Historical Social Research

David Worrall: Edmund Kean’s Celebrity: Assemblage Theory and the Unintended Consequences of Audience Density[Abstract]

This essay will examine theatrical celebrity in early 19th-century England with particular reference to the actor Edmund Kean (1787-1833) and his first season at Drury Lane, 1813-14. His ground-breaking interpretation of Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice brought him overnight success. Using Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory as its main predictive model, the essay argues that celebrity is a category conferred by audience density. Archival records of Drury Lane’s financial receipts, pay rates for actors and actresses, and names of individual occupants of box seats (including the novelist, Jane Austen) all provide sets of economic data which can chart financial aspects of celebrity. In short, in that first season Kean was only a middle to upper ranking employee as far as his remuneration was concerned. Furthermore, due to an over-extended season to capitalize on his celebrity, Drury Lane’s receipts were 8% down on the previous year.

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