Refusing Resonance: On the Whiteness of Edmund Kean

Thursday, January 14, 2021


In some ways it is harder for me to imagine a timely review of Edmund Kean’s Othello than an untimely one. This is not only because Kean reprised the role off and on from 1814 to 1833, for almost the full duration of his Drury Lane career. Nor is it only because many nineteenth-century spectators made a practice of seeing the same production multiple times. (William Hazlitt and Henry Crabb Robinson, for example, both wrote about the experience of watching Kean play the same role on successive nights.) It is also because of the way Kean’s Othello entered cultural memory as an event already marked by a sense of inconstancy and incompletion. Literally, of course, Kean did not complete it. In an act that quickly became the stuff of stage legend, he collapsed in the middle of a performance of Othello shortly before his death. And even before that most terminal disappearance, it was Othello that seems to have inspired the most famous description of Kean’s acting as a kind of irregular ephemera. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was thinking of Othello, the story goes, when he said that to watch Kean act “was to read Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”[i]

But to link Kean with a force known proverbially for never striking the same place twice is to obscure how crucial acts of repetition and reenactment are to the white spectators who helped shape the racial meaning of his performances. For one thing, “flashes of lightning” is itself a recitation. While Coleridge did commit many of his observations about Shakespeare and romantic acting to paper, or deliver them in lectures, this quotation appears in a volume called Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, produced by the poet’s nephew. And as Tracy C. Davis notes, many subsequent theater histories recite the “flashes of lightning” without its accompanying context – a context that makes Coleridge’s response seem decidedly more ambiguous:[ii]

Kean is original; but he copies from himself. His rapid descents from the hyper-tragic to the infra-colloquial, though sometimes productive of great effect, are often unreasonable. To see him act, is like reading Shakspeare by flashes of lightning.[iii] I do not think him thorough-bred gentleman enough to play Othello.[iv]

In this fuller passage, Coleridge imagines Kean as both original and copy. In a paradox familiar to performance scholars, Coleridge renders him as “both reiteration of precedent and the performance of something occurring ‘again for the first time.’”[v] The time signature, too, is less distinct. While the infinitive construction of the most-quoted line (“to see him act, is”) sounds on its own like a historical constant, the qualifiers that appear here (“sometimes” and “often”) make the tense of the “to be” verbs sound less comprehensive. It is unclear whether the two instances of “is” indicate present-tense statements (Kean is like this now), progressive claims (Kean is continually like this), or both.

And what to make of the final line, which turns from what has often been described as Kean’s famed mercuriality to a consideration of the thoroughness of his breeding? Davis suggests one way of connecting the two thoughts, as she uncovers a possible double entendre linking “flashes of lightning” to derision for drunkenness.[vi]

I am interested in another possibility, which is to consider why restaging Kean’s fleeting appearance might be an effective strategy for reinforcing a distinction within whiteness: between, on the one hand, a pure racial ideal that might have been considered “thorough-bred” and, on the other, a less stable whiteness that I am calling “resonant.” In contrast to the fantasy of impossible white purity described by scholars like Jennifer DeVere Brody, resonant whiteness is enhanced by proximity to racial otherness.[vii] It relies on the operations of memory, but not as a sustained force or a coherent origin narrative; rather it is amplified through echoes or flashes, in which spectators reenact a past while seeming to mark its disappearance.[viii] And in the case of Kean’s Othello, the tendency of resonant whiteness to secure a history of white supremacy in acts of impersonation and imitation does not make it appear less violent than other white racial fantasies.

Kean became a candidate for sustaining white resonance in part due to the frequency with which he sought out non-white roles. Joyce Green MacDonald, Ambereen Dadabhoy, and Edward Ziter have demonstrated how the popularity of Kean’s “tawny face” Othello – so-called for its turn to a lighter shade of make-up and to a costume styled after British images of North rather than sub-Saharan Africa – derived in part from its tendency to confirm the anti-Black sentiments of writers like Coleridge, who argued Shakespeare could not have meant to make Othello “a veritable negro.”[ix] Nor was this the only time Kean embraced Orientalist stage effects. By Ziter’s count, eleven of the fifty-seven roles Kean performed at Drury Lane were “exoticized” figures.[x] Acts of racial impersonation, in other words, were not incidental to Kean’s reputation for “mercuriality.” And the spectators who helped shape the meaning of such racialized inconstancy participated in a project of nineteenth-century ethnology that, as scholars like Alisha Walters have pointed out, was invested in distinctions within whiteness as well as without.[xi] When resonant whiteness recurs in spectator accounts, it often functions precisely as a tactic for diverting attention to these internal acts of differentiation.

