The Charles Keans from whom I received my first engagement, were both remarkable people, and at the Princess Theater were doing very remarkable work. Kean the younger had not the fire and genius of his wonderful father, Edmund, and but for the inherited splendor of his name it is not likely that he would ever have attained great eminence as an actor. His Wolsey and his Richard (the Second, not the Third) were his best parts, perhaps because in them his beautiful diction had full scope and his limitations were not noticeable. But it is more as a stage reformer than as an actor that he will be remembered. The old happy-go-lucky way of staging plays, with its sublime indifference to correctness of detail and its utter disregard of archaeology, had received its first blow from Kemble and Macready, but Charles Kean gave it much harder knocks and went further than either of them in the good work.
It is an old story and a true one that when Edmund Kean made his first great success as Shylock, after a long and miserable struggle as a strolling player, he came home to his wife and said: “You shall ride in your carriage,” and then, catching up his little son, added, “and Charley shall go to Eton!” Well, Charley did go to Eton, and if Eton did not make him a great actor, it opened his eyes to the absurd anachronisms in costumes and accessories which prevailed on the stage at that period, and when he undertook the management of the Princess’s Theater, he turned his classical education to account. In addition to scholarly knowledge, he had a naturally refined taste and the power of selecting the right man to help him. Planche, the great authority on historical costumes, was one of his ablest coadjutors, and Mr. Bradshaw designed all the properties. It has been said lately that I began my career on an unfurnished stage, when the play was the thing, and spectacle was considered of small importance. I take this opportunity of contradicting that statement most emphatically. Neither when I began nor yet later in my career have I ever played under a management where infinite pains were not given to every detail. I think that far from hampering the acting, a beautiful and congruous background and harmonious costumes, representing accurately the spirit of the time in which the play is supposed to move, ought to help and inspire the actor.
Such thoughts as these did not trouble my head when I acted with the Keans, but, child as I was, the beauty of the productions at the Princess’s Theater made a great impression on me, and my memory of them is quite clear enough, even if there were not plenty of other evidence, for me to assert that in some respects they were even more elaborate than those of the present day. I know that the bath-buns of one’s childhood always seem in memory much bigger and better than the buns sold nowadays, but even allowing for the natural glamor which the years throw over buns and rooms, places and plays alike, I am quite certain that Charles Kean’s productions of Shakespeare would astonish the modern critic who regards the period of my first appearance as a sort of dark-age in the scenic art of the theater.