Victoria's Victoria: The Theatre Royal

Charles and Ellen Kean Visit Victoria

|Look Inside| Politics and Theatre| Local Theatre| Bibliography|

Theatre Royal : Main

Victorians welcomed these famed British actors as symbols of their English roots.

In the 1860s, Charles Kean (1811-1868) and his wife Ellen (née Ellen Tree, 1805-1880) were among the most internationally celebrated actors in the English speaking world. ¹ Charles, who was renowned for his attention to historical detail in the plays of William Shakespeare, served as director of the Princess' Theatre in London from 1850 to 1859. The importance of the Keans' status within the British class system was not lost on the colonists. Most significant was the Keans' association with Queen Victoria, who had not only revived the Elizabethan office of Master of the Revels in Charles Kean's honour, but had also appointed him "manager of the Christmas theatricals" and even presented him with a diamond ring. ² Therefore, it is somewhat of a historical anomaly that the Keans visited Victoria in December of 1864, as one of the stops on a tour which included Australia and the United States.³ They arrived on December 9th, performing at the Victoria Theatre in an engagement which lasted until the 23rd, when they departed again for San Francisco.
Charles Kean (Oval Portrait)
Cole, John William.  The Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean.  
London: R. Bentley, 1859
Charles Kean in 1860
from John William Cole, The Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean (London: R. Bentley, 1859).

kean ad
an advertisement for the Keans' engagement in Victoria
from British Colonist, 10 December 1864.
Upon their arrival, the Keans found what appeared to them to be "a toy capital [with] funny looking little wooden houses - and wooden roads - and wooden pavements - and pretty little wooden cottages and villas all about."4 The people, remarked Ellen Kean, were "entirely respectable, but decidedly plebean and narrow minded."5 What the city lacked, remarked Mrs. Kean, was a few good families to render it endurable.6 She expressed surprise at some of Victoria's economic practices, such as the importation of staples such as fruits, vegetables, and grain, and seemed appalled by the fact that mistresses of high society households, though they employed Chinese servants to do menial work, still had much to do for themselves.7

Despite the fact that they found the town primitive and the theatre drafty,8 the Keans were nevertheless delighted to be in a British dominion. They expressed relief at having gotten away from the "dreadful snuffling, spitting, chewing Yankees" whom they had encountered on the American leg of their tour.9 "It really was quite charming," wrote Ellen Kean, "to see a young girl's eyes droop when you looked at her. A San Francisco girl would outgaze the rudest man without a thought of being immodest." 10 The people of Victoria, it seemed, had retained enough British sensibilities as a result of colonisation to be considered at least partially respectable.

The Keans' engagement in Victoria began with a performance of King Henry VIII. Charles and Ellen Kean performed nine times during their stay in Victoria, staging mostly Shakespearean tragedy. Their repertoire also included performances of The Jealous Wife , Louis XI, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice , Macbeth , and Othello. The manager of the Victoria Theatre, Thomas Ward, more than doubled admission prices to accommodate the Keans, charging $25-$20 for boxes, $3 for orchestra seats, $2.50 for parquette seating and $1.50 for admission to the pit. The thirst of the public for "the culture of the homeland" allowed the Keans to be financially successful while in Victoria.11

The visit of Charles and Ellen Kean to Victoria can be seen as symbolic of the aspirations of the British colonists residing on Vancouver Island at the time.12 An address to the Keans appeared in the Vancouver Times on the 23rd of December, 1864, thanking Charles Kean for helping to lay "upon a small scale ... the foundation of a nation which we hope will grow to be a second England."13 The address went on to express the desire "to reproduce in the West a fac-simile of the civilization of the East." 14 The intentions of the British colonists were clear : they wished to create a home away from home, and the performance of English plays by English actors would help them to do so. The Keans met with excellent reviews, and departed from Victoria on December 23rd, 1864, after an extremely successful engagement.
Ellen Kean in
Hardwick, J.M.D., ed. Emigrant in Motley: Unpublished Letter of     
Charles and Ellen Kean. London: Rockcliff, 1954
Ellen Kean, early 1860s
from J.M.D. Hardwick, ed., Emigrant in Motley: Unpublished Letters of Charles and Ellen Kean (London:Rockliff, 1954)
Alan Hughes, “Charles Kean in Victoria: Touring Actors and Local Politics in 1864,” BC Studies 74 (Autumn 1987): 21.
2. J.M.D. Hardwick, ed., Emigrant in Motley: Unpublished Letters of Charles and Ellen Kean (London: Rockliff, 1954), 12.
Hughes, “Charles Kean in Victoria,” 21.
Hardwick, Emigrant in Motley, 216.
5. Hardwick, Emigrant in Motley, 217.
6. Hardwick, Emigrant in Motley, 217.
7. Hardwick, Emigrant in Motley, 219.
8. Hardwick, Emigrant in Motley, 204.
9. Hardwick, Emigrant in Motley, 205.
10. Hardwick, Emigrant in Motley, 217.

11. Hughes, “Charles Kean in Victoria,” 21.
12. Hughes, “Charles Kean in Victoria,” 23.
13. Vancouver Times, 23 December 1864, in Hughes, “Charles Kean in Victoria,” 23.
14. Vancouver Times, 23 December 1864, 26.

A Look Inside Victoria's Theatre Royal

Colonial Politics and the Theatre

Local Theatre in the 1860s


Return to the Theatre Royal : Main

Return to Victoria's Victoria : Main