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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

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