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Fellows Find: Determining audience taste in eighteenth-century English theater

By Diana Solomon

Diana Solomon, associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, worked with the Ransom Center’s collections of eighteenth-century English playbills and promptbooks. Jointly supported by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the British Studies Fellowship, her research will be utilized in her current book project on comedy and repetition in eighteenth-century English theater. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

In the winter of 2014 I had the good fortune of spending three months at the Harry Ransom Center. My current book project, Comedy and Repetition in Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, asks why eighteenth-century theater audiences wanted to see the same plays, characters, plots, and comic devices again and again. It is essential first to pin down what elements they did wish to revisit, which requires substantial archival research. Prior studies of comic taste in eighteenth-century England have tended to focus on canonical novels or on non-mainstream genres. But looking broadly at dramatic trends tells a different story, and that story can be traced through the Ransom Center’s rich holdings in eighteenth-century English theater.

 

Many printed playtexts survive, but since their eighteenth-century readers may or may not have seen them in performance, it can be tricky to determine what material from plays was actually performed onstage. One approach to answering this question is to examine surviving promptbooks—unique print copies of the play used by the theater prompter to delineate textual omissions and stage directions. The Ransom Center possesses 11 such promptbooks, and these indicate not only what sections of the texts were staged, but also how performances of plays changed over time.

 

One example concerns the promptbook to Thomas Southerne’s 1696 play, Oroonoko. The play is based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel about an African king, Oroonoko, who was tricked into slavery by British slave-traders; the novel ends tragically with his murder by dismemberment. When adapting it for the stage, Southerne changed details of the tragedy (for example, Oroonoko’s death becomes a suicide) and added a comic plot featuring two sisters husband-hunting in the New World. His play begins with the two sisters discussing why they abandoned their lives in England for America. That these are the first two characters who appear onstage makes them sympathetic to the audience. Charlotte and Lucy discuss the double standard of aging, male repulsion to female familiarity, and the name-calling and mimicry that led them ultimately to leave England. But in the promptbook, which was first used during a 1730s play revival and then further annotated for planned revivals in 1747 and 1759, the first scene is gutted. The remaining lines indicate the sisters’ lost hope of marrying Londoners but eliminate the protofeminist discussion of how this state of affairs came to be. There are also excisions from Oroonoko’s scenes, but the major ones (consisting of 15 or more lines) don’t appear until Act 3, by which time his character and mistreatment by the British have been well established.  While subsequent editions retain the excised passages, those who solely attended performances never saw this comic scene. The prompter’s copy of Oroonoko suggests that the prompter cut these scenes from his sense of audience taste in comedy. Parts of the original play may have seemed too challenging for later audiences, suggesting that they may have been less receptive to protofeminism.

 

It is possible, from the 11 prompter’s copies, to deduce that earlier, more radical comedy remained in play publications but was considered too radical or challenging for mid-eighteenth-century theater audiences. These Ransom Center’s holdings are invaluable for their help in tracing audience taste throughout the century.

 

Image: Pages 2 and 3 in the promptbook of Thomas Southerne’s play Oroonoko.

 

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Now open at the Wolfsonian: “I Have Seen The Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America”

By Sarah Strohl

The exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is now open at the Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami Beach, Florida.  Pulled mostly from the Ransom Center’s Bel Geddes archive, the exhibition originated in fall 2012 at the Ransom Center and was on view earlier this year at the Museum of the City of New York. Bringing together some 200 unique drawings, models, photographs, and films, this exhibition highlights Bel Geddes’s creativity and desire to transform American society through design.

 

Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958) was an industrial and theatrical designer who gained fame in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for his streamlined and futuristic innovations. His designs played a significant role in shaping America’s image as an innovative powerhouse and global leader into the future. One of his most famous undertakings was the unforgettable Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair.

 

I Have Seen the Future is on view at the Wolfsonian until September 28.

 

Image: Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933.

