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Q and A: Playwright Tony Kushner speaks about influence of Tennessee Williams

By Elana Estrin

Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.
Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.

In light of the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, Cultural Compass spoke with Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner about Tennessee Williams’s legacy. Read a transcript of the interview with Kushner, in which he discusses how Williams has influenced him, his first encounter with Williams’s works, Williams’s courageousness, and more.

How has Tennessee Williams influenced you?

Profoundly. Of the three major, post-war American playwrights—Williams, Miller, and O’Neill—I had the easiest time connecting to Tennessee when I was young and starting to think about being a playwright. When I read A Streetcar Named Desire for the first time, I fell in love with Tennessee because he was a southern writer and I grew up in Louisiana. The voice was very familiar and powerful to me because he was gay. Even though there were no overtly gay characters, you could feel issues of sexuality that seemed of great moment to me right under the surface of the plays.

Williams, much more than any other American playwright, succeeded in finding a poetic diction for the stage. I immediately identified with that ambition, with the desire to write language that simultaneously sounded like spontaneous utterance but also had the voluptuousness in daring, peculiarity, quirkiness, and unapologetic imagistic density of poetry. Also because it is a written language, the tension between artifice, naturalism, and spontaneity in art has always been exciting to me. I felt that I experienced it really viscerally in terms of American playwriting first in Tennessee’s writing.

I just spent several weeks very happily reading and thinking about The Glass Menagerie, the extraordinary things he accomplishes in it, and how rich, subtle, complicated, and beautiful it is. I spent a lot of time in his letters and journals, and I totally loved reading those. They’re amazing. I feel at the moment, very close to Tennessee. My admiration and love of him is strong right now, as strong as it’s ever been.

What can you tell us about your first encounter with Tennessee Williams and his works?

I suspect the first time was when I saw Katherine Hepburn and Sam Waterston do The Glass Menagerie on television. My memory is that it was when I was in high school.

In my freshman or sophomore year of college, I took an American drama class. There were things that I liked, but everything fell away when I read Streetcar. I just did this evening at the 92nd Street Y for Tennessee’s birthday. At the end of the evening, Alec Baldwin and Angelica Torn did the Mitch/Blanche scene from Streetcar where she talks about Allan Gray’s suicide. There’s nothing better than that. It’s magnificent and jaw dropping. Streetcar has maybe the most beautiful passages of stage English written by an American. It’s just endlessly, endlessly glorious, heartbreaking, rich, and complex.

Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.
Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.

What do you remember about watching The Glass Menagerie on TV?

I remember finding it moving and thinking that Sam Waterston was really hot [laughs]. I remember being struck by how funny it was, which was a big lesson for me. I don’t actually think you can be a very good playwright unless you have a sense of humor because laughter in the theater is immensely important. The first laugh of the evening is the audience announcing to the actors that it’s sitting there. It’s also a way to communicate with itself. When it’s a big audience-wide laugh, the audience takes its own temperature and begins to assemble itself as a single thing. And a really big laugh is an aggressive thing. It says to the actors: “We’re here and we’re hungry. Keep feeding us. We like this food.” Tennessee was a very, very funny man. “I’ll rise but I won’t shine.” I thought, that’s really funny, that’s a great line. I find the play witty as well as profoundly moving.

How has Williams influenced your plays’ exploration of sexuality?

Any courageous writer inspires other people to be courageous. The courage with which Tennessee pursued a completely forbidden subject and made it have a place on stage moves me enormously.

I think it’s important to always lead with what scares you. You should always aim to go places where you don’t know the answers, you’re frightened about what the answers might be, and you have warning signs that something problematic or troubling might be in this arena you’re investigating. I think it’s impossible to be interesting if you’re being safe. You’ll bore everybody, including yourself. Williams absolutely emboldened me and most other American playwrights. Miller makes it very clear that there would be no Death of a Salesman had there been no Glass Menagerie and Streetcar.

As moved as I am by Tennessee’s clarity about sexuality and his refusal of the closet, I also think it’s very evident that he couldn’t write gay characters. As a result, we have Blanche DuBois, who’s a spectacular female character. But I’m sure it would’ve been salutary for him to write about gay men and gay women as well. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have been Tennessee Williams if he had had the freedom to do it. Trauma does produce extraordinary things.

