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.
Sarah Alger is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is working to complete her degree with an emphasis in Museum Studies. As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections”, taught by Michael Laird, Ms. Alger studied the Ransom’s Center’s copy of Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.
The original intent of my research was to study a particular printing of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream published in 1779. The library’s catalog lists each play individually. But when I viewed the document, I discovered this was not just a single play but a whole collection of comedic plays. And not all of them were by Shakespeare. While about half were by Shakespeare, the rest were written by a collection of various playwrights who were not necessarily Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
How did this collection of seemingly unrelated comedies come to be bound together?
The only real connection between these 22 plays was that they were all comedies and all performed between the years 1776 and 1780 at two playhouses in London: The Theaters Royal at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The Theater Royal at Drury Lane is London’s oldest functioning theater. Founded by Thomas Killgrew in 1663, the modern building is the fourth playhouse to stand on that site. These plays would have been performed in the third building on that location, completed in 1794. The previous building was demolished to create a larger theater.
This particular anthology seems to have been printed with the sole purpose of preserving comedies that were performed at this historic theater in the late 1770s. Appreciators of the London theater will find this anthology offers an insightful look into early forms of the Georgian theater.
By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.
Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.
Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”
Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.
Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.
Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.
Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Laurence Raw, a fellow from Başkent University in Ankara, discusses his research on actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit’s World War II–era performances. Raw’s research, “Patriotic Shakespeare—Donald Wolfit’s Productions 1941–1953,” was funded by the Fleur Cowles Endowment.
Come relax in the Design Within Reach outdoor lounge, sip on refreshments from Austin Wine Merchant and Dripping Springs Texas Vodka, and escape the heat with architecturally-inspired ice cream sandwiches from Coolhaus. Bring your vision of the future to life with Toy Joy’s interactive “City of the Future” and pose in a photo booth with one of Bel Geddes’s famous streamlined cars.
You’ll also get a first look at the exhibition, have the opportunity to enter a drawing for a Bel Geddes-inspired prize package, and learn more about the life and career of this influential industrial designer who, more than any designer of his era, created and promoted a dynamic vision of the future.
The Ransom Center is giving away a pair of tickets to “FutureLand.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Norman Bel Geddes” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for two “tickets to the future.”
James Shapiro, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about Shakespeare’s “life” as currently written. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.
Shapiro specializes in Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture and is the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Cultural Compass spoke with Shapiro about his research, the sparse data on Shakespeare’s early life, and his favorite play.
In your book 1599, you focus on a year in Shakespeare’s life in which he wrote five plays. How did Shakespeare, an actor himself, find the time to write such masterful works?
Shakespeare somehow managed to finish Henry V, write As You Like It and Julius Caesar in quick succession, and draft Hamlet in the course of that year. He seemed to have written plays in inspired bursts. The pressure of drawing audiences to his company’s new theater, The Globe, must have had something to do with it as well in 1599. But we do well to remember that playwrights turned out plays then fairly quickly. Thomas Dekker either wrote or collaborated on ten plays that same year. How Elizabethan playwrights did it without caffeine—neither coffee nor tea were available yet in England—makes that achievement even more remarkable.
With relatively little information to work with from the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s life, how do you piece together his life?
It takes time—and patience. I started working on 1599 in 1988 and didn’t publish it until 2005. I started another year book—on 1606, the year of King Lear and Macbeth, five years ago—and don’t expect to finish it until 2016. Slowly but surely, over time, and with enough dogged research, the pieces of the puzzle start fitting together. It can get frustrating—and happily it’s not the only project I work on at one time, or I’d go mad.
In several interviews you have hinted that biographers of Shakespeare are drifting toward fiction in their work. What amount of theory do you think is appropriate in a biography? Where is the line?
Well, that’s the subject of my talk on “Unravelling Shakespeare’s Life.” So come to the talk [or watch the live webcast] where I’ll address this—and will answer any questions you might have after. It’s less about theory than fantasy and invention, what biographers have to supply when the facts of the life, especially the inner life, haven’t survived.
You said that you hated Shakespeare in grade school. What changed your mind?
What changed my mind was seeing terrific productions. I spent a lot of time backpacking overseas in my teens and twenties and ended up spending a good deal of that time in England, where it was possible to see extraordinary actors taking on Shakespeare. I was hooked. Over the course of a decade I may have seen 80 or 100 productions of Shakespeare’s plays—and much of what I know of Shakespeare derives from those formative experiences. I never did take a college class on Shakespeare, though that’s what I teach these days. I also spend a lot of time now working with theater companies and helping to train teachers to teach through performance.
Do you have a favorite play?
Usually the one I’ve seen most recently, onstage or at the movies. The recent and brilliant film by Ralph Fiennes of Coriolanus has made me want to spend more time with that often overlooked tragedy.
Last Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, monologist Mike Daisey told the audience he had a confession to make.
Before coming to Austin, Daisey said, he asked his Facebook friends where he should eat in town. He received an onslaught of barbeque suggestions from Austinites passionately defending their favorites. “People were un-friending each other about where I should eat barbeque,” Daisey reported.
Mike arrived in Austin too starving to search for any of the barbeque suggestions. He did, however, find himself in front of a McDonalds, considering a McRib.
“I know!” Daisey said, acknowledging the audience’s gasp of horror. “How can someone come to Austin and eat a McRib?”
So he re-evaluated and concluded, “I am a sinner, but I will not eat a McRib on this day.” The audience sighed in relief, but too soon. “I will have a cheeseburger instead.”
This was just one of the many stories spun at the Paramount, where Daisey hosted an evening of storytelling with five raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling.
The Moth comes out of the storytelling tradition led by monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. In November, The Moth held a tribute to Gray in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor and they presented the 2011 Moth Award, “celebrating the art of the raconteur,” to Gray’s family.
