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"Now keep out of the way, Whitelaw": self-expression, agency, and directorial control in W. B. Yeats's and Samuel Beckett's Theatre.

William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett both frequently directed their own plays, and both gained reputations as tyrannical directors. Each demanded a degree of control over their productions that required their actors to surrender the contemporary ideal of self-expressive, self-motivated performance onstage; Becketts particularly painstaking control over minute details of performance have attained notoriety. Held in tension with this dictatorial command, however, was their dependence on individual actors whom they relied upon to produce--and indeed inspire--their work. Yeats engaged Michio Ito to help him recreate what he imagined to be Japanese noh elements in his Plays for Dancers. Beckett wrote plays specifically for Billie Whitelaw, Jack MacGowran, and Patrick Magee, and often went head-to-head with casting directors and immigration officials to ensure their inclusion in productions, citing their privileged understanding of and ability to represent his work. (1) Michio Ito's performance in Yeats's At the Hawk's Well in 1916 and Billie Whitelaw's performance in the Beckett-directed Not I in 1973 offer productive grounds to examine to what degree Yeats's and Beckett's control of Ito and Whitelaw respectively demanded the actors' total surrender of their artistic agency during a period when popular thought regarded stage performance as involving a measure of individualized self-expression. These particular stagings reveal the limits of directorial control in a performance context: Ito's personal style resists and rewrites Yeats's intentions, while Whitelaw's submission to the script's extreme demands paradoxically promotes her to the role of Beckett's directorial collaborator as well as his performance tool.

A comparison of how the two directors worked complicates our idea of theatrical control and agency, where we understand "agency" as the capacity to act according to one's own will. Yeats envisioned his attainment of a complete control that sees the actors self-expression erased from the stage and the actor's creative agency eliminated from consideration. Beckett offered a more nuanced model, in which both beings are indispensable in a process of action and reaction, rather than the definitive erasure of the agency of one participant. Yeats's attempt to entirely subsume Ito's self-expression through an orientalized idea of depersonalized obedience in fact allowed Ito to subvert this attempted control. By contrast, although Whitelaw underwent an extreme discipline and surrender of physical agency under Beckett's direction, she testified to her sense of working as a joint creative force alongside him, with the will of the director and actor coalescing to create something that partakes of both. Yeats's quest for precise directorial authority resulted in his loss of control over both the content and the occurrences of Ito's performance; Beckett offers a new form of creative agency that transmutes Whitelaw's apparently submissive role into a crucial position within a collaborative artistic project. A comparison of Yeats's and Beckett's directorial approaches thus offers significant implications for both the more practical context of how a theatrical director might most productively conceive of his or her role, and for the wider context of our thinking about the relationship between control and agency in performance and beyond.

Control, Precision, and Dehumanization

Significant similarities can be traced between the degrees of control that Yeats and Beckett desired over their actors. Yeats's letters to J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory as co-directors of the Abbey Theatre reveal his early assumption of a dictatorial control he felt necessary to his role. "This theatre must have somebody in it who is distinctly dangerous," he asserted to Synge in January 1906, volunteering himself for such a position. (2) A few months later he reasserted the necessity of strict discipline over the acting company, in relation to the lead actor William Fay's and bit-part actor J. H. Flood's insubordination in rehearsals. In order that Flood in particular would not come to "look upon himself as indispensable," Yeats argued, "for the sake of discipline the sooner he is punished for insubordination the better." (3) Lady Gregory's private reply to Synge illustrates a growing awareness of the potentially problematic degree of Yeats's desire for complete control over his actors: "W. B. Y. must not be the person to deal directly with the actors, as he is rather too impetuous." (4)

Beckett's assumption of directorial control was slower to develop. When Beckett was invited to supervise George Devine's 1958 production of Endgame at the Royal Court, for example, Donald McWhinnie (then playing the titular role in the production of Krapp's Last Tape that would accompany Endgame on the double bill at the Court) noted that "Sam didn't involve himself then as he did later," and recalls having to encourage the playwright to verbalize his opinions: "Beckett had a suggestion and he wanted me to pass it on. I told him to tell George. Sam said, 'No, I can't criticize.' ... He felt it wasn't his place to impose." (5) As late as 1964, a journalist sitting in on rehearsals for a production of Endgame remarked on Beckett's vacillation between concern for his vision of the performance and respect for the actors' autonomy, describing him as "both decisive and terribly afraid of giving offence to the actors." (6)

