Laurence Raw, a fellow from Başkent University in Ankara, discusses his research on actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit’s World War II–era performances. Raw’s research, “Patriotic Shakespeare—Donald Wolfit’s Productions 1941–1953,” was funded by the Fleur Cowles Endowment.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes, constructed between 1850 and 1960, consists of 60 marionettes and a backdrop curtain. The marionettes, which were originally purchased by entrepreneur Stanley Marcus in 1960, form a troupe of characters from the religious allegorical poem “Orlando Furioso.”
The figures, which are made of painted wood and metal components, stand about four feet tall and are dressed in fur, leather, cloth, and metal armor. The human marionettes have wooden heads, torsos, hands, and legs. Their arms are made out of folded cloth. A few figures have glass eyes, and some even have human hair adhered to their heads. Protecting the marionettes posed a particular challenge for the Ransom Center’s conservation and preservation team. Read the full article about the preservation efforts relating to the marionettes.
Perhaps best known as the innovative designer of the Futurama exhibition in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes was also a noted theater designer, fabricating costumes, sets, lighting, and theaters.
After beginning his career in Los Angeles, Bel Geddes moved to New York City in 1917 where his creative ambitions manifested in producing dynamic theater experiences. Using principles of the European New Stagecraft movement, Bel Geddes brought German director Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle to the American stage. The New Stagecraft movement, which divorced theater from the structures of bourgeois realism, aligned with Bel Geddes’s vision of simplified details and abstract settings and costumes.
Bel Geddes’s work on the 1924 production of The Miracle reveals his talents as a theatrical polymath. The play, a medieval legend about a nun, relied on Bel Geddes’s mechanized scenery and single switchboard. The technical modifications allowed a single electrician to control the focus, direction, and color of the lighting. Audience members sat on pews to watch the play, as Bel Geddes transformed the interior of the theater into a Gothic cathedral, complete with light trickling through stained glass windows and incense wafting through the air. The Miracle fused theater and architecture, creating a participatory environment thatimmersed audience members in the drama thatsurrounded them.
Highlighted here is a series of four costume designs for The Miracle, including “Oriental Gentleman,” “Chief Gypsy or Jester,” “Noble Gentleman,” and “Gypsy Woman.” The watercolors showcase Bel Geddes’s dexterity as an artist.
The innovations of Bel Geddes’s early theatrical career inform his later work as an industrial designer. Indeed, the same mechanical track system used to move scenery in The Miracle also guided model cars along the highway system of Futurama.
There are several categories of illustrations found in the sueltas: scene illustrations, character and author portraits, and stage diagrams. These illustrations can help scholars better visualize a performance and improve the scholar’s understanding of the appearance and character of Spanish theater. Most sueltas were not illustrated. Because the sueltas were primarily intended for performance and not general reading, illustrations may have been an extraneous expense for publishers. Furthermore, the cost of paper dictated that as many words as possible be squeezed into available space. This makes the items that do have illustrations all the rarer and more interesting.
A scene illustration is often an engraving of the characters in a moment of action. The actors are shown in costume, and the viewer can see the emotions on the faces of the actors. These illustrations are perhaps the most informative about the actual conception of a play. They are also, however, the rarest type of illustration. Images of the following scene illustrations can be seen in the slideshow.
The earliest illustrated suelta dates from 1775. The sueltas at this time generally consisted of text alone. One illustrated suelta includes a fairly crude scene illustration of a child being bathed and a woman ironing. The suelta, titled Letra a la tonadilla de la planchadora, was bound with a manuscript suelta called Sacristan y la viuda. Both items have received significant conservation work to separate and repair them. Ransom Center conservators also removed a sheet of tissue mounted onto the illustration.
The suelta Misantropía y arreptentimiento features a scene illustration unique for a number of reasons. First, the item is dated 1800, which is early in the suelta publishing phenomenon and even earlier in terms of suelta illustration. Furthermore, it pictures an artist’s elegant conceptualization of a dramatic moment in the play outside the confines of the theater. This engraving shows the moment taking place in “real life,” rather than on the stage. This illustration is far more artistic in nature than typical scene illustrations.
The illustration in Roberto el Diablo is more typical in style of the scene illustrations found in the sueltas. For instance, note the stylized, almost cartoonish, faces and bodies of the characters and their exaggerated body language. The action is being emphasized, while the scenery lacks detail. The presence of illustrations printed on the wrapper is also uncommon. It was not until later in the century that illustrated wrappers and the use of colored ink became more wide spread.
