The Library unveils Beckett archive of play Rockaby building on its world leading Beckett collections

The Library of Trinity College Dublin has acquired the Beckett archive of the play Rockaby building on its world leading Beckett collections. The Beckett material is being digitised and will be accessible online.

Marking the acquisition of  the 1981 play Rockaby, one of the iconic plays of the Beckett canon, an online exhibition  curated by Dr Jane Maxwell has been launched today. The entire archive will be made available later this year as part of the Library’s Digital Collections. It includes 30 items of correspondence from Beckett; copies of the original play and its French translation; productions notes; photographs; and a printed commemoration booklet of photographs from the premiere among other items.

 Billie Whitelaw, as the sole protagonist in the 1981 play Rockaby, one of the iconic visuals of the Beckett canon. An old lady, dressed head to toe in black, moving back and forth in a rocking chair, listening to voices in her head. Silent except for the single word ‘More’, the woman, the voices, and the rocking cease simultaneously as the play ends.

The Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett is one of the most famous alumni of Trinity College Dublin. He studied at Trinity, he taught there, and (alone of the many similar honours offered) he accepted an honorary degree from Trinity College in 1959.

In 1969, with the generosity for which he is renowned, Samuel Beckett also founded the Trinity College Beckett Literary Archive Collection with a gift of four notebooks.

The Library of Trinity College has continued to build on this collection in the intervening decades and has become one of the world’s greatest destinations for international research on the man who was the most influential playwright of the 20th century.

Commenting on the significance of the Beckett materials, Librarian and College Archivist, Helen Shenton said:

“The Library of Trinity College Dublin has one of the world’s greatest collections of Beckett archives.  The archives relating to the origins and world premiere of the play ‘Rockaby’ is significant for Beckett scholarship, both nationally and internationally. We welcome the opportunity to be able to share these collections with researchers.  We are especially grateful for the philanthropic support which made the acquisition of these manuscripts possible as well as their cataloguing and conservation.”

The archives relating to the origins and world premiere of the play contain 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.

Billie Whitelaw and Samuel Beckett in rehearsal

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. The great man demurred briefly and then sent a delighted Labeille the play Rockaby. It premiered in the Center for Theater Research the following April, directed by Beckett’s friend Alan Schneider. Brief, as are all Beckett’s late works, it runs for 15 minutes and was a ‘major dramatic event’ with ‘narrative and intellectual substance, some of it subliminal’ (Mel Gussow, New York Times, 12 April 1981

Daniel Labeille, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month, has often spoken of the ‘extraordinary effect’ Beckett had on his life. He says ‘Rockaby’ is among a small handful of Beckett’s late plays, three of which were written in response to requests, but it is the only play of his written in verse form.’

Professor Chris Morash, Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College remarked:

“Over the years, as the Library’s collection of Beckett manuscripts has grown to include the largest collection of Beckett correspondence anywhere in the world, that sense of Beckett continuing to be a part of Trinity has only deepened.  And now, with the acquisition of these exciting new materials relating to the first production of ‘Rockaby’ scholars have a further opportunity to make that kind of connection with an author’s work that is only possible through studying manuscript materials.” 

Exhibition curator Dr Jane Maxwell described two elements of the new collection which are particularly exciting because they are unusual.

“There are the sheaf of 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 was always unfailingly helpful to those whom he trusted to bring his work to the stage faithfully. These production notes were central to the formation of the play as we know, and will be of invaluable to students of Beckett’s process.”

 

Dr Maxwell also draws particular attention to the photographs in the collection:

“People are used to seeing art-quality photographs of Beckett, beautifully shot, staring eagle-like down the lens. These photographs are different. They are casual snapshots, taken when Beckett attended rehearsals for a second performance in London, and they are all the more moving and delightful for their informality.”

Producer Daniel Labeille remarked ‘This production was meaningful to me as it resulted in a collaboration of Beckett’s friend, American director Alan Schneider, together with Beckett’s favoured actress, Billie Whitelaw’. Whitelaw, who died in 2014 was the only actress whom Beckett ever directed himself and he wrote the play Footfalls specifically for her. A film was made of the rehearsals for the premiere of Rockaby, by documentary makers D.A.Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, which uniquely captures the input Whitelaw herself had on the eventual formation of the play.

Correspondence from Samuel Beckett to producer Daniel Labeille

About the Beckett Collections at the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

The Beckett Literary Archive in the Library was founded in the late 1960s by a gift of four notebooks from Beckett himself. It has been constantly expanded upon in the intervening years and is now one of the world’s greatest collection of original research material relating to Beckett. Beckett’s private correspondence in Trinity, the largest single collection anywhere, includes correspondence with poet and director of the National Gallery of Ireland Thomas MacGreevy; literary critic Barbara Bray with whom Beckett has a long term professional and personal relationship; and artist Henri Hayden and his wife Josette whom Beckett met in the South of France while avoiding the Gestapo in occupied France in WWII. In Trinity also is a first edition of the play Waiting for Godot. Beckett used this volume as a prompt copy when he was directing the first performance of the play in Paris in 1953 and it is filled with crossings out and new text as Beckett learned what would work on stage and what wouldn’t. One of the greatest pieces in the collection is the notebook containing the drafts for the prose text Imagination dead imagine written in the mid-1960s.

Philanthropic Support

The acquisition was made possible through The Friends of the Library which assisted in the purchase of the Rockaby archive and, the Gladys Kriebel Delmas Foundation, which supported the cataloguing, conservation, and imaging of the archive.