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The Covent, located in a boisterous entertainment district already known as the West End, was one of only two theaters in London (along with the Drury Lane) that was granted a license by the Crown to perform serious drama. The Covent opened in 1732 and was plagued throughout its history with financial troubles. It burned to the ground in 1808, destroying a pipe organ often played by Frederick Handel. A year later it reopened with higher admission prices, setting off 70 straight days of riotous protests by patrons until the increases were rescinded.
Schooled in England and Paris, Fanny Kemble had no intentions of becoming an actress with the Covent. Only because of her family's persistence and the Covent's dire financial straits did she agree to take the stage in the role of Juliet on October 15, 1829. The woman whom biographer Henry Gibbs proclaimed "the most unwilling actress in historv" was an instant hit, dazzling critics and audiences alike.
She became the heir to Siddons' throne as the most famous actress in Britain, but still considered herself foremost a scribe, writing poems, journals, plays, articles and thousands of letters over the course of her life. Most of her correspondence was to her dear friend, Harriet St. Leger, 12 years her senior.
When recurring economic woes and ill health caused Charles Kemble to be replaced as director of the Covent in 1832, the Kemble family's long-time ties to the Theater were severed. They embarked on a two-year theatrical tour of America, where Fanny's debut at New York's Park Theater was critically acclaimed. The New York Mirror declared "a new era in American history began with Kemble's visit."
Fanny soon became the darling of society in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C, where she was a visitor at the White House and befriended such figures as Charles Surrmer and the writer Trelawny. Philadelphia lawyer Pierce Butler became an admirer of Fanny's during her performances at the city's Chestnutt Theater, and began a courtship. Fanny Kemble gave the final performance of her American tour, at the Chestnutt, on June 6, 1834. She and Pierce married the following day.
The next several years, spent at Butler's house in Philadelphia and his plantation in Georgia, are the focus of SHOWTIME's film. Fanny ceased to be an actress and became one of the most unlikely, and important, abolitionists in the country. _ Her protests of slavery against the wishes of her husband, and the publication of one of her journals, infuriated Butler and caused their marriage to deteriorate. She lost custody of their two children, and, as a condition for Pierce's financial support, was forbidden to publish further memoirs.
Kemble spent 1845 restoring her soul in Italy, where she wrote a heartfelt memoir, "A Year of Consolation." She then returned to England and resumed her acting career in "The Honeymoon" at the Theater Royal in 1847. A year later she sailed to Philadelphia to answer divorce charges and began giving a series of Shakespeare readings throughout the Eastern states.
On the eve of the Civil War, with Britain poised to give the Confederacy much-needed loans, Kemble's "Journal of a Residence On a Georgia Plantation" was published, and is credited with helping turn British public opinion against the South. The loans to the Confederacy were denied.
Kemble left America for the last time in 1877. In England, she became friends with Henry James, who was called to her house immediately upon her death to assist in the flood of public inquiries.