Tiffany Stern, Professor of Early Modern Drama at Oxford University, delivers the English Department’s Thomas Cranfill Lecture about her research on the play Der Bestrafte Brudermord(Fratricide Revenged) at the Harry Ransom Center this Thursday, January 16 at 4 p.m.
Stern, the Hidden Room theater company, and the American Shakespeare Center will produce performances of the play with puppets this month at the York Rite Theater in Austin between January 17 and February 2. Below, Stern writes about the history and origins of this production.
In 1781, a manuscript dated 1710, of a play called Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged) was published in Germany. Telling a bawdy and humorous version of the story of Hamlet, it seemed to relate to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in debased form. But what was it, and how did it come about?
For years Shakespeareans have been confused by Der Bestrafte Brudermord. Is it a unique record of an otherwise unknown version of Shakespeare’s play, or is it an adaptation of the Hamlet texts we know about? Crucially, what explains its non-Shakespearean features—its slapstick, pratfalls, crazed bawdiness, and wild humor?
Puppeteers have long felt they had the answer. They see in Der Bestrafte Brudermord a puppet play.
As an English professor who works with historical performance, I decided to research the puppet option. Beth Burns and her amazing Hidden Room theater company in Austin have tested that research through practice. They have mounted a unique show: a hilarious and touching eighteenth-century puppet Der Bestrafte Brudermord, translated into English, complete with fireworks, music, and a wonderful compere and showmaster, “the interpreter.”
You are warmly encouraged to hear my talk and then see the puppet Hamlet, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, at the York Rite Theater. Then you can decide for yourself whether DerBestrafte Brudermord is simply a Continental adaptation of Shakespeare’s text or whether it is the product of what Hamlet so dismissively calls “puppets dallying.”
The play runs January 17 through February 2 at York Rite Masonic Hall at 311 W. 7th St. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 5 p.m. The play runs 75 minutes, and tickets are pick-your-own price between $15 and $30, with a suggested ticket price of $20.
Justin Owen Rawlins is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture and the Department of American Studies at Indiana University. He visited the Ransom Center in May and June 2013 on a dissertation fellowship to conduct research for his dissertation, “Method Men: Masculinity, Race and Performance Style in U.S. Culture.”
Through a generous fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, I was recently afforded the opportunity to conduct extended research for my dissertation on the historical reception of Method acting. My interest in the terms and conditions under which Method acting—and actors—accumulate meaning in U.S. popular culture led me to the Center’s Stella Adler and Harold Clurman papers. As founding members of the Group Theatre (1931–1940), Adler and Clurman were part of an ostensibly communal organization offering socially-engaged theatrical alternatives to the commercial New York stage. More importantly, the Group functioned as a crucial transitionary device, adapting the work of Constantin Stanislavsky and others to suit its own purposes and cultivating a community of performative philosophers—including, but not limited to, Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, Morris Carnovsky, Sanford Meisner, Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, and Phoebe Brand—whose teaching, writing, directing, and producing continue to permeate U.S. culture in ways we may never fully understand. Though it lacks the name recognition of some of its alums (especially Adler, Meisner, Strasberg, and Kazan), the Group has long been ensconced in the mythology of the Method.
As the Adler and Clurman papers make clear, however, the lore surrounding the Group belies a more complicated organism. The April 1931 “Plans for a First Studio,” attributed to Clurman, provides us several examples in service of this reality. Although the “Group” did not yet formally exist, the case put forth in these “Plans” to the Board of The Theatre Guild (1918–) gives us a sense of the terms—and the tone—undergirding the proposed “First Studio” in this document and the eventual Group Theatre in reality. “Plans” also displays the careful negotiation of organizational philosophy and identity at work. The proposed First Studio is inextricably linked to The Theatre Guild, with Clurman’s historical narrative explicitly identifying the Guild as the medium through which this eventual group coalesced. At the same time, however, the mere proposal for a separate Studio carries with it this community’s desire to extend to forms of artistic expression beyond the ascribed capacity of the Guild.
The document also unintentionally highlights the difficulties in bridging acting language and practice. Clurman seeks to put the question to rest immediately, declaring in the first paragraph “[l]et there be no misapprehension on this point; we can translate every one of our generalizations [regarding theoretical practice] into its practical equivalent.” In fact, the remainder of the “Plans” presentation struggles to uphold this pronouncement. The ensuing existence of the Group is defined by many such debates revolving around the same gap between language and performance. As Clurman later admits in the very same “Plans,” “[i]f such a reply seems evasive it is not because we are vague as to what we want but because words are so inadequate for the definition of essences and because a lack of a common vocabulary creates so many harmful barriers in the minds of those that hear them.”
Exploring the factors that widen this gap and its cultural repercussions enable us to further demystify the Group Theatre and other Method-aligned organizations and figures. The Clurman and Adler papers are integral to that project.
American magician S. S. Baldwin (1848–1924), also known as “The White Mahatma,” was a celebrated mind reader or “mentalist” who made several tours around the world, initially with his wife and partner Clara Baldwin, and later with his second wife, Kittie Baldwin. The centerpiece of his act was a question-and-answer session in which he hypnotized his wife. Under his spell, she would answer questions from the audience without having heard the questions. Like his contemporary Harry Houdini, Baldwin insisted that he did not possess any supernatural powers, and he sought to expose spiritualism as trickery.
In 1924 Baldwin’s daughter Shadow sent Houdini her deceased father’s scrapbook from his fourth tour around the world. This magnificent scrapbook is an eclectic mix of photographs from places he traveled, juxtaposed with printed notices of his performances and other items. Many of the images reflect Baldwin’s interest in the indigenous peoples of the countries he visited.
The first image shows a piece of Baldwin’s stationery from his fifth world tour, ca. 1889–1890, embellished with skulls and devils.
The second image features an engraved notice for Baldwin’s performances in Peking, China, in 1879, pasted above a review for an appearance at the Academy of Music (city and date unknown). Notably, the engraving was designed and printed by a local Chinese artist, Ning Foo Shang. Also included are photographs from Burma, British Guiana, and, somewhat incongruously, England (one photograph is labeled “Castle Gate, Nottingham”).
Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.
As cataloging of the Texas collection of comedias sueltas continues at the Harry Ransom Center, new features about these plays continue to be identified. The sueltas collection comprises nearly 14,000 titles published from the second half of the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century. More than half of the collection’s cataloged works were published between 1850 and 1900, which isn’t surprising as theater was the center of cultural and social life in nineteenth-century Spain.
The nineteenth-century witnessed the building of new theaters, a growing audience, an increasing number of highly prolific writers, and the development of new techniques of staging and dramatic performance. One of the most prominent developments, however, was the blossoming of lyric theater, which in Spain reached its pinnacle with its very own national genre: the zarzuela.
Lyric theater has existed in Spain since the 1630s, when King Philip IV started hosting performances at his hunting lodge near Madrid, known as La Zarzuela because of the brambles (zarzas in Spanish) that surround it. One of the earliest known performances of this genre is El jardín de Falerina written by Calderón de la Barca with music by Juan Hidalgo. In fact, Calderón became the most prominent lyric theater author, and some of his later works, such as El Laurel de Apolo,were already being referred to as zarzuelas.
When Italian opera was brought to Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, its popularity overshadowed the baroque zarzuelas. In the 1850s, while some intellectuals in Madrid were trying to create a truly national Spanish opera, other less ambitious composers revived the zarzuela. It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that zarzuelas would reach their Golden Age with authors such as Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, Tomás Bretón, Federico Chueca, Amadeo Vives, and Ruperto Chapí.
Differing from opera because it included dialog alongside singing, the new zarzuela had an excellent reception in Spanish society. At that time, Spain was going through a tumultuous period marked by the Revolution of 1868, an economic crisis, political instability, and the eventual crisis of identity brought on by losing the Spanish American War of 1898. Zarzuelas were an escape for the nineteenth-century Spanish theatergoers, much in the same way that musical films were for the American postwar public of the 1940s and 1950s. Zarzuela themes—usually love stories—were based on Spanish folklore and set in familiar Spanish locations. The plots, set mostly in the working-class districts, ranged from the buffa, or comic style, to the extremely dramatic. They were sung in Spanish and frequently included folkloric dances and costumes. Some of the most popular titles like La verbena de la Paloma, La Revoltosa, La Gran Via, or El barberillo de Lavapies are still being performed today in Madrid at theTeatro de la Zarzuela, open to the public since 1856.
The librettos and music were generally sold separately, and the rights of reproduction were held by different entities, as can be inferred from the catalogs printed on the wrappers and the dealers’ stamps found in the cataloged zarzuelas. However, some of the copies in the Ransom Center’s collection include additional pages with printed or handwritten scores and lyrics.
The hundreds of zarzuelas in the Ransom Center’s sueltas collection provide an excellent example of this genre’s popularity and reach. Without a doubt, these works constitute a valuable source for the study of Spanish popular culture of the period, as well as for the understanding of specific matters related to nineteenth-century theater as an organized entertainment industry.
The cataloging of the comedias sueltas is supported by a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives.
Donald Albrecht, exhibition organizer and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, discusses industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’s influence on the American landscape. Albrecht—editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams)—emphasizes the breadth of the Bel Geddes collection at the Ransom Center, which includes Bel Geddes’s plans and sketches of his futurist visions.
The exhibition Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which was on view at the Ransom Center in fall 2012, opens at the Museum of the City of New York today. To celebrate this traveling exhibition, the Ransom Center is giving away a free “I Have Seen the Future” totebag to all Ransom Center visitors, while supplies last. The galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.
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.
For Macy’s third annual parade in 1926, Norman Bel Geddes produced seven posters that now reside in the Ransom Center’s archive. Learn about the efforts of Ransom Center conservators to repair and frame one of the posters for the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America. The project was funded by a Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant from The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows
Etched into the windows of the Ransom Center is an image of one of Arthur Miller’s typescripts for the play Death of a Salesman. The excerpt depicted is between the title character, Willy Loman, and his wife, Linda, in the opening scene of the second act. Large scratch-outs zigzag through whole paragraphs, arrows rearrange the words, and new lines have been handwritten into place. The first lines discuss the couple’s dreamy expectations for a brighter future soon to come—a business loan his son might be given, a new house in the country, and an office job in the city so Willy can stop traveling. But Linda’s reminder “to ask [Willy's boss] for a little advance” in the last lines “because we’ve got the insurance premium” exposes the discrepancy between their dreams and a reality in which they are barely getting by. The passage encapsulates the play’s central theme that valuing oneself in terms of the American dream is a setup for failure.
Although Death of a Salesman was not Miller’s first successful play, it was the play that established him as a great American playwright. Miller wrote the play in the spring of 1947, within a small studio he built himself next to his Connecticut farmhouse. The writing flowed easily for Miller, who finished the first half of the play in one day and night, and the second half in the next six weeks. According to his biographer Christopher Bigsby, Miller wanted “to take the audience on an internal journey through the mind, memories, fears, anxieties of his central character.” Rather than adhering to earlier playwrights’ conventions, Miller gave the play a radical structure in which the past and the present coexist, and where walls can sometimes be stepped through. The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, and was met with critical acclaim, winning Miller numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. The play has remained popular and has since been produced into films, translated, performed internationally, and revived on Broadway. Playwright Tony Kushner, while discussing the continuing importance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, has stated, “Willy is part of our mythology now.”
This typescript represents one of several papers within the Arthur Miller archive held at the Ransom Center, which includes the manuscripts of 34 different works, dated from 1935 to1953. Viewing Miller’s early notebooks and seeing how his works took shape gives one a more intimate understanding of the playwright who represented his generation so well by writing about the dreams and tragedies of his era. A leading scholar of Arthur Miller’s work and life—Christopher Bigsby, Professor of American Studies and Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia—benefited from studying these papers. Regarding his 30 years of research in the archive, Bigsby has stated, “The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence… it has had a hand in a new Renaissance.”
Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.