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Kean, Edmundlocked

(1787–1833)
  • Peter Thomson

Edmund Kean (1787–1833)

by James Northcote, 1819 [standing; as Brutus in Brutus by Howard Payne]

Kean, Edmund (1787–1833), actor, was born on 4 November 1787 in the Gray's Inn chambers of his maternal grandfather, George Saville Carey, who lived in shabby gentility on his earnings as a lecturer and entertainer. Kean's date of birth and parentage have both been disputed. His mother, Ann Carey (d. 1833), divided her time between acting and prostitution. Her grandfather, the playwright Henry Carey, was an illegitimate son of George Savile, marquess of Halifax, after whom her father was named. The likelihood is that Kean's father was Edmund Kean (d. 1793), at that time articled to a surveyor. This Edmund was the youngest of three brothers. Little is known of Aaron, the eldest, beyond the fact that he was frequently drunk. The second, Moses, a moderately successful entertainer, was the unmarried partner of a Drury Lane actress, Charlotte Tidswell. Edmund, who shared Aaron's dependence on alcohol, committed suicide in 1793, and the evidence suggests that Ann Carey, who had two other children by a man named Darnley, found her new son burdensome.

A loveless childhood

Kean's childhood, particularly after the death in 1792 of his uncle Moses, was loveless. He was shipped between the homes of Mrs Price, his mother's widowed sister, and Charlotte Tidswell, without being welcome in either. When possible they farmed him out with strangers, and their attempts to educate him were half-hearted. It was, nevertheless, Charlotte (‘Aunt Tid’) who most strongly influenced him during his migratory childhood. The duke of Norfolk may have interceded to procure her initial engagement at Drury Lane, and it was on rumours of her liaison with him that Kean would later build the fiction of his aristocratic parentage. Charlotte was sufficiently competent to sustain her place at Drury Lane until 1822, when she retired at the age of sixty. It was with her that Kean first observed the backstage life of London's leading theatre.

The smatterings of information about Kean's childhood rarely rise above the anecdotal level. Aunt Tid may well have listened to, and even refined, his early recitations from Shakespeare; she may have licensed his occasional appearances, from infancy through boyhood, on the Drury Lane stage. The problem is that Kean's first three biographers shared with their subject a talent for embroidery that enforces scepticism. Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall), the first to produce a systematic life of Kean (1835), shrewdly observes in the records of his boyhood a tendency to run away when the going became tough. This was an unattractive characteristic that would remain with him. But Procter, although more circumspect than Hawkins and Molloy, had also to rely on the sort of stories that friends had heard from a friend of Kean's, and Kean in his cups was capable of wild inventiveness. It may, then, be doubted that he ever walked from Southwark to Portsmouth, where he embarked as a cabin-boy on a Madeira-bound ship, or that, at the age of four, he had to wear leg-irons because of the brutality of his acrobatic training at Drury Lane (if he ever did wear irons, incipient rickets is a likelier cause). It is, however, quite plausible that he exhibited his precocious talents anywhere from middle-class drawing-rooms to East End taverns. Ann Carey made money however she could, and there was obviously something captivating about the small, dark-eyed, and athletic boy. Perhaps with the agreement of Aunt Tid, he was marketed as an infant prodigy. A surviving playbill, dating from 1801, advertises the appearance at the Great Room, no. 8, Store Street, Bedford Square, of 'The Celebrated Theatrical Child, Edmund Carey, not eleven years old'. Kean, like the Infant Phenomenon in Nicholas Nickleby, was small enough to pass as some years younger than his true age. His later contempt for Master Betty, the sensation of the London season of 1804, may hark back to this period in the life of ‘Master Carey’.

Early struggles

Kean may have made a few undistinguished appearances on the Drury Lane stage before the end of the eighteenth century. He had certainly experienced the seedier life of a strolling player, perhaps with his mother as a member of the Saunders company, perhaps with John Richardson, who had pitched his first portable booth-theatre at Bartholomew fair in 1798. It was as a tumbler that Kean was featured at such fairs, one among the crowd:

Pimps, pawnbrokers, strollers, fat landladies, sailors,Bawds, bailies, jilts, jockies, thieves, tumblers and tailors.

