Charles Kemble was born at Brecon, South Wales, on 25 November 1775. He was the eleventh child of the country managers Roger Kemble and his wife Sarah (née Ward). Many of his elder siblings appeared on the stage before Charles was ten, including John, Sarah, Stephen and Elizabeth. Charles, like his brother John, was sent for classical studies to the English College at Douai and then obtained a position in the Post Office in London. But before long, he too adopted the family profession, making an appearance at Sheffield in 1792-93 as Orlando in “As You Like It”. After his apprenticeship in country towns, he was brought to London by his brother John to appear as Malcolm in the inaugural production of “Macbeth” at the new Drury Lane Theatre on 21 April 1794 and was reported to have been ‘very respectable.’ That was an apt description of the rest of his career. He proved to be an accomplished actor and earned commendation in such parts as Mercutio, Macbeth (G0369), Benedick, Romeo and Charles Surface, but he was never an inspired talent and did not challenge the great eminence of his brother John and his sister Sarah. Nevertheless, Charles played an enormous number of roles and was an important presence in the London theatre during the first third of the nineteenth century. He had an eloquent manner of speech and played in the ‘Kemble manner.’ William Macready called him ‘a first-rate actor in second-rate parts.’ Yet he found Kemble’s Mirabel in “The Inconstant” ‘a most finished piece of acting’ and his Cassio ‘incomparable.’
In 1822 Kemble assumed the management of Covent Garden and appeared on 11 March as Charles Surface in “The School for Scandal”. He offered a number of highly regarded productions, including a revival of “King John” on 24 November 1823 with historically accurate costumes by Planché (q.v.). But the finances were shaky and Kemble was sinking into bankruptcy until in 1829 he brought out his daughter Frances Kemble (q.v.) as Juliet in a production in which he acted Mercutio – considered his greatest comic role – and his wife Maria came out of retirement to act Lady Capulet. His daughter proved a sensation, and her popularity over the season managed to return the theatre to solvency. Kemble accompanied Frances on a successful two-year tour of America. When Kemble returned to London he made some appearances at the Haymarket and Covent Garden. He was in weak health and growing deaf, so he made a last round of farewell performances at Covent Garden in 1836 and assumed a post as Examiner of Plays for the Lord Chamberlain, a sinecure he held until 1840. He was succeeded in that position in 1840 by his son John Mitchell Kemble, a distinguished philologist. On 10 January 1837 Charles Kemble was honoured by the Garrick Club – of which he was an original member in 1831 – with a dinner at the Albion Hotel. He acted a few more times at Covent Garden in 1840, when Queen Victoria expressed her wish to have her consort see Kemble perform. Kemble made his last stage appearance on 10 April 1840, as Hamlet, when he showed himself as ‘the master yet.’
He spent his last years as a ‘venerated relic’ at the Garrick Club. He died on 12 November 1854 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. His wife Maria Theresa had died in 1838. For information on his children and a long list of portraits of him, see the BDA (8: 315-321). For his biographies see the BDA and Jane Williamson, “Charles Kemble, Man of the Theatre” (1970).