, which has all the agreeable sensation of gratitude without the humiliating idea of obligation. The very transitory nature of his successes, enduring only while his bodily vigour lasts, affects us who are also passing away, and disposes us to do him ample and unsparing justice. He does not mock the creatures of a day by productions which are to last for centuries, and which have already the cold and marbly air of duration beyond the span of human life. He appeals to the mortal part of us; to all the social affections which cleave to our earthly home; and sets "a fond reflection of our own decay" touchingly before us. As there is no record of his triumphs but on the fleshly tablets of the heart, we yield those to him with affectionate liberality, and eagerly retrace the vestiges of his greatness, which were imprinted there in our gayest or serenest hours. We try to make up to him by the intensity of our approbation for the shortness of his course, because he has no appeal from our judgment to that of generations unborn. His most triumphant hours have been our happiest; and we cherish the thoughts of our own youth, while we bear witness to his fame. Hence there are few light biographies so interesting as those of actors; few personal narratives so enchaining as "the trivial fond records" of their bright and joyous career.
It may be inferred from this confession of a taste for theatrical biographies, that we looked forward with pleasure to the appearance of Mr. Boaden's Life of Kemble. The subject of the work was not only himself an original and impressive actor, but the centre of a brilliant circle of popular favourites, over whom he presided for many years. He was also the brother of the mighty actress, who not only realized the stateliest dreams of the imagination, but surpassed them, and gave an idea of dignity, of grace, and of passion higher and more exquisite than even poetic enthusiasm had conceived. Mr. Kemble's biographer, therefore, undertook the delightful office of leading his readers not only along one radiant line of existence, but of introducing them to many a gay or solemn group, reflecting the choicest varieties of many-coloured life, and of unveiling the scene, where Mrs. Siddons presided in lonely pride, over the mysteries of tragedy. To the perfection of such a work it is necessary that the actor himself, who is the subject, should also be the writer, enchasing the pictures of his compeers with his rich associations and fancies, and celebrating his own exploits and rewards
Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, Esq. including a History of the Stage, from the time of Garrick to the present period. By James Boaden, Esq. 2 vols. 8vo.
with vivid consciousness, and with blameless vanity. This is the great excellence of Cibber's Apology, which is as full of the author and of his art, as the lover of human nature and of the stage could desire. A similar developement was not to be expected from the stately tragedian of Covent Garden, who was too proud to be vain, and who stood aloof, in conscious scholarship, from the delights of his profession, while he aspired successfully to its honours; and who respected himself too much to expose his feelings and thoughts to public scrutiny. Mr. Boaden is perhaps as good a biographer as we could reasonably expect, for he has been an attentive observer of the stage for many years, and obviously possesses that strong regard for theatrical matters, without which such a work must be vapid and lifeless.
In the opening of this book we have sketches of the old actors, whose names have hitherto been to us only pleasant sounds, but who are now set palpably before us. Though they are less finished than those drawn by Cibber of his contemporaries, they have an air of fidelity to which we can trust, and which makes us half fancy we can remember the originals. We yet see, in our mind's eye, Palmer, the luxurious, and negligent, "throw up his eyes with astonishment that he had lost the world, or cast them down with penitent humility, wipe his lips with his eternal white handkerchief to smother his errors, and bow himself out of every absurdity that continued idleness could bring upon him.” Dodd, the fopling of the drama, "totters before us in all the protuberance of endless muslin and lace," and "takes his snuff or his bergamot with a delight so beyond all grosser enjoyments, that he leaves no doubt of the superior happiness of a coxcomb." King's neat, terse, epigrammatic, giving a flavour to the keenest satire, yet tingles in our ears, and his delirious ecstasies yet shine through the feebleness of Lord Ogleby, as in days of yore. Lewis glitters before us the harlequin of comedy, and bustles through tragedy so fast, that the critics cannot fix him to ascertain his faults. We are seated in the pit to enjoy Edwin's Peeping Tom, and follow him where, in his mind's eye, he sees the whole procession of Lady Godiva pass before him-a thing of pure fancy. "You would have sworn to the succeeding images of the procession-the distant view of the Lady Godiva-her approach- her unadorned charms' at last brought fully before the eye-and the burst of commentary "Talk of a coronation' convulsed the spectator." But of all the actors of this time, we are made most intimately acquainted with Henderson, whose extent of range seems almost incredible to those who are accustomed to see modern actors confine themselves to a few parts, and play even these nearly alike. Mr. Boaden speaks of his comedy as most perfect; but he produced tremendous effects in tragedy. Thus, in Horatius, where Valeria relates the flight of Publius before the three Curiatii, and asks, "What could he do, my lord, when three opposed him?" he substituted, for the prosing of the poet, ("He might have died, O villain, villain, villian," the single monosyllable, "Die!" which he uttered with an energy which transfixed the house. And this was the actor in whose Benedict "a thousand little traits of whim and pleasantry sparkled," and whose Falstaff was the richest and most voluptuous thing in the world!
Due honour it given to the ladies in these pages, especially to Miss Farren, Miss Pope, and Mrs. Abingdon. The first, tall, with expres
sive beauty, and thinness of voice and style, charmed by the singular delicacy and purity of her acting; the second was "the paragon of chambermaids ;" and the last, gay, joyous, and triumphant, revelled in the scene, the most brilliant satirist of her sex. The following "picture in little" of Mrs. Crawford, in Lady Randolph, who returned to the stage for a short time to rival Mrs. Siddons, is very vivid.
