Saturday, January 26, 2019

Edmund Kean's Shylock

On this day in 1814, Edmund Kean appeared as Shylock on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

It would launch Kean's career, but it was not the first time he had appeared on a London stage. Writing 72 years later in the October issue of The Theatre, Percy Fitzgerald recalled Kean's "most extraordinary career." According to Fitzgerald, Kean "had been literally reared on the stage" and had "performed the young Arthur to Mrs. Siddon's Constance" in William Shakespeare's King John.

Childhood appearances with Sarah Siddons were not the actor's only experience in London prior to his Drury Lane triumph. Fitzgerald recounts an appearance at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on 30 July 1806, when Kean appeared as "Clown" in the farce Fortune's Frolic. Playing the role of Dolly in that production was "Mrs. Gibbs" whom I take to be Maria Gibbs, née Logan, who made her London debut at the Haymarket in 1783.

After his appearance as "Clown" Kean returned to touring the provinces, and it was in Dorchester that he was rediscovered. Robert William Elliston invited him back to London to act in one of the "minor theatres." Fitzgerald writes that a certain "Dr. Drury" recommended Drury Lane hire Kean instead, and one "Mr. Arnold" came out to see the actor for himself. On 14 November 1813, Kean acted in The Mountaineers with "few people in the pit and gallery and three persons in the boxes." In spite of the small house, Kean determined to play his best, and his efforts were rewarded. He was given the opportunity to appear at Drury Lane, a pleasure mixed with sorrow, as his son Howard was very ill at the time.

Soon after Kean received news he would have a London engagement, Howard died. "His grief was such that he did not care for the brilliant opening," Fitzgerald writes. Kean had to stay longer in Dorchester than he anticipated in order to attend to the business of his son's death. When he arrived in London, he appeared "defiant, suspicious, jealously independent, very poor, almost to squalor" and the committee at Drury Lane saw him as a "listless, shabby postulant." They apparently rebuked Arnold and tried to use Kean's bargain with Elliston as an excuse to void their own agreement with him. Kean engaged in "desperate exertion" to free himself from his engagement to perform at a minor theatre, and according to Fitzgerald, "it was said Elliston was rather glad to be free."

After a "single rehearsal, it was pronounced that it would be a certain failure," Fitzgerald writes. The day of his performance was "wet and miserable" and Kean that night "arrived soaked through" at his shared dressing room. His fellow performers noticed something curious about the way Kean dressed himself for Shylock: "he was putting on a black wig instead of the traditional red one." In the eighteenth century, Shylock had generally been played as a clown. (After all, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is in fact a comedy.) The actor Charles Macklin had pushed back against that tradition, but the red wig had remained. What was wrong with this guy? Didn't he even know which costume he was supposed to wear? The stage manager at the performance gave Kean up as "hopeless," Fitzgerald says.

The cast of The Merchant of Venice that night boasted some of the actors who had premiered S.T. Coleridge's drama Remorse the previous year. Alexander Rae, who had played Ordonio in Coleridge's tragedy, appeared as Bassanio, and Sarah Smith, who originated the role of Teresa in Remorse, came on in the choice role of Portia. Smith was once considered the most promising actress in Britain, but by 1814 she had turned out to be a disappointment. Thus, Kean had few fellow actors in the cast who could compete with his performance. After the first act, people began to realize that Kean's Shylock was "a great success." He went home afterward and reportedly said of his son Charles Kean, "Charley, my boy, you shall go to Eton!"

The younger Kean did in fact go to school at Eton, but later fell so far in life he had to resort to acting, just like his father. That, however, is another story.