Page images

Père la Chaise, and the sad group of brilliant statesmen, authors, and military officers, of poor and grateful recipients of his bounty, of loyal citizens and intimate friends, that saw his remains deposited in the tomb prepared for them, between those of Foy and Manuel, evidenced the ultimate appreciation of his character, which became more eloquently manifest in the tributes which Arago and the leading public men of the day spontaneously offered to his memory.



THE great moral trait in Kean was a certain spirit, tenacity of purpose, and lofty confidence in himself, which differed widely from presumption or conceit—a kind of instinctive faith, that no force of circumstances or prescription ever quenched. This quality, more easily felt than described, seems the prerogative of genius in all departments of life, and is often the only explicable inspiration that sustains it amid discomfiture and privation. It runs, like a thread of gold, through the dark and tangled web of Kean's career; lends something of dignity to the most abject moment of his life, and redeems from absolute degradation his moments of most entire self-abandonment. Thus, when an obscure and provincial actor, performing Alexander the Great, he replied indignantly to the sarcasm of an auditor in the stage-box, who called him Alexander the Little, "Yes, sir, with a great soul!"—and exultingly told his wife, after his first great success in London, in reply to her anxious inquiry what Lord Essex thought of him, "D-n Lord Essex; the pit rose to me!" He felt that the appeal of genius was universal, and that which stirred in his blood demanded the response of humanity. This consciousness of natural gifts made him spurn the least encroachment upon his self-respect, however poverty weighed him down, and long before fame justified to the world his claims. He rushed forever away from the house of his earliest protector, because of a careless remark of one of the company that disavowed his equality with the children

of the family. Whenever an inferior part was allotted him, he fled to avoid the compromise of his feelings; and, after his triumph was achieved, poured a bowl of punch over the stage-manager's head at Drury Lane, to punish his impertinent criticisms at the first rehearsal. The same proud independence led him to avoid the social honors of rank. He liked professional and literary men because he thought they truly relished and understood his art. The restraints, the cold uniformity, and the absence of vivid interest, in the circles of the nobility, either oppressed or irritated him; and he chafed until free to give vent to his humor, passion, and convivial tastes, among boon companions.

A fine audacity, and that abhorrence of the conventional we find in hunters, poets, and artists, the instinctive self-assertion of a nature assured that its own resources are its best and only reliable means of success and enjoyment,— thus underlaid Kean's wayward and extravagant moods; and, while it essentially interfered with his popularity as a man, it was a primary cause of his triumph as an actor; for no histrionic genius more clearly owed his success to the will. In this regard he was a species of Alfieri. The style he adopted, the method he pursued, and the aim he cherished, were neither understood nor encouraged, until their own intrinsic and overwhelming superiority won both the critics and the multitude. The taste in England had been formed by Kemble and his school; dignity, correctness, grave emphasis, and highly-finished elocution, had become the standard characteristics. Kean was a bold innovator upon this system; he trusted to nature more than to art, or rather endeavored to fuse the two. Thus, while carefully giving the very shades of meaning to the words of Shakspeare, he endeavored to personify the character, not according to an eloquent ideal, but with human reality, as if the very life-blood of Othello and Lear, their temperaments as well as their experience, had been vitally transferred to his frame and brain. He seemed possessed with the character he represented; and, throwing mere technical rules to the winds, identified himself through passional sympathy, regulated by studious contemplation, with the idiosyncrasies of those whose very natures and being he aspired to embody and develop.

Kean obeyed the instinct of genius, when, in opposition to the

management at Drury Lane, arranging his débût, he exclaimed, "Shylock or nothing!" In that part there was scope for his intellectual energy, opportunity to give those magical shades of intensity, and throw into those dark, acute features the infinite power of expression for which he was distinguished. A few weeks before that memorable evening, his first-born son had died in a provincial town, and in all the agony of his bereavement he had been obliged to act, to gain money to defray the funeral expenses. Thence he had gone up to town, and, owing to a misunderstanding of the contract, for months endured the pressure of actual want, and the heart-sickness of hope deferred. The season was unpropitious; his spirits and energy were depressed by fasting, affliction, and neglect. While he was at rehearsal, his wife sold one of her few remaining articles of apparel to obtain him a dinner, fortified by which he trudged through the snow to the theatre. The series of triumphs succeeding this memorable night are well known. The overpowering reality of his personation gave Lord Byron a convulsive fit, caused an actress to faint on the stage, and an old comedian to weep, replenished the treasury of Drury Lane, electrified the United Kingdom, ushered in a new theatrical era, and crowned him with sudden prosperity and fame. His star, however, set in clouds. His last appearance in London was as melancholy as his first was brilliant. Alienated from his family, the victim of excess, proud, sensitive, and turbulent, — his domestic troubles were only reconciled just before his death, which came as a relief to himself and those with whom he was connected.

While the histrionic achievements of Kean identify his name with the progress of dramatic art, his actual life and habits pertain rather to a sphere without the limits of civilization. A wild vein belonged to his very nature, and seemed indicative of gypsy or savage blood. It gleamed sometimes from his extraordinary eyes, when acting, so as to appal, startle, and impress, every class of observers. A man once cried out in the pit at the demoniacal glare of his optics, as Shylock meditating revenge on his creditor, "It is the devil!" His poet-biographer compares him to the van-winged hero of Paradise Lost; and West, the painter, declared he had never been so haunted by the look of a human face

as by that of Kean. Something of this peculiar trait also exhibited itself in his action and tones, and made his audience thrill with the fierce energy of his soul. But while it thus subserved the purposes of art, and was, in fact, an element of his genius, it infected his private life with a reckless and half-maniacal extravagance, that was fostered by his addiction to stimulants, an unprotected infancy, and the precarious and baffled tenor of his youth and early manhood.

When we bring home to ourselves this erratic behavior, combined with extreme vicissitudes of fortune, the career of Kean, as a man, seems almost as remarkable as it was as an actor. A stage-Cupid at two years of age, a circus-rider and harlequin, then an infant prodigy reciting Rolla; his very origin disputed; now the slave of a capricious, ignorant, and selfish woman; and now the wayward protégé of a benevolent lady; arranging Mother Goose for one manager, and taking the part of a supernumerary for another; reduced to such poverty as to travel on foot, his wife trudging wearily at his side, and his boy clinging to his back; at one time swimming a river with his theatrical wardrobe in a bundle held by the teeth, and, at another, for whole days half famished, and his wife praying at her lonely vigils for a speedy release by death from hopeless suffering; today dancing attendance, for the hundredth time, at Drury Lane, to gain the ear of the director, and known among the bystanders only as "the little man with the capes;" and to-morrow the idol of the town, his dressing-room besieged by lords, — few chronicles in real life display more vivid and sudden contrasts than the life of Kean. The mercurial temper that belonged to him was liable, at any moment, to be excited by drink, sympathy, an idea, or an incident. One night it induced him to disturb the quiet household where he lodged by jumping through a glass door; another, to seize the heads of the leaders attached to his majesty's mail-coach, and attempt a wrestling-match. In Dublin, it winged his flight for hours through the dusky streets, with a mob of screaming constables at his heels. It inspired him to engage in midnight races on horseback. In more quiet manifestations, it induced him to make a pet of a lion, and a sacred relic of the finger-bone of Cook; and prompted him, to his

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »