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.
Playwright Tom Stoppard wanted to incorporate ideas of chaos theory and thermodynamics into the intricately structured plot of his play Arcadia. His archive shows how he consulted with his son, a physics graduate student at Oxford University, and with his son’s colleagues to get the details just right.
The play opened to acclaim at the National Theatre in London on April 13, 1993, and now Austinites can see an Austin Shakespeare performance of Arcadia, which opens Thursday and runs through February 19 at the Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
The Stoppard archive, which was acquired in batches between 1991 and 2000, spans more than 60 years and includes materials related to Arcadia and other well-known works, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).
To celebrate the opening of Arcadia this week, the Ransom Center is giving away two tickets to the Sunday, February 5 performance at 3 p.m. Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley will speak about “The Real Tom Stoppard” before the performance at 2:15 p.m.
Email email@example.com with “Arcadia” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the tickets. [Update: A winner has been chosen and notified for this drawing.]
Last Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, monologist Mike Daisey told the audience he had a confession to make.
Before coming to Austin, Daisey said, he asked his Facebook friends where he should eat in town. He received an onslaught of barbeque suggestions from Austinites passionately defending their favorites. “People were un-friending each other about where I should eat barbeque,” Daisey reported.
Mike arrived in Austin too starving to search for any of the barbeque suggestions. He did, however, find himself in front of a McDonalds, considering a McRib.
“I know!” Daisey said, acknowledging the audience’s gasp of horror. “How can someone come to Austin and eat a McRib?”
So he re-evaluated and concluded, “I am a sinner, but I will not eat a McRib on this day.” The audience sighed in relief, but too soon. “I will have a cheeseburger instead.”
This was just one of the many stories spun at the Paramount, where Daisey hosted an evening of storytelling with five raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling.
The Moth comes out of the storytelling tradition led by monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. In November, The Moth held a tribute to Gray in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor and they presented the 2011 Moth Award, “celebrating the art of the raconteur,” to Gray’s family.
The day after The Moth’s Austin appearance, Ransom Center Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Baer shared highlights from Gray’s collection with Moth touring coordinator Maggie Cino, who directed the Austin performance, and performer Faye Lane.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Lane said upon arrival at the Ransom Center. Lane said she watched Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia, a performance film of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, three or four times when it was released.
“I just sat there with my mouth open and thought, you can do this? It was so exactly what I wanted to do and I’d never seen anybody do it before,” Lane said. “I started journaling furiously. I realized these stories are important.”
Baer explained that Gray devised the questionnaire, asking himself questions a therapist might ask.
“For him, even the most personal becomes a performance,” Baer said.
Cino and Lane read every word of the questionnaire, occasionally reading passages aloud.
“I was offered a free apartment. I turned it down with the excuse that I had to get back to work. When I got back home, I couldn’t work because I was so upset with the choice I made.”
“Puberty. Lost all confidence. Weak, ugly, and dumb. Too strange for anyone to like or love.”
“I’ve often felt like a kept woman, a housewife.”
Near the end of the tour, Cino explained how Gray’s simple aesthetic influences The Moth. As technology has evolved in the past two decades, Cino said, people are hungrier than ever for simplicity.
“You get into this question of how little do you need to communicate,” Cino said. “Spalding Gray is such a force in having made it seem possible that you can do it in a very straightforward way without a lot of bells and whistles. I think he started a whole world of possibility that people are continuing to explore.”
Fans have debated this question for years, as Gray was a pioneer in blurring the line between real life and theater in his autobiographical and often very personal monologues. He left audiences wondering how much of the stage persona was the real Gray and how much was Gray the performer.
Photographer Ann Rhoney captured the real Spalding Gray at home in his Wooster Street loft in New York City on an August day in 1990. He wasn’t wearing his usual plaid shirt. He wasn’t sitting behind a desk with a notebook and props. He was sitting comfortably at home in his grandmother’s chair and having a conversation with a new friend.
Rhoney splits her time between New York and the West Coast, and after a photo shoot in San Francisco the previous day, she took a red-eye flight to New York City to meet Gray and photograph him for a portrait assignment related to his forthcoming monologue Monster in a Box.
