Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s preeminent actor, has just demonstrated the dazzling difference between reading his Play realistically and reading it the way Beckett wanted it done-without what he called color,” and at tongue-tying, lung-collapsing speed. A puzzled theatre student in the room at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. asks, “But how would anybody know to do it that way?”
Questions like this one give Billie Whitelaw a heightened sense of mission. She has been on the college circuit this year, providing workshops and informal performances, spreading the word that comes right from the mouth of the late Samuel Beckett, arguably our century’s most influential and difficult playwright. As the only remaining actor of “Beckett’s Triplets” (the other two, Patrick McGee and Jack McGowran, are both dead) and as the actor Beckett wrote for and worked with most closely, Whitelaw has 25 years of experience and insight to impart to her young American audiences.
She tells about the time Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier had a famous fit at the National Theatre during the first rehearsals of Play: When Olivier delivered his ultimatum “You can’t do it like that,” the director, George Devine, quit, and Beckett just looked sad. She recounts how she, Rosemary Harris and Robert Stephens invented the make-up for the three faces emerging from the urns in Play, achieving Beckett’s desired look of “decay” by a mixture of oatmeal, surgical glue, liquefied jelly and slimy green coloring covered by pancake. She still has her original costumes for Winnie in Happy Days, May in Footfalls and the woman in Rockaby. She has her own personal Beckett library, including otherwise unavailable BBC films of all her original performances and, most astonishing, what may be the only corrected scripts for those plays, including all the changes Beckett made during performance which were never included in the published texts.
The story of my life
Small, blonde and a bit scattered, her powerful stage presence constantly surprises. She speaks in her conversational voice and then, to illustrate a point, switches into Beckettian character, emptying her voice, creating an aural void; just as suddenly, she can zing her audience with a Lady Bracknell like aside and a flash of her sky-blue eyes.
Knowing that Beckett scholarship has become a minor industry in the academic world, Whitelaw always begins with disclaimers: She is not an intellectual and understands these plays only intuitively. “All the plays are about me,” she says, and remembers asking Beckett, “How could you have written the story of my life 10 years before we met?”
Her life, as she recounts it, became chaos at age seven, during the blitz of Coventry, when she was evacuated and then ran away to rejoin her family. “I was afraid – not of death, but of staying alive when they died.” After the war, her father died of cancer at home – a painful and lingering process. “I knew from childhood that there were far worse things than death.” All this, Whitelaw feels, allowed her to intuit Beckett’s works, although she admits that the only Beckett she’s read is the Beckett she’s worked on.
But her storehouse of experience as an actress has become its own invaluable resource, and many of those experiences have left indelible physical traces. She tells the students how overwhelming the role of Mouth in Not I was to memorize, and how dangerous it was to perform since it required full sensory deprivation. Since only the actor’s mouth is seen on stage, everything else had to be blacked out. When it was first produced at the Royal Court every light in the theatre was turned off – exit signs, bathroom lights, everywhere. At the first dress rehearsal, Whitelaw fell into hysteria and hallucinations, and Beckett said, “Oh, Willie, what am I doing to you?” They carried her offstage and gave her brandy and milk, after which Beckett said, “Back up you go.”Eventually a solution was found to her disorientation and terror by cutting a tiny slit in the blindfold for her to see through. In addition to the psychological strain, Whitelaw says the role was athletically taxing as well-her rib cage hurt, and she had no time to swallow her saliva.
Performing Beckett has taken a terrible toll on her body-her eyes were damaged by the extreme heat and brilliance of the lights for Happy Days, and she still suffers from back problems caused by the unnatural posture she held in Footfalls (“I’ll never perform it again”).
More important than the stories is her acting advice: “Don’t give a performance. Forget you’re a human being. just stand there and say the words as if you were a robot. Think of the words as Morse Code.” Precision is paramount in delivery; she emphasizes the need to keep the syllables” – if a word has two syllables, say each one, and open your mouth very wide. The Beckett techniques have stood her in good stead in other work as well, although it always requires courage to employ them because it means risking the audience’s “boredom threshold.”
It took her three months to learn Happy Days, and once she’d learned it Beckett started to revise, changing an “Ah well” to an “Oh well,” changing a comma to a semi-colon. Beckett may have been the gentlest, kindest most generous of men, but he was a hard taskmaster as a director: “If you said an ‘Ah’ instead of an ‘Oh’ he groaned, as if stabbed by a knife.”
Skill and stamina
By contrast, Whitelaw’s teaching demeanor is not at all Beckettian; she suggests, she encourages, wanting the students to see. Using groups of three students, she has them each run through a scene from Play, and then repeat it faster, trying to eliminate from their delivery any impulse to tell the story. This simple technique challenges all of the students’ theatrical expectations, as well as demanding every bit of their enunciation skills and stamina. Some actors respond quickly, exactly as Whitelaw – and presumably Beckettwant them to, while others resist the elimination of inflection, naturalistic pacing, or realistic, histrionic or emotive connection to the text.
She and Beckett (whom she always talks about in the present tense, as if he were still alive) never discussed the meaning of the plays. She simply put herself entirely at his disposal, allowing him, for example, to mold her body as if he were a sculptor for May’s stance in Footfalls. She knew exactly what he meant when he told her to make May’s voice sound as though it comes “from beyond the grave.” Thus her script of that play is marked “Bong. Bong” over the words, “Mother. Mother” to remind her to make it sound “hollow.” Whenever she reads Beckett to herself it is with his Irish accent – an accent he always denied he had.
“Before I become too old to do this, I want to take young people on the journey I took with Beckett. I want to let them see it is simpler than they think it is. I want to say to them what he said to me.”