Edmund Kean’s Debut Performance in London, 1814

Par Kyoko Matsuyama
Publication en ligne le 22 avril 2015


The début performance of Edmund Kean as Shylock at Drury Lane on January 26th 1814 became a myth overnight, and was soon followed by Richard III. The twenty‑four year old actor who was currently working in Exeter had a scanty advertisement for his first night in London as Drury Lane which was on the verge of bankruptcy had had a few unsuccessful attempts at launching productions which could match the fame of Covent Garden under the management of John Philip Kemble. Only a limited audience was given a chance to attend the performance, however, among the few Charles Hazlitt appreciated the style of the newcomer so much that he wrote two very favourable reviews, going as far as naming Kean the new Garrick of his age in the second one. And thus, prompted by such a good report theatre goers flocked to Drury Lane to see the new star of the stage. However, because the first night which had been the very launching of his career had received so little attention in the first place, it received the status of a mythical performance and the happy few members of the audience who had attended it were convinced they had partaken in a very special experience. This paper will explore the making of a myth through the lack of publicity and audience, but thanks to the positive review of such a distinguished reviewer as Hazlitt.


Texte intégral

1The first performance of Edmund Kean (1787‑1833) on the London stage was on January 26th 1814 as Shylock at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. As the theatre was on the verge of bankruptcy, appointing Kean was one of the desperate attempts to bring Drury Lane out of a very difficult financial situation at a time when Theatre Royal Covent Garden was the leading theatre under the management of John Philip Kemble (1757‑1823). The board of Drury Lane did not have very high expectations of his success, so the publicity was minimal, as if they already expected Kean to be yet another failure like many of his predecessors. Thus only a small audience and some strictly selected critics had the chance to attend Kean’s first performance, which, in a way, helped to build Kean’s myth later on.

2All that Kean had to do was perform something completely different from recent productions with a very distinct role, in his case, Shylock, soon followed by the title role in King Richard III. When Kean’s name was later connected with the legendary David Garrick for his rendering of Richard III, the basis for « myth making » was well under way. Indeed Kean was soon considered as the new Garrick of the 19th‑century London stage. This can be seen in the reviews and the programming of Kean’s performance, which emphasised his unique presentation in these two particular roles.

3By looking at this process it becomes clear how « myth making » develops and, in Kean’s case, it was particularly successful. Indeed, his first performance on stage became « legendary » and « memorable », and a reference for ages to come. However, it also plagued Kean for the rest of his professional life because this overnight success blinded him towards the criticism that was later passed on his eccentricities.

I. The domination of John Philip Kemble

4Between the 1780s and the 1810s Shakespearean acting in London was connected with the name of one man only, the actor‑manager John Philip Kemble. When he made his first appearance on the London stage at Drury Lane in 1783 Kemble was one of many actors who were already well received on the provincial theatres such as York and Dublin. Another factor that made him a promising actor was that he was the brother of the, then, best tragic actress, Mrs Sarah Siddons1. It took Kemble a few years to establish a foothold with regard to his predecessor, William « Gentleman » Smith2. However by 1788 Kemble started to perform the leading roles at Drury Lane in King Lear, Richard III, or Hamlet. Kemble’s name was often mentioned in the theatre reviews along with his sister Mrs Siddons who was referred to as « Mrs. Siddons, the Tragic Muse » and Hazlitt famously describes her as follows3 :

We can conceive of nothing grander. It was something above nature. It seemed almost as if a being of a superior order had dropped from a higher sphere to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine ; she was tragedy personified4.

5Thus it may be possible to argue that part of his success was the result of a common venture with his sister and rested mainly on her already well‑established personal fame.

6Kemble performed at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden. At the time both theatres were well known for their rivalry, especially because they were the only theatres in London to be allowed to perform tragedy, together with Theatre Royal Haymarket. Kemble was famous for his rendering of Shakespearean parts, among them Macbeth and Coriolanus5. Indeed his Macbeth was so memorable that, when Kemble’s memoirs were published in 1826, Sir Walter Scott wrote a vivid account of Kemble in the part of the Scottish hero in The Quarterly Review :

in Macbeth, Kemble has been as yet unapproachable ; nor can we conceive that the bold and effective manner of Garrick, touching on the broad points of the character with a hand however vigorous, could at all compare with Kemble’s exquisitely and minutely elaborate delineation of guilty ambition, drawn on from crime to crime, while the avenging furies at once scourge him for former guilt, and urge him to further enormities. We can never forget the rueful horror of his look, which by strong exertion he endeavours to conceal, when on the morning succeeding the murder he receives Lennox and Macduff in the ante‑chamber of Duncan6.

