Kean served an apprenticeship with groups of provincial and strolling players and in 1814 appeared at Drury Lane as Shylock, a triumph that is a landmark in the history of the theater. He further increased his reputation with portrayals of Richard III, Iago, Othello, Macbeth, Barabbas, and Sir Giles Overreach. In the United States in 1820-21 Kean had many triumphs, but a broken engagement in Boston ruined his popularity there.
Kean's personal life was as stormy as his career. In 1822 a suit against him for adultery resulted in his separation from his wife and son and hastened the disintegration of his reputation. In 1825 he again visited the United States and in some measure retrieved his reputation. After his return to England in 1826 his health and dramatic powers declined.
See biographies by H. N. Hillebrand (1933) and M. W. Disher (1950).
His son, Charles John Kean, 1811?-1868, went on the stage against his father's wishes. At his father's last appearance in 1833 he played Iago to his father's Othello at Covent Garden. He often played opposite his wife, Ellen Tree Kean, 1808-80, a noted comedienne, whom he married in 1842.
See the letters of C. and E. Kean, ed. by J. M. D. Hardwick (1954).
Edmund Kean, detail of a pencil drawing by Samuel Cousins, 1814; in the National Portrait Gallery, elipsis
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Kean was born in London. His father was probably Edmund Kean, an architect’s clerk, and his mother was an actress, Anne Carey, daughter of the 18th century composer and playwright Henry Carey. Kean made his first appearance on the stage, aged four, as Cupid in Jean-Georges Noverre’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 and general entertainer, who, besides continuing his pantomimic studies, introduced him to the study of Shakespeare. 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.
Shortly afterwards, while he was in a travelling theatre company, the rumour of his abilities reached George III, who commanded him to appear at Windsor Castle. 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 Siddons, 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 actor”. An engagement in 1808 to play leading characters in Beverley’s provincial troupe was brought to an abrupt close by his marriage (July 17) with Mary Chambers of Waterford, the leading actress. His wife bore him 2 sons.
For 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 January 26, 1814 as Shylock roused the audience to almost uncontrollable enthusiasm. Successive appearances in Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth 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." On November 29, 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 June 4, 1821 he returned to England.
Kean was the first to restore the tragic ending to Shakespeare's King Lear, which had been replaced on stage since 1681 by Nahum Tate's, happy ending adaptation The History of King Lear. Kean 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 January 17, 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.
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 Alanienouidet.. Kean’s last appearance in New York was on December 5, 1826 in Richard III, the role in which he was first seen in America.
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.
His last appearance on the stage was at Covent Garden, on March 25, 1833, when he played Othello to the Iago of his son, Charles Kean, who was also an accomplished actor. 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 two months later, 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. In Dublin, Gustavus Vaughan Brooke took up the part of William Tell vacated by Kean.
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 Debts, 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 Garrick 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 unsurpassed.
His eccentricities at the height of his fame were numerous. Sometimes he would ride recklessly on his horse Khylock 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 and Richmond the Black were among his visitors. Grattan was his devoted friend.
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