Billie Whitelaw


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Billie Whitelaw
British Film/Stage Actress
(The was also Samuel Beckett's favorite actress to direct in his plays)
Dramaturgical Research by Cam M. Roberts

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Billie Whitelaw

  1. 1. Billie Whitelaw Cam M. Roberts Wed, April 22nd, 2012 THE 311: History of Western Theatre II Prof. J.K. Curry
  2. 2. Born:Billie Honor Whitelaw June 6th, 1932 [age 79] Coventry, Warwickshire, England Zodiac: Gemini A member of The Society of Friends (Quaker)
  3. 3. Education: Graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.Agent: International Creative Management, 10250 Constellation Way, 9th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067 Began career as child actor appearing with Bradford Civic Playhouse Group & BBC radio programs, primarily for children. Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company of Great Britain, London, member of company, 1964-67 In 1965, she took the part of Desdemona opposite Oliviers Othello from Maggie Smith. Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, associate member. Berlin International Film Festival, member of jury, 1970. University of Santa Barbara, regents professor, 1985.
  4. 4. The Beckett Years
  5. 5. The Beckettian Style “‘Visual Abstinence’ is rather a good termfor Beckett’s late theatre, since he often employedonly a single or a double image, illuminatedin the surrounding dark, empty spaces…” (Knowlson & Haynes, 44)
  6. 6. Whitelaw’s Significance “Nowhere is such a phenomenology of the actress better illustrated than in Billie Whitelaw, who perfectly realizes on stage and screen the very works she inspired” (Herren, 99). “Enoch Brater rightly observes that , ‘on television it was Whitelaw who made Beckett look and sound like “Beckett”’ (“Billie”, 194; Herren, 99).
  7. 7. Whitelaw on Beckett “The Beckett veteran Whitelaw admits,‘Every damn play of Beckett’s that I do involved some sortof physically or mentally excruciating experience.’A paralyzed jaw in Not I,a spine injury in Footfalls –there is a price to pay.” (Interview with Ben-Zvi, in Ben-Zvi, Women in Beckett, 5; Cima, 220)
  8. 8. Play “My first encounter with Beckett – my face covered in glue & porridge –in Play at the National Theatre.We worked together for 25 years, right up to the time he died.”
  9. 9. “I think that Play is a quartet; not a trio at all. The light is a very positive part,a very frightening part. […]. It was an instrument of torture. […]. I remember that my doctorcame to see what we were doing, when I told him I wasn’t sleeping very well, and he saidthat if you did that night after night, you would go completely out of your mind.” Billie Whitelaw, interview with James Knowlson, 1 Feb. 1977, Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 3 (Summer 1978), p. 86
  10. 10. Not I“Not I – the 1972 Beckett play & performance, as Mouth, by which standard I have tended to judge all my other work.”
  11. 11. “… In the case of Mouth inNot I, the actor playing the role isnot only physically bound but alsoblindfolded so that only her mouthis visible; thus her torturoussituation is worse. Billy Whitelaw,who performed Mouth in 1972,admits that at one point duringrehearsal she thought, ‘I can’t do it,it’s a form of torture, it’ll never work’(125). Performing Not I was notonly physically painful but alsopsychological terrifying for her:‘The play had touched terrors withinme that I have never come to termswith’ (131). Whitelaw had to strugglewith the terror within her, as well asthe terror of being bound andblindfolded, her body inert, while‘vomiting’ words at high speed.” (Ben-Zvi & Moorjani, eds., 250)
  12. 12. “A remarkable version of Billie Whitelaw’s Not I hadbeen filmed, shot by Tristram Powell with Mouth in shockingclose-up. Beckett readily endorsed this piece for the TVcommemoration” (Herren, 71). “Beckett called her [Billie Whitelaw’s] televisedperformance as Mouth [in Not I] ‘“Miraculous’” (Whitelaw, 132;Herren, 98). “… Ghost Trio and …but the clouds… accompaniedNot I in a ‘tele-trilogy’ titled Shades, first broadcast on April17, 1977” (Herren, 71).
