Two hundred years ago this Sunday, the legendary actor, Edmund Kean, made his debut on the London stage in his first adult role. Though he was a great success and his performance made him an instant celebrity, as well as saving the theatre in which the play was performed, it was a time of great personal sadness for him. His life all too often reflected the tragic parts he would play on the stage. A brilliant actor, if personally rather eccentric, Kean would go on to both great highs and extraordinary lows in both his personal and professional life before his tragically early death. But two centuries ago, he stunned London theatre-goers with the power of his performance.
The night Edmund Kean first played Shylock in London …
The date of birth for Edmund Kean ranges between March and November 1787. His true birthday is as obscure as his parentage, though it is fairly certain he was born in London. Most scholars believe that he was the illegitimate son of Aaron Kean, a stage carpenter, and Anne Carey, an actress and strolling player. Aaron Kean suffered severe bouts of depression and committed suicide within a year of his son’s birth. One of Kean’s early biographers held that his mother, Anne Carey, was the illegitimate great grand-daughter of the First Marquis of Halifax, though later scholars consider the claim doubtful. Kean’s mother abandoned him as an infant to the care of a kindly couple living on Frith Street in Soho while she returned to acting to support herself. She reclaimed him at about the age of four and put him to work on the stage. He played Cupid in Cymon, a ballet by the French ballet-master, Jean-Georges Noverre, during its run at the Covent Garden Theatre.
Kean was an intelligent, vivacious and affectionate child, who was a great favorite in the London acting community. About 1794, it is reported that several people who were fond of him paid for him to go to school. Supposedly, though he did well in school, he hated the restrictive environment and ran away to sea, taking a job as a cabin boy on a ship out of Portsmouth. He found that life even more restrictive and used his innate acting skills to feign both deafness and lameness so well he duped the doctors who examined him in Madeira. He was sent back to England, where he was taken in by his uncle, Moses Kean, an entertainer, and the elder Kean’s mistress, the actress, Charlotte Tidswell. Tidswell was a friend of Anne Carey and had been fond of Edmund since he was a child. She had high hopes for his success as an actor and continued to care for him after the death of his uncle. Tidswell ensured he had acting training, including a thorough study of the plays of Shakespeare.
When he was fourteen, Kean accepted an engagement at the York Theatre to play several leading roles in Shakespeare’s plays over the course of three weeks. Following that, he joined John Richardson’s Travelling Theatre, where he made such a name for himself that he was invited to Windsor Castle for a command performance in recitation before King George III. Sometime after that, Kean joined Saunder’s large travelling circus. Though he was not a large or powerful man, Kean learned to ride and performed in a number of audacious equestrian exhibitions. It was also at about this time that he took up the study of music, dancing and fencing to add to his repertoire of stage skills. Unfortunately, during the performance of an equestrian feat, he was thrown from his horse and both his legs were broken. Though he recovered, he would suffer intermittent painful swelling of his insteps for the rest of his life.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, Kean went to Ireland. In 1807, he played leading roles opposite Sarah Siddons in the Belfast Theatre. The following year, he joined a provincial acting troupe under the direction of Samuel Butler. While with Butler’s troupe, he met the actress, Mary Chambers, whom he married in July of 1808. For the next few years they continued to act in various travelling troupes in Ireland and England, just barely making ends meet. During that time, they became a family with the birth of two sons. Kean was making a name for himself in the provinces, but he had yet to take the stage at any of the legitimate London theatres.
In January of 1814, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was facing bankruptcy. The theatre built in the early 1790s, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, had burned to the ground in 1809. It was once again rebuilt and reopened in October of 1812. To help cover the costs of rebuilding and fitting out the new theatre, the management raised the ticket prices. This increase resulted in a round of Old Price Riots by angry theatre-goers, similar to what had happened at the new Covent Garden Theatre in 1809. The Drury Lane management committee gave in within a few weeks and returned to the ticket prices they had charged for plays in the old theatre. This only increased the economic pressure on the theatre’s income and by the end of 1813, the Drury Lane Theatre was in serious financial difficulty.