G. A. Stevens, Sports of the City jubileeThe story persists that Kean, rehearsing or performing a tumbling trick, fractured a leg so badly that it never fully mended. Versatility was an asset among strollers, and Kean would later credit Richardson with giving him his first acting opportunity in a major part, that of Young Norval in John Home's Douglas. More consistently, though, he tumbled and danced, developing the talents that would make him an outstanding Harlequin on provincial circuits.

Kean's first ‘adult’ engagement, no longer as ‘Master Carey’, was with Samuel Jerrold's company at Sheerness in spring 1804. He was ambitious to play leading roles in tragedy, but the taste of the time was against him. The model tragedian was the tall and stately John Philip Kemble. Kean was volatile, even fidgety, and less than 5 feet 7 inches tall. He had penetrating, dark eyes—many people remembered them as black—and dark hair. Until alcohol lamed and bloated him, he was light on his feet and thin-faced. Above all, there was a fierceness bordering on malevolence about the way he presented himself on stage and, all too often, off it. Jerrold gave him secondary roles. After a year Kean had had enough. He returned to London and further disappointment. He was reduced to playing in a fit-up theatre in Wivell's Billiard Room, Camden Town. A Belfast engagement in the summer of 1805 led nowhere, though it enabled him, from a secondary position, to observe the acting of Sarah Siddons. Perhaps because his determination to make something memorable of even a minor role marked him out, Kean drew the unfavourable notice of Mrs Siddons. He would later claim that she patted him on the head after a performance, saying, 'You have played very well, sir, very well. It's a pity, but there's too little of you to do any thing' (Cornwall, 3rd edn, 59). Mrs Siddons could certainly be cutting. At the height of Bettymania, she referred to Betty as 'the baby with a woman's name' (R. Manvell, Sarah Siddons, 1970, 284). More surprisingly, but no less typically, Kean, in the depths of his provincial doldrums, refused to act with Betty.

That outburst of professional pique occurred in Stroud in 1808. There would be much more reprehensible refusals to brook rivalry during Kean's years of fame. The years between Belfast and Stroud were inglorious. In minor roles at the Haymarket in 1806 he was scarcely noticed, and, after a spell with Sarah Baker's company on the Canterbury circuit, he rejoined Samuel Jerrold in September 1807. There was little kudos to be gained from acting in Sheerness, but it gave Kean a brief first chance in leading roles. Amid rumours that he had offended a local dignitary, Kean found his Sheerness engagement suddenly terminated. He was liable, throughout his life, to express his fear of neglect through attacks on those in authority. The significant outcome this time was a relegation to secondary roles in William Beverley's company on the Gloucester circuit. Another new member of the company, Columbine to Kean's Harlequin in Harlequin Mother Goose, was an Irishwoman eight years his senior. Mary Chambers (1779–1849) had left Waterford for Cheltenham with the intention of working as a governess. Acting was a stage-struck afterthought. She was temperamentally unsuited to the morally lax world of the theatre, but she was under its spell in the spring of 1808. In the long run regrettably, she was also under the spell of the wildly ambitious and sexually charismatic Kean. They were married in Stroud on 17 July 1808. On her side at least, it was a love match. Kean, beguiled by Mary's gentility, may have hoped for a substantial dowry, or, frustrated by her modesty, may have seen its only antidote in marriage. The aftermath was greater hardship than either had ever known.

Their first move was from the Gloucester circuit to Cheltenham, whose manager, John Boles Watson, had a theatrical empire stretching from Wales to Leicester. Kean was allowed his share of leading roles until the company reached the important theatre town of Birmingham, where he responded to his relegation to secondary parts by getting drunk—repeatedly. It was probably in Birmingham, and perversely linked to his married state, that a pattern of prolonged drinking bouts was established. These ‘benders’ lasted anything from three days to a week. The immediate result in Birmingham was debt. When, in June 1809, the Keans were offered an engagement with Andrew Cherry's company in Swansea, they had to leave Birmingham secretly and walk the 180 miles to Swansea. If Mary, six months pregnant, had dreamed of stability, she had ample time to reflect on her choice of husband. Their first son was born on 13 September 1809 and christened Howard, the family name of the dukes of Norfolk.

