New acquisition: Actress Billie Whitelaw’s Beckett archive

BillieWhitelawdress_2web617394_37793The University of Reading and the Beckett International Foundation are delighted to announce the purchase of a unique archive of actress Billie Whitelaw’s work with playwright Samuel Beckett.

The £35,000 acquisition, funded by generous contributions from the Beckett International Foundation, the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries, was made at an auction at Sotheby’s, London, last week.

Billie Whitelaw was Irish writer and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s favourite actress. He directed her in several theatrical productions and revivals of his plays. The collection includes correspondence, annotated playscripts, rehearsal notes for some of Beckett’s most famous works, including Play, Not I, Happy Days, Rockaby, Eh Joe, Embers and Footfalls, as well costumes worn by Billie during those performances.

The items will join the rest of our Beckett Collection, which is the world’s largest collection of manuscript materials relating to Beckett. This will offer anyone with an interest in Beckett’s plays or the theatre a unique insight into how one of the world’s greatest writers worked with his actors.

Billie Whitelaw has had close links with the University of Reading since 1992 when she became the first Annenberg Fellow. During her week-long residency, she gave a series of workshops and performances for staff, students and members of the public. Over the years she has been an important supporter of the Beckett Collection and is still a Patron of the Beckett International Foundation. In 2001 she received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Reading.

Billie famously performed ‘Not I’ in 14 minutes at the Royal Court in 1973. The University hosted two rare performances of this iconic Samuel Beckett work which were performed by Lisa Dwan in 2013.

The Billie Whitelaw archive will feature in public events (such as exhibitions) and in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programmes.

Samuel Beckett Week at the University of Reading


We will be holding an exhibition and series of public events to celebrate the University’s internationally renowned collection of manuscripts from the Nobel Prize-winning writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989).

  • Wednesday 1 – Saturday 4 October

    Public Exhibition: Samuel Beckett in London – the Murphy Notebooks
    Museum of English Rural Life

    At this exhibition, which will focus on Beckett’s time in London between 1934 and 1935, Special Collection’s recently acquired notebooks for Beckett’s novel Murphy will be on display alongside a wide range of other material.

  • Thursday 2 October

    Beckett Archive workshop
    2-4pm, Museum of English Rural Life
    FREE. Please book in advance.

    Open to all, this free two-hour workshop will introduce the University’s Beckett archive to participants. It is open to any interested members of the public, but places must be booked in advance.

  • Friday 3 October

    Public lecture and drinks reception:
    Professor Dan Gunn – ‘Samuel Beckett through his letters’
    5.30pm, Minghella Building, Whiteknights Campus
    FREE. Please book in advance.

    Dan Gunn is Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, and editor of the Letters of Samuel Beckett.

  • Saturday 4 October

    The Beckett International Foundation Annual Research Seminar 2014.
    10am, Museum of English Rural Life
    £20 waged, £15 unwaged. Includes lunch and refreshments. Please book in advance.

    This day-long advanced seminar will explore some of the latest research in Beckett Studies.

For further details and booking please contact:

Workshop and/or Lecture: Conor Carville –

BIF Seminar: Mark Nixon –

Beckett’s Murphy on display

Beckett library booksIn 2013 the University of Reading acquired the hand-written manuscript for Murphy, Samuel Beckett’s first published novel and the first major expression of the central themes that would occupy much of his later work. This has been added to the Beckett Collection. The manuscript, described by Sotheby’s as the ‘most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades’, had been in private hands for the last half century. The manuscript fills six notebooks and provides a text that is substantially different from the final printed edition in 1938. Further details may be found in our earlier blog post.

The Murphy notebooks will be on public display on 11 June 2014, from 12.30 to 7pm at the Museum of English Rural Life, as part of Universities Week 2014. This will be as part of the Research showcase on the creative industries. The event will showcase how the University of Reading’s world-leading research feeds into the UK’s creative economy, with emphasis on theatre and film. Fore more details, please visit our Universities Week 2014 pages.

OBE for Beckett expert

Welcome back! We start the new year with some exciting news for our Beckett scholars.

