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Edmund Kean

Edmund KeanBorn: 17-Mar-1789
Birthplace: London, England
Died: 15-May-1833
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Actor

Nationality: England
Executive summary: English tragic actor

Edmund Kean was born in London on the 17th of March 1787. His father was probably Edmund Kean, an architect's clerk; and his mother was an actress, Ann Carey, granddaughter of Henry Carey. When in his fourth year Kean made his first appearance on the stage as Cupid in Noverre's ballet of Cymon. As a child his vivacity and cleverness, and his ready affection for those who treated him with kindness, made him a universal favorite, but the harsh circumstances of his lot, and the want of proper restraint, while they developed strong self-reliance, fostered wayward tendencies. About 1794 a few benevolent persons provided the means of sending him to school, where he mastered his tasks with remarkable ease and rapidity; but finding the restraint intolerable, he shipped as a cabin boy at Portsmouth. Discovering that he had only escaped to a more rigorous bondage, he counterfeited both deafness and lameness with a histrionic mastery which deceived even the physicians 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 Tidswell, an actress who had been specially kind to him from infancy, taught him the principles of acting. On the death of his uncle he was taken charge of by Miss Tidswell, and under her direction he began the systematic study of the principal Shakespearian characters, displaying the peculiar originality of his genius by interpretations entirely different from those of Kemble. His talents and interesting countenance induced a Mrs. Clarke to adopt him, but the slight of a visitor so wounded his pride that he suddenly left her house and went back to his old surroundings. In his fourteenth year he obtained an engagement to play leading characters for twenty nights in York Theatre, appearing as Hamlet, Hastings and Cato. Shortly afterwards, while he was in the strolling troupe belonging to Richardson's show, the rumor of his abilities reached George III, who commanded him to recite at Windsor. He subsequently joined Saunders's circus, where in the performance of an equestrian feat he fell and broke his 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 theater 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 Miss Mary Chambers of Waterford, the leading actress. For several years his prospects were very gloomy, but in 1814 the committee of Drury Lane theater, the fortunes of which were then so low that bankruptcy seemed inevitable, 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." His opening at Drury Lane on the 26th of January 1814 as Shylock roused the audience to almost uncontrollable enthusiasm. Successive appearances in Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear served to demonstrate his complete mastery of the whole 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 the 29th of November 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 the 4th of June 1821 he returned to England.

Probably his irregular habits were prejudicial to the refinement of his taste, and latterly they tended to exaggerate his special defects and mannerisms. The adverse decision in the divorce case of Cox v. Kean on the 17th of January 1825 caused his wife to leave him, and aroused against him such bitter feeling, shown by the almost riotous conduct of the audiences before which he appeared about this time, 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, in the name of morality, he had suffered in England. Some cities showed him a spirit of charity; many audiences submitted him to the grossest insults and endangered his life by the violence of their disapproval. In Quebec he was much impressed with the kindness of some Huron Indians who attended his performances, and he was made chief of the tribe, receiving the name Alanienouidet. Kean's last appearance in New York was on the 5th of December 1826 in Richard III, the role in which he was first seen in America. He returned to England and was ultimately received with all the old favor, but the contest had made him so dependent on the use of stimulants that the gradual deterioration of his gifts was inevitable. Still, even in their decay his great powers triumphed during the moments of his inspiration over the absolute wreck of his physical faculties, and compelled admiration after his gait had degenerated into a weak hobble, and the lightning brilliancy of his eyes had become dull and bloodshot, and the tones of his matchless voice marred by rough and grating hoarseness. His appearance in Paris was a failure owing to a fit of drunkenness. His last appearance on the stage was at Covent Garden, on the 25th of March 1833 when he played Othello to the Iago of his son Charles. 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 on the 15th of May 1833.

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 impersonation 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 only personal disadvantage as an actor was his small stature. His countenance was strikingly interesting and unusually mobile; he had a matchless command of facial expression; his fine eyes scintillated with the slightest shades of emotion and thought; his voice, though weak and harsh in the upper register, possessed in its lower range tones of penetrating and resistless power, and a thrilling sweetness like the witchery of the finest music; above all, in the grander moments of his passion, his intellect and soul seemed to rise beyond material barriers and to glorify physical defects with their own greatness. Kean specially excelled as the exponent of passion. In Othello, Iago, Shylock and Richard III, characters utterly different from each other, but in which the predominant element is some form of passion, his identification with the personality, as he had conceived it, was as nearly as possible perfect, and each isolated phase and aspect of the plot was elaborated with the minutest attention to details, and yet with an absolute subordination of these to the distinct individuality he was endeavoring to portray. Samuel Taylor 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 has been so successful in so many great impersonations. Unlike Garrick, he 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 Shylock throughout the night. He was presented with a tame lion with which he might be found playing in his drawing-room. The prizefighters Mendoza and Richmond the Black were among his visitors. Henry Grattan was his devoted friend. In his earlier days Talma said of him, "He is a magnificent uncut gem; polish and round him off and he will be a perfect tragedian." William Charles Macready, who was much impressed by Kean's Richard III and met the actor at supper, speaks of his "unassuming manner... partaking in some degree of shyness" and of the "touching grace" of his singing. Kean's delivery of the three words "I answer-- NO!" in the part of Sir Edward Mortimer in The Iron Chest, cast Macready into an abyss of despair at rivalling him in this role. So full of dramatic interest is the life of Edmund Kean that it formed the subject for a play by Alexandre Dumas père, entitled Kean on désordre et génie, in which Frederick-Lemaître achieved one of his greatest triumphs.

Father: Edmund Kean (architect's clerk)
Mother: Ann Carey (actress)
Wife: Mary Chambers (actress, m. 17-Jul-1808)
Son: Charles John Kean (actor, b. 18-Jan-1811, d. 22-Jan-1868)

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