My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Monday 6th December 1999


My name is Billie Whitelaw. And I'm an actress. And I've had the great good fortune this century to work with one of our leading writers - or perhaps I should say one of Ireland's leading writers: the Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett. I will always remember the first time I saw Beckett. Our director, George Devine, had written to Paris and said:: "Please can you come over and help us with this play of yours we're doing" - which was simply called "Play". And we were rehearsing one day. And someone very quietly slipped into the room: very shy; dressed in a rather old-fashioned gaberdine buttoned raincoat; hair that stuck straight up on end - it looked as though he'd had a very bad haircut; very, very pale; pale blue eyes, the palest blue eyes I've ever seen - they looked transparent; and little granny gold-rimmed glasses on the end of his nose. And I thought: "That is Beckett. That has to be Beckett." Very quiet - didn't interfere with the director, George Devine, because they were friends. But he would talk to George in between breaks. And then George would come back with new ideas or a different slant on something. And a great joy for me is that in the afternoons he asked if he could take the three of us separately, to sit with Sam for an afternoon while he pored over his own text. And I looked at him concentrating very hard. And he once called me over and he said: "Billie, will you bring your pencil over here. The twelfth line down, fourth line in: will you make that comma a semi-colon." It took about twenty minutes for him to arrive at that. And I've still got the script where I've crossed out the comma and put in a semi-colon. He's quite right, of course. It's a different rhythm; a different timing. And I think in that way I was right. I looked at his work like music. And to me it was rhythm and pauses and lack of pauses. It was musical to me. He handed me a play - it was just simply called "Not I". And it was a monologue of about 16 minutes. And you'd think: "Oh, good. Oh, that's money for old rope". Alas, no. It's a play that had to go as fast as I could possibly go. I couldn't have gone quick enough for it. It went something like (whispers and speaks very fast): "Out into this world, this world, a tiny little thing, before his time, and a girl, yes, a tiny little girl, out of this before her time". And on and on and on it went, for pages and pages. And I did say: "I think you've finally done it. You've written the unsayable and the unlearnable." I was strapped into a chair, with a mask around my eyes. And I was strapped into a chair that was high up. And I was actually tied into the chair, all the way down, because, going at that speed, I hyperventilated and I became very breathless. And I was not able to see, because I was masked. And I used to cling to the sides of the chair - the chair had arms. I can't think why I was raised so high, but I was raised on a plinth, covered with a black hood over my head, black around my eyes. My face - what little was left that you could see - was painted black. But my teeth were white, apart from a couple of gaps I painted in. All Sam wanted to see was my mouth. It must have looked quite extraordinary - this mouth in space - which everyone swore was moving - which it wasn't, because I was strapped in so that I couldn't move. And at the end of the play, I had to be unwrapped like a parcel - all the black material taken off me, my shoes and my feet unwrapped, and my hands untied from the chair. I think that is the most frightening play I've ever done. E N D