7So at the beginning of the 19th century the Shakespearean stage in London was monopolised by Kemble, and for more than twenty years no actor could equal him7. Kemble’s acting style somewhat differed from his sister’s ; however, far from clashing, their differences allowed the audience to enjoy both actors’ acting styles, culminating in the performance of Macbeth with brother and sister in the title‑roles. When both brother and sister moved from Drury Lane to Covent Garden in 1803 and Kemble took over the management, it was difficult for Drury Lane to find an actor who could stand up to Kemble and keep the standard of quality of the theatre.

8Kemble’s performance was considered classical, with stylised acting and well‑researched period costumes and props to match the setting of the play. For example, his Macbeth wore the traditional costumes of Scotland with kilts, a detail which also features in Scott’s article :

During his whole life Kemble was intent on improving, by all means which occurred, the accuracy of the dress which he wore while in character. Macbeth was one of the first plays in which the better system of costume was adopted, and he wore the highland dress, as old Macklin had done before him8.

9Two years before his success as Macbeth in 1788, he had already had to face harsh criticism, hence his essay, published in 1786, intended to explain his understanding of the title‑roles : « Macbeth, and King Richard The Third : An Essay in Answer to Remarks on Some of The Characters of Shakespeare »9. It took time for his views to be accepted by both critics and spectators ; however, as Scott mentioned, Kemble was « intent on improving », and by and by not only did he manage to convince his opponents but he became the leading Shakespearean actor, and his style of acting the exclusive reference for more than twenty years.

10This was so until January 1814.

II. Kean’s Shylock taking centre stage

11Edmund Kean started as a boy actor. As part of the personal « myth » some biographies written by his contemporaries stated that he had stood on the stage of Drury Lane at the age of eight and played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the management of John Philip Kemble10. Yet the fame of a child actor can be short‑lived, so Kean moved around the provincial theatres11, slowly establishing his name and reputation. When he was working at Theatre Royal Exeter as one of the star actors he was asked by the board of managers from Drury Lane to try his fortune at their theatre12. The choice of Kean, as stated previously, was one of many attempts taken by the Drury Lane managers to improve the situation of the theatre. Until Kean was appointed, many actors were brought in to stand against Covent Garden’s Kemble’s fame and quality. However his superiority in acting skills could not be surpassed. The Drury Lane theatre did not expect Kean to be a particularly successful choice. For one thing, compared to Kemble, he was at a great disadvantage physically because of his small stature. The theatre critic of The Morning Chronicle – it appears this article was not written by William Hazlitt – who saw Kean’s performance 1814 on the same day as Hazlitt mentions Kean’s appearance :

Mr. Kean’s figure, which is below the middle height, appears on the first view to preclude success in the higher walks of the Drama, but to this objection it may always be fairly urged that Garrick was great under the same impediment. In the character of Shylock, few persons perhaps were aware of his defects in Mr. Kean, and certainly lofty stature is not necessary to a correct and energetic delineation of passion or feeling. Amongst the numerous candidates for public favour who have been brought forward this season, there is no one, excepting Miss Stepiiens, who has given so fair a promise of obtaining it as Mr. Kean. His performance was distinguished by characteristics which at once fix him in the first rank of his profession : his voice is powerful and flexible, and excepting when strongly exerted, melodious and distinct…His face is good, and his eye and eye‑brow singularly expressive13.

12Kean’s small size was completely forgotten when he played Shylock, the focus of attention being the extraordinarily focused expression of his eyes. Indeed, according to William Hazlitt, he managed to enrapture the audience from his very first performance :

an electric current flashed through the audience. Almost at once, in that first scene, he [Edmund Kean] his mastery over the house [Drury Lane]. The man from Exeter wore a black gabardine, a black beard and a black wig ; yet it was his black eyes, piercing and mesmeric, which riveted attention to the Jew. Here, it was quickly recognised, was not only a new face but a new Shylock14.

13As it happens, William Hazlitt had been among the happy few to have been invited to this first night. According to the current practice, he had been asked to write favourably, as he stated in The Morning Chronicle. However, his duty turned out to be a rare experience : « I had been told to give as favourable an account as I could : I gave a true one15 ». Fortunately for us, Hazlitt’s January 27th 1814 review comments both on the acting proper and also on the response of the audience :

For voice, eye, action, and expression, no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him. The applause, from the first scene to the last, was general, loud and uninterrupted. Indeed, the very first scene in which he comes on with Bassanio and Antonio, shewed the master in his art, and at once decided the opinion of the audience16.

14Again Hazlitt turns from the stage to the auditorium : « It would be endless to point out individual beauties, where almost every passage was received with equal and deserved applause17 ». This suggests that the audience accepted the new Shylock fully and readily. Five days later, on February 2nd 1814, Hazlitt wrote another review on Kean’s Shylock in The Morning Chronicle, thus proving that he had attended another performance on February 1st 1814 :

Mr. Kean appeared again in Shylock, and by his admirable and expressive manner of giving the part, fully sustained the reputation he had acquired by his former representation of it, […] For depth and force of conception, we have seen actors whom we should prefer to Mr. Kean in Shylock ; for brilliant and masterly execution, none. It is not saying too much of him, though it is saying a great deal, that he has all that Mr. Kemble wants of perfection. He reminds us of the descriptions of the « far‑darting eye » of Garrick. We are anxious to see him in Norval and Richard, and anticipate more complete satisfaction from his performance of the latter part, than from the one in which he has already stamped his reputation with the public18.

15Thanks to Hazlitt’s first outstanding review, it took only a few days for theatre‑goers to flock to Drury Lane to see this newcomer to the London scene, especially with the mention of the actor David Garrick who ruled the London stage before Kemble.

16As many attempts at reviving Drury Lane before had been theatrical and financial failures, Kean’s debut on the London stage was advertised very succinctly in The Times :


This evening, ILLUSION.


To which will be added the new splendid comic pantomime, called HARLEQUIN HARPER ; OR, A JUMP FROM JAPAN.

On Monday, Othello, with the Pantomime. On Tuesday THE CASTE OF ANDALUSIA, with the Pantomime. On Wednesday, Mr. KEAN, from the Theatre Royal, Exeter, will make his first appearance at this Theatre as Shylock in the MERCHANT OF VENICE19.

17Kean’s previous success or current status at Exeter was not mentioned, although it is quite possible that some London theatre‑goers had seen him or at least had heard about him.

18However, in spite of this scanty advertisement, thanks to Hazlitt’s very favourable initial report and also to the positive reception of the small and selected audience, Kean’s debut turned out to be a great success. Indeed, because the first‑night audience was so exclusive, the performance soon acquired a mythic status, and the spectators became the happy few who were lucky enough to have been witnesses to the rise of a legendary actor. It may be possible to argue that Kean would have had the same success with a full house, yet with only a limited audience those « happy few » were able to boast that they had had the privilege of attending the debut of Edmund Kean in London. Those who attended the second performance of Kean’s Shylock may have contributed to backing the appraisal of Kean as the genius who could rival Kemble on the London stage. It took only a few days for one of the provincial papers from Exeter, The Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, to publish an article mentioning Kean’s former position there, as if his present fame could be accounted for by his past career :

We feel pleasure in announcing Mr. Kean, who performed at our Theatre the last two seasons, and so distinguished a favourite, made his first appearance on Wednesday last, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the character of « Shylock » and was received throughout with the most rapturous applause. He was to repeat the part again last evening, and has obtained a lucrative engagement for three years20.

