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.
After discussing his own work in the Harry Ransom Center’s archives with students in his Humanities classes, Dr. Elon Lang realized that despite his students’ interest in what he suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few had actually visited the Ransom Center and even fewer had contemplated doing research here.
Lang made it 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.
With these goals in mind, Lang developed “Drama in the Archives,” a Humanities Honors course he taught in fall 2014.
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.
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.
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.
Below, undergraduates describe the research they conducted and the discoveries they made while working with collections at the Ransom Center. They show how, with creativity and a bit of support, they were able to create a singular experience for themselves at the Ransom Center that greatly enhanced their undergraduate education.
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.
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.
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.
Students at The University of Texas have the opportunity to enhance their studies with the Ransom Center’s collections. Andrea Gustavson, PhD candidate in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, designed an entire class around the Ransom Center’s collections, and she writes about how the primary source materials enhanced the learning experience for her undergraduate students.
Haley Williams is a psychology/Plan I Honors senior 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, Williams shares her experience in the class.
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 exhibitions 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.
One of my classes in the Fall 2014 semester focused on reading several plays with visits to the Ransom Center to comb through the archives of these playwrights. The final was a research project on one of the plays we had read in class. I had previously written a paper about A Streetcar Named Desire and knew this is where my research would begin. To do this, I was fortunate to have access to not only the archive of Williams himself but also the wealth of manuscripts, books, papers, letters, and notes from the Audrey Wood and Stella Adler collections. While using the Audrey Wood collection, I found folders about the production of the 1951 movie starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. One letter I found inspired further research into the different endings of the play and how they affected the meaning of the play.
In the letter to Joseph Breen, head of Hollywood’s motion picture production code office, Williams notes he has heard about the production company potentially removing the rape scene from the movie. Williams explains to Breen that this is not possible, as the rape of Blanche by Stanley is “a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the safe and brutal forces in modern society. It is a positive plea for comprehension.” He goes on to explain that he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep this within the movie because without the scene, the importance of the play will be completely removed.
What Williams really thought about the rape scene can be further examined when looking at some of the earlier drafts of the play. In an early draft of scenes 10 and 11, the rape scene that has become iconic thanks to the performance of Brando and Leigh is absent, and instead a consensual sex scene exists in its place. Following this scene is a morning of domestic bliss and tranquility between two consensual sexual partners. Instead of a brutal scene of violence, we see Blanche helping Stanley tie his tie and pick out a shirt to wear. The scene also ends with Blanche planning to leave using the bus ticket Stanley got her for her birthday, not with her removal to the asylum by the doctor and matron. By changing this one scene, Williams completely reworks the characters of Stanley and Blanche, showing that he experimented early on with alternatives for the rape scene that he later defends emphatically in his letter to Breen.
These endings to the play provide the path by which one can trace the progression of the play and possible reasons why Williams made these decisions. As these were early drafts of the play, the manuscript had lines marked out, suggestions for changing certain words, and even changes to names. Because he considered the rape of Blanche by Stanley to be important because of the symbolic message that it represented, he was able to understand, even early in the writing process, that this scene was imperative to his play. Having access to the Ransom Center’s collections as a student to discover these things for myself is something that few are able to claim and something that I am thankful we are able to do as students at The University of Texas at Austin.
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.
Dr. Sherre L. Paris—lecturer at The University of Texas School of Journalism—teaches her undergraduate class “A Cultural History of Photography” at the Ransom Center. During the three-hour-long-seminar, which meets every Tuesday in a classroom adjacent to the Ransom Center’s Reading Room, undergraduates work with primary source materials from the Center’s photography collections. “Cultural Compass” spoke with Dr. Paris about her experience teaching at the Ransom Center.
The Harry Ransom Center will support six undergraduate internships during the summer of 2013, four from The University of Texas at Austin and two from another accredited college or university.
The 14-hour-per-week positions will provide undergraduates with a hands-on and behind-the-scenes look at the operation of a humanities research center. Selected interns will choose from a variety of opportunities within the Center, including working with archives, exhibitions, marketing, public affairs, and curatorial departments of art, film, manuscripts, performing arts, photography, and rare books.
Learn more about the internships and application process. March 15 is the deadline to apply.
The internships will begin on June 10 and end August 16, 2013.
The Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation has provided generous funding for these internships.