Charles John Kean (1811 - 1868)   ~  Incidents and Events in a Professional Life

A few words about the son of a sire so gifted, and of how he had to fight his way onward.

Before Edmund Kean was separated from his wife, he had sworn to cut the throat of his son if he turned actor - the name of Kean, he vowed, should be buried in his coffin. He got reconciled to the notion latterly, however, and he and Charles played together for the first time in the Queen Street Theatre, Glasgow, in Howard Payne's tragedy of "Brutus."

The last time they did so, I have already referred to. It was on 23rd March, 1833, when the elder essayed to play Othello to the Iago of Charles, and the Desdemona of Ellen Tree (afterwards Mrs Charles Kean). Soon after the play began he observed, "Charles is getting on; he's acting very well; I suppose that's because he's acting with me;" and, after delivering with all his wonted pathos the famous "Farewell !" in the third act, it was into Charles's arms that he staggered and sank, ere being borne in a fainting state for ever from the boards.

With regard to Charles himself, it has to be recorded that he had taken to the boards from the most honourable motives. Not to gratify mere vanity, or to trade upon a famous name did he first adopt the stage as a profession. His father having, to his credit, given him a good education, thus equipped Charles had had thoughts, at different times, of the Church, the Army, or a position in the East India Company's service as a career; but for any of these the excesses of his father had utterly destroyed his prospects. For the sake of his mother and himself, something to bring in an immediate return had to be looked for at once.

Such was the situation when Mr Price, an American, then Lessee of Drury Lane Theatre, offered him an engagement at £10 per week. Only too glad of the salary, but with no confidence in his own untried powers, the lad accepted the offer, and appeared at Drury Lane, 1st October 1827, as Norval, in the tragedy of "Douglas."

So youthful did he look that it took some time to decide whether to put his name of the bills as Master Kean, or Mr Kean, Junior. The press were very unfeeling to the young actor. No allowance was made for circumstances in which his effort was made, for his youth and inexperience. No word of encouragement was offered him, nor was there admission of the possibility of undeveloped faculties.

Years afterwards, at a public dinner given to him after he had eventually compelled the public to admit his claims as an actor, Mr Kean thus referred to those days of discouragement:-

"Thrown before the public by untoward circumstances at the early age of sixteen and a half, encompassed by many difficulties, friendless and untutored, the efforts of my boyhood were criticised in so severe and spirit-crushing a strain as almost to unnerve my energies and drive me despairingly from the stage. The indulgence usually extended to novices was denied to me. I was not permitted to cherish the hope that time and study could ever enable me to correct the faults of youthful inexperience. The very resemblance I bore to my late father was urged against me as an offence, and condemned as being 'strange and unnatural.'

Sick at heart, I left my home and sought the shores of America. To the generous inhabitants of that far land I am indebted for the first ray of success that illumined my clouded path."

From The Life of an ActorAn Autobiography by H. F. Lloyd, Comedian Ch. 11


BenedictCharles Kean as Benedick and Ellen Kean as Beatrice in Much Ado, Princess's Theatre, 1858.

Kean's Hamlet at Drury Lane (Reviewed by The Times.)

Michael Nugent, at that time theatrical critic of the Times, and a writer of much experience, was the author of a review of Kean's Hamlet.

After a very successful probation in the provinces, Mr. Charles Kean appeared last night again on these boards, where, a few years since, when a mere boy, he endeavoured to conciliate public favour. That was an immatured and ill-judged attempt, and, as might be expected, ended in failure. The mind of the play-going public was still filled with a vivid recollection of the transcendent talents of the elder Kean, who had temporarily retired, and however kind their feelings might be towards the young aspirant, they could not avoid showing their discontent at the incapacity of the nominis umhra, who thus early sought, or more probably, perhaps, was solicited, to vault from the school-room into the then vacant tragic chair. Defeated in the first instance, he did not abandon the profession. He laboured to improve himself, and subsequently appeared at Covent Garden and the Haymarket, At each of these theatres his exertions effected nothing for the manager in the way of money; nothing for the actor in the way of fame; still he was not disheartened. A long course in the provinces he thought would do him service. If he succeeded there, he felt that much of the trepidation and awe, which, before a London audience, in a great degree paralysed his powers, would be removed, and he would have a fair and honest hold on the feelings of those who came in a just and honest spirit to witness his performance. We like these strugglings against untoward circumstances. They speak the workings of a determined mind, which thinks, however the world may have been inclined to slight it, that there are within itself seeds not merely of talent but of genius. Thus much for the early efforts of Mr. Charles Kean.

