Home  »  The Oxford Book of American Essays  »  VII Kean’s Acting

Matthews, Brander, ed. (1852–1929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.

Richard Henry Dana (1787–1879)

VII Kean’s Acting

  • “For, doubtless, that indeed according to art is most eloquent, which turns and approaches nearest to nature, from whence it came.”
  • —MILTON.
  • “Professed diversions! cannot these escape?
  • We ransack tombs for pastime; from the dust
  • Call up the sleeping hero; bid him tread
  • The scene for our amusement: How like Gods
  • We sit; and, wrapt in immortality,
  • Shed generous tears on wretches born to die;
  • Their fate deploring, to forget our own!”
  • —YOUNG.

  • I HAD scarcely thought of the theater for some years, when Kean arrived in this country; and it was more from curiosity than from any other motive, that I went to see, for the first time, the great actor of the age. I was soon lost to the recollection of being in a theater, or looking upon a great display of the “mimic art.” The simplicity, earnestness, and sincerity of his acting made me forgetful of the fiction, and bore me away with the power of reality and truth. If this be acting, said I, as I returned home, I may as well make the theater my school, and henceforward study nature at second hand.

    How can I describe one who is almost as full of beauties as nature itself,—who grows upon us the more we become acquainted with him, and makes us sensible that the first time we saw him in any part, however much he may have moved us, we had but a partial apprehension of the many excellences of his acting? We cease to consider it as a mere amusement. It is an intellectual feast; and he who goes to it with a disposition and capacity to relish it, will receive from it more nourishment for his mind, than he would be likely to do in many other ways in twice the time. Our faculties are opened and enlivened by it; our reflections and recollections are of an elevated kind; and the voice which is sounding in our ears, long after we have left him, creates an inward harmony which is for our good.

    Kean, in truth, stands very much in that relation to other players whom we have seen, that Shakespeare does to other dramatists. One player is called classical; another makes fine points here, and another there; Kean makes more fine points than all of them together; but in him these are only little prominences, showing their bright heads above a beautifully undulated surface. A continual change is going on in him, partaking of the nature of the varying scenes he is passing through, and the many thoughts and feelings which are shifting within him.

    In a clear autumnal day we may see, here and there, a massed white cloud edged with a blazing brightness against a blue sky, and now and then a dark pine swinging its top in the wind, with the melancholy sound of the sea; but who can note the shifting and untiring play of the leaves of the wood, and their passing hues, when each seems a living thing full of sensations, and happy in its rich attire? A sound, too, of universal harmony is in our ears, and a wide-spread beauty before our eyes, which we cannot define; yet a joy is in our hearts. Our delight increases in these, day after day, the longer we give ourselves to them, till at last we become, as it were, a part of the existence without us. So it is with natural characters. They grow upon us imperceptibly, till we become bound up in them, we scarce know when or how. So, in its degree, it will fare with the actor who is deeply filled with nature, and is perpetually throwing off her beautiful evanescences. Instead of becoming tired of him, as we do, after a time, of others, he will go on giving something which will be new to the observing mind, and will keep the feelings alive, because their action will be natural. I have no doubt, that, excepting those who go to a play as children look into a showbox, to admire and exclaim at distorted figures, and raw, unharmonious colors, there is no man of a moderately warm temperament, and with a tolerable share of insight into human nature, who would not find his interest in Kean increasing with a study of him. It is very possible that the excitement would lessen, but there would be a quieter pleasure, instead of it, stealing upon him, as he became familiar with the character of the acting.

    Taken within his range of characters, the versatility of his playing is striking. He seems not the same being, now representing Richard, and, again, Hamlet; but the two characters alone appear before you, and as distinct individuals who had never known or heard of each other. So does he become the character he is to represent, that we have sometimes thought it a reason why he was not universally better liked here, in Richard; and that because the player did not make himself a little more visible, he must needs bear a share of our dislike of the cruel king. And this may be still more the case, as his construction of the character, whether right or wrong, creates in us an unmixed dislike of Richard, till the anguish of his mind makes him the object of pity; from which time, to the close, all allow that he plays the part better than anyone has done before him.

    In his highest-wrought passion, when the limbs and muscles are alive and quivering, and his gestures hurried and vehement, nothing appears ranted or overacted; because he makes us feel, that, with all this, there is something still within him struggling for utterance. The very breaking and harshness of his voice, in these parts, help to this impression, and make up, in a good degree, for this defect, if it be a defect here.

