Lisa Dwan has been performing Samuel Beckett’s immensely demanding Not I since 2005. What audiences saw at two short London runs this year, at the Royal Court in January and the Duchess Theatre in February (the production now tours), differed markedly from the published text, though this is not a body of work where experimentation is welcomed. A literary estate is more like a guard dog than a pussy cat, and the Samuel Beckett estate has acquired a particular reputation for vigilance in defence of its author’s work.
Vol. 36 No. 7 · 3 April 2014
Adam Mars-Jones complains about the vigilance of the Samuel Beckett estate, citing problems with previous productions of Footfalls and Waiting for Godot – ‘the estate’s straitened sense of what was allowed’ (LRB, 6 March). He suggests that, in relation to Not I, ‘even a play about suffocation needs to be allowed to breathe.’ However, he spends most of his piece expressing concern that both Beckett and the estate decided on the removal of the Auditor, a figure which featured in early performances, and which remains in the published text.
Beckett, as Mars-Jones notes, had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the part of the Auditor. Mars-Jones suggests that this was mainly on technical grounds, but also quotes Beckett’s remark that perhaps it was an error of the imagination. ‘Woman’s face alone in constant light. Nothing but fixed lit face and speech,’ he wrote in the unpublished theatre fragment, Kilcool, some years before Not I. He asked Ruby Cohn after a rehearsal of Happy Days: ‘Can you stage a mouth? Just a moving mouth with the rest of the stage in darkness?’ The subsequent difficulties of staging Not I with the inclusion of the Auditor seem to stem from the attempt to include two disparate images in a single holistic frame.
It was almost exactly two years after Billie Whitelaw’s 1973 performance at the Royal Court that the single image of the Mouth was filmed. When Beckett saw this version of Whitelaw’s performance in 1975 he apparently said that he found it ‘miraculous’. He dispensed with the Auditor in the Paris version of March 1975, and although he tried to reintroduce the figure in 1978, he questioned its viability. Perhaps, after seeing the film of Billie Whitelaw’s performance, he realised that the Auditor was to some extent an unnecessary embellishment, something of a distraction, as the audience, in complete darkness, replaces the Auditor as witness to Mouth’s distress.
Among other significant productions, Juliet Stevenson staged Not I in 1997 in Stratford, again without the Auditor. In the Channel 4 production directed by Neil Jordan, Julianne Moore, following the sound of birdsong, walks on set, sits down in a chair, and begins the piece, her mouth in close-up filmed from alternating angles. Edward Beckett was associate producer, so presumably the estate approved these alterations. (Channel 4 took liberties with many of the plays they filmed.) Moore’s performance comes in at about 13 minutes, much the same as Whitelaw’s. That Lisa Dwan comes in under ten minutes and manages to make the text intelligible is extraordinary. However, if Mars-Jones wanted to be even more pedantic about the relationship between performance and text, he might have added that Dwan, rather than ‘voice unintelligible’ and ‘with rise of curtain ad-libbing from text’, catches her throat as if choking on the words at both the beginning and end of the play. Dwan’s marvellous performance illustrates the margins for interpretation that exist in the work. The problems only seem to emerge when directors and actors think they have more creative imagination than Beckett himself.