On having your pencil ready

I have been reading Joseph Roach‘s Cities of the Dead recently. It’s amazing, and I’m learning a great deal. While there will probably be a blog post dedicated to the text in the near(ish) future, I wanted to write today about something else instead. It all begins with an innocuous pair of sentences about halfway through one of Roach’s chapters, where he discusses the meeting of primarily oral and primarily literate cultures that took place when four native American ‘kings’ visited Queen Anne’s court in April 1710. I’ll quote in full.

One reason why ‘epic loves a parade,’ as David Quint wittily puts it in Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton (1993), is that processions resemble genealogies or other lists of successive eminences (31). They favor the processes of memory without writing (Vansina, 34-56).

These two sentences, in an experience, which, I’m sure, is not uncommon amongst anyone doing research, triggered something in my head. I realised that I could use the idea here for my own work, even if it is far from connected to Roach’s concerns at this point. You see, on some level of my cortex, I’ve been puzzling away at trying to find examples for how the theatre of the eighteenth-century might also constitute a literary-critical arena, especially as regards Shakespeare. After all, surely literary criticism needs things written down, since its very name indicates a dependence on literate culture.

Here, though, was a thought that connected performance and literary interpretation. A parade favors “the process of memory without writing”. I immediately thought of Garrick’s play The Jubilee, which features (in an enactment of the Stratford Jubilee of 1769) an enormous parade of actors dressed as Shakespeare’s characters. What this procession was doing was, I thought, connected to these ideas of genealogy and memory: it was somehow making a critical claim about Shakespeare’s place in eighteenth-century culture, but without recourse to the written word.

A sketch of the procession in question, from The Lewis Walpole Library

Of course, there remains much to figure out. The procession in Garrick’s play may imply a genealogical connection between actors performing the roles in Drury Lane and those of Shakespeare’s company; but it strikes me that there is also merit in Roach’s other way of phrasing what happens in a procession: the sequence of “successive eminences”. What happens in The Jubilee then is not just a theatrical tracing of descent, but also a claim for elevation: the actors representing each famous character are all linked through that character to Shakespeare, and none more so than Garrick, the playwright’s “twin star”.

So this is what I wanted to write about today: those moments when an innocuous phrase proves itself a catalyst, and causes a previous inert lump of half-formed mental matter to sublimate into something rich and strange. One burden of doing a PhD is never being free of it, but one joy of such perpetual reflection is the chance to have moments such as these. Just make sure that you have a pencil to hand.