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.
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.
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.
Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.
In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.
For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.
Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.
“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”
As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “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 exhibits 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.”
Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.
“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.
For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.
Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.
“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”
After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”
Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.
Matthew McFrederick visited the Harry Ransom Center’s Reading Room as an international fellow from the University of Reading. He conducted research for his thesis, “Staging Beckett in London: Constructing Performance Histories of Samuel Beckett’s Drama.”
McFrederick’s research is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded “Staging Beckett” project, which is a joint research project involving the University of Reading, the University of Chester, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This project will study the impact of Beckett’s drama in theater culture and theater practice in the UK and Ireland from 1995 to present day and develop a publicly accessible online database of productions of Beckett’s drama in the UK and Ireland.
McFrederick’s thesis will catalog and analyze significant productions of Beckett’s drama in London and chart the development of Beckettian performance in a number of London theaters such as the Royal Court, the National Theatre, and Riverside Studios. During his time in the reading room, McFrederick, looked at material from the Center’s collections, including those of Samuel Beckett, Peter Glenville, and the English Stage Company.
McFrederick’s research was funded by a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the International Placement Scheme.
The performing arts collection at the Harry Ransom Center includes a remarkable set of theater backdrops, all in miniature. This collection of 112 backdrops, along with other free-standing scene elements, depicts grand symbolic imagery: Egyptian landscapes, biblical imagery, grand architecture, and even catacombs. These scenes were created to support the theatrical rituals, or degrees, of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. But why are they miniature? The model-sized drops were used by a salesman to market stage scenery to Masonic temples, and the small size allowed for ease of transportation.
The model—and the corresponding full-sized scenes—was produced around 1900 by Sosman & Landis Studio, specialists in scenic art. The drops are painted in gouache onto paper illustration board. Some of the paperboards are cut to resemble “cut drops” and “leg drops,” scenic drop elements used further upstage from the backdrop to create depth of field for the audience. The collection is housed in a wooden travel trunk. Each drop has a wooden slat nailed along its top edge, and this slat allowed the drop to hang from two rails secured into the trunk. Because the drops were packed fairly tightly together in the trunk, they suffered damage over the years. To remove a drop, it had to be pulled up and out of the trunk, dragging against the adjacent drops in the process. This caused breaking of the sometimes-complex paperboard cutouts as well as rubbing and scraping of the paint layer. Many of the drops became partially detached from their wooden slats, and all were dirty from many years of settling dust and grime.
In the summer of 2014, paper conservation intern Rémy Dreyfuss began a project to conserve this beautiful example of turn-of-the-century theater technology. To begin, Rémy surveyed the entire collection, taking note of the condition of and photographing each item. He created a database to organize the descriptive data, condition information, and treatments performed on each item. The database links each item’s description to its corresponding digital image. Rémy surface-cleaned each drop using a soft brush and dry rubber sponge. He secured the boards that had become detached from their slats. He did not use nails for the re-attachment, but instead used small gussets of Japanese paper adhered in place with wheat starch paste. The gussets allow attachment to the wooden slat without unwanted stress on the paperboard. Rémy mended breaks and tears, again with archival quality Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.
Rémy also designed, along with Apryl Voskamp, Head of Preservation, a new storage system for the models. The updated storage allows better access to the materials, while minimizing risk of future damage. Though the drops will be stored in the new housing, the original travel trunk will remain a part of the collection.
In addition to the drops, this collection includes a small-scale stage. The drops can be arranged here to show the dramatic effect of the layered elements of backdrop, cut drop, leg drop, and border. Rémy completed his project by photographing the groups of drops in place on the stage, as they would be viewed during a performance.
Until now, these materials were almost inaccessible to curators and researchers because of their unstable condition. With the conservation treatment completed, the miniature scenery can be handled safely and made available for research.
As a final note, the Ransom Center is only a few blocks from a Scottish Rite Theater on West 18th Street in Austin. The theater houses, and still uses, an original collection of Sosman & Landis stage drops, the full-sized drops that the Ransom Center models represent. The Center’s conservation staff visited the theater to view the stage scenery and to get a backstage tour of the scenery collection and how it is used during performances.
A production of Tennessee Williams’s iconic play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on campus last week, and director Jess Hutchinson delved into the Tennessee Williams collection at the Ransom Center to guide some of her work on the play.
Set in New Orleans, William’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic centers around fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois as she seeks refuge in her sister’s home, only to clash with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.
Hutchinson, a third-year MFA Directing candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, was especially interested in digging deeper into the ending of the play, and in the Williams collection, she found multiple drafts of endings that were quite different from the published version.
“Williams tried on different ways to end Blanche’s story and handle her departure,” said Hutchinson, noting one discarded draft included Blanche being forced into a straightjacket. “And he chose this very specific, relatively controlled exit. That tells me a lot about what that moment is for her, how to stage it, how to think about where she is mentally and emotionally at the end of the play.”
