As someone with a love of Theatre History, I have often heard (and read) that Edmund Kean’s acting was like “flashes of lightening.” In fact, this was projected, via Powerpoint, in an American Theatre History Class I took during Graduate School. The professor then, snickering, changed the slide to show a shot glass (presumably of gin) on fire. He, of course, was inferring that Kean was an alcoholic and that this glorification of the man’s acting skills was no more than a witty way of poking fun at the man. Now, the quote in question, that you may or may not have heard is “seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightening” (Coleridge stated this to his son-on-law on April 27, 1823). However, I feel that this really doesn’t tell us anything about Kean or Coleridge’s link to this man in any way shape or form. So we shall have to start at some sort of beginning to do this tale justice.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 to 25 July 1834) is most famous for being a poet. Kubla Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner are among his most famous works (and personal favorites of mine as well). He also had a deep friendship with fellow poet William Wordsworth and a long standing addiction to Opium. Like many people in modern society , Coleridge was given opium (also called laudanum) for pain management and became addicted and was known to be an addict the rest of his life. I am not giving out this information to besmirch the man, but just to put this out there as this may have relevance later on in this tale.
Edmund Kean (4 November 1787 to 15 May 1833) is not well known today as he was back in his lifetime. Other than those of us who are History buffs (or Theatre buffs), a majority of people do not know his name, which is a great pity. He was the Laurence Olivier (or Leonardo DiCaprio for those who are younger) of his day. From all accounts that I have read of him, he grew up in the Theatre, taking on small roles as a child and slowly progressed to larger roles before his breakout role as Shylock in 1814. Mrs. Siddons (a very famous actress at this time) did not like the look of Kean and herself had retired from the stage in 1812. And yes, his looks apparently are important if we are to discuss Kean. He was not overly handsome, short by the standards of the day, but his voice was said to have a mesmerizing effect on the audience (particularity those of the female sex). I have always thought that perhaps Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park may have been based on Edmund Kean because of the similarities in how Austen describes their looks and their voice. Granted, Mansfield Park was first published in 1814, but do recall that while Edmund Kean was not famous when Austen first wrote this (and she seemed to have a pattern of writing these novels anywhere from 7 to 10 years prior to publication), Kean was an actor and traveled with troops during his youth. I would not find it surprising to find that Austen may have seen a performance of Kean before he was famous and subconsciously used him as a blueprint for Henry Crawford. Of course, this is my own personal fancy and this is a major digression to this tale.
Kean’s role of Shylock was his breakout role for one major reason: he portrayed Shylock as a human being. This breakout occurred on January 26, 1814. Prior to this, Shylock was always a caricature-an evil Jew, but never a human being. This went against all conventions and while most praised Kean for portraying Shylock with dignity and humanity, one critic did not like Kean’s performance and I have yet to find a kind criticism by this critic of Edmund Kean. This critic in question is William Hazlitt. While some could say that this proves that Kean really wasn’t all that good (based on this one critic’s opinion), please note that in February 1815, William Hazlitt published an article stating that women were more like parrots than any other creature because women did nothing but mimic men and “create difficulties out of nothing.” I don’t feel that anyone can really take Hazlitt seriously regarding any of his criticisms other than the inane sproutings of a small mind. As a woman, I still take offense to this because he then believes that nothing any woman has done, including Mrs. Siddons, Jane Austen, or Ann Radcliffe, is just elaborate mimicry. And who can take such a man seriously?
So, let us look at other critics of Edmund Kean. Richard Henry Dana, American Theatre Critic, stated that there was a simple, natural “sincerity of his acting” that made one forget that the play on stage was a work of fiction as it “bore me away with the power of reality and truth.” Dr. Francis, writing for Blackwood’s Magazine, wrote that Kean’s performance of King Lear was “the most genuine of all his performances of Shakespeare. It is most purely unaffected and untheatrical.” I, of course, cannot read my writing and cannot tell you the exact year or month that quote was stated, but that it was stated is important. For if we are to believe that Kean was not any good, then why was he paid 50 pounds sterling in 1814 (after his performance as Shylock) to take the role of Richard III for Drury Lane. Now, 50 pounds sterling doesn’t seem like much, but be aware that during this same time frame, a country curate would earn that much in a year. Kean’s performance would be for a month or two. In 1814, I found that a singer, for two performances at the Opera House, was paid 30 guineas. That was more than a majority of the working class saw in a month (in May 1811, a quart of fresh green peas, in London, cost anywhere from 3 to 8 guineas, depending on the quality). Always be aware that for that time, Kean was starting to make serious money right away. A clear sign that Kean wasn’t a bad investment for Drury Lane.
Now, about that reference to gin. Flashes of Lightening is cant for gin or strong spirits, this is true (see 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue). But so are the phrases blue ruin (which I think would be a fantastic name brand), diddle, drain, frog’s wine (again, fantastic branding opportunity lost), stark naked and many, many others. I tried, whenever I could, to cross reference any of these slang terms for gin and criticisms of Edmund Kean and you would be shocked as to what I found: nothing. I widened my search to the following phrases: a ball of fire (brandy), kill priest (port), and heavy wet (stout, malt liquor). Again, I was unable to find anything linking alcohol to Edmund Kean. Which makes me wonder where Coleridge got this idea that Kean was a drunkard.
Kean in 1820 went to America and had success on stage. He also had some trouble with the press and left for England in 1821. On the 17 January 1825, Kean was sued by Mr. Cox for adultery as he’d been having a sexual affair with Mr. Cox’s wife Charlotte. Mr. Cox was a London City Alderman and Kean was fined 800 pounds sterling. Because of this case, Kean’s wife left him-as in divorce. He tried to get back on stage, because clearly he needed the money (he did have a son with his ex-wife) and was booed (and pelted by rotten fruit). He almost retired completely, but instead decided to come back to America, hoping to restart his career. Unfortunately, his reputation did proceed him and not in a good way. Kean was persecuted by groups like the Boston Debating Society. He found some favor in Quebec City and his final appearance was in New York as Richard III on December 6, 1826. He returned to England dependent on stimulants. Note that there is no indication he was using stimulants prior to his second tour of America after his divorce. These stimulants being alcohol because the other preferred method for treating depression at this time was opium. I think Kean chose what he felt was the better of the two options at this time. Kean returned to England and eventually regained favor. He was to appear on stage in Paris but couldn’t because he was too drunk. Kean’s last appearance was at Covent Garden as Othello (his son, Charles Kean, was portraying Iago) on March 15, 1833. In Act 3, Scene 3, he collapsed and stating to his son (and the audience) that he was dying. They took him offstage where he died later in his son’s arms. As someone who not only has a degree in Theatre, but has acted as well, that fact always makes me cry. He literally died for his art, for his audience.
So know let us bring this tale back around to Coleridge. Considering I can find no other critic combining slang of gin with Kean’s acting, I do question if and when Coleridge saw Kean act. Now, before anyone suggests I am going to persecute Coleridge, the entire quote his son-in-law recorded should be read:
Kean is original but he copies from himself. His rapid descents from hyper-tragic to the infra-colloquial, though sometimes productive of great effort, are often unreasonable. To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightening. I do not think him through-bred gentleman enough to play Othello.
Once you read the entire opinion Coleridge had on Edmund Kean, and not just pick and choose to either show how brilliant Kean was or what a drunkard he was, we can now focus on Coleridge properly. When exactly did Coleridge see Kean perform? Considering that he mentions that he doesn’t think the man capable of portraying Othello based on his ill-breeding, we know that this predates Kean’s last performance. I should mention that while this tidbit was written down in 1823, it wasn’t published until 1835 and many modern critics date this criticism of Kean to be of his last performance, which is clearly wrong and shows that they never bothered to do proper research.
