Edmund Kean



  • (1789 - 1833) English actor, who introduced Romanticismto the London stage and fascinated the public both in his dramaticroles and in his private life. The poet S. T. Coleridge famously said of him:
    To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes oflightning.
    Kean was the son of an unsuccessful actress who abandoned him to joina group of strolling players. In 1814 he made a spectacular Londondebut as Shylock at the Drury Lane Theatre followed by a brilliantrendering of Richard III. Of this performance Lord Byron remarked:
    Richard is a man and Kean is Richard.
    Not everyone was so impressed: the writer Mary Russell Mitford wentto see the new theatrical sensation and was disgusted to find "a littleinsignificant man, slightly deformed ... with a voice between gruntingand croaking ... and a vulgarity of manner which his admirers are pleasedto call nature".

    By 1816 Kean was earning more than £10,000 a season. Unfortunately,his drinking was beginning to make him miss performances. After onespree, he sent word to the theater that he had dislocated his shoulderin a carriage accident and was therefore unable to appear. The nextmorning, he was horrified to see friends and admirers streaming intothe village where he was recovering. He had no option but to taketo his bed with a bandaged arm, where he gave one of his best 'performances'for his sympathizers.

    Despite deepening alcoholism, Kean enjoyed one of the high points ofhis career in 1820 when he made his New York debut; tickets were so scarcethat they had to be auctioned. In 1925, however, Kean began an affair withCharlotte Cox, the wife of a City alderman, which was soon discovered. Thescandal turned both the press and theatregoers against him; he was hissed onstage and met unfriendly demonstrations on provincial tours. He subsequentlysettled in Richmond, Surrey and managed his own theater there. In1833, he collapsed on stage, dying two months later after springingfrom his couch to shout:

    A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!