Monthly Archives: February 2008

Dwight Codr on ch. 4, Skin

Between the 1400 and 1500 blocks of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans runs a single street that has two different names, depending on which side of the avenue one is. Running towards the lake and tracking into some of the most dangerous parts of the city is Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Running towards the river and tracking into one of the many wealthy and predominantly white blocks of the Garden District is Melpomene Street (the tragic muse and central figure of this chapter). The sign announcing this provocative intersection of black and white, modern and ancient, history and myth, would serve as an excellent visualization of the claims put forward in Joseph Roach’s “Skin” (Chapter 4, It). Like Reynolds’ portrait of Siddons as the tragic muse (1784, p. 152), Melpomene Avenue betokens a Classical past, but here it is transformed to suit American circumstance, taste, and history, where wrought-iron lattice work besmeared by time and consequently evocative of a dignified antiquity plays on the same psychic keys as finely shaped marble sculpture (such as the Apollo Belvedere) did for eighteenth-century English cultural consumers. In virtue of its proximity to a tragic American figure whose death itself serves as a kind of figure for the neighborhood his boulevard at times traverses, the situational irony of Melpomene Avenue’s architecture and cultural resonance is all the more palpable after a reading of Roach’s chapter, wherein the whiteness of tragedy is seen as less white than it is lustrous, antique, and suffused with heritage. Siddons’ skin, Roach argues, traded in the visual intersection of tragedy and tradition, and in so doing became the “It-girl” of her own time.

Ranging from patina, or, the accreted sense of historical weight and significance on the most superficial visual element of celebrity identity (i.e. skin), to deep skin, or “a phenomenon [involving] the attribution of enormously important (and not infrequently tragic) consequences to differences that are in fact only skin deep,” to brand, in which the public image of the celebrity contains Whitmanesque multitudes (nobility/vulnerability, strength/tenderness, etc.), “Skin” offers the reader a series of ostensibly simple terms theoretically re-imagined for immediate and wide critical appropriation and consideration. One would expect an account of skin and “It” in the eighteenth century to turn on images of blackness, the link between blushing and sexual (im)purity, the threat of sullied skin to the socialite (smallpox, measles, etc.), or the wealth of literature and imagery of the female toilet and cosmetics, but Roach here approaches what is ultimately a racial problem by looking at the power of a particular kind of whiteness in popular culture.

One question that arises in this context concerns precisely the form of Roach’s primary object text in this chapter: Reynolds’ painting of Siddons. While the book is clearly not designed to provide the kind of ethnographic information we suppose to be relevant to the evaluation of such things as effervescence or even popularity, I do wonder what is at stake in defining “It” largely in terms of a painting whose visual consumption takes a decidedly more private form than, say, theatrical consumption. Roach asserts that actresses such as Anne Bracegirdle and Siddons set “the terms of the It-Effect, [partly] because their images began to circulate widely and hyperbolically in the absence of their persons” (149). Were their images circulated? In what forms? Do we have any accounts of reception? If they were circulated widely, in what sense was that circulation hyperbolic? It is comparatively easy to follow Roach’s reading of Princess Diana, whose image was so heavily circulated that the market for her image was directly responsible for her death, but I would like know a bit more about Roach’s sense of his critical method, and particularly his criteria for evidence. This book seems at times to deliberately flout scholarly conventions, leaving me to wonder whether Roach would prefer that we cite his work or muse upon it.

Roach, ch. 6: whittling IT down


 [“Karen Carpenter” and “Agnes Carpenter,” from Todd Haynes’s Superstar (1987)]

As our earlier commenters have noted, Joe Roach’s IT is more concerned with the play of surfaces in history than with a full investigation of its depths.  Yet as anyone who has undressed a Barbie knows, the magic does not come from what is in the clothes, or underneath the clothes, but in the quality of belief invested in the object, however it is clothed.

This is something I learned from watching Todd Haynes’s Superstar many years ago, when I was first amused, then unspeakably moved, by the death of “Karen Carpenter,” as she was portrayed by a Barbie doll that was literally whittled away in successive scenes.  As Haynes’s dwindling Karen-doll demonstrated to me, it does not take much to inspire the strongest possible feelings from an audience, but that little something–that IT-factor–is always poised between loathing and admiration, and digging deep tends to complicate, not simplify, such matters. 

