Stephanie Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in the English and Creative Writing Department at Aberystwyth University. At the Ransom Center, she analyzed the Christine Brooke-Rose papers for her dissertation, which is a single-author study on the writer, looking at the neglect of her work as a British author by the industry. Jones’s research was supported by a 2014–2015 Dissertation Fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, jointly funded by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
The subject of neglected British experimental authors has emerged as a poignant topic of critical discussion over the last few years. Writers of the 1960s and 1970s who had been influenced by the Second World War, as well as the highly reflexive, avant-garde literature produced bysuch modernist heavyweights as James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, are beginning to be reassessed as having something useful to offer to the current critical climate. Read more
Maureen Clark is a third-year government and Liberal Arts Honors student in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the course, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Clark shares her experience in the class.
After reading Samuel Beckett’s seminal work Waiting for Godot I was at a loss. I felt that there existed some sort of lack in the work (or at least my understanding of it). I felt that I needed to understand Beckett to understand the play. I entered the Harry Ransom Center keen on unearthing the history of an avant-garde playwright known for his works in the Theatre of the Absurd. What I found waiting for me were letters, journals, and manuscripts. As I looked through the letters, hoping to parse out some personal connection with Beckett and how he felt about Waiting for Godot, I felt like a detective. I was going through someone else’s mail, piecing together fragments from the past: postcards with aging purple portrait stamps and shiny photo fronts of exotic places where sepia had begun to creep in through the corners and long letters grieving the losses of beloved friends.
As I looked through his correspondence and journals, I learned that Beckett was a member of the French Resistance. He lost multiple friends and allies on the battlefield and in concentration camps. One such friend, a fellow member of the Resistance and the man that convinced him to join, was Alfred Péron. Beckett chose to live permanently in France, abandoning his home nation of Ireland for two main reasons. The first was the overwhelming sense of guilt he felt at the loss of his friends, and the second was to fulfill his final promise to Alfred: that he would take care of his wife, Maya “Mania” Lézine Péron, if anything were to happen to Péron during the war. Beckett kept his word and became close long-term friends with Mania, writing her often and discussing anything from vacation plans to manuscript ideas.
In one letter on June 12, 1969, Beckett provided a mimeograph from Edith Fournier, a former student of Péron, in which she explained the meaning of Godot. He explained to Péron that with the exception of a few “misconceptions” Edith’s analysis was “remarkable.” Finally, I was beginning to unearth Beckett’s understanding of the play, which was no small feat. Beckett is even famous for having said “[i]f I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play.”
Rather than focusing on describing the play through an Existential lens or even describing it as a piece for the Theatre of the Absurd, Fournier describes the play through a Nietzschean lens. Fournier does not explicitly cite Nietzsche, but focuses on themes found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For example, Fournier discusses the meaning of the play to be waiting, not Godot. Moreover, Fournier wrote, the reason the characters wait in the play is similar to a religious waiting for the afterlife: it is habitual and eternally repeating.
As a result, I pointed my external research toward a Nietzschean nihilistic reading of the text. I was pleasantly surprised when I found readings in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that were mirrored in Godot and Fournier’s analysis of it. Even more so, I found allusions to Nietzsche in Beckett’s journals, although never explicitly named. Much like his comments on Godot, Beckett’s journals and correspondence were vague and brief, but the research and meaning that I gleaned from them at the Ransom Center were comprehensive and clear.
Lily Pipkin was a Plan II student in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the class, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Pipkin shares her experience in the class.
I’ve always gotten excited about the prospect of an archive. My eyes light up at the thought of the treasures that are tucked away, waiting to be found. That doesn’t mean the thought of walking into the Ransom Center for the first time and knowing what to ask for wasn’t absolutely terrifying. But I had the fortune to stumble across a class in the course catalog last spring that aimed to do just that. There were eight of us, and we spent the semester approaching modern drama through the archive.
We were reading Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and I called down a box of his correspondence in search of something relevant to my paper and unintentionally sent myself down a rabbit hole of letters, notes, and postcards, all scrawled out in Beckett’s terrible handwriting. As I read through more and more of these notes, I began to see the friendships and hardships that filled Beckett’s life. I read letters to his friend A. J. Leventhal that were full of sorrow at news of Leventhal’s wife’s cancer diagnosis. Days later, I came back to the Ransom Center and in an entirely different box, I stumbled across a letter informing a friend of her passing. It was heartbreaking! I had never met these people, but even with just one side of the conversation, the pain in Beckett’s letters was so evident, it left me feeling emptier than I could have ever expected.
His letters were not solely heartbreak and hardships, though Beckett seems to have gone through more of that than anyone should ever have to. I did find the bits and pieces regarding Godot that I had set out looking for. It gave me the impression that Beckett was extremely particular about how his works were performed but, for a long time, could not be bothered to correct those that were done incorrectly.
In a letter to Mary Manning Howe, he mentions a production that’s rehearsing in London and that “in the terms of my contract I should be consulted about cast, set, etc. It suits me all right to be treated as though I were dead.” Comments like this, on his distaste for most of the earlier Godot productions, led me to look closely into the one time he chose to direct Godot personally—20 years later at the Schiller Theater in Berlin.
He took the opportunity to rewrite the original German translation, which he once described as “full of blunders.” Between his translation work, his Director’s Notebook, and his correspondence during his time at the Schiller, I found just how particular he was about every word, movement, and expression on stage in Godot. Under his direction, and in his own version of the German translation, Beckett finally gave his audience the Godot he intended. And oddly enough, a play that upon first exposure feels arbitrary and absurd is actually the product of highly defined, purposeful instruction.
But I took more away from the class than a detailed understanding of Waiting for Godot in German. After many hours spent in the Reading Room this semester, I feel not only excited by but also comfortable in the archive. Now, it feels like a place I can go, not just to search blindly, but to look without getting lost.
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.