Nevertheless, the desire for a measure of control that would allow him to guard the precision of his scripts can be traced in Beckett's thinking from the early stages of his career. A 1960 letter to Alan Schneider expresses this inclination in no uncertain terms: "I dream sometimes of German directors of plays with perhaps one exception united in one ... and me shooting a bullet into his balls every five minutes till he loses his taste for improving authors." (7) As Beckett gained confidence in directing his actors with the minute control that he desired, problems similar to those that Yeats's team experienced at the Abbey Theatre arose. The extreme degree of precise control that Beckett required over his actors became infamous. "He would endlessly move my arms and my head in a certain way, to get closer to the precise image in his mind," Whitelaw recalled. "Beckett moved my fingers, perhaps no more than half an inch this way or that, then he would stand back. If it didn't feel quite right he would correct the pose." (8) Many actors suffered in their attempts to surrender their physical agency to the degree that Beckett required. Brenda Bruce remembers her collapse under Beckett's precise demands when she played Winnie in the 1962 Devine-Richardson production of Happy Days at the Royal Court, following "Beckett placing a metronome on the floor to keep me on the rhythm he wanted, which drove me into such a panic that I finally broke down." (9) Peggy Ashcroft and Billie Whitelaw each separately requested that Beckett absent himself from rehearsals of the 1977 National and 1979 Royal Court Happy Days productions respectively, overwhelmed by the weight of his requirements. (10) Beckett ultimately gained the same reputation as a tyrannically demanding director that had dogged Yeats.

We can also trace a similarity in the two men's reasons for requiring such exact obedience from their actors. Both director-playwrights placed a high importance on the precise rhythm of their actors' speech patterns and of their physical movement onstage. Rejecting "the broken and prosaic speech of ordinary recitation," Yeats stated his desire for "the sing-song in which a child says a verse," and for an actor with the ability "to discriminate cadence from cadence, and so to cherish the musical lineaments of verse or prose." (11) Martin Puchner cites Yeats's wish for a precise replication of his scripted text as explanation for his "ingrained distrust of actors, who were prone to be unfaithful to the spirit of his text" and to "his delicate lines." (12) Yeats likewise desired a reduction of unscripted movement by his actors onstage, praising the "stillness" of Bernhardt and De Max in Grau and Frohman's 1902 production of Phedre, (13) and describing his elation when his company of actors finally "kept still enough" to please him in a 1907 performance of Deirdre. (14) Beckett exhibited a comparable and indeed often still more extreme concern for the precision of his scripted lines and movements. Roger Blin, for example, reports how, in the rehearsals for his 1957 premiere production of Endgame at the Royal Court, "He asked that a certain phrase which occurs throughout the text be spoken in exactly the same way each time with the same tone, like a note of music played in an invariable way by the same instrument." (15) Similarly, Whitelaw recalls how everything was to be "precisely timed" in Beckett's 1979 production of Happy Days, the actor's speech rhythm and accompanying actions attuned to "not just a specific word but a specific syllable of a word," (16) and recalls being chastised by Beckett in rehearsals for the 1973 production of Not I for having "paused for two dots instead of three." (17) Both Yeats and Beckett prioritized precision of verbal and physical articulation in accordance with their demands over the actor's self-motivated, potentially self-expressive performance.

This erasure of self-motivated movement and self-expression is reflected in the manner in which the two directors, their actors, and indeed their detractors recurrently linked precision in performance with the actors' dehumanization. Kenneth Tynan criticized Beckett's direction while co-directing Play in 1963 for just this effect; he complained to Devine that Beckett's influence on the production had turned the already "puppet-like and mechanical" performance of the actors into "a breakneck monotone with no inflections" and argued that they needed to focus on "re-humanizing" the production if it was to have any chance of success. (18) Whitelaw recalls learning to mimic the precision of an Olympic clock in preparation for her 1973 performance in Not I, training herself to count in time with "each fraction of a second" until she could count "from one to ten in a second" in a remarkable feat of self-mechanization. (19) Where Beckett mechanized his actors, Yeats desired his to "sound like the voice of an Immortal," their words "spoken upon pure notes which are carefully recorded and learned," demonstrating a similar desire for a dehumanized degree of precision. (20) Both directors position the ideal actor as being one who can, machine-like, automatically and infallibly reproduce the text as it is required, but twentieth-century ideas of self-expression and agency encouraged an interpretation of reduced self-expression and agency as a consequent reduction of the individual's very humanity.

This desired dehumanization of the actor impelled both director-playwrights to move their performers away from the very idea of "acting" itself, where acting is conceived of as a form of individualized self-expression, a performance that draws on the actor's personal insight to produce an individual expression of the required intention. This was precisely the performance method that Yeats and Beckett sought to escape. Each expressed wariness, and at times downright antipathy, toward an acting method that foregrounded the actor's individualized self-expression. Yeats sought out the least "theatrical" actors he could find, repeatedly stressing his distaste for classically trained players and his preference for those who, untrained and unaccustomed to the traditions of theatrical representation, would not seek to "act": "Somebody had asked me at a lecture, 'Where will you get your actors?' and I had said, 'I will go into some crowded room, put the name of everybody in it on a different piece of paper, put all those pieces of paper into a hat and draw the first twelve.'" (21) He championed Florence Farr in his company as his "accomplished speaker of verse, less accomplished actress"; it was precisely her ability to "speak" rather than "act" that drew him to her. (22) Yeats sought in the performance, he explained, "some deeper life than that of the individual soul," (23) "the absence of individual expression." (24) Yeats aimed to draw his audience's attention to his script, rather than the actor as a human individual.