Jim KnowlsonEmeritus Professor Jim Knowlson was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List for services to literary scholarship. Jim is the world’s leading expert on the Nobel-prize winning novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and the founder of Reading’s Beckett International Foundation. He is instrumental in the work of the Beckett Archive and Beckett’s only authorised biographer.

Professor Knowlson said: “It is wonderful to be recognised for something that you love doing and something that you are passionate about. I was a close friend of Samuel Beckett for the last 19 years of his life so take great pride in the collection and archives that have been put together.”

Vice-Chancellor Sir David Bell said: “Jim Knowlson has had an eminent career, devoted to scholarship of European theatre and the work of his great friend Samuel Beckett. He has been tireless in building the Beckett Archive into the richest collection of material in the world on the literary giant. And he has been in instrumental in making the Beckett International Foundation into a globally-renowned research body.

“Jim is the complete opposite of that lazy stereotype that academics live in ‘ivory towers’. He has friends from all walks of life; is interested in everything and anything; has never failed to help fellow students and staff at Reading throughout his career; and has had a lifelong passion for cricket, which he shared with Beckett.”

New Beckett letters acquired

Five letters and three postcards from Samuel Beckett to the Israeli scriptwriter and journalist Mira Avrech have been acquired by Special Collections. The letters date from 1967 to 1974, and may be found under reference MS 5515. Copies of these items are now available for consultation in the reading room.

Beckett is believed to have met Avrech in 1967 whilst in Berlin directing Endspiel (Endgame), and to have conducted a brief love affair with her during his stay. The letters discuss both his writing and hers, his health, international politics and his habit of drinking whiskey from an old tumbler.

Manuscript of Beckett’s Murphy acquired

Beckett page

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The University has acquired the working manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s first major work, Murphy, at the cost of £962,500, at an auction at Sotheby’s in London today.

The hand-written manuscript, which has been in private hands for the last half century, will now become accessible to Beckett scholars around the world as part of our Beckett Collection.

At nearly 800 pages long, Murphy is among the greatest literary manuscripts of the 20th century and, according to Sotheby’s, is the “most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades”. Murphy was Beckett’s first published novel and the first major expression of the central themes that would occupy Beckett for the next half century.

Professor James Knowlson, University of Reading Emeritus Professor, friend of Beckett and his sole authorised biographer, said: “This manuscript is a treasure trove of insight into the mind of one of the greatest literary figures of the past 100 years.

“Murphy was Beckett’s first published novel. To see the novelist’s development of some of the most famous passages in modern literature gives a unique insight into how he worked at an early stage in his career.”

The manuscript, which fills six notebooks, provides a text that is substantially different from the final printed edition in 1938. With its revisions, different colour inks, dated pages and doodles, it is an extraordinarily rich manifestation of Beckett’s writing practices and provides a unique and deep insight into the mind and working practices of one of the greatest writers of the last hundred years.

Murphy concerns the main character’s attempts to find peace in the nothingness of the ‘little world’ of the mind without intrusion from the outside world. It is Beckett’s London novel, which he began writing in August 1935 while undergoing intensive psychoanalysis there. It was completed in Dublin in 1936 and unlike many of his other works, which were written in French, was written in English.

There are significant textual differences from the published novel throughout the manuscript. The most heavily revised passages provide fascinating evidence about the portions of the text that gave Beckett most trouble. Eight versions of the opening are crossed out until the Nobel prize-winning author eventually settled on “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Peter Selley, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Books and Manuscripts, commented: “This is unquestionably the most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades. The notebooks contain almost infinite riches. The manuscript is capable of redefining Beckett studies for many years to come.”

Completion of Beckett’s novel was followed by 40 rejections from publishers before Routledge eventually published the book in 1938. Although it received sympathetic reviews, it was not a success at the time of publication.

The University of Reading is an acknowledged world centre for Beckett studies. A new project led by Special Collections, Staging Beckett, will put Beckett’s impact on modern theatre practice in the UK and Ireland under the spotlight for the very first time.