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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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Fellow’s Find: Ties to director Brian De Palma found throughout film collection at the Ransom Center

By Harry Ransom Center

Ethan de Seife is an independent scholar and the author of the book Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin. He is currently an arts writer for the Burlington, Vermont, alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days. His research was supported by a Ransom Center travel grant. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

The best-known cinematic collaboration between actor Robert De Niro and director Brian De Palma is surely the 1987 film The Untouchables, in which De Niro memorably portrays a bloated, vengeful Al Capone. But the two artists have a shared history that goes back to 1968, when De Niro was a raffish young actor in New York’s off-off-off-Broadway theater scene, and De Palma, fresh from Sarah Lawrence’s ambitious film program, was a director whose head was filled with visions of the French New Wave, Alfred Hitchcock, and avant-garde weirdness.

 

To my mind, De Palma is the most talented of the directors of the so-called “Film School Generation.” He’s also the most misunderstood: critical writing on his work has been stuck in the same ruts (Hitchcock, violence, misogyny) since the 1970s. It’s getting boring. A filmmaker as gifted as he is deserves better.

 

In the first of what I hope are several archival expeditions in preparation for a book-length re-evaluation of De Palma’s work, I visited the Ransom Center on a travel grant in January 2014 to comb through the Robert De Niro papers. The two men made three unusual and fascinating films together before “reuniting” for The Untouchables: Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). These three titles represent the earliest feature films of both of these artists, each of whom would very soon go on to much greater fame.

 

It was a good first choice for this project, as the artists’ shared body of work is pretty small and is mostly confined to early in their careers. I’d hoped to find some information on De Palma’s working methods, though this was not really in evidence. (Memo to the Ransom Center: Please solicit and archive the papers of Brian De Palma.) A few handwritten script notes did offer tantalizing clues, though.

 

The film Hi, Mom! is a vicious satire of Vietnam-era politics and liberal empty-headedness; it remains one of the most subversive of all American films. Much of its deserved reputation for challenging satire rests on the infamous “Be Black, Baby” sequence, in which the members of a black radical group stage a work of participatory theater designed to allow white people to “experience” blackness. Patrons are subjected to all manner of abuse… and then rave about the show. It’s a deeply ambiguous and still pretty shocking scene.

 

De Niro’s own notes for this scene are, in total: “At ‘Be Black, Baby’ play where I play a cop and beat up the white liberals painted black.” The paucity of this description itself speaks to the importance of improvisation to both De Niro’s and De Palma’s art; this, in turn, reveals a great deal about the nature of the film’s production.

 

The most intriguing of my finds in the De Niro papers pertains to a De Palma film in which De Niro does not even appear. De Palma made Home Movies in 1980 in an unprecedented collaboration with film students at Sarah Lawrence. In the collection was a treatment (a kind of synopsis) of the script dated from 1970; apparently De Niro had been considered for a part in it. The treatment differs in significant ways from the film as it was made a decade later, and those differences themselves may also prove revelatory of De Palma’s evolution as an artist.

 

Once I’d exhausted the parts of the De Niro papers that pertain to De Palma, I moved on to two other Ransom Center collections that, coincidentally, also overlap with De Palma’s career: the papers of playwright and screenwriter David Mamet and that of screenwriter Paul Schrader. The former wrote The Untouchables and the latter wrote De Palma’s 1976 film Obsession.

 

The Mamet papers offered mostly old marked-up scripts, which would have been useful had the object of my quest been Mamet’s writing methods. The Schrader papers, though, yielded a few gems, including a usefully comprehensive compendium of reviews of the film, collated by the writer’s clipping service. A few financial documents also provided potentially valuable clues about the film’s budget and production methods.

 

A few snapshots of promotional ephemera from Greetings allowed me to put a fun capstone on my perusal of the De Niro papers, to which I returned when time allowed on the last day of my brief residency. Had I wanted to don the “fat suit” that Robert De Niro wore in The Untouchables, I think I might have been able to arrange it. Maybe on my next visit.

 

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The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

In the galleries: David Mamet's "Homicide" outline

By Alicia Dietrich

David Mamet's outline for 'Homicide." Click on image to view full-size version.
David Mamet's outline for 'Homicide." Click on image to view full-size version.

David Mamet is one of America’s best-known and most celebrated playwrights and filmmakers. He has received numerous awards and honors for such plays as American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), Speed-the-Plow (1988), and Oleanna (1991), and films including The Verdict (1982), Homicide (1991), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Wag the Dog (1997), and State and Main (2000). The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. Since then, Mamet has visited the Ransom Center several times to speak at public events, university classes, and student reading groups, and to lead a screenwriting workshop for students.

Materials such as Mamet’s typescripts and journals, as well as materials related to his 1991 film, Homicide, can be found in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Mamet wrote and directed Homicide, which follows homicide detective Bobby Gold, who—while trying to solve a murder—discovers a secret Zionist organization operating in the city. A series of circumstances awaken in Gold a deeper connection with his Jewish upbringing and test his loyalty to the badge. The film stars Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy, actors who frequently collaborate with Mamet.

In this outline for Homicide, Mamet structures the plot of the film following the classic sequence of action that mythologist Joseph Campbell identified in his theory of the “hero’s journey” or “monomyth.” In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell theorized that a fundamental structure could be found in ancient myths from around the world. He identified a number of “steps” or actions that were common to many ancient myths, from the “call to adventure” to the “freedom to live.” Mamet lists these steps in the middle column at the top of the page and correlates them with the film’s action in the middle row of this chart.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Don DeLillo and David Mamet honored by PEN

By Alicia Dietrich

Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.
Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.

