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Storytellers from The Moth tour Spalding Gray archive

By Elana Estrin

Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

Last Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, monologist Mike Daisey told the audience he had a confession to make.

Before coming to Austin, Daisey said, he asked his Facebook friends where he should eat in town. He received an onslaught of barbeque suggestions from Austinites passionately defending their favorites. “People were un-friending each other about where I should eat barbeque,” Daisey reported.

Mike arrived in Austin too starving to search for any of the barbeque suggestions. He did, however, find himself in front of a McDonalds, considering a McRib.

“I know!” Daisey said, acknowledging the audience’s gasp of horror. “How can someone come to Austin and eat a McRib?”

So he re-evaluated and concluded, “I am a sinner, but I will not eat a McRib on this day.” The audience sighed in relief, but too soon. “I will have a cheeseburger instead.”

This was just one of the many stories spun at the Paramount, where Daisey hosted an evening of storytelling with five raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling.

The Moth comes out of the storytelling tradition led by monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. In November, The Moth held a tribute to Gray in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor and they presented the 2011 Moth Award, “celebrating the art of the raconteur,” to Gray’s family.

The day after The Moth’s Austin appearance, Ransom Center Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Baer shared highlights from Gray’s collection with Moth touring coordinator Maggie Cino, who directed the Austin performance, and performer Faye Lane.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Lane said upon arrival at the Ransom Center. Lane said she watched Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia, a performance film of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, three or four times when it was released.

“I just sat there with my mouth open and thought, you can do this? It was so exactly what I wanted to do and I’d never seen anybody do it before,” Lane said. “I started journaling furiously. I realized these stories are important.”

Baer showed Cino and Lane two photographs of Gray which the Ransom Center recently acquired from photographer Ann Rhoney; the Ronald McDonald notebook which appears at the beginning of Swimming to Cambodia (“Oh my gosh, I remember that part: ping pong, coke bottle, banana,” Lane said); one of Gray’s journals (“That looks exactly like my journal!” Lane said); and a psychoanalytic questionnaire (“I’m suddenly fixated on this. I’m like: must read it till the end,” Cino said).

Baer explained that Gray devised the questionnaire, asking himself questions a therapist might ask.

“For him, even the most personal becomes a performance,” Baer said.

Cino and Lane read every word of the questionnaire, occasionally reading passages aloud.

“I was offered a free apartment. I turned it down with the excuse that I had to get back to work. When I got back home, I couldn’t work because I was so upset with the choice I made.”

“Puberty. Lost all confidence. Weak, ugly, and dumb. Too strange for anyone to like or love.”

“I’ve often felt like a kept woman, a housewife.”

Near the end of the tour, Cino explained how Gray’s simple aesthetic influences The Moth. As technology has evolved in the past two decades, Cino said, people are hungrier than ever for simplicity.

“You get into this question of how little do you need to communicate,” Cino said. “Spalding Gray is such a force in having made it seem possible that you can do it in a very straightforward way without a lot of bells and whistles. I think he started a whole world of possibility that people are continuing to explore.”

This Veteran’s Day Weekend: Free Book Giveaway of Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried"

By Io Montecillo

Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'
Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is an account of soldiers’ experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Like his other National Book Award-winning work, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried offers readers a glimpse of war that neither glorifies nor camouflages its realities. O’Brien himself has said he is only attempting to tell a “true war story.” Because of O’Brien’s frank depiction of war and strong use of language, The Things They Carried has been challenged and banned by some counties and schools.  In connection with the Ransom Center’s exhibition Burned, Banned, Seized, and Censored, visitors are invited to see the exhibition during Veteran’s Day weekend, Friday, November 11 through Sunday, November 13, and receive a free copy of The Things They Carried while supplies last. Tim O’Brien’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

Fellows Find: Audrey Wood collection reveals relationships between the literary agent and the playwrights she represented

By Kelsey McKinney

Snapshot photo of Audrey Wood, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. Undated. Unidentified photographer.
Snapshot photo of Audrey Wood, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. Undated. Unidentified photographer.

Milly S. Barranger, Dean at the College of Fellows of the American Theatre and Distinguished Professor Emerita at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, visited the Ransom Center in July on a fellowship funded by the Fleur Cowles Endowment to study the Audrey Wood papers for her upcoming book Audrey Wood and the Playwrights: Shaping American Theatre and Film in the Last Century. The book will be her fourth on pioneering women in the American theater in the mid-twentieth century. Below, she shares her experience working in the collections.

The Hazel H. Ransom Reading Room at the Ransom Center is a treasure of interstitial resources on American theater and its creators from Eugene O’Neill to Lillian Hellman and Terrence McNally. The Center’s award of a travel fellowship afforded me the opportunity to return for a second time to the Audrey Wood papers to do a complete review of the more than 60 boxes containing materials on the literary agent’s representation of playwrights and their plays for the commercial theater. The considerable files present the life and career of Audrey Wood (1905–1985), along with her clients and their playbills, scripts, musical scores, photographs, and correspondence, and the business records of the Liebling-Wood Agency. The correspondence between the literary agent and her clients reveals the nature of their relationships during Broadway failures and successes. As Audrey Wood said, the commercial theater is a “tough business,” and these files reveal just how difficult it was for clients and their agents in the mid-twentieth century.

Based on my experiences in other research libraries, I have concluded that the ability to work with a collection that consolidates materials on the subject results in a highly productive research experience. I have written on subjects that required travel from one collection to another to review the career and interactions with associates and co-workers. The Center’s large collection of materials affords the researcher the luxury of remaining in one place to scrutinize, in this instance, the literary agent’s life story.