This, I think, is Roach’s tacit message about conventional Enlightenment narratives of demystification, which assume a completed historical process of Weberean disenchantment, along with the emotional distancing that such a completion would entail.  Roach, however, concentrates his attention upon a past that is not and perhaps never will be completed in his subjects’ affective lives: his version of the past features semi-historical ghosts, uncanny recurrences, surprising afterlives, out-of-control personal fantasies–in other words, all the possibilities of idiosyncratic retellings–that allow his historical narratives to reverberate indefinitely into the future.  Consequently, IT focuses upon the stakes of “reenchantment” in a world where the eighteenth century has never really gone away, because its magic, meaning its fairies and its monsters, are still with us in ways that we are barely conscious of (16).  All we need to do is clap our hands.

 Though Roach’s final chapter title, “Bones,” might seem to offer readers the metaphor of an essential structure disclosed beneath appearances, we soon learn that the bones of this chapter have never settled down to silence and stillness, nor are they content to serve as the moralizing conclusion of the story, its memento mori.  No, the mummified head, lips, and torso of Queen Katherine of Valois (sadly detached from her legs and pelvis) lead us from her posthumous encounter with the pervy Samuel Pepys, to a quick march over to Macheath and a procession of his offspring–both legitimate and illegitimate–via Polly Peachum, Lucy Lockit, and Lotte Lenya.  Then, in this chapter’s watery underworld, we discover, as if by a miracle,  Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, parading Lady Di and Emma Thompson on each arm like a pair of Vegas showgirls, a vision that leads to a final flourish with the closing scenes of Henry V and the romance of kingship with which we began, and which apparently has no end.

As this sketch might suggest, this chapter is both a dialogue and a somewhat frantic dance of the dead.  Like the book as a whole, I think it could be accused of flittiness, or of being so pleased with its own associations and historical analogies, which are indeed dazzling, as to lag behind a little in its explanations, like the little boys who once had the job of following Anne Bracegirdle onstage, holding her train and parasol.  (I will remember this image of Bracegirdle for a long time) Though I don’t think such a response would do justice to the strengths of this book, I did develop some reservations along the way, which I’m hoping other commenters, or perhaps Roach himself, might like to comment upon.

I wondered, for example, how such idiosyncratic uses of history (Charles II as Glyn’s “Dear Good King,” Macaulay’s whipping-boy, or Barrie’s strange pirate-king compound of Captain Hook) might relate to one another, or how they might relate to more conventional scholarly accounts, though I do admit that this kind of plonking discussion might destroy our delight in Roach’s fast-moving argument. 

More importantly, the relative degree of representativeness or idiosyncrasy in these responses would constitute important evidence for Roach’s claim that we are dealing with synthetic, which I take to mean collective and therefore shared experience.  So to what extent are these fantasies spun out of private or public materials?  We know, for example, that Glin’s fantasies of a naughty Restoration were shared by many popular histories and editions of Restoration writing sold in the early 20th century.  Equally common was the stock anti-bolshevism of her would-be aristocratic attitudes.  These elements, then, seem common enough, though their condensation into the specific forms of her lifestyle and writings does indeed seem unique.  Then again, Glin, for all her loopiness, may very well have helped to create a new and perhaps more popular taste for the Good King Charles, and so we might also pursue her after-effects, and examine how much her retelling of this story affected scholarly or popular views of Charles.  In other words, is it possible to document how far this reading of the Restoration traveled beyond her and her own self-image?  At the same time, Roach’s treatment of Glin invites us to ask similar questions about Macaulay’s and Hazlitt’s versions of this period, and to assume that all these accounts were to some extent fashioned from idiosyncratic motives and materials.  This juxtaposition of Macaulay’s canonical account of the period with Glin’s is one of the greatest strengths of this book, and responsible for some of its most surprising insights.

Despite my occasional reservations about method, I do think that Roach has generated an extremely powerful set of historical metaphors in this book, largely because of his willingness to approach the past from the perspective of unofficial, popular, or idiosyncratic histories (that is, through kitsch or fantasy, which are, after all, merely the despised modes of historical imagination).  This openness to kitsch, pathos, and anachronism actually helps readers to reimagine, and therefore comprehend, the book’s ultimate subject: the historicity of performance, and the often tacit social contexts in which it occurs.


