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EDMUND KEAN'S ROMEO

[Drury Lane] January 8, 1815.

MR. KEAN appeared at Drury-Lane in the character of Romeo, for the first time on Monday last [January 2, 1815]. The house was crowded at an early hour, and neither those who went to admire, nor those who went to find fault, could go away disappointed. He discovered no new and unlooked-for excellences in the part, but displayed the same extraordinary energies which he never fails to do on every occasion. There is, indeed, a set of ingenious persons, who having perceived on Mr. Kean's first appearance, that he was a little man with an inharmonious voice, and no very great dignity or elegance of manner, go regularly to the theatre to confirm themselves in this singular piece of sagacity; and finding that the object of their contempt and wonder has not, since they last saw him, "added a cubit to his stature"--that his tones have not become as "musical as is Apollo's lute," and that there is still an habitual want of grace about him, are determined, till such a metamorphosis is effected, not to allow a particle of genius to the actor, or of taste or common sense to those who are not stupidly blind to every thing but his defects. That an actor with very moderate abilities, having the advantages of voice, person and gracefulness of manner on his side, should acquire a very high reputation, is what we can understand, and have seen some instances of; but that an actor with almost every physical disadvantage against him, should, without very extraordinary powers and capacities indeed, be able to excite the most enthusiastic and general admiration, would, we conceive, be a phenomenon in the history of public imposture, totally without example. In fact, the generality of critics who undertake to give the tone to public opinion, have neither the courage nor discernment to decide on the merits of a truly excellent and original actor, and are equally without the candour to acknowledge their error, after they find themselves in the wrong.

In going to see Mr. Kean in any new character, we do not go in the expectation of seeing either a perfect actor or perfect acting; because this is what we have not yet seen, either in him or in any one else. But we go to see (what he never disappoints us in) great spirit, ingenuity, and originality given to the text in general, and an energy and depth of passion given to certain scenes and passages, which we should in vain look for from any other actor on the stage. In every character that he has played, in Shylock, in Richard, in Hamlet, in Othello, in Iago, in Luke, and in Macbeth, there has been either a dazzling repetition of the master-strokes of art and nature, or if at any time (from a want of physical adaptation, or sometimes just of conception of the character) the interest has flagged for a considerable interval, the deficiency has always been redeemed by some collected and overpowering display of energy and pathos, which electrified at the moment, and left a lasting impression on the mind afterwards. Such, for instance, were the murder-scene in Macbeth, the third act of his Othello, the interview with Ophelia in Hamlet, and, lastly, the scene with Friar Lawrence, and the death-scene in Romeo.

Of the characters that Mr. Kean has played, Hamlet and Romeo are the most like one another, at least in adventitious circumstances; those to which Mr. Kean's powers are least adapted, and in which he has failed most in general truth of conception and continued interest. There is in both characters the same strong tincture of youthful enthusiasm, of tender melancholy, of romantic thought and sentiment; but we confess we did not see these qualities in Mr. Kean's performance of either. His Romeo had nothing of the lover in it. We never saw any thing less ardent or less voluptuous. In the Balcony-scene in particular, he was cold, tame, and unimpressive. It was said of Garrick and Barry in this scene, that the one acted it as if he would jump up to the lady, and the other as if he would make the lady jump down to him. Mr. Kean produced neither of these effects. He stood like a statue of lead. Even Mr. Conway might feel taller on the occasion, and Mr. Coates wonder at the taste of the public. The only time in this scene when he attempted to give any thing like an effect, was when he smiled on over-hearing Juliet's confession of her passion. But the smile was less like that of a fortunate lover who unexpectedly hears his happiness confirmed, than of a discarded lover, who hears of the disappointment of a rival. The whole of this part not only wanted "the silver sound of lovers' tongues by night" to recommend it, but warmth, tenderness--every thing which it should have possessed. Mr. Kean was like a man waiting to receive a message from his mistress through her confidante, not like one who was pouring out his rapturous vows to the idol of his soul. There was neither glowing animation, nor melting softness in his manner; his cheek was not flushed, no sigh breathed involuntary from his overcharged bosom: all was forced and lifeless. His acting sometimes reminded us of the scene with Lady Anne, and we cannot say a worse thing of it, considering the difference of the two characters. Mr. Kean's imagination appears not to have the principles of joy, or hope, or love in it. He seems chiefly sensible to pain, or to the passions that spring from it, and to the terrible energies of mind or body, which are necessary to grapple with, or to avert it. Even over the world of passion he holds but a divided sway: he either does not feel, or seldom expresses, deep, sustained, internal sentiment--there is no repose in his mind: no feeling seems to take full possession of it, that is not linked to action, and that does not goad him on to the frenzy of despair. Or if he ever conveys the sublimer pathos of thought and feeling, it is after the storm of passion, to which he has been worked up, has subsided. The tide of feeling then at times rolls deep, majestic, and awful, like the surging sea after a tempest, now lifted to Heaven, now laying bare the bosom of the deep. Thus after the violence and anguish of the scene with Iago, in the third act of Othello, his voice in the farewell apostrophe to Content, took the deep intonation of the pealing organ, and heaved from the heart sounds that came on the ear like the funeral dirge of years of promised happiness. So in the midst of the extravagant and irresistible expression of Romeo's grief, at being banished from the object of his love, his voice suddenly stops, and falters, and is choked with sobs of tenderness, when he comes to Juliet's name. Those persons must be made of sterner stuff than ourselves, who are proof against Mr. Kean's acting, both in this scene, and in his dying convulsion at the close of the play. But in the fine soliloquy beginning, "What said my man, when my betossed soul," etc.--and at the tomb afterwards--"Here will I set up my everlasting rest, and shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh"--in these, where the sentiment is subdued and profound, and the passion is lost in calm, fixed despair, Mr. Kean's acting was comparatively ineffectual. There was nothing in his manner of delivering this last exquisitely beautiful speech, which echoed to "the still sad music of humanity," which recalled past hopes, or reposed on the dim shadowings of futurity.

