« PreviousContinue »
of Garrick? We ourselves remember to have seen a very pleasing looking young person much disturbed by Kemble's directions about lifting and lowering the sword in the scene betwixt the princess Anne' and Richard.
Mr. Kemble, in the winter season of 1784-5, was superseded in his temporary character of manager, by King's return to that situation. But in 1788-9, the veteran finally retreated from the office, and from that time Kemble remained manager of Drury Lane until 1796, when the irregularity with which the proprietors managed their pecuniary matters, and their frequent interference with his authority, induced him to resign the situation. He again returned to the thankless office in 1800-1, with some intention of obtaining a secure hold by purchasing one fourth part of the whole concern. This plan failed; and in 1802, Kemble finally retired from Drury Lane, and made a purchase of a fourtha share of the Covent Garden patent. He was now not only a manager, but a large proprietor, a speculation which, producing some difficulties, afterwards interfered with the quiet of his de clining years. As stated by Mr. Boaden, it may be wondered why, with no expensive habits, with professional emoluments to the amount of about 30001. a year, and with a considerable sum of money saved, without which he could not have made the purchase, this amiable and good-tempered man should have involved his whole fortune in a property which he knew to be so very precarious that he himself always talked of it as a lottery, and contined himself for life to the duty of management which he had often felt to be accompanied by intolerable grievances. But John Kemble was a sworn votary to the drama; and though he certainly did bow the knee to Baal in becoming an encourager of the inordinate rage for spectacle, which at once impoverished the concern and debauched the public taste, he laboured hard, on the other hand, to bring forward ancient pieces which he thought might be revived with renewed interest. He had undoubtedly the laudable wish to raise as high as possible the art to which, as much from the exceļlence of his personal as of his professional character, he was an honour. Kemble may be, therefore, considered as having, with his eyes open, made a sacrifice of fortune, of peace of mind, and of the bodily ease which frequent fits of the gout rendered desirable, in order to sustain the honour of his art.
The discomfort to which he was exposed never fretted his temper; and not even the gout itself, mistress of men's purposes and their actions too in most cases,
strong resolution to do his duty towards the public. He used to take the somewhat hazardous medicine l'eau médicinale d'Husson without hesitation, so as to enable him to perform the very day after his
malady had made its most severe attacks. It could not but happen that he was sometimes less equal to his part than at others, and such an occasional failure led to a painful dispute,
which for some time created a breach between him and his friend George Colman the younger. We mention the subject, not with the purpose of raking up the recollections which both parties had buried, but because Mr. Boaden is a little mistaken in some of the particulars. When Mr. Colman brought forward his play of the Iron Chest; founded on the masterpiece of Godwin's genius, Caleb Williams, he put into the mouth of one of the characters a description of the antiquarian humours of Mortimer, the Falkland of the play; which part was to be performed by Kemble:
'Philip is all deep reading, and black letter;
Like a librarian's lumber-room.' Kemble conceived that these lines were unnecessarily introduced, as throwing ridicule on his antiquarian lore; and Colman, upon his remonstrance, changed the name of Sir Philip to Sir Edward Mortimer, as it now stands. But the smartest
that ever broke a pun should beware of exercising his wit upon his physician, his lawyer, or the actor who is to perform in his play. Kemble, unwell and out of humour, acted negligently a part which requires violent exertion. The irritated dramatist published the play with an angry preface, and the Actor responded. But a quarrel betwixt the author of Octavian and John Kemble was too unnatural; they became sensible they had both been wrong, and were reconciled, and the preface was so effecțually cancelled, that the price of a copy in which it remains, astounds the novice when it occurs in the sale room.
..Of Mr. Kemble as a manager, we have only further to say, that equally unsparing of his labour, and regardless of the ill-will, which he excited among those who suffered by his economy, he carried retrenchment and good order into every department of the theatre.
The good public in the mean time, though returning ever and anon to Shakspeare and common sense, were guilty of two or three grand absurdities, such as became the worthy descendants of those whose fathers crowded the Haymarket Theatre, to see a man get into a quart-bottle,* and these were among the most.
It may be now spoken out, that the contriver of this notable hoar was the Duke of Montagu, eccentric in his humour as well as in his benevolence. The person who ap. peared was a poor Scotchman, who had some office about the India House.
powerful causes that tended to obstruct the effect of Mr. Kemble's exertions to restore the reign of good taste in dramatic matters.
Vortigern, a play ascribed to Shakspeare, gave rise to one of these hallucinations of popular absurdity. An impudent youth of eighteen, desirous of imitating Chatterton, it may be supposed, but without possessing any of his powers, told his father a story of having recovered certain extremely curious documents belonging to Shakspeare, presented to him, as he said, by a benevolent old gentleman, who had them by inheritance, but would not permit hiinself to be referred to or quoted in the affair. The elder Mr. Ireland, believing, or pretending to believe, this improbable fiction; put the tale into circulation, and like a commercial note, it received indorsations as it passed from hand to hand, which strengthened its credit. The pleasure of being cheated was never more completely indulged. Without any minute inquiry after the old gentleman who had been the possessor of these documents; without reflecting with distrust upon the extravagance of the liberality · which could confer such literary treasures on a mere boy, and enjoin at the same time that the donor's. person should be concealed; without examination of the paper of the manuscript, which, torn as it was out of the blank leaves of old account books, bore different and recent water-marks-of itself, the very miscellaneous nature of the Shakspeare relics ought to have made thinking men pause. · For this was no affair of a few scraps ;-a perfect storehouse of the most curious and interesting articles .was announced-letters-locks of hair--rings-portraits-books--billets-doux-and —–
above all, plays. To render the deception more gross, Ireland introduced a namesake of his own as a contemporary and friend of Shakspeare, and, we think, assigned to him the merit of saving the bard from the risk of drowning in the Avon. People visited the manuscript, which was shown with the same guarded precaution that priests. use when they exlıibit an idol; and, as they came to be deceived, the visitors took care not to return without their errand.
