The Orphic mouth in ‘Not I’


Katherine Kelly


Hung eight feet above the stage, fixed by a spotlight, the mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I is like the ghost of a diminished Orpheus drastically reduced from his ancient fame and glory. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Orpheus triumphs over his suffering through the power of his poetry that continues, even from his dead tongue, to charm ‘the multitude of beasts, stones and trees.’ The story of the mythic poet has three parts. In the first, Orpheus is described as singing to the accompaniment of his lyre, the beauty and power of which attracts and charms the wild and insensible elements in nature. In the middle section, he descends to the underworld in pursuit of his lost wife Eurydice, where, although his song succeeds in moving the king and queen of darkness to release her, he is unable to keep the conditions for her return and finally leaves Hades without her. The third movement begins with his dismemberment by the Maenads after which it is written that his head floated downstream singing, while all of nature mourned him. He descends to Hades for the last time, making his way to Elysium where he is reunited for eternity with his beloved wife.


Mouth undergoes the first part of the third movement of the myth, that of dismemberment and descent into an underworld, but she makes her journey in solitude, unmourned by nature, society, or, for that matter, by the reader/spectator who finds her image and her music painfully comic. ‘We laugh,’ Bergson has said, ‘every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing.’ Mouth is somewhere in between person and thing, eliciting neither a wholly detached nor an entirely sympathetic reaction to her plight. We want to laugh at the isolated object on stage, but its painful history eclipses our amusement. She has only one companion in her misery—the Auditor—a tall, standing figure shrouded in the folds of a full-length black djellaba. The action of the play consists of Mouth’s rapid, stacatto uttering of short phrases and Auditor’s raising of his arms at those moments when, as the stage directions indicate, Mouth most vehemently refuses to speak in first person: ‘What! . . . Who? . . . No! . . . She!’


Her isolation is complete in spite of her compulsive speech since that, too, is inaccessible to her audience and even to herself. She pours it out with ‘half the vowels wrong,’ the audience staring at her ‘uncomprehending.’ Like Orpheus, she is at once the instrument and the song played upon it, but her instrument is fractured, and her song is, by her own account, doomed to fail. It fails to reunite her with the world outside of her, just as it fails to make whole the fragments in her skull.


In his portrayal of the Orphic figure, Beckett has varied in a significant way the structure of Ovid’s myth by discounting all but the torment of its third movement. Orpheus’s heroic relation to the life around him is replaced by Mouth’s utter isolation from nature and society. Far from charming the gods of her underworld, she suspects that they manipulate her reality as ‘part of the same wish to . . . torment.’ As for Elysium—it is inconceivable in this work. Beckett’s disfigurement of Ovid’s heroic story is his own grimly comic myth of Orpheus in which the poet’s voice, while obliged to express, has not even a command of coherent speech, let alone story and thought as vehicles of expression.


These remarks, focussing on the written text of the play as the reader experiences it, will make only an occasional reference to its stage spectacle which has already received critical attention.1 While it is true that Beckett intended the words to be spoken so quickly as to be nearly incomprehensible to a stage audience, a careful reading of them gives the reader not more, but a different quality of comprehension by concentrating on the narrative remains of what was once (apparently) a human history. Although any work for the theatre is essentially three-dimensional, a one-dimensional study of the language in Not I is a study of its most active element. What really moves in this play is not bodies or stage props, but words.


As critics have noted,2 Mouth, though not the first of Beckett’s autobiographers, bears an unusual resemblance to the protagonist of her own story. Although Krapp, the constipated hero of Krapp’s last tape makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he has put himself on tape in order to re-live in solitude all the old miseries of his older selves, Hamm, more typically, tells in Endgame a story which metaphorically conceals the anguish of his own life. It takes the form of an ongoing chronicle of a father and son who sought shelter in Hamm’s room. As long as he exists, Hamm can never complete his chronicle since it represents his wish to prevent the regeneration of life which is, by extension, his desire to terminate his own existence. Maddy, the obese heroine of the radio drama All that fall, tells the story of her fictional child Minnie whose death is a metaphor for the terminal hopelessness of Maddy’s grotesque preoccupation with fertility and reproduction. Winnie of Happy days also has a make-believe child, Mildred, who has a doll. While playing with her doll, a mouse runs up Mildred’s thigh in what appears to be (if it is meant to mean anything at all), an allegory of sexual violation, disguising trauma behind the same kind of happy, innocuous mask that conceals Winnie’s suffering. In contrast to these earlier fictionalizers, Mouth’s storytelling is not metaphorical. The elements of her story, from her premature birth to something very like death, constitute the actual shape of her life in her consciousness.