    Though he is on the very verge of truth in his passionate parts, he does not fall into extravagance; but runs along the dizzy edge of the roaring and beating sea, with feet as sure as we walk our parlors. We feel that he is safe, for some preternatural spirit upholds him as it hurries him onward; and while all is uptorn and tossing in the whirl of the passions, we see that there is a power and order over the whole.

    A man has feelings sometimes which can only be breathed out; there is no utterance for them in words. I had hardly written this when the terrible “Ha!” with which Kean makes Lear hail Cornwall and Regan as they enter in the fourth scene of the second act, came to my mind. That cry seemed at the time to take me up and sweep me along in its wild swell. No description in the world could give a tolerably clear notion of it;—it must be formed, as well as it may be, from what is here said of its effect.

    Kean’s playing is sometimes but the outbreaking of inarticulate sounds;—the throttled struggle of rage, and the choking of grief,—the broken laugh of extreme suffering, when the mind is ready to deliver itself over to an insane joy,—the utterance of over-full love, which cannot and would not speak in express words, and that of wildering grief, which blanks all the faculties of man.

    No other player whom I have heard has attempted these, except now and then; and should anyone have made the trial in the various ways in which Kean gives them, probably he would have failed. Kean thrills us with them, as if they were wrung from him in his agony. They have not the appearance of study or artifice. The truth is, that the labor of a mind of his genius constitutes its existence and delight. It is not like the toil of ordinary men at their task-work. What shows effort in them comes from him with the freedom and force of nature.

    Some object to the frequent use of such sounds, and to others they are quite shocking. But those who permit themselves to consider that there are really violent passions in man’s nature, and that they utter themselves a little differently from our ordinary feelings, understand and feel their language as they speak to us in Kean. Probably no actor has conceived passion with the intenseness and life that he does. It seems to enter into him and possess him, as evil spirits possessed men of old. It is curious to observe how some, who have sat very contentedly, year after year, and called the face-making, which they have seen, expression, and the stage-stride, dignity, and the noisy declamation, and all the rhodomontade of acting, energy and passion, complain that Kean is apt to be extravagant; when in truth he seems to be little more than a simple personation of the feeling or passion to be expressed at the time.

    It has been so common a saying, that Lear is the most difficult of characters to personate, that we had taken it for granted no man could play it so as to satisfy us. Perhaps it is the hardest to represent. Yet the part which has generally been supposed the most difficult, the insanity of Lear, is scarcely more so than that of the choleric old king. Inefficient rage is almost always ridiculous; and an old man, with a broken-down body and a mind falling in pieces from the violence of its uncontrolled passions, is in constant danger of exciting, along with our pity, a feeling of contempt. It is a chance matter to which we may be most moved. And this it is which makes the opening of Lear so difficult.

    We may as well notice here the objection which some make to the abrupt violence with which Kean begins in Lear. If this be a fault, it is Shakspeare, and not Kean, who is to blame; for, no doubt, he has conceived it according to his author. Perhaps, however, the mistake lies in this case, where it does in most others, with those who put themselves into the seat of judgment to pass upon great men.

    In most instances, Shakspeare has given us the gradual growth of a passion, with such little accompaniments as agree with it, and go to make up the whole man. In Lear, his object being to represent the beginning and course of insanity, he has properly enough gone but a little back of it, and introduced to us an old man of good feelings enough, but one who had lived without any true principle of conduct, and whose unruled passions had grown strong with age, and were ready, upon a disappointment, to make shipwreck of an intellect never strong. To bring this about, he begins with an abruptness rather unusual; and the old king rushes in before us, with his passions at their height, and tearing him like fiends.

    Kean gives this as soon as the fitting occasion offers itself. Had he put more of melancholy and depression and less of rage into the character, we should have been much puzzled at his so suddenly going mad. It would have required the change to have been slower; and besides, his insanity must have been of another kind. It must have been monotonous and complaining, instead of continually varying; at one time full of grief, at another playful, and then wild as the winds that roared about him, and fiery and sharp as the lightning that shot by him. The truth with which he conceived this was not finer than his execution of it. Not for a moment, in his utmost violence, did he suffer the imbecility of the old man’s anger to touch upon the ludicrous, when nothing but the justest conception and feeling of the character could have saved him from it.

