Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
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Actors' Interpretations of King John

16Frances Anne Kemble

From Records of a Girlhood (London, R. Bentley, 1878), 359.

Mar. 13, 1831.

17My dear H---, shut your eyes while you read this, because if you don't, they'll never shut again. Constance is what I am to play for my benefit. I am horribly frightened; it is a cruel weight to lay upon my shoulders; however, there is nothing for it but doing my best, and leave the rest to fate. I almost think now I could do Lady Macbeth better. I am like poor little Arthur, who begged to have his tongue cut off rather than have his eyes put out; that last scene of Constance, think what an actress one should be to do it justice! Pray for me. I have been sobbing my heart out over Constance this morning, and act Fazio to night, which is hard work.

Your affectionate

18Dear H--- , this is Wednesday, the 23rd; Monday and King John and my Constance are all over; but I am at this moment still so deaf with nervousness as not to hear the ticking of my watch when held to one of my ears; the other side of my head is not deaf any longer now; but on Monday night I hardly heard one word I uttered through the whole play. It is rather hard that having endeavoured (and succeeded wonderfully, too) in possessing my soul in peace during that trial of my courage, my nervous system should give way in this fashion. I had a knife of pain sticking in my side all through the play and all day long Monday; as I did not hear myself speak, I cannot tell you anything of my performance. My dress was of the finest pale blue merino, all folds and drapery like my Grecian Daughter costume, with an immense crimson mantle hung on my shoulders which I could hardly carry. My head dress was exactly copied from one of my Aunt's, and you cannot imagine how curiously like her I looked. My mother says, 'You have done it better than I believe any other girl of your age would do it.' But of course that is not a representation of Constance to satisfy her or any one else, indeed. You know, dear H , what my own feeling has been about this, and how utterly incapable I knew myself for such an undertaking; but you did not, nor could anyone, know how dreadfully I suffered from the apprehension of failure which my reason told me was well founded. I assure you that when I came on the stage I felt like some hunted creature driven to bay; I was really half wild with terror. The play went off admirably, but I lay, when my part was over, for an hour on my dressingroom floor, with only strength enough left to cry. Your letter to A revived me, and just brought me enough to life again to eat my supper, which I had not felt able to touch, in spite of my exhaustion and great need of it; when, however, I once began, my appetite justified the French proverb and took the turn of voracity, and I devoured like a Homeric hero. We are going to a party at Devonshire house tonight. Here I am called away to receive some visitors. Pray write soon to your affectionate


19Hunt, Leigh, Review in The Tatler, March 25, 1831.

Miss Fanny Kemble repeated last night the part of Constance in King John which she played for her benefit Monday. It is not one of her best performances, especially in the eyes of those who recollect her aunt in the character. It wants movement and effect. It wants passion. We do not mean vehemence, of which it has rather too much, but suffering and impulse. Finally, it wants dignity. There is now and then, in this as in other performances of Miss Kemble, a passing shade of family likeness to Mrs Siddons. Her head dress last night assisted it. But to institute a direct comparison with her is surely unfortunate. The Constance of Mrs Siddons was one of the most natural, passionate, yet dignified of her performances. The passage in which Constance wildly seats herself upon the ground and exclaims

'Here I and sorrow sit: let the kings come bow to me,'

20produced no effect last night. All who remember Mrs Siddons must remember its electrical effect, and how marvellously she reconciled the mad impulse of it with habitual dignity. Miss Kemble was almost always stationary in her grief. Mrs Siddons used to pace up and down, as the eddying gust of her impatience drove her, and all her despairing and bitter words came with double force from her in the career. And then what a person she had! and how regal she used to look! hardly more so as Queen Constance than as Mrs Siddons herself! lofty tones and conscious modulations seemed natural in her mouth, as expressing the beauty of all that was ideal both in her theatrical and personal character. In Miss Kemble (without meaning to imply that she is not otherwise quite as estimable a person in every respect) they always carry with them an air of elaboration and assumption -- we mean assumption in the literal sense -- something taken up for the purpose of the moment, and foreign to her in the abstract. Her best passage last night was the quiet and exhausted manner, the momentary patience into which she fell from her general vehemence, just before she resumed it and tore off her diadem. But the performance upon the whole was flat, and thought to be so. Miss Kemble never does anything without showing great occasional cleverness: in some characters, as in the Fair Penitent, she does more; but Constance is certainly not one in which any of her powers is elicited to advantage, not even in the sarcasms directed against Austria, which seemed rather the effusions of quiet spite, than of uncontrollable contempt. We doubt whether she will be tempted to repeat the character often. To mention Mr Charles Kemble's Faulconbridge is to praise it; for everybody knows how excellent it is.