The actress Billie Whitelaw couldn’t imagine what it was like. The theater darkened, apart from a spotlight on Whitelaw’s mouth, as she delivered Samuel Beckett’s babbling stream of consciousness Not I.
It’s one of the most disturbing images in theater: a disembodied mouth, telling its tale “at the speed of thought.” It takes incredible discipline and strength for the actor to perform: the text isn’t easy to learn, its full of difficult instructions, pauses, repetitions and disjointed phrases; add to this the speed of delivery, which means the actor has to learn circular breathing in order to deliver the lines. Jessica Tandy once gave a performance that lasted twenty-four minutes, only to be told by Beckett that she had “ruined” his play. And let’s not forget the rigidity of the piece: the actor’s lack of mobility, the mouth tethered to a spotlight, all of which says everything for Whitelaw’s brilliance as an actor.
Here, Whitelaw introduces Not I in the short documentary, A Wake for Sam, and explains the effect it had on her:
Plenty of writers can write a play about a state of mind, but [Beckett] actually put that state of mind on the stage, in front of your eyes. And I think a lot of people recognized it. I recognized it. When I first read it at home, I just burst in to tears, because I recognized the inner scream. Perhaps that’s not what it is, I don’t know, but for me, that’s what I recognized, an inner scream, in there, and no escaping it.
Previously on DM
With thanks to Tim Lucas