Kemble, warned perhaps by Mr. Malone, escaped the contagious credulity of the time, and though he brought Vortigern on the stage, and acted as the principal character, he was never duped by the figment of the young forger. The dialogue was not calculated to impose upon the ear as the manuscript had bewildered the eye. The piece was most effectually damned, and its fate excited a strong prejudice against Kemble among the numerous body of literati, who had become ridiculous by their faith in the fiction, as if he had not done the part of Vortigern that justice which was his duty. Every one who had the most distant connexion with this ridiculous business seemed destined to come to shame: Malone himself, though he penned a detection of the imposture, was, in the midst of his triumph, exposed, in his turn, by George Chalmers, who, even after Ireland confessed his fraud, wrote an Apology for the believers in the manuscript, showing to demonstration, that the reasoning of Malone was false in itself, though brought to establish what was now become undeniable truth. Even John Kemble, passive as he was in the affair, continued long to suffer from that ill-will which ascribed to him the ridicule by which the believers in those forgeries had been overwhelmed. Nor must we forget the numerous class of projectors, who had schemed to connect their own private emolument with the furtherance of the deception. These were, years afterwards, to be found among the personal enemies of Kemble.
Another notable instance of popular humour was evinced soon after, viz. the violent fever-fit of admiration which the public exhibited for the young Roscius, Master Betty, a child certainly of precocious parts, remarkable for his speech and action, together with his happy mimicry, for it could at his age be nothing else, of the language of passions which he had never felt. It was certainly very fair playing, and in the circumstances, wonderful; the graceful demeanour and non-chalance of the almost infantine performer were particularly so. But it was a deception; and Siddons and Kemble were neglected, whilst the youthful prodigy trod the stage in triumph, and afforded the most rapturous gratification to such audiences as had it in their power to enjoy the united efforts of the finest actor and actress in the world. Some ill humour was manifested, if we rightly recollect, by a part of the public, because Mrs. Siddons felt her own dignity, and did not choose to act with this tender juvenile for her lover or husband, This temporary fit of dotage of John Bull was attended with feelings of dislike as well as neglect to his ancient servant, Kemble: for, when under the influence of an absurd planet, John is too apt to look with an evil eye upon
all who do not bow down to worship the God of his immediate idolatry.
This determined dream of folly included a sort of prospective hope on the part of the admiring audience, that their treasure would increase in value as his powers, already so astonishing in boyhood, should ripen to maturity. But early blossoms seldom do so; and it was seen in the second season, that, as the wonderful circumstance of his youth diminished, Master Betty's attractions became less. He was prudent, or rather his friends were; and he had amassed, in an incredibly short space, a handsome fortune, they withdrew him from the scene. He appeared again, many
years afterwards, and showed respectable, but far from striking powers.
The next great incident in Kemble's history was occasioned by a deplorable event, or rather one out of a course of events of the same nature which succeeded each other rapidly, we mean the sequence of fires, by which the Pantheon, Opera House, Covent Garden, and Drury Lane theatres were burnt down. The wonderful coincidence of time and circumstance in these fatal accidents made persons imagine that some incendiary had, in a fit of zeal of a truly flaming character, undertaken the destruction of what he might consider as the resorts of profanity. But any one who has been behind the scenes of a theatre, and has seen how many lights are burning in the neighbourhood of scenery, and other articles of a character peculiarly combustible ; has been witness, at the same time, to the explosion of guns and fire-works, scattering risk in every direction; and has observed how the shifting of scenes and alteration of lights are perpetually threatening to bring them into contact, will wonder that so few rather than that so many accidents of the kind in reality take place. There is, also; to be considered, the total want of party walls, and that ample room and scope afforded to the action of the flames renders fire a more dangerous, as well as a more probable, event in theatre than
where else--unless it be aboard ship. The same resource against this imminent peril exists in both cases :-namely, the great number of men who are perpetually moving about, both behind the scenes and in a vessel. Numerous accidents occur weekly, nay daily, in both, which, where there were fewer eyes to observe, and fewer ready hands to assist, would produce the most fatal accidents. It is, we think, Captain Brazen, in the Recruiting Officer, who hesitates whether he shall lay out the fortune of his wife in the speculation of a theatre or a privateer. In some respects there is the same disadvantage attending either plan--at an insurance office they must both be ranked double dangerous.
But the destruction of Covent Garden theatre was attended with one consequence which we must always regard as detrimental, in the highest degree, to the theatrical art. The house was rebuilt on a plan too ample for its legitimate purpose, and far too magnificent for the profits which might naturally be expected from it.
The proprietors of Drury had led the way in this great and leading error when they reconstructed that theatre and stage on which Garrick and his contemporaries had exhibited their astonishing talents. We remember the old playhouse, and cannot but regret that the plan had not been, in point of extent at least, exactly* followed. All the nicer touches of fine acting—the smile, however