    It has been said that Lear is a study for one who would make himself acquainted with the workings of an insane mind. And it is hardly less true, that the acting of Kean was an embodying of these workings. His eye, when his senses are first forsaking him, giving an inquiring look at what he saw, as if all before him was undergoing a strange and bewildering change which confused his brain,—the wandering, lost motions of his hands, which seemed feeling for something familiar to them, on which they might take hold and be assured of a safe reality,—the under monotone of his voice, as if he was questioning his own being, and what surrounded him,—the continuous, but slight, oscillating motion of the body,—all these expressed, with fearful truth, the bewildered state of a mind fast unsettling, and making vain and weak efforts to find its way back to its wonted reason. There was a childish, feeble gladness in the eye, and a half-piteous smile about the mouth at times, which one could scarce look upon without tears. As the derangement increased upon him, his eye lost its notice of objects about him, wandering over things as if he saw them not, and fastening upon the creatures of his crazed brain. The helpless and delighted fondness with which he clings to Edgar, as an insane brother, is another instance of the justness of Kean’s conceptions. Nor does he lose the air of insanity, even in the fine moralizing parts, and where he inveighs against the corruptions of the world. There is a madness even in his reason.

    The violent and immediate changes of the passions in Lear, so difficult to manage without jarring upon us, are given by Kean with a spirit and with a fitness to nature which we had hardly thought possible. These are equally well done both before and after the loss of reason. The most difficult scene, in this respect, is the last interview between Lear and his daughters, Goneril and Regan,—(and how wonderfully does Kean carry it through!)—the scene which ends with the horrid shout and cry with which he runs out mad from their presence, as if the very brain had taken fire.

    The last scene which we are allowed to have of Shakspeare’s Lear, for the simply pathetic, was played by Kean with unmatched power. We sink down helpless under the oppressive grief. It lies like a dead weight upon our hearts. We are denied even the relief of tears; and are thankful for the shudder that seizes us when he kneels to his daughter in the deploring weakness of his crazed grief.

    It is lamentable that Kean should not be allowed to show his unequaled powers in the last scene of Lear, as Shakspeare wrote it; and that this mighty work of genius should be profaned by the miserable, mawkish sort of by-play of Edgar’s and Cordelia’s loves. Nothing can surpass the impertinence of the man who made the change, but the folly of those who sanctioned it.

    When I began, I had no other intention than that of giving a few general impressions made upon me by Kean’s acting; but, falling accidentally upon his Lear, I have been led, unawares, into particulars. It is only to take these as some of the instances of his powers in Lear, and then to think of him as not inferior in his other characters, and some notion may be formed of the effect of Kean’s playing upon those who understand and like him. Neither this, nor anything I might add, would be likely to reach his great and various powers.

    If it could be said of anyone, it might be said of Kean, that he does not fall behind his author, but stands forward, the living representative of the character he has drawn. When he is not playing in Shakspeare, he fills up where his author is wanting; and when in Shakspeare, he gives not only what is set down, but whatever the situation and circumstances attendant upon the being he personates would naturally call forth. He seems, at the time, to have possessed himself of Shakspeare’s imagination, and to have given it body and form. Read any scene in Shakspeare,—for instance, the last of Lear that is played,—and see how few words are there set down, and then remember how Kean fills out with varied and multiplied expression and circumstances, and the truth of this remark will be obvious enough. There are few men, I believe, let them have studied the plays of Shakspeare ever so attentively, who can see Kean in them without confessing that he has helped them to a truer and fuller conception of the author, notwithstanding what their own labors had done for them.

    It is not easy to say in what character Kean plays best. He so fits himself to each in turn, that if the effect he produces at one time is less than at another, it is because of some inferiority in stage-effect in the character. Othello is probably the character best adapted to stage-effect, and Kean has an uninterrupted power over us in playing it. When he commands, we are awed; when his face is sensitive with love and love thrills in his soft tones, all that our imaginations had pictured to us is realized. His jealousy, his hate, his fixed purposes, are terrific and deadly; and the groans wrung from him in his grief have the pathos and anguish of Esau’s, when he stood before his old, blind father, and sent up “an exceeding bitter cry.”