 

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View the Norman Bel Geddes Designs America book

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Fellows Find: Early recordings show how performance artist Spalding Gray developed his signature style

By Ira Murfin

Ira S. Murfin is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. He received a dissertation research fellowship from the Ransom Center to work in the Spalding Gray collection, investigating the early development of Gray’s influential autobiographical monologues for his dissertation on the use of talk as a performance strategy in the American avant-garde. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

Spalding Gray sits in his loft in Lower Manhattan. It is 1979, and he has had a difficult few years after suffering an emotional breakdown while touring with The Performance Group’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children to India in 1976. He turns on his tape recorder and relates everything he can remember about what happened then and what has happened since. That summer he is a visiting artist at Connecticut College, and he tells these memories to an audience for the first time, interspersing excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which he had been reading when things started to go bad for him in Kashmir. By that fall, back at The Performing Garage, his home theater in New York, the piece has acquired the name India and After (America) and a second performer who reads definitions from a dictionary at random, which Gray associates on the spot with anecdotes that he tries to tell within a given time limit. The Woolf excerpts have been cut, and the seemingly random associations of memory have been approximated by chance procedure. This structure keeps the piece in the present, even as it recounts the past.

 

The audio and video documentation in the Spalding Gray collection at the Harry Ransom Center, where I was able to spend a month earlier this year thanks to a Ransom Center dissertation research fellowship, enabled me to track early Gray performances like this one in their developmental process. Most people who know Gray from the successful 1987 film adaptation of his monologue Swimming to Cambodia have probably never heard of India and After (America), but this early example documents Gray establishing the practices he would continue to use and adapt for the rest of his career. This approach has come to define the elements of the autobiographical monologue and the first-person account as dramatic and literary genres.

 

Arguably the most well-known autobiographical performer of recent decades, Gray is one of the central subjects of my dissertation project, Talk Performance: Re-Negotiating Genre, Embodied Language, and the Performative Turn in the American Avant-Garde, along with the poet David Antin and the dance artist Yvonne Rainer. In this project, I examine talk performance—direct address, non-fictional, apparently extemporaneous speech in art-specific contexts—as a strategy used by these key figures in the post-1960s American avant-garde to address shifting disciplinary expectations and the implications of recorded media for composition and circulation.

 

Alongside the recordings of Gray’s earliest monologues available at the Ransom Center, I was able to track many of the events he discussed in his performances through the personal journals he was keeping at the time. Also, I was able to survey a number of efforts to turn material from his talk performances into publishable texts, variously cast as fiction, as personal essay, and finally as dramatic literature. I used this research to understand how Gray coordinated writing, live performance, and audio recording to develop and eventually set his monologues. Ultimately, this will help me to articulate the ways that Gray’s idiosyncratic experiment in public self-examination became a familiar and widely reproducible dramatic form in theater contexts, personal storytelling and creative non-fiction, and hybrid approaches to reporting in popular media.

 

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A Graduation Diploma: “The Eviction Notice Written in Latin”

 

Image: Audio cassette and video cassette tapes from the Spalding Gray archive. The archive contains more than 150 audio tapes and more than 120 VHS tapes. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Cataloging project reveals previously unknown copy of a comedia suelta

By Paloma Graciani Picardo

The cataloging of the Texas collection of comedias sueltas at the Harry Ransom Center—funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources, Cataloguing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program—has proven to be a great success in revealing unknown jewels of early printed theater in Spain. One such jewel is Juan de la Cueva’s Comedia de la muerte del rey don Sancho y reto de Zamora, printed in Barcelona by Sebastian Cormellas in 1603.

 

This recently discovered suelta, not included in Mildred Boyer’s Texas Collection of Comedias Suelta: a Descriptive Bibliography (1978), broadens the date range of the collection and provides a unique example of the earliest suelta format. Although a suelta with the same title and imprint had been recorded by Spanish bibliographers, Golden Age theater researchers had considered it a lost edition. Before this find, the only Juan de la Cueva play confirmed to have been printed as a suelta was the Comedia del saco de Roma y muerte de Borbón. It was also published by Cormellas in 1603, and the only known surviving copy is held at the Hispanic Society of America in New York.

 

The Comedia de la muerte del rey don Sancho was performed for the first time in 1579 at the Corral de Comedias de doña Elvira, sixteenth-century Seville’s most popular theater. It adapted a medieval ballad, introducing for the first time on stage one of Spain’s most beloved national heroes, El Cid. With this Comedia, Juan de la Cueva (1543–1612) pioneered the merging of popular legendary themes with the Spanish classicist theater in an attempt to promote national patriotism.

 

Between 1579 and 1581, Cueva staged 14 plays in Seville that he eventually published as a compilation in 1583. A second edition appeared in 1588. His plays showed signs of some of the key characteristics that Lope de Vega later introduced, and Golden Age scholars consider him a forerunner in the renewal of Spanish theater. Current researchers agree, however, that his major accomplishment lies in the fact that he had the vision to publish his work at a time when it was uncommon for dramatists to do so.

