Considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century, Edmund Kean (1789-1833) restored authenticity to the Bard's works, where others had seen fit to change and even censor them. His performances and his life soon became legendary, but heavy drinking brought a premature end to his career.
Because there is no record of Kean's birth, the exact date is open to debate, but the best estimate places it on March 17, 1789 in London. He was the illegitimate son of Ann Carey, an actress, and Edmund Kean, an actor and apprentice surveyor. The senior Edmund Kean committed suicide at age 22, when his son was only three years old. His mother was not around, and the boy was cared for by a Charlotte Tidswell.
Tidswell was also an actress, a bit player at the Drury Lane Theatre Company. She had been the mistress of the child's uncle, Moses Kean, a London entertainer and ventriloquist. It is believed that the death of Moses Kean may have led Edmund Kean Sr. to commit suicide.
At the time she took on the responsibility of looking after young Edmund, Tidswell had also been the mistress of the Duke of Norfolk. She was unable to make use of that connection to get ahead, but she was nevertheless ambitious for the boy. It was she who instilled the desire to become an actor in Kean (he first appeared in a play in 1793 at age four), but she was less successful at her attempts at discipline. By age 15, Kean was on his own, a young man whose only professional desire was to create a life in the theater for himself.
The Provincial Actor
In 1804, Kean went to Sheerness in Kent, and joined the Samuel Jerrold Company, where he was initially paid 15 shillings a week. He spent a year there, treated like the prodigy he probably was, before joining a theater company in Belfast that was directed by the influential Michael Adkins. In Belfast, he had the opportunity to observe some of London's better actors (who toured the provinces during the summer), but he had less opportunity to act. The frustration of his apprenticeship in the theater would mark Kean's life over the next nine years, ultimately leading to his alcoholism.
Perhaps the one bright spot during his time in the Belfast company was when the prominent English actress Sarah Siddons performed and Kean had a bit role. Later in life, he managed to fabricate their brief contact into an anecdote that reinforced his legend as a hard drinker.
By 1806 Kean was back in London, at the Haymarket Theatre where, at Charlotte Tisdale's recommendation, he had secured another junior position. Kean lasted only a few months at the Haymarket. His already outsized ego would not permit him to understudy a fellow actor, Alexander Rae, who was only a few years older than him and who, feeling the power of the lead actor, insulted the diminutive Kean.
As a result Kean left once again for Kent, where he joined the company of one Mrs. Baker at Turnbridge Wells. He spent a year there before returning to Jerrold's company. With Jerrold, he once again enjoyed lead roles. This time Kean probably would have stayed longer with Jerrold (he left early in 1808) except he found himself in trouble with a townsman (he had seduced the man's wife) and was forced to leave just ahead of a vengeful mob. His next stop was Gloucester.
One of the members of the Gloucester company was Mary Chambers, originally from Ireland, with whom Kean fell in love almost immediately. They had a whirlwind courtship and married on July 17, 1808. Soon, Kean, his new wife, and his sister-in-law, Susan, joined a theatre company in Cheltenham.
The Keans would have two sons: Howard, born in 1809, who died at the age of four; and Charles, born in 1811, who went on to become a distinguished actor himself, and who married the actress Ellen Tree.
By all accounts, most notably his wife's, the Kean marriage was an unhappy one. During the early years of the marriage, Kean was struggled to make a living in the provinces. The family, especially during the two years between Charles' birth and Howard's death, was dangerously close to extreme poverty.
A Star Is Born
The turning point in Kean's career came in 1814, when he appeared as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane. It wasn't just a great performance, but an innovative one. Kean was too short to match the era's ideal for the dramatic actor, as set by the tall, stately John Philip Kemble. Kean's ingenuity was to recognize what his own talents were and to make use of them.
The character of Shylock, for example, was a perfect role for Kean's short stature, expressive eyes, and rich voice. The real innovation came in how Kean chose to play the role, as a dark, twisted, evil person, rather than a comic one, which stage tradition had dictated until that time. Kean's performance was sensational and it prodded a London theatre world seemingly ready for change. From then on Kean's life in the theater was secure.
Kean quickly proved himself a master at portraying Shakespeare's classic villains, such as Iago, Macbeth, and Richard III. He also won rave reviews for his Othello and Hamlet. Kean, of course, didn't limit himself to Shakespeare; he also undertook such roles as Barabas in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Sir Giles Overreach in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts. Yet Shakespeare, especially the villains, remained for Kean the signature of his career.