I feel like I haven’t just taken from Tennessee. I’m also inspired by O’Neill’s experimental side and his unsparing investigations into his bone marrow. And I’m inspired by Arthur Miller’s incredible integrity, his unstinting attempts to put our political economy on stage in the form of stage naturalism, and his courage politically.

Tennessee Williams drew on his own experiences to create his work. What has he taught you about how playwrights might use their lives in their work?

I’ve always thought there was a danger in writing an autobiographical play. It’s interesting that O’Neill waited until practically the end of his life, after his brother and parents were dead, until he wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tennessee wrote The Glass Menagerie when his father and mother and sister were very much alive. It’s a risky thing to do. I think there’s guilt involved in putting your family nakedly up on the stage.

Also, you’re beginning by going to the heart of things. You may be giving yourself a hard act to follow. What’s amazing is that he outdid himself. Menagerie was almost immediately recognized as a major event in American drama. Rather than being intimidated by that, he then produced an even better play. I decided to avoid undisguised autobiography as much as I possibly can because of a sense I had that this could be very sticky business. I think there are consequences to making art too directly out of your own life.

You’ve said in the past that Tennessee Williams is “all-in-all my favorite playwright and all-in-all our greatest playwright.” Can you elaborate on this?

I don’t know that that’s true anymore in terms of him being my favorite. I don’t have a favorite playwright. I wish I had never said the greatest this or greatest that.

One thing I’m interested in that I’ve been thinking about is the shape of a playwright’s body of work. O’Neill has a perfectly shaped body of work because the plays get better and better.

Williams’s career is another story. He wrote a string of masterpieces that changed American theater and shaped American consciousness. Then around the time of Night of the Iguana, it seems to me they sort of stopped working. His later plays feel frantic. They feel like there’s an attempt to dig into experimental traditions that are not comfortable. That’s a very harsh assessment. He was a great writer, and it’s possible that people will figure out ways to make those plays work. Recently there’s been a spate of revivals of those later plays. I’m thrilled people are trying to wrestle with them, but are they salvageable? I don’t really know. That will make a lot of people very angry with me. I’d love to be proven wrong.

John Lahr has said that you deal with fame in a way that Williams didn’t. Lahr said: “Williams just ran from it, whereas Tony really tries to sort of put his head down and crash through it to some other place.”

Tennessee wrote an essay called “On a Streetcar Named Success” about his life right after The Glass Menagerie became a huge hit. He describes this disintegration that he resolved by having an eye operation. I’m sure when people read it then, they worried what would happen to this guy.

I don’t criticize anybody for the way they handle success. Needing and wanting success is part of the deal of being a playwright, and also not losing your sense of what you’re writing for, what you hope your writing will accomplish, and what you hope you’ll discover through your writing. If what you’re hoping to discover is that you’re the best writer around, if your main ambition is to win 16 Pulitzers and an Oscar, then I think it’ll start to sound that way in your work and you’ll be worthless to everybody, including yourself.

What do you think is Williams’s legacy for today’s playwrights?

I think that the way you learn how to be a playwright is by studying plays. I think that’s more valuable ultimately than being in a graduate program and sitting around and having other playwrights tell you what you’re doing wrong. If anybody asks me what to do to become a playwright, I say read every play ever written, or as many of them as you can get through.

I think the lessons of those plays are very potent for writers. They’re social plays. They’re not plays that are completely interior. There are ways in which A Streetcar Named Desire is timeless, and there are also ways in which it’s very much a play of the post-war era, about women’s economic insecurity. That sounds reductive and silly, but it’s not. Blanche’s desperation is the terror of somebody who has absolutely no possibility because of what she’s suffered and flaws in her character, if you can call them flaws. There are also beautiful things in her character: her emotional warmth, her carnality, her sensuality. These have all been turned into negatives by a society that’s this creepy mix of post-war boosterism and old-south aristocratic decrepitude and decline. She’s been ground to a pulp. Same with Amanda Wingfield or Laura or Alma Winemiller or Maggie the Cat. He’s especially brilliant at showing what women do when faced with intractably unfair, unjust, and unendurable circumstance. The plotting, contriving, scheming, fighting, and even the self-destruction. I think that they’re plays about oppression and the struggle against it. Even if he’s not an overtly political playwright, he’s profitable to look at in terms of how to handle questions we’d ordinarily call political questions within the tradition of stage realism.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

