Notes from the Undergrad: Archive, cultural consciousness, and a semester in the reading room
By Colin McLaughlin
Colin McLaughlin is a radio-television-film, rhetoric and writing, and Plan I Honors senior in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the class, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, McLaughlin shares his experience in the class.
You become accustomed to certain things after your tenth visit to the Ransom Center. The processes required for entry—presenting your ID card, dropping your backpack off in the locker, opening your computer —become automatic. What never becomes mundane is the experience of opening the folder, not knowing what you may discover inside.
I spent a lot of time with the Norman Bel Geddes concept pieces for the 1917 New York production of King Lear, both through class meetings and in my own time at the Ransom Center. These pieces represent some of Bel Geddes’s earliest work and are remarkable both because Bel Geddes was only 23 years old at the time and because the works have survived, despite the fact that the production they were commissioned for was never staged.
The almost abstract nature of the piece evokes the idea of a cultural subconscious and how—after centuries of productions and adaptations ranging from classic and minimal to bizarre (see the “King Lear: Godard Film” materials in Box 5 of the Thomas Fiske collection)—King Lear has transcended what can be normally preserved in photographs and film evidence.
I compared these pieces to the materials the Ransom Center holds on the Elia Kazan film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire for my final presentation in the “Drama in the Archives” class. I wanted to compare the photographic vs. non-photographic evidence in the archive. I was motivated by Matthew Reason’s words in Documentation, Disappearance, and the Representation of Life Performance: “performance only exists in the moment of its creation, and its only valid afterlife is in the memory of those who were there.”
Comparing the abstract Bel Geddes work on Lear to the more concrete publicity kits and script revisions for the Streetcar film led me to argue that, because of photographic documentation and the prevalence of the Kazan film and its iconic performances, modern texts like A Streetcar Named Desire are more solidified in the cultural consciousness, and thus performances of these texts are more concerned with preserving those original visions. Meanwhile, because no photographic evidence exists for the original productions of Lear, the text is freer to be interpreted and adapted in bold, artistic ways.
My final argument, the culmination of a semester studying drama in the archives, ended up being much simpler than I had originally intended. This surprised me. After weeks of coming to the archive, I learned that the answers we find in the boxes and folders of the archive, while extensive and often enlightening, may not always be as complicated as we expect them to appear.
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