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"Kean"

by Jean-Paul Sartre

 

 

 

I should start by saying that although I have read the works of several philosophers, Sartre is one I have never studied, although I am familiar with some of the ideas he promoted in his works. I became aware of "Kean" because I am an admirer of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and while searching for a DVD of his performance in "Cyrano de Bergerac", I noticed that his performance of "Kean" was available. On doing a little research into the subject, I was most intrigued by the topic of the place of acting in society, and was struck by the connection to a classic of French cinema, "Les Enfants du Paradis" which I have long admired, and which also deals to some extent with a similar subject.

Alexandre Dumas wrote the original romantic drama about celebrated 19th century actor Edmund Kean in 1836 for the equally celebrated Frederick Lemaitre, who appeared as one of the characters in "Enfants", in which he was played by Pierre Brasseur. When reviewed by Sartre in 1954, the part of Kean went to none other than the same Pierre Brasseur, a connection I found quite irresistible. I therefore managed to obtain the DVD of "Kean", and the comments below are based on that production.

Perhaps as a result of its mixed authorship, "Kean" is a curious mixture of styles. It encompasses elements of biography (of sorts), drama, social commentary, philosophy and comedy, but really does justice to none of them.

Based loosely on Kean's character rather than specific historical events, the play is (at times) a light-hearted look at Edmund Kean, as famous for his lifestyle as he was for his interpretation of Shakespearean roles, his attitudes and thoughts as he faces various challenging situations. The plot allows for reflections on the nature of acting and its place in society and relationships through the dynamic and amusing (and at times contemplative) Kean, accompanied by other nicely observed (and played) characters. Containing elements of drama, comedy and tragedy, the play never settles into any particular mode and at times switches uneasily from one to the other. However, in my opinion its greatest strengths lie in its sharp and interesting observations concerning acting, social interaction and love. Philosophical dramas can be terribly dry and artificial - here a human element is lent to the philosophical passages, while the romantic drama is given added depth by the same philosophical reflections. Of course the whole thing is carried by larger than life performances which add considerably to the interest.

The main plot device turns around Kean's declaration of love for Elena (the wife of the Danish Ambassador), and his attempts to consummate their relationship. This is complicated by the desire of the Prince of Wales to emulate Kean and replace him in Elena's affections. It is further complicated by the presence of Miss Danby, an ambitious young woman who wishes to develop a career on stage as well as a relationship with Kean.

 

At the start a declaration of love for Elena is made by means of a letter read out for the audience. We are convinced of Kean's sincerity through the very words he has written, his delivery of those words, and Elena's response to them. We are later further convinced by Kean's reaction when the Prince of Wales tries to persuade Kean to give Elena up, first by trying to exercise his authority and then by trying to buy him off!

It transpires, however, that the same letter has been used on a number of previous occasions in similar circumstances! The Prince of Wales even knows the wording by heart! This revelation immediately calls into question Kean's sincerity and recalls to mind comments he has previously addressed to the audience concerning "situations fausses" and the fact that this is how he makes his living. Indeed he has gone so far as to suggest that what is "real" is simply badly acted, implying from very early on in the play that acting belongs to a much bigger stage than that of the theatre.

This is not to suggest that Kean is not serious in his pursuit of Elena. He is clearly genuinely taken with her, and she with him. She has attended several of his performances and has been touched by them (note she is attracted to his performances), and is most taken with the famed thespian. He, on the other hand, has noticed her beauty and the fact that she has been moved by his performances, and is willing to flatter her by means of performance in order to achieve his objective. Further and more telling points will be made concerning the nature of their relationship before the end of the play.

We meet Salomon, Kean's long-suffering manservant, who offers Kean advice and tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. Salomon may represent reason and social responsibility (even common sense!), while Kean is spirit, desire and life.