Similarly, Jean Martin recalls playing Lucky in the 1953 premiere production of En attendant Godot at the Theatre de Babylone: "Beckett does not want his actors to act.... When they try to act, he becomes very angry." (25) Whitelaw recounts how, rehearsing for the 1973 production of Not I, "Beckett would repeat over and over again: 'Too much colour, no no, too much colour.' By which he meant: 'For God's sake don't act.'" (26) She continues, "His 'Don't act' instruction necessarily caused me some difficulty. Surgeons want to surge, actors want to act. An actor is usually hired precisely for the personal things he will bring to a piece.... Often, when one is sent a play, the first thing that occurs to you is: 'What can I do with this to make it different?'" (27) Beckett, like Yeats, rejected the acting style that called attention to the actor's "human" emotion, individualizing his script beyond what he conceived it to be.

Both Yeats and Beckett, then, driven by their desire to retain the precision of their artistic vision, constructed ideals of impersonal, frequently even inhuman, onstage expression. Against the popular idea of acting as entailing a measure of artistic agency and self-expression on the actor's part, the reduction of the actor's self-motivated performance was consequently interpreted as a prevention of acting itself. Both men demanded that their actors surrender self-motivated performance. Yeats linked this to the actor's surrender of artistic agency and self-expression. Beckett's directorial practice asked the same denial of his actors' self-motivated performance, in order that they submit completely to his precise directorial control. However, this demand for directorial control should not be automatically equated with a Yeatsian demand for the actor's surrender of artistic agency. While Yeats explicitly claimed this rejection of "acting" as part of his attempt to produce his precise vision onstage, Beckett did not do so. His actors may have interpreted him as asking them not to "act," but Beckett's directorial practice entailed a troubling of the alignment of "self-expression" with "acting," or of the director's control with the actor's loss of creative agency. There are crucial distinctions between the relative agency Yeats and Beckett conceived of their actors retaining, the differing boundaries they drew between the surrender of directorial authority and the surrender of creative agency, and their relative success in retaining the control they desired over their productions.

"One whom the dancers cheat": Yeats, Michio Ito, and the Noh

Seeking a solution to his desire to stage a drama that would be less vulnerable to the individual actors drive for self-expression and creative agency, Yeats turned to the noh theatre. Yeats perceived this Japanese dance form as utterly depersonalized. "Impersonation is replaced by abstract dance," Puchner explains of Yeats's Plays for Dancers, as a "solution to the problem of acting." (28) While Yeats misunderstood many of the finer nuances of the noh technique, the manner in which he came to perceive it as representative of self-elision and disciplined submission is understandable. Noh theatre offers a notably non-mimetic style of performance, and "the suppression of selfhood" is fundamental to its enactment. (29) The audience of noh was encouraged to "forget the actor and look at the idea." (30) Onstage performance was highly stylized and suggestive rather than imitative, each movement carefully constructed and repeated, aiming at offering a symbolic, universalized truth rather than focusing on an individualized experience. "The actor stands outside the role," Richard Taylor reports, not allowing any personal feeling or expression to taint the atemporal, universalized experience. (31) A disciplined, depersonalized noh theatre seemed to offer Yeats his ideal of a dramatic performance that elided the individual performer's self-expression, in order to allow a precise, depersonalized illumination of Yeats's own poetry to take center stage.

Thus can be explained Yeats's eagerness to work with Michio Ito, the celebrated society dancer recently arrived from Japan, to whom Yeats entrusted the choreography and dance of At the Hawk's Well in his attempt to achieve his ideal dramatic form. Yeats, however, misunderstood much about noh theatre, and particularly Ito's relationship to it. (32) Carrie J. Preston points out that Yeats was in all likelihood seduced by "the idea that Japanese actors had extensive training and deep discipline," which she notes as being "prevalent in the press" in Britain and Ireland at the time, quoting Yeats's description in "The Tokyo Stage" in which he claims of Japan that "her actors are the product of the most remarkable stag (e discipline in the world.... It should be a revelation to the West." (33) Yeats fell victim to what Preston describes as the common "overinvestment in the meaning of an artist's culture or nation of birth," leading him "to assume [Ito] had some privileged access to the 'spirit of the orient,"' some automatic understanding of and adherence to the noh principles that Yeats's writings suggest he aligned with Japanese identity. (34) Ito's comparative ignorance and attempted rejection of noh principles has subsequently been widely recognised since Carruthers's translation of the section of his autobiography in which Ito described his response of Pounds request for help with his work on noh: "As far as I'm concerned there's nothing more boring than Noh.... I really couldn't presume to assist you." (35) While Yeats misidentified several traits of the noh theatre, his misidentification of Ito as a noh dancer was still more fatal to his ideal vision of At the Hawk's Well.

