Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? The production of a dramatic performance is by nature ephemeral and fleeting—years of planning and preparation can culminate in just a couple hours of activity and observation shared between a group of actors and their audience. Even when the dramatic performance results in a film that can be preserved and replayed for years, its production process is by nature hidden from the audience’s view. It does not, however, disappear—it leaves significant traces in the form of scripts, drafts, notes, drawings, photos, playbills, reviews, correspondence, recordings, costumes, criticism, editions, and more. For some of the greatest dramatists and filmmakers in history, tracing such material leads to our very own Harry Ransom Center on the UT campus.
In this class, students will explore the related questions: What can we learn about a piece of drama from its archival record? What do archival materials reveal to have changed in the course of a drama’s development and then over time in its production history? To address these questions, students will read and view representative samples from the Ransom Center’s strong holdings in modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, plus some Shakespeare. (Of Shakespeare’s plays, we might include the different published versions of King Lear in the first seventeenth-century editions of the text; Modern/Contemporary works might include those of Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Tennessee Williams, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, David O. Selznick, and Robert DeNiro.) While learning archival research methods, students will train their analytical senses to notice plays’ character development ambiguities and implicit nuances of plot and cultural commentary—many of which can manifest variously in performances. Then, they will explore what further complexities can be introduced into the interpretation of selected dramas by examining records of playwrights, actors, producers, costume companies, designers, film directors, etc. in the archives at the Ransom Center.
Beyond gaining familiarity with several significant examples of Anglophone drama and the cultural contexts in which their creators were situated, students will learn about the impact the study of textual variation, publication history, production history, and archival research can have on literary, theater, or film history arguments. Students will work to sharpen their analytical writing and scholarly research skills through several targeted close reading exercises involving descriptions and comparisons of primary sources and surveys of published secondary critical and historical research material. Students will gain skills in the study of Shakespeare and modern/contemporary English-language playwrights, screenwriters, actors, and participants in productions. They will also gain familiarity with how to go about pursuing archival research through practical examples presented in class and at the HRC, and through an independent final research project focused on an item or small group of items held there.
Assignments and Grading:
Class participation, regular meetings with instructor, presentation of work to class 10%
Essay #1: Comparative close reading of two versions of a Shakespeare text 15%
Essay #2: Study of an historical production (or film) of a Shakespeare play 15%
Essay #3: Response to a scholarly essay on a modern/contemporary play/film 15%
Essay #4: Analysis of potential vs. made choices in a performance or production 15%
Research Project: 30%
Discovery and description of an item or set of items in the HRC that allow you to make a claim about the interpretation of a work in the context of its production and/or documentary history. Plus a thorough explanation of that claim and why it is significant for the analysis of the work, its dramatists, actors, and history.
Class Format and Selected Readings:
For roughly the first 4 weeks of the course, students will become oriented toward scholarly research in the Harry Ransom Center and University Libraries, while reading examples of archival research and essays on topics related to archival research practices and goals in theater, literature, and film. During this time, the first subject we’ll analyze from an archival perspective will be Shakespeare, since his works transcend boundaries between humanities disciplines. Students will become familiar with the range of materials the HRC houses pertaining to Shakespeare and all sorts of drama by viewing examples of varying seventeenth-century printed editions of plays like King Lear, costume designs from productions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (largely in the Simmons Collection of Costume and Production Design), and adaptations by other writers (both published, like Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, and unpublished like an adaptation of Macbeth rewritten by T.H. White). The first two essays will be due during this section of the class.
In the next 6-8 weeks of the course, readings will be drawn from the works of modern and contemporary dramatists who are featured prominently in HRC collections that reveal the variable creative processes that have informed a work’s composition and history of performance. Each 3-4 class periods, the class will read one play, learn about the author and its production history, and peruse materials at the Ransom Center related to that play that have been selected by the instructor. During this portion of the class, students will sign up to develop and present their third and fourth essays on two of the plays during the weeks in which they will be studied.
During the final 3-5 weeks of the course, students will develop and write their final research projects. Full class meetings will be reduced to once-per-week or fewer to allow students more time to work in the HRC and set up meetings with the instructor.
Readings and viewings of modern/contemporary works may be drawn from:
David Mamet, e.g. Oleanna, which underwent significant changes after its initial performances to make its social criticism more ambiguous)
Arthur Miller, e.g. The Crucible, Death of a Salesman
Tennessee Williams, e.g. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire (which all started off with really terrible titles)
Samuel Beckett, e.g. Waiting for Godot
Tom Stoppard, e.g. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
G.B. Shaw, e.g. Pygmalion
Robert DeNiro, e.g. A Bronx Tale, Goodfellas, The Deer Hunter
Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage
Performing Shakespeare’s Tragedies Today
Research Methods in Theatre and Performance, ed. Baz Kershaw, 2011
Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, by James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Cox, 2006
Documentation, Disappearance, and the Representation of Live Performance, by Matthew Reason, 2006
Archival Research Methods:
by Elon Lang
Lecturer in HMN / LAH / CTI
Project Archivist at HRC
Possible Course Numbers w/ cross listing: