The exploitation and abuse of child and adolescent actors is nothing new, although now Hollywood and the pop music industry come to mind first. It’s as old as the theater and we sometimes wonder about Shakespeare’s little actors. What happened to those who played the role of Cleopatra, Viola and Rosalind? Other questions arise. How to manage notoriety from an early age? How to manage its withering? These are at the heart of Michael Arditti’s spellbinding and disturbing new novel.
Written in the first person, it is the story of Master William Betty who, at the age of 12, took first the provinces and then London by storm in the early years of the 19th century. Hailed as “the child Garrick” and “the young Roscius”, he played Hamlet, Richard III and other Shakespearean roles as well as popular melodramas, achieving perhaps his greatest success as Norval, the young hero by Douglas of John Home. Handsome and graceful, he also achieved great social success, admired by royalty and Prime Minister William Pitt, while arousing the jealous resentment of many in the theatre.
Those triumphs are a thing of the past when the novel begins with Mister – no longer Master – Betty embarking on a comeback six years older, ten inches taller and considerably bigger than when he retired and went to the Cambridge University. His name and reputation will secure him engagements, but where people once flocked to the theater in wonder, they now come only out of curiosity, and where he once rejoiced, he is soon greeted with disappointment or indifference.
He is driven to examine his glory days and confront the dark side of his triumph. Did his father exploit him mercilessly? Was his admired tutor, who taught him his trade, also an aggressor? Was his fame fake? Were, he wonders, his detractors, weren’t they? Finally, he thinks, “I was not an actor but a sideshow.” It’s a moving and unsettling story, and Arditti tells it with understanding and engaging sympathy.
He also paints a rich picture of the theater of the time, inadequate and wooden rehearsals, and sketches some truly appalling plays in which Master Betty delighted her audience. It’s also a rich, sometimes heartbreaking social tableau, like when, for example, Master Betty is taken to see Bedlam’s lunatics. It is therefore a historical novel, admirably researched and reinvented, with moving scenes such as when the mature Betty visits the seasoned actress, Mrs. Jordan, long-time mistress of the future William IV, mother of his ten children , two of whom were friends and playmates of Master Betty in her glory days. Theater, as she knows, is a tough place where a lot of the glitter is far from gold.
We come to wonder, like the narrator, if his fame was built only on his value of curiosity, if he was indeed only an accessory. Surely not. Surely there was something genuine and a lot moving there. We have all seen remarkable performances by children and teenagers, and reading this novel I remember that one of the best Lady Macbeths I saw was a 15 year old boy in my house at school .
Michael Arditti is a novelist who has always challenged himself and never wanted to repeat himself. His novels are unpredictable, the precedent being, for example, the story of the biblical king David. For this reason, I suspect he never had the popularity his talent should entitle him to. One could say that his work is uneven and that he does not always succeed in what he undertakes. Seems like sometimes his ambition – because he’s always ambitious – overreaches and falls on the other side. But it’s never boring. It’s still interesting to say the least, and that’s no small feat. Sometimes it is completely successful, and The Young Pretender is surely that. It may never be fashionable, but that’s okay. Many fashionable things are poor things. I never open an Arditti novel without expectation of pleasure, and I am almost always well rewarded for it.
The Young Pretender, by Michael Arditti, Arcadia Books, 185pp, £14.99
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