Oroonoko at the Duke on 42nd Street


If I may briefly interrupt this discussion–  

For anyone anywhere near NYC, a rare opportunity to see Biyi Bandele’s intriguing adaption of Oroonoko, directed by Kate Whoriskey at the Duke Theatre. 

     Biyi Bandele’s Oronooko (1999), originally written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, combines elements of Behn’s novel and Southerne’s tragedy.  Bandele divides the play into two sections (as in the novel): the first part takes place in Coramantien and the second in Surinam.  As in Behn, Imoinda is a Coramantien rather than a Brit (as in Southerne), but Bandele retains other elements from Southerne, such as Oroonoko’s notorious speech in which he defends the British as having purchased him fairly. 

     Fans of Behn and Southerne may find the first act shocking: evoking recently disseminated images of water torture, the grandfather/king nearly drowns Imoinda while forcing her to perform fellatio on him in his bath.  This scene was done so forcefully that, during the intermission, some patrons in front of me expressed to the usher their concerns about the actress’s safety.  Instead of drowning, though, in her violent struggle against him Imoinda injures the aging king in a way that contributes to his death.  Thus unlike in Behn or Southern, Oroonoko in Bandele’s version inherits the throne just before being captured into slavery. 

     Bandele complicates and nuances the African scenes, filling out characters that merit only brief appearances in Behn, as well as adding entirely new ones and new tensions in the court of Coramantien.  Spectacular staging, drumming, and choreography of war scenes further enhance the first act, the equivalent of which in Behn remains comparatively sketchy (although I cannot agree with the author’s comment in his program note that Behn’s Oroonoko “was really nothing more than a Noble Savage.”) 

     While the enhancement of the African scenes are rewarding in themselves, they have a significant payoff in the second part, which takes place in Surinam.  We are all accustomed to a certain theatrical representations of new world slaves, but Bandele gives these figures a new kind of depth through our familiarity with the characters in their previous setting.  Further, certain actors appear here as slaves who we earlier saw as court figures in Coramantien, although it’s not clear that they represent the same people.  This ambiguity works to the production’s advantage. Toi Perkins as Imoinda gives a haunting performance as a princess traumatized by abuse on two continents.  Perhaps most significantly, though, solidarity with the other slaves (rather than the prospect of a child being born into slavery) ultimately motivates Oroonoko’s rebellion, although much negotiation and ambivalence precedes it.  Bandele echoes Southerne’s Shakespearean ending to memorable effect. 

     The death of Oroonoko’s grandfather in the first act brings a new poignancy to the tragic bloodbath at the end, for while in Behn it’s not entirely clear what sort of life Coramantien would offer even if the couple had miraculously made their way back, Bandele raises the stakes by replacing the prince of Behn and Southerne with a Coramantien warrior king.

For more information, see:

Posted by Laura Rosenthal 

Chapter Five: “Flesh”

Roach’s chapter on “flesh” begins with Westminster Abbey’s wax effigies.  Charisma and stigmata still emanate from the effigy of Charles II, “exuding the most intense of the contradictory qualities that reliably excite the fascination of It: vulnerability in strength, profanity in sanctity, and intimacy in public” (175).  Here “It” is framed into slightly more of a formula than in other sections (“reliably excite…”).  Later in the chapter, in contrast, Roach will invoke various chance elements in the formation of It, folding in the social dynamics and circumstances that combine unexpectedly to make “It” possible.   This chapter circles around the reproducibility of It, seen again through Pepys as a modern figure, a “self-fashioning parvenu,” who emulated his sovereign by having a cast of himself made up (175).     


A book that has been so passionately concerned with mimetic desire turns to “Pygmalionism, the affliction that makes creators fall in love with the images they themselves have forged” (176).  The success of “It” is “charmed exponentially by the number of its copies” (177). Performers and agents are beginning to do in the eighteenth-century what will become commonplace in our time–Roach uses language like “pioneering” or “presaging” modern experience.


(In a fascinating moment, Roach refers to the “wormhole” in Pepys diary that “opens up uncannily in the 1660s and drops the reader off, as Elinor Glyn rightly intuited, at the movies in the 1920s” (176).  I liked and was heartily dazzled by “wormholes” here . . . any thoughts on this?)


