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MY ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE LATE EDMUND KEAN.
BY T. C. GRATTAN, ESQ.
. It is full twenty years since I first met with Kean, and just six since I last saw him. During the interval þetween the two periods I had some opportunities of knowing this highly-gifted individual, with respect to whom the laws which regulate mortality seemed in some measure re. versed-Nature having made him a great actor, and art having transformed him into a remarkable man. In Kean's professional displays there was no evidence of study; in his personal conduct all appeared to result from it alone. The laborious efforts which usually form the artist were unknown and unnecessary to him ; or rather he resorted to them only in order to warp his character from its original bent. Impulse was the spring of his greatness on the stage-straining for effect the cause of the littleness and lowness of his social career.
In tracing ever so brief and faint a record of such a being as Kean, it is impossible to be entirely insensible to some dramatic and moral
visitings.” But I shall let them pass. I am neither the critic nór the biographer of Kean. I presume to claim no competence for either office: and I can only hope--at a moment when his memory shines full on the public mind-to give a few sketches which this strong light may bring out into relief. Anecdotes of distinguished authors are interesting, as illustrations of works which never die. But reminiscences of great actors are due to the public, from whom their perishable talents are withdrawn for ever; and doubly due to the individual, who leaves behind but doubtful records of his fame. I shall depict Kean in the various aspect of merit and fault which I observed during our snatches of acquaintanceship. If I did not think that the former predominated, my pen should leave both untouched. : I cannot recall exactly the year in which I happened to be stationed in the barracks of Waterford, in the south of Ireland, at that time the head-quarters of the regiment in which I was a subaltern. The dates and data of those days have almost all slipped, sand-like, from one end of Time's glass; and it is hard to separate and arrange them as they lie confounded in the other. How difficult is it even to remember distinctly what were the pains and what the pleasures of youth! The very mixture of both, and the confusion in which they blended together, were perhaps the causes of their acuteness at the time, as it is of their vagueness now. But there is a certain pursuit-one of the minor enjoyments of life--which has, for me, always preserved its attraction intact; I mean the exercise of fencing. It was my attachment to it that led to my personal knowledge of Kean.
In the days I speak of, and long after, I never lost an opportunity of encountering amateurs and professors of “ the noble science of defence." I frequently took up the foils with a little lieutenant of a troop of artillery which formed part of the Waterford garrison; and few days passed without our measuring blades together.
I was one evening walking with this brother idler on the public promenade called “the Mall;" and, passing bythe theatre, which had been within a day or two occupied by a strolling company, we looked at the play-bill, and found that the performances for that evening consisted of " Hamlet,” - the principal character not left out by particular desire, ---and some farce, the name and nature of which I forget. We voted the first four acts of the tragedy“ a bore ;?' but agreed to go in for half an hour, at the commencement of the celebrated fencing-scene between Hamlet and Laertes, just to see what sort of affair the strollers would make of it.
In due time, the door-keeper, to whom we expressed our intention, and who was alive to the importance of two box-ticket-takers, came to seek us in a neighbouring billiard-room. ' He announced the opening of the fifth act of the play, and we arrived in time to take possession of a very empty stage-box, and hear Osrick's invitation to Hamlet lisped out, with the usual vulgar caricature of court foppery regularly. exhibited by theatre-royal comedians, as well as by our Waterford candle-snuffer. When the fencing-bout was actually commencing, and we were reasonably amused by the clumsiness of this same Osrick, who handled the foils as a farmer would a hop-pole, we turned our attention to the chief actors in the scene, who soon stood in position, and prepared for the assault. - The young man who played Laertes was extremely handsome and very tall; and a pair of high-heeled boots added so much to his natural stature, that the little, pale, thin man who represented Hamlet appeared a mere pigmy beside him. Laertes commenced, after slurring “ for better for worse” through the usual salute, to push carte and tierce, which might, as far as the scientific use of the small sword was concerned, have been as correctly termed cart and horse.
