THE KEMBLES were the Barrymores of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Folger Shakespeare Library is spotlighting their illustrious stage careers in "The Kemble Family: A Theatrical Dynasty."
A couple of "strollers," itinerant actors who usually performed in barns, Roger and Sarah Kemble spawned generations of actors. The Kembles had eight children who survived infancy and they all took to the stage.
Of these, best actor and actress were John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Kemble Siddons. In London at the end of the 18th century, John worked as artistic manager of the Drury Lane Theater, then left in a huff to manage and to partly own Covent Garden, the competition. During his 35-year career -- and here's a Shakespeare connection -- he published, staged or acted in 26 Shakespearean productions. (In the minds of some scholars, he surpasses David Garrick as the first "producer" of Shakespeare.)
While John was known for his portrayal of "Noble Romans," as can be seen in etchings on display here, sister Sarah Siddons was dubbed the "reigning tragic queen." When Joshua Reynolds painted her, she was "The Tragic Muse"; others did portraits of her as Lady Macbeth, and as Queen Katherine in Shakespeare's "King Henry VIII." Her aquiline nose seems to grow with each part. She spent 19 seasons at Drury Lane, played 75 different roles, then, with her brother, moved to Covent Garden for an additional 10 seasons.
So she was around when fire destroyed Covent Garden in 1808, and John had to finance the rebuilding of a new auditorium, which opened in 1809. Unfortunately, John had to raise the prices. Ah, there's the rub. Every night, Covent Garden's audiences left their manners in their carriages and yelled for "Old Prices" all during the performance. Called the O.P. Riots, the mob's clamor continued for 67 nights. It worked, and the worst part was that John Kemble had to attend the rioters' victory celebration.
In all, 130 items help trace the Kemble lineage up to an actress, Pamela, born in 1909, and Owen Wister, 20th-century author of "The Virginian." There are family letters, a playbill from 1767, paintings and engravings, as well as the Shakespeare First Folio that one expects to find at the Folger.