 

With his publishing endeavor, Cueva aspired to reach a wider audience than the one attending the performances and ultimately preserved his work for the present day. The lack of stage directions within the text and the inclusion of a plot abstract for each of the acts reveal an underlying motive of addressing his work to the private reader. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, printed dramatic works had achieved considerable popularity, and printers soon realized the consequent benefits. The suelta format is clearly product of this demand.

 

Sebastian Cormellas’s print shop, located at Carrer del Cal, was one of the most productive in seventeenth-century Barcelona. Cervantes himself visited the shop in the summer of 1610, making it famous when it was later described in the second part of his immortal novel Don Quixote as one of the few nonfictional locations of the book. Cormellas was known to be a savvy businessman who printed on demand, many times without the author’s consent. Whether Cueva was an author ahead of his time or just one of the many writing in Seville in that period, the publication of at least two of his titles in the suelta format and in Barcelona is a reflection of the greater acceptance that Cueva’s theater may have had with its contemporary audience.

 

Little is known about the history of this copy held in the Ransom Center’s sueltas collection. Ownership marks include illegible marginalia and a Latin inscription of the opening verse from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1:12). This biblical sentence was widely quoted in the late Middle Ages, especially in Gregorian liturgical psalms. No exlibris, stamps, or signatures are provided. The fact that it was not mentioned by Boyer in her bibliography could be a clue to date its acquisition sometime after 1978. Even so, no record has been found relating to the acquisition or the provenance of this suelta. Most likely, it was acquired as part of a bulk purchase of Spanish theater materials and joined the rest of the sueltas collection in the Ransom Center stacks until it was cataloged.

Image: Cover of Juan de la Cueva’s Comedia de la muerte del rey don Sancho y reto de Zamora.

 

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L.A. theater company resurrects deleted monologue in Sebastian Barry’s “The Steward of Christendom”

By Alicia Dietrich

Sebastian Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom tells the story of Irishman Thomas Dunne, the former chief of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who is now confined to an asylum. He reminisces about his personal and professional life, going back and forth between lucidity and seeming incoherence. A Roman Catholic still loyal to the British crown, Dunne looks back at the consequences of that loyalty.

 

The play opens with a monologue by Dunne as he appears to be reliving a scene from his childhood, but that wasn’t always the opening monologue. The first opening monologue was cut from the original production of the play due to transition challenges it presented for the actor.

 

In a fall production of the play by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the director drew upon the Sebastian Barry archive at the Ransom Center to re-integrate the deleted monologue back into the play.

 

In the omitted speech, Dunne describes breaking up the famous 1913 labor protest at which Irish trade union leader James Larkin appeared to address a crowd of 20,000 striking transit workers who had been locked out by their employers.

 

Director Steven Robman first read about the deleted monologue in an academic essay written by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Elizabeth Cullingford. The essay appeared in a compendium about Barry’s work called Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry (Catholic University of America Press, 2006). Robman asked Barry about the deleted monologue, and the playwright asked the Ransom Center to send scans of the original manuscript material to Los Angeles.

 

“This [event] is extremely important in Irish history, but it is little known to Americans,” said Robman. “It is also a crucial event in Thomas’s personal history, as it underscores his fall from grace in the eyes of Irish republicans.”

 

In the published version of the play, Dunne makes multiple references to Larkin, but there is no detailed description of the 1913 protest. Robman thought that adding the speech back in might help the audience understand the context of Dunne’s “vanished world.”

 

Robman learned that the monologue was cut from the original version because the transition between the Larkin speech—intended as a sort of prologue—and the speech as he’s reliving a childhood memory felt too awkward for Donal McCann, the lead actor in the original production.

 

Robman experimented with different placements of the monologue, finally inserting it later in the play almost as an aside that Dunne delivers to himself while one other character is on stage.  Barry himself called the Larkin protest “the moment that made Thomas hated in Irish folklore and history.”

 

Robman also worked with the playwright to add a few words or substitute words throughout the script to allow an American audience to have an easier time with certain historical references or unfamiliar vocabulary, though the monologue is the largest change.