This strategy becomes even clearer when I look at the way accounts of Kean’s Othello get recited and reenacted by later audiences. Take, for example, the stories told by one of the Victorian critics credited with securing Kean’s reputation, George Henry Lewes. In a series of pieces printed in periodicals like The Leader and the Pall Mall Gazette and eventually reprinted in a single-volume collection, On Actors and the Art of Acting, Lewes returns obsessively to Kean’s gestures and tones. The first essay in On Actors establishes the pattern, as it offers a script for viewing present performances by reviewing the past:

Although I was a little boy when I first saw Kean, in 1825, and but a youth when, in 1832, he quitted the stage for ever, yet so ineffaceable are the impressions his acting produced, that I feel far more at ease in speaking of his excellences and defects than I should feel in speaking of many actors seen only a dozen years ago. It will be understood that I was in no condition then to form an estimate of his qualities, and that I criticise from memory. Yet my memory of him is so vivid that I see his looks and gestures and hear his thrilling voice as if these were sensations of yesterday.[xii]

Lewes models methods for “criticizing from memory,” in which the live present of the spectator’s seeing and hearing secures one “ineffaceable” past over others more forgettable. As Lewes pivots from “I saw” to “I see” and pleats the temporality of his story, 1825 and 1832 seem closer to yesterday than a dozen years ago. Kean’s performance is not pure, but even its defects have the ability to evoke enduring images and affects.

Across the essays that follow, Lewes returns again and again to the “thrilling” vibrations of Kean’s voice as a way not only of describing resonance but enacting it. These echoes get especially pronounced in Lewes’s essay about foreign actors, in which he pits the memory of Kean’s Othello against that of the Anglo-French actor Charles Fechter:

Kean’s tones, “O my fair warrior!” are still ringing in my ears, though a quarter of a century must have elapsed since I heard them; but I cannot recall Fechter’s tones, heard only the other night...To think of what Edmund Kean was in this act! When shall we see again that lion-like power and lion-like grace—that dreadful culmination of wrath, alternating with bursts of agony — that Oriental and yet most natural gesture, which even in its naturalness preserved a grand ideal propriety (for example, when his joined uplifted hands, the palms being upwards, were lowered upon his head, as if to keep his poor brain from bursting)—that exquisitely touching pathos, and that lurid flame of vengeance flashing from his eye? When shall we hear again those tones: “Not a jot, not a jot” — “Blood, Iago, blood” — “But oh, the pity of it, Iago! the pity of it”?[xiii]

Lewes echoes his earlier claim that he can “hear [Kean’s] thrilling voice as if these were sensations of yesterday” with the claim that “Kean’s tones…are still ringing in [his] ears,” as this essay restages a vanished but pivotal scene of performance, reproducing the tones, gestures, and spoken lines of Kean’s Othello even while lamenting their apparent loss.

To make Kean’s voice resonate in this way, Lewes muffles other sounds: not only Fechter’s, but also the non-white characters and actors whose absence from these narratives is disguised by laments for the loss of Kean. It was the Black American actor Ira Aldridge who was Kean’s literal successor in the role of Othello: an actor who, as Kim F. Hall has demonstrated, participates in a long history of Black transformations of Shakespeare.[xiv] Yet, despite having seen Aldridge perform scenes from Othello at Worthing’s Theatre Royal in 1855, Lewes effectively turns the performance history of the play into a competition among white men, whose only rivals in the embodiment of “Oriental and yet most natural” gestures are fellow white appropriators.[xv] Kean’s appearance as a series of flashes and echoes is more helpful for sustaining this note than a purer tone would be, precisely because it allows Lewes to substitute white disappearance for deeper forms of erasure. Or, to put it more properly, the reenactment of Kean’s appearance is more helpful to this project. Because the incantatory questions (“When shall we see again?” and “When shall we hear again?”) function not only as rhetorical markers of embodied disappearance but also as cues for a reading practice aimed at selective accrual. Lewes’s readers, after all, had the option of returning to and rereading previous essays that represented Kean’s performance as a way of “seeing again” and “hearing again” the gestures and tones Lewes makes resonate.

As Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy Wong argue in their call to “undiscipline Victorian Studies,” it is crucial to name the operations that sustain “the fantasy of an unmarked universality” in Victorian culture as well as in Victorian cultural studies.[xvi] Crafting narratives about which performances do and do not resonate is one such operation. Its effects on performance history can be longstanding, as dramatic critic Desmond MacCarthy illustrates in his essay on the Victorian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree: “We believe in the dignity of Kemble’s declamation, in the power of Macready’s pathos, in the thrilling fury of the elder Kean and the marvel of his voice, because critics like Hazlitt and Lewes have described them.”[xvii] As one of Kean’s white spectators, I want not only to mark the acts of racialization that might pass for mere “description,” but also to put pressure on the audience that MacCarthy’s “we,” like Lewes’s, attempts to convene. If re-viewing has functioned as a way to naturalize the “we” who are called to echo whiteness, the untimely review might offer a chance to disrupt its presumed unity.


[i] Henry Nelson Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2d ed. (London: John Murray, 1836), 13.

[ii] On the legacy of quoting Kean (and its evidentiary problems), see especially Tracy C. Davis, “‘Reading Shakespeare by Flashes of Lightning’: Challenging the Foundations of Romantic Acting Theory,” ELH 62.4 (1995): 933-54.

[iii] “Shakspeare” was a common spelling of the author’s name in the nineteenth century.

[iv] Henry Nelson Coleridge, Table Talk, 13.

[v] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London: Routledge, 2011), 90.

[vi] Davis, “‘Reading Shakespeare by Flashes of Lightning,’” offers this possible interpretation of the line: “namely, that by 1823 Kean's performances were about as illuminating as reading the Bard's immortal poetry when in a state of growing drunkenness,” 941.

[vii] Jennifer DeVere Brody, Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity and Victorian Culture (Duke University Press, 1998).

[viii] In working out the temporality of white resonance, I am thinking with Brigitte Fielder’s theorization of race as “relative”: constructed in relationships between bodies and produced through kinship ties. Insofar as race is contradictory, Fielder argues, race’s temporalities are often illogical, and “[a]s race is constructed, it must be continually reconstructed, remade and rearticulated” Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 7-8.

[ix] Citation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1908), 385-86. See Joyce Green MacDonald, “Acting Black: ‘Othello,’ ‘Othello’ Burlesques, and the Performance of Blackness,” Theatre Journal 46.2 (May, 1994): 231- 249, Ambereen Dadabhoy, “Othello Was a Lie”: Blackness Beyond Shakespeare’s Othello” (in progress), and Edward Ziter, The Orient on the Victorian Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). On this subject and far beyond, I am indebted to conversations with Dadabhoy, her work in premodern critical race studies, and to her leadership of the #ShakeRace reading group in 2020.

[x] “In addition to Zanga and Othello, Kean performed the Turkish Bajazet in Rowe’s Tamerlane; the African prince Oroonoko in the play by Southerne; the Arab prince, Achmet, in John Brown’s Barbarossa; the half-Turk, half-Greek Selim in The Bride of Abydos, which was adapted for Kean from Byron’s poem; the Amerindian Omreah, in Twiss’s The Carib Chief; the Inca leader, Rolla, in Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizzaro; and the disastrous title role in T.C. Grattan’s Ben Nazir the Saracen. When one takes into account that some contemporary reviewers and later biographers commented on the ‘Eastern’ or ‘Oriental’ nature of Kean’s Shylock, and Barabas from Jew of Malta (a play that had failed out of the repertory until Kean’s performance), the number of Kean’s racialized characters rises to eleven out of fifty-seven roles performed since his Drury Lane debut,” Ziter, The Orient on the Victorian Stage, 58-59.

[xi] Alisha Walters, “A ‘White Boy…Who Is Not a White Boy’: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Whiteness, and British Identity,” Victorian Literature and Culture 46.2 (2018): 331-346. See also Robert J. C. Young, The Idea of English Ethnicity (Malden: Blackwell, 2008).

[xii] George Henry Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1880), 15.

[xiii] Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting, 132-34.

[xiv] Kim F. Hall, “On Race and Genealogy: Shakespeare and the Transatlantic Struggle for Black Freedom,” keynote address, Shakespeare and Race Festival, Globe Theatre, August 2018.

[xv] For more on the critical responses to Aldridge from Lewes and George Eliot, see Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge: The Last Years, 1855-1867 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015), 15-16.

[xvi] Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong, “Undisciplining Victorian Studies,” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 10, 2020, See also the special issue of Victorian Studies 62.3 (Spring 2020), edited by Chatterjee, Christoff, and Wong.

[xvii] Desmond MacCarthy, “From the Stalls,” in Herbert Beerbohm Tree: Some Memories of Him and His Art, edited by Max Beerbohm (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1920), 220.