Edmund Kean (17 March 1789 –
15 May 1833) was an English actor, regarded in his time as the greatest
ever. For many years he lived at Keydell House, Horndean.
born in London.
father was probably Edmund Kean, an architect
’s clerk, and his mother was an actress,
, daughter of the 18th century
composer and playwright Henry
. Kean made his first appearance on the stage, aged four,
as Cupid in Jean-Georges
’s ballet of Cymon
. As a child his vivacity,
cleverness and ready affection made him a universal favourite, but
his harsh circumstances and lack of discipline, both helped develop
self-reliance and fostered wayward tendencies. About 1794 a few
benevolent persons paid for him to go to school, where he did well;
but finding the restraint intolerable, he shipped as a cabin boy at
Portsmouth. Finding life at sea even more restricting, he
pretended to be both deaf and lame so
skillfully that he deceived the doctors at Madeira.
On his return to England he sought the protection of his uncle
Moses Kean, mimic, ventriloquist
general entertainer, who, besides continuing his pantomimic
studies, introduced him to the study of
. At the same time
Miss Charlotte Tidswell, an actress who had been especially kind to
him from infancy, taught him the principles of acting.
On the death of his uncle she took charge of him, and he began the
systematic study of the principal Shakespearean characters,
displaying the peculiar originality of his genius by
interpretations entirely different from those of John Philip Kemble
, then considered the
great exponent of these roles. Kean’s talents and interesting
countenance caused a Mrs Clarke to adopt him, but he took offence
at the comments of a visitor and suddenly left her house and went
back to his old surroundings.
Aged fourteen, he obtained an engagement to play leading characters
for twenty nights in York Theatre, appearing as Hamlet
, Hastings and Cato.
afterwards, while he was in Richardson's Theatre, a travelling
theatre company, the rumour of his abilities reached George III, who commanded
him to appear at Windsor
He subsequently joined Saunders’s circus,
where in the performance of an equestrian feat he fell and broke
both legs—the accident leaving traces of swelling in his insteps
throughout his life.
About this time he picked up music from Charles Incledon, dancing
from D’Egville, and fencing from Angelo. In 1807 he played leading
parts in the Belfast theatre with Sarah
, who began by calling him “a horrid little man” and on
further experience of his ability said that he “played very, very
well”, but that “there was too little of him to make a great
engagement in 1808 to play leading characters in Beverley’s
provincial troupe was brought to an abrupt close by his marriage
(17 July) with Mary Chambers of Waterford, the leading actress.
His wife bore him 2
Drury Lane and New York
several years his prospects were very gloomy, but in 1814 the
committee of Drury
Lane theatre, which was on the verge of bankruptcy,
resolved to give him a chance among the “experiments” they were
making to win a return of popularity.
When the expectation
of his first appearance in London was close upon him he was so
feverish that he exclaimed “If I succeed I shall go mad.” Unable to
afford medical treatment for some time, his elder son died the day
after he signed the 3-year Drury Lane contract.
His opening at Drury Lane on 26 January 1814 as Shylock
roused the audience to almost uncontrollable
enthusiasm. Successive appearances in Richard III
and King Lear
demonstrated his mastery of the
range of tragic emotion. His triumph was so great that he himself
said on one occasion, "I could not feel the stage under me."
November 1820 Kean appeared for the first time in New York as Richard III.
The success of his visit to
America was unequivocal, although he fell into a vexatious dispute
with the press. On 4 June 1821 he returned to England.
Kean was the first to restore the tragic ending to Shakespeare's
, which had been replaced on stage since 1681 by
Nahum Tate's happy ending
adaptation The History of King Lear
had previously acted Tate's Lear, but told his wife that the London
audience "have no notion of what I can do till they see me over the
dead body of Cordelia." Kean played the tragic Lear for a few
performances. They were not well received, though one critic
described his dying scene as "deeply affecting", and with regret,
he reverted to Tate.
Kean’s lifestyle became a hindrance to his career. In Switzerland,
he met Charlotte Cox, the wife of a London city alderman. Kean was
sued by Cox for adultery on his return to England. Damages of £800
was awarded against him in the presence of a jury in just 10
minutes. The Times
launched a violent
attack on him. The adverse decision in the divorce case of Cox v.
Kean on 17 January 1825 caused his wife to leave him, and aroused
against him such bitter feeling, that he was booed and pelted with
fruit when he re-appeared at Drury Lane, as nearly to compel him to
retire permanently into private life.
Second American visit
A second visit to America in 1825 was largely a repetition of the
persecution which he had suffered in England. Some cities showed
him a spirit of charity; many audiences submitted him to insults
and even violence. In Quebec he was much
impressed with the kindness of some Huron
Indians who attended his performances, and he was purportedly
made an honorary chief of the tribe, receiving the name
Kean’s last appearance in New York
was on 5 December 1826 in Richard III
, the role in which
he was first seen in America.