But I digress!  The It effect depends on another strong juxtaposition, quite a fleshly one.  The sacred icon is “fashioned from the detritus of the quotidian, the abject, and the profane” (180).  Thus the Pygmalion story possesses a deep-seated ambivalence, very much at work in Cinderella/ Galatea/ Eliza’s ascent from utensil to ornament.   Roach is also careful to stress that “charisma is an expression of shared needs . . . neither always reducible to, not ever separable from, the real or imaginary flesh of the prodigy” (187).   


So how much of the It effect is created by being in the right place at the right time?  As Roach notes, “there must be social as well as individual chemistry here, a volatile mixture of common needs catalyzed by special opportunities” (184).  More than just the It person is in play, especially to create “It-Zones” like Covent Garden, or Hollywood–both the “worshipped and the sacrificed” are necessary.  Roach’s reading of Pygmalion, which which he ends the chapter, is quite wonderful, and sheds much light on the wider meanings of performance: “By turning untutored vitality into refined inutility before our very eyes, the action of Pygmalion recapitulates the transformative act of performance itself.  As synthetic experience, performance furnishes forth the products that imagination wrests from the raw material of inchoate possibility’ (192).  There, in a nutshell, is one of the great concerns of the book. This chapter shows the dual nature of fleshly transformation, the combination of charisma and stigmata that marks the modern attainment of the It effect.


Above all, this chapter impressed me with its remarks about the selective nature of It (“while many are called, few are chosen,” 183).  Roach lauds the efforts of performance historians to look at a wider group of performers and those who made performances possible in a variety of venues, hitherto unnoticed and unsung–but poignantly acknowledges that the It effect tends to dominate even the most historically attuned academic studies of performance.

Chapter 3 of Joseph Roach’s *It*: “Hair”

One of the things I like best about Joseph  Roach’s It is his unwillingness to deprive his topic-that assemblage of charisma, magnetism, and often tragic historical contingency we call “It”-of its mystery.  For him, the true nature of It is “the spark of the divine original in the perfection of a fleshly type” (118).  The religious overtones are intentional, and one of the book’s achievements is its study of opposites, such as “saint” and “celebrity,” in which Roach, citing the novelist George Meredith, finds “poignant antiphony” (10). 

What links saints and celebrities is their staged vulnerability as history is performed on their bodies.  His third chapter, “Hair,” explores “the enchanted uses of hair in the careers of four actors whose claims to the possession of It remain unassailable and whose afterimages retain their vivacity” (119).  These are Thomas Betterton, Colley Cibber, James Quin, and David Garrick.  Each actor not only had “It”; they performed “It,” in large part, according to Roach, through their social performance of hair.

We know that hair is visually expressive; think of Donatello’s Mary Magdalen, whose disheveled hair is a synecdoche for her agonized suffering.  In this chapter, which focuses, not on saintly penitence but on the staged representation of emotion, we see actors manage their hair in order to achieve either tragic gravitas or its caricature, comic foppishness.  When we consider the difficulty of managing hair, particularly the “big hair” of the tragic actor’s full-bottomed wig, the claim that hair is “performed” becomes clearer.  One overly hasty movement, and a wig’s curls are likely to fly about, transforming intended gravitas into foppishness.  Just as actresses had to learn how to manage their gowns gracefully, transforming themselves onstage into sophisticated aristocrats, so, too, did Betterton artfully manage his voluminous head of hair, in the process transforming his clumsy body into a figure of tragic nobility. 

Betterton did this, Roach tells us, by controlling his head, upper body, and gait, restraining his motions in order to keep the audience focused on his facial expressions and on his hair’s poignant expressive value.  The magic of Betterton’s skill at balancing the exuberant expressivity of his locks with the restrained composure of his gestures led the actor Barton Booth to exclaim, “divinity hung round that man!” 

