Actors, Musicians and Theatre Personalities with Scottish Links ~ Charles John Kean
(1811 - 1868)

1.   Kean as Macbeth


Charles John Kean, 1811 - 68

1.   Charles Kean and his wife as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in costumes that aimed to be historically accurate (1858).  Image source unknown although it is widely reproduced. [Image in the public domain.]


The actor-manager, son of the great Edmund Kean, was described as plump of figure, facially expressionless, and vocally nasal; Kean was not well endowed to enter the profession in which he was bound to be compared—unfavourably—with his father.

Charles Kean had early opportunities to play Shakespearian leads in London: Romeo (1829), Richard III (1830), Iago (1833) to his father's Othello, Othello and Hamlet (both 1838); in addition to which he undertook engagements in the provinces and America. He played Iago to his father's Othello in Glasgow shortly before Edmund Kean's death.

Charles Kean's Shakespeare performances were criticized for ‘clap-trap effects’, misplaced emphases and unceasing — but pointless — locomotion. Nevertheless, in 1848 Queen Victoria appointed Kean director of the Royal Theatricals at Windsor Castle.  Here, the works of Shakespeare, who was rapidly assuming the status of national bard, were respectfully represented.

When, in 1851, Kean set up in management at the Princess's theatre, the Queen's patronage was undoubtedly highly conducive to attendance by those (upper) classes who had not hitherto considered theatre-going to be a proper activity. The prominence of Shakespeare's plays in the repertoire was a further inducement especially as they were produced with such painstaking antiquarian accuracy of sets, costumes, and other accoutrements as to constitute lessons in British history. In the decade of the Great Exhibition, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and early photography, Kean captured and catered for the public taste for reconstructing and animating the past with all the accuracy that art, antiquarianism, and technology could deploy.

Kean's most ambitious and successful productions were rooted in history: King John (1852), Macbeth (1853), All Is True (Henry VIII) (1855 and 1858), Richard II (1858), King Lear (1858), and Henry V (1859). In addition to the historical accuracy of their every facet, these revivals were characterized by large-scale, carefully orchestrated crowd effects (foreshadowing the Saxe-Meiningen company) often in interpolated episodes, such as the entry of Bolingbroke and Richard II into London which Shakespeare was content just to describe, which were accommodated by huge cuts in and rearrangement of the text.

Acting tended to be subservient to scenery, but Kean's company included his formidable and talented wife Ellen (Tree). Of Kean himself G. H. Lewes remarked that he is ‘changing his style to a natural one’. Undoubtedly in the context of his own productions Kean's performances exceeded his youthful promise, notably his sympathetic Richard II. To their intense disappointment the Keans unstinting efforts on behalf of their monarch and national dramatist did not result in the hoped-for knighthood, and the couple set off on an exhausting tour of America and Australia. Thus it was that the Shakespeare tercentenary found the Keans in Melbourne, where they performed four acts, each from a different play.

[Text based on the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare.]

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2.   Kean as hamlet


Charles John Kean 1811 - 68

2.   Mr Charles Kean as Hamlet ca.1838), Engraving, hand coloured, ink on paper by unknown maker. Great Britain, Original in the Harry R. Beard Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  [Image in the public domain.]


After a visit to the United States in 1830, where he was received with much favour, he appeared in 1833 at Covent Garden as Sir Edmund Mortimer in Colman's The Iron Chest, but his success was not pronounced enough to encourage him to remain in London. In January 1838, however, he returned to Drury Lane, and played Hamlet with a success which gave him a place among the principal tragedians of his time. He was married to the actress Ellen Tree (1805-1880) on 25 January 1842, and paid a second visit to America with her from 1845 to 1847.

Returning from America to England in 1847,  Kean entered on a successful engagement at the Haymarket, and in 1850, with Robert Keeley, became lessee of the Princess's Theatre, London. The most noteworthy feature of his management was a series of Shakespearean revivals that aimed for authenticity'. Kean also mentored the young Ellen Terry in juvenile roles.

Unlike his father, Charles Kean was not regarded as a great tragic actor. It was considered that he lacked the physical stature or quality of voice to allow adequate representation of the varying and subtle emotions of pure tragedy. However, in melodramatic parts such as the king in Dion Boucicault's adaptation of Casimir, Delavigne's Louis XI, and Louis and Fabian dei Franchi in Boucicault's adaptation of Dumas's The Corsican Brothers, his success was complete.

From his 'tour round the world' Kean returned in 1866 in broken health, and died in London on 22 January 1868 at the age of 57. He is buried at Horndean, Hampshire.

Text based on Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.), 1911. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. Cambridge University Press

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Top  ~  Anecdotes  ~  Paternal  Disapproval  ~  Hamlet at Drury Lane  ~  Kean in New York  ~  Hamlet's Crawl   ~  Kean's Hamlet at Drury Lane 2  ~  Obituary

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