Not only did Ito refuse to align himself with the noh theatre, but the majority of his dance training was completed in schools that privileged Yeats's dreaded self-expression as the fundamental basis of dance. Passed over by his idol Isadora Duncan (who famously described her art as "an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement"), Ito undertook his first European dance training at the Dalcroze Institute at Hellerau between 1913 and 1914. (36) He was introduced there to "the ideology of individualism and emphasis on self-expression that suffused this period in modern dance and early twentieth-century performance more generally." (37) Dalcroze retained the influence of Delsartism and its "commitment to recovering an authentic' and 'expressive' self"; (38) Dalcroze's own book Rhythm, Music and Education (1920) cited the "student's temperament" and "the personal music of different individualities" as central to the practice. (39) Unlike Ito's brief training in nihon buyo in Japan in 1911 and 1912, in which the dance student learns a set, invariable repertory, the Dalcrozian eurhythmies on which the Hellerau training was based "emphasize improvisation and individual bodily experiences of musical rhythm rather than a particular technique or repertory." (40) Susan Jones describes how Dalcrozian eurhythmies consequently became, in the modernist period, "a byword for physical freedom, emphasizing the outward expression of an internalized experience" and "incorporating] the Dionysian elements of an unrefined movement vocabulary." (41) Such an ideology stands in stark contrast with the few kata dance movements that, learned by heart until they are automatic, constitute the majority of noh dance. That Ito was crucially influenced by this exposure to the principles of Delsartism and Dalcroze is evidenced in his later statements on his own practice. In a 1917 interview he proclaimed that "My dancing is not Japanese. It is not anything--only myself," (42) and his 1919 brochure for his New York dance school recorded his statement that "My dance is an expression of ... my body.... Every one has his own feeling and his own expression; dance as you feel and as you want--that is a better dance for you than any other kind." (43) His program note to a 1937 performance contains perhaps the most explicit rejection of noh or nihon buyo principles of rote learning from a master: "Everyone has his own individual feeling and mode of expression, therefore the dance should be a creation, not an imitation." (44) Against Yeats's ideal of a depersonalized presentation of his poetry, Ito privileged individualized self-expression in performance.

While it might consequently seem that Ito's collaboration with Yeats was never likely to produce the depersonalized "expression of the text" in place of self-expression in the manner that Yeats desired, it is still possible that Ito did not apply his principles of artistic self-expression to his work with Yeats. Ito claimed that he could always distinguish clearly between roles in which he could indulge his artistic license, and roles in which he submitted himself to the desires of the director, "following his requirements rather than mine. 'What does the general public want now? What is my employer aiming at?' I constantly had to ask myself.... On the other hand, when I presented my own work in public I was completely absorbed and on these occasions could do what I wanted to do." (45) Unfortunately, since we still lack a full English translation of Ito's autobiography, it is difficult at this juncture to determine whether Ito considered his work for At the Hawk's Well a "creative" or a "bread-and-butter" engagement. (46) The fact that he produced the play himself repeatedly throughout his career suggests, however, that he considered it rather in the light of the former. (47) In this context, for Ito to have elided self-expression from the Hawk's Well dance in favour of Yeats's vision of a depersonalized, stereotypically "Japanese" self-elision is unlikely. Held in comparison to Ito's own ideal of artistic self-expression, the model of performance that Yeats asked of him was a markedly unappealing one.

The Yeatsian vision of performance offered in At the Hawk's Well could only have rendered Yeats's directorial practice still more unappealing to Ito. Yeats's scripting of the role of the Guardian in At the Hawk's Well--the role that Ito was to perform--offers his own idealization of a depersonalized, indeed dehumanized being who exists in complete obedience to a "higher power": a textual character who replicates Yeats's ideal director-actor relationship. The Guardian is set to work by the Sidhe, who "must have a guardian to clean out the well." (48) That the plays first description of her emphasizes that she is "worn out from raking its dry bed, / Worn out from gathering up the leaves" underlines her position of servitude, her complete obedience to a will not her own. (49) This surrendering of agency reaches its climax when she is possessed by the hawk of the well, described in terms that replicate the performers obedience to the playwright or director: "It was her mouth, and yet not she, that cried. / It was that shadow cried behind her mouth." (50) Significantly, the Old Man codes this control in entirely negative terms: "Now I know why she had been so stupid / All day through, and had such heavy eyes. / Look at her shivering now, the terrible life / Is slipping through her veins. She is possessed. / Who knows whom she will murder or betray / Before she awakes in ignorance of it all." (51) To be controlled by an exterior force, to submit to a will that is not one's own, is here coded in terms of ignorance, physical discomfort, and evil action. Yeats asks his performers for a form of obedience that he denigrates in his own text.

Given both Ito's training in self-expressive dance and the uninviting model of submission that Yeats's Guardian offered him both textually and theatrically, then, his resistance to Yeats's ideal of self-eliding obedience is unsurprising. Ito stated of his early career in London--the period that included his work on At the Hawks Well--that "because I was billed as 'The Japanese Dancer' I had to create a 'Japanese' atmosphere. All of my dances were original, however." (52) Ito's choreography for At the Hawk's Well frequently deviates from many of the identifying features of noh movement: the pauses at points of muscular tension, the retention of asymmetry, the slow and powerful movements, the balanced body that retains "the outward appearance of serenity" while it moves, (53) and the basic body posture integral to noh, in which "the feet are aligned and the knees bent, while the trunk is carried rigidly, chest forward, chin back." (54) The 1949 Japanese adaptation of At the Hawk's Well into a "true" noh performance permits a telling comparison with Ito's choreography and traditional, non-self-expressive noh mai. (55) Taylor concludes that "the choreography that Ito created for At the Hawk's Well was certainly not Japanesque"--or at least, not "Japanesque" in the terms that Yeats desired. (56) "The result was not a Noh, but a modernist spectacle invoking Noh," Christopher Reed agrees. (57) Ito produced for Yeats a choreography and performance that answered to his own artistic ideals and creative agency, rather than fulfilling Yeats's vaguely defined desire for a noh performance that would elide the individual performer.

