‘Not I’ is a twenty-minute dramatic monologue written in 1972 by
Samuel Beckett and premiered at the “Samuel Beckett Festival” by the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Centre, New York in Oct 1972 and was directed by Alan Schneider, with Jessica Tandy as ‘The Mouth’ and Henderson Forsythe as ‘The Auditor’.
‘Not I’ is set in a pitch-black space illuminated only by a single beam of light. This spotlight
fixes on an actress's mouth on the stage and everything else being blacked outand, in early performances, illuminates the shadowy figure of the Auditor who makes four movements of “helpless compassion” during brief intervals in the monologue where Mouth appears to be listening to some inner voice but is unheard
by the audience.
The mouth utters at a ferocious pace a ‘logorrhoea’ of fragmented, jumbled sentences which obliquely tells the story of a woman of about seventy who having been abandoned by her parents after a premature birth has lived a loveless, mechanical existence and who appears to have suffered an unspecified traumatic experience. The woman has been virtually mute since childhood apart from occasional outbursts, one of which comprises the text we hear. From the text it could be inferred that the woman had been raped but this is something Beckett was very clear about when asked:
“How could you think of such a thing!?
“No, no, not at all –it wasn’t that at all”.
It seems more likely that she has suffered some kind of collapse, possibly even her death, while “wandering in a field … looking aimlessly for cowslips.”
Her initial reaction to the paralyzing event is to assume she is being punished by God but finds she is not suffering; she feels no pain, as in life she felt no pleasure. She cannot think why she might be being punished but accepts that God does not need a “particular reason” for what He does. She thinks she has something to tell though doesn’t know what but believes if she goes over the events of her life for long enough she will stumble upon that thing for which she needs to seek forgiveness. In addition to the continued buzzing in her skull there is now a light of varying intensity tormenting her; the two seem related.
As in many of Beckett’s works there is a cyclical nature fading in and out to similar expressions suggesting this is a snapshot of a much larger event.
Beckett had always intended that Billie Whitelaw, whom he had worked with on Play, give the definitive premiere performance of ‘Not I’, but in the end, more out of friendship than because of any delays in London, he allowed Alan Schneider the opportunity to present it first in America featuring Jessica Tandy.
However, Whitelaw’s subsequent performances benefited from extensive coaching from Beckett.
That said, Beckett did not demand that the part be spoken with an accent, his one concession to Whitelaw when tutoring her. Schneider put ten questions to Beckett, indicative of his bafflement. Beckett responded
“I no more know where she is or why thus than she does. All I know is in the text. ‘She’ is purely a stage entity, part of a stage image and purveyor of a stage text. The rest is Ibsen.”
The visual image of the mouth was, according to Beckett in a letter from 1974, suggested by The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (Caravaggio) in Valletta Cathedral.
The published stage directions also call for a character of indeterminate sex referred to as 'the Auditor' (generally played by a male) who wears a black robe and can be dimly seen stage left. When Beckett came to be involved in staging the play, he found that he was unable to place the Auditor in a stage
position that pleased him, and consequently allowed the character to be omitted from those productions. However, he chose not to cut the character from the published script, and whether or not the character is used in production seems to be at the discretion of individual producers
When Schneider questioned him as to whether the Auditor was Death or a guardian angel, Beckett shrugged his shoulders, lifted his arms and let them fall to his sides, leaving the ambiguity wholly intact.
Below I have posted a video of Billie Whitelaw portraying 'The Mouth'.
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