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Drama in the Archives: Humanities class fosters undergraduate research

By Harry Ransom Center

Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.


In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.


For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.


Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.


“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”


As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the ‘big glass buildings with the pretty pictures’ on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibits on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.”


Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.


“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.


For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.


Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.


“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”


After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”


Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.


Several students from this class will present their research and experiences in upcoming posts in the “Notes from the Undergrad” series on this blog.


Related content:

Notes from the Undergrad: An undergraduate’s introduction to Anne Sexton

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research

Signature Courses at the Ransom Center



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Driftwood in an archive

By Jennifer Tisdale

Writer Jim Crace, author of Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), speaks about ephermera in archives and the narratives and stories they provide.

Crace elaborates about a piece of driftwood found in his archive that contains a note that was later incorporated into his novel Signals of Distress (1996).

Enter by July 13 for a chance to win a signed copy of Crace’s Continent by visiting the Ransom Center’s Facebook page.

Crace will be in residence this fall at the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. He will give a public reading on December 6.

Piece of driftwood in Jim Crace’s archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Piece of driftwood in Jim Crace’s archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" opens this week in Austin

By Alicia Dietrich

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 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.]

Fellows Find: Scholar studies playwright Tom Stoppard’s wit

By William Demastes

Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”
Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”

Bill Demastes of Louisiana State University spent  June 2011 at the Ransom Center on a fellowship reviewing material from various collections, including the Tom Stoppard papers, for his forthcoming book, The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard. Demastes’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Endowment.

When playwright Tom Stoppard’s name comes up in conversation, most people will recognize him (with a little help) as the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the (co)author of the award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love. People who follow live theater will recognize him as perhaps the most important (certainly the most successful) playwright alive today, a man who over the past five decades has dazzled the stage with such hits as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (his 1960s breakthrough play), Travesties, Jumpers, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, and The Coast of Utopia. He is a word master, wit, comic genius, a man who juggles thought with feeling and provides rich entertainments that generate intellectual resonances for his audiences well after the theater goes dark.

I have been working on The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard (Cambridge University Press) for the past few years, increasingly realizing that no one short of Stoppard himself could capture the heart of Stoppard’s theater. When that point finally crystallized in my mind, I determined to come to the Ransom Center, home of the Tom Stoppard papers, looking for Stoppard’s own words to incorporate into my book. Over the month that I spent combing through letters, interviews, essays, and speeches, I found gem after gem. Throughout his writings, Stoppard uses peacocks crossing highways, fairies flitting over ponds, men listening to jazz on a radio, a bookstore, landscape gardening, a coin toss, tales from Wittgenstein and Feynman, a love of slapstick, rock-n-roll, and so much more unlikely material to illuminate such complexities as postmodernism, cognitive psychology, determinism, existentialism, nonlinear dynamics, particle physics, and love. Having so much of Stoppard’s writings in a center dedicated to preserving the written word in all its manifestations has made my job infinitely easier. It is for that that I thank the Ransom Center.

Jim Crace papers now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

Jim Crace
Jim Crace

The papers of British writer Jim Crace, author of acclaimed works Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), are now open at the Ransom Center. A finding aid of the collection can be accessed online.

The Center acquired Crace’s archive in 2008. The collection is made up of more than 45 boxes of materials, including the research notes, early drafts and edited page proofs of All That Follows (2010), Crace’s novel that is being released next Tuesday.

Below you can view a video of Crace reading from All That Follows. Also, listen to audio of Crace reading from his other works and view a list of his recommended reading.