The Young Pretender by Michael Arditti: ‘I shall surely die if I may not be a player’

Covedr image for The Young Pretender by Michael ArdittiI wasn’t at all sure I’d read Michael Arditti’s The Young Pretender but when I tweeted its arrival several people including Linda Grant and Amanda Craig sang its praises to the skies which persuaded me to give it a try and I’m glad they did. Subtitled ‘The Dramatic Return of Master Betty’, Arditti’s novella is the story of William Betty, adored child star of the Georgian stage, and his attempted comeback eight years after his sudden fall from grace.

No actor has ever been so esteemed, only to be so discarded.

Master Betty became entranced with the idea of life on the stage in his native Ireland, achieving his ambition at the age of eleven playing the likes of Hamlet alongside renowned adult actors. The child of a profligate father who spots a way to bolster his failing finances, Master Betty is tutored by Mr Hough, sufficiently well connected to advance the prodigy’s career. After his London debut, Master Betty’s celebrity is assured. Feted by royalty, mobbed by the public, his performances cheered to the rafters, Master Betty becomes convinced of his own talent, happily usurping respected actors’ roles while instructing others how to play their part. He’s a beautiful child but by the time he’s twenty, determined to re-establish himself on the stage, he’s gone to seed. Opening in Bath, Mr Betty, as he wants to be known, makes his way around the country, greeted with affection by some fellow players, hostility by others, his eyes on a brilliant Covent Garden comeback. As his tour progresses, flashes of memory fill puzzling gaps and he begins to understand that the proud career he’s intent on reviving may not have been quite what it seemed.

The audience both revere and resent us for the passions we make them feel: passions so much greater than those that they feel in their own lives.

Michael Arditti’s witty, poignant tale takes the form of a memoir which Betty decides to write hoping to reveal the truth of his youthful career. Arditti weaves colourful theatrical history lightly through his novella, bringing the London stage to life with its boisterous audiences and rivalries between actor/managers always with an eye on the takings and well-connected patronage. Betty’s story is well handled: the slow surfacing of suppressed memories of the abuse countenanced by his adored father in pursuit of more money and not averse to slipping his child drugs to overcome his exhaustion, nicely done. Several of the writers who recommended it mentioned how funny the novel was but while Arditti’s depiction of Betty’s self deception is comic at first the sadness of his abuse and exploitation outweighed that for me. It’s a far from unfamiliar story. Talent or beauty may appear to be blessings in children but they can become a curse in the pursuit of fame and fortune.

Arcadia Books: London 9781529422559 186 pages Hardback

12 thoughts on “The Young Pretender by Michael Arditti: ‘I shall surely die if I may not be a player’”

  1. I’ve read a couple of Arditti’s novels (Easter and The Breath of Night) but I see it’s now been an astonishing 7 years since I picked up something of his. I admire how erudite his writing is, and how each book is so different from the others.

    1. This was my first by him and I enjoyed it. He has a light touch when weaving his reasarch through the narrative. It opens in Bath with spot‐on descriptions of the city.

      1. You must have loved the Bath setting, and it’s impressive to pack so much into a novella length. The ones I’ve read by him were 300+ pages. I have a copy of his Widows & Orphans as well.

  2. I’ve only read one of his books, Widows and Orphans, and enjoyed his writing but thought the story was weak. Looking at Goodreads, though, shows me that it’s his lowest rated book by some way, so it looks like I just picked the wrong one. The story of this one sounds much more interesting – theatrical settings are always tempting. So… I’m tempted!

    1. Oh, good! The theatrical setting and infighting was particularly well done. I think the novella length suited the story well. Any longer would have felt a bit strained.

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