As Yeats himself noted, "There is always a living face behind the mask." (58) In this case, the "living face" is Ito's determined expression of his own self, agency, and ideas behind the "mask" of the semblance of depersonalized noh dance that Yeats required of him. In opposition to the "stately and solemn" noh model, Ito provided his own "burlesque" of "that unswerving, completely self-sacrificing loyalty" demanded by the noh via his subversive pseudo-fulfilment of Yeats's demand for the depersonalized "Japanese" performer. (59) Yeats's attempted appropriation of Ito as his perceived epitome of the depersonalized, self-eliminating noh dancer, in order to attain a stricter control over his text, was a failure. He becomes, to paraphrase his Old Man, "one whom the dancer cheats." (60)

Shared Agency: Beckett and Whitelaw

Beckett as writer-director also demanded an extreme level of directorial control over his performers, but one that nevertheless ultimately allowed Whitelaw to retain a sense of creative agency. The Beckettian actor was asked to elide from the stage any self-expression, any sense of themselves as self-motivated, creatively active individuals, according to Whitelaw's description:
   With Beckett I learned that you don't do anything with it, you
   don't try to make it "different," you simply allow your own core to
   make contact with what comes off the page.... The moment I started
   imposing myself on the text, the moment I became aware of playing
   the role I realised that I was making a comment on the piece,
   instead of allowing its essence to come through. (61)

Again, the actor is not to "act." To "actively act" was to bring one's own creative agency too grossly on stage, Whitelaw learned, to place oneself, rather than the text, in focus. Neither acting nor apparently active, she positions herself as passively submissive: "Then, I thought, let what happens happen.... The material takes off on its own. If you allow the words to breathe through your body, if you become a conduit, something magical may happen." (62) Whitelaw cites herself here as a mediating rather than an active entity, her body possessed by the Beckettian script and consequently exhibiting a gnostic, even a xenoglossic power that seems to remain essentially separate from her own agency. "Now keep out of the way, Whitelaw ... don't get in the way," the actor recalled telling herself before performances of Not I. (63) The Beckettian actor, it seems, exists purely to give physical possibility to the text, in a passive submission rather than an active "acting" on stage.

Other actors after Whitelaw who have taken on the role of Mouth report a similar sense of being forced to deny their own agency, of experiencing a sense of passivity despite being engaged in a particularly demanding physical performance. Shirley Steier in a 1999 production remembers herself as being "actually quite passive ... a very unusual feeling on stage," and recalls the anxiety that she would not be a sufficient "conduit," to borrow Whitelaw's phrase: "She chose to speak through my mouth, but might regret it if I let her down, if I didn't 'glide' into her enough." (64) Ruth Geller in a 1996 production recalls her realization that "The text must flow automatically out of the mouth, as if propelled by itself.... One can deny oneself as an embodied subject in order to grant the text such autonomy." (65) The Beckettian text takes priority over the Beckettian actor, as Yeats desired for his own work; artistic agency is accorded to text rather than to actor.

This denial of artistic agency is moreover frequently cited as a source of fear and suffering by Mouth's actors. The loss of artistic agency provokes anxiety concerning self-control and even self-erasure. Hannah Hacohen in a 1982 production recalls her resistance to the text's possession of her as Mouth's questions "suddenly became MY questions." "My clashes with Mouth intensified the more I was required to peel off," she continues, citing her "unpreparedness to accept her terrible misery" as the source of her struggle. (66) The surrender of agency does not come easily to many actors, particularly those accustomed to the popular Western model of the actor as a crucial interpreter of and commentator upon the text. Geller similarly recalls how she "suffered physically and mentally" in the performance of Not I, the need to "switch off my own feeling and thoughts" rendering her "afraid of losing consciousness" when she "forgot to control [her] respiration. I began to doubt my own sanity," she declares, as her surrender of her artistic agency became expressed through a loss of physical control. (67) The surrender of creative agency to the text is frequently perceived as threatening a loss of self-control and even of self, so invested are we in the post-Romantic model of the relationship between creative action and creative agency.

