John Philip Kemble's Coriolanus*

John Philip Kemble's Coriolanus*


Mary Jane Chaffee

When considering John Philip Kemble’s popular stage version of Coriolanus, we could paraphrase Quince to Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Bless thee, Caius Martius, bless thee!  Thou art translated” (3.1.113-14).1  For, of course, Kemble did translate Coriolanus from an unlovable, contemptuous Caius to a kingly Caius, conformable as no other Caius to his time and place.  And he may have used something akin to the supernatural if you consider it magical for Shakespeare’s work to be cut, rearranged, rewritten, and still survive for audiences throughout thirty years of production.

            But to quote Quince also might suggest that Kemble changed Caius into something laughable.  That was not the case, however, nor is it our purpose here to deride his efforts; we come to praise Kemble, not to bury him.  His original mounting met with success that never subsided.  Debuting at Drury Lane 7 February 1789, his Coriolanus continued to excite applause from the late eighteenth century up to his farewell to the theater in that role at Covent Garden 23 June 1817.

            Kemble’s production therefore can be viewed as late eighteenth-century as well as early nineteenth-century, since it ran until 1817.  Clearly a heroic warrior-hero appealed to nineteenth-century tastes and audiences just as the literary focus of the time began to shift toward the isolated individual and as Britain gained naval ascendancy through Lord Nelson’s stirring victories.  For the purposes of this commentary, however, we place Kemble’s work at the end of the eighteenth century because the text and overall approach to statecraft belonged to that era, as did Kemble’s work in the role itself.


*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the South Central Association for the Eighteenth Century Studies Convention, October, 2000.

            His Coriolanus mirrors attitudes and attributes of the time.  First, its text shows that hybridization common for the day.  John Philip putatively strove for new accuracy and scholarship in Shakespearean production. And as Kalman Burnim observes, Kemble merited this reputation for erudition in that he collected a formidable theatrical library:

 He relentlessly amassed an extensive and valuable library. . . Kemble’s collection of old plays, especially the priceless Elizabethan quartos, rivaled and then exceeded Garrick’s.  His collection of theatrical documents, especially playbills, was extraordinary.  Like Garrick’s, Kemble’s library informed the leading scholars of his day, and, like Garrick’s, it has served scholars since as an invaluable resource. . . and now constitutes the nucleus of the marvelous theatrical resources at the Huntington Library.2

            Kemble’s interest in scholarship, though genuine, did not prevent him from altering his texts, however.  The concept of historically-accurate Shakespearean plays still beckoned on the horizon, and Coriolanus in particular already had undergone numerous transfigurations.  Some scholars suggest that Coriolanus especially lends itself to this kind of editing, since directors view the original play as flawed.3  But Kemble’s approach probably suited the time more than was inspired by the play.  In spite of the actor-manager’s seeming to wish to emulate Garrick, Kemble did not follow Garrick’s lead in returning to the original script for Coriolanus.  Rather, he fit himself into the tradition of other adaptations.

            To understand his efforts, we need to survey the play’s editorial and stage history up to Kemble’s endeavor.  Such cutting, rewriting, and rearranging of Shakespeare was done in the eighteenth century with the same abandon that creative staging is done in our current time.  Though twentieth- and twenty-first-century productions may stand as “pure” in terms of their fidelity to Shakespeare’s words, they sometimes make up for this accuracy in their innovative statecraft.  Kemble thus belonged to an unbroken line, from the sixteenth century till now, of altered stage interpretation of Shakespeare. 

            Looking at the production records of Coriolanus, we learn that originally it was thought to have been performed during the years 1609-10.  Glynne Wickam tells us that the play “first became public property as a printed text on 8th November 1623, when it was entered in the Stationer’s Register as one of the plays included in the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays . . . To the literate section of the Jacobean public of [1609-1610] the story was not new.”4  The public continued to view the story from various perspectives in the form of five other, possibly quite distinct, versions. 

