Whitelaw, Billie (1932—)

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Whitelaw, Billie (1932—)

English actress who was the leading exponent of playwright Samuel Beckett . Born on June 6, 1932, in Coventry, England; youngest of two daughters of Percival Whitelaw (an electrician) and Frances Whitelaw; attended Thornton Grammar School, Bradford, England;married Peter Vaughan (an actor), in 1952 (divorced 1964 or 1965); married Robert Muller (a writer), around 1983 (died 1998); children: (with Muller) son Matthew (b. 1967).

Selected theater:

made London debut in Hotel Paradise (1959); appeared in the Theater Workshop production of Progress to the Park (1960), England, Our England (1962), The Dutch Courtesan (National Theater, 1963–65); appeared as Desdemona in Othello (National Theater, 1963–65), in Trelawney of the Wells (National Theater, 1963–65), as Maggie in Hobson's Choice (National Theater, 1963–65); After Haggerty (1970), as the librarian in Alphabetical Order (1975); as Andromache and Athena in The Greeks (1980), in Passion Play (1981), in Tales from Hollywood (National Theater, 1981); appeared in the plays of Samuel Beckett: Play (1964), Not I (1973 and 1975), Footfalls (1976), Happy Days (1979), Rockaby (1982); appeared in New York (1984) and at London's Riverside Studios (1986) in a triple bill of Rockaby, Enough, and Footfalls; appeared as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1987).

Selected filmography:

Bobbikins (1959); Hell Is a City (1960); Mr. Topaze (I Love Money, 1960); Make Mine Mink (1960); No Love for Johnnie (1961); Charlie Bubbles (1968); Twisted Nerve (1968); The Adding Machine (1969); Start the Revolution Without Me (US, 1970); Leo the Last (1970); Eagle in a Cage (1971); Gumshoe (1972); Frenzy (1972); Night Watch (1973); The Omen (US, 1976); The Water Babies (1979); The Dark Crystal (US, voice only, 1982); An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1982); Slayground (1984); The Chain (1986); Shadey (1986); The Secret Garden (US, 1987); Maurice (US, 1987); The Dressmaker (1988); Joyriders (1989); The Krays (1990); Freddie as F.R.0.7 (voice only, 1992); Quills (2000).

Born in Coventry, England, in 1932, Billie Whitelaw stumbled into her acting career when her mother sent her to a local amateur theater (Bradford Civic Playhouse) for training to help cure a stutter. While still very young, she made her stage debut there in the Norman Ginsbury play The Firstcomers, about a group of people sailing to America on the Mayflower. Her performance led to an audition with the BBC and a role as a little boy on a series called "St. Jonathan's in the Country." A second role as Bunkle (another little boy), on the series by the same name, turned her into a "star" and made an important contribution to the family income for the next five years. Whitelaw's father had died of lung cancer when she was nine and, even with her mother working, money was always tight.

Before her 21st birthday, Whitelaw had acted with a number of small repertory companies and had appeared in enough television productions to be recognized on the street. She had also met actor Peter Vaughan, whom she married in 1952, after a whirlwind courtship. Whitelaw writes in her autobiography, Billie Whitelaw … Who He?, that Peter's jealousy grew as her career began to surpass his; as a result she became ambivalent about her own success. The marriage endured, however, until 1964, when Peter fell in love with someone else. Not long after her divorce was final, Whitelaw moved in with writer Robert Muller, with whom she had a son, Matthew, in 1967. They would remain together until Robert's death in 1998, although they did not marry until around 1983.

In the meantime, as a result of her performance in the musical revue England, Our England (1961), Whitelaw received an invitation from Laurence Olivier to join the National Theater. It was there that she first encountered Irish avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett, whose absurdist play Waiting for Godot (1953) had established his reputation as a playwright (he was also an essayist, poet, and novelist). Beckett visited the Old Vic during rehearsals of his one-act Play, in which Whitelaw was cast in one of the three roles. Play was performed by three actors standing in large urns, wearing makeup concocted from oatmeal, surgical glue, and jelly, covered over with another layer of white, brown, and slimy green pancake. The dialogue was spoken at breakneck speed, which Whitelaw described as "three people, all of them caught up in a loop of emotion, going over this emotion over and over again." Play opened in April 1964, and drew enough of the curious to remain in the repertory for several months. Whitelaw found performing Beckett a liberating experience. "Since then I've often said that it was never difficult for me to understand what Beckett wrote, because it always seemed to me about me. Doing Play made me feel more complete. Unconsciously I used the work as a therapy, not that I could have expressed any such thoughts at the time."

