"Not I . . . is an aural mosaic of words, which come pell-mell but not always helter-skelter, and that once it is over, a life, emotions, and a state of mind have been made manifest, with a literally stunning impact upon the audience.”
Two reviews of Samuel Beckett’s Not I
Edith Oliver, The New Yorker 2 December 1972, p. 124:
The nearest I can come to describing ‘Not I’ is to say that it is an aural mosaic of words, which come pell-mell but not always helter-skelter, and that once it is over, a life, emotions, and a state of mind have been made manifest, with a literally stunning impact upon the audience. Even then, much of the play remains, and should remain, mysterious and shadowy. It opens in total darkness. A woman’s voice is heard (but so quietly that it almost mingles with the rattling of programs out front) whispering and crying and laughing and then speaking in a brogue, but so quickly that one can barely distinguish the words. Then a spotlight picks out a mouth moving; that is all the lighting there is, from beginning to end. The words never stop coming, and their speed never slackens; they are, we finally realize, the pent-up words of a lifetime, and they are more than the woman can control. She refers to her own ‘raving’ and ‘flickering brain,’ and to her ‘lips, cheeks, jaws, tongue, never still a second.’ Yet something of great power and vividness— tatters of incidents and feelings, not a story but something—comes through from a dementia that is compounded of grief and confusion. We hear of a sexual episode that took place on an early April morning long ago, when she was meant to be having pleasure and was having none. There is talk of punishment for her sins, and of being godforsaken, with no love of any kind. She is obsessed with the idea of punishment. There was a trial of some kind, when all that was required of her was to say ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not guilty,’ and she stood there, her mouth half open, struck dumb. Since then (or maybe not since then), she has been unable to speak, except for once or twice a year, when she rushes out and talks to strangers—in the market, in public lavatoriesonly to see their stares and almost die of shame. She has ‘lived on and on to be seventy.’ The light slowly fades, the gabble slides off to whispers and to silence. All the while, a man in monk’s garb has been standing in the shadows, listening and occasionally bowing his head. Miss Tandy gives an accomplished performance in what must be an extremely difficult role. Henderson Forsythe is the listener. This production of ‘Not I’ (I have no idea what the title means) lasts around fifteen minutes. They are about as densely packed as any fifteen minutes I can remember.
Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman, 26 January 1973, pp. 135–6:
When I was a boy, in the 1940s and 1950s, one of the most famous sights of the West Kent countryside was a woman in a rough brown smock with string round her waist, body bent forwards, arms working like pistons as she bustled towards Tunbridge Wells station. There she was planning to meet her husband, who had been killed in the first world war. In time, her walk lost its fever and became a sort of doleful trudge, and she disappeared from the roads. I don’t know if she may conceivably still be found in some geriatric ward, staring out of the window and wondering when the war will end; but I do know that her image came forcefully back to me when I saw ‘Not I’. If the spot that lit up the speaker’s mouth, and that only, had spread to reveal the whole of her body, I would have expected to see much the same hump and rags: if the old woman of Kent had spoken, I daresay much the same anguished gabble would have poured from her. All Beckett’ s plays may be seen as threnodies to wasted lives; but ‘Not I’ is more concrete in its characterisation than most, and as starkly visual as any in its evocation of the all-but-invisible piece of human driftwood whose monologue it is. It is also unusually painful—tearing into you like a grappling iron and dragging you after it, with or without your leave.
The mouth belongs to Billie Whitelaw; and, for some 15 minutes, she pants and gasps out the tale of the character to whom it belongs, her broken phrases jostling each other in their desperation to be expressed. It is a performance of sustained intensity, all sweat, clenched muscle and foaming larynx, and one which finds its variety only upwards: a frantic cackle at the idea that there might be a merciful God; a scream of suffering designed to appease this uncertain deity. But it must be admitted that the breathless pace combines with the incoherence of the character’s thoughts to make the piece hard to follow: which is why I’d suggest either that it be played twice a session (though this might prove too much even for Miss Whitelaw’s athletic throat), or that spectators should first buy and con the script, which Faber is publishing this week at 40p. After all, one of the many assumptions which Beckett’s work challenges is that a play should necessarily strip and show its all (or even much of itself) at first encounter. Like good music, ‘Not I’ demands familiarity, and is, I suspect, capable of giving growing satisfaction with each hearing. Meanwhile, let me piece together a crib for those too poor or proud to get the score proper.
‘Mouth’, as Beckett calls her, was born a bastard, deserted by her parents, brought up in a loveless, heavily religious orphanage. She became a lonely, frightened, half-moronic adult, forever trudging round the countryside and avoiding others.
busy shopping centre…supermart…just hand in the list…with the bag…old black shopping bag… then stand there waiting…any length of time… middle of the throng…motionless…staring into space…mouth half-open as usual…till it was back in her hand… the bag back in her hand…then pay and go…not as much as goodbye.