Decline and death
He returned to England and was ultimately received with favour, but
by now he was so dependent on the use of stimulants that the
gradual deterioration of his gifts was inevitable. Still, his great
powers triumphed during the moments of his inspiration over the
absolute wreck of his physical faculties. His appearance in Paris
was a failure owing to a fit of drunkenness.
appearance on the stage was at Covent Garden, on 25 March 1833, when he played Othello to the
Iago of his son, Charles Kean, who was also an accomplished
At the words “Villain, be sure,” in scene 3 of act
iii, he suddenly broke down, and crying in a faltering voice “O
God, I am dying. Speak to them, Charles,” fell insensible into his
son’s arms. He died at Richmond, Surrey where he had spent his last years as manager of the
local theatre, and was buried in the Parish Church where there is a
floor plaque marking his grave and a wall plaque originally on the
outside but moved inside and heavily restored during restoration
work in 1904.
His last words were alleged to be "dying is
easy; comedy is hard." In Dublin, Gustavus Vaughan Brooke
took up the
part of William Tell
It was in the impersonation of the great creations of Shakespeare’s
genius that the varied beauty and grandeur of the acting of Kean
were displayed in their highest form, although probably his most
powerful character was Sir Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger
’s A New Way to Pay Old
, the effect of his first performance of which was such
that the pit rose en masse, and even the actors and actresses
themselves were overcome by the terrific dramatic illusion. His
main disadvantage as an actor was his small stature. Coleridge
said, “Seeing him act was
like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”
If the range of character in which Kean attained supreme excellence
was narrow, no one except David
was so successful in so many great roles. Unlike
Garrick, Kean had no true talent for comedy, but in the expression
of biting and saturnine wit, of grim and ghostly gaiety he was
His eccentricities at the height of his fame were numerous.
Sometimes he would ride recklessly on his horse, Shylock,
throughout the night. He was presented with a tame lion with which
he might be found playing in his drawing-room The prize-fighters Mendoza
were among his visitors. Grattan
was his devoted friend.
In his earlier days, Talma
said of him, “He is a
magnificent uncut gem; polish and round him off and he will be a
perfect tragedian.” Macready
, who was much impressed by
Kean’s Richard III
and met the actor at supper, speaks of
his “unassuming manner ... partaking in some degree of shyness” and
of the “touching grace” of his singing. Kean’s delivery of the
three words “I answer—No!” in the part of Sir Edward Mortimer in
The Iron Chest
, cast Macready into an abyss of despair at
rivalling him in this role. So full of dramatic interest is the
life of Edmund Kean that it formed the subject for the play "Kean"
by Jean-Paul Sartre
as well as a
play by Alexandre Dumas,
, entitled Kean, ou Désordre et génie
, in which
the actor Frédérick
achieved one of his greatest triumphs.
Several theatrical works have been based on Kean's life:
- Kean, a drama by Alexandre Dumas, père, 1836
- Kean, a comedy by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1953 (produced 1954 with
Pierre Brasseur, revived London 2007
starring Antony Sher)
- Kean, a Broadway musical
by Peter Stone, Robert Wright, and George Forrest, 1961
- Kean IV, a tragicomedy by Grigoriy Gorin, 1991
Dowden, "Introduction to King Lear" in Shakespeare Tragedies,
Oxford University Press, 1912, p. 743.
- George Daniel, quoted in Grace Ioppolo, William
Shakespeare's King Lear: A Sourcebook. London, Routledge,
2003, p. 79.
Wells, "Introduction" from King Lear Oxford
University Press, 2000, p. 69.
- Hillebrand, Harold Newcomb. Edmund Kean New York,
Columbia University Press, 1933 p 275
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Table
Talk, 27 April 1823 in
- Francis Phippen, Authentic memoirs of Edmund Kean,
containing a specimen of his talent at composition (London,
- B. W.
Procter, The Life of E.
K. (London, 1835)
- Frederick William Hawkins, The life of Edmund Kean
(Tinsley Brothers, London, 1869)
- George Henry Lewes, On
Actors and the Art of Acting (Smith Elder, London, 1875)
- Henry Barton Baker Our Old Actors, (R. Bentley &
Son, London, 1881)
- Edwin Booth, "Edmund Kean," in
Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and the United States
from the days of David Garrick to the present time, edited by
Brander Matthews and Laurence Hutton, volume iii (Cassell & Co., New York, 1886)
- Joseph Fitzgerald Molloy, The Life and Adventures of Edmund
Kean, Tragedian, 1787-1833 (Downey & Co. Limited, London,
- Edward Stirling, Old Drury Lane: Fifty Years' Recollections
of Author, Actor, and Manager (Chatto and Windus, London, 1887).
- Lynch, Jack (2007). Becoming Shakespeare: The Strange
Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard.
New York: Walker & Co.