Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Edmund Kean: or, The Life of an Actor by Alexandre Dumas

Edmund Kean: or, The Life of an Actor by Alexander Dumas
The English adaptation by G. H. Jessop and J. St. Maur (published 1881)

Note: I'm not sure what happened but this post returned to draft status after being posted. There have been no changes since the original post yesterday.

After I read the pictured "adaptation", of course, I find there is a translated copy of the play available online. The translation is by Frank J. Morlock. I only looked at the first few pages and found numerous differences, probably because of the adaptation vs. translation issue. I will be quoting from my copy of the Jessop and St. Maur adaptation.

There is a good reference page on the Dumas play at The Alexandre Dumas père Web Site, including notes on the question of authorship. It includes a very good synopsis of the play.

Before I go any further I wanted to make sure and include a link to Stuart Fernie's page with his reflections on Kean. I initially forgot to include it in my post on Kean but included it in an update. Unfortunately the update was well after many people viewed the post, so I want to correct my error here.

Related posts:

Dumas got to see Kean perform in 1828 (eight years before the play Kean) when an English company, including the actor, gave a series of performances at the Odéon in Paris. The eight years between seeing him and Dumas’ play, though, saw many changes in France, not the least of which is the 1830 Revolution. Dumas’ play is decidedly reflects a post-revolutionary France, presenting an intermingling of classes as they work through their changed relationships with each other. More importantly, I think, is that Dumas’ Kean reads not just as an actor’s place in society but an author’s place, too. It is probably too much to say Kean is Dumas, but the there are some parallels to be drawn between the two.

While Kean does not include the melodrama common in Dumas’ novels, Kean does appear as a Romantic hero in the play. Kean plays many roles in the play, such as libertine, friend, counselor, gallant, cavalier, but his relevance as an actor seems to be forgotten at times. Dumas’ Kean rarely worries about the distinction between acting and reality, rationalizing his life of excess and disorder as a way to feed his genius in acting. Sartre’s Kean, on the other hand, acts all the time in various roles, on and off the stage and worries that he may never be authentic. Dumas presented a Romantic view of art, where literature/theater can help a reader/viewer experience the same emotions they read/see. Anna’s love of the theater punctuates this view—she had been sick and listless, full of melancholy until her doctor suggested a trip to the theater. That visit lifted her spirits, changing her and providing “a strange new warmth” in her heart. Anna believes the theater is just as real as life, while Kean trumps her in his declarations—he tells Lord Melville (Neville in Sartre) that the world is a lie while the theater is truth.

Even with such exuberance, Dumas marks a clear delineation between acting and living. After the fiasco during the benefit performance, the servant Solomon tries to convince Kean to continue to feign madness to reduce the dire penalties from insulting the prince. Kean will have none of it:
Solomon: Now if you would only keep up the deception for a week. You act the part of King Lear so remarkably well.

Kean: Mr. Solomon, I’d have you to know that my hours for acting are from 8 p.m. till midnight. I never act out of the theater.

In both Dumas’ and Sartre’s plays, Kean plays the rebel while accepting the status quo. Dumas’ Kean targets the privileged, those who don’t “deserve” their wealth and privilege. He still defers to and respects royalty, even as he denounces them. Dumas has Kean develop awareness, limited at a societal level. Here is part of Kean’s attack on Lord Melville while protecting Anna in the dockside bar:

Lord Melville: There is on little difficulty in the way, sir [in giving satisfaction]. An earl, a nobleman, a peer of the realm, cannot meet an acrobat, a mountebank, a strolling player.