My companion, who had by no means a poor opinion of his own skill, and who was rather unmerciful towards the awkwardness of others, laughed outright, and in a manner sufficient to disconcert even an adroit performer. He proposed to me to leave the place, calling out theatrically, “ Hold! enough!”-and I might have agreed, had I. not thought I perceived in the Hamlet a quiet gracefulness of manner, while he parried the cut-and-thrust attacks of his adversary, as well as a quick glance of haughty resentment at the uncivil laugh by which they were noticed. When he began to return the lounges, secundum artem, we were quite taken by surprise, to see the carriage and action of a practised swordsman; and as he went through the whole performance, we were satisfied that we had, in the phrase of Osrick aforesaid, made for you to temat 01 -1 * “ A hit-a very palpable hit." TO. - *- 539*
We immediately inquired of the woman who filled the nearly sinecure place of money-taker, as to the gentleman whose "excellence for his weapon” had so pleasantly surprised us. She told us that his name was Kean, that he was an actor of first-rate talent, chief tragic hero (for they were all honourable men) of the company; and also the principal singer, stage-manager, and getter-up of pantomimes, and one of the best Harlequins in Wales or the west of England. Coming closer to the point of our anxiety, she let us know that Mr. Kean gave lessons in fencing, and also in boxing—that he was married to a Waterford lady, supporting himself, his wife, and child, and carefully filling all the parts herein detailed, for a salary of a guinea and a half a weck.. pregati
Such, at the period I mention, was the situation of the great tragedian
who was soon to produce a sensation in London, unparalleled since Garrick electrified the town on the boards of Goodman's Fields. Kean was. at this time attached to the Swansea Company, which regularly crossed the Channel to perform in Waterford for two or three months each year. It was under the management of old Cherry, author of “ The Soldier's Daughter," who, on the night I first saw Kean, played Polonius to his Hamlet; while one of the minor parts (Rosencrantz or Guildenstern) was filled by James Sheridan Knowles, the now celebrated dramatist. I remember Mr. Knowles at that time publishing a little volume of poems. by subscription, and my adding my name to the list of five-shilling patrons to this attempt, which contained some very pretty things, and one rather long piece called “ The Smuggler," which was extremely spirited. But had Shakspeare himself published in our days, in the character of a poor player, and by subscription, I doubt if his best play would have produced him salt to his porridge. : My companion and myself sought out Kean without loss of time; and wê soon arranged with him hours for fencing-matches at our respective barrack-rooms. But though we managed that he should not quite lose his labour, his visits were not made in the capacity of master, for we were either of us quite a match for him.
--Nothing could exceed Kean's good conduct and unpresuming manners during some weeks that I knew him in this way. Several of the officers of the garrison met him with us on these occasions, and a strong interest was excited for him. He owed to this cause, I believe, rather than to any just appreciation of his professional merit, a good benefit, and some private kindnesses. But when I look back to that period, in which his talent was certainly as matured as in two or three years later, I cannot bring myself to believe that he played so well then as when he filled me with such delight on the boards of old Drury. A man of his vigorous genius required excitement to bring it into full play. His bold conceptions and original style must have wanted, even to himself, some stronger test than his own judgment, displayed as they were in the confined sphere of little country theatres. And all that has since been received with such enthusiasm must then have been considered at the best as doubtful and obscure. Kean was decidedly considered far superior to his immediate associates, or to strolling players generally, in the common acceptation of the term. But he might have gone on, perhaps, to the present time, as the hero of such companies as old Cherry's, had not one chance critic, Dr. Drury, of Harrow, possessed discrimination enough to feel his merit, and influence sufficient to bring it into notice. • The last thing I recollect of Kean in Waterford was the performance for his benefit. The play was Hannah More's tragedy of « Percy,” in which he, of course, played the hero. Elwina was played by Mrs. Kean, of her first (and I am pretty sure her last) appearance on any stage." Nothing could be more médiocre than her performance; yet she was. applauded to her heart's content. Kean was so popular, both as an actor and from the excellent character he bore, that the audience thought less of the actress's demerits than of the husband's feelings. And besides this, the debutante had many personal friends in her native city, and among the gentry of the neighbourhood, for she had been governess to the children of a lady of large fortune, who used all her influence at this benefit. After the tragedy, Kean gave' à specimen of tight-rope dang
ing, and another of sparring, with a professional pugilist. He then played the leading part in a musical interlude; and finished with Chimpanzee, or some such name, the monkey in the melodramatic pantomime of " La Perouse;" and in this character he showed agility scarcely surpassed by Mazurier or Gouffe, and touches of deep tragedy in the monkey's death-scene, which made the whole audience shed tears.