  13. 13. [1973] Not I (Samuel Beckett)
  14. 14. Footfalls
  15. 15. “Conducting each other.Beckett & I rehearsing Footfalls(which he wrote for me) at the Royal Court.It was the first time he directedme on his own.”
  16. 16. KNOWLSON: Can we move on now to Footfalls, put on in 1976, and writtenespecially for you by Samuel Beckett. […] I remember noting at the time atrehearsal Beckett’s remark to Rose Hill about the production, ‘We are nottrying to do this play realistically or psychologically but musically.’ This wasan element, presumably, that you must have concentrated rather a lot up atrehearsal?WHITELAW: Yes, this something that happens. When I was doing Not I,I felt… like an athlete crashing through barriers, but also like a musicalinstrument playing notes. … In Footfalls, I felt like a moving musical EdvardMunch painting – one felt like all three – and in fact when Beckett wasdirecting Footfalls, he was not only using me to play the notes, but I almostfelt that he did have the paintbrush out and was painting, and, of course thathe always has in the other pocket is rubber, because as fast as he draws a linein, he get out that enormous India-rubber and rubs it out until it is only faintlythere. ‘Extracts from an unscripted interview with Billie Whitelaw by James Knowlson, a television recording make 1 Feb, 1977, in Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 3 (Summer 1978) p. 89.
  17. 17. “Wearing Jocelyn Herbert’s incredible costume for Footfalls.Of all the plays we did together, after Not I, this is the one I recall most vividly. Itworked.”
  18. 18. Footfalls is also about separation and unity though more obliquelyand oddly: for one or two reviewers it remained an unreadable mystery,though all agreed, as surely they had to, on the extraordinary spellbindingquality of Billie Whitelaw as the daughter. Surrounded by darkness, insilence broken only by the sound of her own footfalls, she created one ofBeckett’s most overwhelming visual images; a sculptured figure of tragicgrandeur, in her trailing robe, dimly grey in the dim light, painfully bowed,arms crossed over breast, pacing her nine rhythmic steps to and fro on thenarrow strip of stage she is confine d to. A terrible exposed, solitary role,such as the actress of Not I could do, but how few besides; Beckett wrote itas her play and in her performance she made it so. …The second sequence,like the first ends with the mother contemplating what the daughterendures: she fades away on the thought of all that pain. …There is asuggestion here of suffering not confined to two of them: it widens out inthe mind, as the echoes spread out from the chime. Katherine J. Worth, ‘Review Article: Beckett’s fine Shades’, Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 1 (Winter1976, p. 78–9.
  19. 19. “Rehearsing Footfalls with Beckett in 1976,Billie Whitelaw once asked, ‘Am I dead?’ and Beckett replied,‘Let’s just say you’re not quite there’ (qtd. in Kalb 235).Near the end of Footfalls, May tells a story in which sheclaims she was never there, and in the play’s final momentsthe lights fade to reveal ‘No trace of May’ (49)” (Ben-Zvi & Moorjani, eds., 293).
  20. 20. Footfalls
  21. 21. Happy Days
  22. 22. “‘Up to her diddies’ in a mound –Happy Days at the Royal Court,directed by Beckett.”
  23. 23. Winnie [in Happy Days] is fright fully busy doing nothing, the way Ifeel I am a lot of the time. The play’s about getting on with it, getting throughthe day, and trying not to be too depressed. And it’s about needing someoneelse, if only to shout at. How many marriages do we know like that? And howmany people? Billie Whitelaw, who played Winnie, interviewed by Benedict in Radio Times, 13 – 19 Oct. 1979, p. 21
  24. 24. Happy Days with Billie Whitelaw (excerpt)
  25. 25. Rockaby
  26. 26. “Rocking herself to death – or is she?The image from Rockaby, 1981, that seemed to stay in people’s minds.Strange for such a short play to make such an impact.”
