Alison Stone, a doctoral student at the University of Exeter, recently spent time in the Ransom Center’s reading room conducting research for her thesis, “Contemporary British Poetry and Objectivism.”
Her thesis will chart the exchange of ideas and influences between a group of British poets of the 1950s and 1960s, including Andrew Crozier and Gael Turnbull, and a group of late-Modernist Americans, called the “Objectivists.” She explored the archives of Charles Tomlinson, Hugh Kenner, Louis Zukofsky, and others to pinpoint exactly what the British poets borrowed from their American counterparts.
The Harry Ransom Center invites applications for its 2015–2016 research fellowships. More than 50 fellowships will be awarded for projects that require substantial onsite use of the Center’s collections, supporting research in all areas of the humanities, including literature, photography, film, art, the performing arts, music, and cultural history.
Information about the fellowships and the application process is available online. The deadline for applications, which must be submitted through the Ransom Center’s website, is January 15, 2015, at 5 p.m. CDT.
All applicants, with the exception of those applying for dissertation fellowships, must have a Ph.D. or be independent scholars with a substantial record of achievement.
The fellowships range from one to three months, with stipends of $3,000 per month. Also available are $1,200 or $1,700 travel stipends and dissertation fellowships with a $1,500 stipend.
The stipends are funded by endowments and annual sponsors, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Jewish Studies, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship Endowment, the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation, the Robert De Niro Endowed Fund, the Woodward and Bernstein Endowment, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the South Central Modern Language Association, and The University of Texas at Austin’s Office of Graduate Studies, Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, and program in British Studies.
Since the fellowship program’s inauguration in 1990, the Center has supported the research of more than 900 scholars through fellowship awards. In conjunction with the program’s 25th anniversary, the Center seeks to raise $25,000 to establish a Fellowship Anniversary Endowment to support the growth of the fellowship program and the next generation of humanities scholars. Related content:
Image: Attributed to Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, [Geisha having her photograph taken], not dated, color woodblock; Alfred Junge, scene conception for The Barretts of Wimpole Street, 1956; Fred Fehl, still featuring Sara Yarborough from a production of Cry, 1974; Clement Smith & Co., Hercat’s New and Startling Illusion, 1888; Julia Margaret Cameron, [May Prinsep], 1870, albumen print.
James Sitar is an editor at the Poetry Foundation and teaches literature classes at Loyola University Chicago. Sitar’s work in the Spalding Gray archive was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. He discusses his digital project that allows comparisons between Gray’s performance notebooks. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
Many who know of Spalding Gray’s storytelling first experienced it by watching the film version of Swimming to Cambodia or by reading the book. Gray performed over a dozen different monologues, but this one catapulted his career and ensured that his innovative performance style would influence a new generation of actors. I was certainly captivated by the movie when I was 10 years old (which was probably too young). And ever since my college days, I’ve been drawn to archival recordings, whether it was the all-encompassing lectures or “talks” of Robert Frost or the countless bootlegs of Bob Dylan. When I heard that the Harry Ransom Center acquired the archive of Spalding Gray, including scores of audio and video recordings, I knew I had to visit. After all, how often do your childhood fascinations align with your interests as an adult?
Thanks to a fellowship from the Ransom Center, I was able to spend a month listening to and comparing Gray’s performances of Swimming to Cambodia, which occurred over a span of about 20 years. Gray would record his one-man shows and then listen to them the next day, and this listening would inform his approach to the next performance. No performance is the same, which means that this monologue is what we refer to as a living text: there’s no one version of it that is more important or authentic than any others. It’s clear from interview and diary entries that he never thought of the film or the book versions as definitive or superior performances, though certainly he viewed them as successful versions that were true to the mediums of film and print.
By listening along, I discovered how important this flexible, evolving, experimental approach was to Gray. He never worked with a script, or even solidified particular details or vignettes. Instead, he’d only sparingly glance at the spiral-bound notebook he had on stage, in which he had written certain important words or phrases; if he got caught up in a tangent, as he was wont to do, his notes would help him find his way back to his narrative arc. The opportunity to perform in person, in front of small audiences, was crucial to Gray. His loose narrative style and method, and his desire to make each performance a unique connection to place and time and audience, make each performance different. This fact also reflects his avant-garde approach to theater and his artistic preoccupations with the evolving natures of memories, the construction of personal truths, the production and performance of a public self, and the complications of making art out of life through the problematic notions of authenticity and confession.