    Again, in Richard, how does he hurry forward to his object, sweeping away all between him and it! The world and its affairs are nothing to him, till he gains his end. He is all life, and action, and haste,—he fills every part of the stage, and seems to do all that is done.

    I have before said that his voice is harsh and breaking in his high tones, in his rage, but that this defect is of little consequence in such places. Nor is it well suited to the more declamatory parts. This, again, is scarce worth considering; for how very little is there of mere declamation in good English plays! But it is one of the finest voices in the world for all the passions and feelings which can be uttered in the middle and lower tones. In Lear,—

  • “If you have poison for me, I will drink it.”
  • And again,—
  • “You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave.
  • Thou art a soul in bliss.”
  • Why should I cite passages? Can any man open upon the scene in which these are contained, without Kean’s piteous looks and tones being present to him? And does not the mere remembrance of them, as he reads, bring tears into his eyes? Yet, once more, in Othello,—

  • “Had it pleased Heaven
  • To try me with affliction,” &c.
  • In the passage beginning with
  • “O, now for ever
  • Farewell the tranquil mind,”—
  • there was “a mysterious confluence of sounds” passing off into infinite distance, and every thought and feeling within him seemed traveling with them.

    How graceful he is in Othello! It is not a practiced, educated grace, but the “unbought grace” of his genius, uttering itself in its beauty and grandeur in the movements of the outward man. When he says to Iago so touchingly, “Leave me, leave me, Iago,” and, turning from him, walks to the back of the stage, raising his hands, and bringing them down upon his head, with clasped fingers, and stands thus with his back to us, there is a grace and majesty in his figure which we look on with admiration.

    Talking of these things in Kean is something like reading the Beauties of Shakspeare; for he is as true in the subordinate as in the great parts. But he must be content to share with other men of genius, and think himself fortunate if one in a hundred sees his lesser beauties, and marks the truth and delicacy of his under-playing. For instance, when he has no share in the action going on, he is not busy in putting himself into attitudes to draw attention, but stands or sits in a simple posture, like one with an engaged mind. His countenance, too, is in a state of ordinary repose, with but a slight, general expression of the character of his thoughts; for this is all the face shows, when the mind is taken up in silence with its own reflections. It does not assume marked or violent expressions, as in soliloquy. When a man gives utterance to his thoughts, though alone, the charmed rest of the body is broken; he speaks in his gestures too, and the countenance is put into a sympathizing action.

    I was first struck with this in his Hamlet; for the deep and quiet interest, so marked in Hamlet, made the justness of Kean’s playing, in this respect, the more obvious. And since then, I have observed him attentively, and have found the same true acting in his other characters.

    This right conception of situation and its general effect seems to require almost as much genius as his conceptions of his characters, and, indeed, may be considered as one with them. He deserves praise for it; for there is so much of the subtilty of nature in it, if one may so speak, that while a few are able, with his help, to put themselves into the situation, and perceive the justness of his acting in it, the rest, both those who like him upon the whole, as well as those who profess to see little in him, will be apt to let it pass by without observing it.

    Like most men, however, Kean receives a partial reward, at least, for his sacrifice of the praise of the many to what he feels to be the truth. For when he passes from the state of natural repose, even into that of gentle motion and ordinary discourse, he is immediately filled with a spirit and life, which he makes everyone feel who is not armor-proof against him. This helps to the sparkling brightness and warmth of his playing, the grand secret of which, like that of colors in a picture, lies in a just contrast. We can all speculate concerning the general rules upon this; but when the man of genius gives us their results, how few are there who can trace them out with an observant eye, or look with a discerning satisfaction upon the great whole. Perhaps this very beauty in Kean has helped to an opinion, which, no doubt, is true, that he is, at times, too sharp and abrupt. I well remember, while once looking at a picture in which the shadow of a mountain fell, in strong outline, upon a part of a stream, I overheard some quite sensible people expressing their wonder that the artist should have made the water of two colors, seeing it was all one and the same thing.

    Instances of Kean’s keeping of situations were striking in the opening of the trial scene in The Iron Chest, and in Hamlet, when the father’s ghost tells the story of his death.