 

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Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Steps—not dance steps—to digitizing a collection

By Chelsea Weathers

At the recent Texas Conference on Digital Libraries—held last week at The University of Texas at Austin—Ransom Center graduate interns Jordan Mitchell and Emily Roehl and Research Associate Chelsea Weathers delivered a presentation about the Ransom Center’s Fred Fehl dance collection. The poster illustrates the steps of the digitization process, from creating metadata to scanning to image processing.

 

Between 1940 and 1985, New York-based stage photographer Fred Fehl documented more than 50 dance companies and choreographers, including the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The Ransom Center holds more than 30,000 dance photographs by Fehl, mostly black-and-white, 5 x 7″ prints.

 

Fehl’s work in stage photography was revolutionary at its time. He was among the first stage photographers to take candid photographs using only available light, and he used high-speed film that captured dancers in mid-flight. Fehl photographed performances from the perspective of an audience member in the first row, bringing a new urgency and sensitivity to American stage photography.

 

Digitizing any collection requires numerous steps. Using the Fehl collection as an example, one can see and understand the process  for digitizing an item and making it and accessible online. The collection is one of many digital collections now available on the Ransom Center’s website.

 

At this time, photographs of the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are available on the Ransom Center’s digital collections page. More photographs from the Fred Fehl dance collection will be added as the digitization project progresses.

New Tom Stoppard play to premiere next year at London’s National Theatre

By Jane Robbins Mize

In January 2015, Tom Stoppard’s newest play—yet to be titled—will premiere at the National Theatre in London. Stoppard, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is best known for the production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, first performed by Oxford University students in 1966. Throughout his career, Stoppard has received four Tony Awards, in addition to an Academy Award for his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. Philosophical in nature but comical in language and presentation, his work is often described as “serious comedy.”

 

The forthcoming play is Stoppard’s first since the production of Rock ’n’ Roll by the Royal Court Theatre in 2006. The content and cast of his most recent work has been kept secret by both the writer and the National Theatre’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner. Hytner will be directing the play during his final season with the National Theatre.

 

To celebrate this news, Cultural Compass will be giving away a signed copy of Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Stoppard” in the subject line. All tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified Monday, April 21. [Editors Note: This contest has now closed, and the winner has been notified.]

 

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Image: Tom Stoppard, whose archive resides at the Harry Ransom Center, on The University of Texas at Austin campus in 1996.

Scholar explores rich collections of stage photographs

By Gabrielle Inhofe

David S. Shields, the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, visited the Ransom Center this year to research the history of theatrical photography in North America.

 

The Ransom Center houses large collections of stage photographs, such as the Ziegfeld photographs, the dance collection, the card photograph collection, and the minstrel show collection.  The collections showcased costumes between 1870 and 1910, the work of William Edward Elcha, Broadway’s only African-American photographer of the early twentieth century, and photographs from several women working in the theatrical portrait trade from 1920 to 1925.

 

Shields’s research at the Ransom Center was supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship in 2013.

 

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

 

“Der Bestrafte Brudermord”: A puppet version of “Hamlet”?

By Harry Ransom Center

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 Der Bestrafte 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.

 

More information about the performance can be found on the website or Facebook page, or you can email hiddenroomtheatre@yahoo.com.

 

Image credit: Production still from Der Berstraffe Brudermord by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

 

Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.
Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Digital collection features more than 8,000 items

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has launched a new platform of freely available digitized images of collection materials on its website. The new site contains more than 8,000 items and will continue to grow as newly digitized images are added on a regular basis.

 

Presently the collection includes photographs by Lewis Carroll, manuscripts by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks, works by artist Frank Reaugh, and items from the Ransom Center’s extensive circus collection, which includes materials related to showmen such as P. T. Barnum, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

 

The digital collections platform provides access to the Ransom Center’s collections for students, scholars and members of the public who are unable to visit the Center. It also provides a way for visitors to access fragile materials or collections that exist in challenging formats, such as personal effects and costumes. One example is a collection of glass plate negatives that documents theater performances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The fragile collection was previously inaccessible, but the negative plates were digitized and converted to positive images for the digital collection.

 

Visitors to the Ransom Center’s website can search within collections or across collections, often revealing related materials.  Additional tools provide users with the ability to virtually flip through books, enlarge images and compare page images with accompanying transcripts, which are text-searchable.

 

Collections are being added on an ongoing basis, and planned digitization projects include the photographs of nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and photographs and ephemera from the Fred Fehl dance collection.

 

This project was made possible with funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation.

 

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New inventory of manuscript collection reveals unprecedented level of detail for scholars of British history

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.