The Cult of Kean.
An upstart actor loved by the masses, who donned American Indian dress and redecorated his house as a seraglio with personal sex slaves in preparation for a role, fed fresh meat to his pet African lion, and planned to transform society "one drunken night and four ruined women at a time" (82), Edmund Kean--in his lives and afterlives--is ripe for analysis. In his illuminating, fascinating, and compelling study The Cult of Kean, Jeffrey Kahan examines the rumors, fantasies, and truths surrounding this eccentric and talented actor whose "life was a public show" (2). Kahan's sources include previously unpublished letters from Kean's wife as well as numerous documents from the author's personal collection. As Kahan demonstrates, though Kean lived only 43 years, different "Keans" have been constructed with these and other materials, both by Kean and by others, and "we are still living ... in a Keanian world of illusion" (10). Although Kahan's most significant contribution is his analysis of various "Keanian event[s]" (4), The Cult of Kean might also serve as a model for an extended study of the effects of individuals on theatre and cultural history. Kahan does not organize his study chronologically, but rather divides it into seven chapters on different aspects of the actor's "mythography" (10), from boxing to sex.
Born to an actress-prostitute and raised by actress Charlotte Tidswell ("Aunt Tid"), Kean grew up at Drury Lane, learning the craft of acting behind the wings and debuting as an imp in John Philip Kemble's 1794 Macbeth. As "The Celebrated Theatrical Child," the young Kean performed with his aunt at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Notoriously short (5'4"), Kean struggled during the early part of his adult career in provincial theatres, accumulating both debt and children, returning to London in 1814 to a surprisingly successful reception. In Chapter 1, "Bare-Knuckle Kean," Kahan discusses how Kean constructed himself as "a brawler who had fought his way up through the provincial ranks" (16). He further developed this sportive image by mandating in 1817 that Drury Lane stage prizefights on Monday evenings, and perhaps even boxing in matches after performing Shakespeare. Whether or not he actually boxed at Drury Lane is irrelevant; Kean "used the aesthetics of the boxing match to change the way his audiences judged his acting," characterizing himself as "an antiestablishment figure; someone who was taking perilous risks" in a new kind of theatre as a "spirited contest with a winner and a loser" (16-17). Kahan argues that this attitude was novel, in that Kean's career was measured "not for his skill in reciting Shakespeare, but for his ability to knockout his theatrical rivals" or to escape a fight due to "illness," which could be attributed to drunkenness, laziness, or actual sickness (17, 22). Kean even contrived a system to "fix" his battles with his stage rivals, through his fan club The Wolves, who enforced a program of "hissing and booing anyone that the star actor disliked" (29).
Chapter 2, "The Throne is Mine and I Will Maintain It at Any Cost': Kean's Power Over the Regency Stage," examines Kean's crafty techniques to control Drury Lane, ranging from using drink as an excuse (perhaps legitimate, perhaps not) for a poor performance to prioritizing his career over the financial situation of the theatre. Relying in part on the previously unpublished letters from Kean's wife, Kahan explores Kean's "undisclosed backstage drama played out in a world of props, makeup jars, and sticky filth" (43). Chapter 3, "Kean and the French (Sexual) Revolution," centers on Alexander Dumas's construction of Kean in his 1836 play Kean, written three years after the actor's death. In this work, Kean is "an altruistic narcissist, preoccupied with helping the poor and with bedding as many well-bred women as possible" while reciting Shakespeare on the side and touting his working-class roots (74-5). According to James Winston, a staff member at Drury Lane, Kean frequently had sex during the entertainments between the acts of a Shakespeare play (ironically he was a failure at Romeo, though he was known for his Richard III, Iago, Othello, and Shylock), boasting that "he had frequently three women to ((stroke)) during performance and that two waited while the other was served" (83). Kahan traces the relationship between "his early success and his sex-fife" (83), which gave new meaning to the interval and encouraged a following of prostitutes and sodomites at Drury Lane (84). In fact, Kahan argues that by 1822 Kean "had fully transformed Drury Lane and the very notion of going to the theater from a social convenience to a sexual transgression" (84). Kahan asserts a revolutionary interpretation for Kean's voracious libido (as constructed in Dumas's play): Kean is "the ultimate masculine, ever-snatching, ever-roving, ever-sexually-erect conqueror, [who] put the dominant, ruling class in a weakened, feminine, supine, and dependent position" (88).
