Ransom Center celebrates Shakespeare

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Austin American-Statesman

January 6, 2016

Before attaining historical infamy as Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth made his stage debut in a supporting role in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

Booth’s British-born father was a noted Shakespearean actor, as was his older brother Edwin. And as John Wilkes racked up accolades for his acting, he became particularly famous for his performances in the titular role of Shakespeare’s tragic history of the hunchback and villainous king.

Booth’s heavily annotated promptbook for “Richard III” is on public display for the first time, one of hundreds of rare items included in “Shakespeare in Print and Performance,” a new exhibit at the University of Texas’ rare book and manuscript library, the Ransom Center.

With their directions for actions on stage, technical and musical cues and edits to the scripts, promptbooks prove the best record of what a particular historical performance was like. Booth’s promptbook dates between 1861 and 1864, the actor’s heyday as one of the country’s most popular actors, albeit an outspoken Confederate supporter.

As Ransom Center theater curator Eric Colleary points out, it sheds interesting light on Booth’s character as a thespian turned assassin.

“Booth framed his King Richard as a very tragic and even sympathetic figure, more so than the character is originally,” says Colleary.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616. And the party for the Bard is global, from a flurry of new books to a tsunami of theatrical productions, festivals and films.

Like other institutions with notable Shakespeare-related holdings, the Ransom Center offers its contribution to the Bard-mania, culling rare books, costumes, costume and set designs and other performance material from its noted collections.

Though, 400 years after his death, Shakespeare is the most venerated and most frequently performed English playwright — one who left nearly a million words of text — tantalizing little is known of the particulars of his life. Shakespeare left no diaries, nor was an official version of his plays published during his lifetime (1564-1616). There’s a scrap of handwritten manuscript attributed to Shakespeare, though even its authenticity is questioned.

“As a successful playwright and theater co-owner, Shakespeare likely wasn’t concerned that his plays be published,” says Colleary. “He made his money elsewhere, from producing theater.”

Only 18 of the Bard’s 37 plays were published during his lifetime.

Scholars study variations between the printed versions of his plays to understand Shakespeare’s literary strategies and cull conclusions from how, through four centuries, his plays have been interpreted and performed.

The Ransom Center’s exhibit begins with the earliest printed reference to the playwright, Robert Greene’s book “Groats-worth of Wit” from 1592, in which the young and promising Shakespeare is referred to as “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.”

The Ransom Center owns three copies of the 1623 first printing of Shakespeare’s plays, known to scholars as the First Folio. It contains 36 plays. (A digital copy of the First Folio is also available for interactive viewing in the exhibit and on the Ransom Center’s website.)

Only in 2010 did editors of the Arden Shakespeare accept a 37th play — “Double Falsehood” — as part of the Bard’s official canon.

And just last year, using text analysis software, UT researchers Ryan Boyd and James Pennebaker identified Shakespeare more certainly as the author of “Double Falsehood” by comparing similarities of word use with known Shakespeare plays.

But just as print editions hundreds of years old can reveal clues, so can performance materials from the past century.

“You can read a costume or a set design just like a manuscript,” Colleary says.

A 1951 design sketch for “Othello,” with Orson Welles in the role, shows the actor in blackface-style makeup, a common though racially charged practice for depicting the Moorish king character that still is seen on today’s stages. (The Metropolitan Opera only last year dropped its practice of costuming Othello in blackface.)

Then there’s the costume designed for Rosalind Iden for the role of Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Iden was the wife of the great British actor-manager Donald Wolfit, whose papers are at the Ransom Center.

During World War II, Shakespeare was leveraged as part of British national patriotism and pride, and despite wartime dangers and shortages, producers like Wolfit staged productions of Shakespeare throughout the war and immediately after.

In addition to the red satin gown, Colleary assembled photos of Iden wearing a necklace that was later used as embellishment when the gown was retooled.

“Costumes show their wear, the reuse and repair and changes they underwent through years of traveling productions and use by different actors,” Colleary says.

And then there’s the UT connection: Iden’s father was director and actor B. Iden Payne. After immigrating to the United States post-war, Payne settled at UT in 1946, joining the theater faculty where he taught for nearly three decades. The B. Iden Payne Theatre is one of three used by UT’s theater department.

To enliven some of the archival treasures, Colleary has enlisted Austin’s Hidden Room Theatre company to present a staged reading of “Richard III” using Booth’s promptbook. Known for producing unpublished or rarely seen classic plays, the company will present Booth’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic for the first time since the 1860s. The free performance happens Feb. 2.

In the meantime, the Ransom Center just launched a digital copy of the Booth promptbook on its website.

“It’s exciting to be exhibiting things like the promptbook and the Beatrice gown for the first time,” Colleary says.

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