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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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From the Outside In: Title page from William Shakespeare's "A Midsommer Nights Dreame," 1619

By Edgar Walters

Title page from "A Midsommer Nights Dreame."
Title page from "A Midsommer Nights Dreame."

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This image of the title page to William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream reads, “A Midsommer Nights Dreame, As it hath beene sundry times publikely acted, by the Right Honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants.” Below the title, the printer and date are identified as James Roberts, 1600, but this is a misrepresentation. Although 1600 was the first date of publication of the play, this image is of the title page of a second edition, printed in 1619 by William Jaggard and Thomas Pavier. Jaggard ran the printing shop that had been founded by James Roberts, and his edition was an unauthorized printing that upset Shakespeare’s playing company, the King’s Men. The company asked the king to order the immediate ban of publication of their works by other parties. Jaggard continued to publish the play, however, by using the date of the first edition to sell it as old stock. Notably, William Jaggard had previously printed an unauthorized collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1599 under the title The Passionate Pilgrim. As was customary in Elizabethan publishing, Jaggard retained copyright as publisher, and no profits of the sale went to Shakespeare or his company.

The Jaggard printing from 1619 was later used as the publisher’s copy for the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1623 First Folio. Shakespeare’s plays were published in a number of early editions. The first single-play copies were published as “quartos,” so called because pieces of paper were folded in four to make the pages. The first collection of all of the plays—the First Folio—was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death by John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of the King’s Men who would have known Shakespeare. Their edition was published in the larger “folio” format, with the paper folded in two, and it contained the 36 plays generally accepted as Shakespeare’s. The first quarto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1600 had contained few errors or corruptions, but the second quarto by Jaggard in 1619 contained many errors. When Heminges and Condell put together the First Folio, they used a corrected copy of the second quarto as the text for this play. Because of their knowledge of Shakespeare and his plays, they could make the First Folio more accurate than either of the previous quartos. The First Folio is particularly important because it covers the full body of Shakespeare’s work. Half of the plays in the First Folio, including Macbeth and The Tempest, had never been published before and would have been lost had they not been collected at this time. The 1623 First Folio was also the first licensed printing of the works of Shakespeare.

Among Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the closest example to the Renaissance genre of the masque, and it was most likely written in the mid-1590s for the occasion of an important wedding. Popular court entertainments, full of music, dancing, and pageantry, masques were written by many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson. A Midsummer Night’s Dream explores romantic desire through the wedding of the mythological royal couple Theseus and Hippolyta, and features four young people of Athens (Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena), a squabble between King Oberon and Queen Titania of the Fairies, and Bottom and his company of actors who are rehearsing a play (Pyramus and Thisby) for the nuptials. The title alludes to the rites of Midsummer’s Eve, but the setting is May Day—a day associated with madness and an appropriate time for young lovers to get swept up into an argument at the fairy court. The themes and characters would have been familiar to the Elizabethan audience: Theseus and Hippolyta are a couple who had appeared in works of Chaucer and Plutarch; Pyramus and Thisby, from the play within a play, had been written of by Chaucer and Ovid; and Oberon was from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene.

This copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer library at the Harry Ransom Center. The Pforzheimer library of early English literature comprises 1,100 books and was purchased in 1986. Acquiring this collection was a coup for the Ransom Center because it includes many of the finest examples of the plays, poems, novels, essays, polemical writings, and translations of the most influential English writers from 1475 to 1700. It includes first and important editions of John Milton, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, William Congreve, Christopher Marlowe, and Francis Bacon. In addition, the Ransom Center’s collections of British and Irish Literature are rich in the publishing, performance, and reception history of Shakespeare. Early editions in the Pforzheimer, Wrenn, and other collections include several quarto plays printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and all four Folio editions, including three copies of the First Folio (1623).

Ransom Center volunteer Sara Childress wrote this post.