            The first reworking, Thomas Otway’s The History and Fall of Caius Martius, appearing in 1680, presented a hero of the common people who already had held the office of consul six times when the play opened.5  Otway’s Ciaus suffered from being too political and popular a man, not their opposite as in Shakespeare.  The love story from Romeo and Juliet augmented the plot, while Otway’s epilogue referred to a war not long ended.  In 1682 Nahum Tate published The Ingratitude of a Common-Wealth: or, The Fall of Caius Martius Coriolanus.6  Again, contemporary political and social currents informed the work. In his five-page letter of dedication addressed to Lord Herbert, Marquess of Worcester, Tate noted how the clash between Rome’s plebeians and patricians bore “no small resemblance to the busie Faction of our own time” and so prompted him to write this new version. Tate, however, patterned his work quite closely after the original. No accounts remain as to the reception of Otway’s and Tate’s re-interpretations, however.

            Three more versions came into print before Kemble’s edition. One was John Dennis’s 1720 The Invader of His Country, Or the Fatal Resentment. This adhered to the original’s basic structure.  Where Tate had emphasized the ingratitude of the rabble, Dennis now stressed another essential element of the tragedy: the role of Coriolanus. The one notable change in Dennis’s work came at the end, where Coriolanus first killed Aufidius before he himself died, lamented by the Roman ladies. The language, though compressed, remained Shakespeare’s for the most part.

            Other than the published edition of Dennis’s version, although nothing exists to prove that the play was performed, the edition itself seems to point to the existence of at least a few live performances.  For example, Dennis referred to specific theatrical considerations in the course of his ten-page dedication to “His Grace Thomas, Duke of Newcastle,” complaining that the play had been removed from the boards after three performances despite the fact that “it was favourably received by the Audience.”7  From this we may deduce that the play was performed but apparently its time in the theater was short.

            And as to this third version before Kemble’s editorship, whether the actor James Quin used the Dennis work or another, we do not know.  We do know that Quin played Coriolanus in a 10 April 1721 production at Lincoln’s Inns Fields, again 31 October of the same year, and New Year’s Day, 1722.  Perhaps these are the three performances to which Dennis alludes.  An eighteenth-century print depicted “Quin as Coriolanus” in the supplication scene, V.3, outside the gates of Rome.8  Typical of the time, characters appeared in elegant contemporary costumes--modern dress--rather than anything Attic or antique.  As in both Shakespeare’s and Dennis’s plays, portraying this climax in the action with its attendant focus on the singular hero suggests a shift in popular taste from wider social or political ramifications back to the impact of a lone warrior or hero on his society, taken at the tragic crossroads in his life.

            Quin must have succeeded in the personation well enough, for he returned to the role on 13 January 1749 at Covent Garden.  More is known about the text for this 1749 production. It introduces our fourth reworking before Kemble’s and, in fact, supplied Kemble-- or the interpolator he copied --with quite a lot of material.  Published that year as Coriolanus / A Tragedy as it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden, the play was presented as having been penned “by the late James Thomson.”9  Thomson combined a recognizable version of the original with elaborate new speeches and additional characters.  A print of the supplication scene from this production, also found in the Enthoven Collection, indicates considerable numbers on stage and a shift in taste:  some attention has been paid to classical motifs in the costumes and setting.  Kemble would take up these two threads in his production of added numbers and a more Roman or antique mounting.

            The play did not appear again for six more years until Drury Lane presented a revival of it on 11 November 1754, with the redoubtable David Garrick in the lead role.  Interestingly, the great Garrick seems not to have made the role his own in the same way Kemble did.  Perhaps the very aloofness of the character that so helped Kemble worked against his famous predecessor.  We do not count the Garrick mounting among our five versions of Coriolanus before Kemble because we do not know the text Garrick used.  Odell, Ripley, and Parker all indicate, however, that he chose the play published in 1744, volume xi of Bell’s edition of Shakespeare. It was announced as taken from the Drury Lane prompt copy, annotated by Francis Gentleman.10  If true, this return to the original would further disqualify Garrick’s text from our list of adapted versions.  Calling the performance a revival does not indicate what sort of text was used.  Of course, though to us the term “revival” might imply resuscitating the initial work, more often than not revivals meant only that the play, in whatever form, was being brought back to life in the theater after a period of absence.  We do know that Garrick offered the role only once. 