Now, Kean had his breakout in 1814 and Coleridge, at this time , was under the care of Doctor Daniel (which some people say lived in Bristol, some say London) because in 1808, due to his minimum 2 quarts of laudanum addiction per week, he separated from his wife Sara. Coleridge was also no longer speaking to Wordsworth by 1810 because of this addiction. By April 1816, Coleridge’s addiction was much worse (he had been living off and on in London sometime around 1810) and was now living with another physician, James Gillman. Gillman was able to control the addiction enough to allow Coleridge to start writing and publishing again. Coleridge lived with the Gillmans until his death and suffered from depression, bad lungs, and had heart troubles. In order to see Coleridge, people had to go to him as it seems he never left the Gillmans for the 18 years he lived with them. Which brings us back to when did Coleridge see Kean perform? The only logical answer is sometime between late 1814 to early 1816. This was also the height of Coleridge’s opium addiction (his addiction, from all accounts, worsened because of the treatment of Dr. Daniel and the numerous enemas he received). It is vital for us to remember because Coleridge’s opinion of Kean is seen through the eyes and memory of someone who under the influence of opium whereas Kean was not drinking at this stage in his life to deal with the depression that he currently didn’t have.
So, why the gin? Why the reference to gin? Well, gin and beer were the two cheapest forms of alcohol available at every pub. Both were associated with the poor because many poor people couldn’t afford a loaf of bread, but could afford enough gin to get very drunk. I believe that mentioning gin was Coleridge’s way of demeaning Kean. Remember, he did state that he didn’t think Kean was “well-bred” enough to handle the role of Othello. Clearly a well-meaning snide remark that no one seems to have caught. And I do mean no one as I’ve researched to find out of anyone else has ever connected the use of gin to the remark regarding someone’s breeding as what I feel it is-slander. Coleridge, vaguely mentioning that he saw Kean on stage during his most opium addicted phase, slanders Edmund Kean. Of course, when the remarks were published in 1835, both men were dead and both men were past caring. As to why, it could have been jealously. Remember, in 1823, Coleridge was still writing and getting published, but an invalid. Kean was at the top of his career having had a successful American tour after success in England before and after the tour (the adultery charge had not yet gone to court). Edmund Kean was, to put it bluntly, hot stuff. Coleridge wasn’t and would never be again. So, this criticism of Kean is not only slander, but also a way for Coleridge to feel better about himself. I don’t think Coleridge had any thought that his son-in-law would record these little snippets and publish them. He may have thought they were being written down for future essays or possible lectures (Coleridge did give a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s Plays). It was Coleridge’s family that decided to publish them after his death.
So, in a way, both men have been wronged-Kean by history and Coleridge by his family. To that professor, and critics, who use this quote from Coleridge to point out that Kean was a slush-stop and desist. If you continue to teach students that Kean was an alcoholic, then do them the courtesy of also teaching them that the man who said the criticism was an opium addict so they can make their own decision regarding the matter. Yes, this post is in some parts my utter frustration against a professor who basically informed us, his students, that Kean was a drunkard, and did nothing to counter this. This, I believe, should make him blush with shame for clearly, he never did his basic research into the subject for if he had, he would have given a more complete story. And he should blush with shame for not doing his research. It took me a month to research and do justice to this tale and I didn’t have the access nor the time that he (or any students of history) have. Again, I have always stated that and firmly believe that the importance of research should be done consistently and constantly.
Like Hazlitt and my unnamed Graduate Professor, I do not think we can trust any criticism on Edmund Kean from Coleridge at this point. I have made my case clear, in this tale, that Slander (with hints of jealousy), pure and rarely simple, was the basis for that infamous quote. While I still love the poetry of Coleridge, and always will, I hope that others will start to realize that historians should always, always, look beyond the obvious. And I hope that I have restored my fellow Theatre aficionados faith in Edmund Kean.
American Theatre History Class Notes Fall 2010 UIUC
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Table Talk, 27 April 1823 in Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Morley, Henry.
Kahan, Jeffrey (2006). The Cult of Kean.
Lynch, Jack (2007). Becoming Shakespeare: The Strange Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard.
Johnston, Kenneth R (2013). The Hidden Wordsworth.