 Now for what we may call his real debut., when experience and judgment have come to the aid of his natural faculties, and made him, in one character certainly, that of Hamlet, an accomplished, elegant, and, when the scene requires it, an energetic actor without bombast. Such we think were the leading features of his performance last night. He has taken a fine, philosophical view of the part. The groundwork is melancholy abstraction, sometimes diverted from its vein by the recollection of circumstances which elicit passion, or by the interference of court-flies, who sting a gallant nature to sarcasm and reproach by their sinister actions. The sombre hue of the character was well preserved by Mr. Kean, and those occasional bursts of tearful emotion which are directed by Hamlet's knowledge of his father's fate, and his own irresolution in not at once doing execution on the murderer, were finely contrasted with the prevailing melancholy.

Mr. Kean delivered the soliloquies with great feeling, and consequently with corresponding effect. We look, however, for his excellences in the more active scenes of the play. His rencontre with his father's spirit, where astonishment, awe, and reverence were commingled, was finely acted. The celebrated scene with Ophelia was well imagined, and was as well played before the audience. Here Mr. Kean was wholly different from any person we have ever before seen in the character. There was enough of violence in his manner to justify the grossly lascivious king in saying, "Love ; — his affections do not that way tend;" but there was also enough of tenderness and delicacy to show to tenderer and more delicate minds that his very heart-strings were breaking, while in his assumed frenzy he was saying unkind things to one whom he entirely loved.

The closet scene with his mother was acted with great power. His attitude and look when, having slain Polonius, he rushes in exclaiming "Is it the King?" fully deserved the immense applause which followed one of the most striking scenic exhibitions we have witnessed for a long time. In the play scene, Mr. Kean was good; but though at the conclusion he received much applause, there was less marking about it, less force, less power, than we have seen manifested by others. His last scene was very good. He fences not merely gracefully but skilfully. We need not say that the house was on this occasion crowded from the pit to the ceiling. The jury before whom Mr. Kean appeared was not a packed one. There was no indiscriminate applause. Assuredly where applause was given, and the instances were very frequent, it was well merited.

Looking to the whole of ]Mr. Kean's performance we are greatly pleased with it. It may, however, be rendered even better. His pauses are in many instances so long that he fails to make the point at which he is aiming. Again, he carries the weeping sentimentality of Hamlet into situations where he is a mere abstract speculator. The beautiful lines commencing, "Imperious Officer, dead and turned to clay," do not want tears to enforce their moral — the nothingness of defunct mortality.

Mr. Kean's reception was of the most cheering description. When he appeared, the applause from every part of the house was enthusiastic; and throughout the evening the same anxious wish to encourage (we hope now no longer struggling) merit was observable. At the conclusion of the tragedy he was loudly called for, and he made very gracefully his obeisance to a much delighted audience. He certainly has succeeded in giving a very elegant and finished portrait of Hamlet. What he will do with the Richards and Macbeths is yetl to be proved. That he has mind for them we can imagine, but yet we cannot speak with anything like decision of his physical powers."

[From The Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean by John William Cole, London p.252 et seq 1859]


Charles Kean 1858, as Lear in Shakespeare's King Lear.  Victoria and Albert Theatre Collections.  Copyright on original image expired.

Niblo's Garden, Corner of Broadway and Prince Street (New York), 1828

In 1823, the Irish impresario William Niblo purchased Columbian Garden, as it was originally called, and added the Sans Souci Theatre, a saloon, and a hotel to the landscaped grounds. Niblo's opened in 1829. The fashionable entertainment centre could accommodate 3,000 spectators, who came to see such legendary performers as Joseph Jefferson, Charles Kean, Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, and Adelina Patti. The Philharmonic in its early years performed at Niblo's, and it was said that the polka was introduced there in 1844.

Niblo's Garden, on Broadway and Prince Street, was a palatial theater by the day's standards. Built in the early 1840's, it became famous for producing small dramas and comedies interspersed with "musical entertainments". Wheatley decided to turn The Black Crook into a musical extravaganza. For the first time ever, audiences saw a drama; were entertained by an orchestra, and saw a hundred gypsies kicking up their heels. When it opened, it shocked, outraged and totally delighted American audiences, and a new, totally American art form, the Broadway Musical, had been created. The Black Crook had a run of 16 months, and grossed over 1 million dollars.


Niblo's Gardens, New York.  Wood engraving, from D. T. Valentine's Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1865

(Eno Collection)

Charles Kean Anecdotes

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