            Barely a month after this staging, Thomas Sheridan produced and acted the lead role in a performance of Coriolanus at Covent Garden, 10 December 1754, and to this production we ascribe our fifth version before Kemble’s work because we have the published documentation. The text came out in 1755 as Coriolanus: or, the Roman Matron, a tragedy “taken from Shakespeare and Thomson.”11  The title emphasized both Rome’s relation to all the characters and Volumnia’s importance as influence over her son and thus savior of her city.  The unnamed adapter--probably Sheridan himself--included some of Thomson’s characters but also reintroduced such original passages as the tribunes’ reactions to Coriolanus’s victory at Corioli and his subsequent popularity, as well as other sections dealing with Rome’s politics. 

            It seems likely that Sheridan reshaped the text for himself, just as the actor-manager Kemble reshaped it for his own 1789 production.  Critics seem to agree on Sheridan’s hand in the Roman Matron’s authorship.  Reflecting on the play’s history, an unnamed writer in the 20 April 1898 Birmingham Daily Post said that “the person responsible for this curious blend [of Thomson and Shakespeare] was Sheridan, sen.”12  James Boaden likewise refers to the “state in which the play was left by old Sheridan in 1755."13  And Harold Child speaks of the “mixture of Thomson and Shakespeare, put together probably by Thomas Sheridan and staged first in Dublin in 1752 or 1753, and at Coven Garden in 1754.”14

            For our purposes here, the most important part of this stage history--other than to exonerate Kemble for his emendations and place him in context--is to note how the staging of the Roman Matron influenced Kemble’s Coriolanus with its contribution of an elaborate pageant. Added as part of Coriolanus’s triumph into Rome in Act 2, scene 1, this theatrical effect is minutely detailed in the second and third pages of the Advertisement in the 1755 edition, which describes the Ovation as preceded by “a civil procession from the town, consisting of Priests, Flamens, Choristers, Senators, Tribunes, Virgins, Matrons, and the Mother, Wife, and Child of Coriolanus” and states that “in the military Procession alone, independent of the Civil, there were an hundred and eighteen characters.” 

            Adopted--not invented--by Kemble, this stage business became one of the highlights of his version.  Its source, continued use, and evident popularity further place Kemble’s Coriolanus squarely in the middle of the eighteenth century.  Though he may have employed this Ovation for artistic reasons--to enhance Caius’s nobility, Volumnia’s pride, and Rome’s imperial grandeur--we can guess with some certitude that he also used it for the pragmatic reason that it attracted and retained his public.  It did nothing for Kemble in the eyes of some Shakespearean proponents, as we’ll see, but its prominence throughout his work with the text indicates a love and taste for all those things: show and ceremony, aggrandizing a national hero, a breath-taking, wordless performance by Sarah Siddons as the proud mother Volumnia, and a celebration of national will. 

            The Ovation may have succeeded partly due to Kemble’s sister, also.  Sarah Siddons created such a picture of maternal pride in it that 

she towered above all around, and rolled, and almost reeled across the stage; her very soul, as it were, dilating, and rioting in its exultation; until her action lost all grace, and yet, became so true to nature, so picturesque, and so descriptive, that pit and gallery sprang to their feet electrified by the transcendent execution of an original conception.15

            Kemble’s emphasis on classical sets and costumes reflects  a growing trend of the time and Kemble’s own desire for more historicism, as Burnim notes: 

With his revivals of Henry VIII and Coriolanus in 1788-79, the first year of his management at Drury Lane, Kemble began to manifest his interest in theatrical realism--or at least his enthusiasm for picturesque propriety--by providing new and appropriate costumes, scenes, and decorations.  Throughout his career he carried out attempts to produce in a studied but decorous style.  He sought historical accuracy in scenery and costumes in his determination to turn great spectacle into great drama. . . Of course, though Kemble endorsed historical and individualizing detail, he could not always apply it consistently.  Financial constraints prevented absolute archeological accuracy.  He also understood that the theatrical effectiveness he was working for could be achieved by the creation of a general atmosphere.16

            Kemble edited Coriolanus only for the first mounting.  Though reprinted three times, the play altered little throughout its time on the boards.   Entitled Coriolanus, or The Roman Matron, possibly retaining Thomson’s title in deference to his sister, that stunning tragedian Siddons, this version was edited by Kemble and first published the year of his debut.  Subsequent editions came out in 1806, 1812, and 1814. Published as “altered from Shakespeare,” the play retained the numerous cuts and additions of the 1789 text throughout its run in the theater.  Kemble eliminated the battle scenes and the fracas in the Senate (III.1).  Child observes disapprovingly that: 

