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Notes from the Undergrad: Student uses archival materials to explore Nietzschean nihilistic reading of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

By Maureen Clark

Maureen Clark is a third-year government and Liberal Arts Honors student 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, Clark shares her experience in the class.

 

After reading Samuel Beckett’s seminal work Waiting for Godot I was at a loss. I felt that there existed some sort of lack in the work (or at least my understanding of it). I felt that I needed to understand Beckett to understand the play. I entered the Harry Ransom Center keen on unearthing the history of an avant-garde playwright known for his works in the Theatre of the Absurd. What I found waiting for me were letters, journals, and manuscripts. As I looked through the letters, hoping to parse out some personal connection with Beckett and how he felt about Waiting for Godot, I felt like a detective. I was going through someone else’s mail, piecing together fragments from the past: postcards with aging purple portrait stamps and shiny photo fronts of exotic places where sepia had begun to creep in through the corners and long letters grieving the losses of beloved friends.

 

As I looked through his correspondence and journals, I learned that Beckett was a member of the French Resistance. He lost multiple friends and allies on the battlefield and in concentration camps. One such friend, a fellow member of the Resistance and the man that convinced him to join, was Alfred Péron. Beckett chose to live permanently in France, abandoning his home nation of Ireland for two main reasons. The first was the overwhelming sense of guilt he felt at the loss of his friends, and the second was to fulfill his final promise to Alfred: that he would take care of his wife, Maya “Mania” Lézine Péron, if anything were to happen to Péron during the war. Beckett kept his word and became close long-term friends with Mania, writing her often and discussing anything from vacation plans to manuscript ideas.

 

In one letter on June 12, 1969, Beckett provided a mimeograph from Edith Fournier, a former student of Péron, in which she explained the meaning of Godot. He explained to Péron that with the exception of a few “misconceptions” Edith’s analysis was “remarkable.” Finally, I was beginning to unearth Beckett’s understanding of the play, which was no small feat. Beckett is even famous for having said “[i]f I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play.”

 

Rather than focusing on describing the play through an Existential lens or even describing it as a piece for the Theatre of the Absurd, Fournier describes the play through a Nietzschean lens. Fournier does not explicitly cite Nietzsche, but focuses on themes found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For example, Fournier discusses the meaning of the play to be waiting, not Godot. Moreover, Fournier wrote, the reason the characters wait in the play is similar to a religious waiting for the afterlife: it is habitual and eternally repeating.

 

As a result, I pointed my external research toward a Nietzschean nihilistic reading of the text. I was pleasantly surprised when I found readings in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that were mirrored in Godot and Fournier’s analysis of it. Even more so, I found allusions to Nietzsche in Beckett’s journals, although never explicitly named. Much like his comments on Godot, Beckett’s journals and correspondence were vague and brief, but the research and meaning that I gleaned from them at the Ransom Center were comprehensive and clear.

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Reviving Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”

By Kenneth Williams

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.

 

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Michael Ondaatje, author of “The English Patient,” discusses work with fellow writer

By Marlene Renz

Acclaimed novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje converses with writer Geoff Dyer in a Harry Ransom Lecture on Tuesday, March 31, at 7 p.m. The event takes place in the Jessen Auditorium, in Homer Rainey Hall, across the plaza from the Ransom Center.

 

Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje’s work also encompasses poetry, memoir, and film. His Booker Prize–winning novel The English Patient was adapted into an Academy Award–winning film. His other works include his memoir Running in the Family, four collections of poetry, the non-fiction book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, and his novels In the Skin of a Lion, Anil’s Ghost, Divisadero, and The Cat’s Table.

 

Ondaatje discusses his novels and poetry and his book on film editing, as well as research, editing, adapting books to film, and film as an art itself.

 

Audience members will be able to ask questions, and a reception and book signing follow at the Ransom Center.

 

The event is free and open to the public. Priority entry is available to Ransom Center members (one seat per membership card) who arrive by 6:20 p.m. Members arriving after 6:30 p.m. will join the general queue. Complimentary parking for Ransom Center members is available at the University Co-op garage at 23rd and San Antonio streets.

 

This program is presented by the University Co-op.

 

Attendees may enter to win Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, as well as a copy of his book of poetry, Handwriting.

 

 

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National Endowment for the Humanities awards grant to preserve and enhance access to sound recordings

By Jennifer Tisdale

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded the Ransom Center a $18,900 grant to preserve and enhance access to the Ransom Center’s non-commercial sound recordings. The grant allows the Ransom Center to complete a preservation survey of more than 13,000 archival sound recordings to establish and document preservation digitization priorities, processes, and standards to enhance access to these research materials.