Hutchinson worked with a group of undergraduate actors in the production, and exploring the drafts and ideas that Williams discarded helped guide how she and the actors approached the ending of the play.
“It focuses our range of choices in rehearsal,” said Hutchinson. “I feel that it would be disingenuous to the play for Blanche to be completely out of control at the end. She isn’t taken away in a straightjacket. In other drafts, she is. So that tells me Blanche still has some lucidity, that she retains the ability to make choices in that moment. The actress and I have looked for Blanche’s power in that scene, her control. Where can we see her consciously make decisions, and how do they fuel her departure with the doctor and matron? The actors and I have come to see that as a moment of recognition. Something in this doctor—this stranger—reaches a place in her that is whole and hasn’t been broken by this experience. And really, we got to complicate what some might write off as a moment of clear ‘insanity’ because I was able to see to see the other drafts that Williams tried first.”
As Hutchinson sifted through various early drafts of the play in the Williams collection, she was struck by how “not good” many of them were and how it was a great reminder that the creative process includes false starts and dead ends even for the most talented writers and artists.
“Something about seeing documents in a famous, iconic writer’s handwriting revealed that this person who wrote this thing that I love was closer to me than I might have thought,” she said. “He was a human and an artist and was trying to make something that spoke to the core experience of what it is to be a person—what it means to interact with other people in the world and have your heart broken and have moments of incredible joy. Just the humanity that’s present in these archival materials and what we can see in these drafts and false starts and moments of inspired genius made it possible, at least for me, to be bolder in my own work in the rehearsal room.”
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through October 19 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at The University of Texas at Austin. Tickets are available online.
John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007. In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he draws upon his subject’s plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America’s greatest playwrights. His research included a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today. To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.
In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center’s holdings.
Was there a particular aspect of Williams’s life or work that you were particularly drawn to?
So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams’s consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.
In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life. How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?
In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.
Do you recall if there was a particular item that you found interesting?
The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material; so it’s really impossible to say which item was more revelatory. For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose (“I’m trying hard not to die”) and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.
James Sitar is an editor at the Poetry Foundation and teaches literature classes at Loyola University Chicago. Sitar’s work in the Spalding Gray archive was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. He discusses his digital project that allows comparisons between Gray’s performance notebooks. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
Many who know of Spalding Gray’s storytelling first experienced it by watching the film version of Swimming to Cambodia or by reading the book. Gray performed over a dozen different monologues, but this one catapulted his career and ensured that his innovative performance style would influence a new generation of actors. I was certainly captivated by the movie when I was 10 years old (which was probably too young). And ever since my college days, I’ve been drawn to archival recordings, whether it was the all-encompassing lectures or “talks” of Robert Frost or the countless bootlegs of Bob Dylan. When I heard that the Harry Ransom Center acquired the archive of Spalding Gray, including scores of audio and video recordings, I knew I had to visit. After all, how often do your childhood fascinations align with your interests as an adult?
Thanks to a fellowship from the Ransom Center, I was able to spend a month listening to and comparing Gray’s performances of Swimming to Cambodia, which occurred over a span of about 20 years. Gray would record his one-man shows and then listen to them the next day, and this listening would inform his approach to the next performance. No performance is the same, which means that this monologue is what we refer to as a living text: there’s no one version of it that is more important or authentic than any others. It’s clear from interview and diary entries that he never thought of the film or the book versions as definitive or superior performances, though certainly he viewed them as successful versions that were true to the mediums of film and print.
By listening along, I discovered how important this flexible, evolving, experimental approach was to Gray. He never worked with a script, or even solidified particular details or vignettes. Instead, he’d only sparingly glance at the spiral-bound notebook he had on stage, in which he had written certain important words or phrases; if he got caught up in a tangent, as he was wont to do, his notes would help him find his way back to his narrative arc. The opportunity to perform in person, in front of small audiences, was crucial to Gray. His loose narrative style and method, and his desire to make each performance a unique connection to place and time and audience, make each performance different. This fact also reflects his avant-garde approach to theater and his artistic preoccupations with the evolving natures of memories, the construction of personal truths, the production and performance of a public self, and the complications of making art out of life through the problematic notions of authenticity and confession.
As a researcher and editor, I want to deliver remarkable materials into the hands and ears of fans and scholars and to present these materials in the most helpful, enjoyable, responsible, and authentic ways possible. I’m currently building a website devoted to Swimming to Cambodia that’s true to the living nature of the monologue, with audio and video recordings, notebooks, and different types of transcripts with annotations and background materials that allow visitors to experience the monologue’s myriad iterations. I want to present Gray’s performances as moments, as I look for innovative ways to preserve some of the fluid and ephemeral essences of speech and performance in the fixed form of text. It will serve as an archive that collects all of the Swimming to Cambodia’s that we can revisit.
