- Cities Of The Dead: Circum-atlantic Performance
In Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach imagines Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “Black Atlantic”—the circum-Atlantic region bounded by Europe, Africa, and the Americas—as specifically embodied through performance. The book evocatively synthesizes literary theory, historical scholarship, and personal reflection; it is an excellent example of how the study of performance might be integrated with literary and theatre history on the one hand and cultural studies on the other.
Roach concentrates his study on two specific urban sites, London and New Orleans, whose past and present encounters revealing the dynamic formulations of race, class, gender, and power. His focus on non-written performance forms—what he refers to as “orature”—includes much: theatre, fiction, carnivals and parades, markets, funerals, music, treaty rites, legal proceedings, and more impromptu performances that take place in urban spaces, the “behavioral vortex of the cityscape” (28).
Though he chooses key locales for his study, his interest seems to lie in those instances of performance that migrate through history between these places. Roach emphasizes the importance of historical scholarship that resists fixed notions of national boundaries, believing that “[t]he key to understanding how performances worked within a culture, recognizing that a fixed and unified culture exists only as a convenient but dangerous fiction, is to illuminate the process of surrogation as it operated between the participating cultures” (5). This choice sometimes gives the impression of a forced comparison between radically different historical periods and cultural communities, and also of missing information. For instance, while Roach discusses New Orleans practice and history during a range of several centuries, much of what he has to say about London emphasizes the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with little mention of contemporary British race, culture, and gender politics.
Linking these highly disparate kinds of performance is the repetition of certain theoretical tropes across chapters. Roach finds in each instance “the three-sided relationship of memory, performance, and substitution” (2). Central to the book is the idea of surrogation, the process of substitution that is made as “actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric” of a culture (2). This process is manifested through effigies, rites and rituals, and everyday practices, as well as theatre. Also important in Cities of the Dead is the “kinesthetic imagination,” conceived of less as the muscle memory of an individual body, than as the shared bodily movements and practices of a particular cultural community. Roach suggests that surrogation and kinesthetic imagination can be traced in “performance genealogies”:
expressive movements as mnemonic reserves, including patterned movements made and remembered by bodies, residual movements retained implicitly in images or words (or in the silences between then), and imaginary movements dreamed in minds, not prior to language but constitutive of it, a psychic rehearsal for physical actions drawn from a repertoire that culture provides.
Each chapter constructs a particular “performance genealogy” but these are not exclusive of one another. Roach returns in several of his chapters to discuss the white, African-American, and Native American participation in the pageants and festivities of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In his second chapter, “Echoes in the Bone,” he juxtaposes what he calls the Mardi Gras performances of “whiteface minstrelsy” (21), which expose the absurdity of Eurocentrism, with Caribbean performance traditions such as obeah and vodun, myths of national origin in Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas; the segregation of the dead in urban cemeteries in London and New Orleans, and the commemoration of Elvis on recent United States postage stamps. Chapter 5, “One Blood,” reads Mardi Gras Native American performance in light of nineteenth-century plays that sentimentalized genocide in the form of the “vanishing Indian” (188). It also relates such performances to other expressions of the tensions involving commodification of colored flesh and racial hybridity in historical and contemporary New Orleans, including Dion Boucicault’s melodrama The Octoroon: or, Life in Louisiana...