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Shakespeare scholar explores the Bard’s role in American culture

By Gabrielle Inhofe

James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, discusses Shakespeare in America at 7 p.m. this Thursday, May 1, at the Harry Ransom Center. A reception and book signing follow, and books will be available for sale.

 

Shapiro’s newest work, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, explores Shakespeare’s role in American culture.  The anthology, published by the Library of America in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, comprises 71 pieces from American poets, politicians, essayists, novelists, and more.  It includes works by Edgar Allan Poe, Woody Allen, Cole Porter, Isaac Asimov, and James Agee.

 

The anthology aims to show that, although America declared its independence from Great Britain, Americans have adapted Shakespeare for use in cultural expression.   In a recent interview, Shapiro said, “American history tends to be represented in a kind of clear-cut, steady march. What became clear to me through this book is the uses—disturbing and exhilarating in equal measure—to which Shakespeare has been put. People have used Shakespeare as a means to make arguments that are not easily made or expressed in this country about race, gender, war, social justice, identity.”  The full interview may be viewed in the above video.

 

The Ransom Center holds three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio and several quarto editions of the plays, along with prompt books, costume designs, and many other materials relating to productions of the plays from the eighteenth century to the modern era.

 

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James Shapiro “unravels” Shakespeare’s life

Q&A With Julia Alvarez

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez speaks about her life and work with University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer M. Wilks in a Harry Ransom Lecture this Monday, March 31 at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium at Homer Rainey Hall. A book signing and reception follow at the Ransom Center. This lecture is presented by the University Co-op and co-sponsored by the 2013–2014 Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) Symposia: Reading Race in Literature and Film. Alvarez’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

 

In an interview with Cultural Compass, Alvarez shares her thoughts on women in the literary canon, cultural identity, and more.

 

Stories about men are considered universal, but stories about women are often considered “women’s fiction.” What do you think can be done to change this trend? How have your books centering on female protagonists been received with regard to this?

 

We’ve made a lot of progress. In my own lifetime as a writer, now over 40 years, I’ve seen a sea change in interest in authors of ethnic/racial/gender diversity—both as a writer in what gets published but also as a writer in the academy in the curriculum, the books departments select for their core readings.

 

That said, we are still living in the shadow of that old canonical/gated understanding of what constitutes classic, serious fiction. The travails and writing by men, mostly white, with some exceptions. Women’s novels are often considered lite fair. (Is there a male version of chicklit denomination?)  What was Samuel Johnson’s comment about women preachers? “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Well in many quarters, this was also the attitude toward women’s writing.

 

So, even though many of the most admired and serious American novelists and poets now come from other traditions, ethnicities, races, and many of them are female, that old mentality is there, like a gas we breathe and don’t even know it. Still it was daunting to read the op-ed in New York Times Book Review, two years ago, by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literacy Fiction for Men and Women.”

 

Additionally, it’s not just that women’s fiction isn’t taken as seriously, [or] reviewed as often, but also the default characters and plots of serious fiction are still those of the mainstream culture. So often when I write about a Dominican American family, it’s assumed this has to be my story. Why? Because otherwise I’d write about a John Cheever family in Connecticut? (I love John Cheever’s fiction, but those aren’t the stories I have to tell.) It’s as if our characters are only allowed limited minority fiction status—often there are courses just in this area, an infusion of fairness into an otherwise distorted canon! It’s a curious and often unconscious set of assumptions and expectations about who gets to have their stories told. Of course, I know this, too, is changing, but as Wolitzer cautions us, we ain’t there yet.

 

If I may take it a step further into personal experience: when I wrote In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) I told the story of the dictatorship seen for the first time from a female point of view. I heard from my friend, Dominican historian and author Bernardo Vega that he introduced Mario Vargas Llosa to the novel, and MVL got very interested in the dictatorship and subsequent “democratic dictatorship” by Balaguer. His novel, La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat) (2000), is often cited as the seminal work of fiction about those years. I admire the novel, and none of this is MVL’s “fault.” Just the way critics and even readers have these unexamined assumptions. Good for you for bringing up the question and forcing us to see these assumptions are still out there.

 

What can be done to change trend? My response is to keep writing. Spike Lee once said the only way to be avoid being flash-proof is to keep doing your work.

 

Attitudes/assumptions change slowly, over time, probably not during my watch, but if I don’t do my part, change won’t happen at all.

 

 

Many people categorize you as a Latina, Dominican, or bicultural writer. How would you like to be perceived as a writer?

