Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Sword(s) of Edmund Kean

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Sword(s) of Edmund Kean

Article excerpt

If there can be said to be a single talismanic object in the long history and tradition of English acting, it is probably Edmund Kean's sword.

Reputedly worn by Kean when he played Richard III, the sword passed into the hands of William Chippendale, a member of Kean's company. In his later years Chippendale was employed by Henry Irving in his Lyceum company and, in gratitude, he presented the sword to Irving, who wore it for the first night of his own performance as Richard.

On Irving's death, the sword came to the Terry family, perhaps via Ellen Terry, Irving's leading lady. It came into the possession of Kate Terry Gielgud who gave it to her son John when he played Hamlet at the Lyceum. In a letter to her he said "After the Lyceum performances are over, I shall have the engraving added to, putting your name and mine. Then it will be a nice thing to be handed on to another young hopeful, when I am too old to play Hamlet any more--which won't be long now."

In 1944, Laurence Olivier played what many regarded as the definitive performance of Richard III. Gielgud, in a typically generous gesture, gave the sword to Olivier inscribed with the words "This sword, given to him by his mother Kate Terry Gielgud 1938, is given to Laurence Olivier by his friend John Gielgud in appreciation of his performance of Richard III at the New Theatre, 1944."

However--there is a second sword. In 1819 Sir Thomas Sinclair and other Scottish friends and admirers presented Kean with a sword, a claymore with 'Andrea Ferrara' blade, silver basket hilt with emerald paste set on medallion and lined with red velvet, hand grip covered with shagreen. The scabbard is of rust-coloured suede with silver top, tip and engraved thistle decoration set with emerald pastes and silver mount. It is inscribed "C. Hunter and Co. Army Clothiers to the King and C. 25 Princes Street, Edinburgh".

The sword was inscribed on the front: "To Edmund Kean Esq. / As a tribute of admiration / To his splendid talents / From /His Friends at / Edinburgh". On the reverse appears: "This sword was presented / To / Edmund Kean Esq. / To be worn by him / When he appears on the Stage / As /"Macbeth / King of Scotland" / November 1819". …

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