Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December, 2007
“The death I would prefer would be to break my neck off the back of a good horse at a full gallop on a fine day.”
– Fanny Kemble
I pick up a pen and write the letter “A.” A serviceable letter that tells you to make the sound “aayy” or “aahh.” Not a bad looking letter in an art deco sort of way, but you wouldn’t take my effort and frame it for posterity.
A calligrapher picks up a brush, dips it in the black ink, and forms a Chinese character on the page. It is aesthetically pleasing, a work of art, which conveys not just a sound but a whole word, a complete thought embodied in gracefully curving lines and the carefully balanced white spaces in and around it.
The difference between my “A” and that Chinese character is emblematic of the difference between Anne Undeland’s acting in Fanny Kemble’s Lenox Address and just about every other performance I have seen and reviewed this year. I have seen many serviceable performances that have informed me and entertained me, but that I don’t want to hang on my wall. I want to take Undeland’s performance in John Gardner’s one-woman play and dip it in silver and keep it on my mantle for years to come.
Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble (1809-1893) was a remarkable woman. Henry James referred to her as “the terrific Kemble.” Gardner writes in his program notes, “It has been impossible not to fall in love with this untamable woman, at once so regal and democratic…” Undeland lists Fanny as one of her favorite roles, right up there with Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst.
As an actress Fanny was the Meryl Streep of her day, noted for her versatility and charm. She came from a great British acting dynasty of the 18th century, but the stage was not her first love, it was merely the way she earned her living. Her great passion was writing and she produced a few unremarkable plays, a volume of poems, and many volumes of journals and autobiography. One of these, her Journal of A Residence on A Georgian Plantation (published in 1863, but widely read and distributed privately before that), was a known as “the English Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and was instrumental in persuading the British to back the north rather than the south in the American Civil War. At a time when women were not supposed to be independent, opinionated, outspoken, or even educated, Fanny was all of the above and more. It is little wonder that she became fast friends with the large and influential Massachusetts branch of the Sedgwick family and ended up building a home and living for many years in Lenox. Her “cottage” – The Perch – is no longer standing but there is a boulder commemorating its existence on Kemble Street, which had its name changed from East Street in Fanny’s honor, opposite the entrance to Canyon Ranch and mere yards from the property currently owned by Shakespeare & Company (Fanny was considered a great Shakespearean actress and toured her readings of the Bard’s plays.)
The absolutely astounding thing about Fanny Kemble is the breadth of her acquaintance and reach into 19th century society here and in the United Kingdom. She knew a great many famous and influential people, people who literally changed history, not least among them the Sedgwicks. What makes Venfort Hall, clearly visible from Kemble Street at this time of year, such a perfect venue for Gardner’s play is that it is so very, very local. These people lived, these events happened here. It is exciting to come so very close to touching history.
When we meet Undeland’s Fanny it is Christmas of 1848 and she is in the midst of her bitter and very public divorce from Pierce Mease Butler (1806-1867). Butler saw Fanny on her first American tour with her father, Charles Kemble (1775-1854), in 1832 and courted her vigorously. He was wealthy and it was no problem to appear at the stage door after every performance wherever the Kembles appeared. They were married in 1834 and had two daughters – Sarah, after Fanny’s famous aunt Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), and Frances.
It wasn’t until March of 1836 when Butler and his brother inherited their grandfather’s rice and cotton plantations on Butler and St. Simon’s Islands off the Georgia coast that Fanny began to understand where her husband’s money came from. He had one of the largest slave-holdings in America. When he fell on hard financial times later in life and had to liquidate his assets the result was the largest sale of human beings in the history of the United States, an event known as “The Weeping Time.” In February of 1859 some 440 men, women and children were brought to a race track in Savannah Georgia where they were housed in the horse stalls, some for weeks on end, awaiting sale.
Fanny begged to be allowed to visit the plantations and was at first refused but in December of 1838 Butler took his wife and daughters to Georgia for a four month stay. The letters she wrote from there later were compiled in Lenox for publication as her Journal of A Residence on A Georgian Plantation.
Fanny not only abhorred slavery, she found herself considered little more than a possession by her husband, who started their marriage by forcing her to return her stage earnings to her father and continued to prevent her from having any financial or social or intellectual independence. He edited her writing, dictated her friendships, and forbid her to work. The combination of the way she saw her husband treat his slaves and the way he treated her caused her to move back to England and resume her theatre career. Butler filed for divorce on grounds of desertion in April 1848.
Divorce was a very scandalous thing in the mid-19th century. Fanny had not just left her husband and returned to the stage (a thoroughly disreputable career) but had abandoned her minor children. Ultimately, Fanny lost custody of her daughters until they were 21, except for two months in the summers, and received $1,500 annually in alimony. But she made sure she got her name back. From the time the divorce was final in September of 1849 until her death she was known, publicly and privately as Mrs. Fanny Kemble. The only Fanny Kemble Butler who existed was her younger daughter.
A 1938 biography of Fanny by Margaret Armstrong is entitled Fanny Kemble: A Passionate Victorian. Gardner, Undeland and director Andrew Borthwick-Leslie take us right into the depths of Fanny’s passions for life, family, and justice. You are held spellbound as Undeland unravels Fanny’s story. It is played with just enough humor and grace to make you thoroughly sympathetic to Fanny, so that the horrors and injustices that she describes are rendered all the more vivid.
The great entry hall of Ventfort Hall, construction on which was started the year Fanny died, forms most of the set. This is an historic home, not a theatre, and so the lighting is functional but hardly theatrical. A fascinating, subtle, and sadly uncredited sound design uses some music by the composer Franz List, with whom Fanny’s sister, the opera singer Adelaide Kemble toured in 1841, and some from Mark Kelso’s 1988 CD For God Alone. I do not know where the speakers were placed, but the music seemed to well up organically from the house itself as it mirrored and emphasized Fanny’s emotions and opinions.
This, like all the theatrical productions at Ventfort Hall in recent years, is a collaboration between the Museum and Shakespeare & Company, and so Govanne Lohbauer, who has provided hundreds of gorgeous costumes for that theatre’s productions over the decades, has clothed Undeland in a lovely, flattering gown of soft blue that moves beautifully with the actress.
I hope it is fleece-lined though because the one thing Ventfort Hall lacks is heat. But you must suffer for great art and the chilly temperature of the room is a minor inconvenience for the 70 minutes this show runs. Although I could hear the distant rumble of something I assumed was a furnace, its impact was not very evident in the entry hall. They do hand out blankets, but I recommend that you dress warmly and wear or at least bring your coat, scarf, and gloves into the Hall with you. I wished I had brought my gloves in with me, even though the sound of well-clad hands clapping did not really convey the audience’s true enthusiasm for Undeland’s performance.
I am thrilled that there is good theatre available in the area during Christmas Week this year and encourage you to close out 2007 with this production which will undoubtedly make your Year End Top Ten as it has mine.
Fanny Kemble's Lenox Address will run through December 31 at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., Lenox, MA. Performances are scheduled for December 26, 30 & 31 at 4 pm and on December 27-29 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $25 per person. Reservations are encouraged due to the limited performance space. The show runs an hour and ten minutes with no intermission and is suitable for children 10 and up. For further information and to purchase tickets call Ventfort Hall at 413-637-3206.Tickets cost $25 and reservations are strongly recommended.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007