Based on the play by Alexander Dumas
Translated from the French by Kitty Black
The Devil and the Good Lord and Two Other Plays by Jean-Paul Sartre
(New York: Vintage, 1960)
See this post for an introduction to Edmund Kean and some history on Dumas’ and Sartre’s plays.
This post looks at Alexandre Dumas' play Edmund Kean: or, The Life of an Actor, as well as some differences between the two versions of the play.
Kean: Do you believe I am paid to act? I am a priest; every evening I celebrate mass, and every week I receive the offerings of my public, that is all. (Act I, page 180)
The play begins at the Danish Embassy in London. Elena, Countess de Koefeld (the Danish Ambassador’s wife) is preparing the Embassy for a ball that evening. She confesses to Amy, Countess of Gosville, That she is in love with the actor Edmund Kean. The Prince of Wales arrives and informs the women that Kean has eloped with Anna Danby, a businessman’s daughter. Anna was a known admirer of Kean but was engaged to Lord Neville. Kean appears at the Embassy asking for help to clear Anna’s name. He gives a letter to Elena to read—on the front is a letter confirming Kean rebuffed Anna’s attempt to elope with him. The back of the letter, in Kean’s handwriting, contains an invitation for Elena to visit the actor in his dressing room.
The next night in Kean’s dressing room the actor nervously awaits Elena’s visit while Solomon, Kean’s factorum, tries to get Kean to understand they are broke. The Prince of Wales arrives and draws Kean’s intentions from the actor, confirming what he suspected (since he has seen this before from Kean). They wager whether or not Elena will appear. The Prince hears a knock at the secret entrance and leaves, assuming Kean has won the bet. It is Anna Danby telling the actor she has run away from home in order to become an actress in Kean’s troupe.
After the play Kean goes to his old haunt The Black Horse, a bar and brothel by the docks. The troupe Kean used to perform with is there but they are glum because a key member has broken his leg. Anna appears at the bar, following instructions she received in a letter she thinks is from Kean but is from her fiancé. A very drunk Kean offers to perform Othello the next evening with Anna playing Desdemona as charity for the troupe. Lord Neville comes to the bar but Kean, seeing through his intentions, embarrasses him and avoids his thugs’ attempts to murder him.
The next day Anna rehearses her part in Kean’s dressing room. Elena arrives and tells Kean she couldn’t show up the previous evening because her husband is suspicious. Kean realizes the Prince of Wales desires Elena, too. A contest of wills follows as Kean and Elena demand favors from each other. The performance falls apart and Kean harangues the prince and the audience from the stage. The next day Anna tells Kean she is leaving for America. Elena and Kean agree to part but her husband shows up demanding satisfaction. The Prince of Wales saves Kean from the count, from the court, and protects Elena from discovery. Kean is exiled for a year and he chooses to go to America and marry Anna.
Kean: What am I, if not the man you have made of me?
Kean: You and all the others. We believe that men need illusion—that one can live and die for something other than cheese. What have you done? You took a child, and you turned him into an actor—an illusion, a fantasy—that is what you have made of Kean. He is sham prince, sham minister, sham general, sham king. Apart from that, nothing. Oh, yes, a national glory. But on condition that he makes no attempt to live a real life. In an hour from now, I shall take an old whore in my arms, and all London will cry “Vivat!” But if I kiss the hands of the woman I love, I shall find myself torn in pieces. Do you understand that I want to weigh with my real weight in the world? That I have had enough of being a shadow in a magic lantern? For twenty year I have been acting a part to amuse you all. Can’t you understand that I want to live my own life? (Act II, pages 188-9, emphasis mine)
Sartre’s play was written as a favor to the French actor Pierre Brasseur so the focus is on the playful performance. As I mentioned in the earlier post on Kean, Sartre was intrigued by Kean, seeing him as an archetypical existential man, alienated from himself and everyone around him. Sartre used the play to include expressions of philosophy but don’t try to hang all of existentialism on the play—it can’t sustain it. What it does, though, is add funny and moving commentary on this alienation. Kean succeeds as an “existentialist play” because it follows a traditional format. In this case the framework was Dumas’ play, of which I will have more on in a separate post. As you can see from the synopsis it faithfully follows a Romantic comedy format. The rest of the post will look at the commentary Sartre adds.
Kean: “Are you unhappy? Are you in love?” Every woman asks the same questions. To be or not to be. I am nothing, my child. I play at being what I am. From time to time, Kean himself plays a scene for Kean. (Act II, page 195)
These musings focus on reality and illusion as well as how the two interact. There are plenty of opposites in the play involving variations on image vs. reality, action vs. play-acting, authenticity vs. disingenuousness. Showing these tensions in a theater is common since it falls within the normal course of business. For Kean, though, the lines are blurred. Since a “play” exists both on the stage and in the audience’s mind, Kean acts in order to move the audience and involve them inside the world he creates. His affirmation comes from the applause in the theater and the adulation outside it, but there are major differences between the two worlds. Kean “rules” while in the theater, but while he may seduce countesses off the stage he is considered an inferior being—an actor. Kean and Sartre highlight the role theater plays in our lives, where we enter the world of fiction in order see representations of ourselves. Under expert hands the theater becomes a mirror.
