Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kean, Edmund
KEAN, EDMUND (1787–1833), actor, the son of Anne Carey, hawker and itinerant actress, was born on 4 Nov. 1787 in the chambers occupied by his maternal grandfather, George Saville Carey [q. v.], through whom his supposed descent is traced to George Savile, the celebrated marquis of Halifax. His father is said to have been either Edmund or Aaron Kean, brothers, of Irish descent, who with a third brother, Moses, and a sister, Mrs. Price, lived at 9 St. Martin's Lane. Deserted by his mother when an infant, Kean was sheltered by a couple by whom he was picked up in a doorway in Frith Street, Soho. It was probably, however, through his mother that he found his way either to Her Majesty's Theatre, where, according to the very untrustworthy records of his life supplied after his rise to eminence, he represented a Cupid lying at the feet of Sylvia and Cymon in a ballet of Noverre, or to Drury Lane, where he is said, in 1790, to have been selected for his black eyes once more to personate Cupid. At the latter house he appeared in the next year as a demon, undergoing a training so severe from the posture-master that he was compelled to wear irons to prevent permanent dislocation of his limbs, and played a page in ‘Love makes a Man’ and in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor.’ The first attempts at education he received, against the will of his mother, through the charity of a Jew at a school in Orange Court, Leicester Square, subsequently exchanged for one kept by a Mr. King in Chapel Street, Soho, whither he was sent by his aunt, Mrs. Price. In 1795 he ran away from his home in Ewer Street, Southwark, walked to Portsmouth, and shipped as a cabin-boy on a vessel bound for Madeira. Disliking the work, he counterfeited deafness and paralysis as the result of a cold, was removed to a hospital in Madeira, puzzled the doctors, and was sent home as a patient. Returning to London, he took refuge with his uncle, Moses Kean, a ventriloquist, who gave him lessons in elocution. Further instruction in acting was obtained from Miss Tidswell, an actress at Drury Lane, who, owing to her kindness to him, was for some time regarded as his mother. He was also sent to a day school in Green Street, Leicester Square, and is said to have received lessons, presumably gratuitous if not wholly imaginary, in dancing, fencing, and singing from D'Egvile, Angelo, and Incledon respectively. His newly acquired knowledge he put to use in the street, singing and dancing at tavern doors or at country fairs, to which, in spite of all efforts to confine him, he ran away. Once more at Drury Lane he played Prince Arthur to the King John of Kemble and the Constance of Mrs. Siddons, probably in May 1801. Mrs. Charles Kemble [see Kemble, Maria Theresa] overheard him reciting Richard III in the green-room, and thought him clever. After the death of Moses Kean he was supported by Miss Tidswell, who induced him seriously to study various Shakespearean characters, notably Richard III. A Mrs. Clarke, at whose house he gave recitations, supplied him with further instruction, and for a time lifted him into respectable surroundings, setting him even to shape little plays out of episodes in the ‘Faerie Queen.’ His roving and irresponsible disposition, however, could not be controlled, and he ran away to Bartholomew Fair. Acting as a tumbler in Saunders's circus, he fell and broke both his legs—an accident from which he never quite recovered. He next gave, in a room in a Portsmouth inn, an entertainment of recitation, singing, and acrobatic evolutions, repeated it at the Sans Souci Theatre in Leicester Place, London, and read the ‘Merchant of Venice’ at the Rolls Rooms. Subsequently he filled an engagement for twenty nights at the York Theatre, playing as his first part Hamlet, succeeded on following evenings by Hastings and Cato. An engagement at Richardson's show followed. On Easter Monday 1803, for a weekly salary of fifteen shillings, he played at Sheerness Norval and harlequin. At Windsor Master Carey's recitations were given by command before George III. After his rise to eminence he was always anxious to lift himself out of the slough of his early surroundings, and a story was circulated, probably at his own suggestion, that he was sent to Eton College by Dr. Drury, headmaster of Harrow, by whom he was seen at Windsor. For this wild statement, unsupported by a tittle of evidence, the biography published in 1814 in the ‘European Magazine’ seems primarily responsible. One or two subsequent biographers have been reluctant to dismiss it. Kean certainly disappears from view between 1803 and 1806. A writer in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 4th ser. iii. 535, says that during this period he was acting under the name of Edmund Carter in Goldsmith's company at Grassington Theatre and its offshoots in the district of Craven, Yorkshire. With him were a sister, Sarah Carter, and a Mrs. Carter, said to have been his mother. This statement, although unsupported, has the merit of plausibility. In March 1806 Kean was playing low comedy under Moss at Dumfries. Proceeding to join Butler's company at Northallerton, he is said on his way to have replaced a disabled jockey, and ridden and lost a race.
In 1806, presumably on 9 June, Kean made his first appearance at the Haymarket, playing Ganem in the ‘Mountaineers.’ Peter, a servant, in the ‘Iron Chest,’ Simon in ‘John Bull,’ Rosencrantz to the Hamlet of Rae, the Polonius of Mathews, and the First Gravedigger of Liston, and other subordinate parts followed. An application to Kemble for an engagement was unsuccessful, and Kean returned into the country and played in various towns from Portsmouth to Edinburgh and Belfast, in which last town he acted Osmyn in the ‘Mourning Bride’ to the Zara of Mrs. Siddons, who called him a ‘horrid little man.’ As Jaffier to her Belvidera and Norval to her Lady Randolph he won a more favourable opinion. His experiences as a strolling player were naturally varied, and not seldom disagreeable. While with Beverley at Stroud he refused to play Laertes to the Hamlet of ‘Master’ Betty, saying, ‘Damme, I won't play second to any man living except to John Kemble.’ In July 1808, at Stroud, Kean married Mary Chambers, an actress nine years older than himself, with whom he had been playing. The next six years saw Kean in various country towns suffering unmitigated hardship. Stephen Kemble, struck with his Octavian in the ‘Mountaineers,’ offered him a London engagement; but Kean, with judgment altogether out of keeping with his ordinary proceedings, declared it was early to make the great plunge. While in Wales with Cherry's company, the first son, Howard Kean, was born. Charles, the second son [q. v.], was born in Waterford on 18 Jan. 1811. With these additions to his expenses his position became terrible, and the family were often dependent on charity for sustenance. In Guernsey his Hamlet was bitterly criticised, and as Richard he was hissed and derided. Advancing to the front, he declaimed, with an energy that surprised the audience, the line—
Unmannered dogs! stand ye when I command.
A shout for an apology provoked Kean to further expressions of contempt, and led to a feud with the press and the public, which Sir John Doyle, the governor, had some difficulty in quenching. At Dorchester Kean was seen by Dr. Drury, who made application on his behalf to the Drury Lane committee. Kean meanwhile had accepted an engagement from Elliston to play melodrama at the Olympic. On 14 Nov. 1813 he appeared as Octavian in the ‘Mountaineers’ at Dorchester, and Kankou the savage in a pantomime said to have been extracted by himself from the story of La Pérouse. Kean describes the audience as miserable, but adds that a gentleman in the stage-box appeared to understand acting, and to him accordingly he played. This spectator was Arnold, the stage-manager of Drury Lane, who had been sent by the management. An introduction followed, and Kean was offered an engagement at Drury Lane for three years at a salary rising from eight to ten and twelve guineas a week. The death of his son Howard detained him for a time, but after a visit to Exeter he came to London and took a garret in Cecil Street, Strand. His appearance flustered the committee, who mistrusted his powers, and wished him to appear in a secondary part. Kean was resolute, and insisted upon opening as Shylock, to which the management was compelled reluctantly to accede. Further delay then arose from the claims of Elliston, which Kean resisted with all his power. The committee wished to cancel the engagement, but on the intercession of Dr. Drury they consented to give him a trial, and Elliston, ignorant of Kean's value, waived the exercise of his rights.
At length, on 26 Jan. 1814, the memorable appearance of Kean at Drury Lane took place, an event more stimulating and important than any other in English theatrical annals. On the one side stood Kean, confident in unmatched powers, and on the other a public incredulous and uninterested, and a management seeking only some means of escape from what it viewed as an unfortunate engagement, while his stage associates, taking their cue from those in power, sneered at the newcomer, and stung him with annoyances and insults. Resolutely silent, Kean disregarded the behaviour of those around him. Long delay and poverty, however, fretted him out of all patience, and he is said to have been meditating suicide when he was told that his début in the ‘Merchant of Venice’ was announced in the ‘Times.’ The cast, exceptionally poor even for Drury Lane in those days, included Miss Smith (Portia), Powell (Antonio), Rae (Bassanio), Phillips (Lorenzo), Oxberry (Lancelot), Wrench (Gratiano), and ‘Mr. Kean from the Theatre Royal, Exeter’ (Shylock). The solitary rehearsal was walked through on the day of performance amidst loudly expressed forebodings of failure. Kean was spoken of as Mr. Arnold's ‘hard bargain.’ ‘This will never do, Mr. Kean,’ said Raymond, the stage-manager; ‘it is an innovation, Sir, it is totally different from anything that has ever been done on these boards.’ ‘I wish it to be so’ was the response. The evening was raw and cold, and the house less than a third full. Acquiring courage as he progressed, Kean gripped the public, until, after the scene with Tubal, the actors stood looking at him from the wings in irrepressible admiration and surprise, and at the close, amidst such cheering as the walls of Drury Lane had long forgotten, the curtain fell on an undisputed triumph.
Pecuniary reward was not slow to follow. Fifty pounds was presented to him after his performance of Shylock, and 100l. after that of Richard III. Shylock was repeated on 1 Feb. The receipts then sprang from 164l., received on the first night at the doors, to 325l., and by the 19th the significant announcement was put forth that no orders would be admitted on the nights of Kean's performance. After the third representation of Shylock, Whitbread asked Kean to breakfast, for the purpose of ratifying the agreement. When Kean had signed the original document, Whitbread tore it up and substituted another, giving him a weekly salary of 20l. He was freed, moreover, from a vexatious weekly charge of 2l. for a substitute at the Olympic. At a date not far subsequent the committee gave him 5,000l., four shareholders respectively gave him a share in the theatre, and private gifts poured upon him. Richard III was acted on 12 Feb. It increased Kean's reputation, but exhausted him so thoroughly that he could not act for a week. Sir Henry Halford was sent to him by the committee, and he was entreated to take care of a life so precious to the stage. Hamlet was played on 12 March, Othello on 5 May, Iago on 7 May, and Luke in ‘Riches’ on 25 May. In his first season he acted Shylock fifteen times, Richard twenty-five, Hamlet eight, Othello ten, Iago seven or eight, and Luke four. Whitbread, at the annual meeting of the proprietors at the beginning of the following season, found few terms too flattering for the man who had replenished the coffers of Drury Lane. In his first season the receipts for a single performance had reached 673l., and the management cleared altogether 20,000l. An account of a visit to Kean at this period speaks of money lying in heaps on the mantelpiece, table, and sofa, and his son playing on the floor with ‘some scores of guineas, then a rare coin.’ The proceeds of Kean's first benefit are said to have amounted to 1,150l. But during even his first season his recklessness became apparent. Sometimes he would walk his horse, which he named Shylock, up and down the theatre steps in the early morning, or gallop wildly along the turnpike roads, sleeping with his steed in the stable on his return home. Among those whom his reputation soon attracted was his mother, on whom Kean settled an annual allowance of 50l., which was paid until her death. He is reported, indeed, probably in error, to have been uncertain as to his birth, and to have paid two women as his mother. His relationship with Anne Carey he would not openly acknowledge, and he was at first indignant with his mother for introducing to him a certain Henry Darnley, who persisted in calling him brother.
Criticism pronounced almost unanimously in Kean's favour. Hazlitt, after taking some exception, subsequently removed, spoke of him with high eulogy. West, the president of the Royal Academy, said that his face in Richard kept him awake all night. Kemble, who credited him with terrible earnestness and brilliancy of execution, conceived a jealousy of him, which afterwards extended to his family. Genest, writing later, was, on the other hand, strangely hostile to Kean, and denied that he was a ‘universal favourite …’ ‘Kean's voice,’ he adds, ‘was very bad; his figure was not only diminutive but insignificant; his natural appearance, when not counteracted by dress, was mean’ (Account of the English Stage, viii. 413). Some depreciator said sneeringly, ‘I understand that he is an admirable harlequin,’ and drew from ‘Jack’ Bannister the reply, ‘That I am certain of, for he has jumped over all our heads.’ Meantime the magazines were full of Kean, and biographies, each more misleading than the other, chronicled preposterous doings. Kean declined to give information, and did not contradict fictitious stories of his noble origin and his education at Eton, which were circulated by his former associates, for whose benefit in his days of poverty and depression he had concocted them. Mrs. Garrick asked the young actor to her house, made him sit in Garrick's chair, cheered him with compliments, and gave him some of her husband's stage-jewels, but found fault with portions of his Hamlet, which she made him rehearse in ‘David's’ manner. He was naturally impatient of this lessoning, but, it is said, took it to heart and profited by the counsel given him. He was asked in the vacation to aristocratic houses, and with some reluctance accepted a few invitations to Holland House and elsewhere. Afraid of betraying ignorance, and uninterested in the subjects discussed, he was always anxious, unlike his wife, to escape from fashionable company, and soon avoided it altogether. Byron, whom alone among noblemen Kean prized, wrote concerning his Richard to Moore, ‘By Jove, he is a soul! Life—nature—truth, without exaggeration or diminution. Kemble's Hamlet is perfect, but Hamlet is not nature; Richard is a man, and Kean is Richard.’
At the close of his first season Kean played in Dublin, Birmingham, and elsewhere, returning to Drury Lane 3 Oct. 1814 as Richard. In the course of the season (1814–15) he added to his London repertory Macbeth, Romeo, Reuben Glenroy in ‘Town and Country,’ Richard II, Penruddock in the ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ Zanga, Abel Drugger, and was, 22 April 1815, the original Egbert in Mrs. Wilmot's tragedy of ‘Ina.’ Bajazet in ‘Tamerlane;’ Duke Aranza in the ‘Honeymoon;’ Goswin or Florez in the ‘Merchant of Bruges,’ altered by Kinnaird from the ‘Beggar's Bush’ of Beaumont and Fletcher; Sir Giles Overreach; the Duke in Massinger's ‘Maid of Milan;’ and Kitely in ‘Every Man in his Humour’ were given for the first time in 1815–16. On 9 May 1816 Kean was the original Bertram in Maturin's ‘Bertram.’ Timon of Athens, Mortimer in the ‘Iron Chest,’ Oroonoko, Eustace St. Pierre in the ‘Surrender of Calais,’ and Achmet in ‘Barbarossa’ were played in the following season, in which also Kean was the original Manuel, count Valdi, in Maturin's ‘Manuel.’ In Paul in ‘Paul and Virginia,’ 26 May 1817, a part he only acted once, Kean proved himself a good and a natural singer. On 22 Dec. 1817 he played Richard in ‘Richard, Duke of York,’ a compilation by J. H. Merivale from the three parts of ‘King Henry VI,’ and on 5 Feb. 1818 was the original Selim in the ‘Bride of Abydos,’ adapted by Dimond. Other of his characters during that season were Barabas, in an alteration by Penley of Marlowe's ‘Jew of Malta,’ 24 April; Young Norval in ‘Douglas,’ 6 May; King John, 1 June; and Alexander the Great and Sylvester Daggerwood, 8 June.
Less interest was felt in his later performances than in the earlier, but the Kean nights still attracted large audiences. As he reached the height of his fame he grew more difficult of control, giving himself airs and affectations, and putting in pleas of illness or accident to excuse absence, which was usually the result of debauch. So popular was Kean that when on three nights he acted for the purpose of deceiving the public with his arm in a sling he was received with tumultuous applause. The Wolf Club, which subsequently gave rise to much ill-feeling, had been started in May 1815 by Kean at the Coal Hole Tavern, Fountain Court, Strand (site of the present Terry's Theatre), and it constituted a favourite haunt of actors. There, from 1814 to 1817, Kean spent his nights with much regularity, and his eccentricities were pardoned and applauded. In 1815 he took the house No. 12 Clarges Street, Piccadilly, which he occupied until 1824. Booth, in the season 1816–17, came out at Drury Lane and retired, and the Wolf Club, which was taxed with a conspiracy to sacrifice all would-be tragedians in the interest of Kean, was dissolved. Numberless rivals, from Conway to Cobham, were opposed to Kean without disturbing his position, and John Philip Kemble's retirement on 23 June 1817 left him undisputed master of the stage. Talma visited London and pronounced him ‘a magnificent uncut gem. Polish and round him off, and he will be a perfect tragedian.’
At the close of the season 1817–18 Kean, who had regularly visited professionally Edinburgh and other places, went to Paris, saw Talma in ‘Orestes,’ and pronounced him in declamation greater than himself and Kemble put together. The delivery of the curse inspired him with emulation, and he wrote to the Drury Lane committee, requesting a preparation of the ‘Distressed Mother’ for his return. During a visit at this time to Switzerland Kean is said to have ascended Mont Blanc, a gratuitous and inaccurate statement.
On 20 Oct. 1818 Kean appeared as Orestes, with Mrs. West as Hermione, and owned he could make nothing of the character. Conspicuous success attended on 3 Dec. 1818 his Lucius Junius Brutus in Howard Payne's ‘Brutus.’ On the other hand, Miss Porter's ‘Switzerland,’ in which Kean played Eugene, was only acted once, and Kean was charged with want of loyalty and gallantry in playing the hero in perfunctory style. A serious quarrel with Charles Bucke [q. v.], a dramatic author, followed. The committee had accepted Bucke's tragedy, the ‘Italians,’ in which the part of Albanio was intended for Kean. Delay ensued, and other pieces, some of them at the suggestion of Kean, took precedence of the ‘Italians.’ Among them was the ‘Jew of Malta,’ in the prologue to which was the line
Nor wish an Alleyn while we boast a Kean.
For delivering this Kean was censured, and he admitted his offence. When the ‘Italians’ was put into rehearsal it proved rather a dramatic poem than a drama, and Kean declared he would rather pay the 1,000l. forfeit than play the part assigned him. Bucke thereupon published the piece with a preface, accusing Kean of sacrificing everything to his own vanity, and exhibiting a contemptuous disregard for the usages of society. There followed a newspaper correspondence and a scene in the theatre, when the irate author hissed the actor and demanded an apology, which was refused. The ‘Italians’ was at length produced, 3 April 1819, with Rae in the part designed for Kean. Its representation was attended with much disturbance, and after a second performance the piece was withdrawn. Kean's share in its failure provoked some censure. Sir Walter Scott wrote to Southey on 4 April 1819: ‘How would you, or how do you think I could, relish being the object of such a letter as Kean wrote t'other day to a poor author, who, though a pedantic blockhead, has at least the right to be treated as a gentleman by a copper-laced two penny learmouth rendered mad by conceit and success?’ In the same season Kean appeared as Leon in ‘Rule a Wife and have a Wife,’ by Beaumont and Fletcher; Hotspur in ‘King Henry IV;’ Malvesi, an original character, in Soane's ‘Dwarf of Naples,’ 13 March 1819; Omreah in the ‘Carib Chief’ of Twiss, the nephew of Mrs. Siddons, 13 May; and for the first time, 31 May, Rolla in ‘Pizarro.’ Very far from successful was Kean in some of these pieces. Concerning Abel Drugger in the ‘Tobacconist’ Mrs. Garrick wrote to him the day following his appearance in it: ‘Dear Sir, you can't play Abel Drugger;’ to which he replied: ‘Dear Madam, I know it.’ Complaints of his overbearing conduct became frequent. He returned to the committee of Drury Lane as an insult the part of Joseph Surface, and often expressed his determination to play no secondary character whatever.