By contrast, Colley Cibber did what fops do so well: “turn convention into novelty by pushing a certain look to extremes” (136).  His foppish Sir Novelty Fashion exaggerated Betterton’s “big hair,” further publicizing and popularizing it-so much so, that Colonel Henry Brett raced backstage with an offer to purchase Cibber’s wig to make his own fashion statement.  Actresses joined the rush to replicate Betterton’s style, feminizing “big hair” by parading it onstage and inspiring women in the audience to wear their hair in similar fashions.  Through the accident of living beyond the crest of the eighteenth-century “big hair” craze, James Quin was relegated to obsolescence before the eyes of an audience for whom “big hair” had finally become outmoded.  David Garrick seized on this change in hair fashion by replacing the full-bottomed wig with a variety of hair lengths and styles.  His “fright-wig” even had a special mechanism enabling hair to rise up to express horror. 

The careers of each of these actors reveal historical forces acting on actors as they perform or manage their hair.  These actors’ vulnerability to those forces-a vulnerability Roach elsewhere calls stigmata-helped them attain It.  Certainly not saints, these four men nevertheless shared the saint’s performative transcendance of the ordinary.

As Roach explains, hair “exerts a magical power even greater than that of accessories and clothes, in part because it functions as both simultaneously” (117).  Falling somewhere between nature and culture, hair can be managed, and its management determines an actor’s or celebrity’s skill.  Princess Diana put this skill to use when she once confessed, “People wonder how I always look as if I’ve just had my hair done.  It’s because I have.”  The performative quality of her claim shows her awareness of how hair might be managed or performed by registering antithetical roles: on the one hand, she was ordinary, a person making light of the unexceptional routine of having one’s hair done; on the other hand, she was extraordinary, a princess followed wherever she went by an exceptional array of stylists and clothing trunks.  Her skill at allowing these two roles to play off each other contributed to her iconic role as the twentieth century’s It girl. 

 Like Alexander Pope’s army of sylphs, who transform Belinda’s hair and dress into a numinously powerful energy field, the forces that sustain It cannot be reduced to something as simple as a hair style alone.   As Roach puts it, “social hair is performance, with all its magic and its risks” (127).  It is a strength of this book, as it is a strength of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, that hair is probed as a synecdoche for It without losing It’s essential mystery.

Anna Battigelli, Visiting Professor of English, Boston University; Professor of English, SUNY Plattsburgh

“A Bloody Shirt; or, The Lurid Details” (Ch. 2 of *It*, “Clothes”)

In this chapter, Roach takes a fresh look at three topics that have been of significant interest to me these past years—the dressing room, clothes, and satire—and offers promising forays into current ones—interpretation, methodology, and “lurid details”(101). So I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to talk about this chapter with everyone and extend thanks to Laura Rosenthal and Dave Mazella for organizing this forum.

Roach opens the “Clothes” chapter with a rich description and analysis of the clothing adorning Charles II’s effigy in Westminster Abbey—down to the royal underpants that once held the royal seat, as it were, but are now wrapped around a stuffed canvas that supports the king’s costume in perpetuity. Clothes in this chapter are exclusively “fabulous” or “smart,” and in this way Roach’s discussion differs from recent considerations of how women’s clothing, in particular, was a nexus for sensibility and consumption, sexuality and commerce (see Jennie Batchelor for an example of this argument). For Roach, clothing is a vehicle through which It is confirmed or anointed; thus the story about the amount of money that Buckingham spent on his coronation outfit (an impossible £30,000) is notable not for its plausibility, but for the excess and awe that the story reflects.

Starkly, then, Roach turns our attention to the specific valences of clothing in the production and circulation of It, arguing that clothing in particular “reveals the double-edged nature of the It-effect” (88). I think it’s worthwhile to quote from his long iteration: “Clothing in this usage functions as both noun and verb, as prop and performance, engaging in a double action, each part of which recalls the other as object and subject, which oscillate, adoringly or punitively, between glamour and abjection, charismata and stigmata” (88). Associated always with the dressing room—one of two key ‘it-zones’ that Roach identifies (the other is Covent Garden)—clothing promises allure and threatens denigration. The topic of clothing enables Roach to describe the process of what he calls nominating a role-icon, a move that implicitly points to the fact that It is always being constituted or challenged, that It is anything but static (I think that this can be a little easy to forget through the course of the book). To read clothing as an object, but even more important, as a verb encapsulated by the public intimacy of the levee and the dishabilee, brings our attention to the instability and productive dynamism of It. Clothing read in this way also—at the very least implicitly—points to the simultaneous promise and confounding of boundaries between things such as public and private, a phenomenon I see as associated with the dressing room in particular.