Character portraits are among the most visually interesting illustrations. They are often reproduced from photographs, so the details are generally easier to make out than those of scene illustrations. One can see what the actor looked like in full costume. Some character portraits are produced as engravings that offer artistic representations, but still provide insight into the costumery of a main character. Character portraits tend to be of particularly interesting characters, such as the portraits of Boquerón and Nina featured in the slideshow.
Boquerón and Nina are both exceedingly flamboyant characters and the namesakes of the respective plays in which they are featured. Boquerón is a female actress dressed as a ridiculous male character. Note also that an enterprising reader has added a mustache and beard to Boquerón’s face. Nina is a scantily clad woman warrior. She is later featured in a sequel called Seña Manuela in which her costumery may be noted to be equally spectacular, but certainly less risqué.
Stage diagrams are particularly illustrative of the mechanics of the Spanish theater. A diagram shows how the stage was designed and where certain important props or scenery were placed. In an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s last novel Ninety-three, the stage diagram shows how a stage is altered after a set change. Particularly interesting is the presence of the “puerta secreta,” or secret door. Furthermore, this diagram helps the reader understand how the stage blocking would have looked to a theatergoer.
From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.
Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.
Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.
Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.
“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”
“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”
Cataloging of the approximately 14,000 titles in the Texas collection of comedias sueltas at the Harry Ransom Center is well underway, funded by a grant received from the Council on Library and Information Resources, Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program. Appropriately named, this program seeks to support “libraries, archives, and museums that hold millions of items of potentially substantive intellectual value that are unknown and inaccessible to scholars.”
The suelta collection is not a recent acquisition. The first batch arrived in 1925 with a purchase from Professor Clifford M. Montgomery, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The University of Texas at Austin. Several other sets of sueltas constituting the bulk of the collection were purchased from various Madrid booksellers, with the last lot acquired in 1939. Thus, for almost 87 years, the sueltas have been awaiting their fate and aging like a good Spanish wine, ready to be opened and enjoyed.
A comedia suelta can be described as a pamphlet-like publication published before the twentieth century containing a single dramatic work. The Texas collection includes works from the second half of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a few titles published in the early 1900s.
The earliest suelta in this collection dates to 1670. Titled Del Santo Christo de Cabrilla by Agustín Moreto, this work illustrates some of the distinguishing characteristics of the early sueltas. These publications were typically 15 by 20 centimeters in size, with text printed in two columns. While the two-column format accommodated more text, the pages were crowded and left little white space. The orthography and diacritics are irregular and archaic.
After around 1833, the appearance and themes of the sueltas began to evolve with developments in printing and publishing, and societal changes. Printing style and format of sueltas took on a more modern appearance. Language and usage were beginning to normalize after the establishment of the Royal Spanish Academy of Language in 1713, and published dictionaries appeared soon thereafter. The double column format of the sueltas evolved into a single column of text, extending pagination. Title pages with imprints became more common and in the nineteenth century became the norm.
Literary themes of the sueltas also evolved with the material developments. Most of the early sueltas dealt with religious and serious historical subjects written expressly for the Spanish royals. There followed a brief period of romanticism in the early nineteenth century, and then a trend toward satire (of the romantic themes) and what is called alta comedia, a literary realism focusing on social and moral issues.
Acknowledgement and gratitude are owed to Mildred Vincent Boyer, bibliographer and translator and Professor Emeritus at the University, who published her descriptive bibliography of 1,119 sueltas in 1978. Boyer’s Texas Collection of Comedias Sueltas covers the second half of the seventeenth century until 1833. Boyer’s work has been vital in establishing the suelta database currently being created at the Ransom Center. Her hope was that the “10,000 dramatic serials at Texas published after 1833 will have their identity and their whereabouts made known in a much shorter time” than it took her to produce this bibliography.
The sueltas present an array of features that invite further inquiry in addition to the literary content. Upcoming posts will describe some of these facets in further detail: the “cast lists” naming the actors in the repertory, some of them celebrated stars of their day; the “prompt-copies” used for actual performances, with handwritten markings and notations; and “wrappers,” or paper covers, some improvised and others elaborately decorated that provided some protection from handling. The ubiquitous censor and his mark are a common appearance, particularly in the early sueltas. Also of interest are the many inscriptions and effusive dedications from the authors to their benefactors. Indeed, one seemingly ordinary suelta contains a handwritten confession to a murder on its back page. Certainly the cataloging and uncovering of this collection will provide scholars a valuable path to exploring the Spanish national literature and culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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.