Kean becomes a hall of mirrors highlighting the many roles we play in life. While the actors play a role on the stage, the audience also has a role to play in the theater. And, as everything folds back on itself in the play, while the audience escapes from reality while attending the play (in order to see their own representation on the stage), Kean hides himself from the reality of his life. Despite his tendencies, Kean works toward self-realization and achieves it just as the curtain falls. Like the audience understanding life from the artificial machinations it sees, Kean uses the unreality of his situation to reach self-awareness.
Kean (on stage, out of character, addressing the Prince of Wales): Where do you think you are? At court? In a boudoir? Everywhere else you are a prince, but here I am king, and I ask you to be quiet, or we will stop the performance. We are working, sir, and if there is one thing the idle should respect, it is the labor of others. (Act IV, Scene ii, pages 248-9)
Kean continually attacks the status quo but he also revels in it. He enjoys the notoriety and benefits of being famous while at the same time bemoans his troubles. He understands that people love Kean the actor but don’t care about Kean the man. Usually Kean’s focus is on Kean and no one else, so when he genuinely helps someone else it stands out. Often his generosity comes at high expense, such as throwing the last of his money to a street musician. His concern for former troupe members is genuine, even if the performance turns into a fiasco. Consistent with Shakespeare, the play within a play reveals the true state of things.
The choice of Othello (a change from Dumas’ play’s choice of Hamlet) works perfectly. Othello’s jealousy becomes Kean’s as he watches Elena talk with the Prince of Wales. Instead of a murder, though, we watch Kean’s self-destruction by committing lèse-majesté. When Kean walks to the edge of the stage, out of character, to insult the prince and draw his prop sword, the handle of the sword symbolically comes off in his hand. Kean is impotent off the stage, but he eventually finds his own voice. The illusion of the play has been destroyed, but the reality of his life receives the audience’s laughter and contempt. For a man that has acted in order to deceive himself, reality provides a bracing wake-up call. Kean’s exhortation that they only care for illusion could be equally applied to himself for much of the play.
Kean: Come, sir, you need not be afraid. It is only Kean the actor, acting the part of Kean the man. I am the man who makes himself disappear, night after night. And you, who are you? You are playing the part of the Prince of Wales? Very well, we shall see which of us wins the greater applause. And the Countess? I would say, of we three, she is by far the best actress. [He laughs] What shall we call the play? As you Like It, no doubt. Or Much Ado about Nothing? Wait, we must make sure of a happy ending. The prince and the countess must have plenty of children, and the old count must receive a great many decorations. As for the buffoon—ah well, his debts will be repaid. (Act II, pages 191-2)
The differences between the two lady-interests helps us understand Kean’s progress toward self-realization, too. Elena is typical of Kean’s attention and conquests. Well-placed in society as a countess, Elena makes it clear she fell in love with Kean the actor. Anna Danby, on the other hand, comes from a Danish merchant family (there are plenty of jokes about cheesemongering in the play) but she falls in love with Kean the man. Elena and Anna are similar people though from different classes, but Anna rejects the societal upgrade thrown to her from her engagement to Lord Neville.
Anna represents an absolute, doing what it will take in order to act on the stage and get what she wants. From this perspective she’s an uncorrupted version of Kean. Anna treats Kean as a man, not an actor, which he has trouble handling even though he calls for this throughout the play. The only other person that treats Kean as a man instead of an actor is his servant Solomon, but Kean brushes him aside time after time (ironically, in part, because of Solomon’s role in society). Anna’s force is confirmed by Solomon as she practices her role of Desdemona and breathes too much life into the character. Anna, in acting as in life, refuses to be a victim. On the other hand, Elena accepts her place in society and gives up Kean. She refuses to give up her role in real life, as shown by the handling of the return of her love letters. Kean goes straight to the resolution by handing the letters to her while she delays accepting them because she follows the ‘form’, as shown in plays, she must adhere to in their return. Kean accuses Anna of wrecking his life but she allows him to live the life he claims he wants.
Kean (to Elena): Listen—we are three victims. You, because you were born a woman—he [the Prince of Wales], because he was too highly born, and I, because I was a bastard. The result is you enjoy your beauty through the eyes of others, and I discover my genius through their applause. As for him, he is a flower. For him to feel he is a prince, he has to be admired. Beauty, royalty, genius; a single and same mirage. We live all three on the love of others, and we are all three incapable of loving ourselves. You wanted my love—I yours, he, ours. What a mix-up. You were right. Three reflections, each of the three believing in the existence of the other two; that was comedy. (Act V, page 269)
As I mentioned earlier, the play is a hall of mirrors, with theater and reality constantly reflecting each other. It turns out the existence of Sartre’s play follows nested reflections, too. I’ll end with a quote I found that concisely captures some of that mirroring. Next week I’ll post on Dumas’ play (if he did write it, that is) that Sartre’s Kean uses as its basis.
In short, Sartre’s Kean is a play about an actor [Kean] requested from him by an actor [Brasseur], and adopted from a play about an actor [Kean] requested by another actor [Lemaître] from an unknown author [Théaulon and de Couey], but signed by a great novelist and playwright of the day [Dumas].
- Sartre’s Theatre: Acts for Life by Benedict O’Donohoe (Peter Lang: 2004), page 170
I'll admit my bias about the play. Kean has been a personal favorite since I saw it at Shakespeare Santa Cruz in 2000. Bias aside, I think it's a marvelous play. Very highly recommended.
Update: I inadvertently left off a link to Stuart Fernie's page with his reflections on Kean. If you're interested in the play, please take time to visit his page.