Best known for his solo renditions of Shakespeare plays, Kemble’s performances were often received with laughter and, occasionally, with riotous behavior. Among the Colonial Secretary's papers is correspondence from Kemble including his applications for dramatic licences. On some of these he has appended his seal which features an image of William Shakespeare.
When Henry Kemble married in Sydney in 1849, the record gave his name as John Matthews, alias James Harding, alias Henry Kemble. This perhaps gives an insight into a man who spent a life playing parts, both in his career as an actor and in his personal life.
Born James Harding, Kemble came to Australia as a convict in 1837, having been sentenced to transportation for the crime of stealing a gold watch. He was sent to Port Macquarie where he appeared to remain for the duration of his sentence.
Kemble’s first foray into an acting career came in 1845 when he applied for a licence to perform a number of speeches and scenes from Shakespeare tragedies such as Richard III and Macbeth but this initial application was denied.
His first performance was in the Royal City Theatre in March 1846 and was a monopolylogue of Richard III in which he played all the characters himself. The performance was panned in a review by Bell’s Life of Sydney magazine who observed
‘One sentence in Hamlet’s Soliloquy on his father’s murder – “Oh what an ass am I” - seemed to give infinite satisfaction to the audience, which they expressed by shouts of laughter and cries of “bravo Kemble!”
Kemble would respond to these criticisms with letters where he would defend himself. In 1849, he wrote
‘It Is three years since I made my first public debut before the Australian Public, who have ever since approved of and supported me in a manner even to enthusiasm’
After only a few years trying to pursue this profession, Kemble’s fortunes appear to have taken a turn for the worse and he became a licenced peddlar and, following various brushes with the law, Kemble was sentenced to a year’s hard labour in Parramatta Gaol for the fraudulent sale of a gold chain which turned out to be comprised of base metal.
In 1853, Kemble petitioned the Colonial Secretary from Parramatta Gaol pleading for early release offering us a glimpse into his personal circumstances. He submits that
‘prior to the unhappy affair which led to his present ignominy, he was robbed, and stripped of all he possessed in the town of Bathurst one night and that he was obliged to have recourse on his return to apply to a private subscription for relief’.
He later mentions that his ‘devoted wife’ has died ‘leaving a helpless family destitute’.
His plea for the mitigation of his sentence were denied on the basis that
‘the doubtful character of the prisoner is so well known in Sydney’ and ‘the absence of any sufficient testimonials of amendment’.
Kemble remarried in December 1854 and resurrected his acting career, travelling around the country for the next five years attracting both audiences and the wild behaviour that his performances invoked. After this date no more is heard about Kemble, nor does a death appear to be recorded bringing to an end the career of one of the most notorious and extraordinary actors in Australia.
Essay: 'Australia's Worst Actor? The Life, Art and Business Practices of Mr. Henry Kemble of Drury Lane, Monopolylogist' by Robert Jordan' which initially appeared as an article in Script & Print, Volume 33, 2009