‘Not I’

Adam Mars-Jones

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.

Not I, premiered in 1972, is a sort of companion piece to Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), its female inversion. Krapp ruminates bleakly in extreme slow motion, while Mouth in Not I spills out words uncontrollably. In Krapp the past is multiply filtered and processed, with reminiscence counterpointed by impersonal memory – recorded tape – while in Not I it bursts through the present, brought up short only at the moments when the speaker refuses to acknowledge this past as hers. The word ‘I’ doesn’t feature in the text but is warded off with a defiant ‘she!’ every time it comes near. It’s very possible to have fun in the role of Krapp, but no actress is ever likely to enjoy herself playing Mouth. Beckett had hoped that Billie Whitelaw would give the premiere at the Royal Court but scheduling difficulties meant that Jessica Tandy preceded her, at the Lincoln Center, New York.

Beckett had a clear idea of the effect he wanted to produce with the monologue, an orifice vomiting language (‘an organ of emission, without intellect’), but wasn’t much interested in the difficulties the performer was likely to encounter. Mouth is supposed to speak from eight feet above the stage, meaning that some sort of gantry is required to get her into place, in Tandy’s case a black box that she shared with a man whose job was to keep the light focused on her mouth, though this position meant she had the luxury of five oversized prompt cards with the words written on them until her memory was secure. Beckett wanted no gestures from the performer, so the back of her head was locked in place. There was originally a forehead strap but it interfered with Tandy’s articulation and she had it removed. Tandy was an immensely experienced actress – the first Blanche Dubois, apart from anything else – but it was a mistake on her part, deriving from immersion in a different theatrical tradition, to ask the startled playwright questions about the character’s motivation (‘What happened to her in that field? Was she raped?’). The production was staged in the round, which made moving the box on and off stage especially difficult, extending the periods before and after the play when the performer was required to mumble her own Beckettesque gibberish. One night the box snagged on some electric cables and the whole system went down. Performance cancelled! Tandy felt nothing but relief.

Tandy stood up to play the role, bracing herself within the box by holding onto two iron bars, but Billie Whitelaw adopted a sitting position for the British premiere, strapped against the high back of a chair, an iron bar placed across its arms for her to hold onto. Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett describes it as an armchair, but the play’s Wikipedia entry suggests a more specialised piece of furniture, an ‘artist’s rest’ designed to let a film actor wearing heavy armour take the weight off his feet between takes. Whitelaw didn’t have the benefit of Tandy’s reading light and soon began to feel unreal to herself. Her son was recovering from meningitis and was subject to night terrors, which cost her sleep too. At one rehearsal, blindfolded and hyperventilating, she collapsed and after that insisted on a little blue light of her own – ‘so that I know I’m here’.

If Jessica Tandy was part of a box and Billie Whitelaw part of a chair, then Lisa Dwan is part of a wooden wall when she performs Not I, her forehead pressed against a plank, her mouth visible through a cutout. Tandy clocked in at 22 minutes, which Beckett considered too slow, Whitelaw trimmed it to 14 and Dwan takes less than ten, an astonishing feat of memory and articulation.

With plays of such intimate bleakness no institutional performing tradition was likely to develop, nothing like the curatorship of Chekhov claimed by the Moscow Arts Theatre, of Brecht by the Berliner Ensemble, of Balanchine by New York City Ballet, curatorship that sooner or later converges on taxidermy. There’s only the text and its demands. Ah, the text – easy for Lisa Dwan’s recent audiences to consult, since it’s reproduced in the programme. Here’s part of the stage directions: ‘AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about four feet high shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated.’ The repeated movement is considered important enough to need a Note at the beginning of the script: ‘this consists of simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion. It lessens with each recurrence till scarcely perceptible at third.’

The first Auditor, raising arms in helpless compassion for Tandy, was Henderson Forsythe, not quite a star but passably eminent, and wildly overqualified for such a part. You don’t need to have played George in the first run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway to know how to make a minimal gesture at the right moment. No Auditor is visible in the filmed version of Whitelaw’s interpretation of the role – only the use of split screen could remedy that – but she refers to its presence on stage (‘a shadowy figure in the corner’) in her introductory comments. The Auditor isn’t an optional extra. Or is it? If even one of the critics of the recent performances mentioned its absence, then I missed the review, though there was a lot of reference to Dwan having discussed the part with Whitelaw (after already having played it), and being shown the notes given her by Beckett. The text and the tradition are divergent forms of authority, the tablets of the law as against the apostolic succession, with private notes from the writer counting perhaps as apocrypha, not necessarily to be trusted. There’s no certainty that notes given by Beckett to Whitelaw would be relevant to Dwan’s performance. For instance the intention had been for Whitelaw to produce an Irish accent, until Beckett got used to hearing her deliver the words in the Bradford accent of her childhood while she learned the part. For Dwan the Irish cadences of the piece are closer to home. Ideally text and tradition illuminate each other: there’s nothing in the published Not I, for instance, to indicate that the monologue should be taken at breakneck speed. An innocent reader picking it up and seeing the groups of three dots between phrases might think this was a slow agonising dribble of words rather than a high pressure hose. It might even work that way on stage, given the Morton Feldman treatment, fours hours of pianissimo, a different sort of ordeal for the actress and a new challenge for the Beckett estate.

A request from Deborah Warner to stage an all-female Waiting for Godot (the intended casting was Fiona Shaw and Maggie Smith) was refused in the early 1990s, and her 1994 production of Footfalls with Shaw came up against the estate’s straitened sense of what was allowed to a director venturing onto hallowed ground. Some lines had been reassigned, Shaw’s restlessly pacing character had gone off-piste from the stage onto the balcony and her dress was red rather than grey. Warner reversed the offending transposition, but those smaller liberties were enough to prompt the withdrawal of permission for a European tour. Other productions have met similar resistance: in 2006 a dispute reached court in Rome, where a judge determined that it was legitimate to cast female twins in Godot, since the parts were merely being played by women, not as women. Yet there seems to be no objection to Not I being staged without the Auditor – with the cast list brutally chopped in two – at first blush a greater infraction of authorial intention. But then the first director to dispense with the Auditor was Samuel Beckett. Text and tradition are at odds, and what happens then?

In productions where he was involved directly, Beckett wasn’t able to find a suitable placement on stage for the Auditor, and didn’t insist on the figure being included (it was omitted, for instance, from the French premiere in 1975). Writing to two American directors in 1986 he set out his position: ‘He is very difficult to stage (light – position) and may well be of more harm than good. For me the play needs him but I can do without him. I have never seen him function effectively.’ Necessary but dispensable, the sort of paradox that can be richly productive in literature, but translates into the world of business, of rights and permissions, as confusion.

Beckett’s stage imagination isn’t in doubt, but it’s possible to have reservations about the humbler gift of stagecraft. Auditor and Mouth occupy different parts of the stage, one full-sized and motionless (except at crucial moments of disruption in the monologue, when the audience’s attention will naturally be fixed on Mouth), the other a few inches across and moving constantly. Both are supposed to be faintly illuminated, with no change of lighting during the piece. How to make a single theatrical experience of two such opposed elements? When Beckett asked the impossible of a performer he was generally able to get his way. When the impossibility was technical he had to admit defeat. With the Auditor out of the picture matters of staging are simplified – Dwan’s Mouth couldn’t be described as ‘faintly lit’. In 1975 Beckett went so far as to describe the Auditor as ‘an error of the creative imagination’ in a letter, but for the second Paris production, in 1978, he had another go, increasing the visibility of the Auditor by means of a lighting change, so that the figure’s gestures were somewhat dramatised. He even experimented with changing the gesture, so that the Auditor covers his ears rather than raising his arms (the use of the male pronoun seems authorised by Beckett’s 1986 letter). It may be that there would be a suggestion of kitsch clinging to the Auditor’s ‘helpless compassion’ even if the gestures could be properly staged, but Beckett only had doubts about the idea when it presented insoluble technical problems. His objection wasn’t in the first place aesthetic, and it’s obvious that Not I is a different piece of work with and without the watching, identifying figure. Beckett’s Auditor, a wordless distillation of the Chorus, is the last vestige of Greek tragedy, the oldest element of the oldest dramatic tradition we have.

The common-sense way of squaring text and tradition would be to state in the published version of Not I that there’s more than one permissible way of staging the piece. What would be so terrible about doing that? Well, for one thing the idea of Beckett as an infallible prophet of his own work’s future life would have to go, replaced by someone who could change his mind and even be defeated by technicalities. Not such a bad thing, and much less oppressive to those of his admirers who want his work to stay fresh. Theatre doesn’t stop being a collaborative art form just because its themes are isolation and enclosure. Even a play about suffocation needs to be allowed to breathe.