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How to have literature in a pandemic

By Gabriela Redwine

Today is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, remembering the dead, and celebrating the living. The Ransom Center’s collection includes several people, both famous and ordinary, whose lives have been touched by AIDS. Among the most well known is Terrence McNally, whose plays Lisbon Traviata (1985, 1989), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), and Love! Valour!
(1994), as well as the Emmy-winning television movie Andre’s Mother (1988, 1990), incorporate AIDS as part of the social, emotional, and biological fabric of their characters’ lives.

All five of these works are represented in the McNally papers at the Ransom Center, in addition to manuscripts, correspondence, and production materials related to his other works, and other materials dating from his high school years through the present. His papers also include 174 computer disks with contents ranging from manuscripts to correspondence to photographs. Digital drafts exist for three of the plays mentioned above: Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; and Love! Valour! Compassion!

Love! Valour! Compassion!, which won a Tony for best play in 1995, is the story of eight gay friends, one of whom owns a large house in the Hudson Valley where the group meets for holiday weekends during one summer. These gatherings become a celebration of friendship and an exploration of life and desire in a time of AIDS. Andre’s Mother first took shape as a short play written for Urban Blight, a musical revue performed at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1988. Both the original eight-minute play and the television movie version, which aired on PBS in 1990 as part of the American Playhouse series, explored the confrontation between Andre’s lover and his mother, and were set at Andre’s memorial service shortly after his death from AIDS.

In addition to drafts with McNally’s handwritten corrections, the boxes related to these two works contain a small amount of correspondence from ordinary people who wrote to share their personal experiences with McNally after seeing Andre’s Mother or Love! Valour! Compassion! One letter is from a mother who lost her own son to AIDS. Another is from an older gay man who cared for his long-time partner in his final years. In 1991, Frank Rich wrote in a New York Times review that Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata, and Andre’s Mother “offer unsentimental hope about the possibilities for intimacy at a time when fear and death rule.” McNally’s larger collection and this small pocket of correspondence are a testament to the power of stories, both public and private, to connect people.

Fellow’s Find: Screenwriter Warren Skaaren

By Alison Macor

What do Batman, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop II have in common? All were rewritten by versatile screenwriter and “script doctor” Warren Skaaren. As a fellow at the Ransom Center last summer, Alison Macor, independent scholar and former film critic for The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, immersed herself in the Ransom Center’s Warren Skaaren collection. Macor shares her experiences working in the collection in preparation for her upcoming biography of Skaaren:

This summer I spent five weeks at the Ransom Center with the support of a Mayer Filmscript fellowship. I worked in the Warren Skaaren collection in preparation for my new book, In Batman’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren.

In addition to writing original screenplays, the Austin-based Skaaren worked as a script doctor—rewriting screenplays by other writers—on many 1980s blockbusters, including Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Batman (1989). By the time of his death in December 1990, he was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

I approached the collection chronologically because I thought it was important to trace Skaaren’s development as a writer. In some cases he spent years nurturing projects like The Freddie Steinmark Story, a biopic about The University of Texas safety who lost a leg to cancer, only to see them never get made. But with each new project Skaaren perfected his writing process and style. He drafted finely detailed character sketches and elaborate “intensity” charts that measured a story’s dramatic highs and lows. Ultimately it was his ability to create multifaceted characters that caught Hollywood’s attention.

I spent most of my time reading multiple drafts of each screenplay. This can be an exciting but also painfully slow process, and the beauty of the Ransom Center fellowship is that it gave me the luxury of time in an environment conducive to such work. Because Skaaren was often hired as a script doctor and reworked screenplays initially created by others, the assignment of writing credit became a particularly delicate issue and influenced his future assignments, pay rate, and reputation. Every studio project that Skaaren worked on went to arbitration, and he kept voluminous notes and copies of all correspondence pertaining to each case. The arbitration of Beverly Hills Cop II, for instance, was especially heated because, as a sequel with a built-in audience, the film was expected to do very well, and literally millions of dollars were at stake for the writers. Indeed, the writer who worked on the screenplay prior to Skaaren (and who received a shared credit with Skaaren) sued the Writers Guild over its decision to split the writing credit. The case was still being appealed at the time of Skaaren’s death—three and a half years after the film’s initial release.