  27. 27. The fact that Beckett writes plays for Billie Whitelaw to star in is oneof the few completely comprehensible thing about him….In the case ofRockaby Beckett has provided his actress with a particularly beautiful solo:the memory-cum-threnody of an old woman who is rocking herself intothe sleep of death. If I had to christen the genre, I’d call it a crone-poem.Internally overlapping and repeating itself like a system of mingled villanelles,this calming lyric of senility was given an unbeatable mellifluous andrhythmical reading by Miss Whitelaw – for whom the whole experiencemust be a relative doddle, given that she does have a chair to sit in,and that most of the performance is pre-recorded on tape. Russell Davies, Sunday Times, 19 Dec. 1982, p. 40
  28. 28. RockabySamuel Beckett, starring Billie Whitelaw, director: Alan Schneider (1981)
  29. 29. Rockaby Part I
  30. 30. Rockaby Part II
  31. 31. Other Whitelaw/Beckett Collaborations “Beckett turned seventy on April 13, 1976,and the BBC decided to commemorate this milestonewith a multimedia retrospective of his radio and television plays.Plans were made to broadcast… on BBC radio –under Martin Esslin’s direction – a new productionof Rough for Radio II with Harold Pinter, Billie Whitelaw,and Patrick Magee” (Herren, 70).
  32. 32. Samuel Beckett and I working on the television playsGhost Trio and …but the clouds… at the BBC.Shortly after this picture was taken, I gave up smoking
  33. 33. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Young Vic, London, 1987 Martha: Billie Whitelaw George: Patrick Stewart Directed by David Thacker
  34. 34. David Thacker and Billie Whitelaw selected Who’s Afraid ofVirginia Woolf?, and together settled on Patrick Stewart,a respected Shakespearean actor, when Ronald Pickupproved to be unavailable to play the role of George. (Bottoms, 72) “The need for detailed communication between the lead actors, so as toestablish a balance between their performances, is clearly apparent through itsabsence in this performance. This was… the case with the 1987 Young Vicproduction, which Patrick Stewart regarded as such a profound personalexperience, but which drove Billie Whitelaw close to nervous collapse.” (Bottoms,142) “From the start of rehearsals, however, Whitelaw felt isolated, believingthat Thacker’s main directorial ‘twist’ on the play – his insistence on having itperformed in-the-round – was misguided. ‘I felt this would make it far moredifficult for all of us to create the play’s trapped feeling’, Whitelaw explains in herautobiography: ‘I tried to persuade David to do it with an apron stage, or a thruststage, but both he and Patrick were in no doubt: In-the-round was the right way.For me, that may have been the beginning of feeling at odds and out-of-synchwith both the leading man and director.’ (Whitelaw, 169; Bottoms, 72)
  35. 35. “The men’s failure to take her feeling into account seems to havebeen a serious misjudgment. The lack of communication escalated asrehearsals progressed, and Whitelaw became increasingly bewildered byThacker and Stewart’s insistence on discussing in minute detail interpretivequestions which ‘seemed to me as plan as a bloody pikestaff’ (Whitelaw, 170;Bottoms, 72). “The production was not quite the disaster such anxiety mightsuggest, and opened as scheduled to fairly good reviews, with PatrickStewart and Thacker’s in-the-round staging drawing most of the praise.”(Bottoms, 73). “Whitelaw’s confidence in her theatrical abilities was shattered,particularly by a crippling case of stage fright which developed in the secondweek of the run (she began to blank her lines at the same point every night,and had to rely on Stewart to cover for her). ‘I began to feel there was nolonger a place for me in the theatre at all’, she wrote in 1995:‘since then, except for my one-woman Beckett evenings, I’ve never set footon a stage again’ (Whitelaw, 172; Bottoms, 73).
  36. 36. The Omen (1976) Character: Mrs. Baylock (the Nanny)Duties: Stepping in when the previous nanny hangs herself (hey, its an open job), must care for young,super-impressionable Damien.Pros: Loves baby-dawgs; tidyCons: Encourages Damien to pursue his demonic leanings; kills peopleRecommend to a friend? If youd like that friend to be thrown from a window, sure.
