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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.

 

Related content:

Drama in the Archives: Fall 2014 humanities class fosters undergraduate research

 

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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.

 

 

Related content:

NEH grants Ransom Center $500,000 to establish exhibition endowment

 

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