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Notes from the Undergrad: Student uses archival materials to explore Nietzschean nihilistic reading of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

By Maureen Clark

Maureen Clark is a third-year government and Liberal Arts Honors student in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the course, 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, Clark shares her experience in the class.

 

After reading Samuel Beckett’s seminal work Waiting for Godot I was at a loss. I felt that there existed some sort of lack in the work (or at least my understanding of it). I felt that I needed to understand Beckett to understand the play. I entered the Harry Ransom Center keen on unearthing the history of an avant-garde playwright known for his works in the Theatre of the Absurd. What I found waiting for me were letters, journals, and manuscripts. As I looked through the letters, hoping to parse out some personal connection with Beckett and how he felt about Waiting for Godot, I felt like a detective. I was going through someone else’s mail, piecing together fragments from the past: postcards with aging purple portrait stamps and shiny photo fronts of exotic places where sepia had begun to creep in through the corners and long letters grieving the losses of beloved friends.

 

As I looked through his correspondence and journals, I learned that Beckett was a member of the French Resistance. He lost multiple friends and allies on the battlefield and in concentration camps. One such friend, a fellow member of the Resistance and the man that convinced him to join, was Alfred Péron. Beckett chose to live permanently in France, abandoning his home nation of Ireland for two main reasons. The first was the overwhelming sense of guilt he felt at the loss of his friends, and the second was to fulfill his final promise to Alfred: that he would take care of his wife, Maya “Mania” Lézine Péron, if anything were to happen to Péron during the war. Beckett kept his word and became close long-term friends with Mania, writing her often and discussing anything from vacation plans to manuscript ideas.

 

In one letter on June 12, 1969, Beckett provided a mimeograph from Edith Fournier, a former student of Péron, in which she explained the meaning of Godot. He explained to Péron that with the exception of a few “misconceptions” Edith’s analysis was “remarkable.” Finally, I was beginning to unearth Beckett’s understanding of the play, which was no small feat. Beckett is even famous for having said “[i]f I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play.”

 

Rather than focusing on describing the play through an Existential lens or even describing it as a piece for the Theatre of the Absurd, Fournier describes the play through a Nietzschean lens. Fournier does not explicitly cite Nietzsche, but focuses on themes found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For example, Fournier discusses the meaning of the play to be waiting, not Godot. Moreover, Fournier wrote, the reason the characters wait in the play is similar to a religious waiting for the afterlife: it is habitual and eternally repeating.

 

As a result, I pointed my external research toward a Nietzschean nihilistic reading of the text. I was pleasantly surprised when I found readings in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that were mirrored in Godot and Fournier’s analysis of it. Even more so, I found allusions to Nietzsche in Beckett’s journals, although never explicitly named. Much like his comments on Godot, Beckett’s journals and correspondence were vague and brief, but the research and meaning that I gleaned from them at the Ransom Center were comprehensive and clear.

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Reviving Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”

By Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Williams is an English and Plan I Honors student 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, Williams shares his experience in the class.

 

About 65 years after its publication, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman remains one of the most recognizable pieces of American theater, telling the tragedy of Willy Loman as he falls from success and brings down his family with him. With almost seven decades of performances, what new effects can this play have on audiences, besides the ever-relative commentaries on capitalism? This question is what brought me to the archive at the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Many critics of the play comment on the patriarchal, abusive, and detrimental behaviors of Willy that bring down those around him and take away authority from characters that could rise above the play and stand up for themselves—specifically the play’s women. Not only are there very few women in the play, critics say, they are completely steamrolled by Willy’s selfishness and lack of respect. They characterize Linda as a slipper-bearing doormat who is only defined by domesticity, obedience, and a lack of self-respect. However, Miller’s stage directions and subtly in Linda’s lines, combined with the material available in the archive, reveal that she is not merely a plot device, but a wife and a mother who is fighting against the inevitable. Her character is defined by the psychology of caretaking—finding optimism in the darkest of situations and protecting the falling loved one from any form of hurt.

