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.
The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art, and performing arts materials.
The fellowship recipients, half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “Postirony: Countercultural Fictions from Hipster to Coolhunter,” “Elliott Erwitt: Early Work,” “Obsession: The Films of Brian De Palma,” “David Foster Wallace: The Form of His Fiction,” “Matisse’s Illustrations for Ulysses,” and “Doris Lessing’s Intuitive Style.”
“Support of scholarly research is one of the primary goals of the Ransom Center,” said Director Thomas F. Staley. “With what has become one of the largest fellowship programs of its kind, we encourage scholars from around the world to make new discoveries about the writers and artists who have shaped our culture.”
The fellowships range from one to three months in duration and provide $3,000 of support per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded.
The stipends are funded by individual donors and organizations, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Hobby Family Foundation, the Dorot Foundation, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.
Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.
Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”
Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.
Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.
Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.
Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Laurence Raw, a fellow from Başkent University in Ankara, discusses his research on actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit’s World War II–era performances. Raw’s research, “Patriotic Shakespeare—Donald Wolfit’s Productions 1941–1953,” was funded by the Fleur Cowles Endowment.
Come relax in the Design Within Reach outdoor lounge, sip on refreshments from Austin Wine Merchant and Dripping Springs Texas Vodka, and escape the heat with architecturally-inspired ice cream sandwiches from Coolhaus. Bring your vision of the future to life with Toy Joy’s interactive “City of the Future” and pose in a photo booth with one of Bel Geddes’s famous streamlined cars.
You’ll also get a first look at the exhibition, have the opportunity to enter a drawing for a Bel Geddes-inspired prize package, and learn more about the life and career of this influential industrial designer who, more than any designer of his era, created and promoted a dynamic vision of the future.
The Ransom Center is giving away a pair of tickets to “FutureLand.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Norman Bel Geddes” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for two “tickets to the future.”
The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.
Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”
Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.
When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.
My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?
The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.
Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.
Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.
Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.
James Shapiro, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about Shakespeare’s “life” as currently written. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.
Shapiro specializes in Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture and is the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Cultural Compass spoke with Shapiro about his research, the sparse data on Shakespeare’s early life, and his favorite play.
In your book 1599, you focus on a year in Shakespeare’s life in which he wrote five plays. How did Shakespeare, an actor himself, find the time to write such masterful works?
Shakespeare somehow managed to finish Henry V, write As You Like It and Julius Caesar in quick succession, and draft Hamlet in the course of that year. He seemed to have written plays in inspired bursts. The pressure of drawing audiences to his company’s new theater, The Globe, must have had something to do with it as well in 1599. But we do well to remember that playwrights turned out plays then fairly quickly. Thomas Dekker either wrote or collaborated on ten plays that same year. How Elizabethan playwrights did it without caffeine—neither coffee nor tea were available yet in England—makes that achievement even more remarkable.
With relatively little information to work with from the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s life, how do you piece together his life?
It takes time—and patience. I started working on 1599 in 1988 and didn’t publish it until 2005. I started another year book—on 1606, the year of King Lear and Macbeth, five years ago—and don’t expect to finish it until 2016. Slowly but surely, over time, and with enough dogged research, the pieces of the puzzle start fitting together. It can get frustrating—and happily it’s not the only project I work on at one time, or I’d go mad.
In several interviews you have hinted that biographers of Shakespeare are drifting toward fiction in their work. What amount of theory do you think is appropriate in a biography? Where is the line?
Well, that’s the subject of my talk on “Unravelling Shakespeare’s Life.” So come to the talk [or watch the live webcast] where I’ll address this—and will answer any questions you might have after. It’s less about theory than fantasy and invention, what biographers have to supply when the facts of the life, especially the inner life, haven’t survived.
You said that you hated Shakespeare in grade school. What changed your mind?
What changed my mind was seeing terrific productions. I spent a lot of time backpacking overseas in my teens and twenties and ended up spending a good deal of that time in England, where it was possible to see extraordinary actors taking on Shakespeare. I was hooked. Over the course of a decade I may have seen 80 or 100 productions of Shakespeare’s plays—and much of what I know of Shakespeare derives from those formative experiences. I never did take a college class on Shakespeare, though that’s what I teach these days. I also spend a lot of time now working with theater companies and helping to train teachers to teach through performance.
Do you have a favorite play?
Usually the one I’ve seen most recently, onstage or at the movies. The recent and brilliant film by Ralph Fiennes of Coriolanus has made me want to spend more time with that often overlooked tragedy.
Last Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, monologist Mike Daisey told the audience he had a confession to make.
Before coming to Austin, Daisey said, he asked his Facebook friends where he should eat in town. He received an onslaught of barbeque suggestions from Austinites passionately defending their favorites. “People were un-friending each other about where I should eat barbeque,” Daisey reported.
Mike arrived in Austin too starving to search for any of the barbeque suggestions. He did, however, find himself in front of a McDonalds, considering a McRib.
“I know!” Daisey said, acknowledging the audience’s gasp of horror. “How can someone come to Austin and eat a McRib?”
So he re-evaluated and concluded, “I am a sinner, but I will not eat a McRib on this day.” The audience sighed in relief, but too soon. “I will have a cheeseburger instead.”
This was just one of the many stories spun at the Paramount, where Daisey hosted an evening of storytelling with five raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling.