As a researcher and editor, I want to deliver remarkable materials into the hands and ears of fans and scholars and to present these materials in the most helpful, enjoyable, responsible, and authentic ways possible. I’m currently building a website devoted to Swimming to Cambodia that’s true to the living nature of the monologue, with audio and video recordings, notebooks, and different types of transcripts with annotations and background materials that allow visitors to experience the monologue’s myriad iterations. I want to present Gray’s performances as moments, as I look for innovative ways to preserve some of the fluid and ephemeral essences of speech and performance in the fixed form of text. It will serve as an archive that collects all of the Swimming to Cambodia’s that we can revisit.
You can take a look at a very early and small sample of the work, which uses an inventive piece of software called the Versioning Machine. This sample presents the same passage from many different notebooks and performances of the monologue, a passage in which Gray chronicles his difficulty remembering some lines in filming The Killing Fields (1984). It’s Gray’s inability to memorize lines that makes this part of the monologue so funny and painful, and this inability is also what makes his monologues so unscripted and alive. It’s a revealing moment behind the scenes of filmmaking, and I hope my digital project can similarly look behind the scenes of Gray’s craft.
I’m grateful for and indebted to so many people’s help in making Gray’s work available online, including Tanya Clement, Quinn Stewart, Daniel Carter, Erin Donohue, the entire Ransom Center staff, and the estate of Spalding Gray.
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.
Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.
Alex Feldman, an Assistant Professor in the English Department at MacEwan University, Alberta, visited the Ransom Center to consult the papers of George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller, among others. His research, supported by the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, focused on the dramatization of historical trials specifically those of Joan of Arc and the witches of Salem, in twentieth-century drama. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
The Ransom Center’s cataloging card describes the volume on my desk as a “Rough Proof” of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (1923). On the title page—the book is missing a cover—a faint pencil inscription in Shaw’s hand reads, “the old copy showing where the corrections come.” According to Brian Tyson’s account of the play’s development (The Story of Saint Joan), the revisions that appear in this copy date from Shaw’s holiday in Parknasilla, County Kerry, in September 1923, three months before the play’s New York premiere and six months prior to its first performance in London. The ink annotation below, made almost eight years later, reads, “This is an authentic ‘revise’ for the printer, or possible [sic] a copy of one made by me as a precaution against the loss of the other…”
What this copy and its corrections reveal is that a collective voice of great prominence in Shaw’s trial scene was added at a very late stage in the play’s composition. Here, in Shaw’s hand, “The Assessors” make their first appearance.
Sixty or so French and English clerics of assorted order and rank, the assessors fulfilled a quasi-juridical function at Joan’s trial, acting in a consultative capacity under Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who presided over the proceedings, and Jean Lemaitre, vicar of the Inquisition at Rouen and Joan’s second judge. The likelihood is that, whether intimidated, coerced, or otherwise incentivized, many of the assessors could be counted on to lean, as Cauchon directed, in favor of Joan’s excommunication (and subsequent execution.) But their presence in Rouen and their substantial role in the trial did indicate a serious regard for procedural fairness. According to the trial transcripts, Cauchon, eager to present them as incorruptible, described the assessors as “ecclesiastical and learned men, experienced in canon and civil law, who wished and intended to proceed with [Joan] in all piety and meekness.” Shaw, by contrast, though he deviates from the melodramatic tradition that portrays the assessors as “malignant scoundrels,” presents them as a shrill chorus of righteously indignant imbeciles.
Here’s a representative interjection, which affords some insight into the rationale behind Shaw’s eleventh-hour additions to the text. Under Cauchon’s interrogation, refusing to disavow the heavenly provenance of her “visions and revelations,” Joan declares that she will continue to be guided by God’s will. “In case the Church should bid me do anything contrary to the command I have from God,” Joan declares, “I will not consent to it, no matter what it may be.” Here, in the proof copy, the following insertion appears (see below image):
THE ASSESSORS [shocked and indignant] Oh! The Church contrary to
God! What do you say now? Flat heresy. This is beyond everything.
The playwright isolates the objectionable detail—“The Church contrary to God!”—in case the audience has missed it, and offers it up to the spectator’s scrutiny once again, via the medium of the assessors’ protest. Here and throughout, the assessors perform a mediating function, clarifying, for Shaw’s audience, the nature of Joan’s heresy, as contemporary clerics perceived it. (See images below for further examples.)
The development of this choric voice, identifying and decrying Joan’s seminal transgressions, adds weight to the anti-Joan sentiment building throughout the trial among the clergy. The assessors’ interjections are crucial to Shaw’s establishment of his protagonist’s perceived theological-legal guilt (in the identification of her heresy), but they are also instrumental in advancing Shaw’s argument that the world is always unprepared for the saints in its midst. A rabble of censorious mediocrities, these men are not evil—“there are no villains in the piece,” Shaw insisted—but they do contribute to the sense that middlebrow opinion (ever the object of Shaw’s critique) and unthinking conformity to the conventional canons of belief create insuperable obstacles to the recognition of genius.
I am grateful to Jean Cannon and all of the staff at the Ransom Center for their expert guidance, to Willow White for her timely assistance, and to Sos Eltis and Peter Raby for their support of my fellowship application.
Emily Talbot, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, received a dissertation fellowship to study nineteenth-century composite photographs by Henry Peach Robinson and his contemporaries in England and France. This research forms part of a larger project that considers the integration of photographic technologies and aesthetic standards into the production of works of art in other media. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
With the support of a Dissertation Fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, I spent a month studying photographs, drawings, and other ephemera related to nineteenth-century British photographer Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901). My dissertation project at the University of Michigan concerns relationships between photography and other media in the nineteenth century, focusing particularly on “hybrid” practices, such as painters who utilized photographic technologies or photographers who doctored their images with paint or pencil.
Robinson is a perfect case study for my project as he was one of the first and most famous practitioners of “composite photography,” an early form of photomontage that involved printing multiple negatives on the same sheet of paper. Composite prints are ambitious works of art that were intended to rival painting in their subject matter and mode of execution. Typically, Robinson would design his compositions in pencil or watercolor, later photographing each figure and landscape element separately before combining them into a single image in the darkroom.
The Helmut and Alison Gernsheim collection of photography at the Ransom Center is one of three major repositories of work by Henry Peach Robinson (the other two being George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and the National Media Museum in Bradford, England). However, because Helmut Gernsheim felt that it was important to understand a photographer’s artistic development in its entirety—an idea he notes in correspondence with Robinson’s granddaughter—the Gernsheims collected Robinson’s prints, drawings, and paintings in addition to the photographs for which he is best known. During my residency at the Ransom Center, I was particularly keen to study several rare photographic collages that Robinson made as preliminary studies for his composite prints. These half-painted, half-photographic compositions reveal Robinson’s artistic process to be a fascinating negotiation of painting and photography, imagination, and visible reality.
In my attempts to understand how Robinson conceived and created his pictures, I called upon the expertise of Barbara Brown, Head of Photograph Conservation at the Ransom Center. Together we examined 15 combination photographs, identifying and speculating about instances of handwork on the negatives as a result of painting on or masking over parts of the image before printing. During this study session I gained further appreciation for the complexity of Robinson’s technique. By making changes directly on his negatives, he left very little physical evidence of this manipulation on the prints themselves. Without being able to consult the negatives, the viewer must often guess how the image was made.
Rather than being an impediment to my research, this knowledge helps me to understand why many nineteenth-century art critics were so disapproving of composite printing. Landscape photographer Alfred Wall even described Robinson’s works as “ingenious fraud” and “contemptible shams.” Composite pictures trick the eye—the critic’s main tool of expertise—casting doubt on the reliability of photographic images and undermining the role of the critic altogether. As I move forward with my research, I intend to explore further this fraught relationship between seeing and making that is exemplified by the rich collections of nineteenth-century photography at the Harry Ransom Center.
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Image: Henry Peach Robinson, Study for A Holiday in the Wood, salted paper print with applied graphite and watercolor, May 1860.
Pim Verhulst of the University of Antwerp visited the Ransom Center to work with the Samuel Beckett papers, in particular the radio plays and related correspondence. His research, funded by a dissertation fellowship, seeks to bring together all the existing draft versions in a digital space and study the writing process. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
In 2013 the Harry Ransom Center awarded me a dissertation fellowship for a research project on the radio plays of the Irish-French author and Nobel Prize Winner (1969) Samuel Beckett. My dissertation is part of the recently launched Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Its goal is to reunite all extant draft material of Beckett’s bilingual work, scattered over a dozen libraries all around the world, in an interactive digital environment. Each of its 27 online modules is supplemented with a book that reconstructs the writing process of the highlighted texts on the basis of their available writing traces, as well as letters and even Beckett’s personal library. My dissertation covers Beckett’s six radio plays: All That Fall, Embers, Pochade radiophonique, Words and Music, Esquisse radiophonique, and Cascando. They were written in English and French between 1956 and 1962 and translated by the author himself around the same time.
My week’s stay at the Ransom Center came at the end of a three-year research period, during which I visited all the major European research institutions and libraries preserving Beckett material. The Ransom Center was my last stop, and while most pieces of the puzzle were already in place, a few crucial gaps remained. The collection includes draft material for Beckett’s first two radio plays, All That Fall and Embers, as well as many important letter collections from close friends. My trip to the Ransom Center followed a short research stay at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where it was unusually hot and damp for my Northern European temperament. The cold front causing ice storms in Houston and Dallas had made the December weather in Austin resemble more closely what I was used to in Belgium, so I felt immediately at home when I arrived. To warm myself a little, I decided to turn to Embers first. The typescript of the French version (Cendres) is very interesting because it shows just how intensely Beckett reworked the translation made by his friend, the French writer Robert Pinget. In three kinds of writing material—grey pencil, blue ink, and red ballpoint—you can see him trying out five or six variants of a phrase, the differences being ever so slight. This great attention to detail was all the more impressive because the Center allowed me to consult the original documents, which even showed the traces of previous erased alternative, a rare luxury that only archives offer.
The English typescript of the radio play comes late in the writing process and does not show many alterations. One peculiar aspect of the typescript is its lack of a title. From my earlier research on the text, I knew that Beckett originally planned to call it “Ebb,” as it takes place by the seaside. Why it was changed to Embers is revealed by his letters to Ethna McCarthy, the wife of one of his best friends. The news of her terminal illness brought to Beckett’s mind an image of her “crouching all day over the fire in the front room” when he last saw Ethna in Dublin, a vivid depiction that recurs in some of his other letters to mutual friends. Beckett sent her his new radio script with the message: “there are bits that will murmur to you.” Embers must have been one of the last—if not the last—text that Ethna read during her life. Beckett’s change of title reflects these personal circumstances, as the cycle of ebb and flow makes way for the entropic decline of coals dying down. It is a beautiful though painful reminder of how art tries to staunch the wounds of life, even in the face of death.
The vaudevillian setup of All That Fall promised lighter entertainment, as fat Maddy Rooney painstakingly makes her way to the nearest train station. Fellow travelers offer a ride but they all break down, leading to ribald sitcom. She finally meets her blind husband on the platform and leads him home, but it soon becomes clear just how unfit a guide she is. The script’s closing pages become ever more grim, as tensions between Maddy and Dan rise and the weather takes a turn for the worse. The gorgeous manuscript notebook that holds the first version of the radio play shows how Beckett wrote the text in fits and starts, shuffling along the dreary road of composition much like his characters, switching between writing tools and colors as if to liven things up. When he got to the second, more gloomy part of the script—appropriately written in black ink—he returned to the first page of the notebook and changed the title from “Lovely Day for the Races” to All That Fall. The new title refers to Psalm 145.14: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” In Beckett’s radio play, there is no sign of a merciful God. Ironically, as I approached the end of the manuscript, Ransom Center staff members were busy putting up Christmas decorations. As everyone was getting ready for the holiday season, it was time for me to go home. Still glowing with the kindness of Elizabeth Garver, Bridget Gayle-Ground, and their colleagues, and the excitement of a week’s archival exploration, I tried not to think of All That Fall as my flight sped across the Atlantic.
