“Shakespeare in Print and Performance” at the Ransom Center (Austin, Texas)

By Robert Faires for The Austin Chronicle, 1 January 2016

With the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death mere months away (April 23, 2016 – mark those calendars!), arts institutions worldwide are devoting even more attention to the dramatist now than usual. The University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center is among them, using the occasion to spotlight some of the lesser known – and certainly lesser seen – holdings from its rare book and theatre arts collections. Who knew the HRC even owned John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook for Richard III? And yet here it is, part of the curious miscellany of literary and theatrical artifacts in the exhibition “Shakespeare in Print and Performance.”

The title should tip you off that the HRC’s focus here isn’t on the author so much as on his legacy, and it also reveals something of the exhibition’s split personality. On the one hand is “Shakespeare in Print,” consisting almost wholly of historic copies of printed works in display cases. On the other is “Shakespeare in Performance,” a more expansive display of items involved in staging the author’s work, primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries: promptbooks for actors and stage managers, painted costume and set renderings, photos and film from productions of note. The former is all about the text and requires a close reading to obtain the full flavor of the English printing industry in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how it affected both Shakespeare’s career and later generations’ understandings of his plays. The latter is much more into visuals, letting images from various productions illustrate how interpretations of Shakespeare’s dramas have changed over time. It’s as basic as the difference between a book and a play, between learning about Shakespeare in a classroom and in a theatre.

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Image from review, Scene design for King Lear, Act V, by Norman Bel Geddes, ca. 1917, watercolor on paper.

Ransom Center celebrates Shakespeare

By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin for the Austin American-Statesman, 6 January 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.

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