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A conversation with playwright Kenneth Brown

Kenneth Brown
Kenneth Brown
Playwright Kenneth Brown, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, introduces a screening of the documentary film Another Glorious Day tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The film explores the history, context, and performances of the Living Theatre’s European tour of his play, The Brig (1963). A question and answer session follows.

The film is centered around a 2008 revival of The Brig, the inflammatory play that exposed the harsh realities inside a U.S. Marine prison. This documentary by Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies puts former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s drama into historical perspective—and makes a case for its ongoing relevance—through powerful scenes from the recent production in Berlin and illuminating interviews with directors of the play past and present, revival cast members, and the playwright himself.

The Cultural Compass had a conversation with Brown in which he discussed The Brig, its ongoing relevance, and his archive at the Ransom Center.

Brown discusses how The Brig changed the Living Theatre’s approach to productions.

The Living Theatre’s been in existence over 40 years, and it was in existence about 15 years before The Brig was done. And before The Brig was done, they were doing Brecht and various standard radical theatrical events. They did Paul Goodman and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Brecht.

But once The Brig was done, the play, which the movie demonstrates, created the acting style and the approach to material by the company that has existed from 1963 to the present day. The whole direction of the company was re-directed by their doing The Brig. The reason being, that in order for the play to work onstage, you have 17 Marines—those are all the characters in the play—you have to make them Marines. So we had to conduct a boot camp, which went on for six weeks. By the time it was over, these guys were running ten miles and doing 60 push-ups and sit-ups, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to double-time, they knew how to half-step. They were Marines!

And that made the play absolutely riveting because it was like looking at the real thing, rather than looking at something being enacted. Because the one thing the actors said to me was, “There’s no audience in the brig. And there’s no acting in the brig because if you have to make a bed, you really have to make a bed.” There’s no making belief you’re making the bed. If some guy punches you in the stomach, he’s not really punching you, but your reaction has to be so real that it’s almost as bad as if he really punched you.

So by the time they did the play, it created this whole style and approach to material in the theater that was responsible for everything the Living Theatre did afterward. They did everything in that style and still do to this day.

Brown discusses how it feels to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.

I’m 74 years old. A few years ago—and I’m in relatively good health—I said to myself, “Well, I’m over 70, got a nice little apartment in Brooklyn overlooking the bridge, a beautiful neighborhood with the store where I did my shopping.” I had really kind of retired from life. And it was fine. I hadn’t stopped writing. I never stopped writing. I’d been writing since I was 6 years old. But I had settled on “this is it.”

And then, in 2007, Judith Molina [co-founder of The Living Theatre], who’s now 83 years old, called me and said, “We’re reviving The Brig.” I went, “I don’t believe it.”

And then it opened in 2007, and it was a bigger hit than it was the first time. And in The New York Times, we had a two-page review with pictures. Two pages! Not a column. Two pages with pictures! And then in 2008 it went on the European tour, and then Tom Staley bought the archive, and all of a sudden, I turned around, and I had been thrown back in the pool again. And that’s kind of what my feeling of my archive, of the whole process, is.

It has enlivened interest in a lot of other stuff of mine.

Brown discusses why The Brig is still relevant to today’s audiences.

The Brig has always been relevant, which is kind of amazing to me. But I guess as long as there’s war and as long as there’s a military and especially as long as one questions the ethical right to wage war and in this ridiculous nonsense in Afghanistan and Iraq—when you do a play that studies the psychology of what it is to be a Marine, how more relevant can you get? It’s going to stay relevant forever. Until there’s peace throughout the world. Then the play’s not relevant anymore because then there’s no military threat. If there’s no military threat, then the play ceases to be relevant.

Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of "The Things They Carried"

2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling. The book depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of 43.

The Ransom Center acquired the archive of the National Book Award–winning writer in 2007, and a finding aid for the collection is available online. Also, read what O’Brien has to say about his papers residing at the Ransom Center.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Ransom Center Director Staley announces retirement plans

Photo of Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley by Eric Beggs.
Photo of Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley by Eric Beggs.
Thomas F. Staley, director of the Harry Ransom Center for the last 22 years, will retire August 31, 2011. During his tenure, Staley has raised more than $100 million in donations and collection materials, expanded the Center’s holdings substantially, increased awareness of the collections, and focused on making them more accessible to scholars and the public. Learn more or view a list of major acquisitions and achievements under the leadership of Staley

Corporal Dashiell Hammett’s "The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History, 1942–1943"

A few weeks ago, the Ransom Center received as a gift an unusual volume to add to our holdings of hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Kevin Berger, a journalist from New York, donated this booklet, which Hammett wrote for the U.S. military while he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska Peninsula during World War II. Berger’s father was a draftsman who also served in the Aleutians, and Berger had found the volume among his father’s drawings. We enthusiastically accepted the gift knowing that it would remedy what we call a “want”—a gap in our holdings. The Ransom Center is an important research site for scholars of Hammett in part because we have a small collection of Hammett’s papers and the massive archive of his longtime lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman. This gift is a boon to Hammett scholars not just because it fills a bibliographical gap, but because the Hammett papers, it turns out, contain a series of letters Hammett wrote to Hellman while stationed in the Aleutians.

In June 1942, the Japanese attacked a United States military base in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and went on to occupy two far western islands in the Aleutian chain. After more than a year of air, sea, and land battles fought in brutal conditions, the United States defeated the Japanese in July 1943. Hammett was posted to the island of Adak almost immediately after the crisis ended. From that time on, the island was under little threat of invasion, and Hammett was assigned to keep the 50,000 troops stationed in the islands informed of current affairs through an official newspaper, The Adakian—a sleepy journalistic assignment, since news arrived in this remote outpost well out of date. As part of his work, Hammett composed the history The Battle of the Aleutians in September 1943, a project for which he and his collaborators received a commendation. Its narrative has the feel of hard-boiled suspense writing, as in this passage describing the U.S. preparing for a counter-attack:

And then trouble came, a williwaw, the sudden wild wind of the Aleutians. Nobody knows how hard the wind can blow along these islands where the Bering meets the Pacific….The first morning the wind stopped landing operations with only a portion of our force ashore and, by noon, had piled many of the landing boats on the beach. The men ashore had no tents, no shelters of any kind. They dug holes in the ground and crawled into them for protection against wind and rain and cold. When the wind had quieted enough to let the others come ashore, they too dug holes and lived like that while the cold, wet and backbreaking work of unloading ships by means of small boats went on. And they did what they had to do. They built an airfield. They built an airfield in twelve days.

Hammett undertook related projects such as working at the radio station, offering film screenings, and delivering evening lectures on current events.

The famous writer was admired by his young staff at the newspaper and was himself an appealing curiosity for an isolated community often suffering from low morale. In letters to Lillian Hellman, he wrote detailed descriptions of life in the Aleutians; in the example shown here, he covers subjects such as his living conditions, his Texan bunkmate, Fred Astaire, and his thoughts on another work of war writing by Ralph Ingersoll. Biographer Diane Johnson (whose research materials on Hammett are part of her archive at the Ransom Center) writes that “if there were a happiest year for Hammett, it might have been this one, 1944.” Despite the austere landscape and the lack of news—not to mention fresh food—he stopped drinking and found himself to be unusually content. Hammett remained stationed in Adak—interrupted by a brief, unhappy period at Fort Richardson on the mainland—until the summer of 1945.

Hammett’s decision to enlist had seemed strange to those close to him—he was almost 50, he had long suffered from tuberculosis, and he had a well-known distaste for mainstream American politics. But his hatred of fascism was stronger, and he performed the service he was assigned with vigor, as this little booklet shows. As Diane Johnson tells it, a confusion over Hammett’s given name may be the only reason he made it to the Aleutians in the first place: over the course of several months in 1943, the office of J. Edgar Hoover issued memos to the General Staff office seeking validation of a rumor that Hammett—a known Communist Party sympathizer—had somehow made his way into the U. S. Military, but they assured him there was no such serviceman. The fact was only confirmed in 1945. By that time, Hammett had been reassigned, and the magic of Adak was over. He returned to drinking and after a short time requested a discharge; he officially left the military in August 1945.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

 

Writer Angella Nazarian discusses her memoir

Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Tonight, writer Angella Nazarian reads from Life as a Visitor, her account of fleeing Iran with her family and life as an immigrant caught between two cultures. This event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, will be webcast live. She shares the story of her memoir.

In writing my book, Life as a Visitor, I wanted to talk about the psychological and personal issues that take over the life of an 11-year-old Iranian girl when she finds herself in a new country without her parents. This book was a deeply personal tale of my journey. But an interviewer raised an interesting question last week: “Your book is a personal tale, but isn’t the personal also always political?” Anything that is related to Iran and one’s experience in the country seems to have political overtones. Many Iranian Jews did as my family did at the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979—they fled the country, leaving their belongings and loved ones behind in a matter of days or at the most a couple of months. So tales of displacement, loss, and revolution, as personal as they may be, are embedded in the larger arena of world politics. Now once again, I see images of uprisings, protests, and violence coming out of Iran, and I am reminded of what I witnessed as a child. But this time instead of fear, I am feeling a renewed sense of hope.

Jim Crace papers now open for research

Jim Crace
Jim Crace

The papers of British writer Jim Crace, author of acclaimed works Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), are now open at the Ransom Center. A finding aid of the collection can be accessed online.

The Center acquired Crace’s archive in 2008. The collection is made up of more than 45 boxes of materials, including the research notes, early drafts and edited page proofs of All That Follows (2010), Crace’s novel that is being released next Tuesday.

Below you can view a video of Crace reading from All That Follows. Also, listen to audio of Crace reading from his other works and view a list of his recommended reading.

$1 million gift supports conservation and preservation programs

The Ransom Center has received a $1 million gift from the Booth Heritage Foundation to support and enrich its conservation and preservation programs. The gift to Campaign for Texas, the university’s capital campaign, will support a five-year initiative to enhance the Ransom Center’s conservation and preservation programs for physical materials and to transform the Center’s digital preservation program.

The gift will establish a Conservation and Preservation Programs Excellence Fund, supporting initiatives such as staff participation in conservation and preservation workshops, meetings, conferences and programs; the development of a digital preservation management system and the establishment of internships in conservation and digital preservation. The gift will enable the recruitment of two new Ransom Center staff members in photograph conservation and digital preservation, providing funding while the Center seeks to endow the positions permanently.

A Small Gem of Negativity: The Decline Postcard

Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection. Click image to see larger version.
Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection. Click image to see larger version.
Timothy Ferris has recently blogged about Edmund Wilson’s “decline letter,” a form postcard listing all of the things the crotchety literary critic refused to do: read manuscripts, advise authors, address meetings, donate and inscribe books—the list goes on and on. The same postcard may be found in the Ransom Center’s collections, and on our copy Wilson has checked “WRITE ARTICLES OR BOOKS TO ORDER” and added “I have nothing interesting to say about Pound and haven’t been influenced by him.”

I have “collected” such items in the Center’s collections for several years without a pigeonhole (the catalogers like to call them “genre headings”) to throw them into, but now I do. The term “decline letter” has a certain rightness and precision about it. In my view, a decline letter shouldn’t be confused with a rejection letter (Ferris himself goes on to make this error in his blog). The purpose of a rejection letter is to turn down book manuscripts or deflate one’s aspirations of attending an Ivy League university. A decline letter, on the other hand, is a form letter used to decline all the various impositions on an author’s (or celebrity’s) time.

Authors are subjected to many annoying demands from various quarters, but the autograph collector is probably the most feared. In P. G. Wodehouse’s story “The Autograph Hunters,” the esteemed novelist Mr. Montagu Wilson “was notoriously a foe to the autograph-hunter. His curt, type-written replies (signed by a secretary) had damped the ardour of scores of brave men and—more or less—fair women.” Mr. Wilson could have employed a decline letter or postcard, sparing his secretary many hours of work.

Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection with Shaw's annotations. Click on image to see enlarged version.
Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection with Shaw's annotations. Click on image to see enlarged version.
Most of the examples of the genre I have seen in the Center’s manuscript collections are actually postcards. A printed postcard answer to an appeal is, by its very nature, a putdown even more offhanded than a form letter. The George Bernard Shaw collection contains a whole folder of these postcards, many of them with autograph revisions. Because of his fame and strong views on all topics, the playwright was constantly solicited by journalists and fans and had an entire repertoire of brightly-colored decline postcards. A form postcard on vegetarianism, though not a decline card, carries a handwritten addition to the printer: “Any color except pink!”

Evelyn Waugh spent most of the later part of his career escaping from London literary life and importunate autograph seekers, aspiring authors, and Americans of all descriptions. Yet the mail still had to be dealt with, and Waugh eventually developed a card carrying this notice: “Mr Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed.”

Even more mild-mannered authors, such as Marianne Moore, could be driven to the use of decline postcards. Moore’s list* includes “recommend editors favorable to verse by children or work bequeathed for publication,” suggesting that she had received more than a few requests along this line.

I expect that few contemporary writers use decline postcards; they simply ignore annoying requests or have a form email on file for the same purpose. Too bad—at its best the decline postcard is a small gem of negativity.

*This example is from an entry in a dealer catalog.

Living Peter Matthiessen

Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
The Ransom Center screens Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries, the award-winning PBS documentary about the National Book Award–winning writer and environmental activist, on Monday evening at the Ransom Center. Matthiessen’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Sewald, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. He writes about what it was like to work with Matthiessen on this project.

I studied his craggy face as he gazed at the screen, reviewing a rough-cut video of his story, adapted and condensed of course for television viewers and the film festival crowd. More than three years of my own life had been invested in Peter Matthiessen’s, and the thought of my bio film soon being finished left me at once elated and a little bereft. How often does one get to pick the brain and probe the heart and soul of a legend like Peter, a hero to every young man (myself included) who ever believed he had what it took to write for a living? I couldn’t help but think how lucky I had been to get to know him, and how reluctant I was to pronounce the project “completed.” After all, Peter Matthiessen, then almost 82, was still very much alive and showing no signs of wanting to pack it in.

Making films about people, especially living ones, presents both joys and challenges, and this film was no exception. It was captivating to hear Peter speak about his books and journeys, from The Snow Leopard, to Shadow Country, and from New Guinea to Nepal. Few if any people have crammed more into eight decades of life than he has. In fact, the totality of Peter Matthiessen’s written work and personal experience is something most may only dream about. Here is a man who writes both fiction and non-fiction, who married three times, fathered and adopted children, became a Zen monk, and fought the powers that be over human and civil rights. I always found it funny that all Peter asked of my personal take on his life story was “clarity.” Therein was the challenge.

When the final version of Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn last year, Peter seemed to like the film— even though he more than once chided me for taking his life far too seriously. In truth, he can be very funny and wonderful company, which I think we demonstrate on screen. But in a film that was required to clock-in at 56 minutes and 46 seconds (a PBS hour), I chose to focus on what I believe are Peter’s most important works and on how the events and circumstances of his life informed his choices and set the trajectories for his literary and spiritual quests. I still maintain that this approach was the best one. After all, Peter Matthiessen is an important body in the literary firmament. To do anything less would have been unthinkable to me.

I have been gratified by the fact that my film has been in demand on the screening circuit since it first aired nationally on PBS in April of last year. It is always interesting to note audience reactions and to meet people who have seen and appreciated my work and the work of my collaborators. Like writing, making independent films can be a rather solitary process, especially after shooting has ceased and scripting begins. I am now working on my next film, about the author and feminist Isabel Allende. But we’re still in the shooting stage, which means I’m still sociable. So come out and see me on April 12. It will be fun.

Anthony Bertram Rota's legacy at the Ransom Center

Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
The Ransom Center notes with great sorrow the death of Anthony Bertram Rota on December 13, 2009. As managing director and chairman of Bertram Rota Ltd, the London-based antiquarian bookseller was greatly influential in shaping the Center’s renowned holdings of the papers of numerous nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first–century British writers. Over a succession of five Ransom Center directors, the firm sold more than 500 collections to the Center, including the personal papers of several writing dynasties, notably those of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, and Theodore Francis, Llewellyn, and John Cowper Powys.

In his memoir, Books in the Blood (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), Anthony Rota recalled his annual travels to the United States: “In a two or three-week trip I would visit between seven and ten university libraries, sometimes speaking to gatherings of professional staff and sometimes talking to students who were English majors. . . I went to New York and to Austin each year. I always arranged for my time in Texas to fall so that it covered a weekend, for I soon had many friends in town and I liked the outdoor lifestyle that they followed.” His annual visits were as eagerly anticipated by Ransom Center staff; occasions for barbeque and margaritas as much as for books and manuscripts.

Generous with his time and expertise, Anthony Rota taught generations of rare book librarian professionals the craft of modern collecting through courses at the Rare Book School, presentations at professional conferences, and by example. The firm’s collection descriptions are models of clarity and precision; miniature literary histories tracking the creative process. His legacy of enriched research collections benefits scholarship and ensures a greater understanding of a shared culture.