    The composure to which he is bent up, in the former, must be present with all who saw him. And, though from the immediate purpose, shall I pass by the startling and appalling change, when madness seized upon his brain, with the swiftness and power of a fanged monster? Wonderfully as this last part was played, we cannot well imagine how much the previous calm, and the suddenness of the unlooked-for change from it, added to the terror of the scene. The temple stood fixed on its foundations; the earthquake shook it, and it was a heap. Is this one of Kean’s violent contrasts?

    While Kean listened, in Hamlet, to the father’s story, the entire man was absorbed in deep attention, mingled with a tempered awe. His posture was simple, with a slight inclination forward. The spirit was the spirit of his father, whom he had loved and reverenced, and who was to that moment ever present in his thoughts. The first superstitious terror at meeting him had passed off. The account of his father’s appearance given him by Horatio and the watch, and his having followed him some distance, had, in a degree, familiarized him to the sight, and he stood before us in the stillness of one who was to hear, then or never, what was to be told, but without that eager reaching forward which other players give, and which would be right, perhaps, in any character but that of Hamlet, who connects the past and what is to come with the present, and mingles reflection with his immediate feelings, however deep.

    As an instance of Kean’s familiar, and, if I may be allowed to term, domestic acting, the first scene in the fourth act of his Sir Giles Overreach may be taken. His manner at meeting Lovell and through the conversation with him, the way in which he turns his chair and leans upon it, were as easy and natural as they could have been in real life, had Sir Giles been actually existing, and engaged at that moment in conversation in Lovell’s room.

    It is in these things, scarcely less than in the more prominent parts of his playing, that Kean shows himself the great actor. He must always make a deep impression; but to suppose the world at large capable of a right estimate of his different powers, would be forming a judgment against every-day proof. The gradual manner in which the character of his playing has opened upon me satisfies me, that in acting, as in everything else, however deep may be the first effect of genius upon us, we come slowly, and through study, to a perception of its minute beauties and delicate characteristics. After all, the greater part of men seldom get beyond the first general impression.

    As there must needs go a modicum of fault-finding along with commendation, it may be well to remark, that Kean plays his hands too much at times, and moves about the dress over his breast and neck too frequently in his hurried and impatient passages, and that he does not always adhere with sufficient accuracy to the received readings of Shakspeare, and that the effect would be greater, upon the whole, were he to be more sparing of sudden changes from violent voice and gesticulation to a low conversation-tone and subdued manner.

    His frequent use of these in Sir Giles Overreach is with good effect, for Sir Giles is playing his part; so, too, in Lear, for Lear’s passions are gusty and shifting; but, in the main, it is a kind of playing too marked and striking to bear so frequent repetition, and had better sometimes be spared, where, considered alone, it might be property enough used, for the sake of bringing it in at some other place with greater effect.

    It is well to speak of these defects, for though the little faults of genius, in themselves considered, but slightly affect those who can enter into its true character, yet such are made impatient at the thought, that an opportunity is given those to carp who know not how to commend.

    Though I have taken up a good deal of room, I must end without speaking of many things which occur to me. Some will be of the opinion that I have already said enough. Thinking of Kean as I do, I could not honestly have said less; for I hold it to be a low and wicked thing to keep back from merit of any kind its due,—and, with Steele, that “there is something wonderful in the narrowness of those minds which can be pleased, and be barren of bounty to those who please them.”

    Although the self-important, out of self-concern, give praise sparingly, and the mean measure theirs by their likings or dislikings of a man, and the good even are often slow to allow the talents of the faulty their due, lest they bring the evil to repute; yet it is the wiser as well as the honester course, not to disparage an excellence because it neighbors upon a fault, nor to take away from another what is his of right, with a view to our own name, nor to rest our character for discernment upon the promptings of an unkind heart. Where God has not feared to bestow great powers, we may not fear giving them their due; nor need we be parsimonious of commendation, as if there were but a certain quantity for distribution, and our liberality would be to our loss; nor should we hold it safe to detract from another’s merit, as if we could always keep the world blind, lest we live to see him whom we disparaged, praised, and whom we hated, loved.

    Whatever be his failings, give every man a full and ready commendation for that in which he excels; it will do good to our own hearts, while it cheers his. Nor will it bring our judgment into question with the discerning; for enthusiasm for what is great does not argue such an unhappy want of discrimination as that measured and cold approval, which is bestowed alike upon men of mediocrity and upon those of gifted minds.