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Edmund Kean (17 March 1789 – 15 May 1833) was an English actor, regarded in his time as the greatest ever.
His opening at Drury Lane on 26 January 1814 as Shylock roused the audience to almost uncontrollable enthusiasm. Successive appearances in Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear demonstrated his mastery of the range of tragic emotion. His triumph was so great that he himself said on one occasion, "I could not feel the stage under me." On 29 November 1820 Kean appeared for the first time in New York as Richard III. The success of his visit to America was unequivocal, although he fell into a vexatious dispute with the press. On 4 June 1821 he returned to England.
It was in the impersonation of the great creations of Shakespeare’s genius that the varied beauty and grandeur of the acting of Kean were displayed in their highest form, although probably his most powerful character was Sir Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts, the effect of his first performance of which was such that the pit rose en masse, and even the actors and actresses themselves were overcome by the terrific dramatic illusion. His main disadvantage as an actor was his small stature. Coleridge said, “Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”If the range of character in which Kean attained supreme excellence was narrow, no one except David Garrick was so successful in so many great roles. Unlike Garrick, Kean had no true talent for comedy, but in the expression of biting and saturnine wit, of grim and ghostly gaiety he was unsurpassed.
In his earlier days, Talma said of him, “He is a magnificent uncut gem; polish and round him off and he will be a perfect tragedian.” Macready, who was much impressed by Kean’s Richard III and met the actor at supper, speaks of his “unassuming manner ... partaking in some degree of shyness” and of the “touching grace” of his singing. Kean’s delivery of the three words “I answer—No!” in the part of Sir Edward Mortimer in The Iron Chest, cast Macready into an abyss of despair at rivalling him in this role. So full of dramatic interest is the life of Edmund Kean that it formed the subject for the play "Kean" by Jean-Paul Sartre as well as a play by Alexandre Dumas, père, entitled Kean, ou Désordre et génie, in which the actor Frédérick Lemaître achieved one of his greatest triumphs.
His eccentricities at the height of his fame were numerous. Sometimes he would ride recklessly on his horse, Shylock, throughout the night. He was presented with a tame lion with which he might be found playing in his drawing-room.