The Moth comes out of the storytelling tradition led by monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. In November, The Moth held a tribute to Gray in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor and they presented the 2011 Moth Award, “celebrating the art of the raconteur,” to Gray’s family.
The day after The Moth’s Austin appearance, Ransom Center Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Baer shared highlights from Gray’s collection with Moth touring coordinator Maggie Cino, who directed the Austin performance, and performer Faye Lane.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Lane said upon arrival at the Ransom Center. Lane said she watched Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia, a performance film of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, three or four times when it was released.
“I just sat there with my mouth open and thought, you can do this? It was so exactly what I wanted to do and I’d never seen anybody do it before,” Lane said. “I started journaling furiously. I realized these stories are important.”
Baer explained that Gray devised the questionnaire, asking himself questions a therapist might ask.
“For him, even the most personal becomes a performance,” Baer said.
Cino and Lane read every word of the questionnaire, occasionally reading passages aloud.
“I was offered a free apartment. I turned it down with the excuse that I had to get back to work. When I got back home, I couldn’t work because I was so upset with the choice I made.”
“Puberty. Lost all confidence. Weak, ugly, and dumb. Too strange for anyone to like or love.”
“I’ve often felt like a kept woman, a housewife.”
Near the end of the tour, Cino explained how Gray’s simple aesthetic influences The Moth. As technology has evolved in the past two decades, Cino said, people are hungrier than ever for simplicity.
“You get into this question of how little do you need to communicate,” Cino said. “Spalding Gray is such a force in having made it seem possible that you can do it in a very straightforward way without a lot of bells and whistles. I think he started a whole world of possibility that people are continuing to explore.”
Writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive opens for research today, is best known for his highly personal monologues and for helping to define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Gray’s archive was acquired by the Ransom Center in 2010.
Writer Nell Casey had access to the archive before it arrived at the Ransom Center, and her book The Journals of Spalding Gray has been released today. Cultural Compass interviewed Casey about her work in the archive and the surprises she found in Gray’s journals.
In honor of the book’s release, the Ransom Center is giving away two copies of the volume. Email email@example.com with “Spalding” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.
Spalding Gray was an actor, performer, and writer. He appeared on Broadway in various one-man shows and is widely accredited with the invention of the autobiographical monologue. His archive, recently acquired by the Ransom Center, is composed of more than 100 private journals that span more than 40 years of Gray’s career. Nell Casey, editor of the book The Journals of Spalding Gray, which was released today, distilled the mass of journal entries into a portrait of the man behind the magnetic performer who ended his life in 2004. Cultural Compass spoke with Casey about her interest in Gray, the surprising notes she found in the journals, what she admires about his work, and more.
Casey’s interaction with Gray began in 1992 when, after moving to New York, she wrote one of her first magazine articles about him. After Gray’s death, Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow, created the play Leftover Stories to Tell, which told the story of Spalding Gray’s life through excerpts from his monologues and journals. Casey interviewed Russo for The New York Times and says that the journal entries that appeared in the play were “incredibly beautiful.”
“One of the things about the play was that with other people reading [Gray’s] work you got a sense of his incredible talent as a writer,” said Casey. “When I saw the play and the writing was taken out and away from him and other people were reading it, I realized that his writing was a talent that had been sort of overshadowed by his personality and performance.”
When Russo approached Casey to ask if she would be interested in writing a book about Gray, Casey enthusiastically agreed. She had always loved Gray’s work. Her first step was to read the journals. Initially, she was concerned that the material found in the journals would be repetitive of what Gray himself told in his monologues. What she found was anything but.
“[The journals] are this incredible under life and sea of experience that he had not included in his monologues, and part of that experience was the struggle he had,” said Casey.
The writings are so raw and intimate that Casey says she was “caught off guard by almost every journal entry.” On paper, Gray reveals himself as a more extreme version of the person he portrays in his monologues. Casey describes him as a self-reflective narcissist with a broad sense of himself.
“He had this unbelievably broad sort of analytic and therapeutic sense of himself, so he could explore himself, even though he could not stop himself from actions that were very self-destructive and brutal,” said Casey.“The monologues are where he found perspective. The journals were where he showed himself to be completely lost.”
While Gray’s entries do correspond to his monologues, his writings are not for performance but for his life. Casey says, “There is some similarity, but you see in the journals that he just hasn’t gotten his footing yet.”
The themes present in his monologues come up in the book, but they are explored more deeply. As Casey read through the thousands of journal entries, she found that there were very specific themes: his drinking, his narcissism, his performance, his struggle with relationships, his mother’s suicide, and his fantasy life. These themes acted as a guide to help Casey winnow the mass of information into a chronological account of Spalding Gray’s private life.
Above all, Casey says that her years with Gray’s journals have led her to admire him for his writing. She admires it for “its beauty but also for the incredible, tender, searching thought that went into what he wanted to find in life.” Gray’s quest for truth was relentless. “Honesty is really guesswork, isn’t it?” Casey questioned, quoting British editor and writer Diane Athill.
“The point being, what is truth?” Casey says. “Your own truth is just a stab in the dark, and I admire Spalding Gray for his endless attempts at trying to find his truth.”
“We have lost Gray,” Casey writes in her introduction to the journals, “but there is still more for him to tell us.”
Nell Casey is the editor of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Elle, and Glamour. The Journals of Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey is published by Alfred A. Knopf and available for purchase October 18, 2011.