One of Kean's most brilliant triumphs attended him on 24 April 1820 in ‘King Lear.’ On 24 Jan. previously he had been seen in ‘Coriolanus.’ In both parts he was opposed at Covent Garden—in ‘Coriolanus’ by Macready, and in ‘Lear’ by Booth. Kean's figure was unsuited to Coriolanus, and unfavourable criticism was provoked by his performance. His Lear was received with rapture (cf. Theatrical Inquisitor, xvi. 120). To Jaffier in ‘Venice Preserved,’ 12 June 1820, he assigned a strong individuality. His performance of Virginius in Soane's play of that name challenged comparison with that of Macready at Covent Garden in the version by Sheridan Knowles and proved inferior. At the close of this season Elliston reopened Drury Lane for a series of farewell performances by Kean previous to his departure for America.
Kean's first appearance in New York took place 29 Nov. 1820. A repetition of his London success ensued. A clamorous mob besieged the doors of the theatre, and no form of social or artistic homage was wanting. Philadelphia and Boston followed suit. In the last-named city, however, Kean contrived to embroil himself with a portion of the public. The offence found an echo in New York. A letter from Kean to the press failed to re-establish peace, and a projected extension of his visit over another year had to be abandoned. While in America Kean erected a monument over the grave of George Frederick Cooke [q. v.], whose remains he caused to be removed to a more prominent position in the burial-ground of St. Paul's Church, New York.
On 23 July 1821 Kean reappeared as Richard III at Drury Lane. An altered version of Joanna Baillie's ‘De Montfort’ showed him as De Montfort in a new character, 27 Nov. 1821. Hastings in ‘Jane Shore,’ Owen in the ‘Prince of Powys,’ an original play, Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, and Osmond in the ‘Castle Spectre’ were ill-judged experiments. For the farewell benefit of Miss Tidswell, his former benefactress, he played Don Felix in the ‘Wonder,’ in which he showed distinct comic gifts. For the benefit of the distressed Irish he played, 3 June, Paris in the ‘Roman Actor, or the Drama's Vindication,’ Octavian in the ‘Mountaineers,’ and Tom Tug in the ‘Waterman,’ imitating Incledon in the songs. While acting at Dundee he conceived the notion of retiring from the stage, and erected in Bute a pretty cottage on land he had bought from the Marquis of Bute. To this spot in his hours of penitence or depression he often retired. The engagement of Young at Drury Lane he resented, and he came back to town to play Othello to Young's Iago, and Cymbeline to his Iachimo, and so establish a not to be contested supremacy. The original fifth act of ‘Lear’ was also restored, and Kean played Lothair in ‘Adelgitha.’ On 6 March 1824 he played the Stranger. Shortly afterwards he started again for Paris and Switzerland, and on his return journey took what proved to be a farewell of Talma.
For some time the irregularities of Kean's life were the subject of much gossip. He had formed with Mrs. Cox, the wife of Robert Albion Cox, a banker, gold refiner, and alderman of the city of London, an intimacy which, after lasting some years, led to an action for criminal conversation, in which Kean was cast in 800l. damages. Kean was unwise enough, while the scandal was still fresh, to reappear, 24 Jan. 1825, at Drury Lane as Richard. His reception was boisterous in the extreme, and it was some weeks before peace was restored. On 17 Feb. he played Masaniello in a piece of the same name by Soane. This had some analogy with the case of Cox v. Kean, and, in spite of the actor's appearance on horseback in an elaborate costume, was a failure. Colley Grattan, who saw him frequently at this time in the lodgings he occupied, apart from his wife, in Regent Street, speaks of him as changed almost beyond recognition, with red nose, blotched cheeks, and bloodshot eyes. In Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Greenock his reception was turbulent. In Manchester, Dublin, and elsewhere his reception was favourable, but he resolved to return to America. At his benefit at Drury Lane, 17 July 1825, he played for one occasion only Frederick in ‘Of Age To-morrow.’ At Liverpool, where he was well received on his way to America, he spoke of himself as driven from England by the machinations of scoundrels.
