Attributed to Samuel John Stump, 1778 - 1863
Portrait of the Actor Charles Kean 1811-1868, as Shylock from the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespere
Charles Kean
oil on panel
23.5 x 20.5 cm. (9 .1/4 x 8.1/4 in.)


Charles John Kean, (1811–1868), actor and theatre manager, born on 18 January 1811 in or near Waterford, Ireland, was the second and only son to survive childhood of the actor Edmund Kean (1787–1833) and his wife, Mary Chambers (1779–1849). On his father's historic success at Drury Lane in 1814, his future seemed assured. He attended Mr Styles's school at Worplesdon, Surrey, and the Revd Polehampton's school at Greenford, near Harrow. In 1824 he entered Eton College as an oppidan, and rose to the fifth form in his first year. When his father's fortunes plummeted in 1827, he had to leave the school.

When Edmund Kean refused to settle £400 a year on his wife, from whom he was separated, Charles declined the cadetship in the East India Company which his father had arranged, whereupon Edmund angrily cut him off. With his name his only asset, Charles turned to the stage, where Stephen Price, the Drury Lane manager, offered him an engagement for three seasons, beginning at £10 weekly. Curiosity and publicity brought a packed house for the début of the youth, who was sixteen years old and totally inexperienced, on the opening of the season, on 1 October 1827. As Young Norval in John Home's Douglas, he was mercilessly condemned by the critics and soon faded from attention, and acted for only twelve nights in seven months: Young Norval in Douglas six times, Achmet in Barbarossa three times, Frederick in Lovers' Vows twice, and Lothair in Adelgitha once. In the provinces during the summer he gained experience and expanded his repertory. He first acted with his father, with whom he was reconciled, in Glasgow on the anniversary of his début and first tasted success in an Edinburgh engagement. After returning to Drury Lane in December 1828 he played Romeo twice, to contemptuous reviews. He first acted with Ellen Tree, whom he was eventually to marry, in Lovers' Vows, on 26 December. In 1829 he returned to the provinces with meagre success (except in Edinburgh), and with his father played a few nights at Dublin and Cork. On 6 October 1829, as Reuben Glenroy in Town and Country, he began at the Haymarket at £20 for six nights, and the last two nights in The Iron Chest gained him mixed but generally favourable notices, his first in London. After a brief, mismanaged tour in the Netherlands he went to America in 1830, and played with some success in major cities. Back in London in January 1833 he was engaged at Covent Garden, where on 25 March he played Iago to his father's Othello, with Ellen Tree as Desdemona. In Act III Edmund collapsed on stage into Charles'sarms; it was his final performance. On 25 February young Kean first played Hamlet in London and on 4 March acted his first original role, in Reputation, or, The State Secret. On 24 April he appeared in Sheridan Knowles's new play, The Wife, with Ellen Tree. When the season ended he went to the provinces, having declared he would never again act in London until he could command £50 nightly, the highest salary previously known there. Later that year (1833) Kean and Ellen Tree joined a company to tour Germany, which again proved an abortive venture. During the tour the couple became engaged, but the opposition of both of their mothers soon ended the engagement; there appears to have been no further association between them until their careers again coincided at the Haymarket in 1840.

London successes

Appearances at Dublin, Brighton, Liverpool, Birmingham, and especially Edinburgh drew increasingly enthusiastic reviews and crowded houses, and Kean became a favourite of fashionable society, notably at Brighton under the patronage of the duke and duchess of St Albans. He sought out men of critical acuity and influence for advice, focusing on Hamlet to build his reputation. Reports in the London press of his provincial success created a demand for his engagement there: 'The Liverpool critics seem quite Kean mad', reported the Theatrical Observer in 1835. That year his account book totalled gross income as £2573 for 193 performances; for 1837 the total was £3455for 183 nights.

In 1837 Kean had two offers from London managers. W. C. Macready had often followed his engagements in the provinces and knew first-hand of his successes. Whether to capitalize on Kean's growing popularity or to ameliorate the threat to his own eminence, Macready offered him an engagement in his forthcoming management at Covent Garden, but Kean was uneasy about placing himself under Macready. When he later accepted Alfred Bunn's offer for January 1838 at Drury Lane (at the £50 a night he had demanded), which put him in competition with Macready, and then won astounding success in HamletMacready's enmity was ensured. It was to shadow the rest of Kean's career and colour historical evaluations of his life.