The text of Not I replicates this suffering under the pressure of agential possession. Just as Yeats offered in At the Hawk's Well a textual version of the performance model he would demand, so too did Beckett in Not I. Words that seem not her own "come through" Mouth, just as Whitelaw envisions Becketts text "coming through" her, independent of her own agency: "words were coming ... a voice she did not recognize ... at first ... so long since it had sounded ... then finally had to admit ... could be none other ... than her own....," (68) Mouth is dissociated from her own identity--"what?.. who?.. no!.. she!"--by her loss of agency. (69) Her description of her own body cites it not only as someone else's but also as something dehumanized, breaking her down into constituent mechanical parts, "just the mouth ... lips ... cheeks ... jaws ... [...] tongue." (70) The actor's body is similarly broken down, dehumanized and mechanized, in the staging of Not I. Both Mouth and the actor are positioned as mechanized tools that exist solely to articulate another's text. This impression is held in an unsettling tension with the acknowledgement of the suffering that such possession causes the being whose agency has been thus appropriated. The text emphasizes as pitiful Mouth's painful lack of self-direction under the sway of the force that makes her speak: "the whole brain begging ... something begging in the brain ... begging the mouth to stop...." (71) Such loss of self-control is also frequently revolting, as with the logohorreic image of the speaker "vomiting" up the "steady stream" of another's words in the public toilet. (72) Not I's emphasis on Mouth's mechanized, dehumanized surrender of agency exists alongside the emphasis on the suffering of the being subjected to this model of possession. That Beckett's actors find themselves asked to submit to this model seems paradoxical, even perverse. Beckett twins the model of performance he asks of his actors with a visceral articulation of the pain and discomfort it occasions.

Consequently, the model of performance that Beckettian drama demands has been criticized as an unpleasant or indeed a harmful experience for the actor. Gay Gibson Cima has condemned it as "subjugation" for female actors in particular. (73) Cima fights the theatrical model that would see "the playwright, rather than the actor" as the "primary creative artist." (74) She vaunts instead a performance style that draws attention both to its own nature as performance and to the existence of the actor interpreting the piece in his or her own unique manner. Beckett's theatre demands the erasure not only of the actors self-expression and creative agency as it is commonly perceived, but of the actors body itself, she argues, and "if we watch female actors evacuate their bodies in front of our very eyes" and are asked to applaud the actor who can most fully subjugate themselves to Beckett's control "where does that leave us in terms of creating a sense of agency for women?" (75) Cima links physical agency and self-motivated, self-expressive action to creative agency, and concludes that the model of performance demanded by Beckettian drama entails too great a surrender on the actors part to be acceptable in contemporary theatrical practice.

However, Whitelaw's memories of performing under Beckett's direction trouble any glib alignment of the actor's surrendering self-expressive control to the director with their loss of all creative agency. The Beckettian model of performance structures a new form of artistic agency, rather than sadistically demanding the actor's subjugation. Whitelaw's surrender to Beckett's directorial practice paradoxically rendered her a crucial agent rather than a passive instrument in what consequently became a collaborative artistic creation. Beckett sought an actor who could reproduce his vision with a machine-like fidelity and infallibility. To achieve this status--and it is a status in the Beckettian performance, a position of powerful responsibility, rather than Cima's idea of female erasure--required Whitelaw's physical and mental surrender to the Beckettian text in order to enable the realization of the final creation. Her surrender thus in fact accords her a crucial agency; she and Beckett became a joint force. The Beckettian performer Rosemary Pountney noted that the actor "must ... make himself a void ... and then allow this to fill with Beckett's speech rhythms and repetitions," but maintains that this voiding of self always results in a coalescence of actor and director, rather than the mere elimination of the actor: "a fusion of actor and author takes place." (76) Something new is created that is not the personal expression of either one of them but which takes on its own life in a coalescence of author-text-director-actor. In a successful rehearsal, "I could feel the 'shape' taking on a life of its own," Whitelaw explains. (77) "It became the only possible shape." (78) The "shape," the very performance of the text, is the joint product of Beckett and Whitelaw, both parties crucial to its creation: the director, and the physical being that can and will perform the direction.

Pountney's idea of the "void" in the actor that is both required and filled by the creation of something new that partakes of both parties is reflected and extended in Whitelaw's frequent evocation of gestation and childbearing imagery to describe her work with Beckett. Whitelaw insisted on the primary importance of "my centre, my core" (79) to her Beckettian performances, a center that, she continues, "seemed to be situated somewhere around my gut." (80) Whitelaw metamorphosed her despair over her childlessness in her twenties and early thirties and her resultant feeling that "my centre was empty" into a creative, productive, and reproductive space in her work with Beckett. (81) "I realised that my emptiness was something I could utilise.... Doing Play made me feel more complete.... I began to sense within myself a growing feeling of freedom. I managed to touch that little flame in my centre." (82) Just as the woman surrenders a part of her body to the growth of her child, Whitelaw surrendered her "emptiness" to the incursion and growth of Becketts text; in both "creative" processes, void and surrender are crucial agential, rather than passive, elements.

Significantly, moreover, Whitelaw counterpoints descriptions of herself as the maternal "carrier" with descriptions of herself in the role of created child, positioning Beckett in the maternal role, thus further emphasising the coalescence of their creative agency. During the rehearsals for Not I, she describes the feeling that "I was becoming joined to Sam by some sort of umbilical cord," (83) and recalls a reunion with him after a rehearsal from which he was absent in similar terms of gender-swapped parenthood: '"Thank God, I feel as though I've been separated from my mother.' Sam looked at me, quite shocked. 'Mother?' he echoed. Perhaps he would have been happier if I'd said 'Father.' I think I said mother because Sam was to me the source of my nourishment. I wanted to get to that source." (84) The muddling of the gender roles and Whitelaw's position as sometime-parent-sometime-child within the extended parenthood conceit emphasizes Beckett and Whitelaw's shared agency as "joint forces" within the creative process.

