Betterton’s Funeral: Anderson and Roach, part II

I’m happy that Laura suggested this mini-forum, because when I first looked at Roach a long time ago, I just set it aside.  I couldn’t find a use for it in all the stuff I was thinking about at the time, and so it went into a big pile of “books to worry about later.”  This was my loss, I think, and I’m glad to have an excuse to read it more carefully.

Even eleven years after its publication, the Cities of Dead’s most striking feature remains its non-linear treatment of time and temporality, especially in comparison with Imagined Communities.  By troping memory as embodied memory, or memory-as-performance, Roach makes BA’s before-and-after periodizations look very quaint indeed.  As a one-time New Yorker, I especially appreciated his connection of urban space, which is of course a pedestrian space (the city as daily itinerary) with collective memory.   This kind of connection helps to account for the oversaturated, overdetermined nature of urban spaces and urban histories, where the urban landscape bears the traces of all the people who lived there before, whether in the forms of street names, billboards, graveyards, or famous buildings and monuments.  As I mentioned earlier, I also liked this book’s approach to theorizing the coexistence of distinct times within the same urban space, and appropriately, it offers an nicely jumbled medley of signifying media to make its historical arguments (no historical “transition” from oral to literate cultures, when we’re talking about the arrival of feathered peoples to the middle of 18c London). 

Curiously, in light of our discussions this past week, both Anderson and antiquarians do appear in Roach’s book, as part of Roach’s discussion of the nation, the nationalized theater and theater audience, and the corporate history that nationalism entails, especially in the context of Betterton’s curiously extended reign as “king” of the London theater during a period of unsettled dynastic politics.

Betterton plays a very interesting role (there’s that word again) for a discussion of dynasties in this period, and his career as a quasi-king, more effective perhaps than Charles II, makes him an irreplaceable artifact in the history of English drama.  The fact that his greatest fame was connected to his roles both as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, viewing the Ghost, or as Othello, hovering over Desdemona, neatly ties together the nationalist and racialist threads of Roach’s Anglo-American genealogy. 

I must say that I really admired the daring and singlemindedness of Roach’s book: I’m not sure any other approach to this material would have captured the peculiar significance of a figure like Betterton in English “cultural” history, as opposed to mere literary or dramatic or political history. 

But I also wondered what relation this genealogy had to other kinds of histories: theatrical histories, for example, which would spend more time with other actors and acting companies; histories of English drama and dramatic criticism, which might locate Farquhar in a more extensive context of thought regarding a national theater, etc. etc. 

Roach, of course, at the outset makes the obligatory comment  that his is only one of many potential accounts, and that other accounts drawing on other bodies of evidence might produce “very different priorities, perhaps” (30), but that nonetheless he would stand by his chief claim, that “the mutually interdependent performances of circum-Atlantic memroy remain visible, audible, and kinesthetically palpable to those who walk in the cities along its historic rim.” 

So my first thought, a little ungratefully, was, what if we rewrote the chapter, and produced a genealogy of kingship around Davenant instead of Betterton, the supposed illegitimate son of Shakespeare and London’s leading theatrical entrepeneur?  What would we gain, and what would we lose?  I suppose I’m wondering how much we can generalize from genealogies of this kind, and how far it might be possible to extend the insights we have found in this remarkable book.

DM

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