The actor-manager Charles John Kean, the second son of Edmund Kean (q.v.), was born on 18 January 1811 in Waterford, Ireland. After three years at Eton he made his first appearance on the stage at Drury Lane on 1 October 1827 as Young Norval in “Douglas”. He played at that theatre for two seasons without creating much excitement. Among his roles in 1828-29 was Frederick in “Lovers’ Vows”, a production in which his future wife Ellen Tree (q.v.) acted Amelia. That season he failed to succeed as Romeo and retired to the provinces. After some engagements in Dublin and Cork, he made his debut in New York at the Park Theatre as Richard III in September 1830. Upon his return to London he was engaged at Covent Garden, where he made an appearance with his father on 25 March 1833, acting Iago to Edmund’s Othello. That night Edmund Kean collapsed on the stage and soon died. Charles again toured the provinces, returned to New York (with his new wife whom he had married in Dublin in 1842), played at the Haymarket and gave performances at Windsor Castle.
Though he was receiving some recognition as an actor, Kean’s main contribution to the English theatre was to be in managing and the producing of a series of meticulously mounted plays at the Princess’s Theatre. In August 1850 he and Robert Keeley leased that theatre and opened it on 28 September with “Twelfth Night”, followed by “Hamlet” (with Kean in the leading role) on 30 September. At the end of the season Keeley withdrew, and Kean began a series of spectacular revivals, beginning with the lavishly produced “King John” on 9 February 1852 and extending through 1858-59. His notable productions – in which he also acted the leading roles – included “The Corsican Brothers” (February 1852), “Macbeth” (February 1853), Byron’s “Sardanapalus” (June 1853), “Louis XI” (January 1855, G0344), “The Winter’s Tale” (April 1856), “Pizarro”, in which he acted Rolla (September 1856, B0036), “The Tempest” (July 1857), “King Lear” (April 1858) and “The Merchant of Venice” (June 1858). His last Shakespearean revival was “Henry V” (in which he played Henry) on 28 March 1859. These productions, mounted with historically accurate costumes and scenery, greatly influenced the direction of the modern theatre towards realism, and they were inspirations for Duke George II and his Saxe-Meininger company. Kean gave up the Princess’s at the end of 1858-59, then at the top of his profession. A dinner was given in his honour at St James’s Hall on 20 July 1859.
Kean continued to act in the country and at Drury Lane, but he was never an inspired performer, and he possessed a number of mannerisms. In July 1863 he set off with his wife on a tour around the world, acting in Melbourne, San Francisco, Vancouver Island, Kingston and New York. In 1866 he appeared at Liverpool and the Princess’s again in London. He made his final appearance on the stage at Liverpool on 28 May 1867 as Louis XI, his greatest role. After a long illness, Charles Kean died in Queensborough Terrace, Chelsea, on 22 January 1868, and was buried near the small estate of Keydall, in Catherington, Hampshire. His wife Ellen died in 1880. Kean became a member of the Garrick Club in 1833. (DNB, OCT, BEBB)