Mr. Kean affects the audience from the force of passion instead of sentiment, or sinks into pathos from the violence of action, but seldom rises into it from the power of thought and feeling. In this respect, he presents almost a direct contrast to Miss O'Neill. Her energy always arises out of her sensibility. Distress takes possession of, and overcomes her faculties; she triumphs in her weakness, and vanquishes by yielding. Mr. Kean is greatest in the conflict of passion, and resistance to his fate, in the opposition of his will, in the keen excitement of his understanding. His Romeo is, in the best scenes, very superior to Miss O'Neill's Juliet; but it is with some difficulty, and after some reflection, that we should say that the finest parts of his acting are superior to the finest parts of hers;--to her parting with Jaffier in Belvidera [in Venice Preserved]--to her terror and her joy in meeting with Biron, in Isabella--to the death-scene in the same character, and to the scene in the prison with her husband as Mrs. Beverley [in The Gamester]. Her acting is undoubtedly more correct, equable, and faultless throughout than Mr. Kean's, and it is quite as affecting at the time, in the most impassioned parts. But it does not leave the same impression on the mind afterwards. It adds little to the stock of our ideas, or to our materials for reflection, but passes away with the momentary illusion of the scene. And this difference of effect, perhaps, arises from the difference of the parts they have to sustain on the stage. In the female characters which Miss O'Neill plays, the distress is in a great measure physical and natural: that is, such as is common to every sensible woman in similar circumstances. She abandons herself to every impulse of grief or tenderness, and revels in the excess of an uncontrollable affliction. She can call to her aid, with perfect propriety and effect, all the weaknesses of her sex--tears, sighs, convulsive sobs, shrieks, death-like stupefaction, and laughter more terrible than all. But it is not the same in the parts in which Mr. Kean has to act. There must here be a manly fortitude, as well as a natural sensibility. There must be a restraint constantly put upon the feelings by the understanding and the will. He must be "as one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing." He cannot give way entirely to his situation or his feelings, but must endeavour to become master of them, and of himself. This, in our conception, must make it more easy to give entire effect and interest to female characters on the stage, by rendering the expression of passion more obvious, simple, and natural; and must also make them less rememberable afterwards, by leaving less scope for the exercise of intellect, and for the distinct and complicated reaction of the character upon circumstances. At least, we can only account in some such way for the different impressions which the acting of these two admired performers makes on our mind, when we see, or when we think of them. As critics, we particularly feel this. Mr. Kean affords a never-failing source of observation and discussion; we can only praise Miss O'Neill.--The peculiarity and the strong hold of Mrs. Siddons' acting was, that she, in a wonderful manner, united both the extremes of acting here spoken of--that is, all the frailties of passion, with all the strength and resources of the intellect.

To return to Mr. Kean. We would, if we had any influence with him, advise him to give one thorough reading to Shakespeare, without any regard to the prompt-book, or to his own cue, or to the effect he is likely to produce on the pit or gallery. If he does this, not with a view to his profession, but as a study of human nature in general, he will, we trust, find his account in it, quite as much as in keeping company with "the great vulgar, or the small." He will find there all he wants, as well as all that he has--sunshine and gloom, repose as well as energy, pleasure mixed up with pain--love and hatred, thought, feeling, and action--lofty imagination, with pointed acuteness--general character, with particular traits--and all that distinguishes the infinite variety of nature. He will then find that the interest of Macbeth does not end with the dagger-scene, and that Hamlet is a fine character in the closet, and might be made so on the stage, by being understood. He may then hope to do justice to Shakespeare; and when he does this, he need not fear but that his fame will last.

This article is reprinted from A View of the English Stage. William Hazlitt. London: George Bell and Sons, 1906. pp. 47-53.

RELATED WEBSITES

  • Edmund Kean's Shylock - A contemporary review of Mr. Kean's performance of Shylock at Drury Lane in 1814.
  • Edmund Kean's Iago - A contemporary review of Mr. Kean's performance of Iago at Drury Lane in 1814.
  • Players Who Died Acting - Famous actors who received their last call before the footlights; includes an account of Kean's death.
  • Queer Superstitions of Theatre-Land - An analysis of some of the more peculiar superstitions associated with the theatre; describes how Mr. Kean had the remains of another great actor, George Frederick Cooke, re-interred in order to appropriate one of the toe-bones of the actor, which he preserved for many years as a talisman.
  • Purchase books about Edmund Kean

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