Kean's Hamlet on 8 January 1838 was a theatrical landmark; a brilliant success, it drew packed houses and enthusiastic reviews, establishing the actor, until the arrival of Charles Fechter and then Henry Irving, as England's pre-eminent Hamlet, acknowledged as such even by unfriendly critics, and confirming him as a star in the first rank. By it he won the favour of the young Queen Victoria and of fashionable society, which lionized him. He acted for forty-four nights in the engagement: twenty-one in Hamlet, seventeen in Richard III, five in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, and once as Shylock. Negative reviews began to appear where Macready's influence existed, and a re-engagement in May was unsuccessful. In July 1838 Kean's account book cited £4567 8s. for 140 performances the previous year.

Kean's Hamlet of 1838 drew unanimous praise. The Times of 10 January deemed him 'an accomplished, elegant, and when the scene requires it, an energetic actor without bombast'. His approach was described as philosophical and melancholic with flashes of passion. Soliloquies were strong in feeling, and scenes with Ophelia and Gertrude were marked with variety of emotion and intensity, but lengthy pauses and some tearful sentimentality were criticized. The Morning Post reported it to be an apt combination of the classical and romantic styles. In later years, as Kean's acting style moved towards realism, so did his Hamlet, but it remained his most classical role, never so realistic as his later Shakespearian characters.

Success in the provinces and a Haymarket engagement of seven weeks at £50 nightly in 1839 brought Kean £7242 7s. 5d. He then went to America, but illness and other misfortunes tempered his success. At the Haymarket on 1 June 1840, he followed Hamletwith Richard III and Macbeth, both with new scenery, and Macbeth played for fifteen nights. Macready was concurrently engaged, but Kean performed all the Shakespeare.

Kean returned to the provinces, playing often with Ellen Tree, particularly in Romeo and Juliet, in anticipation of his own staging of the play at the Haymarket in 1841, which was the first documented instance of Kean as a director. The production was praised, but his Romeo was poorly received as being a role unsuited to his talents. He recorded £6474 11s. for the year.

Marriage and changing repertory

On 29 January 1842 Kean married Ellen Tree (1805–1880) [see Kean, Eleanora] at St Thomas's Church, Dublin, and that night played The Gamester and The Honeymoon with her. In his account book he wrote 'The day I was married' and entered 'Recd £480'. For more than financial reasons it was a fortuitous event in Kean's life. Ellen's devotion shed the one undimmed lustre on a life which was harried by controversy, criticism, misadventures, and disappointments. In a singularly happy marriage, he enjoyed the unfailing love and support of a great and lovely woman whose career merged with and influenced his own. On 27 February at Glasgow, his mother having finally accepted the marriage, they first, and always thereafter, appeared together as Mr and Mrs Charles Kean.

Changes in Kean's repertory followed as he acted with Ellen in her pieces, notably domestic drama, and moved away from major dependence on the conventional roles of tragedians. The new direction proved more suited to his abilities, diminishing excesses of the romantic style and increasing realism and restraint as he succeeded in such plays as The Lady of LyonsThe Gamester, and The Stranger. At the Haymarket in 1842 they gave the première of Knowles's The Rose of Aragon under Kean's supervision. (Their only child, Mary, was born on 18 September 1843.) Richard III at Drury Lane on 20 January 1844 was Kean's first production of Shakespeare in the ‘Macready manner’—unified, specifically designed staging with historical accuracy. To provincial theatres for two years Kean brought a supply of costumes for supporting actors and supernumeraries, scene designs, and accessories, and he personally superintended historical productions of Richard III and Macbeth, thus introducing the ‘Macready manner’ to the provinces. He also took it to America, where the Keans acted for nearly two years, beginning in September 1845. At the Park Theatre in New York in January 1846 he produced Richard III and followed it with a spectacular King John, using Macready's promptbook and designs, but neither production was profitable, and he abandoned plans for others. The other major event at the Park was the première of George Lovell's The Wife's Secret, commissioned by Kean, on 12 October 1845; it was also a great hit at London's Haymarket in January 1848. Its staging was highly praised, and Kean's acting drew notices equalling those of his wife. The play ran for thirty-seven consecutive nights at the Haymarket and remained in the Keans' repertory to the end of their careers; during their Princess's Theatre management it was acted forty times.

Management and social aspiration

In 1848 Kean was appointed director of royal theatricals at Windsor Castle, a new project to give royal support to the stage, and the Keans acted the first season in HamletThe Stranger, and The Merchant of Venice for three of the five nights. It was a singular honour, and Kean held the position, through recurring contention with jealous actors and rival managers, until 1857, when Ellen's solicitation by letter of a knighthood for her husband cost him the position. However, in 1848 the appointment was a turning point, for it changed his plans to retire early. Royal patronage gave him the opportunity to lead Victorian theatre into new vigour and levels of excellence through management.

Under Kean's management (1850–59) the Princess's was London's leading theatre. He began as co-manager with Robert Keeley, but assumed sole authority before staging King John on 9 February 1852, his first great historical production, a repetition of his New York production of 1846. On 24 February The Corsican Brothers, a new play by Dion Boucicault that gradually replaced King John, was one of Kean's major successes, both as actor and director; revived several times, it reached 243 performances. Anne Blake in 1852 had forty-one performances, with Much Ado about Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor staged the same season. On 14 February 1853 a splendid Macbeth began a run of eighty-nine performances, and Byron's Sardanapalus followed in June for ninety performances. Faust and Marguerite, a spectacular melodrama, opened on 19 April 1854 for ninety-six performances, and The Courier of Lyons ran for fifty nights beginning on 26 June.

In 1854 Kean leased the theatre until 1859 and contracted his company for the same time. The best of his management followed. On 13 January 1855 Louis XI, generally considered Kean's finest role, received unanimous praise; it was acted ninety-one times by the end of his management and remained in his repertory to the end of his career. Henry VIII followed on 16 May; with new roles for both Keans, it was a major triumph, playing successively for a hundred nights, for fifty the next season, and for thirteen in the final season. Kean's Wolsey was his first new Shakespearian role at the Princess's; notable for 'restrained force' and realistic detail, it was highly praised. The Winter's Tale opened on 28 April 1856 for 102 performances. On 1 September Pizarro was historically and spectacularly staged to open the season and played for sixty-nine nights; from 15 October it was combined with A Midsummer Night's Dream, without the Keans, which played for 184 performances. On 14 March 1857 Richard II opened and ran for 112 nights, followed by The Tempest on 1 July, which had eighty-seven showings. On 17 April 1858 King Lear, which Kean had acted in 1836 in the provinces, was played for only thirty-two nights; although lauded in the press, the play and Kean's aptly dark and barbaric staging proved unattractive to audiences. It was followed on 12 June by a sumptuous and colourful The Merchant of Venice, using scenic replications of the city's landmarks, most notably the Rialto, with the canal waters actually reflecting passing gondolas, the bridge, and crowds crossing it. It was performed for seventy-two consecutive nights to end the season, and then for the first thirteen nights of Kean'slast season of management. After The MerchantKean turned to revivals of major productions to fill out the season, the only new production being Henry V, his most spectacular effort. It opened on 28 March 1859 and was performed successively eighty-four times, sixty-one as the sole play for the night. Henry VIII was given on the final night of his management, 29 August 1859, when Kean's curtain speech lengthily defended the aims, practices, and achievements of his management.

Failure of his hopes for knighthood and the loss of the directorship of the Windsor theatricals in 1857 had been a psychological turning point for Kean. Idealistic visions for his profession faded, but his contracts of 1854 had held him to management for two more seasons. He became increasingly irritable and contentious. Cheating by his box-office staff led to a public rumpus when he dismissed Massingham, the manager, and there were other asperities within the company. In July 1858 Kean chaired the public meeting for establishing a dramatic college for ageing actors, but matters went awry and his participation faded. With his will gone and his health failing, his public and private statements were pervaded with resigned defeat.

Touring, at home and abroad

Management having depleted his means for the lifestyle the Keans desired, on leaving the Princess's, Kean's goal became pursuit of income. With three supporting players to act, superintend rehearsals, and relieve Kean of onerous details, the Keans turned to the provinces, where they drew crowded houses despite increased prices. For the first three seasons Kean reported an average gross of £8000, but his entourage made expenses heavy. They played engagements at Drury Lane in 1861 and 1862 and were back at the Princess's from 10 July to 16 October 1862. At a testimonial dinner at St James's Hall on 22 March 1862, with W. E. Gladstone in the chair, Kean was presented with a set of silver valued at £2000. With their attraction waning in the provinces, Keanlooked abroad, but civil war in America obviated their going there. Before their departure to Australia, the Keans gave a platform reading on 26 June 1863 at St James's Hall. Stripped of scenery and stage business, Kean's performance drew no cavilling about faculty articulation or vocal harshness, and reviewers, notably that of The Times, gave fulsome praise. The Keans acted for nine months in Australia, beginning on 10 October 1863 in Melbourne, before going to California and Vancouver and, via Panama and Jamaica, where they gave readings, to New York. The civil war over, their opening was delayed by Lincoln's assassination until 26 April 1865, and after New York they toured widely in the United States, ending with a farewell performance at New York's Broadway Theatre on 16 April 1866. Illness, bad teeth, and problems with tour managers plagued Kean during both the American and the Australian tours.