On 14 Nov. 1825, at the Park Theatre, New York, Kean reappeared as Richard, and the scenes were no less tumultuous than were those to which in England he had become accustomed. After vainly attempting to speak, he published in the ‘New York National Advocate’ a letter in which he spoke of himself as no longer ‘an ambitious man, and the proud representative of Shakespeare's heroes,’ but pleaded for a shelter in which to close his professional and mortal career. Thus New York was appeased; but the rioting was renewed in Boston, where his life was in danger from missiles, and the houses of those by whom he was sheltered were attacked. Smuggled out of the city, he returned to New York. Other cities in the United States and Canada were visited, and while in Quebec he was elected a chief among the Hurons, an honour which he declared to be the proudest of his distinctions. He appears to have been at one portion of this visit locked up as a lunatic.
On 8 Jan. 1827 Kean reappeared at Drury Lane as Shylock, and all was forgiven. He was visibly failing, however, and when on 21 May 1827 he played Ben Nazir in Colley Grattan's ‘Ben Nazir the Saracen,’ he was unable to speak many consecutive words of his part. Grattan describes him at this period at the Hummums Hotel in Covent Garden, ‘sitting up in his bed, a buffalo skin wrapped around him, a huge hairy cap, decked with many-coloured feathers, on his head, a scalping-knife in his belt, and a tomahawk in his hand.’ Poor as his recklessness had rendered him, he gave Miss Smithson 50l. for her performance of Lady Anne to his Richard. At the same time he quarrelled with his son Charles. Kean now transferred his services to Covent Garden, where, as Shylock, he made his first appearance on 15 Oct. 1827. Here he remained for the season, playing no new part. In May 1828 he played Richard III at the Théâtre Français, Paris, under the patronage of the Duc d'Orléans. Some curiosity was excited, but no appreciation. His visit was, however, commemorated in ‘Kean, ou Désordre et Génie’ by Alexandre Dumas, produced in 1836 at the Porte Saint-Martin. Forgiving his son Charles, Kean appeared with him on 1 Oct. 1828 at Glasgow, playing Brutus in ‘Brutus, or the Fall of Tarquin,’ to his son's Titus. His delivery on his son's neck of the words ‘Pity thy wretched father’ stirred the audience greatly, and Kean whispered to his son, ‘We are doing the trick, Charlie.’ Returning to Covent Garden, he played on 15 Dec. 1828 Virginius in the play of Sheridan Knowles. His fits of illness had grown increasingly severe, and early in January 1829 his season terminated. Contrary to expectation he rallied, and played in Ireland in July. A dispute with the management of Covent Garden led to his reappearance on 2 Dec. 1829 at Drury Lane, where on 8 March 1830 he essayed his last new Shakspearean character, King Henry V, in which he broke down, apologising to the audience for an imperfect memory. He played two nights at the Surrey, and insulted the audience for preferring Thomas Cobham [q. v.] On 16 June 1830 he appeared practically for the first time at the Haymarket, and played four parts that season. Contemplating a third visit to America, he appeared at the Haymarket Opera House on 19 July 1830 in acts from five plays. The announcement that it was his farewell attracted a large audience. After a further retirement to Bute he reappeared at Drury Lane on 31 Jan. 1831.
