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4.3.10

Barbara Bray 1924-2010

Friend and collaborator of Samuel Beckett's passes away
Barbara Bray Photograph: Piotr Dzumala

Barbara Bray, a champion of European literature and personal confidant to Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, has died aged 85. Andrew Todd details her rich and varied career, paying particular attention to her close personal relationship with Beckett:
Barbara Bray, who has died aged 85, was one of the most significant links between British and French literature in the 20th century. She was the principal translator and an early champion of Marguerite Duras, who was her close friend, and also translated the work of Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh and Alain Robbe-Grillet. As a young and influential script editor at the BBC in the 1950s, she fostered the work of many writers including Harold Pinter and, perhaps most importantly, Samuel Beckett, who became her personal and intellectual partner for more than 30 years. [...]

Working under Val Gielgud, Donald McWhinnie and John Morris, she was at the spearhead of a risky enterprise to introduce the postwar British public to avant-garde 20th-century drama. She was involved in recommending, commissioning and translating work by Duras, Robert Pinget, Ugo Betti and Luigi Pirandello. Bray supported Pinter in particular, assuring him a steady flow of commissions after the failure of his London theatre debut, The Birthday Party. Pinter wrote A Slight Ache, A Night Out and The Dwarfs initially as radio commissions for her, and remained grateful to her throughout his life for this crucial early support.

Bray met Beckett in 1956 during the production of his radio play All That Fall, and they became more closely involved when she helped him with Embers, his second BBC commission, in 1959. By then Bray was in a relationship with McWhinnie, her estranged husband having died in an accident in Cyprus, leaving her in sole charge of their two young daughters.

She said later that it took 30 seconds to fall in love with Beckett. Despite being drawn by his graceful, generous manner and his voice, which she described as sounding like the sea, she nonetheless kept her distance, and it was he who made the first moves in what was to become a relationship of central importance for both of them. [...]
Samuel Beckett.
Her relationship with Beckett lasted for the rest of his life. He sent her work in progress by mail (sometimes twice a day, even if they were meeting anyway) and worked with her, by her own account, as a sounding-board, as a direct help with translation (he translated his own work between French and English), and as a gadfly who would encourage him to complete projects.

She was the only person with whom he regularly shared his work in progress and one of very few with whom he discussed his work at all. She never claimed credit for his work, stating that she had no creative imagination at all. She "wasn't any influence on the nature of the work", she later recalled, "because he was absolutely unique and sure of himself and knew what he wanted to say". She described their relationship as one of equals, an impression corroborated by those who knew them at the time.

Beckett had just married Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil when Bray moved to Paris in 1961. Suzanne had helped him recover his health after he was stabbed in 1938, and both had been hunted by members of the Resistance during the latter part of the second world war. Bray claimed that Beckett remained faithful to both of them, a situation which was not without consequences for Bray and her children, who were brought up as the offspring of an occasionally anguished "other woman", devoted to her often-absent companion.

Beckett and Suzanne's relationship had been forged in adversity and before his fame. They had much less in common intellectually than he and Bray. His double life was most likely the point of departure for Play (1963), in which a man, wife and mistress confess their lives to an intermittent spotlight, confined to the neck in earthen jars. The similarly-confined but irrepressible Winnie in Happy Days (1960) has sometimes been likened to Bray, who was possessed of an unstoppable, effusive attitude bordering on the manic. She denied the link.

Bray spoke of writing a memoir of her life with Beckett, but never completed it. She abhorred others' tell-all accounts of sometimes superficial relations with him, and perhaps preferred in the end to allow silence to descend on the mystery of their relationship. We can nonetheless speculate whether the second part of his career would have been as varied and adventurous without her, ranging across television and film and inspired by sources including the Noh theatre, to which she introduced him. Her last collaborative act with him was to type his final work, What Is the Word (1989), which he composed when confined to the Tiers Temps nursing home in Paris. He died that December. His 713 letters to her are kept at Trinity College Dublin (he destroyed all personal correspondence he received). She left a brief account of her life with him in an interview with Marek Kedzierski.

After Beckett's death, Bray continued to translate, and she put great energy into the bilingual Paris-based theatre company Dear Conjunction, which she co-founded and for which she directed lesser-known Pinter and Beckett works. [Read the article]

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