One of the greatest of English actors, described as a ‘turbulent genius’ (EB), Edmund Kean was born in March 1787 (or 1789) in London, the bastard son of a sometime actress named Ann Carey and Edmund Kean, a disturbed young actor who committed suicide at the age of 22 and is noticed in the BDA. His uncle was Moses Kean (d. 1793), also an actor noticed in the BDA. Supposedly young Edmund began his theatrical career playing Cupid in a production of “Cymon” at Drury Lane on 31 December 1791, and the Master Kean who is listed in the Drury Lane playbill for Robin in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” on 8 June 1796 was undoubtedly Edmund. After some schooling in London and lessons in elocution from his uncle Moses, he was seen again at Drury Lane as Prince Arthur to the King John of J. P. Kemble and the Constance of Mrs Siddons in May 1801. Kean was regularly running off, sometimes to play at the fairs and in the provinces, advertised as Master Carey. He made his first appearance at the Haymarket on 9 June 1806 as Ganem in “The Mountaineers”. But he continued to play in country towns. In July 1808 in Stroud he married Mary Chambers, an actress nine years his junior. Their son Charles John Kean (q.v.) was born in Waterford in 1811.
Finally, his great early triumph came on 26 January 1814, when at Drury Lane he brought forward a gripping portrayal of Shylock (G0354), a performance that indicated his intense and fiery style of acting would outmode the more measured and classical style of Kemble. Specializing in stage villains, notably Richard III (G0345, G0346, G0348, G0352, G0353), Iago, Macbeth and later Sir Giles Overreach in “A New Way to Pay Old debts” (G0351, G0355), Kean clearly was the premier actor of his day. His performances of Othello (G0347), King Lear and Hamlet were also estimable. Watching Kean act Shakespeare, in the famous words of Coleridge, was having the Bard revealed ‘by flashes of lightning.’ But his offstage demon – drink – and his passionate and turbulent personality often rendered him ineffective and drew hostile responses from the press and public both in England and America. His reputation was considerably sullied when he was sued for adultery and criminal conversation by Alderman Robert Cox in the mid-1820s because of Kean’s relationship with Mrs Cox.
Kean squandered his substantial earnings as an actor (some £10,000 a year) in debauchery as he slowly but surely was committing suicide by drinking. At Covent Garden on 25 March 1833 he acted Othello to his son’s Iago and collapsed during the performance. Several months later he died, on 15 May, at his home in Richmond, Surrey. He was buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, near Garrick. A number of books have been written on Kean, among them “The Flash of Lightning, a Portrait of Edmund Kean”, by Giles Playfair (1983) and “Edmund Kean”, by Harold Newcomb Hillebrand (1934).