Many of you will have heard of Lord Laurence Olivier and Sir Kenneth Branagh and will be able to recognise the names of other famous Shakespearean actors. But how much do you know about Edmund Kean, Charlotte Cushman, or Tommaso Salvini? Below, Stanley Wells reveals some of the lesser remembered actors of the past that he would have loved to have seen perform live on stage.
Edmund Kean (1787?-1833)
I’d love to have seen Kean. Coleridge said ‘to see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’. It’s not entirely a compliment but it does pinpoint something in Edward Kean; that he tended to flash, to have moments, and to perhaps not sustain the role with the sort of continuity and growth of character that some other actors did. But he was a wonderful character, a rip-roaring, fantastical, high-living man who wore himself out, sadly. Towards the end of his career, dissipation and drink had taken their toll and he died relatively young. His last performance was Othello, he collapsed into the arms of his son, Charles Kean who was playing Iago, and said ‘speak to them for me Charles’, and went off. But he must have been a terrifically exciting actor to see.
Charlotte Cushman (1816-76)
Another I would have very much liked to have seen is the American Charlotte Cushman. She was a remarkable lady in her own right, not a beauty. She referred to her face as ‘my unfortunate mug’, for example. But she had great power as an actress, and specialised in male roles. She played Hamlet, of course, and she played Cardinal Wolsey. But her greatest role was oddly enough Romeo, which she played rather bizarrely to her sister Susan Cushman’s Juliet.
When Charlotte Cushman was playing Romeo, she was seen by a distinguished playwright called James Sheridan Knowles, and he compared the impact of her acting in Romeo’s scene with the Friar favourably with Kean’s in the third act of Othello, which was one of his greatest triumphs. He said:
‘I was not prepared for such a triumph of pure genius … It was a scene of topmost passion; not simulated passion,–no such thing; real, palpably real. The genuine heart-storm was on, – on in the wildest fitfulness of fury; and I listened and gazed and held my breath, while my blood ran hot and cold.’ [Wells, Great Shakespeare Actors]
And another fellow actor was impressed by her overt sexuality as Romeo, saying ‘her amorous endearments were of so erotic a character that no man would have dared to indulge in them coram public [in a public place]’. She was a great character and a great actress. She was American but played quite a lot in England, as did quite a lot of the other American actors like Edwin Booth for example who acted with Henry Irving in his very famous Hamlet.
Tommaso Salvini (1829-1915)
Another actor that I got very interested in was an Italian called Tommaso Salvini. He is particularly odd in some ways because he always played in Italian, even though he was playing with English-speaking actors in both England and America. It’s a very artificial thing to do, and makes demands on the other actors; coming in with your cues is quite difficult if you don’t understand Italian. And it’s quite demanding on the audiences, too. But they lapped it up. It still happens occasionally in our days but usually in the operatic field where sometimes an opera singer will sing in one language while the rest of the cast sing in another.
So Tommaso Salvini, the great Italian actor, had enormous success, especially as Othello. He was a very powerful looking man, the photographs I’ve been able to find of him are quite forbidding. He looks a bit like Lord Kitchener calling the troops, with a long moustache in the Victorian style.
He was clearly a formidable actor, especially as Othello. He was very physical, and there’s a rather shocking description of how he played the murder of Desdemona. A critic saying that:
‘he seizes her [Desdemona] by the hair of her head, and, dragging her on to the bed, strangles her with a ferocity that seems to take delight in its office… Nearing the end he rises, and at the supreme moment cuts his throat with a short scimitar, hacking and hewing with savage energy, and imitating the noise that escaping blood and air may together make when the windpipe is severed’. [Wells, Great Shakespeare Actors]
You can understand that when he was playing that scene he was very violent with his Desdemona which meant that several actresses declined the honour of playing Desdemona with him. They were scared stiff, I expect. But nevertheless, he was clearly a very great actor, and I’d have loved to have seen him.