You can take a look at a very early and small sample of the work, which uses an inventive piece of software called the Versioning Machine. This sample presents the same passage from many different notebooks and performances of the monologue, a passage in which Gray chronicles his difficulty remembering some lines in filming The Killing Fields (1984). It’s Gray’s inability to memorize lines that makes this part of the monologue so funny and painful, and this inability is also what makes his monologues so unscripted and alive. It’s a revealing moment behind the scenes of filmmaking, and I hope my digital project can similarly look behind the scenes of Gray’s craft.
I’m grateful for and indebted to so many people’s help in making Gray’s work available online, including Tanya Clement, Quinn Stewart, Daniel Carter, Erin Donohue, the entire Ransom Center staff, and the estate of Spalding Gray.
Alex Feldman, an Assistant Professor in the English Department at MacEwan University, Alberta, visited the Ransom Center to consult the papers of George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller, among others. His research, supported by the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, focused on the dramatization of historical trials specifically those of Joan of Arc and the witches of Salem, in twentieth-century drama. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
The Ransom Center’s cataloging card describes the volume on my desk as a “Rough Proof” of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (1923). On the title page—the book is missing a cover—a faint pencil inscription in Shaw’s hand reads, “the old copy showing where the corrections come.” According to Brian Tyson’s account of the play’s development (The Story of Saint Joan), the revisions that appear in this copy date from Shaw’s holiday in Parknasilla, County Kerry, in September 1923, three months before the play’s New York premiere and six months prior to its first performance in London. The ink annotation below, made almost eight years later, reads, “This is an authentic ‘revise’ for the printer, or possible [sic] a copy of one made by me as a precaution against the loss of the other…”
What this copy and its corrections reveal is that a collective voice of great prominence in Shaw’s trial scene was added at a very late stage in the play’s composition. Here, in Shaw’s hand, “The Assessors” make their first appearance.
Sixty or so French and English clerics of assorted order and rank, the assessors fulfilled a quasi-juridical function at Joan’s trial, acting in a consultative capacity under Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who presided over the proceedings, and Jean Lemaitre, vicar of the Inquisition at Rouen and Joan’s second judge. The likelihood is that, whether intimidated, coerced, or otherwise incentivized, many of the assessors could be counted on to lean, as Cauchon directed, in favor of Joan’s excommunication (and subsequent execution.) But their presence in Rouen and their substantial role in the trial did indicate a serious regard for procedural fairness. According to the trial transcripts, Cauchon, eager to present them as incorruptible, described the assessors as “ecclesiastical and learned men, experienced in canon and civil law, who wished and intended to proceed with [Joan] in all piety and meekness.” Shaw, by contrast, though he deviates from the melodramatic tradition that portrays the assessors as “malignant scoundrels,” presents them as a shrill chorus of righteously indignant imbeciles.
Here’s a representative interjection, which affords some insight into the rationale behind Shaw’s eleventh-hour additions to the text. Under Cauchon’s interrogation, refusing to disavow the heavenly provenance of her “visions and revelations,” Joan declares that she will continue to be guided by God’s will. “In case the Church should bid me do anything contrary to the command I have from God,” Joan declares, “I will not consent to it, no matter what it may be.” Here, in the proof copy, the following insertion appears (see below image):
THE ASSESSORS [shocked and indignant] Oh! The Church contrary to
God! What do you say now? Flat heresy. This is beyond everything.
The playwright isolates the objectionable detail—“The Church contrary to God!”—in case the audience has missed it, and offers it up to the spectator’s scrutiny once again, via the medium of the assessors’ protest. Here and throughout, the assessors perform a mediating function, clarifying, for Shaw’s audience, the nature of Joan’s heresy, as contemporary clerics perceived it. (See images below for further examples.)
The development of this choric voice, identifying and decrying Joan’s seminal transgressions, adds weight to the anti-Joan sentiment building throughout the trial among the clergy. The assessors’ interjections are crucial to Shaw’s establishment of his protagonist’s perceived theological-legal guilt (in the identification of her heresy), but they are also instrumental in advancing Shaw’s argument that the world is always unprepared for the saints in its midst. A rabble of censorious mediocrities, these men are not evil—“there are no villains in the piece,” Shaw insisted—but they do contribute to the sense that middlebrow opinion (ever the object of Shaw’s critique) and unthinking conformity to the conventional canons of belief create insuperable obstacles to the recognition of genius.
I am grateful to Jean Cannon and all of the staff at the Ransom Center for their expert guidance, to Willow White for her timely assistance, and to Sos Eltis and Peter Raby for their support of my fellowship application.