University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Remember, Please, the Keans

Volume X · Winter 1955 · Number 2
Remember, Please, the Keans

When next you go to see a Shakespearean play on the stage or on the motion-picture screen, remember, please, Charles and Ellen Kean. Their lasting contribution to all modern productions remains in the use of authentic seals, the appropriate shields, spears, and swords, and the proper costuming of Shakespeare's historical characters. The Keans probably do not belong in the front row of Shakespearean actors, but neither do many esteemed performers of the present day. Yet in our idolatry of Shakespeare's art we often ignore the fact that a play's prosperity lies as much in the skill of the actors as in that of the writer. And so we seek to learn how "the thing is done."

A visitor to the Treasure Room of the University Library may find curious, even interesting, the collection of holograph letters. Fugitive clusters of them are filed away; often only one letter occupies a folder bearing a famous name. But the script of famous persons sometimes is discouraging, and the visitor may nod his head and pass on, content to recognize the signature of an author or statesman. Who would care to see the scrawl of Charles Kean, or of Ellen Tree? I hope that you will. For I should like to introduce them to you, friend to friend.

In 1950 we began buying insignificant-appearing letters signed by Ellen Tree and Charles Kean, three or four at a time, when the contents of the letters justified the purchase. But as we began to understand the implications of these letters, and to recognize the void in theatre history which these letters helped to fill with important bits of understanding, we knew that our initial judgment was confirmed. Discovery of more than a thousand items concerning Charles and Ellen Kean in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., three years ago, when they were as yet unclassified except as belonging in general to Edmund Kean, the father of Charles, reassured us that our small investment had doubled in value. The Theatre Collection in the Houghton Library of Harvard University also contains important items relating to Charles and Ellen Kean, and the large collection of "Kean Letters" in the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis appears in print. Recently comes word, in a London Times Literary Supplement, of the publication of a collection of Charles and Ellen Kean letters in England. But few theatre historians have devoted more than a paragraph to Ellen Tree and the majority have dismissed Charles Kean as the son of the famous Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean.

Our collection of letters deals with the period beginning in 1826, when Charles was sixteen and Ellen twenty-one years old. They first met in 1827 and married fifteen years later. Our most valuable items for theatre history deal with Charles' and Ellen's correspondence with George W. Lovell, the author of The Wife's Secret, a play which he wrote for them. They gave The Wife's Secret its première in New York City and then played it in London, the provinces, in Australia, Vancouver, San Francisco, and the cities north and south along the Mississippi River for the next twenty years. But since I have written an article on this material for the Theatre Notebook, V (1951) 52-59, I shall here discuss other items of more human interest. Four of Ellen's letters have appeared in my article "Ellen Kean's Appraisal of American Playgoers" in American Literature, XXII (1950) 163-166. These are among the most interesting in our collection.

Our earliest letter, dated 17 April 1826, is addressed to Mary Chambers Kean, the mother of Charles, who was separated from her husband. The letter is written by Henry Sigell to inform Mrs. Kean that her husband was willing to pay for the clothes Charles required at Eton College so that the young fellow would have the same dress as the other students; indeed Mr. Kean's tailor would furnish the appropriate things. This letter takes on significance when we know that a year and a half later, on October 1, 1827, Charles made his debut on the stage of Drury Lane Theatre in London at the age of seventeen, in competition with his father who was leading the company that night at Covent Garden Theatre, the rival royalty theatre. Perhaps I should add that not until 1843, when an Act of Parliament freed the London theatres from a monopoly established in 1660 by King Charles II on his resumption of the monarchy, was it permissible to produce a legitimate play in the numerous other London theatres. The Haymarket Theatre was an exception and received annually permission, or designation as a royalty theatre. Though by the nineteenth century some of the managers of the other theatres did produce legitimate English plays, not merely transcriptions from French farces and German melodramas and muic hall revues, still such procedure carried certain risks when the law was enforced.

Charles Kean had this opportunity, or should we say "misfortune," to make his debut at seventeen because of conditions quite beyond his control. His father had been for thirteen years the leading actor at Drury Lane Theatre, ever since his debut on January 18, 1814, and had expected on his return from a successful tour of America to be named the manager of Drury Lane Theatre. On the contrary, the directors designated a young American named Stephen Price to manage thieir theatre, and Edmund Kean sulked in his London club.

