Kemble's initial revulsion evolved into outrage, and by the time of her divorce she had become an ardent abolitionist.

Kemble vs. Butler

Walnut Street Theatre Studio 3, Ninth and Walnut Streets, through May 25, 574-3550 ext. 4.

According to her diaries, Fanny Kemble first realized the nature and magnitude of the institution of slavery when she walked with her husband, Pierce Butler, from the wharf at his Georgia plantation to the front door of the manor house, through "an ocean of black humanity."

The English-born actress (daughter of Charles Kemble and niece of John Philip Kemble and the greatest actress of her age, Sarah Siddons) left the stage to marry Butler, a wealthy Philadelphia gentleman whom she met while she was on an American tour with her father, in 1832. She knew that Butler's income came from the immense working estate he had inherited from his grandfather, that the estate was in Georgia, and that her husband referred to Georgia as "negroland." But, she claims, she never understood what all that meant until she saw it herself -- when she stood among the thousand slaves owned by her husband (blacks then outnumbered whites in the state of Georgia five to one) -- and then her initial revulsion evolved into compassion and ultimately into outrage. By the time the couple divorced in 1849, Kemble had become an ardent abolitionist.

Kemble published her journals (the American Journal prior to the divorce, the more muckraking Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation afterwards), and they are still in print and regularly assigned in university American history courses. These journals (along with the correspondence of both Kemble and Butler) have now been transformed by playwright Will Stutts (past master of the biographical one-hander) into Kemble vs. Butler, a two-character play currently receiving its premiere, under the playwright's direction, at the Walnut Street Studio.

The first half of Kemble vs. Butler ends with the fateful walk from the wharf to the door, and most of the first act prepares us -- or doesn't prepare us -- for the shock of that event. As Butler and Kemble meet, court and marry, we learn just how much of human intercourse relies on buying and selling: Butler has bought his name for an inheritance (taking his grandfather's name was one of the conditions of the will); Kemble has sold herself into marriage in exchange for admission into America's version of an aristocracy; and after the marriage falters, she learns the extent to which she and her children have legally become Butler's possessions. We also learn about Kemble's relative idealism and Butler's Yankee practicality, a practicality that earns him wealth, which in turn buys him power, which in turn assures him control.

But nothing quite prepares us for the magnitude of Kemble's discovery and transformation after she arrives in Georgia. And Stutts' otherwise fascinating play can barely keep pace with that transformation. For once Kemble becomes an abolitionist (and, with her discoveries about her legal status and that of her children, a feminist to boot) the contest is over: our own enlightened 20th-century values make it impossible for us to disagree with Kemble, or to agree with Butler.

There's a play here, somewhere, about the moral crisis of a person discovering that her fortunes are based on a morally reprehensible source. (Actually, Bernard Shaw has already written it, in his first play, Widowers' Houses, in 1892, and to a certain extent in Mrs. Warren's Profession and Major Barbara). But in Stutts' play, once Kemble's consciousness is raised, she faces no moral crisis, no uncertainty, and no larger perception of society, or capitalism, as a whole. Stutts gives Butler a lengthy and powerfully written apologia for the system, revealing that Northern industry and British cotton mills are as dependent upon slavery as Southern agriculture. (Isn't there a similar speech about just that in 1776 playing on the Walnut mainstage?) But it's to no avail: the game is lost, ideologically, historically and dramatically.

Notwithstanding, the story is well-told. And there are, appropriately, some interesting theatrical metaphors at work throughout. Butler, when he first meets Kemble, confesses that "I'm in some sort of scene, and I don't know my script"; Kemble, much later, is newly aware that she has been playing a role, and laments that "I only wish I knew what my role was"; and she later makes the wonderful discovery that the powers of observation that had served her so well as an actor have not been put sufficiently to use, concluding, punningly, that "to observe and not act is to be blind."

Elizabeth Roby is confident, elegant and arch as Fanny Kemble, never losing her dignity or composure (perhaps to a fault) even in her moments of greatest pain. And Allyn Burrows is charming as Pierce Butler, even when his adherence to the system and to his misplaced code of honor turns him into a total shit in the play's last quarter hour.

-- Cary M. Mazer