Thanks to the Ransom Center’s Steve Wilson and Katie Risseeuw, who oversaw the digitization of some of the collection’s sound recordings, I was able to hear Skaaren on tape interviewing retired British and Nepalese soldiers and even a witch doctor in preparation for his original screenplay Of East and West, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in England and Nepal. Not only did this provide the opportunity to “hear” Skaaren for the first time, but it also gave me a sense of the intense preparation that he cultivated throughout his writing career. These recordings offered a glimpse of the charm and confidence that so many of his friends and colleagues have mentioned when describing his personality and, ultimately, his success.

Watch this video as Macor further discusses her work in the Skaaren collection:

Cassini's moon map

By Elana Estrin

Before “Where’s Waldo?” there was the “moon maiden,” a shadowy figure hiding in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is a first edition map of the moon rendered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini from 1679, the rarest edition of the first published moon map. The “moon maiden,” “a tiny female silhouette,” is most likely the playful work of Cassini or his engraver. To produce this detailed map, Cassini relied on the latest telescopic observations of the moon’s craters and mountains, among other features.

Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

By Richard Oram

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.

Music inspired by Poe's works

By Elana Estrin

While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.

Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.

Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.

English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Holbrooke’s works and Poe-inspired works of several other composers can be viewed in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

These works are part of the William H. Koester collection, acquired by the Ransom Center in 1966 and the source of most of the items featured in the Ransom Center’s current Poe exhibition.

The ballet performance that sparked a riot

By Elana Estrin

It is 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the audience is screaming, cat-calling, and fist-fighting. It’s the most famous riot in classical music history at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and premiered by the Ballets Russes.

Accustomed to more “palatable” ballets such as Swan Lake, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was shocked by the dissonant and jarring music, the violent and unnatural choreography, and the depiction of a Russian pagan tribe celebrating the arrival of spring by choosing a sacrificial virgin to dance herself to death. Upon hearing the opening bassoon solo played in an unrecognizably high register, French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens is said to have fumed: “if that is a bassoon then I am a baboon!” He then stormed out of the theater.

The Ransom Center holds one of the costumes that no doubt helped to spark the legendary riot. The costumes were designed by archeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich. The costume is part of the Ransom Center’s current display in honor of this year’s centenary of the Ballets Russes, located in the Director’s Gallery on the third floor of the Center through December 18.

Explore the New Publication "Magic, 1400s–1950s"

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Ransom Center’s performing arts collection documents several popular entertainments, including vaudeville, the circus, pantomime, puppetry, and magic. TASCHEN Books recently published Magic, 1400s–1950s, and included more than 30 images from the Center’s collections. Edited by Noel Daniel, the 650-page book is a multilingual edition, with content in English, French, and German. The book is authored by Mike Caveney and Jim Steinmeyer, with contributions from Ricky Jay. Below are excerpts from the book, alongside images from the Center’s holdings.

From the chapter “From Black Magic to Modern Magic,” explained by Mike Caveney.

During the mid-19th century, the most influential magician in the world was a Frenchman named Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin. On this advertisement for his appearance at St. James’s Theatre in London, he is seen producing a seemingly endless quantity of military plumes from a scarf. A skilled watchmaker as well as a magician, he often employed an artful combination of techniques to produce the astonishing results that made him famous.

From the chapter “The Supernatural and the Spirit Worlds,”
explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

At the Egyptian Hall theater, Maskelyne and Cooke produced a humorous play lampooning Spiritualism. Mrs. Daffodil Downy’s Light and Dark Séance parodied the excitable or suspicious characters in a Bloomsbury, London, séance parlor. At the climax of the play, Maskelyne’s illusions eclipsed those of any supposed medium when he produced a glowing skeleton that rattled its jaws and floated over the audience.

From the chapter “Chains, Blades, Bullets, and Fire: Daring and Danger in Magic,” explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

Houdini’s Milk Can Escape, first performed in 1908, reignited his career. It was a brilliant invention that allowed him to bring the excitement of his water escapes to a vaudeville stage. This poster captures the nail-biting terror. The central image is a special cut-away peek at the can’s interior, offering a view that was never seen onstage.