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

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

  1. Hi Anna,

    This seems like a very just description of the chapter, but I’d like to focus on this question of the celebrity’s dual combination of visibility and vulnerability, since they both seem to be part of the dynamic of the “poignant antiphonies” that JR uses throughout the book.

    JR effectively argues that the hair functions as an extension of the body’s expressivity. But how does that element of vulnerability come in? Is it because there’s nothing more vulnerable to criticism, or more context-dependent, than an old, bad haircut? Conversely, when we think about the sleekness and polish of the best performers, a really good, chic haircut seems key to this kind of performance.?

    [I’m thinking now about the before and after haircuts of Anne Hathaway’s character in the Devil Wears Prada]


  2. Anna Battigelli

    Hi David,

    You point to an interesting aspect of Roach’s book, which is his textured and nuanced understanding of “performance.” Roach helps us reimagine these actors by zooming in on specific aspects of their performance. In this case, he zooms in on hair as an aspect of performance, but it isn’t the stylishness of the haircut that is the focus so much as it is the “performance of hair.”

    Betterton, for example, knew how to manage his hair onstage in such a way as to evoke pathos. This management was more than the stylishness of his wig; it involved a kind of bodily transformation through which his clumsy body took on tragic grandeur. His vulnerability might be located both in his odd physique and also in his success at portraying tragic kings.

    Cibber’s vulnerability is perhaps more obvious, since not only did he portray a fop but he became defined as one. His success at this role reflects his vulnerability to his talent and to audience demand.

    Quin failed to adjust as the history of fashion changed; though he, too, was a successful actor, he nevertheless became an image of obsolescence. So there we have an obvious vulnerbility.

    Finally, Garrick’s bounding energy reflects a new spirit of the age acting on/through him.

    The vulnerability of these actors–like the vulnerability of various movie stars today–helps account for our fascination with them. Thus the chapter on hair is really a nuanced discussion of one aspect of a character’s performance–on stage, within a career, and within a culture.


  3. OK, so “performance” is the term we’re giving for the entire ensemble of expressive inflections, movements, gestures, and interactions that an actor carries with him throughout a career: these make him intelligible to an audience, but may also make him contemptible over time.

    What I’m thinking now is that part of the performance is mastering something like a wig so that it expresses character in the way that Betterton’s whole affect radiated “authority,” (or that Anne Hathaway’s haircut, along with her walk in new clothes, radiated “sleekness” in the Devil Wears Prada).

    This all makes sense to me, the difficulty seems to be documenting it in the first place, and then being able to capture it in one’s writing, especially from such a great historical distance.

    This ability to capture this level of visual, intelligible detail for the performance seems to be one of the most interesting achievements in this book. How do you think he manages to capture and highlight such transient things?


  4. Anna Battigelli

    Hi David,

    I would single out three things that make Roach’s historical imagination particularly acute. The first is his understanding of the textured nature of performance, which allows him to see things in Cibber’s account or Addison’s remarks that others might miss. Most of us would read about the “big wig” craze, laugh and dismiss it. He imagines it, and thus watches as Quin is left wearing a big wig after its fashion date has passed.

    Second, his deployment of both rhetorical and religious terms allows him to reveal the past emerging in the present: portraits are effigies of saints’ lives; celebrities have “charisma” or “stigmata;” and so forth. This is helpful in creating a textured sense of the historical moment through which the past also speaks.

    Finally, he doesn’t hesitate to descend into the lower regions of the imagination, probing Pepys experiencing experience, or Glyn’s view of movie stars as reincarnated Stuarts, or a fop racing backstage to purchase a wig to gratify his vanity. This gives his account a psychological richness and complexity that contributes to the experience of performance.

  5. I wonder to what extent these virtues of JR’s book stem, which you term “texture” and richness,” derive from his ability to introduce ranges of contrasting and suggestive materials into his analysis that might not have been incorporated into more conventional books.

    This would be my list of the methodological decisions he made that seem indebted to cultural studies, but not quite of it:

    1. suspending the usual hierarchies of high over low culture, or text over performance, so that he can track and even visualize the historical trajectory of something as seemingly trivial as “big hair.” This level of historical specificity and detail adds the texture you describe.

    2. suspending the usual historicist dicta against anachronism and separation of epochs, and stressing instead the interpenetration of periods, as with the “deep 18th century.” This gives us a range of fresh analogies and metaphors that we can use to recognize the effects of 18th century celebrity, and to detach the book from historicist macronarratives of either Enlightenment secularization or an “ancien regime” style confessional state.

    3. similarly, the usual historicist injunctions against sympathetic identification with the past, especially for the careful scholar policing contexts for anachronism, seems suspended here, as we see all the peculiar and idiosyncratic appropriations of the past as nonetheless significant for our reconstructions of it in the present. Historicization here begins with fantasy, instead of trying to correct or regulate it.


  6. Anna Battigelli


    I like your methodical analysis; it highlights Roach’s strengths and suggests dangers confronting imitators. But it also, by contrast, reveals the kind of imaginative sterility that can be deadly in more conventional scholarship. Uncovering fantasy–the stuff of dreams, diary entries, anxieties, fears, hopes, obsessions, compulsions, vanities–provides a rich resource for a fully engaged historical imagination. There are many other things one needs to “get right” first, but the potential for richly illustrative and psychologically illuminating material is there.


  7. Dear Maryland Readers,

    I am quite dazzled by your posts about “It” and humbled by the generosity of your insights. The chapter summaries are skilled and responsive, reminding me of what I was trying to do and also about what I wish I had done better. Roland Barthes believed that we can only return to a book we have written as a guest, and you are very kind hosts. Tita is right about the telegraphic treatment of satire, and how much more could be said about it. Also, somewhere in my notes on things to do (that didn’t get done) is “more on wormholes.” With due deference to Deep Space Nine, what I was thinking of there was the spastic nature of historical continuity and change as lived experience as opposed to the smoothed out narratives of “progress,” how behaviors carry forward habits and practices that receed for a while only re-emerge with startling intensity decades or even centuries later. Anti-Semitism is an example that springs to mind–who, remembering the medieval Crusader atrocities in Mainz and then reading Lessing’s Nathan the Wise from our Enlightened period (the SHORT eighteenth century) could imagine what came back into dark fullness of being in Germany two hundred years later? I want to think more about your many stimulating thoughts and questions, but other duties intervene.

    More soon,