Two writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center received 2010 PEN Literary Awards.

Novelist Don DeLillo received the 2010 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. He is the author of 15 novels, 4 plays, and a number of short stories and essays. The PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction goes to a distinguished living American author of fiction whose body of work in English possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career, which places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.

Author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and film director David Mamet received the 2010 PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for a Master American Dramatist. Mamet is the author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award. The PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama recognizes a master American dramatist whose literary achievements are vividly apparent in the rich and striking language of his or her work.

“The fact that the archives of Don DeLillo and David Mamet, two of PEN’s literary award winners this year, are at the Ransom Center is a reminder of the extraordinary collections at the Center,” said Steve Isenberg, executive director of the PEN American Center, a member of the Ransom Center’s Advisory Council, and a former visiting professor of humanities at The University of Texas at Austin. “It’s wonderful that these collections are readily available to scholars, students, faculty, and the public to see firsthand.”

Read a Q&A with DeLillo on PEN’s website.

David Mamet papers now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

The papers of David Mamet, author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award, are now open at the Harry Ransom Center.

A finding aid for the collection can be accessed here.

The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. The collection is made up of more than 300 boxes of material, covers his entire career through 2007, and contains manuscripts, journals, office and production files, correspondence, and multiple drafts of each of his works, including the acclaimed plays American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1982) and screenplays The Untouchables (1987), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), and Wag the Dog (1997). These materials record the writing and revision of all of his published texts, as well as several that are unpublished or unfinished.

 

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Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center

By Patricia Bruckmann

Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’
Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’

Patricia C. Brückmann, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Toronto, recently spent time working in the Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center for a book she is writing about his work. Gorey (1925–2000) was a writer, illustrator, and a designer of books, sets, and costumes. Born in Chicago, Gorey attended the Francis Parker School (which also claims Ransom Center playwright David Mamet as an alumnus). He spent a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later attended Harvard University, where he roomed with Frank O’Hara. He is well-known for animating the opening sequence of PBS’s Mystery! series, and he won a Tony award in 1978 for his costume design for the Broadway revival of the play Dracula.

The Ransom Center’s Gorey collection includes books, manuscripts, illustrations, correspondence, material related to Dracula

, and some material from Gorey’s college days.

Brückmann, whose research was funded with a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, shares her ruminations on her work in the Gorey papers.

 

“So I cannot come to your musicale…..love, Mildred.” This cryptic note, from Edward Gorey to Frank O’Hara, typifies their exchanges in the late ’40s when they shared rooms at Harvard in Eliot House. Although O’Hara’s musical, artistic, and literary talents were already manifest, Gorey’s mother was suspicious about her gifted only child’s friend, writing “I know nothing about this boy except what you tell me.”

Mrs. Gorey also worried about his future. Rejected by The New Yorker (the drawings were strange, they wrote, and the ideas “not funny”), she proposed that he send earlier work, perhaps more to their taste. The editor did suggest that he drop in, but said that he need not rush. The collection contains only two letters from his father, scrawled on Chicago City Council paper, the salutation “dear Son,” the sign-off “Ed.”

I can’t imagine anyone addressing Gorey with “Hi, honey,” but the birthday card in the collection, from a Chicago neighbor, I think, is real.

These, with tests of scansion and rhyme, scribbled all over yellow sheets (and on bills from the Harvard Coop) are among the papers found in three manuscript boxes at the Center. They include Gorey’s undergraduate essays, from a particularly suggestive one on La Rochefoucauld to a dull study on ship-building in Bath, Maine, and reveal the C+ Gorey received on the essay. The lively voice of his mother’s sister, Isabel Garvey, who shared and may have inspired his interest in dance, theater, and old books, leaps out—most often on 3 x 5 cards.

There are also many limericks, some printed later, and a large box of photostats (similar to a photocopy) from drawings for Dracula, these from a later time, and another box of sketches. The clippings in the vertical file, sent from home, often relate the engagements and marriages of his classmates at the Francis Parker School. The art master there, a Chicago painter, gave him, his mother says, “practically a major in art.” So he did have training in addition to the semester at the Institute. The saddest query, in a letter about Harvard, reads “Who was that professor who jumped out of a window?” The professor was F. O. Matthiessen. Harvard was not just pastoral in the ’40s. It was also, as Lillian Hellman said, “Scoundrel time.”

UT Students: Apply to participate in seminar with playwright, writer, and director David Mamet

By Danielle Sigler

Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe
Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe

The Harry Ransom Center is pleased to provide current University of Texas at Austin graduate and undergraduate students with the opportunity to join playwright, writer, and director David Mamet on “A Journey Towards Meaning.”

The Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum, is home to David Mamet’s archive, which is open and available for use.

Mr. Mamet will meet with 10 students 1-4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9 and 1-4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10. Students must be available on both days in order to participate. The Ransom Center encourages students to consult with their professors before missing class to participate in this seminar.

Currently enrolled University of Texas at Austin students should submit no more than TWO LINES explaining why they should be chosen to mametseminar@gmail.com. Entries longer than two lines will not be considered.

Entries must be received by March 2, 2010. Selected students will be notified by March 4, 2010.

The Ransom Center cannot offer further guidance about entries.

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