Trying to curb his impulsiveness in view of his new responsibilities, Kean remained with Cherry for two years. The company toured Ireland as well as Wales, and it was in or near Mary's home town of Waterford that their second son, Charles John Kean, was born on 18 January 1811. It was, after all, Charles Howard whom Kean liked to claim as his father. Also in Waterford, Kean's swordsmanship as Hamlet excited the admiration of Thomas Colley Grattan, stationed there as a subaltern. Grattan was the most loyal of the many men of distinction who befriended Kean over the years. Kean was sorely in need of friends in the months that followed his rash decision to leave Cherry's company when his demand for an increased salary was denied. The Keans arrived in England jobless and made a poverty-stricken tour of Scotland and the north of England, during which they were sometimes reduced to begging. It was a relief when, in January 1812, Richard Hughes engaged Kean to play leading roles on the Exeter circuit. His pride was both restored by the chance to act Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet, and Othello, and dented by the greater demand for his Harlequin. Kean's now habitual dissipation was both symptom and cause of the failure of his marriage. His letters to London managers made no impression, and his behaviour became almost predictably irrational. Never at ease in comedy, he acted carelessly opposite Dorothy Jordan when the great comic actress joined the company for its Weymouth season in October 1812, and in Guernsey the following April he was so consistently drunk that the audience turned against him. Knowing that the money he earned should go towards supporting his sickly wife and sons, he spent it on prostitutes and drink. Self-belief vied with self-hatred to produce his explosive versions of both Richard III and Edmund Kean.

It was the chance attendance of Dr Joseph Drury, retired headmaster of Harrow School, at a playhouse in Teignmouth that initiated the change in Kean's fortunes. Drury commended the young provincial actor to the amateur gentlemen then in control of Drury Lane, with whom he had some influence. After a delay, during which the Keans' elder son sickened with the after-effects of measles, the Drury Lane gentlemen dispatched their acting manager, Samuel Arnold, to Dorchester, where he watched Kean as Octavian in Richard Cumberland's The Mountaineers on 15 November 1813. Octavian, monumentally dignified in adversity, was in John Kemble's repertory and certainly not a gift for the demonic Kean. But Arnold, knowing the desperate financial state of Drury Lane in 1813, was sufficiently impressed to make Kean an offer, and even to allow him the choice of part for his début at England's premier theatre. It was unfortunate that the offer came just after the impecunious Kean had accepted a less attractive one from Robert William Elliston, new lessee of London's Olympic Theatre. While Kean haggled to extricate himself from the Olympic contract, Howard's condition worsened. He died on 22 November 1813, a month after his fourth birthday. Penniless and distraught, Kean arrived in London early in December 1813 with the dispute between Elliston and Drury Lane unresolved. It seemed to him a choice between Harlequin at the Olympic and Shakespeare at Drury Lane.

Triumph at Drury Lane

In the new year of 1814 Kean languished, unpaid and fearful, until an agreement was reached between Arnold and Elliston. It involved a reduction from £8 to £6 in his promised salary, with the £2 going towards compensating Elliston. It was not until 26 January 1814 that Kean made his legendary début as Shylock, thereby recovering at a stroke the sinking fortunes of Drury Lane. In a famous retrospect, written over two years later, William Hazlitt recorded the impact: 'We wish we had never seen Mr. Kean. He has destroyed the Kemble religion and it is the religion in which we were brought up' (The Examiner, 27 Oct 1816). Hazlitt's perception that, in taking on Shylock, Kean was also taking on John Kemble, is informative. Even in adversity, Kean was naturally adversarial. Acting for himself, he was also acting against a society that had scorned him. Inner fury, amounting frequently to paranoia, fuelled his finest performances and made them dangerous to a degree unrivalled on the English stage. He found points of identity with Shylock, and it was at these points that his intensity thrilled regency audiences. 'The character never stands still', wrote Hazlitt after the second night on 1 February 1814. 'There is no vacant pause in the action; the eye is never silent' (Morning Chronicle, 2 Feb 1814). For the critics close up in the pit, Kean's eyes were always a dominating feature, but he was a people's actor too, celebrated in the upper gallery as Kemble rarely was. His voice, reputedly weak in the upper register, resonated in the vastness of Drury Lane. He would continue to abuse it. In later years, it would crack under the strain, forcing him to hold back for most of a performance to preserve the energy for its peaks. The famous transitions from the rhetoric of high passion to the startlingly conversational may have owed as much to necessity as to art. He was envious of the vocal richness of Kemble's heir, Charles Mayne Young. Sober, he acknowledged the quality of Young's musical voice; drunk, as he generally was by 1823, he would rant to James Winston about having to act with 'that bloody thundering bugger'.