Chapter 4, "Kean as Comedy," looks at Mark Twain's assessment of Kean's American tours, which often comprised sexual antics "better suited to the campus bar than the classroom" (10-11). When Kean came to America in 1825 in the aftermath of a scandalous adulterous relationship with Charlotte Cox, one American newspaper urged readers that "this corrupt and degraded man, after having been publicly exposed as an adulterer in his own country, and driven, as it were from society by the force of public sentiment" should not "be allowed to insult and dishonor our city by showing himself publicly among us" (93). In the first five months of his American tour, though, Kean made 2550 [pounds sterling]. Kahan attributes this success in part to Kean's affinity with America: "Kean was (and is) in many ways America in the flesh, an industrious, serf-made man too vigorous for the rigidities of English culture" (100). When he appears in Twain's Huckleberry Finn, he speaks a "pastiche of Shakespearean verse" (104) that resembled his real slipshod performance after the Cox affair. Kahan notes that Twain "must have expected at least some of his readers to know something of Kean's two tours of America" (104), and that Twain uses Kean "to ridicule American tastes" (114) and expose the audience's "preference for adulterated Shakespeare" (110).
Chapter 5, "Kean and Mr. Keane," explores Charles Kean's attempts to refashion his father's legacy into a respectable package and claim it as his own. Beginning with an analysis of "how habitually and insistently black (or in Kean's case, olive) characters appear throughout his oeuvre" (118), Kahan argues that Kean's "reputation included an enlightened philosophy concerning race" (118) which may have encouraged actor Ira Aldridge to bill himself as "Mr. Keene" or "The African Kean." Edmund Kean's Eton-educated son Charles, "an expensive lay-about and a virtual stranger" to his father (125), eventually traded on his father's theatrical name, challenging Aldridge for the legacy of the "Kean" name through his use of"spectacular scenic productions" designed to "distract the audience from the actor" (136). The difficulty for Charles Kean, however, was how to remain a "bigot" offstage while embracing his father's legacy of "racial forbearance" on stage (136).
Chapter 6, "Playing Kean Playing Kean" looks at Kean's influence on Sartre, who saw in the actor "the archetypal existentialist, alienated from everyone, even himself" (140); indeed, Sartre asserted that his play Kean was inspired not by Kean himself but by actor Fredrerick Lemaitre who played Kean on stage in Dumas's play. Although Kahan argues that Sartre's play is "the least historically authentic" of "all the Keans created since the original's demise" (143), the play has succeeded as a comedy, in Sam Mendes's 1990 production at the National Theatre starring Derek Jacobi; there was also a 1983 BBC television production starring Anthony Hopkins. Jacobi's Kean was "restrained, refined, and domesticated" (149); Hopkins played Kean for scale wages, turning down the title role in the film Gandhi to take on a part he described as "the most emotionally demanding thing I've done" (150). Even though the actor likely found many points of connection with the role (physique, difficulty with the British press, discomfort with high society, love of boxing), the production was a failure, Kahan asserts, because Hopkins "confused the historical Kean ... with the histrionic construct" (151). This chapter ends with a focus on Peter O'Toole's life-long fascination with Kean; his 1996 autobiography Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice begins with him slipping on Kean's ring, which he received as a gift from Olivier, and invoking Kean in his behind-the-scenes sexual antics and drunken revelries. Pointing out that "no actor before Kean experimented with wearing theatrical costumes, with living the character outside--and living his life inside--the theater," Kahan argues that for O'Toole "the 'real' work of playing Kean is never to forget that life itself is performance" (157).
Chapter 7, "The Final Curtain" suggests the endurance of this iconic persona, idolized by figures including Keats (who wrote Otho the Great in Kean's honor) and Olivier (who collected his lace collar and undergarments and was buried with Kean's sword). Kahan begins with the material evidence from Kean's autopsy: "the lesion on Kean's legs, his bodily fat, his sexual diseases, all point to a wasteful life of immoderation and self-ruination" (160). As part of the narrative of Kean's death, Kahan examines the many mythological "bedside confessionals" associated with the six weeks between Kean's final stage performance and his death, a period filled with "filth and chaos" (169). Kahan concludes that Kean's main contributions were his "innovation of dramatic representation," particularly in our own "narcissistic and collectivist" era (168), and he makes a convincing argument for Kean as the grandfather of the artistic cult of personality, anticipating figures such as David Bowie, Boy George, and Madonna. Kahan ends with a personal "Keanian event" by relating his own pilgrimage to Kean's grave. Even though Kean's remains in the twelfth-century St. Mary's church in Richmond were moved from the church's vaults to a more fitting monument, Kahan discovers that Kean now rests "under a children's play station," with a small table and chairs "covered in dried crayon and faded felt-tip markers" (170). Kahan's rich study suggests, though, that Kean's legacy will outlast this neglected gravesite.
KATHERINE SCHEIL, University of Minnesota