Masterpiece Theatre: Rebecca

The Haunted Housekeeper of Manderley
An Interview with Dame Diana Rigg

Mrs. Danvers may not be Medea -- the classic role for which Diana Rigg won a Tony in 1994 -- but the character is a plum part that Dame Diana dearly wanted as soon as she got wind of a proposed new film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's gothic thriller, Rebecca. The story has been a bestseller since publication in 1938, and is perhaps even better known from the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1940, which starred Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Judith Anderson, was lauded as "an atmospheric classic," and won the Academy Award for best picture.

One of the astonishing things about the book is that the title character is never met directly, rather is experienced through the vivid memories of other characters. Chief among these is Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper of Manderley, the country estate where Rebecca once presided and where a new mistress -- an usurper in Mrs. Danvers' eyes -- has been installed.

Diana Rigg recently answered questions about her experience as Mrs. Danvers and other aspects of her flourishing career, while resting up before a nightly performance as Martha, the boozy heroine in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, now on the London stage.

What attracted you to the role of Mrs. Danvers?

I think it's fascinating. Here is a woman who has served somebody else for most of her life to the point that she doesn't have a life of her own. I love the complexities of that sort of character.

What was Mrs. Danvers' personal relationship with Rebecca?

Absolute and total devotion. Mrs. Danvers worshipped Rebecca. There was never a hint of criticism about her. Rebecca was beautiful, brave, audacious, stylish -- everything that Mrs. Danvers wasn't.

Were you influenced by Judith Anderson's portrayal of Mrs. Danvers in the Alfred Hitchcock movie?

I thought it was a wonderful performance, but I couldn't possibly replicate what she'd done. More than 50 years have gone by. I had a script which was perhaps more revealing than the one she had to work with, and I had to do that justice.

In what way is the script more revealing?

Since it's based on the book, it adds more depth than you find in the Hitchcock movie, which is based on the play. There was a book first, then there was a play and Hitchcock could only get the rights to the play.

Is it easier now to make the characters more believable simply because acting styles have changed?

I think probably so. The public wants the characters to be fully explored and explained psychologically. We're in an age now where things aren't quite as hidden.

Did you have to imagine a past for Mrs. Danvers?

I did -- not so much in detail but the sort of past that is made visible in the woman that you see now. In those days, all the housekeepers were called 'Mrs.' whether they were married or not. It was the custom. I suspect that Mrs. Danvers was not married and had never been married. She had looked after Rebecca since Rebecca was 12. I suspect that Mrs. Danvers' love for Rebecca probably bordered on the lesbian, but Mrs. Danvers was not aware of it herself. I hope that's what comes across.

What was Mrs. Danvers' relationship to Rebecca's cousin, Jack Favell?

She was an enabler. She turned a blind eye to what was happening between Jack and Rebecca. I don't think she liked him particularly. I think she tolerated him for Rebecca's sake. There's one scene in which Jack says that Rebecca loved him, and Mrs. Danvers says that no she didn't, she didn't love anybody, she despised men.

What motivates Mrs. Danvers in her final act of destruction?

I think it's the revelation of Rebecca and how Rebecca died. With that revelation, Rebecca's ghost is gone from Manderley, and Mrs. Danvers can't bear that Manderley now carries on without her.

Could you tell us about your current work? You seem to be tackling one risky stage role after another -- Medea, Mother Courage and now Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- it must be either exhilarating or incredibly stressful.

Well, I do like a challenge. I've been very lucky to have played these parts at a time when most actresses don't get the chance. I like the idea of being stretched and still learning and moving forward.

It must take incredible energy.

It does. A vast amount. Martha just eats into your life. All of us in the play find our lives circumscribed by this performance, every evening, six nights a week and twice on Saturday, which means that Sunday is a complete wipeout.

Can you tell us what's in the future for you?

A holiday. I'd like to do a bit more television and film work for a couple of years before I go back to the stage. The stage is my first love, but I've done Mother Courage and Martha both within a year, and I just think I need a change.

What are the circumstances of your being made a Dame Commander of the British Empire by the Queen?

I suspect that it was partly the fact that I've been around a long time. But also, I work quite hard on the business of finding sponsorship for the arts. It's a great honor, obviously, but I don't use the title in the theater. I prefer to be called Miss Rigg because I think, above everything else, the democracy of the stage should be upheld. We're all on the stage together. We all need each other, and I like that parity.

Could you tell us about the poetry anthology that you recently compiled?

It is about the British countryside seen through the poet's eye, from early medieval texts to the modern day. What fascinated me was reading a stanza of poetry and having this moment of recognition, "Yes, I've seen that. Yes, I know what they're talking about." I take a metaphoric day in each season (and I've found poems about not just the seasons), the flowers, the trees, but the sporting pursuits, the animals and the insects. For example, there's a wonderful 19th century poem by somebody called Lord de Tabley on a spider. I had great fun pulling all these threads together, if you like.

And you did another book, No Turn Unstoned, about truly nasty theater reviews.

Well, they're not all that nasty. The nasty reviews, I hasten to add, were for the most part donated by the people who received them. The whole impetus behind the book was that nobody, no matter how legendary or grand, has escaped a bad notice. It is very much part of our profession. We all survive a bad notice, and isn't it wonderful that we do?

Did you include bad notices for yourself?

Of course. The worst one I got was from John Simon. When I was in Abelard and Heloise, and I did the nude scene, he said: "Diana Rigg is built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses." The other thing is that the notices had to be funny, not just destructive, but funny.

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