Kean now took up his abode at the cottage adjoining the Richmond Theatre, where he occasionally acted. He took little sustenance except alcohol, and his appearances in London were fitful. He played at times, however, both at the Haymarket and at Drury Lane, where he was seen in Shylock on 16 May 1832. On 12 March 1833, as Richard, he took, unconsciously, farewell of Drury Lane. His last appearance was on 25 March at Covent Garden as Othello, to the Iago of his son and the Desdemona of Ellen Tree [see Kean, Ellen]. In the fourth act he trembled and reeled, and with the words, ‘I am dying; speak to them for me,’ fell into the arms of his son. He was taken to the Wrekin tavern, Broad Court, Bow Street, and then removed to Richmond. Kean summoned his wife, who forgave and returned to him, and on 15 May 1833 he died. On the 25th his remains were interred in Richmond churchyard. Macready, Harley, Dunn, Braham, Farren, and Cooper were pall-bearers. His mother, Anne Carey, whom he supported to the last, and to whose other children he even extended shelter, survived him eight days. An application for permission to bury him in Westminster Abbey near Garrick was refused, in consequence, it is said, of a financial difficulty. A tablet, with a medallion portrait erected by his son, remains an attractive feature in old Richmond Church.
In a dozen or so of tragic characters, at the head of which stand Richard III, Shylock, Othello, Hamlet, Lear, and Sir Giles Overreach, Kean has never probably been equalled. In no new piece did he create an enduringly favourable impression. For this, however, the conditions of dramatic authorship in his time may be held responsible. Marvellous passion, impetuosity, subtlety, and force distinguished his greatest impersonations. Coleridge's declaration is well known, that ‘to see Kean act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.’ Speaking of him in his decline Talfourd, after praising his Shylock, says: ‘His Sir Giles is not so terrible as it was when it sent Lord Byron into hysterics and made Mrs. Glover tremble, but it is sustained by a quiet consciousness of power and superiority to principle or fear, and the deficiency of physical force in the last scene is supplied with consummate skill’ (New Monthly Mag. 1831, pt. iii. p. 117). His Othello, ‘as once played,’ is said to have been ‘equal to anything perhaps ever presented on the stage.’ Hazlitt, who at the outset constituted himself the champion of Kean, declared, à propos of his Sir Giles Overreach, that Kean's acting is not ‘much relished in the upper circles. It is thought too obtrusive and undisguised a display of nature.’ ‘A View of the English Stage,’ 1818, p. 243, says of his Othello that ‘it is his best character, and the highest effort of genius on the stage’ (ib. p. 212). Lewes calls Kean ‘a consummate master of passionate expression;’ denies him ‘capacity for showing the intellectual side of heroism;’ and declares of his Shylock that ‘anything more impressive than the passionate recrimination and wild justice of argument in his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” has never been seen on our stage’ (On Actors and the Art of Acting, p. 11). Campbell declared that Kean with all his powers failed in the part of Lear as a whole. Though brought up in a different school, Fanny Kemble said, ‘Kean is gone, and with him are gone Othello, Shylock, and Richard.’ The testimony to Kean by his rivals is characteristically grudging, that especially of Macready, who flattered himself that Kean was jealous of him. ‘Jack’ Bannister, a generous man, but an adherent of the old school, said Kean had flashes of power equal to Garrick, but could not sustain a character throughout as Garrick did. Kemble, when asked if he had seen Kean as Othello, said, ‘I did not see Mr. Kean, but Othello.’
Kean was small in stature, and the idea of grace which he conveyed was a conquest over physical difficulties. He had a fine head, a piercing eye, and a musical and powerful voice. His temper in his later days was ungovernable, and his moods uncertain. With the exception of drunkenness and some habits of personal ostentation, he had few apparent extravagances. His generosity was lavish, but the manner in which he spent an income which equalled that of any three contemporary English actors, and is said for eighteen years to have averaged 10,000l. a year, is inexplicable. Shortly before his death he is said to have been in debt for a sum of less than 100l. Mrs. Kean long survived her husband, and died 30 March 1849, at Keydell, near Hornbeam, Hampshire.
Portraits of Kean are innumerable. In the Mathews collection in the Garrick Club are paintings by Clint, A.R.A., of Kean as Richard III; by De Wilde in the same character; by Harlowe as Macbeth, and as Hamlet by Geer; and a portrait of him in his robes as a Huron chief, under the name of Alanienouidet, by Meyer. A picture of Kean as Sir Giles Overreach, with other members of Drury Lane company, by Clint, whose masterpiece it probably is, was presented to the Garrick Club by (Sir) Henry Irving in 1890.