Drury Lane was sparsely patronized for Kean's first performance, but full for his second and for almost all the sixty-eight nights he played before the season ended in July 1814. On 12 February 1814 he gave his first London performance of Richard III, the part that best accommodated his genius. G. H. Lewes's memory held a boyhood image of the exquisite grace with which Kean would lean against the side scene while Anne railed at him: 'It was thoroughly feline—terrible yet beautiful' (Lewes, 10). If his Shylock was, in Douglas Jerrold's eyes, like a chapter of Genesis, his Richard was Mephistophelean. It can be partially recovered in the detailed record of his movements and vocal inflections made a decade later by the American actor James Hackett. Lord Byron compared Kean with his own corsair:

There was a laughing devil in his sneer,That raised emotions of both rage and fear;And where his frown of hatred darkly fell,Hope withering fled, and Mercy sigh'd farewell!

Byron, The Corsair, 11. 223–6There is more than coincidence in the contemporaneous vogues for Kean and Byron's heroes. On 5 May 1814 Kean, one of the few actors to have overwhelmed his Iagos, played Othello. Surprisingly perhaps, he preferred it to Iago, which he played two days later, and would intermittently perform throughout his career. Othello's singularity among complacent Venetians, like Shylock's, activated Kean's own sense of isolation. He had the capacity, as well as the need, to make distinctive any character he impersonated, but his intuitive reading of the texts proposed to him enabled him to select parts that met him half-way. Luke, in Sir James Bland Burges's adaptation of Massinger's The City Madam, fitted the mould; it was the last new role in his triumphant first season at Drury Lane. He was doubtful only about his Hamlet, first performed on 12 March 1814, despite critical acclaim. He knew he was not at his best when required to burn slowly, and Hamlet, though a compulsory part of a tragic actor's repertory, was never his favourite.

Kean became the victim of his success, as he had been the victim of his failures. Welcomed in society, he often made a fool of himself, not least by his misguided sprinkling into conversation of half-understood Latin and Greek tags. His wife relished polite company, and for a while Kean indulged her with dinner parties. His salary was increased to £20 per week in March 1814, and in the provincial tour that followed he commanded £50 per night. There were gifts from admirers and a benefit that brought him over £1000. In October 1815 he leased a large house in Clarges Street, Piccadilly. Although some neighbours took offence at an upstart actor's presumptuousness in moving to a fashionable area, Mary had a fine setting for her dinner parties. Kean had completed a second season at Drury Lane, adding to his previous parts Macbeth (5 November 1814), Romeo (2 January 1815), and Richard II (9 March 1815). He was a competent Macbeth, too energetic as Richard, and ineffective as Romeo. His enemies were ready with unfavourable comparisons. Eliza O'Neill's Juliet at Covent Garden was the talk of the town. Kean's Drury Lane Romeo lacked her appealing innocence. The burden of being the theatre's only effective draw was heavy, and Romeo was one of several dubious choices during this second season. Thomas Morton's Town and Country, in which Kean played Reuben Glenroy, is a dull play, and Cumberland's The Wheel of Fortune, even with Kean as Penruddock, a gloomy one. Mrs Wilmot's Ina lasted only one night, with Kean in the main part. The committee's control of the repertory was dangerously biased. Outside Shakespeare, Kean's best opportunities came in the vengeful role of Zanga in Edward Young's The Revenge and as Abel Drugger in The Tobacconist, an afterpiece carved out of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. This latter role gave rise to an unresolved debate about Kean's quality in comedy. He would have liked to emulate Garrick's versatility, but Lewes is probably right that 'he had no playfulness that was not as the playfulness of a panther, showing her claws every moment' (Lewes, 10).