Whitelaw's submission to Becketts model of "possession" constructs a space for her agency to be fused with his, establishing a new form of creative agency that structures their collaborative artistic process. Whitelaw describes her role in the Beckettian production in terms that are humanized rather than mechanized (the machine, after all, neither gestates nor gives birth) and that claim her sense of agential achievement: "utilise," "complete," "freedom," "managed." She retains a decisive role in the performance's creation, claiming that the Beckettian play "wasn't finished--until we'd worked on it. I felt part of that creativity, part of his work-in-progress." (85) Claimed by Beckett as one of the unique individuals who could properly mediate his text as he desired, Whitelaw emphasises her role as a crucial nurturing and life-giving part of the creative process, rather than an interchangeable, agency-less instrument. To surrender one's control is not necessarily to surrender one's agency within the Beckettian model of directed performance.


Both Yeats and Beckett were driven by their concern for the precision of the performances of their texts to seek an extreme degree of directorial control. Both playwright-directors were eager to ensure that the vocal and physical elements of their actors' performances served the faithful presentation of the text, rather than embodying any personalized self-expression. Both demanded that their actors surrendered self-expressive creative control as a means of fulfilling this desire. Yeats, influenced by the contemporary stereotype of the disciplined and self-eliding Japanese noh performer, engaged Michio Ito as a dancer, presuming upon Ito's engagement with noh practice and an ideal of self-elimination inherent in it that would see him subjugate himself entirely to the text. Both assumptions proved ill-founded. Ito--trained primarily in the modern European schools of dance that saw onstage performance as a means of self-motivated self-expression and successful dance as an attainment and expression of the "authentic" individual self--rejected the noh practice that Yeats hoped he would bring to At the Hawk's Well. Not only did the Hawk's Well dance that Ito choreographed and performed in 1916 fail (or rather, refuse) to embody the qualities that Yeats incorrectly attributed to it, but Ito would moreover subsequently make the Hawk's Well dance so entirely his own that he continued to direct and perform it worldwide, often with new music. Yeats's attempt to utilize Ito, for him the epitome of the depersonalized, self-eliminating noh dancer, as a means of attaining a stricter control over his text backfired spectacularly.

Beckett, on the other hand, sought a solution to his desire for his actors' carefully controlled precision in a more nuanced idea of shared creative agency. His plays themselves frequently testify to his understanding of the nuances and shifting boundaries of authoritative power, a shifting between two elements or entities, each indispensable to each other in a process of action and reaction, rather than the definitive erasure of one individual's freedom. His own quest for directorial control appears accordingly informed. Beckett sought out actors who could understand and inhabit a position in which they submitted themselves to "possession" by the text and his own directorial control while simultaneously working as a joint force alongside him in actualizing the performance. Whitelaw's recollections of rehearsing with Beckett from 1973 up to his death in 1989 testify to just such an experience. While she surrendered her self-control to Beckett's text and direction, she articulated her sense of retained agency in completing the text in doing so. Alongside her anxieties over the control exercised over her being and the threat of her total erasure under the weight of the text and Beckett's direction, she simultaneously recognized how her performances represent the successful transmutation of varied individual expression, from various creative agents, into a coalescence of a new creation.


Boston University


(1) Beckett argued Tony Richardson into casting Billie Whitelaw in the premiere production of Not I (1973) rather than Richardson's first choice of Glenda Jackson. See Billie Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw ... Who He? A Memoir of Life on Stage, on Screen, and in Collaboration with the Great Samuel Beckett (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 118. He also wrote several times to American Equity when they refused Whitelaw a working visa in 1980, stating that Rockaby had been written specifically for her and could not be performed with another actress.

(2) Ann Saddlemeyer, ed., Theatre Business: The Correspondence of the First Abbey Theatre Directors: William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982), 88.

(3) Ibi d., 125.

(4) Ibid., 93.

(5) Jordan R. Young, The Beckett Actor: Jack MacGowran, Beginning to End (Beverley Hills, CA: Moonstone Press, 1987), 59.

(6) Ibid., 90.

(7) Maurice Harmon, ed., No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 59. Beckett's subsequent request to Schneider, regarding the latter's ongoing production of Krapp's Last Tape, "By the way for God's sake make sure in your script that there are no omissions or variations in the repeated passages," may seem somewhat redundant in context.

(8) Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, 144.

(9) Rosemary Pountney, Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Becketts Drama, 1956-1976 (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1988), 184.

(10) Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, 152.

(11) W. B. Yeats, Explorations (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 108.

(12) Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 2002), 120.

(13) Yeats, Explorations, 87.

(14) Ibid., 86.

(15) Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the Theatre (London: Calder Publications, 1988), 171.

(16) Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, 151; emphasis in original.

(17) Pountney, Theatre of Shadows, 184.