She described Gray as affable but somewhat meek and reserved when she arrived. He was wearing a shirt with a color somewhere between green and gold. “He may have pressed it himself,” Rhoney notes. “He appeared to be rather dressed up for that hour of the morning.”
As she started chatting with him and asking questions to try to get him to relax and open up for the session, he told her about the piece he was working on—a monologue that would become Gray’s Anatomy, which chronicled Gray’s medical problems with his eyes.
“Then all of the sudden, he started going into character, in a way,” Rhoney noticed. “That’s when a great moment happened.”
Gray dramatically described going to a medicine man in Niagara Falls to seek treatment for his eyes, as if he wanted to impress his new audience. Rhoney’s uncharacteristically blunt response?
“Oh, you fool!”
Rhoney describes Gray’s shock at her response: “His eyes opened in wide surprise and bewilderment. He jumped back, as if ‘What are you saying to me?'”
Then Rhoney explained that she was born and raised in Niagara Falls with a familial heritage of a funeral home in close proximity to an Indian reservation.
“He lit up,” she said.
The ice had been broken, and from then on, Rhoney had Gray’s full attention. Gray peppered her with questions as she did her light meter readings and prepared for the shoot, loading her Hasselblad camera.
Conversation flowed, and the result was 271 frames of Gray in what Rhoney says is, essentially, a still-life movie. “It’s a portrait of a soul with a range of every human emotion in this session of 15 rolls.”
“To get a successful portrait, you have to enter into an honest exchange with the person so that their spirit, their personal landscape emerges. You have to put them at ease and put yourself in their place.”
Rhoney spoke about how people are unable to see themselves, but once in a while—”every once in a blue moon”—a person can look at a photograph and recognize oneself.
“I always try to get that photograph where the person will say, ‘That’s me,'” she said.
The Ransom Center recently acquired two images from that session, one with an animated Gray using his hands for full effect and a second, quieter image of Gray midthought. Gray’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and recently opened for research.
“He completely offered me and my camera—even though at times he thought the camera got in the way of the conversation—an honest openness throughout the session,” she said. “He moved differently than he did on stage. It was as if I had a private performance. Yet it was not a performance at all. He was giving me his spirit.”
As Rhoney studied the images, she kept coming back to the hands in the first image. Though she’s looked at the photo hundreds of times, she made yet another discovery.
“Think about a palm reader, and if you look at the palm on his left, how poignant and beautiful that is. It’s as if he left us with his hand imprint,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “Especially the left palm. The detail on that? If everyone wants a road map to Spalding, there it is.”
As Rhoney studied the second image, she thought more about how he interacted with audiences.
“There’s a stillness. Yet you can see his thought process in motion,” she said.”We know him as talking to an audience, but I believe when he talked to the audience, he talked to everyone individually, even though he couldn’t see their faces. There’s something about this image where he’s talking to me behind the camera. That’s how he really, truly regarded his audiences—as a collective whole of individuals.”
The Gray archive contains no photos, so Rhoney’s portraits give scholars an additional lens through which to view Gray and his work.
“I’d like the photos to be a window into who he was,” Rhoney said. “Hopefully, this leads the scholars into seeing him with fresh eyes. As a photographer, I feel lucky to show him in a form of reality. This is who he was and is. A photograph is the truth and a scholarly document at its finest.”
Rhoney said this photo session led to a strong friendship, and Gray often told her how much he loved the photograph with the hand detail Rhoney loved. As she studied her photos and her contact sheets, she laughed often as she recalled details from the shoot and their conversation.
“The man can really still, in his own way, jump off the contact sheet and make one laugh,” she said. “He’s not here anymore, but they leave us with a whisper, an echo of who he is.”
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive opens for research today, is best known for his highly personal monologues and for helping to define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Gray’s archive was acquired by the Ransom Center in 2010.
Writer Nell Casey had access to the archive before it arrived at the Ransom Center, and her book The Journals of Spalding Gray has been released today. Cultural Compass interviewed Casey about her work in the archive and the surprises she found in Gray’s journals.
In honor of the book’s release, the Ransom Center is giving away two copies of the volume. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Spalding” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.