 

In the Ransom Center’s Stella Adler collection, there is a compilation of papers from her acting classes on Death of a Salesman. In one of her drafts of an introduction to a class, she laments the lack of respect paid toward Linda, wishing there were more scenes for the character because she is diverse and complex, but the text, as it is, leaves it up to the actress to add these extra layers. She teaches her actors that Linda’s overarching story is one that goes beyond the pages of the play and that she is a caring individual who has given up everything for herself to protect her family. Moreover, Miller himself, as expressed through his autobiography available at the Ransom Center, stands up for Linda and actresses playing her. He explains that Linda is a fighter who is able to keep the household running by herself while at the same time a strong caretaker offering her love and protection even in the darkest of situations.

 

Exploring the material available in the Arthur Miller collection and others at the Ransom Center was an absolute dream come true. It may seem nerdy, but the chance to analyze and inspect original documents and manuscripts has always been on my academic bucket list. There is so much to learn not just about a work from its archive, but also about all the things surrounding it, including biographical information, history, and correlations to other texts and archives. While it can seem overwhelming at times, archival work is truly rewarding, and the Ransom Center offers the perfect opportunity to experience such rewards.

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Feeling Samuel Beckett’s pain and “Godot” in German

By Lily Pipkin

Lily Pipkin was a Plan II student 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, Pipkin shares her experience in the class.

 

I’ve always gotten excited about the prospect of an archive. My eyes light up at the thought of the treasures that are tucked away, waiting to be found. That doesn’t mean the thought of walking into the Ransom Center for the first time and knowing what to ask for wasn’t absolutely terrifying. But I had the fortune to stumble across a class in the course catalog last spring that aimed to do just that. There were eight of us, and we spent the semester approaching modern drama through the archive.

 

We were reading Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and I called down a box of his correspondence in search of something relevant to my paper and unintentionally sent myself down a rabbit hole of letters, notes, and postcards, all scrawled out in Beckett’s terrible handwriting. As I read through more and more of these notes, I began to see the friendships and hardships that filled Beckett’s life. I read letters to his friend A. J. Leventhal that were full of sorrow at news of Leventhal’s wife’s cancer diagnosis. Days later, I came back to the Ransom Center and in an entirely different box, I stumbled across a letter informing a friend of her passing. It was heartbreaking! I had never met these people, but even with just one side of the conversation, the pain in Beckett’s letters was so evident, it left me feeling emptier than I could have ever expected.

 

His letters were not solely heartbreak and hardships, though Beckett seems to have gone through more of that than anyone should ever have to. I did find the bits and pieces regarding Godot that I had set out looking for. It gave me the impression that Beckett was extremely particular about how his works were performed but, for a long time, could not be bothered to correct those that were done incorrectly.

 

In a letter to Mary Manning Howe, he mentions a production that’s rehearsing in London and that “in the terms of my contract I should be consulted about cast, set, etc. It suits me all right to be treated as though I were dead.” Comments like this, on his distaste for most of the earlier Godot productions, led me to look closely into the one time he chose to direct Godot personally—20 years later at the Schiller Theater in Berlin.

 

He took the opportunity to rewrite the original German translation, which he once described as “full of blunders.” Between his translation work, his Director’s Notebook, and his correspondence during his time at the Schiller, I found just how particular he was about every word, movement, and expression on stage in Godot. Under his direction, and in his own version of the German translation, Beckett finally gave his audience the Godot he intended. And oddly enough, a play that upon first exposure feels arbitrary and absurd is actually the product of highly defined, purposeful instruction.

 

But I took more away from the class than a detailed understanding of Waiting for Godot in German. After many hours spent in the Reading Room this semester, I feel not only excited by but also comfortable in the archive. Now, it feels like a place I can go, not just to search blindly, but to look without getting lost.

