Billie Whitelaw on Beckett and Play

Samuel Beckett's favourite actress recalls meeting the playwright for the first time
Billie Whitelaw in Samuel Beckett's 'Play'

In an autobiography that chronicles twenty-five years as Samuel Beckett's favourite actress, Billie Whitelaw remembers meeting the Irish playwright for the first time:
What happened next went like this, but I have to say that I'm taking more than a little poetic licence in reconstructing this event. George Devine had a friend in Paris, a fairly bizarre writer called Samuel Beckett. A play of his had just opened in Germany which had parts for two women and one man. The perfect substitute! George quickly got in touch with Beckett, who agreed to translate Play into English. And so some time later I was presented with this short, extraordinary piece. I went home to read it. My first thought was: what the hell am I going to do with this? My second thought: what a pity the Lope de Vega play fell through. I had no idea what Play meant. On paper t seemed to be about a man, his wife and his mistress, all of whom were stuck in urns. Somehow I felt the story wasn't all that important. What mattered was the way the story was presented.

At this time I'd hardly heard of Samuel Beckett. All I knew about him was that Brenda Bruce had done a strange play of his [Happy Days], in which she was buried up to her neck in earth. And I hadn't even seen that, only photographs. I read Play again. My reaction was now: don't worry if you don't understand it, but do it fast. [...]

None of Beckett's plays I did later had much to do with normal characterisation or psychology. To me, they have all been hooks on which to hang a specific human condition. They are not plays about anything, they represent emotional states of mind. In the case of Play it was the mind exploding in chaos and confusion - often expressed with humour. This I could understand only too well. In my own life I have often had rows going on in my head, yet when I've met the person I've wanted to row with, I've said nothing but: 'Oh well.' The rage has gone round and round in my head and repeated itself long after the confrontation. That seemed to me the point of Play - three people, all of them caught up in a loop of emotion, going over this emotion over and over again.
Billie Whitelaw in Samuel Beckett's 'Play'
What struck me was that whereas most writers would have written a three- or four-act play about this given situation, Beckett wrote a short, breathless one-act play, which does not seek to illustrate the subject, but simply presents it.

There is one line in Play where the Robert Stephens character says: 'pardon, no sense in this, oh, I know.' I feel that's Beckett responding to those critics and academics who are trying to analyse their own ideas about 'sense'.

I can no longer remember how George Devine fielded all the questions that were asked about Play. In any case, after we'd worked on the piece for about a week a new element was introduced. I walked into the rehearsal room one morning and found a man in a raincoat quietly sitting there: the author. His hair looked as though it had been crewcut by some back-street barber. He wore John Lennon-type glasses at the end of his nose. That made me notice his pale, pale blue eyes and his air of intense concentration.

Beckett said nothing. Sitting there in his straight-backed chair, he just listened to us. George would do all the talking at rehearsals: the two men seemed to have a perfect rapport going. Beckett did not talk to the actor directly, he seemed to have absolute faith in George. He also knew that George would listen to what he had to say - when there was something he wished to say.

From the beginning I had a sneaky feeling about where we had to get to with Play, which was to go very, very fast, almost incomprehensibly fast. I therefore wasn't interested in an analysis of the play or of the characters. I didn't seem to need explanations. I just wanted to get on with my bit.

At rehearsal, George gave notes; then Beckett would speak to us in turn in our dressing-rooms. He sat down at my dressing-table. This was my first private encounter with a man with whom I would work more than anyone else during the next twenty-five years. For about ten minutes he said absolutely nothing, he just pored over the script. I said nothing either. Had I asked him many questions, I don't think we would ever have been able to enter into the relationship we had. I soon realised Beckett was a most gentle person, a gentle man - kind, quiet and private.

Billie Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw... Who He?
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