Kean, Charles John (DNB00)
|←Keach, Benjamin||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 30
Kean, Charles John
KEAN, CHARLES JOHN (1811?–1868), actor, the second son of Edmund Kean [q. v.], was born, according to accepted statements, in Waterford, 18 Jan. 1811. The ‘Theatrical Times’ (ii. 74) gives the date January 1809. After receiving a preparatory education at Worplesdon in Surrey and at Greenford, near Harrow, Kean, in accordance with his father's promise made on the night of his first appearance at Drury Lane, 26 Jan. 1814, went to Eton as an Oppidan, his tutor being Chapman, subsequently bishop of Colombo. After the eclipse of his father's fortunes he was withdrawn in 1827, and was offered a cadetship in the East India Company's service by Mr. Calcraft, M.P., one of the managing committee of Drury Lane. This young Kean declined to accept unless his father consented to settle on his mother, from whom he was separated, an income of 400l. Professing his inability to do this, Edmund Kean parted in anger from his son, who declared his intention to become an actor.
Assumably without experience, Kean found that his name opened to him the portals of the stage. Stephen Price, an American manager of Drury Lane, generally known as ‘Half’ Price, offered the youth an engagement for three years, rising from ten to twelve pounds per week. On 1 Oct. 1827 accordingly, as Young Norval in ‘Douglas,’ Kean made what was announced as his first appearance on any stage. His age was then said to be eighteen, thus contradicting the date assigned for his birth. Curiosity was stimulated, and his performances, though condemned by the critics, proved a financial success. A writer in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ spoke of his actions as unembarrassed and his attitudes as at times picturesque, but declared his deficiencies of voice distressing, his accent ‘alternating between feeble bass and childish treble,’ being ‘sometimes ludicrous and always painful’ (xxi. 462). Absence of passion was, of course, to be expected. He imitated with dubious effect the abrupt transitions and rapid turns of his father. Norval was repeated four times, and on 15 Oct. Achmet in ‘Barbarossa’ was played without altering the estimate of his powers. Frederick in ‘Lovers' Vows’ followed, 28 Nov., and Lothair in ‘Adelgitha,’ 14 April 1828. In ‘Lovers' Vows’ he first met (26 Dec. 1828) Ellen Tree, his future wife, who played Amelia Wildenhaim. At the close of the season 1827–8 he accepted an engagement at Glasgow, and at Bute visited his father, by whom he was forgiven. Father and son then acted together for one occasion, 1 Oct. 1828, in Glasgow, Kean playing Brutus, and Charles Kean Titus, in Howard Payne's tragedy of ‘Brutus.’ Charles Kean made a first appear- ance in Edinburgh 20 Oct. 1828, playing as Edward Mortimer in the ‘Iron Chest.’
Returning to London, he reappeared at Drury Lane on 15 Dec. 1828 as Romeo to the Juliet of Miss C. Phillips. His failure in this was the more humiliating as his partner, whose first appearance as Juliet it was, obtained a triumph. At the end of the season he retired into the country. After playing with his father in Dublin and in Cork, he made his first appearance at the Haymarket on 6 Oct. 1829 as Reuben Glenroy, in ‘Town and Country.’ Besides playing Romeo to the Juliet of Miss F. H. Kelly, and other parts, he essayed for the first time in London, 12 Oct., Mortimer in the ‘Iron Chest,’ making the nearest approach as yet obtained to a success. An engagement at 20l. a week to act at Amsterdam and the Hague with a man named Aubrey was disastrous, the speculator levanting with the money. A benefit performance, to which the king of Holland subscribed, was got up for the actors. Returning by way of France, Kean then went to America, appearing at the Park Theatre, New York, in September 1830, as Richard III. His reception was favourable, and he came back to England in 1833 with means and an augmented reputation. Engaged by Laporte for Covent Garden at 30l. per week, he stipulated that his appearance should be in Mortimer—as the event proved, an unfortunate choice. His father accepted an engagement at the same house, and the two Keans acted together, on 25 March 1833, for the first and last time in London; Edmund Kean was Othello, and Charles Iago. Towards the close of the performance the elder Kean was suddenly seized with an illness which proved fatal. After his father's death Kean refused Bunn's offer of a benefit for his mother. He was in 1833 the original Leonardo Gonzaga in the ‘Wife,’ by Sheridan Knowles. With Ellen Tree, who had been his Mariana, and a company he went in the same year to Hamburg. In 1837 he was in Edinburgh, where he played Mortimer on 28 April, and obtained a financial success. In the ‘Dramatic Spectator,’ W. Logan, writing under a pseudonym, said ‘his chief admirers are people who seldom enter a playhouse,’ denied that he ever moved tears, and added: ‘His Hamlet is a boisterous piece of mere acting; his Richard III is generally acknowledged to be a failure; and his Othello is a fine piece of low comedy.’ Declining an invitation from Macready to play with him at Covent Garden, he began, on 8 Jan. 1838, under Bunn at Drury Lane, a twenty nights' engagement at 50l. per night. In the course of this he played Hamlet, Richard III, and Sir Giles Overreach, obtaining grudging recognition from the press and a social and popular success. In 1839 he was at the Haymarket under Webster; he then revisited America, and in 1840, at the Haymarket, played Macbeth and Romeo to the Juliet of Miss Ellen Tree, whom he married at St. Thomas's Church, Dublin, 29 Jan. 1842. Bride and bridegroom appeared the same evening as Aranza and Juliana in the ‘Honeymoon.’ In 1843 he was at Drury Lane, and in 1845, with Mrs. Kean, revisited America, where he produced in 1846 Lovell's play, ‘The Wife's Secret,’ in which he was Sir Walter Amyott. Returning from America in 1847 the pair appeared, 17 Jan. 1848, at the Haymarket in the same piece. Theatrical performances by Kean were directed in Windsor Castle in 1849 and in several subsequent years. On 20 June 1849 he played Halbert Strathmore in Westland Marston's drama of ‘Strathmore.’
In partnership with Robert Keeley, Kean entered, in August 1850, on a lease of the Princess's Theatre, which opened on 28 Sept. with the ‘Twelfth Night,’ a farce by Bayle Bernard [q. v.], and a ballet. As Hamlet Kean made, on 30 Sept., his first appearance under his own management. He was seen also in ‘As you like it,’ the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ ‘First Part of King Henry IV,’ the ‘Gamester,’ the ‘Stranger,’ the ‘Honeymoon,’ and other plays. The first novelty was the ‘Templar’ of A. R. Slous, 9 Nov. ‘Pauline,’ by John Oxenford, followed, 17 March 1851, and subsequently the ‘Duke's Wager,’ an adaptation by A. R. Slous of ‘Mdlle. de Belle Isle.’ ‘Love in a Maze,’ by Dion Boucicault, a pantomime, and various lighter pieces, were also given. At the close of a season extending over close upon thirteen months Keeley retired from management, and Kean began the series of spectacular revivals by which he is best remembered. The Princess's reopened on 22 Nov. 1851 with the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ Kean playing Ford, but he did not rely for the success of this venture on scenic display. ‘King John,’ 9 Feb. 1852, was the first of his spectacular revivals. His rendering of the title-rôle, which had been seen in America, was favourably received. A great success was obtained on 24 Feb. 1852 with Boucicault's adaptation of the ‘Corsican Brothers,’ in which Kean played Louis and Fabian dei Franchi. Lovell's ‘Trial of Love’ was given in June, and Boucicault's ‘Vampire’ before the close of the season, on 14 July. Westland Marston's ‘Ann Blake,’ on 28 Oct. 1852, with Kean as Thorold, was the first important event of the third season, the special feature in which was the revival, 14 Feb. 1853, of ‘Macbeth.’ Douglas Jerrold's ‘St. Cupid, or Dorothy's Fortune,’ given first 21 Jan. 1853 at Windsor Castle and the following evening at the Princess's, proved a failure. On 13 June Byron's ‘Sardanapalus’ was produced. A special feature in this revival was the use made of Layard's discoveries. The production was eminently popular, but complaints about the drama being buried beneath scenery began to be heard. Such adverse criticism Kean attributed to a quarrel between himself and Douglas Jerrold concerning his failure to produce the latter's ‘Heart of Gold,’ and an acrimonious correspondence followed. Cibber's ‘Richard III’ was revived on 20 Feb. 1854, and ran only nineteen nights, and on 19 April Kean appeared as Mephistopheles in ‘Faust and Marguerite.’ Charles Reade's adaptation of the ‘Courier of Lyons’ was given on 26 June, with Kean in the double characters of Lesurques and Dubosc. Jerrold's ‘Heart of Gold’ was ultimately played on 9 Oct. 1854, but Kean did not act in it. Boucicault's adaptation of ‘Louis XI’ by Casimir de la Vigne, 13 Jan. 1855, showed Kean in what was his greatest part. ‘King Henry VIII,’ revived 16 May 1855, furnished him, in Cardinal Wolsey, with a rôle fairly well suited to his powers. This was about the climax of Kean's success. The ‘Winter's Tale,’ with Kean as Leontes, 28 April 1856, mounted with much elaboration, was the great feature of the sixth season, as ‘A Midsummer-Night's Dream,’ 15 Oct. 1856, was of the seventh. In the latter Kean had no part. He had, however, played Rolla in ‘Pizarro’ 1 Sept. 1856. ‘Richard II’ was produced 12 March 1857. As a spectacle this was successful, but Kean's Richard II inspired little interest. The play was withdrawn 1 July, and replaced by the ‘Tempest,’ with the manager as Prospero. After visiting Venice, and being elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London, a distinction of which he was proud, Kean reappeared in Hamlet and other characters. Much was made of the omission of his name from the performances at Her Majesty's Theatre on the occasion of the marriage of the princess royal. On 17 April he played King Lear in a revival of that play, and on 12 June 1858 Shylock in the ‘Merchant of Venice.’ At the close of a season which involved a loss of 4,000l. Kean announced his intention to resign the management at the end of the next season. ‘Henry V,’ 28 March 1859, in which he played King Henry, was his last Shakespearean revival. Kean had on 21 July 1858 taken the chair at the Princess's at a meeting at which a resolution was passed for the formation of the ill-starred Dramatic College. Of this institution he became a trustee. A public banquet, with the Earl of Carlisle in the chair and a committee of noblemen and others educated at Eton, was given in Kean's honour at St. James's Hall on 20 July 1859. His management of the Princess's terminated on the 29th of the following month. The speech he made on the closing night was a long defence of his theory and practice of management.
After playing in the country Kean began, 28 Jan. 1861, an engagement at Drury Lane, which was renewed on 3 Feb. 1862. In March 1862, at a meeting with Mr. Gladstone in the chair, a presentation of a silver vase, said to be worth two thousand guineas, was made. Similar compliments were not infrequent during his career. His farewell of Drury Lane was taken on 22 March 1862, as Don Felix in the ‘Wonder,’ to the Violante of his wife. On 6 July 1863 he sailed with his wife round the world, appearing in Melbourne on 10 Oct. 1863, and quitting Australia on 9 July 1864. Mr. and Mrs. Kean played in San Francisco on 8 Oct. 1864, and in Vancouver's Island 12 Dec. 1864. After giving recitations at the Cabildo, on the Isthmus of Panama, on 20 Feb. 1865, and at Kingston, Jamaica, they began, on 26 April 1865, in New York, a series of farewell performances ending 16 April 1866. On 2 May 1866 they reappeared at the Theatre Royal, Liverpool, and in the same month played in London at the Princess's. A country tour which followed was interrupted by the illness of Kean, who on 28 May 1867, as Louis XI, made in Liverpool his final appearance on the stage. After a long and painful illness he died at Queensborough Terrace, Chelsea, on 22 Jan. 1868, and was buried on the 30th at Catherington, near Rowlands Castle, Hampshire, near the small estate of Keydall, where his mother had died on 30 March 1849.
Kean was a careful and conscientious, but scarcely an inspired actor. By courage and resolution he triumphed over many obstacles and discouragements. He had an abundant stock of mannerisms, including a vicious style of pronunciation. His performances in Shakespearean tragedy, with the exception of Hamlet, and perhaps Richard III, may be regarded as failures. His Hamlet had more fatefulness and more sombre power than that of any contemporary actor. In Richard III he displayed some variety and contrast of style. His Shylock was purely conventional. Louis XI was immeasurably his greatest part. Its concentrated malignity and saturnine humour were very telling, and the entire performance was said by Westland Marston, one of the first of recent critics, to be Hogarthian. In the ‘Corsican Brothers’ he was most popular, and made most money. His Mephistopheles was also good. In comedy, Ford, Mr. Oakley, and Benedict were his best parts. His life was worthy and honoured, and his domestic surroundings were happy. An infantine and turbulent vanity involved him in many disputes, from which he extricated himself by sterling good nature and good sense.[Personal recollections; works cited; Tallis's Dramatic Magazine and Drawing-Room Table Book; Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean, by John William Cole, 2 vols. 1859; Some Recollections of our Recent Actors, by Westland Marston, 2 vols. 1888; Theatrical Times; Morley's Journal of a London Playgoer; Era newspaper, January and February 1868; Sunday Times newspaper, various years; Era Almanack, various years; Dibdin's Edinburgh Stage; History of the Theatre Royal, Dublin; Genest's Account of the English Stage.]