The Muriel Rukeyser Living Archive is organizing four staged readings of Rukeyser’s musical Houdini, with the support of the Michigan Humanities (an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities), EMU’s Center for Jewish Studies, the English Department, and YpsiWrites:
March 20, 2pm (EDT). Sponberg Theatre, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI. (This event will also be live streamed for audiences unable to attend in person). 11am (EST) Webinar about Rukeyser and Houdini with Jan Freeman, Stefania Heim, and Houdini expert Matthew Solomon. Registration Required
March 24, 7pm (EDT). Riverside Arts Center, Ypsilanti, MI. In collaboration with YpsiWrites, a writing-focused non-profit serving the Ypsilanti area, this event will be accompanied by a Poetry Wall and other activities geared toward a younger Southeast Michigan audience.
March 26, 8pm, and March 27, 3pm (EDT). Matrix Theatre, Detroit, MI. These events will be followed by conversations between the director, actors, and audience.
Directed by EMU Theatre Professor Lee Stille, Rukeyser’s Houdini will be performed by the talented actors of EMU’s Theatre Program. We thank Kitty Graham for performance permission.
All performance are free and open to the public
Edited and introduced by Jan Freeman, Houdini was orginally published by Paris Press and is currently available at Wesleyan University Press.
All performances free and open to the public.
Sponberg Theatre, 124 Judy Sturgis Hill Building, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197 (Parking and Covid Protocol). Free and open to the public. Tickets first come first served.
This event will also be live streamed for those who cannot attend in person:
Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron Street, Ypsilanti, Ml 48197. (Covid Protocol). Free and open to the public. Reservations recommended: https://forms.gle/8Pt24FKUxqGiu2S47
Matrix Theatre, 2730 Bagley Street, Detroit, MI 48216. (Covid Protocol)
Resources for Teachers and Students:
Instructor Guide to Rukeyser and Houdini: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WKdt6AduTmi7vJl8_CSk_OZfyf_zKeqhZxLuiapdTtc/edit
Student Guide to Rukeyser and Houdini: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ye51U8s4KU9AK-KWDMR8MG7LQvCEWm-kX8rYHVjVeQI/edit
Poetry Wall Submission form: https://forms.gle/q4DmuytKc5uVzSxR6
Poetry Workshop with David Boeving, February 26, 11am: https://forms.gle/MgaDKsVZQdimpSbNA
11am EDT, March 20, 2020. Houdini Webinar:
Virtual talks and conversation on Rukeyser and Houdini with Jan Freeman, Stefania Heim, and Matthew Solomon. Please register at: https://emich.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_7bNbVf0GTXmSdut9I2l_kw
“Let me see, let me feel, let me know what is real”: Publishing Houdini, A Musical
In my presentation I will speak about my discovery of Houdini: A Musical, the decision to publish the verse drama through Paris Press, the journey of transforming the manuscript housed at the Library of Congress into a published book, and bringing the text to the attention of readers. I will also address Rukeyser’s themes of freedom and imprisonment, truth and illusion, and the body in Houdini and in her poems that first captivated me as a young lesbian poet.
Jan Freeman is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Blue Structure (Calypso Editions), and she is co-editor of Sisters: An Anthology. Poems from her manuscript in progress, Mobius, are forthcoming or recently appeared in Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail, North American Review, Plume, and Poetry. She is a 2020–2022 Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center and recipient of the Spiral Shell Fellowship at the Virginia Center for Creative Art’s Moulin à Nef in Auvillar, France. Jan founded Paris Press (now housed at Wesleyan University Press) in 1996 to bring back into print Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. Paris Press also published Rukeyser’s Houdini: A Musical and The Orgy. Jan teaches at the MASS MoCA Ekphrastic Poetry Retreats and Writing Through Nature and Art Poetry Workshops. She provides editorial services, manuscript development and consultations, and coaching to poets and writers.
Myth, Fact, and the ‘Stairway Between’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Houdini
Muriel Rukeyser spent four decades researching, imagining, writing, pitching, and rewriting the text that became Houdini, which was performed as a play only once, in 1973, with Christopher Walken in the title role. This “musical with a ferocious play inside” is a rich site from which to explore Rukeyser’s ongoing interrogation into the “meeting-places” between symbol and fact, myth and the concrete details of existence, as they are put into motion in the “whole lives” of individuals. In this talk, I shall present archival traces of Rukeyser’s process, drawing from her proposals, plans, correspondence, research, and drafts from the 1940s through the mid 1970s. In particular, I shall explore Rukeyser’s incorporation of language from the 1926 Congressional Judiciary Subcommittee hearings on fortune telling—an important and unexplored instance of her investigation into the possibilities of documentary poetics.
