Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Now Keep out of the Way, Whitelaw": Self-Expression, Agency, and Directorial Control in W. B. Yeats's and Samuel Beckett's Theatre

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Now Keep out of the Way, Whitelaw": Self-Expression, Agency, and Directorial Control in W. B. Yeats's and Samuel Beckett's Theatre

Article excerpt

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. …

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