Features Essays Published 13 May 2013

Not I: The Stage Poetry of Samuel Beckett

Simon Thomas on the performance history of Samuel Beckett's elliptical text.
Simon Thomas

When Not I’s mouth spluttered its elliptical text on the Royal Court stage for the first time in 1973, it mystified audiences more than anything they’d seen before. Not even Beckett’s work up to that point had presented so minimalist an image, a complete distillation of his unique vision of stage poetry.

The play is a monologue, usually of some 15 minutes length, spewed out at lightning speed, although there’s no indication in the text of how fast it should be played. Billie Whitelaw knew instinctively, when the play landed on her doormat, that it should go fast, just as she had when she appeared in Beckett’s Play at the National Theatre a decade earlier. This time, she had the advantage of having the playwright as her director and the two artists rapidly developed a shorthand of understanding. Since then, Not I has traditionally been presented at high speed and Lisa Dwan, who will perform it for the Royal Court this time, comes in at around 9 minutes, claiming it as the fastest ever reading.

As with so much of Beckett’s writing, content correlates completely with form in Not I; in fact, form to a large extent is content. The text of the play, when studied, shows itself to be a fairly straightforward story which, like Play is full of recognizable human detail, both coherent and emotionally involving. What Beckett requires of the performance of both pieces, though, is a style of playing that undercuts the naturalism of the situations, the one a sad tale of a lonely outcast who leads a speechless existence and the other a domestic love triangle.

Play has its three characters, a man, his wife and lover, placed in funeral urns, with a highly stylized interweaving of narratives, prompted by a roving splinter of light that flicks between the three players. Not I works similarly, but here the single player, in the most minimalist and striking image Beckett used, is represented by a brightly lit mouth and nothing else. A fluttering mouth at the back of a pitch-black stage is a tiny image for an audience to focus on. People sometimes report strange experiences watching it, some convinced that the mouth is moving backwards and forwards or side to side. In fact, it’s rooted to the spot. The actress has to be strapped down, as the slightest movement can cause the mouth to move out of the pinprick of light.

Anyone whose only experience of the play is the 1975 film of the Royal Court production with Whitelaw may not realize that there’s another figure in the play, although it’s sometimes cut in stage productions too. In fact, there are only three Beckett plays with a single character – A Piece of Monologue, Rockaby and Krapp’s Last Tape, and even then the younger Krapps are almost secondary characters, while The Woman’s recorded commentary in Rockaby is similar to the offstage voices of Footfalls, That Time and the TV play Eh Joe. In Not I, an “Auditor” dressed in a black hooded cowl skulks dimly lit downstage right and raises its arms at each break in the monologue. The presence of this figure is maybe even more mysterious than the central image of the mouth itself. James Knowlson, in his authoritative biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, cites a woman seen leaning against a wall in North Africa as a main inspiration for the Auditor but also recalls how Beckett told him that Caravaggio’s Decollation of St John the Baptist in Valletta Cathedral contributed to the image. It’s not surprising that the master of chiaroscuro should influence a playwright who creates great paintings of light and dark in stage works such as Footfalls, Ohio Impromptu and A Piece of Monologue as well as Not I.

One of Beckett’s greatest influences throughout his career was Dante’s Divina Commedia and his characters often resemble the unfortunate sinners of the Inferno and Purgatorio, stuck in a moral wilderness and punished by an uncaring universe. Not I’s Mouth is like one of the heads embedded in the frozen lake of Cocytus that Dante and Virgil encounter in XXXII of the Inferno.

Neil Jordan's film of Not I, featuring Julianne Moore.

Neil Jordan’s film of Not I, featuring Julianne Moore.

The story the mouth tells is of an old lady cast out from normal society, unable to express herself through speech, except on a few occasions in her life when she involuntarily vomits words. The irony of this speechless existence is that Beckett uses those rare moments of garrulity as the medium for exploring her predicament. The monologue is a broken stream of unconsciousness, which repeats images of helplessness and confusion in cyclical patterns. The language is dense and, as always with Beckett, redolent of deep meaning but expressed with the utmost economy. It begins with ambiguous images of birth, taking place within a loveless environment, both uncaring parents – a father who vanishes into thin air – and an unwelcoming world: the “godforsaken hole” she describes is both the one she comes from and the one she’s expelled to. She skips to her old age (“nothing of note” before that), when she experiences some kind of breakdown in a field of cowslips. The first pause occurs after half a page, with a self-denying “what? . . who? . . no! . . she! . .” followed by the auditor’s first mysterious movement. This is described by Beckett as a “simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion.” The movement is repeated with decreasing vigour until on the third repeat later in the play it’s hardly perceptible (echoing the diminishing pools of light in the 1976 play Footfalls).

Mouth, the only name she goes by, then describes a series of incidents – a shopping centre where she stares into space as her bag is filled by an unseen hand, a courtroom where she’s judged and a mound in Croker’s Acres, a real-life location in Ireland, where she witnesses her own tears, the first since birth. The experience of lying face down in the field and the subsequent buzzing in her head and an intrusive beam of light that blights her mind return repeatedly to haunt her, as do thoughts of her birth. None of this story, a typical Beckett scenario of outsider rubbing up against ordinary society, is easily intelligible to an audience seeing the play for the first time. Delivered as a stream of words at top speed, only certain phrases register, giving it a musical feel, themes stated, repeated and developed.