The move to respectability in Clarges Street concealed a counter-move to depravity in the streets around Covent Garden. In summer 1815 Kean founded the Wolves Club, a drinking society largely composed of theatrical professionals dedicated to debauchery. Rightly or wrongly, its members were regularly accused of forming a claque in support of Kean or against any actor who threatened his supremacy. They bolstered Kean's emerging megalomania. The major creation of his third season was Sir Giles Overreach in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts. Overreach was, with the arguable exception of King Lear, the last of Kean's great parts. Byron was not the only person to be convulsed by his mad ravings in the final act. For Hazlitt, Kean's faultless playing of the role simply confirmed his greatness. But on 26 March 1816, when he should have been performing Sforza in Massinger's The Duke of Milan, Kean was drunk in a Deptford tavern. It was his first betrayal of the Drury Lane audience. By 9 May, when he created the title role in Charles Maturin's Bertram, he had been forgiven. Bertram was his second successful new role of the 1815–16 season. Kean had been unimpressed by the play at first reading, but he cut and rewrote it to make his own role paramount. Maturin was not consulted. Few living writers had the status to challenge the judgement of a leading actor.

Early in his fourth season, on 28 October 1816, Kean played Shakespeare's Timon. The performance was admired, but houses were moderate. Drury Lane was losing the contest with its perennial rival, Covent Garden. William Charles Macready made his début at Covent Garden on 16 September 1816, audiences crowded to see Kemble there in his farewell season, and, on 12 February 1817, the young Junius Brutus Booth made his well-publicized first appearance in London. Booth had openly modelled himself on Kean, who found the imitation disconcerting. When Booth quarrelled with the Covent Garden management, Kean plotted to have him contracted to Drury Lane, where, on 20 February 1817, Kean as Othello obliterated Booth's Iago. The mortified Booth returned to Covent Garden, soon to emigrate to America where he founded a famous theatrical dynasty. It was not the last time Kean set about destroying a rival, and the retirement of Kemble on 23 June 1817 left him unchallenged as king of tragedy.

The middle years

Kean was thirty in 1817, and discerning critics feared that he was already past his prime. Drink-sodden and suffering from venereal disease, he lived like a cautionary tale on the perils of fame. He employed a private secretary, ran a fleet of Thames wherries, and paraded his pet lion in London's streets. His income, unprecedented for an actor, was matched by his expenditure, and he no longer bothered to conceal his philandering. The number of missed performances increased and, although reliable in his old parts, he found new ones difficult to master. The four false starts in the 1817–18 season included Barabas in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (24 April 1818) and Shakespeare's King John (1 June 1818). Kean was now claiming the right to veto new plays. If overruled, he could always destroy them with a lacklustre performance, as he did Jane Porter's Switzerland on 15 February 1819. The probable truth is that, for the first time, he was experiencing the actor's overwhelming fear of failure. Kean was temperamentally bound to camouflage fear with bluster, as he did notoriously in the case of Charles Bucke's The Italians. This play was submitted to Drury Lane in November 1817, when Kean endorsed the committee's recommendation that it be staged. But Kean had second thoughts about his intended role as Albanio. The delaying tactics he employed were, at best, undignified, and Bucke's patience wore out. Early in 1819 he published the play with a tell-tale preface on the conduct of Drury Lane, concluding that, 'though Mr. Kean is saving that establishment with his right hand, he is ruining it with his left'. In the ensuing pamphlet debate, public opinion was predominantly on Bucke's side. The Drury Lane audience forced from Kean a perfunctory apology that satisfied no one.

The dispute was the last straw for Drury Lane's amateur committee. In summer 1819 they put the theatre up for rent, and Kean was one of the bidders. To his chagrin he was outbid by Elliston. To make things worse, Elliston held him to his contract, thus postponing plans for a lucrative visit to America. Kean made his first appearance under Elliston, in this his seventh season at Drury Lane, on 8 November 1819. His choice of Richard III was given a new piquancy by the fact that Covent Garden's new star, Macready, was currently playing it there. The rivalry served both theatres, but Kean made the mistake of extending it by tackling Coriolanus, in which Macready had recently made an impression, on 25 January 1820. Kemble had specialized in muscular Roman roles. They fitted Kean no better than the cerebral Hamlet or even Romeo. Much more notable was his London début, on 24 April 1820, as King Lear. The version was Nahum Tate's, and Kean's performance, as dictated by his stamina, was one of fits and starts. But the vivid transitions were there, together with the hair-raising pathos. Audiences rallied to him for his pre-American farewell performances in the summer of 1820. The contradictory relationship with Elliston continued. They were drinking and whoring companions at the same time as they were professional contenders. The diary of Elliston's waspish acting manager, James Winston, records their debauchery with suspicious relish. If Winston is to be trusted, Kean would copulate with actresses or prostitutes before and after a play, and during its intervals as well. Such excess is more than mere self-indulgence. Kean's first visit to America was an image of his flight from himself. In the spring of 1820 he had begun what was to be a fateful affair with Charlotte Cox, with the apparent collusion of her eminently respectable husband, a London alderman and member of Drury Lane's general committee. This was the most obsessed and obsessive relationship Kean ever had. It would reach a savage conclusion in 1825. Meanwhile, during his last week in London, two paternity suits were brought against him. He set sail from Liverpool on 7 October 1820 and, on 29 November, opened as Richard III at the Anthony Street Theatre, New York.

