Henrietta Street Wednesday March 2nd 1814 to Cassandra.
“Places are secured at Drury Lane for Saturday but so great is the rage for seeing Kean that only 3rd and 4th rows could be got. As it is in a front box however, I hope we shall do pretty well- Shylock- A good play for Fanny.” Jane Austen.
Edmund Kean had debuted Shylock just two months previously, on January 26th and had become an instant sensational hit and achieved mythological status. Drury Lane had been on the verge of bankruptcy and the management gambled on Kean to help rescue the theater. Covent Garden theatre, close by, under the management of the actor John Philip Kemble was successful and Drury Lane needed to match that success. Edmund Kean had been performing with a touring theatre group in the West Country ( Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall) at the time. The management at Drury Lane were prepared to try out new talent. Kean was proved to be their saviour.
Edmund Kean was born in March 1789 in the borough of Westminster, London. The exact date is unknown. His mother was Ann Carey, an itinerant actress and his father was Edmund Kean, who suffered mental problems and was a dissolute young man who died at the age of 24. Edmund was adopted by his uncle, Moses Kean’s mistress Charlotte Tidswell. She gave Edmund an early stage training and a basic education but she failed to give him a steady disciplined home. At times he lived the life of a waif and stray.
On the 8th June 1796 his name, which appears on a surviving bill, shows that he played Robin in a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. On Easter Monday 1804, at the age of 14, he acted at the Sheereness theatre working for Jerrold’s company, for a mere few shillings a week.In 1805 he played in the amusement hall in Camden Town. He later played for Michael Atkin’s company in Belfast. In 1806 he played minor roles at the Haymarket Theater. He went on to join a company run by Miss Baker. In 1808 he married Mary Chambers, a fellow member of the theatrical company. Between 1808 and 1813 he was a member of various companies on the West Country circuit including the companies of Beverley, Watson, Cherry and Hughes. He played many different types of role providing him with an important apprenticeship as an actor. His roles included, tragedy, comedy, opera, farce, interlude and pantomime. He lived this strolling player life for ten years. He suffered many privations, living in poor conditions, not always eating properly. He took to drink and became an alcoholic. While he was with Henry Lee’s company, performing in Dorchester ( Dorset) on the 15th November 1813, he was seen by Arnold, the Drury Lane manager. This lead to him being taken on at Drury Lane Theatre.
The Drury Lane Theatre.
An actress of the time, Helen Faucit, describes him as,
“ a pale man with a fur cap, and wrapped in a fur cloak. He looked to me as if come from the grave. A stray lock of hair crossed his forehead, under which shone eyes which looked dark, and yet as bright as lamps. So large were they, so piercing, so absorbing, I could see no other future.”
By the standards of the time he was unsuited to the great tragic roles. The style epitomised by the great actor theater manager of the day John Philip Kemble was a declamatory style, artificial and statuesque. Kean invented a new style full of passion, feeling and emotion. Kemble’s style became defunct.
Edmund Kean generally portrayed villains in Shakespeare plays.He played Shylock in the Merchant of Venice wearing a black beard and played the part as a frenzied embittered monster, evil and armed with a knife. His performance was a sensation.It was this performance soon after it had debuted at the Drury Lane Theatre that Jane Austen went to see.
“We hear that Mr Kean is more admired than ever. The two vacant places of our two rows are likely to be filled by Mr Tilson and his brother General Chownes.” Wednesday March 2nd 1814.
10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, where Jane Austen stayed with her brother Henry.
Edmund Kean went on to play a succession of villains such as Richard III, Iago, Macbeth and also played Othello and Hamlet. Apart from Shakespeare he successfully played Sir Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger’s “A New Way To Pay Old Debts.” He was Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.
Nothing about his performance was improvised. Everything was technically planned. He measured out the number of footsteps he would have to take to various positons on the stage. He used his voice, creating tones, semitones, rests, forte, piano, crescendo and dimuendo like a musical score. For parts of a play he would play his character in a low key bland sort of way but then at key moments he would let the full force of his emotions rip. Kean used his own forceful and turbulent personality to help portray these characters. He repeated each performance almost identically. We, in the 21st century, would have found his performances very strange. Nowadays acting is a naturalistic style.
Kean was always admired as an actor but he became more and more unpopular as a public figure. He was a megalomaniac and a turbulent ungovernable genius. He feared losing his place at the head of British Theater and jealousy towards his rivals drove him. At his height he earned £10,000 a year an enormous amount of money. However, in 1825 he was sued for adultery with a woman whose husband was an alderman of the city of London and a Drury Lane administrator. The press turned against him. There were hostile demonstrations outside of the theatre. The last eight years of his life were a slow decline with drink and other excesses.
The Theatre Royal Richmond upon Thames built in 1899 near the site of the theatre Kean performed in.
Edmund Kean, often performed at the theatre in Richmond. In October 1814 after a season in Dublin which followed his sensational debut at Drury Lane he performed his Shylock at Richmond. He appeared again at Richmond in 1817 and then at various times until 1829. During 1830 Kean had a farewell season in London followed by a tour of the provinces. He had always wanted to manage his own theater. In 1831 The Kings Theatre in Richmond, a previous name for the Theatre Royal Richmond, came up for rent and he took it on. He lived in the house next door.
Covent Garden Opera House on the site of the Covent Garden Theatre.
As well as his commitments to the Richmond Theatre, Kean still performed in London at the Haymarket and toured the country. On March 25th 1833 he was performing Othello at Covent Garden and his son Charles was playing Iago. He collapsed during the performance. A few weeks later he died at his home in Richmond upon Thames.
A plaque commemorates him inside St Mary Magdalen’s church in Richmond. In 1904, when the church was being refurbished an extension was built over the spot where Kean was interred His body was exhumed and he was reburied at All Saints Church in the village of Catherington in Hampshire, just north of Portsmouth.
So what did Jane Austen think of Edmund Kean’s acting?
To Cassandra. Saturday 5th March 1814
“ We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short and excepting him and Miss Smith. I shall like to see Kean again excessively and to see him with you too- it appeared to me there was no fault in him anywhere; and in his scene with Tubak there was exquisite acting.”
The plaque inside St Mary Magdelene's Church, Richmond upon Thames, where Edmund Kean was first buried.
He died on May 15th 1833, eight days before his own mother.