Stefania Heim is author of the award-winning poetry collections Hour Book (Ahsahta Press, 2019) and A Table That Goes On for Miles (Switchback Books, 2014) and the NEA-winning translator of Geometry of Shadows: Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian Poems (A Public Space Books, 2019). Her scholarly and lyric essays, including many on Rukeyser, have appeared in venues including Journal of Modern Literature, Textual Practice, Journal of Narrative Theory, Paris Review, Jacket2, the volume 21|19: Contemporary Poets in the 19th Century Archive. She is editor of Rukeyser’s unpublished essay “Darwin and the Writers” (Lost & Found Documents Initiative, 2010), a former editor of Boston Review, and a founding editor of Circumference: Poetry in Translation. As of fall 2022 she will be an Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University.
Matthew Solomon is an associate professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media, at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, winner of the Kraszna-Krausz award for best moving image book, a monograph on Chaplin’s The Gold Rush for the BFI Film Classics series, and Méliès Boots: Footwear and Film Manufacturing in Second Industrial Revolution Paris (in press). He edited Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon and Magnificent Méliès: The Authorized Biography (in press), the latter authored by the late Madeleine Malthête-Méliès and translated by Kel Pero.
Photo by Jennifer Chapman
More on Muriel Rukeyser and Houdini
Rukeyser began thinking about her play on Harry Houdini at least as early as the late 1930s, when the world was in dire need of superheroes to defeat the atrocities of fascism. To the consternation of critics, her musical combines biography and fantasy to challenge, as Jan Freeman writes, “the locks and constraints that imprison us all.” Houdini’s dramatic transformation from Hungarian-born Eric Weisz, son of a rabbi, to the most celebrated escape artist of all times embodies the American dream of self-invention against all odds. His elaborate stunts in pursuit of freedom speak powerfully to our present moment, as the world is engulfed in Covid and the U.S. is confronting its history of systemic racism and struggles to reaffirm the meanings of democracy and freedom in an ever more divided nation. The fact that Rukeyser collaborated with her long-time partner Monica McCall on composing the verse-drama intimates, as well, desires for emotional and sexual freedom that continue to be salient today.
Eric Weisz was four years old when his family emigrated from Hungary to the U.S. where life proved hard. Young Ehrich Weiss, as he had been renamed, was eager to escape the poverty of his childhood and set out to reinvent himself. By the time he became Harry Houdini, he had been a circus and vaudeville performer, King of the Cards, Erik the Great, among other incarnations. It is as escape artist that he first found fame in England, then Germany and Russia, where in 1903, shortly after the Kishinev pogrom, which all but destroyed the Jewish Community of the small Russian town of Kishinev, he wowed audiences (and humiliated imperial law enforcement) by breaking out of handcuffs, prison vans, even, so legend has it, a Siberian prison camp. Houdini appealed to Rukeyser as a quintessential Jewish-American superhero, fighting the evils of fascism and antisemitism while proclaiming freedom as the birthright of every individual. But in her hands he becomes even more: an avatar for the transformative, freeing power of faith and imagination in the face of debilitating oppressions and fears, a champion for anyone—working people, women, Jews, African Americans, and queer people—fighting for justice and recognition.
First performed in 1973, with Christopher Walken as Houdini, the musical combines singing and dancing, comedy and pathos. It aims not for a realist portrayal of Houdini’s life, but explores the tension between the mythic escape artist, who can break any lock, and the man who is inescapably bound to his mother, to his wife, Bess, and ultimately to the very myth he helped create. The musical’s simple and witty poem-songs will appeal to cross-generational audiences. For instance, “Yes” invites us to abandon caution and open ourselves to surprise and the unknown: “Open your eyes, / Dream but don’t guess. / Your biggest surprise / comes after yes.” “Chains, Freedom, Keys” compels us to imagine the chains that imprison us and the keys to freedom in our reach, both as individuals and communities.
The Houdini events are designed to alert Southeast Michigan audiences to Eastern Michigan University’s Rukeyser resources and to the poet’s many creative pursuits–her poetry, prose, journalism, plays, and her visions for the world. Rukeyser insisted that the potential, the seemingly impossible, is just as real as anything else. With Houdini she gave us a fully human hero who shows us how to open even the most intractable locks, escape any constraints, and strive always for more freedom, more imagination, more democracy.