The day after The Moth’s Austin appearance, Ransom Center Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Baer shared highlights from Gray’s collection with Moth touring coordinator Maggie Cino, who directed the Austin performance, and performer Faye Lane.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Lane said upon arrival at the Ransom Center. Lane said she watched Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia, a performance film of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, three or four times when it was released.
“I just sat there with my mouth open and thought, you can do this? It was so exactly what I wanted to do and I’d never seen anybody do it before,” Lane said. “I started journaling furiously. I realized these stories are important.”
Baer explained that Gray devised the questionnaire, asking himself questions a therapist might ask.
“For him, even the most personal becomes a performance,” Baer said.
Cino and Lane read every word of the questionnaire, occasionally reading passages aloud.
“I was offered a free apartment. I turned it down with the excuse that I had to get back to work. When I got back home, I couldn’t work because I was so upset with the choice I made.”
“Puberty. Lost all confidence. Weak, ugly, and dumb. Too strange for anyone to like or love.”
“I’ve often felt like a kept woman, a housewife.”
Near the end of the tour, Cino explained how Gray’s simple aesthetic influences The Moth. As technology has evolved in the past two decades, Cino said, people are hungrier than ever for simplicity.
“You get into this question of how little do you need to communicate,” Cino said. “Spalding Gray is such a force in having made it seem possible that you can do it in a very straightforward way without a lot of bells and whistles. I think he started a whole world of possibility that people are continuing to explore.”
During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.
Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.
I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:
As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.
Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.
The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.
Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.
There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.
The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.
Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).
Paula Lupkin, a professor in the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, recently spent time as a fellow working in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection at the Ransom Center. Her research yielded some surprises and insights into the regional vaudeville circuits in the Southwest, which she shares here.
When I arrived at the Ransom Center to take up the Mayer Filmscript Fellowship, my intention was simple: to learn as much as possible about the design and use of the fabulous vaudeville theaters designed by architect John Eberson for the Interstate Amusement Company in Texas. These theaters are an important component in my study of regional architecture in the Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century.
Many of them are no longer extant, and it was essential to find period photography and documentation of the buildings themselves. The Center is home to the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection, which has the most complete photographic record of the theaters, as well as accounts of their planning, construction, programming, and management. Right away I found wonderful pictures, theater programs, and company records that suggested how and why the buildings looked as they did. Through these materials I learned a great deal about these fantastical structures, which included themed interiors, starlit skies, luxurious lounges, and even child care centers.
To an architectural historian, these archival sources were rich indeed, but they were not the greatest treasure I found during my fellowship month. After about a week, I came across something that transformed and enriched the way I think about those theaters: a 1912 program for Interstate’s southwestern vaudeville circuit.
Of course I knew about circuits before I saw this pamphlet. From the first day in the archives, the company’s business records made it clear that the theater buildings were only one part of Interstate’s system of delivering talent to the public in a profitable and efficient way. The company assembled talent into programs of entertainment, known as “bills,” and then sent the acts on a railroad journey from theater to theater. Some were the elaborate venues designed by Eberson, but equally important were the smaller towns and more modest opera houses that allowed performers to travel profitably the long distances between places in this region, with regularly spaced “jumps” between gigs. The circuit was an experience designed from a business perspective to make efficient use of the existing rail lines to offer as many shows as possible on consecutive nights.
With this basic knowledge of the vaudeville circuit, I began to see that Interstate’s theaters were more than a regional group of buildings linked by a common architect and ownership; they served as a series of nodes within an entertainment transportation system. Interstate’s building activity was not restricted to theaters; the company was constructing patterns and systems of movement along the Illinois Central, the Frisco, the KATY, and the Missouri Pacific Railroads.
The 1912 pamphlet I found crystallized and confirmed this rereading of the history of theatrical architecture. This clever piece of ephemera presented Interstate and its southwestern vaudeville circuit in the guise of a railroad system. The red cover introduced “The Interstate Line” as “the Route of Superior Attractions.” As was typical in railway literature of the time, the name of the president and local agents of both the national and local officials of the company are listed in the brochure. The “railway” president was the company president, Karl Hoblitzelle. The “traffic manager” is listed as Cecilia Bloom, the company’s booking agent. For each city on the circuit, the local theater manager is listed as the “city passenger agent.” The week’s entertainment bill is presented as a special train, “The Interstate Flyer,” which leaves from Chicago and runs in seven sections (acts) to Fort Worth, and then on to the rest of the cities on the circuit.
With this pamphlet in hand, as it became clear to me that the Interstate Company envisioned itself not as a series of theaters, but an infrastructural system and a space-time experience that united performers and audiences across the southwest. Actors traversed the territory in a series of rail cars, dressing rooms, hotels, and restaurants, playing to urban audiences in theaters in Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Galveston, and Birmingham. The performers and audiences were linked together, defining a regional entertainment landscape.
My newfound understanding of the theaters as part of the railroad-based geography of the vaudeville circuit fits very well into my developing project, “The Great Southwest: Trade, Territory, and Regional Architecture.” Most studies of regional architecture focus on formal and material similarities between buildings in a particular location. My project moves away from style and suggests instead that regional architectural patterns are formed by banking, commerce, and transportation networks. Looking at the triangular strip of land between St. Louis and Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I map financial and architectural connections between buildings and sites along the conduits of the railway lines.
What I found in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection helped me understand that these buildings are regional not on the basis of their appearance, but as elements of a regional entertainment system: like beads strung along a necklace. The “Interstate Line” brochure encapsulated that in a series of images, confirming that my own way of understanding the theaters was shared by the company itself, and no doubt by the vaudeville performers themselves, whose lives and experiences were defined by movement from theater to theater on the spine of the railroad system.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.