Image: Photograph of Samuel Beckett taken by a street photographer outside Burlington House in Piccadily, ca. 1954.
Diana Solomon, associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, worked with the Ransom Center’s collections of eighteenth-century English playbills and promptbooks. Jointly supported by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the British Studies Fellowship, her research will be utilized in her current book project on comedy and repetition in eighteenth-century English theater. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
In the winter of 2014 I had the good fortune of spending three months at the Harry Ransom Center. My current book project, Comedy and Repetition in Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, asks why eighteenth-century theater audiences wanted to see the same plays, characters, plots, and comic devices again and again. It is essential first to pin down what elements they did wish to revisit, which requires substantial archival research. Prior studies of comic taste in eighteenth-century England have tended to focus on canonical novels or on non-mainstream genres. But looking broadly at dramatic trends tells a different story, and that story can be traced through the Ransom Center’s rich holdings in eighteenth-century English theater.
Many printed playtexts survive, but since their eighteenth-century readers may or may not have seen them in performance, it can be tricky to determine what material from plays was actually performed onstage. One approach to answering this question is to examine surviving promptbooks—unique print copies of the play used by the theater prompter to delineate textual omissions and stage directions. The Ransom Center possesses 11 such promptbooks, and these indicate not only what sections of the texts were staged, but also how performances of plays changed over time.
One example concerns the promptbook to Thomas Southerne’s 1696 play, Oroonoko. The play is based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel about an African king, Oroonoko, who was tricked into slavery by British slave-traders; the novel ends tragically with his murder by dismemberment. When adapting it for the stage, Southerne changed details of the tragedy (for example, Oroonoko’s death becomes a suicide) and added a comic plot featuring two sisters husband-hunting in the New World. His play begins with the two sisters discussing why they abandoned their lives in England for America. That these are the first two characters who appear onstage makes them sympathetic to the audience. Charlotte and Lucy discuss the double standard of aging, male repulsion to female familiarity, and the name-calling and mimicry that led them ultimately to leave England. But in the promptbook, which was first used during a 1730s play revival and then further annotated for planned revivals in 1747 and 1759, the first scene is gutted. The remaining lines indicate the sisters’ lost hope of marrying Londoners but eliminate the protofeminist discussion of how this state of affairs came to be. There are also excisions from Oroonoko’s scenes, but the major ones (consisting of 15 or more lines) don’t appear until Act 3, by which time his character and mistreatment by the British have been well established. While subsequent editions retain the excised passages, those who solely attended performances never saw this comic scene. The prompter’s copy of Oroonoko suggests that the prompter cut these scenes from his sense of audience taste in comedy. Parts of the original play may have seemed too challenging for later audiences, suggesting that they may have been less receptive to protofeminism.
It is possible, from the 11 prompter’s copies, to deduce that earlier, more radical comedy remained in play publications but was considered too radical or challenging for mid-eighteenth-century theater audiences. These Ransom Center’s holdings are invaluable for their help in tracing audience taste throughout the century.
Image: Pages 2 and 3 in the promptbook of Thomas Southerne’s playOroonoko.
Ira S. Murfin is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. He received a dissertation research fellowship from the Ransom Center to work in the Spalding Gray collection, investigating the early development of Gray’s influential autobiographical monologues for his dissertation on the use of talk as a performance strategy in the American avant-garde. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
Spalding Gray sits in his loft in Lower Manhattan. It is 1979, and he has had a difficult few years after suffering an emotional breakdown while touring with The Performance Group’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children to India in 1976. He turns on his tape recorder and relates everything he can remember about what happened then and what has happened since. That summer he is a visiting artist at Connecticut College, and he tells these memories to an audience for the first time, interspersing excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which he had been reading when things started to go bad for him in Kashmir. By that fall, back at The Performing Garage, his home theater in New York, the piece has acquired the name India and After (America) and a second performer who reads definitions from a dictionary at random, which Gray associates on the spot with anecdotes that he tries to tell within a given time limit. The Woolf excerpts have been cut, and the seemingly random associations of memory have been approximated by chance procedure. This structure keeps the piece in the present, even as it recounts the past.
The audio and video documentation in the Spalding Gray collection at the Harry Ransom Center, where I was able to spend a month earlier this year thanks to a Ransom Center dissertation research fellowship, enabled me to track early Gray performances like this one in their developmental process. Most people who know Gray from the successful 1987 film adaptation of his monologue Swimming to Cambodia have probably never heard of India and After (America), but this early example documents Gray establishing the practices he would continue to use and adapt for the rest of his career. This approach has come to define the elements of the autobiographical monologue and the first-person account as dramatic and literary genres.
Arguably the most well-known autobiographical performer of recent decades, Gray is one of the central subjects of my dissertation project, Talk Performance: Re-Negotiating Genre, Embodied Language, and the Performative Turn in the American Avant-Garde, along with the poet David Antin and the dance artist Yvonne Rainer. In this project, I examine talk performance—direct address, non-fictional, apparently extemporaneous speech in art-specific contexts—as a strategy used by these key figures in the post-1960s American avant-garde to address shifting disciplinary expectations and the implications of recorded media for composition and circulation.
Alongside the recordings of Gray’s earliest monologues available at the Ransom Center, I was able to track many of the events he discussed in his performances through the personal journals he was keeping at the time. Also, I was able to survey a number of efforts to turn material from his talk performances into publishable texts, variously cast as fiction, as personal essay, and finally as dramatic literature. I used this research to understand how Gray coordinated writing, live performance, and audio recording to develop and eventually set his monologues. Ultimately, this will help me to articulate the ways that Gray’s idiosyncratic experiment in public self-examination became a familiar and widely reproducible dramatic form in theater contexts, personal storytelling and creative non-fiction, and hybrid approaches to reporting in popular media.
Sara Stevenson, a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow, worked with the photographs of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson at the Ransom Center last fall. Her research, supported by the David Douglas Duncan Endowment for Photojournalism, will be used in a book she is writing for the J. Paul Getty Museum. Below, she shares some of her findings. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
In October 2013, I visited the Harry Ransom Center’s magnificent library, which holds impressive historic photographs and contains one treasure of particular Scottish importance: the album of photographs by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson taken between 1843 and 1846. Hill gave this set of photographs to marine painter Clarkson Stanfield, and Stanfield responded: “I sat up till nearly three o’clock looking over them. They are indeed most wonderful, and I would rather have a set of them than the finest Rembrandts I ever saw”—a remarkable, heartfelt statement.
The photographs were taken mostly in the fishing village of Newhaven, just to the north of Edinburgh on the river Forth. They are the origin of social documentary photography. This, I am happy to say, ought to have been impossible, because the process they used, the calotype, was far too slow; exposure times might well be measured in minutes rather than fractions of a second. The series—more than 100 photographs involving several hundred figures—is a highly pleasing example of human intelligence and skill, both using and overcoming the incompetence of technology. Social documentary photography is, to my mind, a high art form, demanding a sophisticated understanding of people—how to work with other people to make them appear to be themselves, in an active or powerful sense that speaks to strangers and, in this case, does so after more than 150 years. This is in no way easy— “most wonderful” indeed.
The new research I am unearthing on this subject is due to be published by the J. Paul Getty Museum publications department in a year or two. The book will be a celebration, engaging both collections. I am more than grateful to have the endorsement of two such splendid American photographic departments of a great Scottish achievement in the art of photography.
By happy coincidence, the fellowship was founded in honor of the excellent photojournalist, David Douglas Duncan, whose splendid archive resides at the Center. It was enjoyable to work in the library with fine examples of his work on the wall, which connected me to the present. It was equally astonishing to find that the Center was staging a conference to celebrate the acquisition of the New York Magnum Photos archive and that they had persuaded such an impressive group of photographers to come, show photographs, and talk. I am still haunted by some of the pictures and was immensely cheered to listen to people talking with passion of their work and aims.
The Center offers a generous and helpful environment for intelligent work.
And I enjoyed Austin (not least because the sun shines, with only an occasional dramatic thunderstorm—and coming from Scotland at the dull, wet time of the year, this is a serious consideration!)
Image: David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson. A Newhaven Pilot. 1845.