The long first scene of Act III, in which Coriolanus quarrels with the Tribunes, is much shortened, and Menenius is almost obliterated . . . some of the very finest of Coriolanus's own speeches have gone, and also the "mutiny" or riot, in which the Aediles, Tribunes, and people are "beat in."  This very much weakens the case for Sicinius and Brutus later in the Act. . .  John Kemble seems to have been afraid -- at any rate much more afraid than Sir Frank Benson -- of rough-and-tumble on his stately, "classical" stage; or perhaps he deliberately weakened the case for the Tribunes in order to exalt Coriolanus. . .


            Such extreme changes form a new view of the hero.  He no longer rails as a smelly rabble.  Nor with Menenius’s lines diminished, do we feel the frisson of possible revolution or the hint of class prejudice.  The play’s political atmosphere transforms into something less textured and more docile.  By cutting out the riot, this version further skews tensions.  Coriolanus’s arrogance and temper appear muted.  The volatility of Rome and the whole furor on stage, according to Child, have been reduced to conform to something more placid and balanced.

Child notes additional compressions:

Greater surprises await us in Act IV.  Shakespeare’s first four scenes are all gone. . .  Kemble’s first scene in Act IV is Thomson, slightly altered. . . . Aufidius is clamoring for revenge, when there enters an officer, very pale.

                        One of exalted port, this visage hid,

                Has placed himself beneath the statue of

                The Mighty Mars, and there majestick stands,

                In solemn silence:

And the poor man has been too scared to ask him who he was.  The statue of the mighty Mars was Kemble’s own idea, not Thomson’s, and it gave him a very effective setting for Shakespeare’s Act IV, scene 5, from which, naturally, the serving men are gone, as also are the best of poor Aufidius’s speeches. . . . 

            Again, the critic points to Kemble’s desire to appear both central and heroic, in this edition reducing his rival to a mere foil.  A stately portrait of the actor in this scene, posed under the statue in question, underscores Child’s idea:  Kemble wished to highlight the nobility of his character and associate him with a static, noble, idealized picture of courage.

            Child goes on to excoriate Kemble’s editing of the play’s final—and arguably most emotional—moments:

As for the scene in which the women come to plead with Coriolanus, that is not to be lightly adventured upon by any who wants to think highly of John Kimble’s accuracy. . . Most of Volumnia’s pleading is cut out.  So—believe it who can!—is Coriolanus’s surrender, “Oh mother, mother, what have you done” clean away to the end of the scene as Shakespeare wrote it. . . The Roman Matron. . . is just going to kill herself with a dagger when Coriolanus promises a truce.  The ladies being gone, Coriolanus says to Aufidius (Thomson again!):

                I plainly, Tullius, by your looks perceive

                You disapprove my conduct.

And the quarrel is worked up to the cry of “Traitor, how now!” and to the killing of Coriolanus with something less than the uproar designed by Shakespeare.17

             Thus Child summarizes Kemble’s work at the climax of the play. Once again, Kemble appears to have wanted his hero to evince no weakness and practically no humanity. He creates a new scenario in which Caius must rescue his mother rather than have the warrior simply submit to her importunities.  In many ways, then, this marks a notable departure from Shakespeare’s portrayal of a gifted but flawed military hero.

            Why did Kemble make these cuts?  Perhaps he avoided staged riot scenes because real riots throughout that century unsettled the audience or disquieted the actor-manager personally.  George Rude offers an account of such uprisings in his The Crowd in History, a Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848.  We know that Kemble had visited France  and was on close terms with the French tragedian, M. Talma, so he may have felt a certain distaste for such scenes.  Or perhaps the riots merely struck Kemble as theatrically indecorous--enough so to warrant their exclusion.  The reality of social unrest, perhapsfter all, could support the opposite view as well: that since rebellion burst out rather regularly, audiences and actors may have felt inured to it and would not have found it discomfiting in the theater.  