Kean was the first major English actor to tour America since George Frederick Cooke in 1810. His behaviour was exemplary and his reception enthusiastic. Able to select only his favourite parts and unthreatened by competition, he was more stable than he had ever been. From December to May, in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore, he scarcely put a foot wrong. But then, ignoring advice, he resolved on a return visit to Boston. Bostonians did not attend the theatre in summer. Kean opened to a poor house on 23 May 1821, and when even fewer were present at curtain-up on 25 May he declined to perform. Press reaction converted a tantrum into an international insult. Warned that his appearance in any American theatre would precipitate a riot, Kean embarked for England on 7 June 1821. Having made £6000 in six months, he would have liked to stay longer.

Led back to Drury Lane at the head of a triumphal procession cannily staged by Elliston, Kean opened as Richard III on 23 July 1821. Before the end of the week he had also played Shylock and Othello. There followed a break until November. Charlotte Cox was uppermost in his mind. Her once prosperous husband had toppled into bankruptcy, and she was pressing Kean to leave his wife. Kean found himself in the unusual position of advising caution. Despite the warmth of his initial welcome, the fickle audience was disappointed by him. His eighth season at Drury Lane was a financial and artistic failure. None of his new characters, which included Wolsey in Henry VIII (20 May 1822), held the stage, and the season brought Elliston to the brink of ruin. As usual, Kean ran away, this time to the Isle of Bute, where, in October 1822, he acquired a house and 20 acres. It was there that he heard of Elliston's emergency plan to enliven the 1822–3 season by pitting three dissatisfied Covent Garden stars against three of his Drury Lane regulars. Kean's opposition was to be the dignified tragedian, Charles Mayne Young. Resentful and anxious, Kean skulked in Scotland until November 1822. To public delight, he then engaged with Young in Othello on 27 November, and once the press had awarded him a narrow victory entered into more confident battle in Venice Preserv'd (Jaffeir to Young's Pierre) and Cymbeline (Posthumus to Young's Iachimo). Despite the inflated salaries he was paying, Elliston had recovered some ground by the end of the season. Kean and his manager, though, were at loggerheads over the future. Kean's contract had a year to run, and he was desperate to establish a position of strength from which to negotiate. But Elliston was notoriously slippery, and matters were unresolved in the summer of 1823. The affair with Charlotte Cox was unresolved too, and the strain was telling on Kean. He was shocked to hear of Elliston's decision to engage Macready for the coming season. It was one thing to take on an ageing star like Young, another to confront a rising star. Kean remained in his Scottish retreat until Macready's initial run was over, and there was little of note in his four months of performance from December 1823 to April 1824. For the first time at Drury Lane, he was almost unobtrusive.

Trial and decline

Kean's affair with Charlotte Cox finally exploded in mutual recrimination early in 1824. Almost at once Charlotte left home to live with her husband's clerk. In her abandoned bedroom, tied together by a ribbon, were the letters Kean had written to her. They would furnish the incriminating evidence at the trial a year later. On 9 April 1824 Cox took out a writ against Kean for criminal conversation with his wife. Kean's apparent unconcern may have been a pretence. Once his Drury Lane commitments were over, he ran away, initially to Brighton and then, with his wife, to France. He was making a sad attempt to keep his family together. He had arranged for Charles to go to Eton College in June, with an annual allowance of £300. It would not be easy for an actor's son to survive at Eton, even though his father had a house in Clarges Street and an estate in Scotland. In July 1824 Kean signed a new contract with Elliston. He was to receive an unprecedented £50 per night for twenty-three performances in the new year.