 

“To make the most prudent and productive use of resources available, the Ransom Center must understand the condition of its sound recordings, as well as their intellectual and research value, in order to make preservation decisions based on clear principles that will expand current and inform future reformatting, stabilizing, and cataloging efforts,” said Ransom Center Director Steve Enniss. “This support from the NEH is powerful validation of the Center’s efforts.”

 

A majority of the recordings are unique and were made for private, non-commercial use. The content varies widely but includes literary spoken word, conference proceedings, dictated notes and letters, field recordings, structured interviews, lectures and readings, musical performances, radio broadcasts, rehearsals, telephone conversations, dictated drafts of writings, and even therapy sessions and psychic readings.

 

Recordings in the collection belong to some of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century’s most notable writers, artists, and performers including Stella Adler, Neal Cassady, Andre Dubus, David Douglas Duncan, Norman Bel Geddes, Spalding Gray, Denis Johnson, Ernest Lehman, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Gerard Malanga, David Mamet, Nicholas Ray, Ross Russell, David and Jeffrey Selznick, Anne Sexton, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Warren Skaaren, Ted Spagna, Gloria Swanson, and Leon Uris.

 

Of the more than 13,000 audio recordings cataloged in the Ransom Center’s Sound Recordings Collection database, 2,700 have been digitized and are available for streaming onsite in the Center’s Reading and Viewing Room.

 

A long-term goal is to place the Sound Recordings Collection database on the Ransom Center’s website, providing patrons access to existing sound recordings.

 

“In the 50 years since NEH’s founding, the Endowment has supported excellence in the humanities by funding far-reaching research, preservation projects and public programs,” said NEH Chairman William Adams. “The grants continue that tradition, making valuable humanities collections, exhibitions, documentaries, and educational resources available to communities across the country.”

 

Upon completion, the project will serve as a model for a follow-up project to survey the Ransom Center’s archival moving image materials.

 

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Feeling Samuel Beckett’s pain and “Godot” in German

By Lily Pipkin

Lily Pipkin was a Plan II 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, Pipkin shares her experience in the class.

 

I’ve always gotten excited about the prospect of an archive. My eyes light up at the thought of the treasures that are tucked away, waiting to be found. That doesn’t mean the thought of walking into the Ransom Center for the first time and knowing what to ask for wasn’t absolutely terrifying. But I had the fortune to stumble across a class in the course catalog last spring that aimed to do just that. There were eight of us, and we spent the semester approaching modern drama through the archive.

 

We were reading Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and I called down a box of his correspondence in search of something relevant to my paper and unintentionally sent myself down a rabbit hole of letters, notes, and postcards, all scrawled out in Beckett’s terrible handwriting. As I read through more and more of these notes, I began to see the friendships and hardships that filled Beckett’s life. I read letters to his friend A. J. Leventhal that were full of sorrow at news of Leventhal’s wife’s cancer diagnosis. Days later, I came back to the Ransom Center and in an entirely different box, I stumbled across a letter informing a friend of her passing. It was heartbreaking! I had never met these people, but even with just one side of the conversation, the pain in Beckett’s letters was so evident, it left me feeling emptier than I could have ever expected.

 

His letters were not solely heartbreak and hardships, though Beckett seems to have gone through more of that than anyone should ever have to. I did find the bits and pieces regarding Godot that I had set out looking for. It gave me the impression that Beckett was extremely particular about how his works were performed but, for a long time, could not be bothered to correct those that were done incorrectly.

 

In a letter to Mary Manning Howe, he mentions a production that’s rehearsing in London and that “in the terms of my contract I should be consulted about cast, set, etc. It suits me all right to be treated as though I were dead.” Comments like this, on his distaste for most of the earlier Godot productions, led me to look closely into the one time he chose to direct Godot personally—20 years later at the Schiller Theater in Berlin.

 

He took the opportunity to rewrite the original German translation, which he once described as “full of blunders.” Between his translation work, his Director’s Notebook, and his correspondence during his time at the Schiller, I found just how particular he was about every word, movement, and expression on stage in Godot. Under his direction, and in his own version of the German translation, Beckett finally gave his audience the Godot he intended. And oddly enough, a play that upon first exposure feels arbitrary and absurd is actually the product of highly defined, purposeful instruction.

 

But I took more away from the class than a detailed understanding of Waiting for Godot in German. After many hours spent in the Reading Room this semester, I feel not only excited by but also comfortable in the archive. Now, it feels like a place I can go, not just to search blindly, but to look without getting lost.

 

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Undergraduates in the archives

By Marlene Renz

Students at The University of Texas have the opportunity to enhance their studies with the Ransom Center’s collections. Andrea Gustavson, PhD candidate in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, designed an entire class around the Ransom Center’s collections, and she writes about how the primary source materials enhanced the learning experience for her undergraduate students.

 

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