  37. 37. The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000) TV Movie Character: Evelyn
  38. 38. Quills (2000)Character: Madame LeClerc (Blind)
  39. 39. Hot Fuzz (2007) Character: Joyce Cooper
  40. 40. Hot Fuzz (2007)
  41. 41. Principal Performances in Theatre• Easy Money• Peg O’ My Heart1951–1952 Where There’s A Will• Hotel Paradiso• Progress to the Park (Owen)• England, Our England• -1965 The Dutch Courtesan (Marston)1963–1965 Othello (Shakespeare)1963–1965 Hobson’s Choice (Brighouse)1963–1965 Trelawney of the ‘Wells’ (Pinero)1963–1965 Play (Beckett)• A Touch of the Poet (O’Neill)• After Haggerty1973/1975 Not I (Beckett)• Alphabetical Order• Footfalls (Beckett)• Molly (Gray)• Happy Days (Beckett)• The Greeks (Aeschylus)• Passion Play (Nichols)1981 Rockaby (Beckett)• Rockaby (Beckett)• Rockaby & Footfalls (Beckett)• Tales from Hollywood (Hampton)• Rockaby & Footfalls (Beckett)• Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Albee)
  42. 42. Work in RadioRough for Radio II (Beckett), dir. Martin EsslinThe Master Builder (Ibsen)Hindle Wakes (Houghton)Jane Eyre (Bronte)The Female Messiah (Roose-Evans)Alpha Beta (Whitehead)The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov)Vassa Shelesnova (Gorky)Filumena Maturano (de Filippo)All That Fall & Embers (Beckett), dir. Everett Frost
  43. 43. BibliographyBeckett, Samuel. Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber & Faber, 2006. Print.Ben-Zvi, Linda, ed. Women in Beckett: Performance and Critical Perspectives. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Print.Ben-Zvi, Linda and Angela Moorjani, eds. Beckett at 100: Revolving It All. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.Bottoms, Stephens, J. Albee: Who’s Afraid Virginia Woolf? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.Brater, Enoch. The Drama in the Text: Beckett’s Late Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.Brater, Enoch. The Essential Samuel Beckett: An Illustrated Biography. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2003. Print.Bryden, Mary. Women in Samuel Beckett’s Prose and Drama: Her Own Other. Lanham: Barnes & Nobel Books, 1993. Print.Cima, Gay G. Performing Women: Female Characters, Male Playwrights, and the Modern Stage. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Print.Connor, Steven. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Print.Cooke, Virginia. Beckett on File. London: Methuen, 1985. Print.Courtney, Cathy, ed., Jocelyn Herbert: A Theatre Workbook. London: Art Books International, 1997. Print.Dukes, Gerry. Samuel Beckett. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.Eyre, Richard and Nicholas Wright. Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2001. Print.Gontarski, S.E., ed. A Companion to Samuel Beckett. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.Gussow, Mel. Conversation With and About Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1996. Print.Herren, Graley. Samuel Beckett’s Plays on Film and Television. New york: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.Innes, Christopher, ed. Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.
  44. 44. BibliographyKalb, Jonathan. Beckett in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1996. Print.Knowlson, James, and John Hayes. Images of Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.Knowlson, James and Elizabeth Knowlson, eds. Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett: A Centenary Celebration. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2006. Print.Luckhurst, Mary, ed. A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama: 1880-2005. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Print.McMullan, Anna and S. E. Wilmer, eds. Reflections on Beckett: A Centenary Celebration. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.Minihan, John (photographer) and Aidan Higgins (introduction). Samuel Beckett: Photographs. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1995. Print.Pattie, David. The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.Pilling, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.Whitelaw, Billie. Billie Whitelaw… Who He?: An Autobiography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995 Print.,,212487,00.html
  45. 45. Further ReadingBarry, Elizabeth. Beckett and Authority: The Uses of Cliché. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of The Absurd, 3rd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Print.Garner, Jr., Stanton B. Bodied Spaces: Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Print.Malkin, Jeanette R. Memory-Theatre and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Print.McDonald, Ronan. The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.McMullan, Anna. Theatre on Trial: Samuel Beckett’s Later Drama. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.McMullan, Anna. Performing Embodiment in Samuel Beckett’s Drama. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.Mooney, Sinead. Samuel Beckett: Writers and Their Work. Devon: Northcote House Publisher’s Ltd, 2006. Print.Rusinko, Susan. British Drama 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. Print.Shepard, Simon. The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.Watt, Stephen. Postmodern/Drama: Reading the Contemporary Stage. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Print.Worthen, W.B. Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theatre. Berkley: University of California Press, 1992. Print.