Though Sarah Siddons had left the Drury Lane Theatre in 1802, she undoubtedly kept in touch with at least some of those on the management committee there, even after she retired from the stage in 1812. She was aware they were experimenting with new talent in an effort to draw larger audiences and it may well have been she who recommended Edmund Kean to their notice. Siddons had worked with Kean in Belfast a few years earlier and, though she did not like him, she did recognize his ability. Siddons described Kean as "a horrid little man" adding that "… he played very, very well, … but there was too little of him to make a great actor." Siddons believed leading men should be tall, stately, and patrician, like her brother, John Philip Kemble, the current darling of the London stage. Since Kean was as yet unknown in London, the Drury Lane management were interested in him, with the expectation that he would be much less expensive to employ than top talent. The management committee sent Edmund Kean an invitation to act at Drury Lane.
As 1813 came to a close, Edmund Kean and his family were also in dire financial straits and the young actor eagerly accepted the invitation to take the stage at Drury Lane. His debut performance was to be as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Sadly, the invitation had not arrived soon enough. Kean’s eldest son was ill, but his parents could not afford to take their little boy to a doctor. The day after Edmund Kean signed his contract with Drury Lane Theatre, his eldest son died. Despite his grief, Kean was obligated to perform at Drury Lane and his debut was scheduled for the evening of Wednesday, 26 January 1814. One of the most celebrated nights in the history of the British theatre.
Through much of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, Shylock was typically played either as a repulsive clown or a thoroughly evil and heartless villain. In addition, most acting at this time, particularly when playing Shakespeare, was in the declamatory style, that is, the actors spoke their lines in a consistently loud tone, with few facial expressions and little inflection in their voice. This was accompanied by large, exaggerated gestures, executed in a slow and deliberate style. This declamatory style of acting was considered quite noble and was the preferred acting style at that time for most prominent actors in legitimate London theatre. It was certainly the style used most often by the famous actors, John Philip Kemble, and his sister, Sarah Siddons. But the evening of 26 January 1814 would be Edmund Kean’s first night on the legitimate London stage and he was a man of passion and firey spirit who put his heart and soul into his acting.
Kean dispensed with the traditional red beard and wig and exaggerated costume which was typically worn by the character of Shylock. Instead, he wore a black beard and wig, as well as a costume in a more regular and conservative style. More importantly, he played Shylock in a melodramatic style rather than the stilted declamatory style which had become usual. He also played the money-lender as a terrifyingly diabolical, yet more human and nuanced character than had been seen on the London stage for generations. Kean’s natural but passionate portrayal of Shylock gave his audience that night a sense of excitement which they had never experienced during the noble, declamatory performances given by the Kembles. Kean took the house by storm, receiving long, loud applause after every scene he played. By the time he came to the crucial rhetorical scene in Act III, which begins: " If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" the audience was on their feet, shouting responses to each question and roaring with approval. The critic, William Hazlitt, was in the audience that night, and wrote of Kean’s performance: "For voice, eye, action and expression no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him. The applause from the first scene to the last was general loud and uninterrupted."
Even before the play was over, it was clear to those in the auditorium that night that a new star had burst upon the London theatre scene. The next day, Kean’s performance was the talk of the town, and within the week he was the darling of the London stage, displacing John Philip Kemble. Kean was not the only one to benefit from his new-found popularity. His debut performance had set the Drury Lane Theatre firmly on the path to economic security. The new theatre could seat three thousand and Edmund Kean was one of the few actors who could fill it to capacity for every performance. Kean had been extremely apprehensive about his Drury Lane debut and is reported to have said, "If I succeed I shall go mad." However, when discussing his triumph afterward, he told a friend, "I could not feel the stage under me." After a hugely successful run as Shylock, Kean went on to play Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, King Lear and Othello, among other notable Shakespearean characters. His death scenes were always profound and intense, riveting the audience. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of Kean, "Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning."