            We do know that battles were popular in other stagings.  Certainly after Nelson’s triumph and the fervor over Britain’s success and her national war hero mounted, the house might have welcomed these Roman battles.  But Kemble simply may have concentrated on those effects he could do best or easiest.  He may have cut them not because of the numbers involved--for after all, as Young notes, “no fewer than 240 characters marched, in stately procession across the stage”18 in the victory Ovation in the second scene of the second Act--but because he either could not act them athletically enough or did not care to orchestrate such “rough and tumble” ensemble work.  The Rome and Coriolanus Kemble liked came in comforting pomp and majesty rather than in heroic or inelegant battles.  Thus he played on his natural genius to appear imposing, highlighted by a grand “Ovation” welcoming the conquering hero back into Rome. 

            Whatever disinclined Kemble to tackle the battle scenes, in not blocking them he certainly mirrored the theatrical tastes of his time.  Though in his attention to detail and authenticity of costume and sets Kemble took a step toward modernity, his productions also reflected certain theatrical concepts that were becoming outdated.19  David Rostron notes: “Actors . . . tended to rehearse on their own, without attempting much homogeneity of style and effect, and relied heavily on stock attitudes and gestures. . . Corporate rehearsals tended to concern themselves with entrances, exits, and the disposition of a few moves and tableaux.”20

             The era was not known for good ensemble work, exhibiting the flaw Ludwig Tieck noted of “thinking only of this or that character, of special scenes, and so forth.”  Tieck in fact went on to call Kemble’s version “unmercifully mangled, and its finest passages cut out,” with cuts “the more childish, seeing that they had interpolated a superfluous pageant . . . [that] consumed a great deal of time” while Theodore Martin, writing in 1880, typifies Kemble’s 1817 stage as “far behind our own in this -- that liberties of excision and addition were taken with the text of Shakespeare which should now be impossible.”21

            Some authors, such as Gordon Crosse, have suggested that Kemble desired a more balanced and classical play in accordance with contemporary Neoclassical tastes rather than from theatrical expectations and habits.22  Child, on the other hand, proposes that  "his watering down the hatred of Aufidius for Coriolanus looks very like keeping Aufidius in the background and having the 'curtain' for himself," adding that "psychologically, I suspect the whole adaptation to have been made either because John Kemble did not see, or because he did not wish his public to see, the flaw at the heart of his favorite hero.”23  Other perspectives are found in such authors as Charles Beecher Hogan and George Odell.24

            Perhaps Kemble did rewrite Coriolanus to secure the limelight—for himself personally or for his Roman hero.  Perhaps his sense, conscious or not, of what his audiences wanted informed his choices.  But whether he made these cuts from ego, theatrical acumen, or some other motive, he appreciated that Coriolanus needed strong foils.  Thus he did not always ‘keep the curtain for himself.’  For instance, he highlighted the comedic potential of the First Citizen in casting that role, and he gave Menenius ample space in the pacing of the production for his set piece on the body politic. 

            His success in the role inspired Sir Thomas Lawrence to paint Kemble as Coriolanus in 1798 in an austere and sweeping portrait. Artists painted him in this character at least thirteen times, in fact, further indication of his strength and popularity in the role.  As Burnim reminds us,

The part came to be regarded as one of this finest and was largely responsible for the identification of Kemble with Roman roles.Kemble, indeed, had no equal as Coriolanus.  He was at home, we are told by the critic in The Drama (1823), in those “fiery characters . . . when the predominant feeling was strongly marked.”  Had Kemble only acted in Coriolanus, asserted John Galt, “he would have been deemed the very greatest male actor ever seen.” He played with a masterful energy, swayed by a single impulse.25

        Combining personal attributes, social taste, and political currents, it is probably owing to this uncanny ability of Kemble’s to embody Coriolanus as “the noblest Roman of them all” for his admirers that the production succeeded as long as it did.  Due both to physical limitations and advantages, Kemble personified a certain inflexible grandeur, excelling in such roles as Cato and King John.  As Burnim notes, portraits of Kemble “show the calm and contemplative Kemble, serene, lucid, stately, even elegant.  John’s full measure of Kemble beauty -- ‘he had the finest head, perhaps, that was ever seen,’ wrote Boaden -- and his high intelligence is evident, and one easily understands how he was unrivaled in vehicles which evoked the beauty and grandeur of the antique.”26  As Hunt observes, Kemble’s figure, “though not elegant, is manly and dignified, his features are strongly marked with what is called the Roman character, and his head altogether is the heroic head of the antiquary and the artist . . . a very good ideal, though not a very real, Coriolanus.”27  Some of his ability in this area may have derived from personality traits.  We know that

the private Kemble could be aloof and intimidating.  His imperious nature caused both friends and enemies to call him “Black Jack, and Walter Scott crowned him “King John.”  He was often vain and opinionated.  It was said by Samuel Rogers that during the time Kemble lived in retirement in Switzerland he resented the homage paid to Mont Blanc.28