After returning to England the Keans acted at the Princess's in Henry VIII for fifteen nights, Louis XI for eleven, and Hamlet for three, and for their benefit on 2 June they gave The Merchant of Venice and The Jealous Wife. On 28 May Kean appeared before the 1866 parliamentary committee on theatre regulation, giving pessimistic but perceptive testimony, and in June he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In September the Keans returned to the provinces, where they drew crowded houses. They were at their new home, 47 Queensborough Terrace, London, for the Christmas season. Engagements in January 1867 took them to Bristol and then Bath, where they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary; Edinburgh and other towns followed.

On 28 May 1867 at Liverpool, Kean acted Louis XI, and suffered a heart attack after the performance. He died on 22 January 1868, four days after his fifty-seventh birthday, at the couple's London residence, 47 Queensborough Terrace, and was buried beside his mother at St Catherington, Horndean, Hampshire.

Personal characteristics

Kean's personality was influenced by the separation of his parents before he was ten and his upbringing by a doting but emotionally unstable and dependent mother. A spoiled and indulged child, rudely deprived of affluence, exploited and then unmercifully damned publicly in his effort to find means of support for himself and his mother, it is not surprising he was childishly hypersensitive and almost pathological in his hunger for praise, traits that led to many squabbles and subjected him to ridicule, notably in Punch. But he was socially convivial and moved easily in fashionable circles. He had high standards of personal morality, was truly a Victorian gentleman, and his industry, will, and resolution under recurring adversity earned him success. Very popular at Eton, he formed friendships with many men of later note, and those ties served his career well. Also at Eton he acquired a scholarly bent and developed his athletic ability, particularly in fencing, and these traits were put to good use in his professional life. He stood 5 feet 7 inches at maturity, without advantage in physique on stage. Slight of build as a youth, rather stout after forty, he later shrivelled with premature ageing. From his mid-thirties he suffered from gout, and he had Bright'sdisease in his final years. He had flashing eyes, an odd nose, dark hair, and a rather immobile face. Reports by hostile critics, notably in Punch, of his speech being denasalized (that is, nm, and ng sounds changed to db, and g) have been repeated in subsequent evaluations of his acting, but that criticism is questionable in view of contradictory testimony from contemporaries, most notably by Ellen Terry. While his voice was harsh at high volume, it was excellent in normal and quiet passages.

Acting style

Kean's feeble first efforts on stage should be overlooked. He applied himself assiduously, and, with encouragement and advice from many, he soon improved. Early on he played his father's roles in his father's style, which, with his name and resemblance in appearance and mannerism, drew harsh criticism for imitativeness, a charge that persisted long after his father's death and his own departure from his father's style and repertory. Despite his physique, he was notably athletic on stage, fenced expertly, and was graceful and agile, even in later years, when gout permitted. In voice, figure, and temperament he was by nature unsuited to the Romantic style, and he was late in coming to realize the qualities he did possess. Under the influence of his wife he diminished reliance on his father's roles and moved toward realism; for his Wolsey, Richard II, Leontes, Lear, and Louis XI, imitation disappeared as a criticism. Even in the 1830s he had begun to temper externality and exaggeration, vocal and physical. He had studied the role of Hamlet closely and developed new business and line readings. In the 1840s he further developed restraint, and new roles at the Princess's were marked by subtlety, realistic detail, and a quiet 'restrained force'. This style reached its maturity in Louis XI, which Westland Marston identified as the role that 'set the seal upon what I have called his second manner in tragedy', after which Kean 'never went back entirely to his old style' (Our Recent Actors, 1.190). Other contemporaries described Kean's acting in much the same vein, and modern studies agree that his later characters were uniquely individualized, complex, and multi-dimensional, researched for realism, and physically detailed. The identity of the actor was submerged, and his performances were subtle and polished, without artifice, staginess, or conventionality. Having learned the value of repose, he often used, by repression of externals, a deadly quiet that chilled and awed audiences; even emotionally charged scenes retained a subdued intensity, giving, in Dutton Cook's words, 'a sort of drawing room air little known upon the British stage' (Hours with the Players, 2.254).

Kean was the leading actor of mid-Victorian England, with a wide range of successful roles to bear witness to his versatility. Not only did he succeed in tragedy, he was without peer in gentlemanly melodrama; in comedy, notably as Benedict and Ford, he drew warm praise, even from hostile critics.