Kean appears uninterested in money and incurs debts with consummate ease, relying on Salomon to help him get through the practicalities of everyday life. Kean's purpose appears to be to enjoy life and be himself. What matters most to him is acting, to the point where he appears to think of himself as some sort of priest or holy man (offering spiritual guidance?) in return for offerings, and denying the importance of payment, which he throws out a window. Why does Salomon remain with him? Because he loves him. Like the Prince of Wales, perhaps Salomon admires Kean's spirit and finds him inspiring. The Prince of Wales appears to regard him as a sort of role-model, taking into account Kean's taste in clothes, women, and perhaps even his general demeanour. Kean exudes "cool", insouciance and control, and he is apparently unfettered by considerations of responsibility.

Yet, in spite of his apparent control and insouciance, Kean needs to be loved. He feels the need to prove himself and to be appreciated, perhaps even to be given some kind of validation through the love of women. Two things seem to matter to him - acting, and his "reward" in the form of love or adulation. Money seems to count for very little. A key phrase in understanding Kean's character (and by extension all of us who form society) is "So much pride (amour-propre), so little self esteem." Love, or perhaps rather (and quite crucially) being loved is what keeps Kean going - he requires some form of appreciation in order to make him feel worthwhile.

Of course, as he has shown in his pursuit of Elena, he adopts a persona to appeal to women. He plays a part in order to try to win them over, and it is the image for which these women fall. Kean is now so used to adopting this persona that he is no longer sure where the image ends and the man begins. Indeed at one point he even states that he is playing the role of Kean.

Here we are touching on what I see as one of the main points of the play. Sartre seems to be suggesting that in society we adapt to the company we keep and play parts or adopt different personas according to the different situations in which we find ourselves. Others (who are in the same position) help decide one's reaction (and indeed ultimately one's fate) while playing the same "game".

Another major point is the nature and role of love in this process. Kean has pursued Elena not just because of her physical beauty, but because she has shown the proper (as he sees it) appreciation of his talents. He is not, therefore, driven by some selfless and hopeless love for another, but rather by a desire to be loved by one who would appear to be besotted with him. His love (and all mankind's?) is therefore ego-driven. Elena, it should be said, is equally keen to be the focus of Kean's attention.

In the end Kean and Elena's "love" is shattered as Kean realises that she loved his persona rather than the man, and that in any case by the end she appears more interested in developing a relationship with the Prince of Wales whose jealousy of Kean she finds flattering. Elena reacted with jealousy on discovering Kean's burgeoning relationship with Miss Danby, and realising that Kean's heart may not belong entirely to her, her attention has moved to one who has shown jealousy over her and whose affections, she thinks, may be more genuine - the Prince of Wales.

Elena has therefore shown exactly the same instinct of self-love as Kean. The one fell for the other because each was driven by the idea of being loved. Each is motivated by "amour-propre" and seeks to boost their self-esteem through their relationship, with each playing the part necessary to achieving their objective.

This theme of jealousy serves to underline the fact that each is motivated by self-love. Each is hurt by the other's possible involvement with another, but not because of the thought of their being with another - rather it is because of the implications for the strength of feeling (or lack of it) for the other.

However, there is another element as far as jealousy is concerned, and that is control.

With entirely apt irony Kean plays the final scenes of "Othello" in the presence of the Prince of Wales and Elena, who knowingly provokes immense jealousy in Kean by chatting to and flirting with the Prince of Wales. This prompts Kean to lose control of his performance and allows Kean the man to take over. At one point he discusses the situation with the audience and informs them that he, Kean, does not exist - only his performance exists.

As an actor, Kean must have immense understanding of humanity and emotions. Not only does he use this understanding to portray characters on stage, he uses the same skills to manipulate situations in society. However, in order to achieve this objective he must remain in control, judging what to say and how to say it in order to achieve the desired effect. Jealousy, however, interferes with this skill as emotions are engaged and prevent the mind from judging the situation with clarity. In this situation (of jealousy), Kean loses control - the "I" guiding the performance is lost as he reacts to his own emotions rather than manipulating those of others. He is no longer in control - others are controlling him, prompting him to conclude that he does not exist.

This episode allows him to see and understand his own feelings and those of Elena with greater clarity, and so he breaks with Elena to pursue a relationship with Miss Danby.