Kean: You are right. There is too great a disparity. Lord Melville is a highly estimable gentleman, belonging to one of the first families in England, descended, if I am not mistaken, from the rich old nobility of the Conquest. It is further true that Lord Melville has squandered his heritage in cards, dicing and horse-racing and cocking-mains; that his escutebeon is tarnished by the stain of his base actions and licentious life; that instead of endeavoring to rise, he has steadily sunk lower and lower into the depths of degradation. Whilst the stroller, Kean, born in a kennel, and exposed in the public square, commencing his career without any aid from fortune or a great title, has made the name he bears the peer of the most illustrious, and has wealth enough to compete in expenditure, when it so pleases him, with the royal princes themselves. But all this does not make Lord Melville any the less respectable, nor Kean the less a buffoon. It is true that Lord Melville has sought to rehabilitate his dissipated fortune at the expense of a young and defenceless girl. Forgetting that her rank is beneath his own, he has persecuted her with professions of his noisome love, and has spared no efforts to compel her to marry him. And the mountebank, Kean, affords his protection to this poor fugitive who came to him for aid, has cared for her as a brother would care for his sister, and will send her hence, pure as when she came, and all the more because she is so lovely and so helpless. Nevertheless, Lord Melville is an earl, and Kean is a mountebank.

There is much more in this tirade that Kean uses to contrast the two—it is quite the denouncement of any deferment toward nobility. Yet Kean continues to defer. Sartre’s Kean expands his targets to include the bourgeoisie, those that exploited him and “made” him an actor, an illusionist for their amusement. This Kean also develops awareness but it is on a metaphysical level. Sartre updates Dumas’ Romanticism to a 1950s Existential view of man.

A little more on some differences between the two plays…
Sartre tends to cut corners on Dumas’ plot development in order to allow actors, especially Kean, time to muse on the questions of appearance and reality. Sartre also develops the secondary characters quite a bit more. In Dumas’ version, Anna Danby initially shows initiative, then disappears back into herself. Sartre shows a much more brazen and self-assured woman, determined to get what she wants. Elena/Helen is also more fully developed under Sartre, where she is torn between her love of the actor Kean (not the man) and her privileged role in society. She realizes much of her life is a sham while highlighting the roles she plays as a woman and a countess. These aspects of her character are hinted at in Dumas, but Sartre plays up her inner conflict. The servant Solomon is also more aggressive in Sartre’s version, going beyond a simple comic foil.

Reading Dumas’ Kean was enjoyable on its own. Even better, though, was the heightened appreciation of what Sartre achieved in using Dumas’ play. Fun stuff all around. Since I provided some of Kean’s pointed comments to the prince from the stage in my previous post on the play, I want to include Dumas’ version of lèse-majesté committed by the actor. Dumas makes it clear Kean is doing this as himself, not as the actor:

Kean: Who calls me Hamlet?

Ophelia [Anna]: Kean, you must be demented.

Kean: No, I’m not Hamlet. I’m Falstaff, merry companion of the Prince’s revels. Here my jolly comrades. Poins, Bardolph, Dame Quickly. Give us a cup of sack, and let us drink the Prince’s health, the most dissolute, the least trustworthy and the vainest of us all. Here’s to the health of the Prince, to whom all women are fair game, from the bar-maid in the riverside tavern to the lady of honor who drapes the royal purple on the shoulders of his mother!

Lord Melville (from box): Off, off with you! Off with Kean.

Constable (from pit): Silence, order.

Kean: Falstaff; no, I am not Falstaff, nor yet am I Hamlet. I am Punchinello, the Falstaff of the high road. A horsewhip here for you miserable caitiff who steals innocent maids, and refuses to meet the man whose name he has stolen, and this, forsooth, on the brave pretext that he is a noble, and earl, a peer of the realm. Yes, I say; a horsewhip for my Lord Melville, well and lustily laid on, and let us enjoy it.

Update (22 Jun 2013): An audio performance of the play is available on YouTube: Kean, ou Désordre et Génie - 03/03/1949. French Radio and Television hosted a performance of the Dumas play (Sartre's play was written in 1953) starring Pierre Brasseur as Kean. The story goes that Brasseur played Lemaître in the film Les Enfants du Paradis and asked Sartre to update Dumas' Kean, but I wonder if this performance wasn't a major reason, too.

Update (16 May 2014): A translation of the play by Frank J. Morlock can be found here.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great set of posts on this works Dwight.

I love the quote on Hamlet and Falstaff.

Dwight said...

Thanks Brian. I've been wanting to do this 'project' for a while. I think this will be the final post on Kean.

There is a lot of Shakespeare woven into the two versions of the play (fitting because of Kean's reputation) and its interesting to look at the differences.