Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Kean

April 14th, 1814 — Saw Kean in Iago, and was less struck than I had been by his performance of Shylock, perhaps because I expected more. The absence of all ranting is in itself a great merit, which in the present state of the stage, degraded as it is, appears even greater.

The quiet colloquial tone in which Kean performs the greatest part of this character, gives an effect almost electric to those passages which he strongly (sometimes, I own, too strongly) points. His emphasis seems to me always well laid, proceeding always from a strong and often from a new view of the sense of this passage; * not like Kemble's, falling sometimes on words where it is so falsely applied that one should almost be tempted to believe that he does not give himself thhe trouble of understanding the common sense of what he is speaking. I once saw him in Lear, and heard the following passage thus accented:—
I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness,
I never gave you kingdom, called, you children.
Nothing can be more admirable than the strong expression of continual watchfulness which mark Kean's deep eye in Iago, and I think I can never forget the look of deep villany, of dire diabolical revenge, with which, in leaving the stage, he direct the eye of the miserable Othello to his murdered Desdemona.

May 27th.—I have seen Kean in Othello, and found him in that magnificent part fully equal to my highly raised expectations; the highest dramatic treat I ever experienced. One regret will intrude, the weakness of his voice, and still more the insignificance of his figure, make him a very unfit representation of the rough martial Othello. When he tells what that little arm has done; when he tells you that ' every puny whipster gets my sword'—it requires all his wonderful talent to blind one to the ridicule of such expressions applied to that form.**

In all the earlier part of the play, Kean saves himself, and you get only transient gleams of his genius. In the first act, the passage which struck me most was the burst of tenderness, displaying the whole character of Othello in these few words, ' And I loved her that she did pity them.'

The charm of Kean's Othello seems to me to lie mainly in the intense passion for Desdemona which he seems to be concealing, and which bursts forth as if involuntarily; this seems to form the excuse for Othello, to give nature to the excess of jealousy. In the fine scene in which Othello first conceives suspicion, this was peculiarly evident; and when Iago says, ' I see this hath a little dashed your spirits,' Kean electrified the house by the simple words, 'Not a jot.' The bitter look of deep hatred with which he said, 'I found not Cassio's kisses
Before such merits all objections fly, Pritchard 's genteel, and Garrick 's six feet high on her lips,' seems to prepare one for the catastrophe, and was finely contrasted with the heartfelt dark dejection with which the beautiful farewell to “the pomp and circumstance of glorious war'' was spoken.

Nothing could be finer than the speech about the handkerchief, 'and could almost read the thoughts of people'— his speaking eye seemed fully possessed of that power; or more affecting than the speech, ‘Had it pleased Heaven to try me with affliction,' excepting the last scene, the beauty of which is so fully displayed in the tender heart-broken tones of Kean. I believe it is quite an original idea, certainly one which crowns the effect and seems to give the full view of this magnificent character, when Othello, just before the last speech, after the innocence of Desdemona is established, returns to the bed, to give one last look, one kiss of reconciled love which seems to cast a gleam over his despair. Then, as if it were a thing no longer of the slightest importance, he carelessly says, 'I have done the state some service.'

When at last he stabs himself, the gradual relaxation of the limbs, and the last fall, were as fine as anything could be.

In seeing Othello performed a month ago by Pope, who stormed and mouthed and ranted the part, I felt quite enraged with the pit and galleries, who clapped him, while they rarely and coldly marked any applause of Kean in Iago, which I consider as the most perfect piece of acting I ever witnessed. I could believe only that Pope had a powerful party in the house. Little did I then imagine that in these days it was Shakespeare himself, and his Othello, which had taken possession of the audience, and made them incapable of applauding his wicked tormentor.

I felt it almost strange that those who could admire such acting did not hiss that of Kean. When he appeared in Othello, the applause was deafening, and Pope, who was less offensive to me in Iago, was received in sullen silence; which convinced me that it was the characters, and not the actors of them, who moved the multitude.
Editor’s notes
* “To see Kean act is like reading Shakspeare by flashes of lightning.” (Coleridge.)
** Before such merits all objections fly,
Pritchard’s genteel, and Garrick’s six feet high.” Churchill

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