Practical aspects of theatre, radio and television

On acting Mouth in Not I

Rosemary Pountney

After burrowing into the text of Beckett’s plays for some time in an attempt to worm out a research degree, the chance of coming to grips with a performance of one of the plays came as both a relief and a challenge. A decade and a half after leaving Drama School, I found myself playing the Mouth in Not I, in the Samuel Beckett Theatre Company’s production mounted to mark the playwright’s seventieth birthday, which was to run for a week as a late show at the Oxford Playhouse, directed by Francis Warner.

During the Christmas vacation Francis Warner discussed the play with Beckett—who had assisted at rehearsals for the Royal Court production in January 1973. Our main query concerned the speed of delivery. Beckett had favoured an extraordinary pace at the Royal Court, which tended to preclude immediate understanding, because the words (although audible) were part of a torrent of sound; but as phrases recurred they began to take on significance, rather as in music—and a cyclical language structure emerged.

There are as yet no directions for pace in the Faber text, and when I queried this in writing to Beckett, his reply was characteristic: ‘Eh non.’ But he did tell Warner that the pace could be modified, and we therefore decided to compromise—to start quite slowly (in an attempt to establish something of the personality of the disembodied voice) and then increase the pace. We hoped that an audience might thus follow the text from the outset.

Although Not I is sometimes considered a particularly ambiguous play, a study of the text reveals a basic situation of extreme simplicity. Overheard by a hooded figure placed to one side of the stage, a disembodied mouth recounts in the third person the story of a barren life. Certain details prove Mouth to be telling its own story but this it strenuously denies, repeating at intervals the words ‘What? . . . who? . . . no! . . . she!’ Whereupon the auditor stretches out his hands in (says a final note) ‘a gesture of helpless compassion.’ His gestures diminish as Mouth continues its self-deception—and on the final occasion, after Mouth defiantly repeats its lie (‘ . . . she! . . . SHE!’) he makes no movement at all.

The fact that the auditor listens in ‘helpless compassion’ is perhaps more revealing of intention than any other note in Beckett’s plays. It is not present in the MSS. of the play (held at Reading University Library) suggesting that the need for aid to comprehension either occurred to Beckett—or was put before him—at a late stage. Beckett’s presence over the years at rehearsals of his plays in London, Paris and Berlin reflects his concern that they should be performed according to his intentions. ‘I might possibly come over to make a nuisance of myself at the rehearsals of Krapp,’ he wrote in a letter to Jake Schwartz in April 1958, ‘I am very anxious for it to be done right’ (University of Texas at Austin MS).

Being ‘done right’ means paying careful attention to Beckett’s stage directions—indeed a director ignores these at his peril. An amateur production of Come and go I once saw, for example, followed the last line ‘I can feel the rings’ by an immediate curtain. The stage directions, however, reveal that the main focus of the play occurs in the silence following the last line, as the light rests on three pairs of hands ‘made up to be as visible as possible’ but with ‘no ring apparent,’ and the effect for the audience should be that of a final double-take.

Such productions rest on the premiss that Beckett is an impenetrable writer and should be performed as such. But it is of course debatable whether audiences unaccustomed to such use of light would have registered the unspoken comment, even had the directions been followed. Here indeed one encounters a real life difficulty with Beckett’s plays. Not I, for example, is beautifully clear in exposition when read—but making the auditor’s gestures work on stage is another matter. Beckett himself found in the Royal Court production that the movements that he had indicated for the auditor could not be seen because the moving mouth mesmerized the audience. He therefore replaced them by a bowing of the head into the hands at the final pause. But the original gestures remain in the text. This was subsequently translated into French and first performed in Paris in April 1975. Beckett once again assisted in the production indeed, was forced by circumstance to take it over in which the auditor was omitted from the play altogether!

There seems to be a dichotomy here between conception and execution. Beckett’s stage directions which form part of his original text help to reveal the meaning of his plays, and, since they may even carry the climax of a play (as with Come and go), rigorous adherence to them seems essential. But when Beckett himself becomes involved in the production of one of his plays, his attitude is more fluid, discarding what does not work in terms of the particular production. Hence the stripping of movement from the auditor in Not I leading to his total extinction, despite his importance in the original concept. Beckett’s plays may thus be said to have continued to develop through production—as with Play, where the idea of reducing the strength of light and voice in the repeat evolved during a production in Paris early in 1964—because, (as Beckett wrote to George Devine who was rehearsing the English première of the play at the same time) ‘we now think it would be dramatically more effective.’

Questions about the so-called ‘sanctity of the text’ arise here—even when it is the author himself who makes the changes. It is, however, comparatively rare for such production changes to find their way into the published text. The 1968 Faber edition of Play is an example in that it contains possible variations for the repeat influenced by the 1964 production. But Beckett, replying recently to a question of mine about this, wrote: ‘Exact repeat preferable.’ The original text, it seems, remains the authoritative version. Not I, on the other hand, bears no textual directions as to pace, so the fact that Beckett directed the English première at a gallop remains, as it were, merely an oral tradition. If such a pace was part of Beckett’s original concept of the play and not, (as with Play) simply a method of delivery that evolved in production, it requires a textual note to give it permanence.

With the Royal Court production in mind I found, on beginning to rehearse Mouth, that the necessity for speed made it extraordinarily difficult to vary vocal inflexion, so that the monologue tended to stream monotonously on. The difficulty was increased by the Irish accent in which we had decided to play the piece and which I found trapped me initially in a certain vocal cadence. I felt in a strait-jacket of pace and accent for a monologue demanding extreme vocal flexibility to give it life. We had decided upon an Irish accent because (in a note subsequently deleted from the manuscript) Beckett had suggested that ‘any’ might be pronounced ‘anny’ and ‘baby’—’babby,’ as though he had had an Irish voice in his head while writing the play. Despite the deletion (made, presumably, since it both set the piece too specifically in Ireland and might prevent a non-Irish actress attempting the role) Warner and I both felt convinced that it was an Irishwoman with whom we had to deal.

To overcome the pace difficulty I wrote out the text in ‘sense paragraphs’ thus breaking the non-stop phrasal flow in which it is printed. This meant that each section could be rehearsed as an intelligible unit, with varying pitch and pace—in the hope that when the delivery was speeded up (to the sixteen and a half minutes we eventually decided upon) some, at least, of the intelligibility and variety would remain. The opening was particularly important in this regard—and Francis Warner insisted on my beginning quite slowly, in order to allow the woman’s personality (submerged at full tilt) to emerge. He was especially anxious that her sardonic double-takes should be registered—when she repeats a phrase as if having only just caught its meaning, because voice and consciousness are split, Cartesian fashion, so that she has ‘no idea what she’s saying.’

Such a remark may be taken as a further example of the lack of self-knowledge implicit in the title—and demonstrated by such statements as: ‘Couldn’t make a sound . . . no sound of any kind’ before emitting a piercing scream. But should we deny the validity of Mouth’s stated experience—even though it hinges on a delusion? For example I longed to pause—even fractionally—between sense paragraphs, in order to let a point register, before changing pace or pitch. But Mouth says ‘Couldn’t pause a second’ and although this is disproved by her five pauses after the denial of selfhood, I did not feel justified in adding more.

Other problems arose in rehearsal. When eventually we began to rehearse on stage, my head was encased at our first attempt at blacking out the face in a Ku Klux Klan-type hood, with a hole for the mouth alone. This proved hot, claustrophobic, and enormously difficult (with eyes gone) to judge how much voice was required to fill the auditorium. We therefore removed the hood, working up to what we felt to be a satisfactory pitch and pace for the performance, while I simply sat on stage. But I was aware of reinforcing mouth with eyes—and dreaded being blacked out again.

As well as being unpleasant to wear, the black hood revealed the distinct outline of a head once the mouth was lit, so the Playhouse lighting director, David Colmer, finally hit on the idea of my sitting six feet up a scaffolding structure that was entirely draped in black. Into the drape was cut a hole for the mouth—and sewn to the hole was a small piece of stretchy black material, that tied me into position with tapes round head and neck. The size of the slit (about 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches) seemed extraordinarily small to serve as the central image for the play. But the whole mouth area was painted luminous white and when the mouth was placed in the aperture at least half an inch of the area surrounding the lips could be seen—making a more substantial image. That a supernatural-looking orifice rather than a conventional mouth image was Beckett’s intention emerged in a conversation between Beckett and Warner soon after the play first opened in 1973; there is no indication of this in the stage directions, although it is widely known that a white mouth was used in the Royal Court première, and such an image appears on the cover of the Faber text.

Once the monologue begins, and apart from the auditor’s pauses, all movement is concentrated upon the mouth—making (as was pointed out sometimes critically, sometimes appreciatively) a ‘mesmeric’ image.

Putting on Not I proved to be an experience, certainly, challenging to all concerned—actor, director, technical staff and perhaps most of all audiences—who, though increasingly prepared to give Beckett a hearing, had to adjust in Not I to his most unlikely theatrical image to date. But its power to move was apparent from those who nightly made the effort to overcome their preconceptions as to what theatre should be—and managed to tune in to how (in Beckett’s terms) it is.