It would be 1972 before Whitelaw would work with Beckett again, performing the lead in Not I at the Royal Court Theater. In the interim, she had become a successful leading lady. With the National Theater, she had appeared as Maggie in Hobson's Choice and as Desdemona to Olivier's Othello, among other roles. She had played with the Royal Shakespeare Company and had won a British Film Academy Award for her role in Charlie Bubbles (1968), opposite Albert Finney. Whitelaw received the Beckett script for Not I while her son Matthew was still recovering from a bout of meningitis which almost killed him. The playwright wanted Whitelaw for the role of the play's single speaking character, Mouth. (All the audience sees of the character is a "mouth" on an invisible raised stage. The play's second character is a silent hooded man, the Auditor.) Three-quarters through her initial reading of the script, Whitelaw found that she couldn't stop crying. "Looking back, I think I understand my reaction," she explains. "What hit me was an inner scream, an endless nightmare that poured out of this old woman of seventy, who kept saying she was sixty. In her outpourings I recognized my own inner scream which I'd been sitting on ever since Matthew's illness began."

The play presented almost insurmountable problems for both the actress and the designers and technicians. It was, first of all, almost impossible to memorize. It also required extensive makeup and was performed with Whitelaw sitting perfectly still upon a chair placed on a high rostrum, wearing a mask and a great black cape, so that only her mouth remained visible. The play, which ran just over 15 minutes and was presented on a double bill with Krapp's Last Tape, opened on January 16, 1973, to great success. Whitelaw performed it again in 1975 and for a BBC filmed version for television.

Now fully established as Beckett's favorite actress, Whitelaw went on to perform in Footfalls (1976), Happy Days (1979), and Rockaby (1982 and 1984), as well as in several television productions written by the playwright. Beckett also directed Footfalls, in which Whitelaw played May, a woman of indeterminate middle age who spends the course of the action pacing up and down a single strip of carpet, having a conversation (possibly all in her head) with her invalid mother, who is never seen but is heard from an adjoining room. Whitelaw considers the play to be perhaps her most important work with Beckett as well as an entirely unique creative experience. "Sometimes I felt as if he were a sculptor and I a piece of clay. At other times I might be a piece of marble that he needed to chip away at," she writes of their rehearsals together.

"He would endlessly move my arms and my head in a certain way, to get closer to the precise image in his mind. I didn't object to him doing this. As this went on, hour after hour, I could feel the 'shape' taking on a life of its own. Sometimes it felt as if I were modeling for a painter, or working with a musician. The movement started to feel like dance."

Beckett further described the character to Whitelaw as never being properly born, and in that spirit Jocelyn Herbert designed an extraordinary costume of pale grey tatters for the actress. "Like May, this costume was never quite there," Whitelaw explains. "It grew, it became organic, starting with bits of old lace and things Jocelyn had picked up in various markets. She dipped these bits in different shades of grey, then tore them to give the costume depth."

In 1980, Whitelaw made her American debut in the Beckett play Rockaby, performed along with his short story Enough, and presented first at the University of Buffalo and then at Ellen Stewart 's La Mama Theater in New York City. Rockaby, in which an old lady rocks herself to death as her last unspoken thoughts are played on a tape recorder, brought a flood of wonderful reviews, including one from Frank Rich of The New York Times: "It's possible that you haven't really lived until you've watched Billie Whitelaw die," he began. "Mr. Beckett and Miss Whitelaw make time stop, and it's a sensation that no theatergoer will soon forget."

As might be expected, Whitelaw's professional and personal relationship with Beckett grew over the years, developing into one of mutual admiration and profound respect. Apart from his intelligence and talent, Whitelaw describes him as having possessed a profound moral integrity. "He had no idea how to be untrue either to himself or to his friends; he never flattered; he showed no concern whatever with the promotion of Samuel Beckett, playwright…. The only thing that concerned him was to get his work right…. He didn't give a damn about becoming more famous or getting more prizes, nor did he care for money. When he got the Nobel Prize, rumour has it that he gave most of the money away. Beckett was the easiest touch of all time."

While Beckett was a major force in Whitelaw's career, she had equal success in more commercial ventures, of which Beckett often disapproved. She was notable as the young American revolutionary in David Mercer's After Haggerty (1970) and turned in a highly acclaimed performance as the inefficient librarian of a newspaper office in Michael Frayn's comedy Alphabetical Order (1975). During the 1980s, she appeared as an ex-Berlin barmaid in Tales of Hollywood (1984) and in 1987 played Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? During the run of the production, she was hit by a crippling case of stage fright which caused her to temporarily give up the stage, although she continued to work in film and television.

When Samuel Beckett died in 1989, Whitelaw says it felt it like an amputation. She lost her desire to work and took to puttering around the country home in Suffolk that she and Robert had moved to in 1974. She participated in Beckett memorials in London, Paris, New York, and Dublin, and then served as a visiting lecturer at several United States colleges and universities, sharing her 25 years of experiences with Beckett with students. Eventually she put together a one-woman show comprised of selections from Beckett's works, linked with anecdotes about their preparation and rehearsals together. In June 1999, she performed the piece at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London. She also performed in a series of productions on the BBC, aired as a tribute to Beckett. In 2000, Whitelaw appeared in the movie Quills.


Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Whitelaw, Billie. Billie Whitelaw … Who He? NY: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Whitelaw, Billie (1932—)

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