Charles Kean had only his appearances on the stage of Eton College to his credit; in fact his father did not want his son to be an a actor. But Stephen Price faced serious competition that autumn of 1827 because Charles Kemble, the manager of Covent Garden Theatre, had induced Edmund Kean to come to him, thus leaving Price with only a beautiful girl, Ellen Tree, who had made her London debut at Drury Lane Theatre the preceding year, to head his company. So Price turned to Mrs. Kean and persuaded her to get even with her husband by letting Charles become a star actor over night. The callow, inexperienced youth failed dismally, but the reviewers, unmindful of the circumstances, simply regarded Charles Kean as a brash youth, trading on his father's name.

Our collection is rich in letters from Charles Kean to various friends during the next ten years, while trying to establish himself as an actor. If one does not understand how hurt the youngster was by the bitter criticism of his debut, then these letters must appear rather boastful, if not downright antagonistic to reviewers of the London newspapers. His sensitive nature and his pride worn on his sleeve combined to make him assert again and again his own justification of his acting. Unfortunately he continued this practice through the remainder of his life, long after he was established and recognized by the reviewers as the leading Shakespearean actor of the mid-nineteenth century.

Charles toured the provinces and learned the art of acting the hard way. During these strenuous if bitter years one of the friends he made was David Buchanan, the editor of the Caledonian Mercury and theEdinburgh Courant. We have a letter from Charles to David Buchanan of particular importance, dated 23 November 1836, a full nine years after his disastrous debut at Drury Lane. By this time Charles' reputation in the provincial theatres had soared very high and had also reached London. Alfred Bunn, the famous manager of Covent Garden (or infamous, as William Charles Macready saw him) had come to Brighton, where Charles was particularly successful in playing Shakespearean rôles, such as King Richard III. Here he had earned £300; the famous Duchess of St. Albans had personally subscribed £50 for his benefit performance and had then introduced him to the aristocracy. He thus shared with his loyal friend the sweets of his long-delayed recognition. He refused Bunn's offer to appear in London after Christmas, and would continue around the circuit of provincial theatres, going to Dublin on the first and arriving in Edinburgh on the sixth of March. These suggested dates, standing alone in a letter, take on significance as we examine Charles Kean's account book for this year. Several of these account books are in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, and others are in the Folger Shakespeare Library. But the impact of his financial success did not overwhelm Charles' judgment.

On July 27, 1837, Charles wrote to William Charles Macready, who had become the manager of Covent Garden Theatre in London, congratulating him and also refusing to join the company there. One senses the satisfaction in Charles' mind and heart that though London managers were now eagerly seeking his services, he could afford to make them wait, and for this sensitive young man, now twenty-seven, all this was balm to his cruelly-hurt ego. Under the circumstances Macready's letter to Charles appeared flattering, especially since the famous London actor offered to meet Charles' terms if at all possible; furthermore, we know that the clique of critics who had opposed Charles were Macready's friends and thus would be silenced as Macready offered to be "cooperator." Such opposition the American actor Forrest ran into, when he came to London with an impressive record of achievement in the American theatre. Let business executives observe that dog-eat-dog can prevail in the so-called gentle art of the theatre.

Charles had demanded and had finally received £50 per night from Bunn at Drury Lane, a rather impressive stipend for a London actor to collect in the early half of the nineteenth century; then he set sail for New York City and en route he developed a throat ailment which made his appearances in New York and Boston unsuccessful. But on his return to England, Ben Webster, the manager of the Haymarket Theatre, engaged Charles for appearances in June as Hamlet, Richard III, Shylock, and Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger's comedy, A New Way to Pay Old Debts. To these Charles added the portrayal of Othello. As Ben Webster allowed Charles a rather free and generous development of costuming for these productions, Charles began his antiquarian researches and thus prepared to revolutionize the whole business of Shakespearean productions. For up to this time any sword, any crest, any vaguely antique costume was assumed to be appropriate for one of Shakespeare's historical characters to use on the stage. And this procedure reached its zenith, or nadir, depending upon your taste, in the early twentieth-century productions of David Belasco in New York theatres. What, indeed, would Charles Kean have done with The Birth of a Nation? Perhaps better than D. W. Griffith; but some of you were not born then, and missed the relish of details. Even so, there is a difference between a halberd and a partisan, a bill and a pike, whether you recognize it on the stage even in the hands of an ill-graced actor.

Now, in 1842, our letters to George W. Lovell, which we have mentioned earlier, become very important, for they describe the beginning of Charles' fostering of a large number of new plays for himself as well as for Ellen. But the major human interest story of 1842 took place on January 29, when Charles and Ellen were married. On the afternoon before their final appearance in John Tobin's popular comedy The Honey Moon in the Theatre Royal of Dublin, just about tea time, Charles proposed to Ellen. She accepted him and they were married before the show went on. As a matter of fact, they had been engaged off and on for ten years, separated three times by the Atlantic Ocean. Their marriage was opposed by their mothers. Now, though they had often appeared on the stage together, they were always together for the next twenty-six years, including the nine years (1850-9) of management of the Princess's Theatre in London, where Charles' rather extravagant ideas of producing Shakespeare's plays in picture setting with authentic costuming made possible his definite contribution to theatrical arts. Such was his contribution that much of what we now take for granted was then strikingly original. So original and extravagant, we must add, that his contemporaries ridiculed as much as they praised his methods.