 

I like the quote, attributed to Terence, the Roman playwright, “I am a human being, nothing human is alien to me.” That could well be the motto of literature. It’s how I would ultimately want to be remembered: one of the storytellers from my specific “tribe,” but telling the stories to all of us. We are all feeding the same sea, as Jean Rhys put it, as we come down and flow into it from our different mountains and landscapes.

 

After all, one of the things literature teaches—and why I gave myself to this “calling”—was that I recognized that this was the one place where the table was set for all. All the wonderful stories, poems are our legacy as part of the human family—our communal treasure chest, but in order to access it, of course, you need to get the key, that is, education, learning to read, having the time and opportunity to claim your legacy.

 

For so many years, I felt denied entry into that world of serious American literature (as Langston Hughes noted in his wonderful little poem, “I, too, Sing America”) so that when I finally was published I claimed my LATINA voice, my traditions, my culture with a vengeance. Often it was because I sensed that I needed to make a space and place for other kinds of stories on the shelf of American fiction. But as I get older, what’s important to me is that these terms describe the sources of my stories, my history, my traditions, but that they shouldn’t be used to limit my subjects, or limit my readership to only those in the tight circle of my own culture or background. Again stories are about the big circle, the gathering of the different tribes of the human family. Getting down into ethnic/racial bunkers of literature totally negates what they are about.

 

 

Which of your works means the most to you, and why? Which one was most difficult to write? The most fun?

 

Oh dear, that’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child! Each work has taught me things I needed to learn—about technique/writing, about history/characters/situations I was curious to understand. So, each one was meaningful to me at the time.

 

I suppose writing the Tía Lola books for young readers was the most fun, just because Tía Lola is such a sassy, fun-loving tía. I’d catch myself eager to start the writing day, wondering what trouble she’d get into, and as the author, how I’d get her out of the fix she was in, or had gotten me into.

 

That said, on a good writing day, any book I am laboring on is “fun,” and even those fun books are difficult to write if I want to get them right. Let’s face it, good writing is hard work. I have this one quote about revision/writing by James Dickey that I like to share with my students:

 

“It takes an awful lot of time for me to write anything. I have endless drafts, one after another; and I try out 50, 75, or a hundred variations to a single line of poetry sometimes. I work on the process of refining low-grade ore. I get maybe a couple of nuggets of gold out of 50 tons of dirt. It is tough for me. No, I am not inspired.”

 

I guess I wouldn’t go that far—of saying I’m never inspired. But at the end of the day, the inspired piece of writing and the one that took 50 tons of dirt to get to a single nugget of golden writing—they have to be indistinguishable from each other.

 

Most meaningful? Always the writing I’m currently working on because that’s the cutting edge, the material or technique or character that I’m trying to understand, to serve, to get down on paper.

 

A little rambling, I know, but as the quote ascribed both to Twain and to Pascal (the problem with Internet searches!): “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

 

Image: Photo of Julia Alvarez by Bill Eichner.

“Der Bestrafte Brudermord”: A puppet version of “Hamlet”?

By Harry Ransom Center

Tiffany Stern, Professor of Early Modern Drama at Oxford University, delivers the English Department’s Thomas Cranfill Lecture about her research on the play Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged) at the Harry Ransom Center this Thursday, January 16 at 4 p.m.

 

Stern, the Hidden Room theater company, and the American Shakespeare Center will produce performances of the play with puppets this month at the York Rite Theater in Austin between January 17 and February 2. Below, Stern writes about the history and origins of this production.

 

In 1781, a manuscript dated 1710, of a play called Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged) was published in Germany. Telling a bawdy and humorous version of the story of Hamlet, it seemed to relate to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in debased form. But what was it, and how did it come about?

 

For years Shakespeareans have been confused by Der Bestrafte Brudermord. Is it a unique record of an otherwise unknown version of Shakespeare’s play, or is it an adaptation of the Hamlet texts we know about? Crucially, what explains its non-Shakespearean features—its slapstick, pratfalls, crazed bawdiness, and wild humor?

 

Puppeteers have long felt they had the answer. They see in Der Bestrafte Brudermord a puppet play.

 

As an English professor who works with historical performance, I decided to research the puppet option. Beth Burns and her amazing Hidden Room theater company in Austin have tested that research through practice. They have mounted a unique show: a hilarious and touching eighteenth-century puppet Der Bestrafte Brudermord, translated into English, complete with fireworks, music, and a wonderful compere and showmaster, “the interpreter.”