Once she appeared in court on some unnamed charge, and couldn’t speak; once and only once, she wept; occasionally, ‘always winter for some reason’, she was seen standing in the public lavatory, mouthing distorted vowels. But otherwise ‘nothing of note’ apparently happened until a mysterious experience at the age of 70. The morning sky went dark, a ray of light played in front of her. Her reaction (‘very foolish but so like her’) was that she was about to be punished for her sins, and she tried to scream. Yet neither did she feel pain, nor could she make a sound; nor hear anything, except a dull buzzing in the head. Then, suddenly, her mouth began to pour out words, so many and fast that her brain couldn’t grasp them, though she sensed that some revelation, some discovery, was at hand. And ‘feeling was coming back… imagine… feeling coming back’—to her mouth, lips and cheeks, if not yet to her numb heart. It is that feeling, those words, which we are presumably hearing in the theatre; that mouth, bulging and writhing in its spotlight like some blubbery sea-creature on the hook, which isnow virtually all that is left alive of the speaker after decades of dereliction.
Or could it be, as some suspect, that the mouth is talking, not of itself, but of someone else? I don’t think so. True, the story is told entirely in the third person, and the play is baldly called ‘Not I’. But Beckett helpfully provides a stage direction which seems to explain that. At key moments, the speaker repeats with rising horror, ‘What? Who? No SHE’ : which is, we’re told, a vehement refusal to relinquish third person’. In other words, she can’t bring herself to utter the word ‘I’, and that, I’d suggest, is because she dare not admit that this wilderness of a life is hers and hers alone. Whenever she gets near the admission, we get instead that cry of ‘no’ and howl of ‘she’, as if she was denying any possibility so awful. Things like that happen to other people: they cannot happen to ‘me’. Again, she seems to show symptoms of what psychiatrists call ‘depersonalisation’, the condition in which the sufferer has lost nearly all capacity for emotion and is left with the sensation, not only of not being himself, but of scarcely being human at all. Thus she thinks of herself in the third person and, on two occasions, talks of her body as a ‘machine’, disconnected from sense and speech. But it is, of course, quite inadequate to argue that Beckett is offering a clinical study of a schizophrenic: her predicament is much more representative. Which of us doesn’t shut his eyes to his failures, and who wouldn’t rather say ‘he or ‘she’ of much of his own irrecoverable life? Who isn’t guilty of both evasion and waste?
The play’s resonance is typical. Beckett commonly takes a particular character, pares it down to the moral skeleton, and leaves us with the pattern, the archetype: he refines individuals into metaphors in which we can all, if we’re honest, see bits of ourselves. What distinguishes ‘Not I’ from most of his work is the extent to which ‘mouth’ is individualised and the relative straightforwardness of its implications. Once the code is cracked, the stream of consciousness channelled, it isn’t a hard play, nor is it as stunningly pessimistic as some critics believe. In ‘Endgame’, for instance, Hamm’s room is Hamm’s room, a dying man’s skull, the family hearth, society and the planet Earth, forcing the spectator to spread his poor, bewildered wits over four or five levels at once; ‘Not I‘s’ stage is a barrenly furnished human mind, and that only. Again, I can think of few gloomier plays than ‘Happy Days’, which equates happiness with gross stupidity, or the one-minute ‘Breath’, which defines life as two faint cries and the world as a rubbish- heap. Invocations of God notwithstanding, ‘Not I’ has nothing definite to say about the society, world or universe in which ‘mouth’ spins out her existence. It could be that some self-fulfilment is possible there for those who don’t evade life by crying ‘not I’: that might be the revelation that tantalises but eludes her. Unlikely, knowing Beckett; but conceivable. We should seize hopefully on the slightest chink in such a man’s determinism, the barest scratch on the dark glasses through which he surveys us all.
It’s an entirely self-sufficient play, but not without echoes from earlier ones: the omnipresence of irrational guilt; the idea that love causes only suffering; and a shapeand tone that owes something to ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’—which is presumably why that piece is also on the programme, with Albert Finney poised over the recording machine, spooling his way through yet another null past. Finney proves a bit cavalier with the stage directions, but achieves a good deal with a voice that markedly thickens and coarsens over the years, and with a face that scarcely has to move to suggest fear, bewilderment, a sudden raddled tenderness. I would recommend the production; but its ‘Not I’ that lingers in my mind, not because it’s more exquisitely written, but because it is, I think, even more deeply felt. At any rate, the old woman’s predicament strikes me as more moving than the old man’s. Perhaps this is because he is cleverer, and she more fragile and vulnerable, and less responsible for her failures; perhaps not. Whatever the reason, it is hard not to identify with the bent, cowled figure Beckett calls the ‘auditor’, who stands half- invisible in the murk of the stage watching the mouth and, finally, raising his arms ‘in a gesture of helpless compassion’. Compassion is indeed and exactly what ‘Not I’ provokes, and more powerfully than anything I’ve yet seen by Beckett.
—from L. Graver and R. Federman, editors, Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1979, pp. 368-373.