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Kemble, Myra (1857–1906)

by Jean Gittins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Myra Kemble (1857-1906), actress, was born on 17 November 1857 in Sligo, Ireland, only daughter of Pritchard Joseph Gill and his wife Teresa, née O'Donnell. She arrived in Victoria aged 7 and was educated at Geelong Convent School. In 1874 as Myra Kemble she made her stage début portraying Venus in a pantomime, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. She was described as 'phenomenally beautiful with gorgeous red hair, cream and peaches complexion and a superb figure'. Her next appearance, in a chorus at the Melbourne Opera House, was followed by several parts in Sandhurst under Heffernan's management. She then moved to Sydney where her striking looks won her a part as walking lady in The Daisy Farm, with which Samuel Lazar opened the new Theatre Royal on 11 December 1875. The next years brought many light comedy roles. She starred in Bland Holt's first production in Australia of New Babylon at the Victoria Theatre in 1877. Beauty, talent and natural charm combined to make her a favourite with the Sydney public. As Biddy in Transported for Life, May Meredith in Our American Cousin and in particular the fool in King Lear, she drew unstinted praise.

Back in Melbourne she was induced to appear at the Theatre Royal but declined permanent engagement because of commitments as Lazar's leading lady in Sydney. In March 1880 John Bennet engaged her for the Victoria and she moved from one show to another almost without losing a single night. Her popularity firmly established, she created a furore as Anne Catherick in The Woman in White, Lady Teazle in School for Scandal, Madame de Fontanges in Plot and Passion and Ophelia in Hamlet. She was the youngest Lady Macbeth to have appeared on the Australian stage. On 12 June she scored another success in Bland Holt's New Babylon at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne: audiences were enthralled; her speech was said to be exquisite and no rival could match her grace and charm. Her weekly salary was then £40.

At St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 10 December 1878 Myra had married James David Whitehead, a widower born in England in 1846 and 'one of the straightest bookmakers in the colony'. In 1888 her portrait by Nerli attracted much attention at the Royal Art Society in Sydney. She and her husband planned a visit to Europe and her farewell benefit on 15 June 1889 at Sydney's Theatre Royal drew a packed house. She left Melbourne in the Liguria on 15 July with letters of introduction from many leading managers. In London the playwright, Robert Buchanan, wrote Man and the Woman specially for her, but the matinée performance at the Criterion did not achieve the success it deserved. She bought the colonial rights of Dr. Bill by Hamilton Aide and other pieces. An enthusiastic reception in Sydney on her return led to extensive tours of other cities in Australia and New Zealand. After her husband died she lived with her mother and died in the Melbourne Hospital on 27 October 1906. One of the best-loved actresses on the Australian stage, she was still remembered after fifty years.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Stewart, My Life's Story (Syd, 1923)
  • P. McGuire et al, The Australian Theatre (Melb, 1948)
  • Australasian Sketcher, 3 July 1880
  • Table Talk, 21 June 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Oct 1906
  • Bulletin, 1 Nov 1906
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Mar 1938.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'Kemble, Myra (1857–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kemble-myra-3939/text6199, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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