Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kean, Charles John (1811–1868)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Charles John Kean (1811-1868), by Samuel Calvert , 1863 (after a painting by Eugene Montagu Scott)

Charles John Kean (1811-1868), by Samuel Calvert , 1863 (after a painting by Eugene Montagu Scott)

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IMP20/10/63/4

Charles John Kean (1811-1868), actor-manager, was born on 18 January 1811 in Waterford, Ireland, son of Edmund Kean (1787-1833), the celebrated tragedian, and his wife Mary, née Chambers. Never intended for the stage he was educated at Eton, but his father quickly acquired wealth, fell into dissolute habits, became penniless and deserted his wife. Charles left school to support his mother. After a humiliating début on 10 October 1827 at Drury Lane, London, he worked in the provinces, Holland, Germany and America, acquiring repute as a meticulous actor, though performing in the shadow of his father's fame.

In January 1838 Charles played Hamlet at Covent Garden and his public success was assured. On 29 January 1842 in Dublin he married Ellen Tree (1805-1880), then one of the most gifted and popular English actresses. Their married life was unmarred by scandal and their respectability was confirmed in 1848 when Queen Victoria made Charles director of her private theatricals at Windsor Castle, a post he held for ten years. Charles earned his place in English theatrical history through his management from 1850 of the Princess's Theatre, Oxford Street, London. He brought exacting standards of rehearsal and performance to the English stage and revolutionized lighting techniques. His Shakespearian revivals were renowned though sometimes ridiculed for attention to historical detail in costuming and scenery. In June 1857 he was proudly elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In 1859 Charles and Ellen left the Princess's Theatre, worn out and not well off, too much having been spent on mounting their productions. Lacking sufficient money for their anticipated retirement, they toured the provinces extensively and then turned to the colonies.

On 6 July 1863 Charles and Ellen with their niece Patty Chapman (1830-1912), and the actors James Cathcart and George Everett (1824-1881), sailed for Melbourne under contract to George Coppin. They opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 10 October but next day Charles lost his voice and the company took a week off. From 19 October to 20 November they performed, despite vicious opposition from Barry Sullivan at the rival Theatre Royal. On 26 November the Kean party arrived at Sydney, which they liked better than Melbourne, and where they were often entertained by Governor Sir Henry Young. They had a successful run from 2 December but on 18 January 1864 Charles became ill with a stomach complaint. His death was widely reported but he recovered and on 23 February they travelled to Ballarat and played for ten nights to enthusiastic houses. Their receipts were higher than elsewhere in the tour: miners gave gold nuggets to Mrs Kean and an old man walked over a hundred miles (161 km) to see them. Encouraged by this 'star' treatment, they returned to Melbourne and had a more successful season than before, but bailiffs seized their costumes when the Haymarket lessee fell behind with the rent. Coppin and Kean had to assume management of the theatre. In May the Keans played for two nights at Sandhurst and at Geelong and at Melbourne. On 19 May Ellen developed an abscess in her throat and they abandoned a return to Ballarat and part of a Sydney season. Charles estimated that sickness had cost them three months of the tour and Coppin complained that he had spent £145 on medical expenses. The party played their last Sydney engagement from 27 June to 4 July and the Keans gave readings at the Masonic Hall on 5-6 July. On the 9th they left for California, Ellen remarking, 'I never left any place with so little regret'.

Charles and Ellen returned to London exhausted but performed in their major roles. On 28 May 1867 Charles took ill in Liverpool and died on 22 January 1868 of a heart complaint. The Queen wrote an unusually personal note to Ellen sharing her own grief for a loved husband. Ellen retired from the stage and died on 20 August 1880, survived by her only child, Mary (1843-1898).

Although the Keans thought their colonial tour was not a success, the Australian public received them with great warmth and critics in the Argus and the Age abased themselves before the Kean image. The sober quality and meticulous performances of Charles and Ellen were new to Australian theatre lovers, who were seeing mature English performers for the first time. As in England, they helped to raise the social standing of actors and the theatre.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Jefferson, Autobiography (Lond, 1890)
  • C. J. Kean, Emigrant in Motley, J. M. Hardwick ed (Lond, 1954)
  • H. van der Poorten, Charles and Ellen Kean in Australia, 1863-64 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1965)
  • manuscript catalogue under Kean (State Library of New South Wales, and National Library of New Zealand).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Kean, Charles John (1811–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kean-charles-john-3929/text6179, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Charles John Kean (1811-1868), by Samuel Calvert , 1863 (after a painting by Eugene Montagu Scott)

Charles John Kean (1811-1868), by Samuel Calvert , 1863 (after a painting by Eugene Montagu Scott)

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IMP20/10/63/4