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Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

By Abigail Cain

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."

Dramaturg James Graham admits he had barely heard of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth before starting work on the play. Alongside Williams’s other works—including Pulitzer Prize winners A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof—the difficult script often fades into the background.

This summer The Old Vic in London is bringing Sweet Bird of Youth to center stage. The play, which follows professional gigolo Chance Wayne and aging Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago, exists in countless forms. Williams spent over 15 years writing and rewriting the play; some versions conclude with the characters alive and well, others with them dead. Entire acts that were slashed from earlier versions are later revived as Williams struggled to get it right.

Dramaturging involves editing and analyzing an existing text, and in the case of Sweet Bird of Youth, this task was especially difficult. Although many theaters select a single version of the play to perform, Graham instead wove together the different versions to make a cohesive whole. As part of his research, he spent time with the Williams collection at the Ransom Center in early 2013 reading through drafts of the play.

“Following [Williams’s] brain was an adventure—insertions, appendices, and keys leave a trail,” Graham said. “Seeing the names of his characters evolve, as Delphine became Valerie became Heavenly, and Phil Beam elevated to the more heroic-sounding Chance Wayne. I noted his coffee stains and allowed myself to imagine the smell of cigarette smoke wafting from the page.”

The Ransom Center’s collection is one of the principal archives of Williams’s works. The Center acquired the author’s own papers between 1962 and 1969, which document his career through more than 1,000 separately titled plays, poems, and short stories, along with correspondence and newspaper clippings. In 1964, the Center purchased the correspondence between Williams and his literary agent Audrey Wood. Then, in 1965, the collection expanded with the acquisition of family papers from his mother.

Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered on June 1 and will run through August 31 at The Old Vic in London.

Watch a scene from the production.

Iain Sinclair’s "Ghost Milk" includes visit to Austin

By Alicia Dietrich

Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the latest work by British writer-filmmaker Iain Sinclair, explores the changes in East London as the city prepared for the 2012 Olympics and concludes with his visit to the United States, including his April 2010 trip to the Ransom Center.

Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, delivered a public talk, met with students, and worked with archivists cataloging his papers. Long walks in urban areas are a frequent topic of Sinclair’s writing, and Sinclair agreed to tour the campus, including the 307-foot-tall Tower, and offer his insights.

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Freedom of the City certificates: Passports for 1776

By Kelsey McKinney

In America, children are raised to believe that all men are created equal. This accepted equality spurs unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Americans have wanted and have been willing to fight for their freedom.  While Americans fought for unity and independence, citizens of Great Britain were earning their freedom in the form of a long, rolled piece of paper called a Freedom of the City certificate.

The Ransom Center houses two Freedom of the City certificates in the John B. Dancer collection. One belonged to Michael Dancer. According to the certificate, Michael Dancer was the son of W. M. Dancer, who apprenticed for many years before being granted his freedom on September 3, 1776. Freedom of the City certificates were typically about 24 inches long by 5 inches high. The narrow pieces of paper are creased vertically in many places, implying that the certificate was kept rolled up for a long period. Like a modern-day passport or driver’s license, a freedom certificate would have been carried on one’s person to prove identity and citizenship. Most freedmen were given a casket—normally a long narrow tube—upon receiving their freedom in order to carry their certificate safely and conveniently.

In London, freedom had to be earned before it could be granted until 1832. Starting in the Middle Ages, a man was considered a “freeman” as long as he was not ruled over by any feudal lord. If he was a peasant or a serf, his freedom was in the hands of the lord of his land. A freeman, though, enjoyed such privileges as the right to earn money and to own land. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, freemen were few and far between. Only lords enjoyed property ownership and income until England experienced industrial progression in the late eighteenth century. The influx of industry created a middle class who were no longer agrarian peasants, but not rich enough to become lords. Such people lived in cities, often practiced specialized trades, and were commonly referred to as townsmen. Towns were often under the rule of the monarchy instead of a local feudal lord, and thus townsmen could be granted Freedom of the City.

The granting of Freedom of the City, particularly in London, is one of the oldest surviving traditional ceremonies still in existence and practice today. The first freedom is believed to have been presented as early as 1237. These early freedom ceremonies held great social importance because they affirmed that the recipient would enjoy privileges such as the right to trade and protection within the town. Until 1835, Freedom of the City members were the only people within London who could legally exercise a trade within city limits.

Members were presented with a notarized certificate proclaiming their freedom and a book titled Rules for the Conduct of Life, which was intended to guide them in their life as freemen. While providing many basic laws and recommended codes of conduct, the book also outlined several interesting freedoms available only to freemen.  For example, the book notes freemen have the right to herd sheep over the London Bridge, go about the city with a drawn sword, and—if convicted of a capital offense—to be hung with a silken rope. Other ascribed privileges are said to include the right to be married in St. Paul’s cathedral, to be buried in the city, and to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest.

Today, Freedom of the City of London is granted in two forms. Though few of the practical reasons for obtaining Freedom of the City remain, the certificate continues to be a unique part of English history. As of 1996, the honor is open to anyone around the world who has been nominated and maintains good character. Each year about 1,800 people apply to become freemen. The second way of becoming a freeman is by being granted Honorary Freedom of the City of London. The City of London presents individuals who have made significant impact in their field of work or who have done extraordinary things for the city with this honor. Even today, many citizens of London continue to join Michael Dancer as freemen.

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Image: Certificate dated September 3, 1776, admitting Michael Dancer to freedom of the city of London.