In addition, the ambience and orderliness of the Reading Room favors uninterrupted scholarship in the knowledge that across the table from you other research fellows are hard at work on Irish dramatic literature or Tom Stoppard. In other words, although undisturbed, you share the company of exceptional scholars.

The splendor of the Reading Room is that the researcher’s needs have been carefully anticipated in the organization of the collections, the retrieval system for files, the attentive staff, and the ambience of the room itself. It is my hope that my next research project mandates a return to the Ransom Center.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears discusses Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears discusses Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. Photo by Pete Smith.
Richard Williams, an independent scholar researching the Erle Stanley Gardner collection at the Ransom Center, discusses his work at the fellows’ brown bag luncheon. Photo by Pete Smith.
Richard Williams, an independent scholar researching the Erle Stanley Gardner collection at the Ransom Center, discusses his work at the fellows’ brown bag luncheon. Photo by Pete Smith.
Elana Estrin interviews undergraduate student Sonia Desai about her work at the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Elana Estrin interviews undergraduate student Sonia Desai about her work at the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Len Downie, Vice President at Large of The Washington Post, reviews a document in the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Len Downie, Vice President at Large of The Washington Post, reviews a document in the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers during his visit to the Ransom Center. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

Creepy, macabre, and bloody: Halloween assignment illustrates breadth of Ransom Center's collections

By Bethany Johnsen

Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.
Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.

Bethany Johnsen is an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center who has been working with Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg to gather materials for students for a visit on Halloween.

For the students in University of Texas at Austin English Professor Janine Barchas’s freshman honors seminar, a Ransom Center visit on October 31 will bring more than the usual bag of treats: a Halloween-themed presentation introducing students to the Center’s resources.

I assisted Ransom Center Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg in putting together the presentation, and this process revealed the provocative connections that such a subject affords, and will, we hope, suggest to these students ways they might use the collections over the remainder of their time as students. With so many items relating to the supernatural, morbid, or just plain unusual to choose from, limiting the presentation to a manageable size was perhaps the most difficult part of the process.

With a topic as huge as Halloween and all its creepy associations, where does a curator begin? We wanted to pull from various collections to display the richness of the Center’s holdings. So while hours could be spent on the objects of horror from just, say, film, we restricted ourselves to the torso model of Robert De Niro’s makeup for his role as the monster in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein and the mask of (imitation) human skin from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Of course, the modern scary movie invokes a tradition long predating the twentieth century. The presentation will highlight older examples of fascination with the occult, from a sixteenth-century book entitled The discouerie of witchcraft,: wherein the lewde dealings of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, the knauerie of conjurors, the impietie of inchantors…, (and so forth) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Ouija board. And in case such historically important artifacts lack a certain flavor of whimsy, we were sure to include a blood-stained handkerchief from the personal effects of  printer T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, accompanied by a note reading “Dickie’s first cut sometime in November 1885.”

But many of the picks were not as immediately obvious candidates as century-old child blood.  Following a suggestion to investigate the Edward Gorey collection, given the American illustrator’s enormous influence on the contemporary Gothic aesthetic, I combed through his manuscripts to and came across a page that had—in addition to such phrases as “gothic,” “flamboyant,” and “arc cassé”—the words “danse macabre” scrawled across it. This page was not immediately remarkable in a series of brittle papers covered by Gorey’s doodles, but we were intrigued by “danse macabre” anyway. The dance of death, as we call it in English, is an artistic and literary genre that arose in the late medieval period to represent allegorically that death unites everyone, regardless of station or class; we must all dance with death. This symbol must have had special resonance in an age when death, and the harshest class distinctions were so ubiquitous. The Center holds wonderful examples of “dance of death” iconography from many periods, images that can be rather jarring.

Like Halloween traditions themselves, the Center’s holdings span many nations and centuries, and it is this diversity that allows the researcher to pursue unexpected links, like those that arise between twentieth-century artists and late medieval allegories.

In the Galleries: "The Harp Weaver" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

By Kelsey McKinney

Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).
Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).

In 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921). That prize-winning book was an expanded commercial edition of the poems in this volume. The longer book was published by Harper and Brothers and contained these poems, another poem published first by Frank Shay, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921), and a handful of additional new verses.

Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver was one of four volumes that came to represent the chapbook series Salvo that Shay published from the shop. A “salvo” is a burst of gunfire, and these little volumes were likewise meant as small but powerful bursts of energy. Millay’s volume was the most influential of the series.

Shay, the owner of the Greenwich Village bookshop, was a natural salesman. Actor and playwright Holland Hudson wrote that Shay used his windows wisely to draw customers into his shop. Millay’s bibliographer Karl Yost noted that for the total edition of 500 copies, Shay printed most of the copies in orange, but he also printed a small number of each in “red, dark green, apple green, yellow, and blue.” Yost explains Shay did this so that he could create striking window displays. Shay’s wife, the artist Fern Forrester Shay, created the cover art and interior illustrations for this volume. The Ransom Center only owns covers in green, blue, and red. The imprint inside the volume reads, “printed for Frank Shay and sold by him at 4 Christopher St., in the shadow of old Jefferson Market, 1922.”

The Ballad of the Harp Weaver includes some of Millay’s most famous poems and may be read in full in the online exhibition.

Several copies of Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp Weaver can be seen in the exhibition The Greenwich Village bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Eric Cartier, a graduate student in the School of Information, works with an audio reel of William Faulkner reading his own short story "The Bear." Photo by Pete Smith
Eric Cartier, a graduate student in the School of Information, works with an audio reel of William Faulkner reading his own short story "The Bear." Photo by Pete Smith
Library Assistant Ancelyn Krivak uses the Digibook scanner to create digital images for a book of poetry. Photo by Pete Smith
Library Assistant Ancelyn Krivak uses the Digibook scanner to create digital images for a book of poetry. Photo by Pete Smith