            Unlike the mercurial Garrick, Kemble made his mark portraying single emotions with fierce energy and seems to have presented disdain especially well.  In Coriolanus, he hit upon the perfect vehicle for his statuesque, not to say statue-like, abilities.  He appeared both commanding and poignant in his isolation, justifiably proud and aloof.  Kemble’s features and form so fit the part that more than one graceful portrait captures his dark-haired Ciaus Martius in all its sweeping dignity.  That nineteenth-century icon Sir Walter Scott remarked "what a complete model he is of the Roman.”29  Robson said of Kemble that "he was Coriolanus's self; his voice, his own private manner, his very rigidity, completed his identity.”30

            Even the actor’s failings served his turn in Coriolanus; Leigh Hunt conceded:

Kemble's faults of style are of assistance to him in certain parts of loftiness and austerity which he has almost exclusively made his own.  Of this description is Coriolanus, and the misanthropic character of Penruddock . . .  The haughtiness and rigidity which are only disagreeable intrusions upon most of his tragic parts here come in aid of the actual characters to be represented; the statue is on its pedestal again, in all becoming attitude and condition; and no longer renders us insensible to its real merits by pretending to walk about like one of ourselves.31

Though Hunt hardly admired this static kind of portrayal, he saw that it worked in such as role as Coriolanus.

             Kemble’s stage manner sprang, in part, from necessity.  His limited expressions arose, in part, from a weak voice.  As Boaden wrote, comparing Kemble with Mrs. Siddons, "their talents, although they bore a strong family resemblance, differed considerably as to their power, and, in some respects, character.  The organ of the brother was weaker than his sister's".32  Hunt found Kemble's voice "hollow and monotonous . . . nor is its natural extent melodious or pleasing."33  But at least he showed more charity than Kemble's rival, George Cooke.  Cooke, who attempted the role of Coriolanus only once, at Drury Lane 29 May 1804, described Kemble as "having  . . . the voice of an emasculated French horn.”34

            These sour grapes aside, Kemble succeeded as Ciaus so much that he became a unique symbol of England itself at the close of the century and into the next.  Not surprisingly, he ended his career as Coriolanus.   We best can draw our picture of Kemble’s Caius from records for his farewell to the stage at Covent Garden, 23 June 1817. That closing season Kemble took part in fifty-four performances.  Of these, ten--including the farewell appearance-- were in his popular characterization of Coriolanus.  A seventy-eight-page booklet was published entitled "An Authentic Narrative of Mr. Kemble's Retirement from the Stage; including Farewell Address, Criticisms, Poems." 

            This epideictic monograph contains reprints of notices, descriptions of Kemble and his art, and a reproduction of the final play-bill. It also describes such celebratory events as the preparations for a 27 June Farewell Dinner, speeches, presentations, and the striking of a commemorative medal with an antique profile of John Philip Kemble on one side and the inscription "Thou Last / Of All The Romans / Fare Thee Well" on the other.35  Tieck joined the audience "the night," he writes, "when Kemble took leave for ever of the public . . . in his most celebrated part, the Coriolanus of Shakespeare. . . Nobler or more marked expression could not be given to the proud nature of Coriolanus, and figure, look, and voice here stood the artist in excellent stead.”36

            Besides giving a stunning overall performance in the lead, the actor-manager also performed well in terms of framing the action. Reviews indicate not only that the ending Child finds so objectionable pleased the house, but that the play likewise began in a fittingly dramatic fashion.  In his book The Old Playgoer, originally published in 1845, William Robson describes the start:

