1902 Encyclopedia > Edmund Kean

Edmund Kean
English actor

EDMUND KEAN (1787 - 1833), an English actor, chiefly celebrated as an impersonator of Shakespearean characters, was born at Chancery Lane, London, November 4, 1787. His reputed father was Aaron Kean, stage carpenter, and his mother was a strolling actress, Ann Carey, grand-daughter of Henry Carey, the author of the National Anthem, and the natural son of George Savile, marquis of Halifax. When only in his fourth year Kean made his first appearance on the stage as Cupid in one of Noverre's ballets at the opera-house. His fine black eyes, his bright vivacity and cleverness, and his ready affection to those who treated him with kindness, made him in childhood a universal favourite, but the harsh circumstances of his lot, and the want of proper restraint, while they developed strong self-reliance, fostered wayward tendencies. About 1794 a few persons benevolently provided the means of sending him to school, where he mastered his tasks with remarkable ease and rapidity ; but finding its restraints intolerably irksome, he shipped himself as a cabin boy at Portsmouth. Soon discovering that he had only escaped to a more rigorous bondage, he counterfeited both deafness and lameness with a histrionic mastery which deceived even the physicians at Madeira. On his return to England he sought the protection of his uncle Moses Kean, mimic, ventriloquist, and general entertainer, who, besides continuing his pantomimic studies, introduced him to the study of Shakespeare. At the same time Miss Tidswell, an actress who had been specially kind to him from infancy, taught him the principals of acting. On the death of his uncle he was taken charge of by Miss Tidswell, and under her instruction he began the systematic study of the principal Shakespearean characters, displaying even at this early period the peculiar originality of his genius by interpretations entirely different from those of Kemble. His brilliant talents and interesting countenance induced a Mrs Clarke of Guildford Street, Russell Square, to adopt him, but the unlucky remark of a visitor so touched his sensitive pride that he suddenly left her house and went back to his old surroundings. In his fourteenth year he obtained an engagement to play leading characters for twenty nights in York Theatre, appearing as Hamlet, Hastings, and Cato. Shortly afterwards, while he was in the strolling troupe of Richardson, the rumour of his abilities reached the ear of King George III, who commanded him to recite at Windsor Castle. It is affirmed that this incident led some gentlemen to send him to Eton College ; but the next three years of his life, from 1803 to 1806, are without authentic record. In 1807 he played leading parts in the Belfast theatre along with Mrs Siddons, who said that he "played very well," but that "there was too little of him to make a great actor." An engagement in 1808 to play leading characters in Beverley's provincial troupe was brought to an abrupt close by his marriage with Miss Chambers, the leading actress, and for several years after his prospects were so dark that, when contemplating the possibility of a debut in London, he was in the habit of exclaiming, "If I succeed I shall go mad." In 1814, however, the committee of Drury Lane theatre, the fortunes of which were then so low that bankruptcy seemed inevitable, resolved to give him a chance among the "experiments" they were making to win a return of popularity. His debut there on the 26th January as Shylock roused the audience to almost uncontrollable enthusiasm, and successive appearances in Richard III., Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear only served to demonstrate to the fullest the greatness of his powers and his complete mastery of the whole range of tragic emotion.

Probably the irregular habits of Kean, even from the period when he became famous, were prejudiced to the refinement of his taste, and latterly they tended to exaggerate his special defects and mannerisms. The adverse decision in the divorce case Cox v. Kean, and his consequent separation from his wife, roused against him such bitter feeling as almost compelled him to retire permanently into private life. Ultimately he was received with all the old favour, but the contrast by its effects both on his bodily health and on his feelings had made him so dependent on the use of stimulants that the gradual deterioration of his gifts was inevitable. Still, even in their decay his great powers triumphed during the moments of his inspiration over the absolute wreck of his physical faculties, and compelled admiration when his gait had degenerated into a weak hobble, when the lightning brilliancy of his eyes had become dull and bloodshot, and the tones of his matchless voice were marred by rough and grating hoarseness. His last appearance on the stage was at Covent Garden, on the 25th March 1833, when he played Othello to his son's Iago. At the words "Villain, be sure" in scene 3 of act iii. he suddenly broke down, and fell insensible into his son's arms. He died at Richmond, 15th May 1833.

It was especially 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, the effect of his first impersonation 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 only personal disadvantage as an actor was his small stature. His countenance was strikingly interesting and unusually mobile ; he had a matchless command of facial elocution ; his fine eyes scintillated even the slightest shades of emotion and thought ; his voice, though weak and harsh in the upper register, possessed in its lower range tones of penetrating and resistless power, and a thrilling sweetness like the witchery of the finest music ; above all, in the grander moments of his passion, his intellect and soul seemed to rise beyond material barriers and to glorify physical defects with their own greatness. In Othello, Iago, Shylock, and Richard III., characters utterly different from each other, but in which the predominant element is some form of passion, his identification with the personality, as he had conceived it, was as nearly as possible perfect, and each isolated phrase and aspect of the plot was elaborated with the minutest attention to details, and yet with an absolute subordination of these to the distinct individuality he was endeavouring to portray. If the range of character in which Kean had attained supreme excellence was narrow, no one except Garrick has been so successful in so many great impersonations. Unlike Garrick, he had no true talent for comedy, but in the expression of biting and saturnine wit, of grim and ghostly gaiety, he was unsurpassed.

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