Saturday, July 28, 2018

Father and Son

The actor Charles Kean, in spite of all his accomplishments in the theatre, was always known--and probably always will be known--as the son of Edmund Kean, one of the greatest actors of the Regency period.

In a memoir of Charles Kean published in 1848 in The London Journal, the paper noted that "the halo that surrounded the brilliant career of the father has continued to shed some portion of its effulgence over the pathway of the son," adding, "if it has not shone forth with the meteor-brightness that distinguished it in the former case, it has at least been uninterrupted by eccentricity, and undimmed by folly."

Edmund Kean was, quite frankly, a lecher and a drunk. His son was only three years old when the father rocketed to fame playing Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane. Edmund didn't want the boy to have to stoop to acting, so he made sure Charles had (in the words of The London Journal) "a first-rate education." When Edmund came home from his triumphant debut as Shylock, he reportedly kissed his son and said: "Now, my boy, you shall go to Eton."

Indeed, Charles did attend the prestigious preparatory school in Eton, and supposedly "was placed as high as the rules of the institution, having reference to age, would allow." There he excelled at boating as well as academics, and distinguished himself in fencing (a skill that would come in handy during his later career as an actor). Unfortunately, the elder Kean's star dimmed in in the 1820s, and in 1827 he was forced to take his son out of school. Edmund still under no circumstances wanted his son to become an actor, though.

Charles Kean was offered a cadetship in India, but he was reluctant to go, given that his parents by that point were estranged, and he wanted to make sure someone could provide for his mother. When Edmund declined to increase his wife's allowance, Charles refused the position in India. His father was furious, and told Charles he would have to fend for himself. At only 16 years of age, with only an incomplete education and few skills other than his natural talent for acting, the son had little choice other than to pursue a career on the stage.

He first appeared at Drury Lane on 1 October 1827 as Young Norval in John Home's tragedy Douglas. Audiences were curious to see the son of the most celebrated actor alive try his hand at the family business. Reviewers were harsh, but Charles appeared a few more times at Drury Lane before touring the provincial circuit. According to The London Journal, he even appeared with his father on stage in Glasgow in Howard Payne's tragedy Brutus. In 1829, Charles returned to Drury Lane after improving his acting on the road. In the fall, he appeared at the Haymarket for the tail end of that theatre's season, finally finding success in The Iron Chest by George Colman the Younger.

Charles toured the provinces again, and then America. Returning to London in 1833, he was engaged not by Drury Lane, but by the rival patent theatre at Covent Garden. Soon thereafter, his father was hired by Covent Garden as well. Edmund Kean appeared first as Shylock, and then it was announced he would play one of his most powerful and well-known roles: Othello. The plan was for Ellen Tree to play Desdemona and for Charles to take the role of Iago.

There were no rehearsals, as all of the actors knew their parts already, but Edmund called his son into his dressing room for a private conference. The elder Kean was dreadfully ill and did not think he would be able to perform that night. Charles tried to cheer him up, and on the Ides of March 1833, father and son shared the same stage once again.

It was to be their last time, as well. In the middle of Act III, Edmund collapsed, crying out: "O God, I am dying. Speak to them, Charles." He died a few days later. Charles went on to become a great theatre manager, but his acting always remained in the shadow of his father.