Hark!  The creaking door gives notice of opening--on goes the crush of that crowd that has been waiting it.  Some shorn of coat-tails, some hatless, some shoeless, squeezed to mummies, and "distilled almost to jellies;" here, at length, we are, and draw a long breath to set the lungs playing freely again.  But the desired object is gained -- the favorite seat, about the center of the fourth row from the orchestra, in the Pit; mind, sheer, thorough playgoers never went into the boxes then, and we would not change places with the Lord Chancellor on his wool-sack, for tonight John Kemble plays Coriolanus! . . . The overture over, up goes the curtain.  There is little Simmons. . . as first citizen; there is Munden. . . as Menenius; and after a little sketch of a discontented rabble, and one of Aesop's fables delivered just as the old Phyrgian would have wished, all eyes and ears are turned towards the right-hand wing, and amidst shouts, bravos, cheers, waving of hats and handkerchiefs, we can just catch --

"What would ye have, ye curs, that like nor

peace nor war?"

and there stands the "noblest Roman of them all!"37

            John Ambrose Williams offers a similarly enthralled account of Kemble's entrance as Caius Martius, focusing in particular on his physical stance and his haughteur toward the plebeians.  This is more striking when one remembers that the hero's entrance is not necessarily sympathetic:

In his first encounter with the rabble, it is impossible not to admire the noble proportions and majestic contour of his figure, the expression of his face, naturally of the Roman character; his right arm erected in conscious authority; his chest thrown forward, and his head slightly back; his right leg fearlessly advanced, and firmness in all is attitude, together with the exact adjustment and tasteful folds of the classical drapery with which his person is invested, compose a most superb and commanding tout ensemble of the human form.  In the same scene, when the officer informs him, that the Volscians are in arms, a glow of exultation and anticipated triumph plays upon his features, while he quickly exclaims--

"I'm glad on't --."

His manner here was finely indicative of the supposed emotions of his mind, as he turns from "the musty superfluity" he despises, yet is proud to protect.38

            Hazlitt remarks certain moments in the 1817 production that retained their impact from Kemble’s younger days:

We might refer to his account of doing obeisance to his mother in the triumphal procession in the second act, and to the scene with Aufidius in the last act, as among the most striking instances.  The action with which he accompanies the proud taunt to Aufidius--

“Like an eagle in a dove-cote, I

Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli;

Alone I did it--”

gave double force and beauty to the image.  Again, where he waits for the coming of Aufidius in his rival’s house, he stood at the foot of the statue of Mars, himself another Mars! 39

            Like Hazlitt, Williams also admires Kemble's interpretation of the tragedy's final scene:

In the last act, Mr. Kemble, if possible, surpasses all his other excellence.  His indecisive conflict between affection for his mother, and an eager desire for vengeance on his banishers, was an admirable piece of acting.  But when Rome sends forth her matrons to kneel at his feet; when he accepts the soft endearments of conjugal love; when he bends his knee to "the honored mold wherein his trunk was framed:" when he acknowledges the silent intercessions of his infant boy; when he looks upon the mourning garments of Rome's weeping ladies; while he withstands their united and agonizing prayers;-- he is truly a mighty lord over our feelings.  Nor was he less impressive when Nature finally overcomes; and, bending on the neck of his mother, he exclaims,

"Rome is saved, but thy son is lost." [sic]

There are so many portions of equal beauty in his performance of this character, that to enumerate them would require more room than the present limits afford.  We can site only one more instance.  It is that elevated burst of inspiration which flames out against Aufidius, in the following lines;

"If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there,

That like an eagle in a dove-cote, I

Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli,

Alone, I did it. --Boy?--”

This passage, vehement in the poet, was delivered with wonderful force and intensity of passion by the actor; whoever has heard it, will never forget the mingled rage and astonishment with which he repeats "Boy?"  It is apparently with difficulty that the word finds a passage from the throat; but when at last it rushes forth, its emphasis is terrible.  His whole soul seems convulsed, and rent asunder by the effort.