 

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Undergraduates in the archives

By Marlene Renz

Students at The University of Texas have the opportunity to enhance their studies with the Ransom Center’s collections. Andrea Gustavson, PhD candidate in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, designed an entire class around the Ransom Center’s collections, and she writes about how the primary source materials enhanced the learning experience for her undergraduate students.

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Investigating the ending in David Mamet’s “Oleanna”

By Emily Robinson

Emily Robinson is a 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, Robinson shares her experience in the class.

 

The smell of books intoxicates me. And the sight of messy handwriting scrawled in angry slashes or jubilant swirls in a journal excites me more than I should probably admit. There’s just something about seeing how different people think as they write that fascinates me.

 

That said, you can only imagine how delirious I was to sit in a room where a wealth of author’s journals, drafts of iconic literary works, and other manuscripts were a mere click of the “Request Item” button away from laying in front of me. For me to read. And study. To put it lightly, any time that I spent in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room this past semester went far too quickly and resulted in far too many conversations starting with the words, “You’ll never guess what I saw today.” Because of my participation in Elon Lang’s class “Drama in the Archives,” I discovered I love research, especially the kind that involves poring over a writer’s abandoned early drafts and never-completed projects.

 

For most of the semester, I worked with the David Mamet papers, searching out different drafts of his drama Oleanna. After reading Oleanna in class, I was struck by the jolting ending of the play—three acts of increasingly hostile conversations between John and Carol (an inappropriate professor and vindictive student, respectively, at a fictional university) concluding in an intense scene of John beating Carol. The play just ends after the violence. The audience gets almost nothing but curtains and the unsettling feeling of having to applaud after witnessing a scene of physical abuse. I found this ending intriguing and decided to investigate its previous iterations in hopes of better understanding how the scene functions within the play as a whole. This took me to the Ransom Center, where I began piecing together Mamet’s earlier plans for the ending of Oleanna by reading his drafts.

 

During my investigation, I discovered that Mamet didn’t, in fact, originally intend to end Oleanna on that note of unresolved violence. Many of his drafts actually contain a conversation between John and Carol after he beats her. Most of my research focused on three drafts created between April 1991 and May 1992. These three drafts contain a conversation that shows Carol being sensitive to John’s emotional trauma after hurting her. She also then uses that moment as an opportunity to teach John about his abusive and exploitative nature. Mamet’s “Next to Last” draft (from May 1992) actually ends with Carol offering to help John (see Box 155, Folder 7, page 51).

 

Knowledge of this alternate ending furthered my understanding of Oleanna because it forced me to wonder about the purpose of only portraying violence and not including a scene of conflict resolution in the play. I don’t have any definitive answers for that question yet, but reading over Mamet’s drafts and views on art gave me a step in the right direction.

 

Overall, my time at the Ransom Center was a rewarding and exciting experience. In the future, I intend to use the Ransom Center whenever I can—especially if it means reading through an author’s diaries and drafts.

 

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Biographer Hermione Lee discovers author Penelope Fitzgerald’s “heart and meaning” in the archives

By Marlene Renz

Hermione Lee is a well-known biographer of literary figures, admired for scrupulously researching her subjects. Her recent book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), details the life of the late-blooming author as Lee discovered her in the archives.

 

Lee will speak at the Ransom Center about her experiences pursuing subjects through their archives on Wednesday, April 8 at 4 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is first-come first-served.

 

In anticipation of Lee’s visit, Cultural Compass reached out to her about her work and research.

 

 

How do you choose your subjects for a biography?

I choose my subjects out of a passionate admiration for their work, a desire to communicate that admiration and interest in their lives as broadly as possible, and a sense that I haven’t yet read the biography I want to read about them–so had better write it myself.

 

 

During her lifetime Penelope Fitzgerald wrote three biographies.  What was it like applying the same act of analysis to her?

I would have liked to take a leaf out of her book and write a very slim, cryptic, suggestive book about her, since she felt it “insulted the reader to explain too much.” But as I was writing the first biography of her and as she is not a mainstream, popular writer, I felt I needed to write at more length and with more detail than she would have done herself. However, my motives were the same as the motives which led her to write biography: a desire to communicate to as wide an audience as possible the heart and meaning of her life and work. Fitzgerald’s biography of Charlotte Mew, an unjustly neglected early-twentieth-century English woman poet, was particularly in my mind when I was writing my biography.

