Edmund Kean (1789 - 1833)   ~  Incidents and Events in a Professional Life

Edmund Kean, a strolling player in Ayr

The great Edmund Kean was the first celebrity who appeared in Ayr's New Theatre, of whom it may be related in passing, that while playing in his early days subordinate characters in provincial towns, he was attached to a party who were performing here in an old schoolroom, at the back of Wallace Tower, in the Mill Vennel, in which 'Jamie Murdoch' used to boast that he had had the honour, when a boy, of snuffing the stage candles during Kean's performances.

Edmund Kean in Edinburgh

Amongst the actors, as well as the other professionals, jealousies, leading to an uncontrollable desire to depreciate competitors will occasionally "crop up". A little incident in illustration, occurring in Edinburgh, will close any remarks I have to make in which Kean is noticed. Having, with three or four friends, taken a trip to Edinburgh, during the visit of George the Fourth, we met there casually an actor of eminence with whom we were all acquainted. Some of us had a desire to see Kean, then in Edinburgh: others to dine and spend the evening somewhere. Our professional friend preferred the latter, declaring that in such hot weather he would not sit in the theatre for an evening to see the best actor in the world, certainly not the worst."

[James Morris, Recollections of Ayr Theatricals from 1809. Ayr Advertiser 1872, Carnegie Library Local Collection.]


Theatre Royal, Ayr

Edmund Kean returns to Ayr after his London debut.

An anecdote relating to Kean, which may be relied upon as a fact, is worthy of record.

When he made his first appearance in the Queen Street Theatre, Glasgow, after his successful debut in London, the manager, Harry Johnston, proposed engaging him for two nights in Ayr, to which the little Edmund replied, that having been in the early part of his career hissed off the stage there in attempting to perform his great character of the Duke of Gloucester in Richard the Third, and which he was then acting as well as he had ever done since, that circumstance might be remembered against him, not to Harry's advantage.

Yet come he did, and filled two tremendously crowded houses to Richard Third and Shylock, at double prices, and there being at the time some public occasion in Ayr, most likely a Circuit Court, in which Francis Jeffrey and other eminent counsel were employed, they all attended the theatre, occupying seats in the centre of the pit, and seemed quite delighted.

It may be necessary to state the reason for Kean assuming the character of Gloucester in the old schoolhouse. It was this:—The regular tragedian of the company, who was announced in the bills to play the part, not making his appearance at the 'hour of call', it placed the manager in an awkward dilemma, when Kean at once expressed his readiness to undertake the place of the absent member of the corps dramatique, and, being accepted, the performance was proceeding with satisfaction to himself, but the audience, perceiving his style of acting to be so very different from all former delineations of that character, a universal hiss greeted the young aspirant to histrionic fame, and sent him back to resume characters, seemingly to his detractors, more suited to his talents.

[James Morris, Recollections of Ayr Theatricals from 1809. Ayr Advertiser 1872, Carnegie Library Local Collection]


Portrait of the actor Edmund Kean, in character as Gloucester, in Shakespeare's 'Richard III'; After a painting by G. Clint. 1822. Stipple etching by Robert Cooper, 228 x 213mm, published by H Berthoud. Original in the collection of the British Museum. [Image in the public domain.]
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Edmund Kean plays Othello in Ayr

On one of the evenings of Kean's performances in Ayr Theatre, a man in the livery of a servant sat in front of me, while Kean was playing Othello, in the 'Moor of Venice' during which he seemed, by his uneasy manner, to have had a clew annoying him somewhere; but on Kean's appearance to address the Senate amidst the most profound silence in the house, 'Jeames' could no longer stand the apparent (to him) absurdity of one man talking blethers to a lot of quiet old gentlemen sitting round a table, from which no sport was likely to ensue, and he addressed me thus— 'Whane wull the ferce begin?'

This man would, no doubt, have been delighted to see the great Tragedian quietly removed from the stage, and his performance substituted by Punch and Judy, or any other comic exhibition, where fun not 'greeting' was the result, He had, probably, enough of the latter at home.

James Morris, Recollections of Ayr Theatricals from 1809. Ayr Advertiser 1872, Carnegie Library Local Collection.


A stimulating voyage to Ayr, in company with James Morris

Before concluding these little reminiscences of Kean, I may be permitted to add another, which occurred on board of a steamer betwixt Campbeltown and Ayr.

Seymour, of the Glasgow Theatre, having engaged the great tragedian. then living at Lochfad, in Bute, to perform four nights here, fearing, from his growing habit of intemperance, and at an inconvenient distance from Ayr, that he could not he safely calculated upon for making his appearance there on Monday evening, he proceeded to Rothesay on Saturday, and hired a steamer to convey them to Campbeltown next day. where they could remain all night, and avail themselves of a regular steamer from thence to Ayr early on Monday morning. These arrangements having been carried out satisfactorily, Seymour considered wisely that sailing direct to Ayr, and arriving there probably during divine service on Sunday, had better be avoided.

Getting early on board the steamer at Carnpbeltown, both gentlemen occupied the cabin, where the other passengers did not seem disposed to disturb them, the demand for whisky commenced, and Seymour, dreading the consequences, urged upon the steward the necessity of declaring his stock of acqua vita; to have become exhausted. Being a passenger, and an acquaintance of the Glasgow manager, I was, upon meeting him on deck, invited down to an introduction, and to assist in keeping the great man sober. The whisky grievance was soon introduced, and regretting personal inconvenience from the want of it, we got to console ourselves by the anticipation of a speedy passage, and an abundant supply on our arrival at Ayr.

Getting, while on board, upon very friendly terms, Kean became, among other subjects, fervent in his admiration of our national poet Burns, placing him above Byron, and only inferior to Shakespeare. Arriving at our quay, where a carriage was in waiting, Kean was got speedily to bed, and getting up in the afternoon, refreshed like 'a giant from sleep', performed 'Richard' to perfection, though neither on that, nor the three succeeding nights, were there such numerous audiences as had greeted him on his former appearances.

[James Morris, Recollections of Ayr Theatricals from 1809. Ayr Advertiser 1872, Carnegie Library Local Collection]


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