In the galleries: The "Ruins of a Play" evolve into "The Glass Menagerie"

By Courtney Reed

'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Most people know Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie as the least disguised and most deeply autobiographical of Williams’s plays, the positive reception of which elevated him to immediate celebrity. He was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his previous play Battle of Angels. Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”

Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater. Theater audiences of the 1940s, fed on a steady diet of “realism and prosaic dialogue,” eagerly embraced Williams’s presentation of a “plastic theatre” that employed multi-media elements suggesting an allusion of reality. Combined with Williams’s poetic prose, it offered up a novel voice that continues to transport audiences into a private world of the human condition.

After his disastrous experience with the 1940 Boston production of Battle of Angels, Williams traveled around the country in near penury for two years before signing a promising but briefly held contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. As Williams recalled: “From a $17.00 a week job as a movie usher I was suddenly shipped off to Hollywood where MGM paid me $250.00 a week. I saved enough money out of my six months there to keep me while I wrote The Glass Menagerie.”

Just prior to his arrival on the West Coast, his sister Rose was lobotomized. His anxiety and guilt over her fate may have impelled him to concentrate on completing The Glass Menagerie over other plays he was working on at the time.

On an early draft of The Glass Menagerie, then titled by a hesitant Williams, due to the negative reception of Battle of Angels, as The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play, are various doodles of flowers and faces. The central point of the title page is a poem of Williams’s:

“A witch and her daughter
received a caller
A gentleman caller was he!
He sprinkled the daughter
with holy water
and dandled the witch on his knee!”

Williams was perhaps daydreaming about the uncertainty of this “play in ruins.” In a letter to the Texas-born director and producer, Margo Jones, Williams, still gun shy from his traumatic experience with Battle of Angels, writes about Eddie Dowling’s enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie. Williams says he will keep his distance during rehearsals so “they won’t plague me so much about little changes that occur to them. . . You know how frightened I am of everybody! Especially people in the theatre.”

As we all know, the final product of The Glass Menagerie blasted Williams into stardom. He would later write masterpieces such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Lyle Leverich writes in Tom, The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995) that “for the first thirty years of [Williams’s] life, he was living The Glass Menagerie, and it was from that traumatic experience that his masterpiece—this ‘little play,’ as Williams disdainfully called it—evolved.”

This manuscript can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

In the galleries: "Girls! Girls! Girls! Did You Marry Your First 'Gentlemen Caller'?"

By Courtney Reed

Promotional poster for marketing contest related to the film 'The Glass Menagerie.'
Promotional poster for marketing contest related to the film 'The Glass Menagerie.'
The 1950 screen version of The Glass Menagerie has been judged the “first and worst” adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Williams himself abhorred it as “the most awful travesty… horribly mangled,” lacking any vestige of the poetic techniques of the play. Although Williams helped to adapt the script, he was particularly upset by its characterization of Tom as a ridiculous philosophizer.

Williams’s copy of the screenplay includes his own note: “A horrible thing! Certified as such by Tennessee Williams.” The film’s manufactured happy ending is reinforced in the flyer for a promotional contest in which “Girls! Girls! Girls!” are invited to send in a letter describing how “I Married My First Gentleman Caller” with the chance to win a second honeymoon at the Sheraton Hotel (breakfast in bed Sunday morning!) and a 1951 Wilcox-Gay Portable 3-Speed phonograph recorder and 3-speed record player.

In a 1950 letter to Jack Warner after seeing the film, Williams outlines his major grievances with the adaptation, centered around his own understanding of Menagerie as a play full of dignity and poetry. Williams calls the inclusion of a flashback scene in which a young Amanda receives numerous gentleman callers and marriage proposals, “a bit of an MGM musical suddenly thrown into the middle of the picture.” He also takes issue with the script changes to Tom’s “drunk scenes,” which are treated in a comic manner that does “untold damage to the dignity of the picture as a whole.”

Williams’s greatest complaint, however, is that the producers have cut lines from Tom’s farewell to his sister Laura, allegedly in response to worries that the lines imply an incestuous relationship between the two. The outraged Williams writes: “I cannot understand acquiescence to this sort of foul-minded and utterly stupid tyranny, especially in the case of a film as totally clean and pure, as remarkably devoid of anything sexual or even sensual, as the ‘Menagerie,’ both as a play and a picture. The charge is insulting to me, to my family, and an effrontery to the entire motion-picture industry!”

The disastrous film adaption of The Glass Menagerie clashes with the play’s positive reception. The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago for its pre-Broadway run on December 26, 1944. Claudia Cassidy’s positive review in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, dated January 7, 1945, is widely credited with helping make The Glass Menagerie a box-office success in Chicago and ensuring its transfer to Broadway. The least disguised and most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams’s plays, The Glass Menagerie elevated Williams to immediate celebrity where he was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his first play, Battle of Angels (1940). Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”

Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater.

Williams was not new to frustrating Hollywood experiences. While visiting Frieda Lawrence, the widow of the British novelist D. H. Lawrence, in Taos, New Mexico, a year before the great success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams writes to his agent, Audrey Wood, on a post card embossed with the image of an ear-clipped burro, “Picture = me after several adventures with cinema and stage!”

The marketing poster and burro postcard can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Front of postcard featuring an image of a burro from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Front of postcard featuring an image of a burro from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Back of postcard from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Back of postcard from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.

Harry Houdini slideshow celebrates 137th birthday

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center owns a collection of materials related to magician Harry Houdini, whose 137th birthday is today. The above slideshow highlights some examples of materials in the collection.

Parts of the Houdini (1874-1926) collection pertain to the numerous magicians with whom Houdini cultivated personal relationships, but the focus of this collection is the life and career of Houdini himself. Manuscript material in the collection includes Houdini’s correspondence with magicians and writers; letters to his wife Bess, 1890s–1926; manuscript notes and revisions for A Magician among the Spirits (1924), along with Houdini’s annotated printed copy; and the correspondence of A. M. Wilson, editor of The Sphinx, 1905–1923. Houdini’s films are represented by the script for The Master Mystery (1918), news clippings and a press kit for The Man from Beyond (1922), and publicity photographs. His interest in spiritualism is documented by a newspaper clipping file on spiritualism, manuscript notebooks on spiritualism and theater, and history of magic scrapbooks, 1837–1910.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

 

 

 

In the galleries: Stella Adler's notes on Tennessee Williams's 'The Glass Menagerie'

By Courtney Reed

Stella Adler's notes on the character of Amanda in Tennessee Williams's play 'The Glass Menagerie'.
Stella Adler's notes on the character of Amanda in Tennessee Williams's play 'The Glass Menagerie'.
Stella Adler was considered one of this country’s most important teachers of the principles of acting, character analysis, and script analysis. Adler began acting when she was just four years old, alongside her parents, Jacob and Sara Adler, in a production of the Yiddish play Broken Hearts by Z. Libin. Adler performed throughout her youth and young adult years in the New York Yiddish Theater, in which her parents were active. She later became associated with the Group Theatre through Harold Clurman, whom she married in 1943.

In 1934 Adler studied with Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, who would remain an important influence on her throughout her life. Three years later, she moved to Hollywood and acted in films for six years before returning to New York. Her career as a teacher began in the 1940s at the Erwin Piscator Workshop at the New School for Social Research. She left the faculty in 1949 to establish the Stella Adler Theatre Studio, which was later renamed the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Adler continued to teach acting for more than 40 years and counted Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint, and many other prominent actors among her students. Adler’s archive, filled with materials related to her teaching career, was acquired with the papers of Harold Clurman in 2004.

The Stella Adler Studio of Acting continues to flourish today as one of the most prominent centers in this country for the study of acting. Adler’s archive is filled with notes from her 40-year career as a teacher, including her analysis of the character of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie.

