Rockaby, baby: digitising a recent addition to the Beckett Archive

The image of actor Billie Whitelaw, dressed almost like an Victorian widow, rocking back and forth silently in her chair, is one of the iconic visuals of the Beckett canon. The lone protagonist in the ‘spare, compact, provocative’ play Rockaby was modeled on Beckett’s maternal grandmother Annie Roe, a solitary woman in her later years, dressed head to toe in black , sitting in her room staring silently out the window.

Billie Whitelaw (1929-2014) palying the sole character in the premiere of Rockaby (MS 11592).

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is one of the most famous alumni of Trinity College, the University of Dublin. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, in the same year he founded the Trinity College Beckett Literary Archive with a gift of four notebooks of his literary drafts. The Library continued to expand this collections making Dublin into one of the world’s greatest destinations for international research into the man who was the most influential playwright of the 20th century.

In 2018 the Library made an exciting addition to the collection when it acquired the archives relating to the origins and world premiere of the play Rockaby. These archives contain the correspondence with Beckett and copies of both the original play and the French translation – the play’s title in French is ‘Berceuse’ which means both rocking chair and lullaby (reminiscent of the well-know lullaby ‘Rockaby baby, on a tree top’).

Rockaby is one of only three short pieces which Beckett ever wrote ‘on request’ and it is the only Beckett play written in verse form. In 1980, as institutions around the world prepared to commemorate Beckett’s 75th birthday, Daniel Labeille, an American academic and theatre producer, asked Beckett for something new for the festival Labeille was curating for the State University of New York in Buffalo. Beckett hesitated briefly and then sent the text of Rockaby. It premiered in the Center for Theater Research the following April, directed by Beckett’s friend Alan Schneider (1917-1984), and starring Billie Whitelaw (1929-2014).

Samuel Beckett, Rockaby and other short pieces (New York, Grove Weidenfeld 1981).

There are two unusual elements in the new collection. Firstly, there are the handwritten notes which Daniel Labeille took during a conversation with Beckett in a Parisian coffee shop almost exactly 40 years ago, in January 1981. Beckett famously always insisted that producers and directors should be guided principally by his words as they appeared on the page (‘the text is the text’ he said sternly). Nevertheless, he was also always ready to be helpful to those who understood his concerns about his work. The notes Labeille took while discussing the forthcoming production with Beckett were invaluable to shaping the eventual performance.

Extract from notes of Daniel Labeille’s conversations with Beckett in 1981 (MS 11592/4/2)

 The other major element in the collection is a group of colour polaroid snaps of Beckett in conversation with Labeille, Schneider, and Whitelaw. The National Theatre of London invited Labeille to produce the play in London in 1982 and Beckett attended some of the rehearsals. Labeille took the opportunity to take these unposed images (here showing Beckett, Whitelaw and Labeille) which are all the more delightful for their informality.

Billie Whitelaw, who played the sole character in Rockaby, was the only actress whom Beckett ever directed himself: he wrote the play Footfalls specifically for her. A film of the rehearsals for Rockaby, made by documentary makers D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, clearly shows how important Whitelaw herself was to the evolution of Rockaby.

The acquisition of this collection in 2018 was supported by a philanthropic gift from the Friends of the Library. Making modern literary archives available online can be difficult due to copyright laws. However the original owner of this material, Daniel Labeille, has collaborated with the Library to permit the digitisation and online publication of all the material in this collection which falls within his copyright. The work of digitising it, (as well as cataloguing and conservation) was made possible by a grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. Some of the collection can be see in an online exhibition which includes the polaroid photographs and a link to the documentary film of the rehearsals for the premiere.

Dr Jane Maxwell

Manuscripts Curator, Manuscripts & Archives Research Collection