Picking up Laura Engel’s very helpful questions about the ideologies of gender and sexuality, it is important to recall that clothes, for the most part in this chapter, mean men’s clothes, and as such the majority of the material is drawn from the Restoration—a full century before the “great male renunciation” of sartorial splendor and the gender’s fade to black. (By way of a side note, much of our sartorial attention is focused on Burney’s Evelina, with her new hair and new clothes, to the extent that we can forget that Lord Orville is powdered, wigged, and colorful as well.) Though there is a brief foray into the Glyn sisters’ voyeuristic witnessing of Jersey Lily adjusting her clothing before her public introduction, the focus of the chapter—and of clothing’s relation to It—is figured through Buckingham.

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628-1687) is a particularly provocative and telling example for Roach because the narrative necessarily follows the mandates of tragedy—Villers’ star falls in its after-image, rendered hubristic and pathetic by the succeeding cultural imagination, available always (or almost always) as a symbol of a rake suffering his due reward, a golden boy becoming tarnished. Amidst the crowd of fallen Stuarts, those romantic, monarchical ‘losers of history’ that Laura Rosenthal describes, Buckingham shines brightly.

But it is the way that the shaming of Buckingham is achieved—at least in the cultural imagination, as Roach reports it—that is stunning: satire. While there are other discussions of the costs of the It-effect (Diana comes to mind), one of Roach’s most extensive considerations of the stigmata of It is funneled through satire. He reads satire as a curse and Dryden’s portrayal of Buckingham in Absalom and Achitophel as a tour-de-force of afterimage manufacture, with Dryden at long last winning by cloaking Buckingham forever in the satiric equation with Zimri. But I actually think that Roach could have drawn out the relation of satire to It more fully, for satire is a mode energized and frustrated by the superficial, by surfaces, by charismata and stigmata. It is a performative and a speech-act, and I think offers one of the most telling ways that ‘celebrity’ in the eighteenth century was negotiated.

Which brings me to the interrelated questions of interpretation, methodology, and what Roach calls “the lurid details” (101). He explicates for us the drive “to establish freedom of conscience in matters of religion” (100) that shaped Buckingham’s career, but does so with an awareness that these nuances and specificities are for the few self-identified specialists. Roach writes, “If little of this seems especially apropos to Buckingham’s character as a ‘rake,’ that is not at all surprising. The genesis of a role-icon requires not the exposition of nuanced positions, in which the shades of gray are duly rendered, but rather the vivid flash of lurid details” (101).

By way of contrast, Roach offers the “lurid detail” of a shirt stained with the blood of the Earl of Shrewsbury, his mistress’s husband whom Buckingham killed in a duel; the story is flexible enough to admit the possibility that either the duchess or Buckingham actually wore the shirt, but pointed enough to assert that the lovers had sex immediately thereafter. The bloody shirt is the key afterimage of Buckingham the rake, and in this way I am reminded of Roach’s statement elsewhere that history, like the sea, always returns its dead. Thanks to a distinction drawn by Laura Rosenthal between ‘history’ and ‘memory’—which I read in part as claiming ‘history’ as organized into the narrative forms of progress or decline, and ‘memory’ as a mode of lingering and recirculation that girds the ‘deep eighteenth century’—I see that the ‘lurid detail’ of the bloody shirt (or whatever the lurid happens to be) is the evidentiary unit of memory. Lurid details hang on, linger, and circulate through time, barely changing under the pressure of their recirculation and mightily resisting analysis (in the end, disagreements be what they are, the lurid detail remains intact). Lurid details evoke, for me, what Naomi Schor calls the “lure” of details. While the bloody shirt could be analogous to the material details that are the bread-and-butter of new historicism and cultural studies, as a lurid detail, the bloody shirt instead functions analytically like an It-icon itself. I think that one of the things that the Buckingham material exemplifies then is the methodology of ‘memory’: whatever the ‘truth’ of that bloody shirt story, its stained fabric sticks to Buckingham’s reputation, and that is why It matters.

 Tita Chico 

Harlot Marge, (with apologies to Sir Peter Lely)


[courtesy of Susan/Miranda of Wordwenches]

I thought it would be helpful to have some illustrations here, at this point in the discussion.–DM