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Sunday, April 23, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Enslavement' takes some liberties with abolitionist Fanny Kemble's tale

Seattle Times theater critic

"I remain appalled at the state of things in which human beings are considered fortunate who are only condemned to dirt, ignorance, unrequited labor, and, what seems to me worst of all, a dead level of general degradation." - Fanny Kemble

A century after her death, Fanny Kemble is getting another curtain call.

The fascinating 19th-century actress and writer, a free spirit and ardent abolitionist far ahead of her time, is the subject of two forthcoming books.

One is the biography, "Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars" (Simon & Schuster) by former Harvard University professor Catherine Clinton. Clinton also edited "Fanny Kemble's Journals," a new Harvard University Press collection of Kemble's writings.

But many people will get their first introduction to the eventful life and times of Kemble from the new cable TV movie, "Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble."

Premiering tonight at 8 p.m. on the Showtime network, "Enslavement" co-stars Jane Seymour (as Fanny) and her husband James Keach (as a fictional character, Dr. Huston). Both also served as executive producers, and Keach directed the movie.

Their close involvement with the film, shot largely in Canada, demonstrates Seymour and Keach's commitment to bringing Fanny's character and achievements to light.

But that pesky old question arises: Can Hollywood do American history right? Can it make a noteworthy figure from the past appealing to a mass audience - without contorting historical fact out of shape in the process?

A member of Britain's esteemed Kemble acting clan, Frances Anne was born in England in 1809.

She made her stage debut in 1829, as Shakespeare's Juliet - largely to help her actor-father Charles Kemble avert financial ruin during his troubled management of London's Covent Garden Theatre.

A dark-featured beauty, keenly intelligent and gutsily outspoken, Fanny soon became a popular leading lady.

Then in 1834, on tour in Philadelphia with her father, she met a handsome, courtly American named Pierce Butler, who wooed her away from the theater.

Fanny's volatile 15-year marriage to Butler drastically changed the course of her life, and it's the logical focus of "Enslavement."

Butler inherited several cotton plantations on Georgia's remote Sea Islands, and hundreds of African-American slaves who worked on them.

Though Fanny already despised slavery on principle, she insisted on visiting his spreads. There she got a close-up glimpse of an institution she came to revile and openly challenge in an era when women rarely questioned their husband's business practices.

In letters to friends, Fanny eloquently recorded her detailed impressions of the gross inequities and squalid conditions of slave life. These were later collected and published in her book, "Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-9."

Modern historians now consider the volume "one of the most important titles in antislavery literature," according to University of Virginia professor and Civil War scholar Gary W. Gallagher.

But Fanny's slavery chronicle, and her avid abolitionism, divided her and Butler. They divorced in 1849, with Butler winning custody of their two daughters. Fanny kept writing, returned to acting, and lived to the ripe age of 84.

Seattle writer-actress Annie Ludlum was especially curious to see how Showtime's "Enslavement" treats Fanny's story, and whether it gives "this wonderful, brilliant woman her due."

A Capitol Hill resident, Ludlum is herself the author of the meticulously researched solo bio-drama, "Shame the Devil! An Audience with Fanny Kemble."

Ludlum played Fanny in the play's debut at Group Theatre in 1980, then toured it to Alaska and the East Coast. More recently, her script has been picked up and performed by other actors around the country.

And what is Ludlum's verdict on "Enslavement"? Decidedly mixed, as is mine.

The film's opening scene, depicting an angry mob of Southern whites bursting into the cabin of a black male slave and his (nude) wife, suggests a lurid melodrama will follow.

But the action soon shifts to the wooing of Seymour's glamorous Fanny by the genteel, flute-playing Butler (Keith Carradine).

Christopher Lofton's script bumps up the timetable of their courtship, from the 1830s to 1840s. That helps justify the age of the actors: Seymour and Carradine look good for mid-lifers, but twentysomethings they're not.

The time-jogging doesn't bother Ludlum. She's just pleased that numerous true, telling incidents are tucked into the film verbatim, including a startling exchange between Fanny and former U.S. President John Quincy Adams.

A liberal sprinkling of witty quotes from Fanny's letters also pop up. A typically Anglo-centric sample: "Philadelphia audiences cannot distinguish good theater from a cattle race."

It is after Fanny's arrival on Butler Island, Ga., that the film's exaggerations mount, and the fictions grow more dubious.

Kemble and Butler actually lived in a modest plantation overseer's cabin during their stay on his Georgia lands. But the film places them in a white-pillared antebellum mansion that out-Taras Tara.

Carradine's slave owner refuses to even call a doctor for the gravely ill, and lets his Legree-like overseer (played by Brett Porter) terrorize and wantonly beat his laborers.

The truth, according to Ludlum and other experts on Kemble's life, was really more complex and provocative. Butler was actually considered a relatively kindly master, who improved his slaves' lot after taking over the family business.

But if Kemble loved her husband, she realized even the most "enlightened" slave-keeper was fatally compromised by a system that was at root morally abhorrent.

Fanny's hatred of that system, her improvements of the slave infirmary, her attempts to influence the resentful Butler to respect the full human rights of his workers, are dramatized fairly truthfully.

But "Enslavement" is not content to make Fanny merely smart, courageous and ethical. Instead of teaching one slave to read in defiance of the law, as Kemble did, Seymour instructs dozens.

Instead of trying to end the practice of punitive beatings, this Fanny shields a slave's body with her own and gets whip-lashed. (The slave later says her intervention was like having "the arms of God" around him. Oh please.)

This Fanny becomes a leader in the Underground Railroad movement (which the real Kemble was not). And her imagined liaison with Keach's Huston is sheer romantic fantasy.

By the time "Enslavement" stuffs everything in, Fanny Kemble isn't just on the side of the angels. She's sprouted wings and become an Angel of Mercy herself, to grateful slaves she's led out of bondage.

The film also implies that her plantation diary, printed in 1863 over Butler's vigorous objections, helped turn public opinion in England against slavery - a claim for which there is no hard evidence.

Why can't Hollywood trust viewers to admire Kemble without exaggerating and sensationalizing her goodness? And why is this film subtitled "The True Story of Fanny Kemble" when it generously mingles hard fact with mawkish fiction?

Ludlum agrees "Enslavement" dallies with the truth and tenor of some aspects of Fanny's life, but hopes the film leads people back to Kemble's own journal: a vivid, engrossing read, available in a University of Georgia Press edition.

"What you have to remember was that Fanny was this very specific person confronted with this awful situation at a very specific historical moment," Ludlum notes.

"Ultimately, her journal tells more of a `Schindler's List' kind of story. It shows us a system which degraded everyone who was part of it, black and white."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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