 

 

There are more than 800 footnotes in your book.  Is that average or unusual in a biography?

Some biographers put their footnotes on line, some don’t have many, some have many more. I like readers to know where the facts have come from.

 

 

Fitzgerald was a private person.  How does that make the work of a biographer more challenging?

There were times when I felt she would have resisted what I was doing, had she still been alive, but there were also times when I hoped that the attention I was drawing to her writing would have pleased her. Many of her secrets remain with her, and I admire and appreciate that, even though it can also be frustrating.

 

 

Can you talk about your research in the Ransom Center’s Penelope Fitzgerald archive? What insight did her personal papers provide?

My work in the archive was invaluable to me. It contains many of her manuscripts, letters to readers and publishers, notebooks, and first drafts. I understood her writing much better-particularly her brilliant use of sources for her novels–when I had worked in the archive.

 

 

Were you drawn to a particular item in the collection?

I was very moved by the last, unfinished story in her notebook, which ends, like so much of her life, with a mystery and a secret. I end my biography with it.

 

 

You are working on a biography of Tom Stoppard.  Have you worked with the Stoppard papers in the Ransom Center’s collections?

I am starting work in the archive now, with great excitement and anticipation.

 

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: An alternate ending for A Streetcar Named Desire

By Haley Williams

Haley Williams is a psychology/Plan I Honors senior in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the course, 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, Williams shares her experience in the class.

 

In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the “big glass buildings with the pretty pictures” on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibitions on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.

 

One of my classes in the Fall 2014 semester focused on reading several plays with visits to the Ransom Center to comb through the archives of these playwrights. The final was a research project on one of the plays we had read in class. I had previously written a paper about A Streetcar Named Desire and knew this is where my research would begin. To do this, I was fortunate to have access to not only the archive of Williams himself but also the wealth of manuscripts, books, papers, letters, and notes from the Audrey Wood and Stella Adler collections. While using the Audrey Wood collection, I found folders about the production of the 1951 movie starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. One letter I found inspired further research into the different endings of the play and how they affected the meaning of the play.

 

In the letter to Joseph Breen, head of Hollywood’s motion picture production code office, Williams notes he has heard about the production company potentially removing the rape scene from the movie. Williams explains to Breen that this is not possible, as the rape of Blanche by Stanley is “a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the safe and brutal forces in modern society. It is a positive plea for comprehension.” He goes on to explain that he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep this within the movie because without the scene, the importance of the play will be completely removed.

 

What Williams really thought about the rape scene can be further examined when looking at some of the earlier drafts of the play. In an early draft of scenes 10 and 11, the rape scene that has become iconic thanks to the performance of Brando and Leigh is absent, and instead a consensual sex scene exists in its place. Following this scene is a morning of domestic bliss and tranquility between two consensual sexual partners. Instead of a brutal scene of violence, we see Blanche helping Stanley tie his tie and pick out a shirt to wear. The scene also ends with Blanche planning to leave using the bus ticket Stanley got her for her birthday, not with her removal to the asylum by the doctor and matron. By changing this one scene, Williams completely reworks the characters of Stanley and Blanche, showing that he experimented early on with alternatives for the rape scene that he later defends emphatically in his letter to Breen.

 

These endings to the play provide the path by which one can trace the progression of the play and possible reasons why Williams made these decisions. As these were early drafts of the play, the manuscript had lines marked out, suggestions for changing certain words, and even changes to names. Because he considered the rape of Blanche by Stanley to be important because of the symbolic message that it represented, he was able to understand, even early in the writing process, that this scene was imperative to his play. Having access to the Ransom Center’s collections as a student to discover these things for myself is something that few are able to claim and something that I am thankful we are able to do as students at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

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