A few years afterwards I happened to be in London; and Kean was then in the very height of his reputation, for he was firmly established, having triumphed over the envious, or conscientious, opposition of the Kemble school, and stood his ground against the more perilous risk of public caprice. I had heard of his great success in the capital, and had followed the accounts of his various performances with much interest. I was curious also to form a judgment of the man's real character, in this intoxicating state of triumph and celebrity. I therefore determined to call on him, and repaired one morning to his house, in Clarges Street, Piccadilly. I had no sooner sent up my card than the servant came quickly down stairs again to the parlour, requesting I would walk up to the drawing-room; and before I could reach the stairs, Kean himself had sprung half way down them, to greet me with the most cordial welcome. Had he received the visit of a powerful patron or generous bene. factor, he could not, or at least need not, have shown more gratitude than he evinced at the recollection of my slight services, in passing some tickets for his Chimpanzee benefit, so long before. :- I consider this trait in Kean's conduct a fair test of his character. It was thoroughly disinterested ; and was not a mere burst of good feeling, nor a display of ostentation for these would have been sufficiently satisfied with a momentary expression. But his whole behaviour, during a couple of months that I remained in London at that time, the spring of 1816, was a continuance of friendly attentions. I dined with him frequently, and met at his house much good company. Persons of very high respectability, and many of them of rank, were among his constant guests. His dinners were excellent, but his style of home living did not appear extravagant; and the evening parties were extremely pleasant, with a great deal of good music.
Kean himself sang very agreeably, though without science. But he was an excellent mimic, not only in burlesque imitation of such vocalists as Incledon, Michael Kelly, and others, but of a good style of singing, apart from individual peculiarities. I do not recollect to have met with any man professionally literary on these occasions. Miss Plumtree, the translator of some of Kotzebue's plays, and of a Tour in Ireland, of which Kean was the main subject, was of all these parties, and seemed almost domiciliated in the family. Nothing could be more friendly or hospitable than the conduct of the worthy hostess, whom I had never formerly seen but in her solitary exhibition at Waterford. She was, in her own house, and surrounded by every thing that might dazzle the mind's eye, and dizzy the brain of almost any one, a fair specimen of natural cha. racter. Her head was evidently turned by all her husband's fame and her own finery; and their combined consequences were visibly portrayed in her looks, and bodied forth with exquisite naïveté. But there was withal a shrewdness, an off handedness, and tact quite Irish; and, what was still more so, a warm-hearted and overflowing recognizance of eyer so trivial a kindness, or tribute of admiration, offered to “ Edmund"
before he became “a great man.” I was consequently a favourite with her; and I retain a strong recollection of her kindness.
During this period of frequent intercourse I often went to the theatre with Kean, and was introduced by him to the green-room, and to several of the principal actors. But I do not remember to have ever seen more than one or two of them at his house; and I was only once in his company at a tavern, and that by accident, though I knew he was in the constant habit of repairing to some one or other to pass the night, after a most pleasant party at home had broken up, or he had retired from an overflowing theatre, panting with the still felt excitement of his splendid acting. On the occasion to which I allude, I had invited him to dine with me, at the Sablonière Hotel, in Leicester-square. I promised him a snug dinner and a quiet party; and I accordingly had but two others to meet him: one an old Etonian of Kean's own standing, afterwards a clergyman, whose poetical talents were beginning to be well-known; the other, a gentleman, a friend of the latter, who had considerable powers of imitation, and, among other specimens, was fond of giving some of Kean himself.
He was very punctual to the hour, six o'clock if I rightly remember. His carriage drove up to the door, and he stepped out of it, in full dress, a silk-lined coat, white breeches, buckles in his shoes, &c. He apologized for coming in so flashy a style to a simple bachelor's dinner, saying, that he must leave me as early as nine to attend a party where he was particularly expected. When that hour arrived we none of us thought of breaking up. The dinner had gone off well; and some excellent wine marvellously aided in keeping up the sociability of the evening. The valuable horses were kept waiting somewhat unmercifully, and messenger after messenger came in search of my unpunctual guest only to be treated with the same neglect as their predecessors. At length, as the clock struck midnight, Kean said it was impossible for him “ to break his engagement;” and he proposed that my friends and I should accompany him. We were all four very much under the influence of each other's example; and no objection was made by the invited to a proposition which was scarcely comprehended.
We all squeezed as well as we could into Kean's chariot, which waited at the door, and away we went, not knowing or caring in what direction. After a short time, and a furious drive, the carriage stopped at the head of a very narrow passage. We got out without any order of precedence, and followed our leader, with considerable assistance from the walls of the pássage, against which we
« Went knicketty knock,
Like pebbles in Carisbrook Well." We arrived at an open door, evidently that of a tavern or hotel from the bustling welcome awarded to Roscius and to us, who followed him, by the self-announcing landlord, and half a score of waiters, women, and attendant gazers, who all struggled for a look at “ the great man.” He staggered rapidly up stairs, and we three after him; and he, to the apparent horror of several of the waiters and others, dashed at once at the large folding doors of the first-floor apartment, and in we all rushed into a room where there were assembled full sixty persons at a long supper table. A shout of applause hailed Kean as he entered; but when we popped in after him, a loud murmur of disapprobation was