The autobiographical history which Mouth attempts to attribute to a fictional ‘She’ is made up of a number of incidents which, when taken together, sum up what she calls a ‘typical’ life, sharing with the comic world of Leopold Bloom an unremarkable mundanity foregrounded by the mythic frame which surrounds it. It begins, predictably enough, with her birth, which was premature and was followed by her childhood in an orphanage where she and the other waifs were taught to believe in a merciful God. Except for rare wintertime babbling, she drifts around in silence, surviving miraculously, even in supermarkets. At one point, she stood trial and, when asked to enter a plea, simply waited to be led away. Except for the time when she was supposed to be enjoying herself but in fact was not (a mysterious, possibly sexual occurrence), the rest of her memories are of Croker’s Acres, the scene of her descent. She was there at dusk, watching her tears dry on her upturned palms, and on an April morning gathering cowslips—or was she hurrying toward a distant bell? Then she found herself face down in the grass, with all the light gone out. Mouth’s story of her ineffectual search for love and comfort in a lifetime clouded by guilt epitomizes the history of the suffering voice on stage and all of Beckett’s characters for whom life must not only be lived, but talked about as well.


In spite of her efforts to insist that she is not telling her own story, the identity of-Mouth with ‘She’ comes slowly into focus in the first part of the monologue. It is first hinted at quite early in the piece by means of a physical correspondence between her story and the spectacle on stage. Drifting around in a field, ‘suddenly, gradually’ all the light went out. The ray of light that Mouth began to perceive after all natural light was extinguished shines from the spotlight trained on the mouth; likewise, her inability to sense her physical position corresponds to the audience’s inability to see anything of the speaker at all except her mouth. Mouth fails in her attempt to fictionalize herself by revealing, perhaps unwittingly, that her heroine’s predicament is identical to her own as the audience perceives it. Her narrative becomes a more explicit description of her stage appearance, ‘Whole body like gone . . . just the mouth . . . stream of words . . . no idea what she’s saying’ until, finally, it tells the story of itself, ‘she began trying to . . . delude herself . . . it was not hers at all . . . ’3 Yet Mouth persists in telling what appears to be a stubborn lie: that she is not speaking of herself, but of someone else. Curiously, the fictionalizing impulse survives the ontological instability that threatens to blow the remains of the heroine’s ‘self’ into pieces. Stories, like habit, die hard, especially if one is a writer and stories are one’s habit. Whatever delusions and confusions Mouth may be suffering, she persists in her refusal to relinquish third person, perhaps because she must refuse, being habitually addicted to storytelling, or perhaps because she chooses to refuse, recognizing in storytelling the means of gaining a distance from the chaos of memory and experience that her brain generates.


One of the effects of Mouth’s transparent denial of her fragmented self is to attach to that denial the aspect of suffering; to give her, even in this eccentric and austere work, the status of a feeling being. The first person pronoun, in itself unimportant, is associated with a series of hurts and disappointments; specifically, with the absence of love and the expectation that ‘tender mercies’ will alleviate the pain of existing. The particular kind of hell inhabited by Beckett’s heroines is created by their eternally thwarted desire for love, mercy and renewal, yearned for in the form of children, spring and morning. Winnie, Maddy and Mouth are all Earth Mothers of sorts. Maddy never tires of contemplating the reproductive habits of barnyard animals. Terrestrial Winnie, rooted in a mound of scorched grass, shares Maddy’s fascination with animal life.


Mouth’s metaphorical descent into the underworld occurs on or near a mound of grass in Croker’s Acres while she is looking for cowslips. She has been ‘sucked under’ more completely than Winnie, leaving behind nature and a three-dimensional sense of her existence in space. Avoiding ‘I’ could be Mouth’s linguistic strategy for avoiding pain. She is, after all, Maddy’s old wish come true, for Maddy wanted to be released from her ‘dirty old pelt’ through a violent fragmentation of her being: ‘oh to be in atoms . . . ATOMS!’ Disguised autobiography, something that would, in spite of Mouth’s resistance, tell ‘how it was,’ appeals to her as it appealed to Hamm and Winnie both of whom are lonely like ‘the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together in the dark.’ Storytelling is resorted to as a self-protective device, but it is finally ineffective as a pain killer; the head still buzzes and roars; the beam still ferrets; the brain strains; even memory occurs in disorienting flashes.


Mouth’s denial of ‘I’ paradoxically heightens the reader’s sense that she has a feeling self, that she is, in fact, human and not inhuman; but Beckett’s pronomial preoccupation began long before he wrote this play. Critics4 have traced Beckett’s wrestling with the ‘cursed first person’ from his 1932 contribution to transition magazine through the trilogy of novels in which the Unnamable, after threatening to desert ‘I’ returns to it in despair, and finally to Film, a cinematic equivalent of the selfsplitting Mouth in which the protagonist is ‘sundered into object (O) and eye (E).’


The nine co-authors of the 1932 manifesto in transition magazine entitled ‘Poetry is vertical’ proposed to use a revolutionary, even a hermetic language as a divining instrument in their desire to evade the influence exerted by the self in the creative act. But as hard as he tries to escape it, the protagonist of The unnamable returns to first person, always with the awareness that what he means by ‘I’ is finally inscrutable. He puts off speaking of ‘I’ because he knows nothing of his self. Fictions are all lies invented in order to ‘put off the hour when I must speak of me.’ Like Mouth, the narrator speaks with his ‘own’ voice which he concludes must be his own because he speaks it in solitude. However, he is also like Mouth in sensing that, while he is telling the stories of his ‘dying generations’ another voice speaks to him, barely perceptible, telling him what to do to escape from the need to go on talking. In her inaudible dialogue within her monologue, Mouth appears to be hearing this outside voice which directs, edits and deletes from her store of utterance, though it does not purify her stories or render them true. The Unnamable appears to be eager, but is finally unable to say ‘I’ with any confidence. Mouth, feeling her dilemma more keenly, insists on remaining separate from ‘I,’ reiterating her hope that, should it continue long enough, her narrative will eventually gain her release from suffering.


Beckett recasts his struggle with the ‘I’ in Film, in which a simultaneous search for the self and flight from the self finds its expression in the splitting of a single figure into object (O) and eye (E); the former in flight from perception and the latter in pursuit. Raymond Federman has noted5 that the perceiving eye is identified with the eye of the camera in pursuit of the object, and the eye of the object in pursuit of itself. In this Beckettian conception of Berkeley’s maxim Esse est percipi (‘To be is to be perceived’), the subject and object of perception are one and the same, an identification which is not clarified until the end of the piece.6 Upon realizing that the eye of the camera is the eye of the object perceiving itself, the viewer experiences a double focus in which it seems to be both looking at and out of the object simultaneously. This same illusion is achieved in Not I when it becomes clear to the spectator (if it does at all), that Mouth is describing from her side of the stage the image the audience sees before itself. All the while that Mouth squirms under the intensity of the spotlight, she is fixed by the uncomprehending stare of the audience which, unknowingly implicated in her suffering, worsens it by preventing her from dissolving into nonbeing. Seeking a way out of existence, Mouth recoils from the word that it meant to symbolize a sound, ontological core: the I.


Audience reaction to the piece is embodied by its onstage surrogate, the Auditor, who is, according to Ruby Cohn, the play’s ‘seed image.’7 Paired with the pulsing Mouth, the shrouded figure completes the spectacle by providing it with an interior audience, rendering its hermetic isolation complete. Mouth and Auditor inhabit this underworld together, but it is uncertain that they speak to or hear one another. It is even possible that they are the sundered parts of a single being.


They are distinguished by a series of contrasts which, in addition to adding to the visual complexity of the spectacle, isolate and embody the realm of possibility which exists in their world: silence and logorrhea, activity or receptivity, exposure and concealment. Undoubtedly each of these ‘possibilities’ is as imprisoning as the other, and the two of them may be inextricably intertwined as the functions of Beckett’s couples so often are. In the mythic context in which this play may be said to take place, Auditor stands in for the stones, trees and gods of the underworld who suffered in tune with Orpheus’s suffering. But the exact nature of the relation between these two shades is a mystery. It seems closely to parallel that of the speaker and auditor in the poetic form of the dramatic monologue in which the speaker’s intense search for meaning totally absorbs him in what he is saying and accounts for his failure to connect with the Auditor.8 Mouth, like Eliot’s Prufrock and Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, is finally a voice directing talk about itself to itself; however, unlike these poetic speakers, Mouth is prohibited from understanding what her own voice is saying. Yet Mouth does function (or some part of her functions) as critic, narrowing her range of possible subjects: ‘nothing she could tell? . . . all right . . . nothing she could tell [. . .] nothing she could think? . . . all right . . . nothing she could tell . . . nothing she could think’ (p.85). She finds herself mouthing the artist’s position outlined by Beckett in his record of a dialogue with Georges Duthuit, ‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’9


In his study of the Orphic theme in twentieth century literature, Walter A. Strauss defines the Orphic voice as one which ‘presupposes the possibility of song and the relevance of poetry to the life of the individual soul and the community.’10 This voice not only believes song to be possible, but powerful. Elizabeth Sewell’s work on the Orphic tradition reveals its roots to lie in the equation between poetry and power.11 It is precisely the absence of this equation that characterizes the work of Beckett, Kafka and others, whose comic Orphic heroes make an ironic descent into Hades convinced of the impossibility of art and the inevitability of silence. Beckett’s Orphic mouthpiece in the underworld demonstrates by her compulsive inchoate babble the heroism of the artist who must fail in his expressive vocation.


For Mouth, as for Prufrock, the artistic occasion is the assertion of one’s being in an outburst of song; the lyrical expression of the sum of the speaker’s life up to the present moment—what Robert Langbaum has called the lyric impulse as an expression of pure will. But it is expressly will, existence and lyricism from which Mouth is in flight. Prufrock’s song functions as a heuristic device, showing him the shape that his life has taken up to the moment of his singing. By contrast, how little Mouth gains from her utterance! How disinterested her song is; how far it leaves her from a comprehension of her past or an apprehension of her future. The failure of the lyric intelligibly and melodically to sum up the singer’s life is the equivalent of the failure of the Orphic power in this piece. The will being expressed in Mouth’s monologue is at best the deluded hope that self-expression can expiate guilt; that, by continuing to speak, the need for fictions will be revealed and satisfied. However, by the end, nothing is revealed to the heroine of this drama who, running short of memories, begins to retell how it was that day in Croker’s Acres when all the light went out. Nothing changes. Mouth does not journey to Elysium to be reunited with her ‘self.’ She is simultaneously condemned to inhabit her hell of babble and to keep its fires burning: ‘try something else,’ she insists, ‘think of something else.’


Burdened with her story, the function of expression has, for her, lost its ancient connection with prayer and power as well as its romantic association with truth and beauty. This Orphic Mouth wishes to exhaust the substance of her being through language, but her language is the product of an unhinged mind, out of touch with itself. Even with both feet in the grave, Mouth continues the search for silence through language, for nothingness through memory and feeling, turning Orpheus’ skill against himself, settling down for a long stay in Hades in the company of troops of Beckettian lunatics.


1 For a description of the Lincoln Centre production, see Enoch Brater’s ‘The “absurd” actor in the theatre of Samuel Beckett,’ Educational theatre journal, May, 1975, 197-207.

2 H. Porter Abbott, ‘A poetics of radical displacement: Samuel Beckett coming up to seventy,’ Texas studies in language and literature, 17, Spring, 1975, 232.

3 Quotations from Samuel Beckett, First love and other stories, New York, Grove Press, 1974, 53-60.

4 Vincent J. Murphy, ‘Being and perception: Beckett’s Film,’ Modern drama, 18, March, 1975, 44.

5 ‘Samuel Beckett’s Film on the agony of perceivedness,’ Film Quarterly, 20:2, 1966.

6 Murphy, New York, Grove Press, 1957, 44.

7 Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1973, 213.

8 Robert Langhaum, The poetry of experience, London, Chatto and Windus, 1957, chapter 6.

9 ‘Three dialogues by Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit,’ Samuel Beckett, a collection of critical essays, ed. Martin Esslin, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1965, 17.

10 Descent and return, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1971, 249.

11 The Orphic voice: poetry and natural history, New Haven, Yale UP, 1960.