Archives in action: Yale papers breathe life into theatric roles

Actors from the most recent Long Wharf Theatre production, "February House," visited Yale's Manuscripts and Archives Department to learn more about the real-life people they portray via the archives of the 1940s publication Decision Magazine, which is a major component of the new musical.

Hovered around a table in the Manuscripts and Archives Room of Sterling Memorial Library, alumni Julian Fleisher and Stephanie Hayes and their cast mates listened intently as fellow actor Kristen Sieh read aloud an original, handwritten letter penned by Carson McCullers — the tormented character Sieh portrayed in “February House,” which recently premiered at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.

Fleisher ’88 and Hayes ’11 DRA never imagined they would encounter the “ghosts” of the characters they were portraying in the new musical. According to Fleisher, “It’s just the thing that many actors dream of.”

Fleisher played editor George Davis and Hayes starred as Erica Mann in “February House,” a musical depicting the lives and loves of a commune of iconic writers in a Brooklyn brownstone during the 1940s.

On a recent visit to the Elizabethan Club, Fleisher struck up a conversation with Judith Schiff, Yale’s chief research archivist. When Schiff mentioned that she planned to see the musical, Fleisher invited her to the audience Talkback.

Upon seeing the performance, Schiff discovered that the show contains important references to Decision Magazine, whose papers have been preserved in Manuscripts and Archives at Sterling Library.

A major element of the plot is the creative and editorial work of the “February House” characters for Decision Magazine. When Schiff revealed to the cast that these historical papers were at Yale, the actors were eager to have an opportunity to see the collection.

Schiff invited the group to Manuscripts and Archives to peruse the papers of Decision Magazine, which was published in New York from January 1941 to February 1942 under the editorship of Klaus Mann.

“I’m not sure I can adequately explain how valuable and exciting this visit has been,” said Fleisher. “It both confirmed so much of what our writers, Seth [Bockley] and Gabe [Kahane], have created, and deepened our own belief in ourselves, our characters, and the extraordinary lives they lived. Chills are what we all got!”

Andy Boroson, musical director of the production, commented, “We have spent months working on the lives of all these intellectual figures, and now here they are right in front of us.”

Schiff shared the enthusiasm. “It’s an archivist’s dream-come-true to see the manuscripts we care for utilized and brought to life so eloquently,” she said.

The collection contains both business and literary documentation of the history of the magazine. On the business side are legal and financial papers, photographs of artwork printed in the magazine, clippings, press releases, and advertising circulars. The literary history is recorded in the correspondence and in an incomplete set of drafts of articles and poems. Among those whose drafts have survived are W.H. Auden, Stefan Zweig, Heinrich Mann, and Muriel Rukeyser. Particularly interesting, notes Schiff, are the drafts by William Carlos Williams for an article on Ezra Pound, and by Sir Julian Huxley for “The redefinition of freedom.” Klaus Mann’s editorials are almost all concerned with the dangers of Nazism to America and to western culture. The papers also include the proof for an unpublished article by Vladimir Nabokov, “Soviet Literature 1940.”

According to Fleisher, the opportunity to explore the collection transformed the actors’ performances after their visit, “That evening, when our characters talked about Decision, there was an undeniably new sense of something concrete and thrilling about it,” he said. “The entire story took a big leap forward for our having had the chance to pour over and handle the papers, photos, and letters.”

“February House” portrays the lives of a generation of groundbreaking artists, including Auden, composer and pianist Benjamin Britten, and burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose.

The musical was staged at Long Wharf Theatre Feb. 15–March 18. The Public Theater in New York will feature the show in May.

For tickets, visit Public Theater, located at 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan.

An overview of the Decisions Magazine Papers in Yale Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department is available here.

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