The case of Cox <i>v.</i> Kean was heard on 17 January 1825 in an atmosphere of prurient public interest. The court found for the plaintiff, awarding him damages of £800. Neither marriage survived the trial. Acceding to her wish to separate, Kean settled on Mary £504 per year, out of which she was to pay for Charles's education. The allowance of £50 per year, which he had been paying to his importunate mother since his first success in 1814, continued until his death. It was an act of bravado, in the fraught atmosphere following the trial, for Kean to return to Drury Lane on 24 January 1825. His Richard III, though played right through, was drowned out by conflicting voices in the auditorium. The same was true of Othello on 28 January. The Times led a press campaign against 'that obscene little personage' (28 Jan 1825), castigating this 'obscene mimic' (29 Jan 1825) for his failure to abase himself before the audience. After playing Sir Giles Overreach in front of a clamorous audience on 31 January, Kean claimed in a curtain speech to have 'made as much concession to an English audience as an English actor ought' (Hawkins, 2.243). For the remaining twenty nights of his engagement, he was generally allowed to perform without significant interruption, but there was uproar again at most of the venues on his subsequent provincial tour. In the long run, this hostility destroyed him. After the Cox trial, Kean was rarely again a great actor and never a self-sufficient man.

When Kean sailed for America in September 1825, it was with the hope of escaping to make a new home there; but he opened to the now familiar pandemonium at the Park Theatre, New York, on 14 November 1825. There was a generous response to the statement he then published in the National Advocate, and the rest of his New York performances passed off peacefully. Albany audiences were also tolerant, but in Boston on 19 December 1825 Kean was driven from the stage and there was a serious riot. Much shaken, Kean continued his tour for a further year, ranging from Charleston in the south to Montreal, where he was rapturously received by Canadian audiences, for whom an English star was a rarity. His decision to return to England may have been the result of a cruel deception. Kean was given to understand that the owners of Drury Lane wished him to succeed the bankrupt Elliston as lessee. He sailed for England on 6 December 1826, not knowing that the lesseeship had already been purchased by the American Stephen Price.

The American tour had restored Kean's fortunes and improved his health, but it had stretched him to the limit. Bitter about the lesseeship of Drury Lane, he took rooms in Hummums Hotel, near Covent Garden, and resumed his dissipated habits. The chronic gastritis and gallstones discovered at his autopsy began at this time to affect him, and his leg was often too painful to bear his weight; Raymund FitzSimons questions the contemporary diagnosis of gout, suspecting that a syphilitic lesion was a likelier cause. The slow poison of mercury treatment may have contributed to his inability to memorize new parts and his increasing difficulty in sustaining familiar ones. His fumbling forgetfulness on the night of 21 May 1827 turned into an embarrassing fiasco the production of his friend Colley Grattan's Ben Nazir. The remorseful Kean began to talk of retirement, but he had one resentful trick to play first. Because Stephen Price had refused him a share in Drury Lane, Kean elected to play his farewell season at Covent Garden. Price countered by announcing as his new star Kean's son Charles. Father and son had made some attempts at reconciliation, though Charles had taken his mother's side in the separation and defied his father by turning actor. The prospect of rivalry threatened their tenuous alliance, and it was probably fortunate that Charles inherited so little of Edmund's charisma. Price's ruse proved ineffective.

Though needing to nurse his health, Kean was more effective at Covent Garden than he had been of late at Drury Lane. His private life, though, was in disarray. He was living with a formidable Irish prostitute called Ophelia Benjamin, whom he feared and needed. In the early summer of 1828 he was fit enough to fulfil an engagement in Paris, but his reception was lukewarm and he retreated to his Scottish property, returning refreshed to Covent Garden in October 1828. In January 1829 his health collapsed and he had to take three months' rest. A tour of Irish theatres with his son had to be abandoned in Cork in April 1829, when he collapsed again. It was restarted a month later, and again interrupted for reasons of Kean's health. After recuperating in Scotland, he returned to London, only to quarrel with Charles Kemble, the manager of Covent Garden. From December 1829 to March 1830 Kean was back at Drury Lane, where he found his reception encouraging. Foolishly, he attempted another new part, Shakespeare's Henry V, but at its opening on 8 March 1830 his memory failed again. In despair, he announced his retirement for a second time and played a second round of farewells in the summer of 1830. The problem was that he could not afford to retire so early. He had squandered money, not least in fits of drunken generosity, so that, too ill to make the intended trip to America, he was forced to return to Drury Lane in January 1831. The newspapers mocked him in anticipation of a third retirement.

In the spring of 1831 Kean made his final bid for independence when he leased the King's Theatre in Richmond, Surrey, setting up home in the adjacent cottage. When strong enough, he acted there as well as at the Haymarket. He was living now under the care of the seventy-year-old Charlotte Tidswell, who had driven Ophelia Benjamin away. Illness had so tamed Kean that he agreed to play opposite Macready at Drury Lane during the 1832–3 season. Honours were even when they appeared in Othello on 26 November 1832, and they repeated it intermittently until Kean's health failed again. Captain Polhill, Drury Lane's new lessee, refused the ailing actor a loan in the new year of 1833. Kean took the only revenge available to him by crossing to Covent Garden to play Othello opposite his son's Iago. The performance on 25 March 1833 was his last. Unable to complete it, he was carried back to Richmond, where, after languishing for several weeks, he died on 15 May 1833. An application to bury him next to Garrick in Westminster Abbey was denied, and on 25 May he was buried at the Old Church in Richmond. Six years later Charles Kean had a memorial tablet placed in the church. Long before then Kean's widow, with whom he had been reconciled shortly before his death, had sold most of his possessions at auction to pay off his debts.

Kean's repertory of great roles was small and his range narrow, but he remains the English theatre's supreme example of the charismatic actor. Three years after his death, Alexandre Dumas père chose him as the subject of a play, Kean (later reworked by Jean-Paul Sartre), seeing in Kean an embodiment of the rebellious spirit of Romanticism. The image has been historically persuasive.

Sources

  • R. FitzSimons, Edmund Kean (1976)
  • B. Cornwall [B. W. Procter], The life of Edmund Kean, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (1847)
  • F. W. Hawkins, The life of Edmund Kean, 2 vols. (1869)
  • H. N. Hillebrand, Edmund Kean (1933)
  • G. H. Lewes, On actors and the art of acting (1875)
  • J. F. Molloy, The life and adventures of Edmund Kean, 2 vols. (1888)
  • Drury Lane journal: selections from James Winston’s diaries, 1819–1827, ed. A. L. Nelson and G. B. Cross (1974)
  • W. Hazlitt, A view of the English stage (1818)
  • W. Shakespeare, Oxberry's 1822 edition of King Richard III: with the descriptive notes recording Edmund Kean's performance, ed. A. S. Downer, facs. edn (1959) [with additional notes and introduction]Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

  • post-mortem report

Archives

  • Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp.
  • V&A, theatre collections
  • V&A NAL, commonplace books, letters, and draft of a speech

Likenesses

  • S. Cousins, pencil drawing, 1814, NPG
  • G. Cruikshank, cartoon, 1814, BM
  • J. J. Halls, oils, 1814, V&A, theatre collections
  • H. H. Meyer, mezzotint, pubd 1814 (after W. H. Watts), BM
  • S. Joseph, bust, 1815, Drury Lane Theatre, London
  • J. Northcote, oils, 1819, NPG [see illus.]
  • G. Clint, group portrait, oils, 1820, Garr. Club
  • G. Clint, oils, 1820, V&A, theatre collections
  • J. E. Carew, marble statue, 1833, Drury Lane Theatre, London
  • G. Clint, oils (as Richard III), Garr. Club
  • S. De Wilde, pencil and watercolour drawing (as Richard III), Garr. Club
  • T. Jones, etching, NPG
  • attrib. D. Maclise, oils (as Hamlet), NG Ire.
  • H. Meyer, oils (as chief of the Huron Indians), Garr. Club
  • J. Prynn, etching and stipple, NPG
  • attrib. T. Wageman, pencil drawing, NPG
  • theatrical prints, BM, NPG
  • three portraits, oils (probably as Richard III), Garr. Club