But Kean did not restrict himself to Shakespearean parts. At his insistence, in 1816, he prevailed upon the Drury Lane management to mount a revival of A New Way to Pay Old Debts, an English Renaissance play by Philip Massinger. Kean played the villain, Sir Giles Overreach, and infused such a strong sense of evil into that character that he terrified several of his fellow actors. Lord Byron had a convulsive fit during Kean’s first performance as Overreach. In addition, a number of people present that night suffered such strong hysterics that they had to be removed from the theatre. Kean’s performances in scenes which required strong emotion or rapid and violent transitions in mood were always intense and disturbing, but quite memorable.
Jane Austen was in London about a month after Kean’s triumphant Drury Lane debut, and was eager to see him perform. But he was already so popular that her brother, Henry, was only able to get tickets for the third and fourth rows of a forward box for a play which starred Kean. Austen thoroughly enjoyed the performance and wrote to her sister, Cassandra, on the morning following her attendance at the play:
We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short and excepting him and Miss Smith — and she did not quite answer my expectation — the parts were ill filled and the play heavy. I shall like to see Kean again excessively and to see him with you too, it appeared to me as if there were no fault in him anywhere and in his scene with Tubal there was exquisite acting.
Sadly, Jane and Cassandra were never to attended a Kean performance together. The night Jane Austen saw Kean on stage is believed to be the last time she ever saw a play in London.
During the remaining yeas of the Regency, Edmund Kean continued to be regarded as one of the most celebrated actors on the London stage. His performances were much more realistic and dramatic than the more noble but coolly remote performances of actors such as Kemble. Comedy and romance were not his forte, but audiences loved him for his passionate and intensely emotional style of acting in tragic parts, particularly villains. Kean was a passionate man off the stage as well, with what was almost certainly an unstable and ungovernable personality. For several years, he thoroughly enjoyed his great professional success and his new-found prosperity by flaunting his eccentricities. He named his favorite horse Shylock, and he could be seen from time to time riding him wildly and recklessly through the night. He invited the prize-fighters Mendoza and Richmond the Black to his home on Clarges Street on several occasions. But perhaps he most enjoyed shocking his visitors by playing with his tame lion in his drawing room.
But over time, Kean began to fear he would be displaced as the top actor in London. This fear betrayed him into outrageous displays of jealousy towards anyone he considered a potential rival. He also began to drink more and more heavily, and he ran up increasingly large debts. Kean became involved in scandals with several women, the worst of which culminated in 1825, when he was sued for criminal conversation. The man who brought suit was a London city alderman and an administrator at the Drury Lane Theatre. The resulting press coverage of such a high profile case severely damaged Kean’s image with the public and drove his wife to leave him. He continued acting, even touring the United States twice in the 1820s, but by the end of that decade he had become a hopeless alcoholic. His last performance was at Covent Garden on 25 March 1833, when he played the part of Othello to his son Charles’ Iago. During Act III, Kean collapsed into his son’s arms and had to be carried from the stage. He died at his home in Richmond, on 15 May 1833, at the age of forty-six, not long after having reconciled with his wife. His fortune was gone and he left his family with nothing save his name. But what a name!
Despite his tragic end, Edmund Kean was the most prominent actor on the Regency London stage from the night he first played Shylock, two hundred years ago. John Philip Kemble retired in June of 1817, quite probably due to Kean’s increasing popularity, leaving Kean unchallenged as the top actor in England, at least until the Prince Regent finally succeeded to his father’s throne. It is estimated that Kean made at least £10,000 a year until scandal finally brought him down. During the Regency, his plays were almost always sold out, and in his tragic parts he always gave his audience a thrilling and spine-tingling performance. Off-stage, he enjoyed flaunting his wealth and power with his numerous eccentricities. Dear Regency Authors, if you are planning a novel set after January of 1814, might Edmund Kean have a place in that story? Might some of your characters attend one of his performances, or might they be invited to his home, perhaps to play with his pet lion? If you need a colorful theatrical character to add color to your tale, do not forget Edmund Kean.