Managerial style

While Kean reached his zenith as an actor at the Princess's, his contributions as manager there were more significant. In early seasons he sought new plays and had notable successes, particularly with ‘gentlemanly melodrama’, but he increasingly turned to historical productions of Shakespeare. During his management, seventeen Shakespearian plays were performed for 1264 nights, fifteen three- or five-act new plays were performed for 823 nights, his spectacular staging of two ‘standard’ plays had 154 performances, and ordinary staging of standard plays accounted for the remainder.

Kean's personal dedication, financial and artistic, at the Princess's was remarkable. The Keans took no salaries, and extant evidence, with expenditures from the box office or personal accounts unknown, suggests little more than 1 per cent profit from the nine seasons. His theatre was not large, and his production methods expensive. In his retirement speech he reported that he had spent 'a little short of £50,000 for one season', that for some productions he employed more than five hundred persons, and that he had spent about £10,000 for stage improvements and scenery to be left at the theatre. He personally researched scenery, costumes, and properties, for which he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1857. Actors and scenic artists were employed under lengthy contracts, leading to unity of conception and ensemble in execution. Most historical productions were planned for more than a year and then carefully rehearsed under Kean's personal supervision. His specially conceived and researched productions for given plays, his development of realism through spectacular antiquarianism, his emphasis on intensive rehearsals, and his personal supervision of all elements, from conception to execution, to secure integrated unity of production markedly advanced Macready's methods. Moreover, this mode of production was developed in a sustained programme for nine years. Added to the development of the director's function were Kean's change from the repertory system to long runs of productions and his advances in lighting and scenic methods. He brought the electric arc spotlight to England, and his use of limelight for special effects was notable. Asymmetrical settings, large expanses of scenery placed diagonally in full stage scenes, and extensive use of bridges, steps, ramps, and levels allowed increased use of stage space, particularly vertically, to facilitate variety in groupings, new means of picturization, and greater three dimensionality of scenery—hence greater realism. All this must have required an early use of the ‘plantation’ system to mount and change scenery, with traditional wing-and-drop forestage settings to mask the massive scene shifts.


First as an actor and then as a manager, Kean drew hyperbole from detractors and admirers in the press. His historical revivals drew charges of 'upholstery', the smothering of actors and plays in spectacle, from a persistent faction, a criticism that may seem apt by modern standards. In the context of Kean's times and his aims, its validity diminishes. Kean's intention was not spectacle but historical accuracy, a kind of realism that when conscientiously executed was inevitably spectacular, given the plays he produced. He was staging history lessons as well as revitalizing Shakespearefor audiences of his time. That this suited his audiences' tastes was proven by large attendances and warm praise from a very great majority of the reviewers, who described productions in lengthy columns. While he cut texts severely, omissions were judicious, very like those of his contemporaries, notably Phelps and Macready, and much like late twentieth-century practice. He seldom modified Shakespeare's scene sequence, and language was unchanged except for references to the deity. He did interpolate huge spectacular episodes, as in Richard IIHenry V, and Henry VIII, based on textual possibilities, to exhibit historical events with archaeological detail and a cross-section of the society of a play's time. To facilitate his educational purpose, he sold at the theatre his editions of the plays with extensive notes on the text and his staging, and large playbills provided audiences with notes and antiquarian sources.

Kean's view of theatre as a potentially educational institution, rather than a commercial source of entertainment, and his intent for it to become socially relevant foreshadowed the independent theatre movement at the end of the century. At the Princess's, Kean also moved the theatre towards social respectability, and fashionable audiences began returning to it. Henry Irving of the Lyceum was influenced by Kean'smanagement and Beerbohm Tree copied Kean's productions in his Shakespearian programme at Her Majesty's Theatre at the turn of the century. More important was Kean's influence on the duke of Saxe-Meiningen, who advanced Kean's concepts and methods with a higher aesthetic intention and then spread them throughout Europe. Kean's forty years on the stage rather neatly spanned the middle of the century; he had been a major figure in the transition from Romanticism to realism in stage production.

M Glen Wilson DNB

Artist biography

Stump, Samuel John (c. 1783–1863), miniature and landscape painter, of whose parents, birthplace or early education nothing is known, studied at the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited at the academy from 1802 to 1845, sending mainly miniatures as well as a few oil portraits and landscape views. He exhibited miniatures with the Oil and Watercolour Society during its brief existence from 1813 to 1820, and showed landscapes of England, Italy, and Switzerland with the British Institution up to 1849. He was also a member of the Sketching Society.

Stump had a large theatrical clientele, and his portraits of stage celebrities—some of them in character—were numerous. His portraits of Lady AudleyMrs Gulston, the collector Richard MilesGeorge Frederick CookeHarriot Mellon and Louisa Brunton, and others were engraved, some of them by himself in stipple. Stump died in 1863.