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Notes from the Undergrad: Archive, cultural consciousness, and a semester in the reading room

By Colin McLaughlin

Colin McLaughlin is a radio-television-film, rhetoric and writing, and Plan I Honors senior 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, McLaughlin shares his experience in the class.

 

You become accustomed to certain things after your tenth visit to the Ransom Center. The processes required for entry—presenting your ID card, dropping your backpack off in the locker, opening your computer —become automatic. What never becomes mundane is the experience of opening the folder, not knowing what you may discover inside.

 

I spent a lot of time with the Norman Bel Geddes concept pieces for the 1917 New York production of King Lear, both through class meetings and in my own time at the Ransom Center. These pieces represent some of Bel Geddes’s earliest work and are remarkable both because Bel Geddes was only 23 years old at the time and because the works have survived, despite the fact that the production they were commissioned for was never staged.

 

The almost abstract nature of the piece evokes the idea of a cultural subconscious and how—after centuries of productions and adaptations ranging from classic and minimal to bizarre (see the “King Lear: Godard Film” materials in Box 5 of the Thomas Fiske collection)—King Lear has transcended what can be normally preserved in photographs and film evidence.

 

I compared these pieces to the materials the Ransom Center holds on the Elia Kazan film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire for my final presentation in the “Drama in the Archives” class. I wanted to compare the photographic vs. non-photographic evidence in the archive. I was motivated by Matthew Reason’s words in Documentation, Disappearance, and the Representation of Life Performance: “performance only exists in the moment of its creation, and its only valid afterlife is in the memory of those who were there.”

 

Comparing the abstract Bel Geddes work on Lear to the more concrete publicity kits and script revisions for the Streetcar film led me to argue that, because of photographic documentation and the prevalence of the Kazan film and its iconic performances, modern texts like A Streetcar Named Desire are more solidified in the cultural consciousness, and thus performances of these texts are more concerned with preserving those original visions. Meanwhile, because no photographic evidence exists for the original productions of Lear, the text is freer to be interpreted and adapted in bold, artistic ways.

 

 

My final argument, the culmination of a semester studying drama in the archives, ended up being much simpler than I had originally intended. This surprised me. After weeks of coming to the archive, I learned that the answers we find in the boxes and folders of the archive, while extensive and often enlightening, may not always be as complicated as we expect them to appear.

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Reviving Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”

By Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Williams is an English and Plan I Honors 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, Williams shares his experience in the class.

 

About 65 years after its publication, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman remains one of the most recognizable pieces of American theater, telling the tragedy of Willy Loman as he falls from success and brings down his family with him. With almost seven decades of performances, what new effects can this play have on audiences, besides the ever-relative commentaries on capitalism? This question is what brought me to the archive at the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Many critics of the play comment on the patriarchal, abusive, and detrimental behaviors of Willy that bring down those around him and take away authority from characters that could rise above the play and stand up for themselves—specifically the play’s women. Not only are there very few women in the play, critics say, they are completely steamrolled by Willy’s selfishness and lack of respect. They characterize Linda as a slipper-bearing doormat who is only defined by domesticity, obedience, and a lack of self-respect. However, Miller’s stage directions and subtly in Linda’s lines, combined with the material available in the archive, reveal that she is not merely a plot device, but a wife and a mother who is fighting against the inevitable. Her character is defined by the psychology of caretaking—finding optimism in the darkest of situations and protecting the falling loved one from any form of hurt.

 

In the Ransom Center’s Stella Adler collection, there is a compilation of papers from her acting classes on Death of a Salesman. In one of her drafts of an introduction to a class, she laments the lack of respect paid toward Linda, wishing there were more scenes for the character because she is diverse and complex, but the text, as it is, leaves it up to the actress to add these extra layers. She teaches her actors that Linda’s overarching story is one that goes beyond the pages of the play and that she is a caring individual who has given up everything for herself to protect her family. Moreover, Miller himself, as expressed through his autobiography available at the Ransom Center, stands up for Linda and actresses playing her. He explains that Linda is a fighter who is able to keep the household running by herself while at the same time a strong caretaker offering her love and protection even in the darkest of situations.

 

Exploring the material available in the Arthur Miller collection and others at the Ransom Center was an absolute dream come true. It may seem nerdy, but the chance to analyze and inspect original documents and manuscripts has always been on my academic bucket list. There is so much to learn not just about a work from its archive, but also about all the things surrounding it, including biographical information, history, and correlations to other texts and archives. While it can seem overwhelming at times, archival work is truly rewarding, and the Ransom Center offers the perfect opportunity to experience such rewards.

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Feeling Samuel Beckett’s pain and “Godot” in German

By Lily Pipkin

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.

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: Investigating the ending in David Mamet’s “Oleanna”

By Emily Robinson

Emily Robinson is a rhetoric and writing and Plan I Honors senior 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, Robinson shares her experience in the class.

 

The smell of books intoxicates me. And the sight of messy handwriting scrawled in angry slashes or jubilant swirls in a journal excites me more than I should probably admit. There’s just something about seeing how different people think as they write that fascinates me.

 

That said, you can only imagine how delirious I was to sit in a room where a wealth of author’s journals, drafts of iconic literary works, and other manuscripts were a mere click of the “Request Item” button away from laying in front of me. For me to read. And study. To put it lightly, any time that I spent in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room this past semester went far too quickly and resulted in far too many conversations starting with the words, “You’ll never guess what I saw today.” Because of my participation in Elon Lang’s class “Drama in the Archives,” I discovered I love research, especially the kind that involves poring over a writer’s abandoned early drafts and never-completed projects.

 

For most of the semester, I worked with the David Mamet papers, searching out different drafts of his drama Oleanna. After reading Oleanna in class, I was struck by the jolting ending of the play—three acts of increasingly hostile conversations between John and Carol (an inappropriate professor and vindictive student, respectively, at a fictional university) concluding in an intense scene of John beating Carol. The play just ends after the violence. The audience gets almost nothing but curtains and the unsettling feeling of having to applaud after witnessing a scene of physical abuse. I found this ending intriguing and decided to investigate its previous iterations in hopes of better understanding how the scene functions within the play as a whole. This took me to the Ransom Center, where I began piecing together Mamet’s earlier plans for the ending of Oleanna by reading his drafts.

 

During my investigation, I discovered that Mamet didn’t, in fact, originally intend to end Oleanna on that note of unresolved violence. Many of his drafts actually contain a conversation between John and Carol after he beats her. Most of my research focused on three drafts created between April 1991 and May 1992. These three drafts contain a conversation that shows Carol being sensitive to John’s emotional trauma after hurting her. She also then uses that moment as an opportunity to teach John about his abusive and exploitative nature. Mamet’s “Next to Last” draft (from May 1992) actually ends with Carol offering to help John (see Box 155, Folder 7, page 51).

 

Knowledge of this alternate ending furthered my understanding of Oleanna because it forced me to wonder about the purpose of only portraying violence and not including a scene of conflict resolution in the play. I don’t have any definitive answers for that question yet, but reading over Mamet’s drafts and views on art gave me a step in the right direction.

 

Overall, my time at the Ransom Center was a rewarding and exciting experience. In the future, I intend to use the Ransom Center whenever I can—especially if it means reading through an author’s diaries and drafts.

 

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