(18) S. E. Gontarski, "Staging Himself, or Beckett's Late Style in the Theatre," Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 6 (1997): 87-97 (90).

(19) Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, 122-23.

(20) Yeats, Explorations, 109.

(21) W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (New York: Collier Books, 1965), 381.

(22) Ibid., 265.

(23) Yeats, Explorations, 109.

(24) Yeats, Autobiography, 302; emphasis mine.

(25) Puchner, Stage Fright, 157.

(26) Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, 120.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Puchner, Stage Fright, 123.

(29) Richard Taylor, The Drama of W. B. Yeats: Irish Myth and The Japanese No (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 104.

(30) Ibid., 116.

(31) Ibid., 101.

(32) This misunderstanding was perhaps inevitable, given Yeats's limited access to noh theatre. Yeats's introduction to noh was mediated via Ezra Pound while they worked together at Stone Cottage between 1909 and 1916. Pound's understanding of noh theatre came from his work on Ernest Fenollosa; Pound himself did not speak Japanese and was chosen to complete Fenollosa's work by Fenollosa's widow, Mary McNeil Fenollosa, specifically because she felt Pound cared more about the poetry than the precise nuances of noh itself. Both Pound's and Yeats's understandings of the noh tradition were consequently somewhat limited.

(33) Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel: Noh/Modernism, Pedagogy/Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming), 144.

(34) Ibid., 105.

(35) Ian Carruthers, "A Translation of Fifteen Pages of Ito Michio's Autobiography, 'Utsukushiku naru kyoshitsu"' Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 2, no. 1 (1976): 32-43 (39).

(36) Carrie Preston, "Michio Ito's Shadow: Searching for the Transnational in Solo Dance," in On Stage Alone, ed. Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2012), 10.

(37) Ibid., 9.

(38) Ibid., 10.

(39) Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, Rhythm, Music and Education (London: The Riverside Press, 1967), 130-31.

(40) Preston, Learning to Kneel, 110.

(41) Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism and Dance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 71.

(42) Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, "Strategic Unweaving: Ito Michio and the Diasporic Dancing Body," in The Politics of Interweaving Performance Cultures: Beyond Postcolonialism, ed. Erika Fischer-Lichte, Tortsen Jost, and Saskya Iris Jain (New York: Routledge, 2014), 214.

(43) Preston, "Michio Ito's Shadow," 10.

(44) Mary-Jean Cowell and Satoru Shimazaki, "East and West in the Work of Michio Ito," Dance Research Journal 26, no. 2 (1994): 11-23 (20).

(45) Carruthers, "Translation of Fifteen Pages," 40.

(46) Ibid.

(47) Ito performed the Hawk's Well dance in New York in 1918, with new music by Koscak Yamada, and toured this version round the East Coast. He staged it again in 1929 at the Argus Bowl in California, and in 1939 in Tokyo. Yeats is recorded as expressing his reluctance to see "his" dance so performed beyond his control--"Fate has been against me. I meant these 'Noh' plays never to be played in a theatre, and now one has been done without leave"--but acknowledging that it would be "ungracious to forbid Ito to play The Hawk as he will." Quoted in The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 651-52.

(48) W. B. Yeats, At the Hawk's Well, in Yeats's Poetry, Drama and Prose (New York: Norton, 2000), 163.

(49) Ibid., 161.

(50) Ibid., 165.

(51) Ibid., 166.

(52) Carruthers, "Translation of Fifteen Pages," 39.

(53) Taylor, The Drama of W. B. Yeats, 103.

(54) Ibid.

(55) Shotaro Oshima has provided a more extensive comparison of Itos choreography for At The Hawks Well and traditional noh mai in W. B. Yeats and Japan (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1965).

(56) Taylor, The Drama of W. B. Yeats, 113.

(57) Christopher Reed, "Modernizing the Mikado: Japan, Japanism and the Limitations of the Avant-Garde," Visual Culture in Britain 14 (2013): 68-86 (74).

(58) Yeats, Autobiography, 341.

(59) Preston, Learning to Kneel, 135.

(60) Yeats, At the Hawk's Well, 164.

(61) Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, 120.

(62) Ibid.

(63) Ibid., 128.

(64) Shimon Levy, "Six She's, One Not I: Proxies of Beckettian Selves," Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd'hui 11 (2001): 140-50 (146).

(65) Ibid., 145.

(66) Ibid., 143, 142.

(67) Ibid., 145.

(68) Samuel Beckett. Not I, in The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 379.

(69) Ibid., 377.

(70) Ibid., 380.

(71) Ibid.

(72) Ibid., 382.

(73) Gay Gibson Cima, Performing Women: Female Characters, Male Playwrights, and the Modern Stage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 11.

(74) Ibid., 16.

(75) Ibid., 221.

(76) Pountney, Theatre of Shadows, 185.

(77) Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, 144.

(78) Ibid., 145.

(79) Ibid., 128.

(80) Ibid.

(81) Ibid., 84.

(82) Ibid., 86.

(83) Ibid., 125.

(84) Ibid., 126; emphasis in original.

(85) Ibid., 86.
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Author:Simpson, Hannah
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Date:Dec 22, 2015
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