Samuel Beckett's 'Not I'

On Beckett's groundbreaking short play
Billie Whitelaw in Samuel Beckett's 'Not I'
"when suddenly she felt . . . gradually she felt . . . her lips moving . . . imagine! . . her lips moving! . . as of course till then she had not . . . and not alone the lips . . . the cheeks . . . the jaws . . . the whole face . . . all those- . . what?. . the tongue? . . yes . . . the tongue in the mouth . . . all those contortions without which . . . no speech possible . . ."

Samuel Beckett, Not I
I've spent the last few days reading James Knowlson's Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett, a collection of uncollected interviews published for the centenary of Beckett's birth in 2006. Knowlson, the authorized and acclaimed biographer of Beckett's life, publishes many accounts of the evasive writer here for the first time, including memories and anecdotes from colleagues, friends, family members and even Beckett himself.

What struck me as particularly interesting were passages relating to Samuel Beckett's role as a theatre director. A writer by trade, Beckett had no previous experience of working with actors, but adopted a hands-on approach to adaptations of his work from the 1950s up until three years before his death in 1989.

Actors recounting their experiences sometimes felt frustration at Beckett's reluctance to develop back-stories for his characters; for Beckett, each character existed on the stage, and on the stage alone. Rick Cluchey of the San Quentin Drama Workshop, a friend and collaborator of the writer, puts it plainly enough: 'They went nowhere but backstage. They ceased to exist."

And Beckett was similarly reticent about the meanings and interpretations of his character's actions, often shrugging that 'it is of no consequence'. Actors sometimes struggled to relate to the characters they portrayed when so little information was offered them. All that existed was the text: alienated characters in austere circumstances, often completely divorced from any kind of realist representation. But for Samuel Beckett the text was enough, and he refused exegesis or explanation on what he saw as self-contained and self-explanatory. Speaking of Waiting for Godot in an interview, Beckett was definitive:
"I don't know who Godot is. I don't even know (above all don't know) if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not - those two who are waiting for him. [...] All that I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin. I'll even say I would have been satisfied with less. [...] Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I was able to know them a little, but far from the need to understand. Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other."
But there were a number of actors with whom Samuel Beckett felt a strong and lasting affinity. A fondness existed for French actors Jean Martin and Roger Blin, who acted in the premiere of Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot) back in 1953. The aforementioned Rick Cluchey became a long-standing friend of Beckett, and performed to acclaim as many of his characters. Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee served to prompt and inspire him. And actress Billie Whitelaw not only became a close friend of Beckett's, but a favourite interpreter of his work.

Billie Whitelaw not only occupied prominent roles in plays such as Come and Go and Happy Days, but was directed by Beckett in his production of Footfalls (a play that according to Knowlson was written with her in mind). They both appeared to find an immediate rapport, informed by a mutual understanding and Whitelaw's seemingly selfless dedication to her particularly challenging roles. As though being buried up to the neck in Happy Days wasn't enough, Whitelaw played Mouth in the British premiere of Not I under Beckett's specific guidance.

For those not familiar with the play, Not I is essentially a monologue for female voice, depicting a troubled and often silent mouth that has erupted into an uncontrollable speech. For the duration, only a mouth is illuminated on stage, and the lines are delivered in a voice close to monotone; in fact, when Whitelaw would veer close to a sensitive or emotive delivery, Beckett would shake his head and complain 'Too much colour! Too much colour!'

Aside from the challenges inherent in remembering the character's speech, Billie Whitelaw was also placed in an uncomfortable position. To quote James Knowlson, 'Whitelaw was covered in a hood, except for her mouth, shrouded in black and placed high up in a chair on a podium.' While firing out lines to the audience, Whitelaw was blindfolded and restricted, breathing more and more rapidly within her confined space. The result, although Whitelaw does not attribute it to Beckett's supervision or to the play itself, initiated hyperventilation and prompted her collapse at a rehearsal:
"It was nothing to do with Sam, nothing to do with Not I; it was all to do with sensory deprivation. If you are blindfolded and have a hood over your face, you hyperventilate, you suffer from sensory deprivation. It will happen to you. And I hung on and hung on until I couldn't any longer. I just went to pieces because I was convinced I was like an astronaut tumbling out into space. And I thought I can't be tumbling out into space, but I am tumbling out in space and that's when I fell down; I couldn't go on."
But, in typical Beckettian style Whitelaw eventually insisted that she would go on after all. Adjustments were made to her hood that gave her a sense of space and stability, and she continued with her performance. In fact, Billie Whitelaw also performed Not I for a television adaptation in 1973 - the first performance of Not I that I saw.

Julianne Moore in Samuel Beckett's 'Not I'

What strikes me most is the simplicity of the image. Not I is in some ways ideally suited for the film medium, as it allows the audience an extreme close-up of its subject. The image of Mouth is not only a powerfully simple one, but disconcerting and disturbing. It belongs to a universe where nothing else seems to exist at all. Nothing but a constant stream of words. And Whitelaw's performance is easily the best that I've seen so far.

Another prominent interpretation came from Julianne Moore for the Beckett on Film centenary project. But there is something about Moore's performance that has always left me cold. Neil Jordan's direction feels too bright and colourful to me, even sensual, and takes something away from the light and dark contrasts of the previous production.

What bothers me most about centenary adaptation is the decision to include more of Julianne Moore's face on-camera, which seems to miss one of the central points of the play. The audience is no longer aware of Mouth simply as what it is: a mouth. Instead it becomes the mouth of a famous Hollywood actress.

There are also numerous cuts made to the film to present different angles and perspectives, perhaps to keep the audience interested. But these cuts, while self-consciously disorientating, give the impression that the speech has been patched together with different takes - rather than offering a single, unbroken and unrelenting speech.

If Not I is a play about a mouth that speaks alone, utterly divorced from the character of its subject, then this dimension is absent in the Jordon production. We not only lose the sense of a Mouth as a character in and of itself, removed from all other context, but we also lose the strange and abstracted image of a human mouth struggling to express itself.

If you're curious to find out more, you can see Billie Whitelaw's 1973 performance of Not I by clicking here. As you can imagine, Not I probably isn't everybody's cup of tea... but for me there is a strange power in Whitelaw's constant and unrelenting delivery. It's theatre of the most extreme kind.