In the age of romanticism, Kean was a romantic actor of the first degree. Kean's public persona also fit the bill as he strove to remain foremost on the London stage. Yet the mixture of ego, professional will, insecurity, sensitivity, and alcoholism soon made him a popular target for the London press. Kean remained London's leading dramatic figure for the next 19 years, and in his prime he earned ] 10,000 a year.
Conquered North America
Kean made his New York debut in 1820 in the role of Richard III. He also performed in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston, where he created a scandal by walking out on what he thought was a nearly empty theater and refusing to return for Richard III. This didn't sit well with the Bostonians who thereafter roasted Kean in the press. Yet his sojourn in the United States was largely successful and other North American tours followed on the heels of this success.
Around 1825, Kean's already bad public reputation had undergone further damage when an adulterous affair was made public by the angry husband, a politician who promptly brought a lawsuit against the actor. Kean lost the suit, and his reputation was damaged. But for the most part, he remained popular in North America.
It was in 1826, during a run in Quebec, Canada, where perhaps the strangest event in Kean's legendary career unfolded. During one of his Quebec performances, a group of Huron Indians, were in the audience. Afterward Kean met with them, expressed his admiration for their tribe and his desire to abandon his European heritage.
The Hurons were so taken with Kean that they decided to make him a member of their tribe. In fact, in a ceremony attended by four Hurons as well as some of Kean's Canadian acquaintances, Kean was made a chieftain and given the new name, Alanienouidet. Afterward Kean went to the Huron village to live, and would have stayed indefinitely except his Canadian friends, perhaps fearing for his safety and almost certainly his sanity, removed him from the Huron community. Subsequently, Kean spent some time in an asylum.
For relaxation, when he wasn't enjoying the London nightlife, Kean retired to his Scottish estate. In 1824, he had purchased a house and property from the Marquess of Bute. The house was called Woodend and its isolation offered Kean a welcome contrast to theater life. As was his charming way, he made friends among the local population, even throwing fireworks parties. However, his wife was not so enthused about the place. This, coupled with more affairs by Kean, led to the end of their marriage.
The incident with the Huron Indians made it clear that drinking was affecting Kean's mind, yet he still continued to appear on stage. During the 1827-28 season, he appeared at Covent Garden, which was managed by Charles Kemble, John Philip Kemble's younger brother. Though his physical powers were waning-Kean was often ill from too much drink-he seldom displeased the public. Yet it took more of an effort to prepare himself for each performance.
In 1828 he traveled to Paris to act in the Odeon Theatre (with the Odeon's company of English players) but illness and fatigue impaired his performance, and the French were cool toward him. He returned to the English provinces, but settled into Bute for the summer and early autumn.
When he did return to Covent Garden in October of 1828, he was worse than when he left; his performances were uneven. Finally, on January 12, 1829 as he was preparing for a performance of Richard II, Kean collapsed. It was evident even to him that he needed a long rest and he agreed with Kemble to return to Covent Garden for the 1830-31 season.
Kean then returned to Bute, where he had been enjoying a new woman in his life, Ophelia Benjamin. He referred to her as Mrs. Kean, but theirs was anything but a love match. The young Irish woman more or less took over Kean's life, isolating him from his few remaining friends and estranging him from his son, Charles. His isolation became more apparent when he returned to London in November of 1829. His purpose was to assist Charles Kemble to stave off bankruptcy by performing free of charge, but he soon found that Kemble didn't really need his help-Kemble's 18-year-old daughter, Fanny, had practically made Covent Garden solvent single-handedly.
Kean was now on the outside looking in, especially when he became the center of a controversy by deciding to return to Drury Lane rather than play Covent Garden on the nights Fanny Kemble was not available. Kemble was the new toast of the London theater world and Kean was vilified by the press for his perceived selfishness.
Kean persisted at Drury Lane that season, but he eventually returned to Covent Garden, the location of his final performance. It was a staging of Othello that also starred his son Charles, who had re-established friendly relations with his father. Kean's final performance was on March 25, 1833 with Kean playing Othello to Charles's Iago. Kean collapsed on stage and later died on May 15, 1833. With his death an era had passed.
Playfair, Giles, Kean, E.P. Dutton and Co., 1939.
Times Higher Education Supplement, November 21, 1997.
"1826-Edmund Kean among the Hurons," Shakespeare.about.com website, http://shakespeare.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.canadiantheatre.com%2Fk%2Fkeanhuronsdoc.html (December 11, 2000).
"Edmund Kean," freespace.virgin.net website, http://freespace.virginnet/andrew.walters2/edmund.htm (December 11, 2000).