22 April 2008

Billie Whitelaw

Billie Whitelaw is hot.

Sure, you may think of her as one of the United Kingdom’s most dis- tinguished actresses, the muse of Samuel Beckett, a gifted artist — and I’m getting to all that, I promise. You may think of her as Olivier’s Desde- mona. (Although Maggie Smith got the movie, the two ladies alternated in the role onstage.) You may think of her as an ardent champion of political virtues, or as an insightful chronicler of stage life, author of the memoir Who He? You may also think of her as the Nanny from (literal) Hell in The Omen, but I never saw that picture, so you will have to conjure up those associations on your own time.

But what struck me, the first time I saw her, was the same thing that struck me when I met her, after a Beckett evening in New York several years ago. The woman is hot.

I first saw her in Start the Revolution without Me, a zany movie in which she plays Marie Antoinette. As you’ll see from this clip, the bodice of her gown played up her frontal assets in what, I now realize, was a costumer’s surest way to arouse my prepubescent lust. A similar décolleté had me enthralled by Shani Wallis in Oliver!, a few years earlier.

When I began to study Beckett’s plays in college, mostly under the tutelage of my friends Andy Weems and Rick Moody, it took me a long while to grasp that the woman who played Marie Antoinette was the same woman who played so many of Beckett’s heroines. She was his actress of choice, whom he directed many times, and for whom he wrote pieces specially tailored to her abilities.

As you see, the contrast couldn’t be more pronounced.*

Studying Beckett was an indispensable intellectual credential: one couldn’t be taken seriously among my friends without a thorough grounding in his work. And I desperately wanted to be taken seriously. I turned to Beckett at first out of nothing more than peer pressure.

But it’s a curious thing about Beckett. The more one delves into his intellectual side, especially if one is an American academic, the more one loses the writer’s frequent humor and his constant humanity, the very things I admired most about him. Indeed, Americans who are serious about Beckett are the most serious people on earth. They refuse to admit his lighter qualities or to concede his complexities, the possibility that he might just be attempting to depict more than one thing. (This is one reason that university productions of his plays are so dull.) For them, it’s all about the despair.

Even if you’re not hardcore, his writing is potent. Once, I told Teresa Stratas that I was reading the Trilogy; she gasped, “Be careful, honey!” When she read the books, she told me, she’d fallen into such a funk that she walked off the film set where she was working and disappeared for a week. (It was as if Teresa herself didn’t know where she’d gone.)

Billie Whitelaw had her own experience of that sort, while preparing Not I, a kind of nervous breakdown brought on as she was reduced to nothing more than a long, difficult text and her own mouth, the only visible element on a blackened stage. Yet such was her charisma that she could bring audiences along for a ride they might otherwise have resisted: I suspect this is one reason Beckett admired her.

As Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days.
Without Whitelaw, Andy Weems directed this play in college.

When Whitelaw brought her Beckett evening to New York, Andy Weems and I were at a pretty low ebb. Money was tight. It was a three-bedroom apartment, and our previous roommate had left, taking all the dishes with her — they were hers, after all. One night we found ourselves eating Chinese food with the one fork and single chopstick we owned between us. In lieu of a plate, one of us ate off the lid of a fruitcake tin, while the other ate directly from the take-out carton. I vowed that, at the earliest opportunity, I was going to buy a dish. Maybe two. Since neither of us cooked, there wasn’t much call for pots, of which we had none, either. We lived off of coffee and cigarettes, and apart from my opera records and some books, we had few possessions of any kind. A malfunctioning radiator had turned Andy’s bedroom into a blasted wasteland, empty of any belongings but a beat-up mattress, a book, and his only pair of shoes.

In short, the severest Beckett scholars would have endorsed our real-life interpretations of Vladimir and Estragon, or Hamm and Clov — but those same scholars would’ve been aghast when they saw us dancing with glee at the news that Whitelaw was coming to town. The plate would have to wait.

We pooled our resources and bought our tickets. We sat eagerly, and we watched with reverent absorption as she read a short story, “Enough,” and performed two plays, Footfalls (pictured at the top of this essay) and Rockabye. Whitelaw alone onstage, no props at all save a rocking chair (for Rockabye, with the hypnotic incantation “Time she stopped” rocking in time with the chair), her every gesture and inflection distilled to its most precise essence: I will never see a more disciplined performance, and for that reason, I will never see a more expressive one in the spoken theater. As Whitelaw spoke of death and decay and isolation, she summoned up images and emotions that anyone could identify with. Not for her the alternate reality of detached ideas and conceptual fragments. Whitelaw permitted absolutely no barrier at all between us and the playwright’s genius for humanity. No matter how odd, how stylized, this was real.

So, naturally, we went backstage to shake her by the hand.

She’d scrubbed the black circles from her eyes, and the cracks and wrinkles from her face; she’d freed her hair from the stark white wig of performance, and she’d shed the tatters of her costume. We gushed over her with a carefree loquacity that Beckett probably would have disdained, though Whitelaw seemed to like it.

Whitelaw in rehearsal with Beckett

She chatted easily with us, like a neighbor, and yes, she said, she was pleased to hear a friendly word or two, because when she returned to her dressing room after this evening’s performance, all her jewelry was gone. 42nd Street was especially dangerous in those days, and she’d been robbed.

That news made us pause to look at her. And indeed, she wasn’t wearing jewelry. She hardly needed it. Her blond hair tumbled around her shoulders, and she wore a sleek, olive-grey jumpsuit, open at the throat. And, as I looked lower, I heard myself saying, “I’ve been a fan ever since I saw you in Start the Revolution,” I heard myself saying. “That costume — your breasts.”

At least, I think I used the word “breasts.”

And at that moment, thoughtlessly, I forever resigned from the hardcore brotherhood of Beckett. Set aside that I just made a remark about a woman’s tits; a number of Beckett characters do that, albeit seldom to the face of the woman who owns the tits in question. However — and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough — one does not describe oneself as a “fan” of anyone having anything to do with Samuel Beckett’s work.

In the world of Beckett, we have “students.” We have “scholars.” We have “authorities.” In a few, dire cases, we have “admirers.” We do not have “enthusiasts,” and we most certainly do not have “fans.”

I was already on probation, for having ad-libbed during the unauthorized world premiere of Beckett’s Catastrophe, but this really sealed my doom.

Whitelaw burst out laughing. “It was a good dress, wasn’t it?” she said. (Very gracious — as if she had nothing to do with the impression she made.)

I don’t remember much after that — I was too embarrassed. I think she begged off on the grounds that she had to go file a police report. (Not on us, presumably, but on the thieves.) Andy escaped with his dignity and his Beckett credentials intact, I’m certain. And yet, as we made our way through the cold, dark night to our blasted, potless, plateless apartment, he lit a cigarette and mused.

“Man!” he said. “Is she hot!”

*UPDATE: Checking back on this entry, I see that the YouTube clip of Whitelaw’s Beckett performance no longer works. Copyright issues, or somesuch. Of course, if you were serious about your Beckett, you’d already know the performance in question, and you’d have memorized the speech, too, while you were at it.