Midway in his management of the Princess's Theatre, when Charles Kean was at the height of his popularity, he wrote a letter to a friend, summing up his purposes and appraising the dedication of his life to the profession of acting. As this letter is perhaps the most revealing of his heart and mind, it is particularly gratifying to have it in our Treasure Room and to quote it here:

My dear Sir,

I should have answered your kind letter before, & thanked you for your friendly congratulations, had I not been busily engaged every moment of my spare time arranging & finishing my book of "Midsummer Night-dream", which play I purpose placing on the stage in about a month or five weeks hence-These books demand an infinite deal of pains & require the most earnest attention, for the slightest mistake on my part would bring down a discharge of envenomed shafts from hostile & envious cliques. Your flattering & gratifying remarks were, I assure you, most welcome, & the expression of the good opinion you entertain of my services came as a crown to a volume of letters which I had previously received on the same subject.

Pizarro is undoubtedly one of our brilliant hits, & I sincerely hope you will have an opportunity of seeing it when you pass through London.

During the next three years, which period will probably close my term of management, I expect to reap no pecuniary emolument. The past has proved that no such advantage awaits the future, for each succeeding season increases the expenditure. My Theatre is small -- my ideas are large. I have a much higher object in view than the mere profit, which generally propels the managerial mind, for I cannot act in a commercial spirit. I seek reputation -- I look for fame -- I trust to establish a name, not as the mere reflection of a parents genius, but as emanating from myself, as having achieved something by perseverance, zeal & energy towards the elevation of an art of which I am proud & which I believe can, ought, & will be made a most valuable agent in national instruction. My opinion relates to the future, for the mark at which I aim is perhaps at present rather above the Standard of the million, although I have no reason to complain of their support, but I do wish I could see more real sympathy -- more cooperation with my views on the part of the higher classes. It is true the aristocracy visit the Princess's & express their admiration at the show, but they come with a kind of vague curiosity unaccompanied with that respect & cordiality of feeling which I think ought to wait on a great object & which ever appears to actuate their appreciation of other branches of art. The stage seems to be overlooked with comparative indifference as an instrument of good, while on the contrary how warm is the enthusiasm & patronage lavished on intelligent architects, sculptors, & painters. With an earnest desire to improve the minds of the people lectures are even sometimes delivered by members of the aristocracy on utilitarian subjects. I cannot for my life understand why a similar interest in the Drama -- the true Drama -- is not exhibited from the same influential quarters; & that in an age presumed to be enlightened & educational that old, & I may say vulgar prejudices are not cast aside & the Theatre acknowledged, not simply as a vehicle for amusement, but as the Temple of the combined arts. The Stage might be rendered a most important machine both in a political & social point of view. No one, I presume, will deny how necessary it is to guide into a wholesome channel the minds of the middle classes, who are especially operated upon by theatrical exhibitions. If instruction can be blended withamusement it surely must be advantageous, & advisable in due time to use such influences for the benefit of the masses.

I may be ridiculed for my enthusiasm, but in that I share the fate of much more eminent reformers. I am perfectly convinced that sooner or later my notions will be realized (for in the end truth always conquers). Although perhaps not destined to take place in my lifetime, I shall probably die a kind of theatrical Columbus & any credit I may claim be reserved for some future Vespucius. Still it is some consolation to know that such a result cannot destroy or injure thecause (however unjust to the originator) but that the object will eventually be attained for which I have been devoting my energies, health & fortune.

History teaches us that a fortunate successor generally receives the triumph denied to the pioneer, or I may quote something like the words of Pizarro "Should posterity applaud my deeds, my mouldering bones are not likely to rattle with transport in my tomb."

I wish Her Majesty & the Prince could inoculate the higher noblesse with some of their own dramatic taste, & thus induce them to follow more closely the example of our gracious Queen & Her Illustrious Consort.

Pray excuse my troubling you with so long a letter & with the frank expression of my feeling on a subject which to me is one of paramount importance.

I have been induced to write thus fully from the reliance I place on your judgement in these matters, & from the conviction that you take a deep interest in the welfare of the stage generally & in the success of

Your's most truly

  Charles Kean

10th Sept 1856