This performance, whether it be viewed as a whole, or in detail, amply satisfies the youthful imagination, fresh and glowing...and the cold, fastidious hypercritic...In various other characters Mr. Kemble has been proudly successful...but here,--in Coriolanus,- - he is

"a falcon, towering in his pride of place." 40

            In the responses of Robson, Williams, and Hazlitt we can see how Kemble’s Ciaus Martius bridged the two centuries successfully and can appreciate the unique qualities he brought to this personation.41  Qualities which made his performance Romantic--as a hero set apart from the common rabble, passionate, brooding, naturally noble, aloof in heroism--made him no less Neoclassical in that he appeared stately, ideally Roman, commanding, and imperial. Reviews show us that Kemble embodied these ideals of eighteenth-century empire and antiquity. Thus Kemble seems to owe his triumph in the role to a fortuitous combination of text, staging, personal talents, and timing--bringing Caius to life in a time ripe with social instability and recurring street riots, lengthy military operations, loss of the Colonies to rebellious rabble, triumph over France due to a single commander’s heroism, and popular taste for Roman pomp in the theater. A man of classic features and stateliness whose acting successes stemmed more from the exposition of one grand passion than from the portrayal of many, Kemble possessed the perfect stage vehicle in his version of Caius Martius and so embodied the spirit of his nation and time to his countrymen.

End Notes

1 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton, 1997), p. 266.

2  Kalman Burnim, “John Philip Kemble and the Artists,” in The Stage in the Eighteenth Century, ed. J.D. Browning (New York: Garland, 1981), pp.161-2.

3 John Ripley, Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609-1994 (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998), p. 334.

4 Glynne Wickam, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Heritage, (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 233.

5 Thomas Otway, The History and Fall of Caius Martius (1680; reprint, London: Cornmarket Press, 1969).

6  Nahum Tate, The Ingratitude of a Common-Wealth: or, The Fall of Caius Martius Coriolanus (1682; reprint, London: Cornmarket Press, 1969).

7  John Dennis, The Invader of His Country, or The Fatal Resentment, A Tragedy As it is Acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, 2nd ed.  (London: 1721), A4.

8  Part of the Enthoven Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

9  James Thomson, Coriolanus, A Tragedy as it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden (London: 1749).

10  George Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, (London: Dover Publications), vol. 1, 355; William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, by R. B. Parker (London: Oxford University Press); and John Ripley, Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609-1994, (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998), 108-14.

11  Coriolanus: or, the Roman Matron (1806; reprint, London: Cornmarket Press, 1970).

12  From the Shakespeare Memorial Library, Birmingham, England.

13  James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, 2 vols.  (London, 1825), I, 424.

14  Harold Hannyngton Child, The Shakespearean Productions of John Philip Kemble  (London, 1935), pp. 14-15.

15  Julian Charles Young, “[1789-c.1812], Julian Charles Young on J.P. Kemble as Coriolanus and Sarah Siddons as Volumnia in Coriolanus” in Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism, compiled and ed. by Stanley Wells (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 38.

16  Burnim, p. 173.

17     Child, pp. 14-16.

18     Young, p. 37.

19    Alladyce Nicoll, A History of English Drama, 1660-1900, vol. 4, pp. 6,7.

20    David Rostron, “John Philip Kimble’s King Lear of 1795, in Eighteenth Century English Stage, p. 152.

21    Theodore Martin, An Eye Witness of John Kemble,” The Nineteenth Century (1888):  276-96, 295, 286, 278.

22    Gordon Crosse, “Coriolanus on the Stage,” Macmillian’s Magazine 84 (1901):  57-61.

23    Child, pp. 13, 16.

24    Charles Beecher Hogan, Shakespeare in the Theatre, 1701-1800. 2 vols. (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1952-57), pp. 158-9, and George Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving.

25    Burnim, p. 180.

26    Burnim, pp. 160-200.

27    Hunt, pp. 4, xxiii.

28    Burnim, p. 162.

29    Crosse, p. 58.

30    Robson, p. 34.

31    See Leigh Hunt’s Dramatic Criticism 1808-1831, eds. Lawrence Huston Houtchens and Carolyn Washburn Houtchens (n.d.), p. 104.

32    Kemble vol I, p. 157.

33    Leigh Hunt, Dramatic Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, eds. William Archer and Robert W. Lowe (London, 1894), p. 8.

34    Dobbs, p. 111.

35    An Authentic Narrative of Mr. Kemble’s Retirement from the Stage (London, 1817), p. 43.

36    Martin, p. 286.

37    William Robson, The Old Playgoer, ed. Robert Gittings (Fontwell, Sussex, 1969), pp. 29-31.

38    John Ambrose Williams, Memoirs of John Philip Kemble, Esq. (London, 1817), p. 77.

39    Hazlitt, p. 453.

40    Williams, pp. 79-80.

41    Burnim, p. 172.