19This article strongly suggests the feeling of pride on the part of the Exeter Theatre Managers, who had recognized Kean’s talent well before the London audience. They could advertise the fact that they had had the pleasure of seeing Kean on stage even before this mythic performance of January 26th 1814, so they might have felt a certain superiority over the London audience who usually had the best talents on stage. Actors, reviewers and spectators did not hesitate to look down on the provincial theatres. The fact that such a renowned critic as William Hazlitt wrote not one, but two reviews on the production and, in the second one, compared the actor to Garrick, was another determinant proof of Kean’s abilities. Indeed, suggesting that Kean could be a contender to Kemble and a possible successor to the legendary actor David Garrick was the start of Edmund Kean’s mythologization.

III. Kean’s Richard III

20After Shylock, Edmund Kean’s next part was Richard III, in the heavily revised version by Colley Cibber (1671‑1757), the text which was used from the time of Garrick and still currently staged at the time of Kean21. Again Hazlitt attended the performance at Drury Lane and wrote two reviews in The Morning Chronicle on February 15th and 21st 1814. Until then, Hazlitt was the only London theatre critic who to have seen and written about Edmund Kean22. Hazlitt’s first review, dated February 15th, referring to Kean’s discovery part in Shylock, does not hesitate to pinpoint some defects, before qualifying him as an « admirable tragedian » :

Mr. Kean’s manner of acting this part has one peculiar advantage ; it is entirely his own, without any traces of imitation of any other actor. He stands upon his own ground, and he stands firm upon it. Almost every scene had the stamp and freshness of nature. The excellences and defects of his performance were in general the same as those which he discovered in Shylock ; though as the character of Richard is the most difficult, so we think he displayed most power in it. It is possible to form a higher conception of this character (we do not mean from seeing other actors, but from reading Shakespeare) than that given by this very admirable tragedian23 ;

21Hazlitt insists on the fact that Kean did not in any way endeavour to imitate successful experiences from the past ; his interpretation of the character was completely different from the current interpretation of Richard that was praised by his contemporaries. Though he did note that Kean’s performance was not without « defects » yet Hazlitt greatly appreciated this new, highly challenging rendering of the part and paid tribute to the actor’s talent. In his second review, dated February 21st 1814, Hazlitt testified that the approval was general from an enthusiastic audience for a new‑born star playing to a full house : « The house was crowded at an early hour in every part, to witness Mr.  Kean’s second representation of Richard. His admirable acting received that meed of applause, which it so well deserved24. »

22Kean had been playing in London for less than a month, and had already managed to attract vast numbers of theatre‑goers who, according to Hazlitt’s most useful comment, took care to arrive « at an early hour ». Indeed, at the beginning of the 19th century theatre tickets sold at half price when the performance was half finished, and thus a good number of theatre‑goers attended only the second half of a performance. With this detail, that can pass unnoticed now that we have different habits, Hazlitt suggested that, thanks to his own positive accounts in particular, expectations were running very high and theatre‑goers were ready to pay full price to attend the whole performance. In view of the custom of this age this was a sure sign of success. Hazlitt’s unconditional admiration for the interpretation and the ability of the actor must have played a significant part in this success, and even if did point out a few defects of in Kean’s acting style, these comments can only be interpreted as an objective remark on the part of the reviewer for a very young, upcoming performer.

23With overnight success in the two consecutive Shakespearean parts of Shylock and Richard III, Kean’s reputation as a tragedian was so well established on the London stage that audiences and reviewers alike expected him to perform other Shakespearean titles‑roles.


24Kean’s debut on the London stage as Shylock on January 26th 1814, which was scantily advertised and only attended by a limited, if select, audience, had a considerable impact on his career. Some critics, such as Hazlitt in his stage review of Kean, state that Kean was declared as being the new Garrick of his age from the very start of his appointment in London. As I have argued, close evidence shows that this was not really the case. It seems that, as often as not, Hazlitt’s two reviews in The Morning Chronicle might well have been compacted together. His positive reviews, one coming right after the other, certainly contributed to creating the Kean « legend », and considering his influence as the most influential theatre reviewer of his time.

