Edmund Kean

Memoirs of John Quincy Adams

‘Edmund Kean as Richard III in “Richard III”‘.engraving, University of Illinois Digital Collections, https://digital.library.illinois.edu/items/85885f10-4e7d-0134-1db1-0050569601ca-9

Source: Charles Francis Adams (ed.), Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary from 1795 to 1848 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874-77), vol. 3, pp. 466-467

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Colley Cibber), Richard III and Harlequin Horner, or, The Christmas pie, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 3 February 1817

Text: February 3rd [1817] … We went to Drury Lane, and saw “Richard the Third,” with the pantomime of “Harlequin Horner,” with a clown issuing from the Christmas pie. Kean performed Richard. The play is not exactly Shakspeare’s. Colley Cibber brought it out improved and amended, and John Kemble has improved upon it again. More than half the original tragedy, including many of the finest scenes, is discarded. Two or three scenes from the third part of Henry the Sixth are transferred to this play. There are modern additions, not well adapted to Shakspeare’s [sic] style, and his language itself is often altered, and seldom for the better. As it is, however, it has constantly been from Cibber’s time one of the standing favorites of the public on the English stage, and the character of Richard is one of the trying tests of their greatest tragic actors. I never saw it performed but once before, and that was at Boston in 1794. It is by many of Kean’s admirers considered as his greatest part; but his performance this night in some degree disappointed me. There is too much of rant in his violence, and not smoothness enough in his hypocrisy. He has a uniform fashion of traversing the stage from one side to the other when he has said a good thing, and then looks as if he was walking for a wager. At other times, he runs off from the stage with the gait of a running footman. In the passages of high passion he loses all distinct articulation and it is impossible to understand what he says. But he has much very good subsidiary pantomime, which is perhaps the first talent of a first-rate actor. He has a most keen and piercing eye, a great command and expression of countenance, and some transitions of voice of very striking effect. All the other male performers were indifferent, and the women below mediocrity. The two children (girls) were very good. The house was crowded, and the applause of Kean incessant during the tragedy. The fight between Richard and Richmond was skilful and vigorous. Kean always contrives to make a claptrap of his dying scenes. The clapping at his death continued five minutes long. The Duke and Duchess and Princess Sophia of Gloucester were present, and received with great applause. At their entrance, “God save the King” was performed by the orchestra, and sung by part of the players, the audience all standing.

Comments: John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829). In 1817, at the time of this diary entry, he was the US ambassador to Britain, before becoming Secretary of State to James Monroe. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) played Gloucester in a version of Shakespeare’s Richard III heavily rewritten by Colley Cibber. Harlequin Horner; or, Christmas Pie was a popular pantomime piece, first produced at Drury Lane in 1816.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

On Actors and the Art of Acting

Playbill from The Theatrical Observer, 16 November 1832

Source: George Henry Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1875), pp. 16-17

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Drury Lane Theatre, London, November 1832

Text: Kean’s range of expression, as already hinted, was very limited. His physical aptitudes were such as confined him to the strictly tragic passions and for these he was magnificently endowed. Small and insignificant in figure, he could; at times become impressively commanding by the lion-like power and grace of his bearing. I remember, the last time I saw him play Othello, how puny he appeared beside Macready, until in the third act, when roused by Iago’s taunts and insinuations, he moved towards him with a gouty hobble, seized him by the throat, and, in a well-known explosion, “Villain! be sure you prove,” &c., seemed to swell into a stature which made Macready appear small. On that very evening, when gout made it difficult for him to display his accustomed grace, when a drunken hoarseness had ruined the once matchless voice, such was the irresistible pathos—manly, not tearful—which vibrated in his tones and expressed itself in look and gestures, that old men leaned their heads upon their arms and fairly sobbed. It was, one must confess, a patchy performance considered as a whole; some parts were miserably tricky, others misconceived, others gabbled over in haste to reach the “points”; but it was irradiated with such flashes that I would again risk broken ribs for the chance of a good place in the pit to see anything like it.

Comments: George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was an English literary critic and philosopher, best-known now as the partner of the author George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). The ailing Edmund Kean, reaching the end of his career and his life, and William Macready disliked one another. Kean had previously avoided acting opposite his younger rival. Macready complained at how Kean upstaged him by taking up unfair positions on the stage. Kean died just a few months later, on 15 May 1833.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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