Edmund Kean: From the Circus to Shakespeare

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Today is the birthday of Edmund Kean (1787-1833). Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Kean had very little formal education he was was to become the greatest English actor of his age. The son of a clerk and an actress, he first went onstage at age four. Briefly enrolled at school he chafed at the discipline, then briefly went off to sea where he hated it even more. For a time he enjoyed the guardianship and tutelage of an uncle, a ventriloquist, mimic and an all around variety entertainer. Next, his mentor was the actress Charlotte Tidswell, who taught him to play Shakespeare. Because of his unusual training, he brought great originality to his interpretations of the great roles. One of his first professional jobs was in a circus, where he broke both his legs while trick riding.

He had been a professional for many years, with experience at many minor companies under his belt when he was tried at Drury Lane in 1814. This was to be his professional home for many years, becoming the toast of London with his interpretations of Shakespeare and other great roles. Among his innovations was the restoration of the tragic end to King Lear (which had been played for many years with a happy ending). He also played in New York for two seasons, in 1820 and 1825. For a time in the mid 20s he was in disfavor because of an adultery scandal. In his later years, drink was to take a toll on his career. He was managing a provincial theatre when he died in 1833. His son Charles was also a successful actor.

 

 

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