In her character dissection, Adler notes the pressure of being a lady that Amanda Wingfield feels in The Glass Menagerie. Adler explains Amanda’s bad behavior as her desperate attempt to clutch onto a sentimental world of charm and poetry, instead of living within the realistic world. Adler’s teaching notes can be viewed in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

In the galleries: Marlon Brando’s little black book

By Courtney Reed

Inside cover of Marlon Brando's address book, which he lost during a 1949 production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
Inside cover of Marlon Brando's address book, which he lost during a 1949 production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
“On bended knee I beg you to return this. I lost eight others already and if I lose this I’ll just drop dead!”

These are Marlon Brando’s words inscribed on the flyleaf of his address book, which was later dropped on the stage of the Barrymore Theatre in New York City during the 1949 run of A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando’s portrayal of the rugged and aggressive Stanley Kowalski in the play stands as the defining performance against which all subsequent actors of the part are judged.

In 1947, Brando auditioned for role. His audition was persuasive, and Tennessee Williams agreed to his casting on the spot. Williams wrote effusively to Audrey Wood about Brando’s performance: “I can’t tell you what a relief it is that we have found such a God-sent Stanley in the person of Brando. . . A new value came out of Brando’s reading. . . He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans. This is a value beyond any that [John] Garfield could have contributed, and in addition to his gifts as an actor he has great physical appeal and sensuality, at least as much as Burt Lancaster.”

Unfortunately for Brando, the misplaced address book was never returned. Instead, it was found (and kept) by the play’s production manager, Robert Downing, and arrived at the Ransom Center as part of Downing’s papers in 1962. Thankfully, Brando survived the loss and continued acting, utilizing his masculine persona and notorious mumbling diction, making a profound impact upon the film industry.

His impact was so significant, in fact, that in responding in 2009 to a reporter’s question “What does ‘Brando’ really mean?” the movie producer of A Streetcar Named Desire and Brando trustee Mike Medavoy answered: “He represents the traditional male, in some ways rebellious, but not all the way.”

Marlon Brando’s little black book is on display through July 31 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams.

Spalding Gray's life as told by…Spalding Gray

By Alicia Dietrich

Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Steven Soderbergh’s film And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) documents the life and work of the master monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004) using only footage of Gray’s performances, interviews, and home movies with Gray and his family.

Last year, the Ransom Center acquired Gray’s archive, which traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon and Night.

The documentary splices together footage from these performances and more to show how Gray discovered his gift for storytelling and how he turned the stories of his own life into compelling and deeply personal narratives on the stage.

The documentary has been making the rounds on festival circuits, including SXSW last March, and has played to great reviews. The Alamo Drafthouse is screening the film tonight as part of its SXSW Presents series of popular films from the festival.

The collection at the Ransom Center includes more than 90 handwritten performance notebooks that were the templates for Gray’s live performances and more than 100 private journals. It also includes over 150 audio tapes and 120 VHS tapes documenting Gray’s performances and various interviews, as well as more than 300 letters. The materials will be accessible once they are processed and cataloged.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

By Alicia Dietrich

Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.

Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

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.

Royalty visited the reading room when a patron paged Charlemagne, one of the 60 Sicilian marionettes from the 'Opera dei pupi' (Puppet Theatre).  Made around 1860, the collection consists of 47 human figures, 3 devils, 9 animals and the magic winged horse, the hippogriff. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Royalty visited the reading room when a patron paged Charlemagne, one of the 60 Sicilian marionettes from the 'Opera dei pupi' (Puppet Theatre). Made around 1860, the collection consists of 47 human figures, 3 devils, 9 animals and the magic winged horse, the hippogriff. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hsuan-Yu Chen, a conservation intern from the Graduate Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics, Tainan National University of the Arts, Taiwan, pastes long fibered paper to reinforce the spine folds of the text block of ‘Tour in America.’ He will resew the book and reattach the original covers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hsuan-Yu Chen, a conservation intern from the Graduate Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics, Tainan National University of the Arts, Taiwan, pastes long fibered paper to reinforce the spine folds of the text block of ‘Tour in America.’ He will resew the book and reattach the original covers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg shares volumes from the monumental  'Description de l’Egypte' (1809-1828) with Kimbell Art Museum Deputy Director Malcolm Warner (center) and Kimbell members.  Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg shares volumes from the monumental 'Description de l’Egypte' (1809-1828) with Kimbell Art Museum Deputy Director Malcolm Warner (center) and Kimbell members. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.