"She looked still a fine woman, though time, while it had taken something from the elegance of her figure, had also begun to leave its impression on her features. Her voice was somewhat harsh, and what might be termed broken. In level speaking it resembled the tone of passion in other speakers. It was at no time agreeable to the ear; but when thrown out by the vehemence of her feeling, it had a transpiercing effect, that seemed absolutely to wither up the hearer ;—it was a flaming arrow ;-it was the lightning of passion. Such was the effect of her almost shriek to old Norval, Was he alive? It was an electric shock, that drove the blood back from the surface suddenly to the heart, and made you cold and shuddering with terror in the midst of a crowded theatre."
If Mr. Kemble is the hero, Mrs. Siddons is certainly the heroine of these volumes; and to her, on every account, our first attention is due. The language of eulogy has been exhausted upon the terrific grandeur of her later efforts, without doing justice to the feelings of those who have used it; but in the contemplation of these, the memory of her pathos, her tenderness and youthful grace, has been too often lost. Here, the serious intensity of her Juliet, the conjugal purity of her Imogen and the noble tenderness of her Desdemona, are fitly celebrated, and, as far as possible, described. In the last, Mr. Boaden gives an stance of her feeling an power, which seems to us one of the very highest triumphs of the scenic art.
"The second scene of the third act had a beauty of expression in the countenance that offered one of the most striking and variable pictures ever contemplated; it was where Othello, holding her hand, exclaims
This hand of your's requires
A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer,
For here's a young and sweating devil here
The surprise arising to astonishment, a sort of doubt if she heard aright, and, that being admitted, what it could mean a hope that it would end in nothing so unusual from him as an offensive meaning, and the slight relief upon Othello's adding, 'Tis a good hand, a frank one'-all this commentary was quite as legible as the text."
To us who recollect this astonishing woman only in her later days, it is difficult to imagine her in Rosalind; but our author assures us that the feminine sweetness and delicacy with which she performed the part, more than compensated the audience for the absence of rude and boisterous mirth. Nothing could exceed the beauty of her first address to Orlando after the wrestling-" My pride fell with my fortunes; or the modest tenderness with which she gave the line-" And overthrown more than your enemies." The ladies and gentlemen of the green-room who, at the present day, hold it a point of honour to insist upon performing none but first-rate parts, will think her strangely
remiss in asserting her dignity, when they find her, in the very bloom of her popularity, playing the Queen in Richard the Third, and Mrs. Lovemore in The Way to keep Him. To us, however, these condescensions, not offered nor felt as such, but freely rendered as tributes to her art, serve only to show a noble confidence in her own fame, and a disdain of the littleness of envy. They relieve delightfully that magnificent series of triumphs which are recorded in these pages-the maternal dignity and love of her Lady Randolph-the rage and agony of her Zara-the majestic sorrow of her Constance the moral grandeur of her Isabella, in Measure for Measure-the delicate bewilderment and glimmering sense of her Ophelia-the triumphant heroism of her Euphrasia-the meek suffering of her Shore-the towering passion of her Alicia-the repentant grace of her Mrs. Haller-the regal sublimity of her Lady Macbeth, and her Volumnia, in which the true genius of old Rome seemed embodied in the form of woman.
Mr. Kemble, as his biographer unreservedly acknowledges, did not like his sister, burst on the town in the full maturity of his powers. He was a gentleman and a scholar, with signal advantages of person, and with almost equal defects of voice, who determined to become a noble actor, and who succeeded by infinite perseverance and care, assisted doubtless by the reputation and the influence of Mrs. Siddons. He formed a high standard in his own mind, and gradually rose to its level. At his very last, in all characters which were within the scope of his physical capacity, he played his best, and that best seemed absolute perfection. His career, therefore, may be reviewed with that calm and increasing pleasure, with which we contemplate the progressive advances of art; instead of the feverish admiration and disappointment which are alternately excited by the history of those who have played from impulse in the first vigour of youth, and in after-days have been compelled languidly to retrace the vestiges of their early genius. At first he had but a limited choice of characters; he was opposed by Henderson, to whom he was then unequal, and rivalled by Smith, who held possession of the chief parts in tragedy as well as comedy till he left the stage. For a long time, Holman and even Pope divided public favour with him; but the seeds of greatness were deeply implanted in his nature, and the determination to cultivate and mature them. Even after he became manager and obtained an uneasy and invidious power, there were not wanting accidents to retard his progress. Cooke, in spite of his imprudences, perhaps by the aid of some of them, beat him on his stage in the estimation of the vulgar; Master Betty obscured him for a season; and the O. P. disturbance, ungenerously begun by the people, and imprudently resisted by the managers, set him in painful opposition to the town, and fretted the haughty spirit which it could not subdue. But resolution prevailed; he went on calmly studying the principles of his art, and succeeded at last in presenting the stateliest pictures of Roman greatness, and giving the most appropriate expression to philosophic thought that it had entered into modern imagination to conceive.
It has been of late the fashion to charge the style of Mr. Kemble as deficient in nature, and to extol certain occasional familiarities of manner in his rivals as characteristic of a better and purer school. A great deal of the controversy on this subject has arisen from confusion of