Rather amusingly, when asked by the Prince of Wales if he is not heartbroken over this affair, Kean replies his heart is not even cracked, upon which the Prince of Wales then wonders what he will do with Elena since his own interest has waned upon hearing that Kean has lost interest. Clearly Sartre is suggesting that we are profoundly influenced by the views of others in our dealings with others.

 

Acting, then, is seen as an essential element in social interaction. Kean goes so far as to suggest that there is no moment when he is not acting, i.e. giving a measured and conscious response to a situation, where he is aware of the effect of the words he chooses to use and the way in which these words are delivered.

The full title of the play is "Kean or Disorder and Genius". I wonder if "real" life is seen as disorder where emotions and desires may impede or infringe upon the actor/player - where others may exercise a degree of control over the player, perhaps simply by virtue of the fact of being there. Kean feels most at home when acting and therefore when he is on stage. If "real" life is disorder where authority and control cannot be guaranteed, is the stage genius where Kean can exercise complete control and cause the audience to feel what he wishes them to feel?

By extension it could be argued that if a play is well written, it is the reality (presenting distilled truths about life), while life is the "rehearsal" during which we practise and try to attain elements of truth.

 

"Kean" with Antony Sher, directed by Adrian Noble, London, July 2007

This production opened in London to somewhat mixed reviews in May 2007. I have to admit to being quite excited at the prospect of finally being able to see this production live on stage, and so I made the 1200 mile round trip and I was not disappointed.

My initial general reaction to the play was that it is verbose and at times lacks clarity of direction, flitting fairly uneasily from one genre to another. However, it remains very interesting, and I am not convinced that many reviewers who dismissed it genuinely understood it or cared about the content. One reviewer dismissed the "message" as banal, a reaction I find unworthy of one who holds such a position. The "message" may have become familiar with time, and may not fit modern sensibilities, but that does not make the message "banal".

Of course much depends on the performance and presentation of the piece. Totally engaging, genuine and varied in tone though Antony Sher's performance was, I can't help but suggest that he played down the "constant performance" element and we see much more of Kean the man struggling with his realisation that others love his persona rather than him. There is a lot of swaggering, yes, but in the end we have a real man who loves to perform and there is no real confusion between the two, and to my mind this confusion (with no clear duality) is critical to the overall success (or otherwise) of the piece.

Sher as Kean is frequently shabbily dressed and plays for comedy, showing a frustrated and irritated little man who gives little or no impression of control or manipulation except when he is playing a part. I would have thought that for the play to really work, Kean would have required persistent self confidence and assurance, if only to act as a contrast in the "Othello" scenes where the "true" Kean is stripped bare before the public through jealousy.

Also in Frank Hauser's translation, I don't remember hearing reference to Kean's own non-existence in the "Othello" scenes, an element I would have thought essential to the overall impact of the play.

A final existential scene appeared to be tacked on - a scene which, while in keeping with general existential thought, had little to do with the almost upbeat ending to what is, after all, billed as a comedy!

Much has been made of the 1950s setting for the London production, most reviewers being at a loss to explain its significance in a play about an early 19th century actor. While I agree it was curious, I have to say I didn't find it detracted particularly from the overall effect, though that era is hardly in keeping with the relative social positions of an actor, a married woman of some social standing, and a member of the royal family, as they were in the 19th century.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the play. This production was funnier than I had anticipated. It was engaging and very well played. Sher's capacity to change the mood and atmosphere in an instant was quite remarkable. My only real quibble was with its general focus on Kean as a man rather than as an actor who feels he is playing a man. Sher appeared to capture the essence of Kean the man, but I can't help but wonder if Dumas and especially Sartre weren't using Kean's life and character as a general framework for saying something about acting and life rather than saying something about Edmund Kean himself.

 

"Kean" in Japan

It has come to my attention that an all-female troupe of actors is set to stage the (musical) show in September 2007, in Takarazuka, Japan. Please click on the poster below to go to webpage concerned.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found these notes of some interest.

I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss these notes or "Kean" further. I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

Stuart Fernie

 

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