Edmund Kean

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Charles Turner, ‘Edmund Kean as Richard III’ (1814), via Wikiart

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. I, pp. 273-274

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, London, 7 March 1814

Text: March 7th. — At Drury Lane, and saw Kean for the first time. He played Richard, I believe, better than any man I ever saw; yet my expectations were pitched too high, and I had not the pleasure I expected. The expression of malignant joy is the one in which he surpasses all men I have ever seen. And his most flagrant defect is want of dignity. His face is finely expressive, though his mouth is not handsome, and he projects his lower lip ungracefully; yet it is finely suited to Richard. He gratified my eye more than my ear. His action very often was that of Kemble, and this was not the worst of his performance; but it detracts from his boasted originality. His declamation is very unpleasant, but my ear may in time be reconciled to it, as the palate is to new cheese and tea. It often reminds me of Blanchard’s. His speech is not fluent, and his words and syllables are too distinctly separated. His finest scene was with Lady Anne, and his mode of lifting up her veil to watch her countenance was exquisite. The concluding scene was unequal to my expectation, though the fencing was elegant, and his sudden death-fall was shockingly real. But he should have lain still. Why does he rise, or awake rather, to repeat the spurious lines? He did not often excite a strong persuasion of the truth of his acting, and the applause he received was not very great. Mrs. Glover had infinitely more in the pathetic scene in which she, as Queen Elizabeth, parts from her children. To recur to Kean, I do not think he will retain all his popularity, but he may learn to deserve it better, though I think he will never be qualified for heroic parts. He wants a commanding figure and a powerful voice. His greatest excellences are a fine pantomimic face and remarkable agility.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) first came to general attention, in January 1814 playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane, which was followed by Gloucester in Richard III. His visceral performances excited huge audience enthusiasm and established his reputation. Queen Elizabeth was played by Julia Glover.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, 'Mr Kean as Bajazet' (c.1815), H. Beard Print Collection, V&A

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, ‘Mr Kean as Bajazet’ (c.1815), H. Beard Print Collection, V&A

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. I, pp. 504-505

Production: Nicholas Rowe, Tamerlane, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 22 November 1815

Text: November 22nd. — Accompanied Miss Nash to the theatre, and saw “Tamerlane,” a very dull play. It is more stuffed with trite declamation, and that of an inferior kind, than any piece I recollect. It is a compendium of political commonplaces. And the piece is not the more valuable because the doctrines are very wholesome and satisfactory. Tamerlane is a sort of regal Sir Charles Grandison — a perfect king, very wise and insipid. He was not unfitly represented by Pope, if the character be intended merely as a foil to that of the ferocious Bajazet. Kean performed that character throughout under the idea of his being a two-legged beast. He rushed on the stage at his first appearance as a wild beast may be supposed to enter a new den to which his keepers have transferred him. His tartan whiskers improved the natural excellence of his face; his projecting under-lip and admirably expressive eye gave to his countenance all desirable vigour; and his exhibition of rage and hatred was very excellent. But there was no relief as there would have been had the bursts of feeling been only occasional. In the happy representation of one passion Kean afforded me great pleasure; but this was all I enjoyed.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. Robinson saw Edmund Kean in Nicholas Rowe‘s Tamerlane at Drury Lane. Kean played Bajazet, Alexander Pope played Tamerlane.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Mr. Kean’s Shylock

‘Mr. Kean as Shylock’, 1814 print from LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, CC BY-SA 4.0

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘Mr. Kean’s Shylock’, The Morning Chronicle, 27 January 1814, reproduced in William Hazlitt, A View of the English Stage, or, A series of dramatic criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 1-2

Production: William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Drury Lane, London, 26 January 1814

Text: Mr Kean (of whom report had spoken highly) last night made his appearance at Drury-Lane Theatre in the character of Shylock. For voice, eye, action, and expression, no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him, The applause, from the first scene to the last, was general, loud, and uninterrupted. Indeed, the very first scene in which he comes on with Bassanio and Antonio shewed the master in his art, and at once decided the opinion of the audience. Perhaps it was the most perfect of any. Notwithstanding the complete success of Mr Kean in the part of Shylock, we question whether he will not become a greater favourite in other parts. There was a lightness and vigour in his tread, a buoyancy and elasticity of spirit, a fire and animation, which would accord better with almost any other character than with the morose, sullen, inward, inveterate, inflexible malignity of Shylock. The character of Shylock is that of a man brooding over one idea, that of its wrongs, and bent on one unalterable purpose, that of revenge. In conveying a profound impression of this feeling, or in embodying the general conception of rigid and uncontrollable self-will, equally proof against every sentiment of humanity or prejudice of opinion, we have seen actors more successful than Mr. Kean; but in giving effect to the conflict of passions arising out of the contrasts of situation, in varied vehemence of declamation, in keenness of sarcasm, in the rapidity of his transitions from one tone and feeling to another, in propriety and novelty of action, presenting a succession of striking pictures, and giving perpetually fresh shocks of delight and surprise, it would be difficult to single out a competitor. The fault of his acting was (if we may hazard the objection), an over-display of the resources of the art, which gave too much relief to the hard, impenetrable, dark groundwork of the character of Shylock. It would be endless to point out individual beauties, where almost every passage was received with equal and deserved applause. We thought, in one or two instances, the pauses in the voice were too long, and too great a reliance placed on the expression of the countenance, which is a language intelligible only to a part of the house.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. He was one of the leading writers on Shakespeare of his day, popularising critical understanding of the works. As a dramatic critic he played an important part in building up the reputation of Edmund Kean, whose London debut as lead performer was in this production of Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane on 26 January 1814, which had a sensational effect (despite the theatre being less than a third full at the start).

Links: Copy of A View of the English Stage at Hathi Trust