 

You are warmly encouraged to hear my talk and then see the puppet Hamlet, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, at the York Rite Theater. Then you can decide for yourself whether Der Bestrafte Brudermord is simply a Continental adaptation of Shakespeare’s text or whether it is the product of what Hamlet so dismissively calls “puppets dallying.”

 

The play runs January 17 through February 2 at York Rite Masonic Hall at 311 W. 7th St. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 5 p.m. The play runs 75 minutes, and tickets are pick-your-own price between $15 and $30, with a suggested ticket price of $20.

 

More information about the performance can be found on the website or Facebook page, or you can email hiddenroomtheatre@yahoo.com.

 

Image credit: Production still from Der Berstraffe Brudermord by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

 

Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.
Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Director of Amon Carter Museum discusses concept of “westering”

By Jane Robbins Mize

Andrew J. Walker, Director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, presents “Westering America: Frontier Thinking and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art” for the 2013 Amon Carter Lecture on Thursday, December 5 at 7 p.m. at the Harry Ransom Center. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

 

In his talk, Walker will explore the concept of “westering,” which originated from the first director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art as an innovative approach to the institution’s process of collecting. Borrowed from Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1893 declaration that the West had been won, the idea suggests that there was always a “west,” a frontier, from the very early days of America’s establishment. “Settlement,” whether in New England or Cincinnati or the west as it exists today, has been a thread that, 50 years later, reveals a subtle historical point of continuity that has guided the growth of the museum’s collection.

 

Below, Walker shares his thoughts on “westering,” regionalism, and his museum.

 

CC: What is “westering?” How is the concept related to the collecting focus of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art?

 

AW: The concept of “westering” gave a focus to the early collecting patterns of the Amon Carter Museum, when it was actually known as the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art.  In those early years, the leadership at the museum attempted to find a way to preserve Amon G. Carter’s interest in the American West—largely in the work of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell—as his principle focus. To carry out his vision, there had to be some acknowledgement of the West as a guiding principle. However, at the same time there was an ambition to be more inclusive of the American experience generally. The solution came about in the notion of “westering.” To the early settlers of our nation, the East was the West and the frontier proved to be a concept that began, for instance, at Plymouth Colony and over time moved progressively across the territory of the United States. In this spirit, the Amon Carter would build on the existing holdings and enlarge its scope to include the whole of the term “western.”

 

CC: How has the Amon Carter Museum of American Art explored regionalism in the past, and how is the museum’s perspective on the movement unique?

 

AW: Regionalism as a concept is one that has been episodic but consistent. It has, however, defined its spirit of innovation. As noted in the concept of “westering,” the collection has grown with an understanding of the deep connection people (of diverse backgrounds) have to the land in which they live. But more narrowly, the museum has taken moments to explore that idea more deeply and relevantly to Texas and its impact in the artistic growth of the country. Sometimes it took the form of acquisitions, such as the magical group of watercolors that Georgia O’Keeffe made while teaching in West Texas. They were acquired by the museum in 1966, after being shown for the first time in a major re-examination of the artist’s career that year. My favorite moment, however, came in the late 1970s when the museum commissioned Richard Avedon to explore the identity of the modern American West. The result was the photographer’s transformative series, “In the American West,” which came about through the museum’s particularly assertive stance and is still powerful today.

 

In the past couple of years, the museum has taken a slightly different approach, recognizing the more specific importance of Texas artists, not only to art history but to the communities of collectors who are drawn to regionalism as a focus. As a continuation of an initiative begun with the 2008 exhibition, Intimate Modernism: Fort Worth Circle Artists in the 1940s, the museum is mounting exhibitions of works in local collections of the best Texas art from the 1880s to the 1950s. Not only is this about great American art, but it is also about relationships of those individuals who find collecting to be rewarding.

 

CC: How did your personal interest in regionalism begin? How has it expanded?

 

AW: My interest in regionalism really started through the relationships with various collectors, particularly when I lived and worked in St. Louis, and the inspiration they found in local artists who influenced their collecting. This drew me to names of local artists with whom I was unfamiliar but who had made remarkable achievements in the art world.  That ultimately led to a large and important study of the artist Joe Jones, a midwestern social realist who in his day achieved great importance nationally, whose reputation and significant achievement had become lost, forgotten even to his children. The exhibition and book made me realize how significant it is to balance the regional in the national story of American art.

 

Image: Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). Light Coming on the Plains No. I, 1917. Watercolor on newsprint paper. 11 7/8 x 8 7/8 inches. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.