If it’s difficult for the audience to follow, the play can be excruciating for the actress to perform. Billie Whitelaw famously broke down in rehearsals under the pressure that Beckett piled on her and Jessica Tandy (who originated the part in New York in 1972) had to have an autocue to get through the text (she was also performing Winnie in Happy Days, another tremendously demanding monologue, at the time). Whitelaw says in her autobiography that, strapped into her chair with her head held in a vice and suffering sensory deprivation from the darkness, she felt she was falling through space. It can be a tough play for the director too, with a rehearsal process very different from that for even Beckett’s other plays. As the director of the Royal Court production, Beckett spent a large part of his time just nursing Whitelaw through the difficulties.

In her excellent book Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s drama 1956-1976, Rosemary Pountney charts the development of Beckett’s key stage works through their various versions, through a process of re-working and refining over long periods. It’s a fascinating insight into his working methods. She talks of a process of “vaguening,” whereby Beckett took an overt idea and stripped it back in stages until what remains is a perfect distillation of his vision of humanity. Pountney says “the image of the frantic mouth repeating word patterns becomes a visual and oral symbol of the human predicament.”

Pountney traces what was to become Not I back to the so-called Kilcool fragments, a series of sketches through which the themes of the play gradually emerge. In the second of the fragments, Beckett gives the setting as: “Old woman’s face, 4 ft above stage level, slightly off centre, lit by strong steady light – Body not visible. Stage in darkness. Nothing visible but face.” It’s an image that’s closer to that of That Time, a play Beckett wrote a couple of years after completing Not I. Calling it “a brother to Not I,” he created another potent piece of imagery: an old man seen lying in bed, viewed from above, with white hair splaying out over the pillow. With Not I he refined the image of a disembodied head into just a mouth, an audacious and highly original step, eliminating everything but the organ of speech, and creating a perfect symbol of the protagonist’s plight.

Another note that Beckett attached to these early fragments, written almost a decade before Not I, is a final direction that reads “Talks of herself in 3rd person.” This becomes Mouth’s defining characteristic, what Beckett describes as her “vehement refusal to relinquish third person.” She is unable to see the person she is speaking of as herself, which recalls Winnie’s inability to acknowledge the true nature of her dilemma in Happy Days.

The production that will be seen at the Royal Court in May has been around since 2005, when it was performed at Battersea Arts Centre in a brilliant production by Natalie Abrahami. Since then it’s been seen at the South Bank and, last year, at the inaugural Enniskillen Beckett festival. At BAC, the auditor was dispensed with, as the play followed on directly from an equally superb performance of Play. The mouth was located high in the ceiling of the theatre but in most respects didn’t differ radically from Beckett’s original vision. Directors mess with Beckett’s precise instructions at their peril. Not only can deviating from his stage  directions bring down the wrath of the Beckett Estate, as Deborah Warner found when she “opened up” Footfalls in the West End in 1994, but it also risks failure. Warner’s brave attempt to move away from the claustrophobic, confined strip of light that Beckett specified did not succeed in creating a viable alternative vision. Peter Brook’s minimalist Rockaby, in which Kathryn Hunter rocked to death on a common kitchen chair that she tipped herself, rather than the elaborate mechanised rocking chair Beckett asks for, was more successful.

Neil Jordan directed Not I for television as part of the Channel 4 complete works in 2000, when he departed radically from the 1975 film. Although Julianne Moore is seen moving into position, the focus was still on the mouth, here a clearly young, glamorous woman all Hollywood teeth and lipstick in an interpretation that belied the pitiful condition of the character, and, as with Warner’s Footfalls, it failed to capture the essence of Beckett’s intentions.

As the distance from Beckett’s death grows, directors may become bolder in finding new ways of presenting his work. However it’s performed, Not I has a bleak and demanding theatricality that can’t be avoided. It’s difficult for the audience, even one that is familiar with the text because of the intense concentration required to follow the words. As Rosemary Pountney says, Beckett’s “plays are compelling because they force audiences to work, rather than sit back awaiting entertainment.”

At just nine minutes, Not I hardly makes for a full evening of theatre on its own, but the Royal Court will be showing it alongside a film of Billie Whitelaw talking about the play and following that with a discussion with Lisa Dwan and guests. With Beckett condensing more into his brief playlet than most playwrights express in three acts, there’ll be plenty to talk about.

Main image by Allan Titmuss. 

Samuel Beckett’s Not I will be performed by Lisa Dwan at the Barbican as part of their International Beckett season between 2nd and 7th June 2015. 

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Simon Thomas

Simon writes theatre and opera features/reviews for Exeunt and Whatsonstage. He took a degree in Theatre Arts at the Rose Bruford College and has worked in the theatre, in various capacities since the 1980s. He has a keen interest in new writing, the early (and late) works of Henrik Ibsen, and the works of Carlo Goldoni, amongst other things. His book The Theatre of Carlo Goldoni is available on Amazon.

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