“Kean is original; but he copies from himself." A Regency Era Superstar

4 November 1787, the actor Edmund Kean was born in London.
“Kean is original; but he copies from himself. His rapid descents from the hyper-tragic to the infra-colloquial, though sometimes productive of great effect, are often unreasonable. To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.“ (Samuel Coleridge)

One of George Cruikshank’s caricatures,
showing Kean as the “Theatrical Atlas” in his role of Richard III,
saving the Drury Lane from ruin (ca 1820)

When the Regency Era dawned upon the good people of London, the Drury Lane Theatre already had quite a history. The place, actually called with civil name Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was for a long time the only institution that was licensed to perform “spoken drama” even after the Restoration ended Cromwell’s Puritan drought when next to nothing was allowed to be staged at all. Opened by Thomas Killigrew in 1663 under the patent of Charles II, hence the name “patent theatre, the Drury Lane housed famous actors and actresses from Nell Gwyn and Sarah Siddons to Charles Macklin, David Garrick and John Philip Kemble, burned down four times and was again on the verge of bankruptcy when Edmund Kean showed up in 1814.

Images of Kean in various roles from a contemporary star magazine

As illegitimate child of the Irish architect’s clerk Aaron Ó Catháin, anglicised as Keane, and the actress Anne Carey, received acting lessons by his mother, appeared in a few child roles on stage, went to sea, found it terrible, acted out convincingly to be deaf and lame, was put ashore and toured the province with a few troupes and was finally discovered in 1813. He made his first appearance as “Shylock” in January 1814 and became a smashing success immediately. While Kemble, the Drury Lane’s current star, would act Shakespeare’s characters with declamatory perfection but physically inept, Kean, on the contrary, would display pathos, vigour and amazement, displaying Shakespeare with his own whole dazzling being. But he did indeed, as Coleridge and others mentioned, the garish, climactic points in Shakespeare, Massinger and Marlowe only, admittedly to the pleasure of most of his audience.

George Cruikshank's imagination of Keane fighting off the hostile press

Actors and scandals that become the topic talk of the day are certainly no development that began during second half of the 20th century. Kean’s life was full of scandals and eccentricities that would start people gossiping even by today’s standards. His moral conduct almost led to a banishment from stage in Boston during his first visit to America, nonetheless he toured Canada and the U.S. cities of the Eastern Seaboard twice with considerable success and was as well acclaimed in Paris, where he obviously had left the most lasting impression. Authors from Dumas to Sartre made him the titular hero of their plays. Back home in England, he was remembered as a great illusionist who set certain standards in dramatic acting and he finally collapsed on stage of the Drury Lane while playing Othello, and died 8 weeks later at home in Richmond, Surrey and did not become one of the ghosts, like Macklin, who allegedly haunt the Drury Lane but left a legacy of being a great actor with a strong if rather populistic approach and influence on the portrayal of Shakespeare.

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