Not I is a twenty-minute dramatic monologue written in 1972 (March 20 to April 1) by Samuel Beckett, translated as Pas Moi; premiere at the “Samuel Beckett Festival” by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, New York (22 November 1972), directed by Alan Schneider, with Jessica Tandy (Mouth) and Henderson Forsythe (Auditor).
Not I takes place in a pitch-black space illuminated only by a single beam of light. This spotlight fixes on an actress's mouth about eight feet above the stage, everything else being blacked out and, in early performances, illuminates the shadowy figure of the Auditor who makes four increasingly ineffectual movements “of helpless compassion” during brief breaks in the monologue where Mouth appears to be listening to some inner voice 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.”
The woman relates four incidents from her life: lying face down in the grass, standing in a supermarket, sitting on a “mound in Croker's Acre” (a real place in Ireland near Leopardstown racecourse) and “that time at court”, each being preceded by a repeat on the repressed first ‘scene’ which has been likened to an epiphany; whatever happened to her in that field in April was the trigger for her to start talking.
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.
The title comes from the character's repeated insistence that the events she describes or alludes to did not happen to her.
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. Tandy did fly to France to discuss the text with Beckett. However, Whitelaw’s subsequent performances benefited from extensive coaching from Beckett.
“I knew that woman in Ireland,” Beckett said, “I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.”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.”
Objective meaning does seem to have been of secondary consideration in the writing style. As Beckett indicated to Tandy he hoped that the piece would “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.” Beckett told Tandy to consider the mouth “an organ of emission, without intellect” and “during rehearsals [with Whitelaw] he would say, ‘Too much colour, too much colour’, which she correctly interpreted as ‘For God’s sake, don’t act’.”
The visual image of the mouth was, according to Beckett in a letter postmarked 30 April 1974, suggested by The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (Caravaggio) in Valetta 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. As he wrote to two American directors in 1986: "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." In the 1978 Paris production he did reinstate the character but from then on abandoned the image concluding, as he had once said, that it was perhaps “an error of the creative imagination.”
It has been suggested that the image of the Auditor was inspired by the image of a djellaba-clad “intense listener” seen from a café in Tunis; Beckett was in Morocco for a month from February to March 1972. James Knowlson conjectures that this “figure coalesced with [Beckett’s] sharp memories of the Caravaggio painting” mentioned above. In this painting there “is an old woman standing to Salome’s left. She observes the decapitation with horror, covering her ears rather than her eyes” a gesture that Beckett added in the 1978 Paris production.
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.
Royal Court Theatre, London: Initially Billie Whitelaw wanted to stand on a dais but she found this didn’t work for her so she allowed herself to be strapped in a chair called an ‘artist’s rest’ on which a film actor wearing armour rests because he cannot sit down. Her entire body was draped in black; her face covered with black gauze with a black transparent slip for her eyes and her head was clamped between two pieces of sponge rubber so that her mouth would remain fixed in the spotlight. Finally a bar was fixed which she could cling to and on to which she could direct her tension. She was unable to use a visual aid and so memorised the text.
“Whitelaw has described the ordeal of playing Mouth, how she was totally cut off from others, high above the stage, clamped, swathed in a black hood, subject to panic attacks; after the dress rehearsal she was for a time totally disoriented. Yet this stage experience came to seem her most meaningful one. She heard in Mouth’s outpourings her own ‘inner scream’: ‘I found so much of my self in Not I. Somewhere in there were my entrails under a microscope.’”