25We can only look at other theatre reviews that mention Kean’s performance in Richard III. The article from The Caledonian Mercury, from Edinburgh, published towards the end of February 1814, acknowledged Kean’s fame and quoted anonymously from Hazlitt’s second Morning Chronicle review, thus proving that Hazlitt was a cornerstone in the construction of this myth :

A young gentleman of the name Kean made his first appearance in the metropolis last week in the character of Shylock, in the delineation of which he received the most distinguished applause. He appeared again on Saturday evening, in the arduous character of Richard III. « His performance of which (says The Morning Chronicle) was the most perfect of any that has been witnessed since the days of Garrick ». His deadly conflict with Richmond was managed with superior skill, and displayed such transcendent excellence, that electricity was never more instantaneous in its operation. Every box resounded with bravo ! The pit rose with one accord, and with waved hats gave repeated cheers. He is in all probability destined to shine in his profession. Mr Kean lately belonged to the Exeter and other theatre in the West of England ; and was invited to London by Mr Arnold [one of the board members of Drury Lane], who met with him at Dorchester. He is about 24 years of age25.

26In his later reviews of Kean’s performances Hazlitt repeatedly referred to this famous debut night at Drury Lane, attended only by a few and which was to become an unforgettable « myth ». Indeed, Kean benefited greatly from Hazlitt’s initial opinion. Without such an influential record, however splendid the actor’s performance might have been, such mythmaking could not possibly have taken place. Kean certainly renewed the interpretation of Shakespeare on stage in his time, but one wonders whether his success could have been so spectacular had he not had an influential critic in the house on his first, rather confidential, night in London.


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1  Gazetter or New Daily Advertiser, 17 October 1788, p. 4.

2  Public Advertiser, 5 November 1787, p. 3.

3  Public Advertiser, op. cit. p. 3, and Gazetteer, op. cit., p. 4. Michael Dobson, « John Philip Kemble » in Peter Holland (ed.), Great Shakespeareans, vol. 2, London and New York, Continuum, 2010, p. 56.

4  William Hazlitt, « Macbeth », in A View of the English Stage, The Complete works of William Hazlitt in Twenty‑One Volumes, P.P. Howe (ed.), vol. 5, Tokyo, Yushodo Bookseller, 1967, p. 189.

5  Julian Charles Young, Memoirs of Charles Mayne Young, 1840, p. 40‑41, in Stanley Wells (ed.), Shakespeare in the Theatre  ̶ An Anthology of Criticism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 33.

6  Walter Scott, The Quarterly Review, 34 (June 1826), p. 218, in Stanley Wells (ed.), Shakespeare in the Theatre – An Anthology of Criticism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 33.

7  Michael Dobson, op. cit., p. 57‑8.

8  Walter Scott in Stanley Wells, op. cit., p34.

9  John Philip Kemble, Macbeth, and King Richard The Third : An Essay in Answer to Remarks on Some of The Characters of Shakespeare, 1786, Eighteenth Century Collection Online.

10  Peter Thomson, « Edmund Kean », in Peter Holland (ed.), Great Shakespeareans, vol. 2, London and New York, Continuum, 2010, p. 139‑140.

11  Ibid., p. 140‑141.

12  Ibid., p. 143.

13  The Morning Chronicle, 28 January 1814, p. 3.

14  Richard Findlater, Six Great Actors, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1957, p. 74.

15  William Hazlitt, op. cit., p. 175.

16  Ibid., p. 179.

17  Ibid., p. 180.

18  Ibid., p. 180.

19  The Times, 22 January 1814, p. 3.

20  The Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, 3 February 1814, p. 4.

21  Peter Thomson, op.cit., p. 156‑158.

22  Indeed, The Morning Post published its first review of Kean on February 16th, according to the 19th‑century newspaper database in the British Library.

23  William Hazlitt, op. cit., p. 180.

24  Ibid., p183

25  The Caledonian Mercury, 28 February 1814, p. 2.

Pour citer ce document

Par Kyoko Matsuyama, «Edmund Kean’s Debut Performance in London, 1814», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°9 - 2015, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=838.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Kyoko Matsuyama

Kyoko Matsuyama is a full‑time lecturer at Komazawa Women’s University in Japan. Her research centres on English Renaissance drama performed by 18th and 19th century actors, John Philip Kemble and Edmund Kean ; she also takes part in a programme analysis on contemporary Shakespeare productions, mainly in London and Tokyo. Her publications include « Edmund Kean’s Merchant of Venice and Richard the Third – Criticism of Kean after 1814 and audience’s Reception » in Global COE Bulletin Theatre and F ...