Samuel Beckett wrote Not I in 1972. It has often been described by the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’. This term was invented by Martin Esslin and refers to plays written in the 1950’s and 60’s. It originates from an essay by the French philosopher ‘Albert Camus’ called ‘The Myth Of Sisyphus’, and describes the situation of man as ‘totally meaningless’. Beckett’s plays often contain this idea; they suggest that man is out of tune with the universe, and that we as humans cannot decipher what our meaning or purpose is in life.
Waiting for Godot, Becketts first play presents the idea that our roles have no purposes, and that man is a troubled and doubtful creature. At the time when Waiting For Godot was written, the Hiroshima bomb had just exploded in Japan, bringing an end to the second world war and leaving desolation in it’s wake. This news of human life being wiped out on such a massive scale changed people’s consciousness, broke down social boundaries, wavered religious beliefs, and most of all, provoked absolute despair.
This fading out of religion, and lack of conviction that there was any help or resolution out there, is present in Beckett’s Not I. Whilst in Waiting For Godot there are discernable characters, in Not I Beckett presents ‘Mouth’. Mouth laughs at God, yet also seems to fear Him. Her constant references to ‘punishment’, which imply religious guilt for her lack of belief. This sentiment echoed the fears of many people in the 1950’s and 60’s. Overall the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ rebels against conventional theatre, with ‘Absurdist’ plays like Beckett’s Not I provoking much controversy.
Not I is an extremely bleak play. The character MOUTH struggles with her own identity. She recalls painfully the story of the ‘god forsaken hole’ reviled by MOUTH as her mother’s sex and the miserable world into which she has been thrust. She was born out of ‘no love’, which suggests a sense of infidelity, adultery or rape between her parents. Beckett portrays MOUTH as vulnerable and detached. He conveys MOUTH’S perseverance through human weakness, despair and loss. This idea could have come from Becket’s one memory of an old Irish woman ‘stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches beside the hedgerows’.
MOUTH is incongruously surprised that she is ‘not suffering… imagine!… not suffering! ‘. In this way Beckett seems to be creating a vivid image of this woman; vulnerable and troubled that seems to be pitifully incredulous that she is not suffering. This is such a bleak concept that it puts the play into a bitter new perception, a world of dark, despair and isolation. The sensation of darkness (‘found herself in the dark’) is increased by the fact that the play is performed on a totally dark stage, the ‘mouth’ lit only by a single spotlight.
Beckett’s dark theatre and black stage metaphorically signifies death. Paired with MOUTH’s desolate story of a girl born into a ‘godforsaken hole’ who receives ‘no love’, it casts a depressing shadow over the play. We, as the audience hunger for human interaction because of the lack of it. We are conscious of presence because of absence, feel our bodies because MOUTH has none. Beckett often uses the sense of meaningless and confusion in many of his characters through his plays. The possibility that life is meaning less threatens to engulf us all at some time or another.
Albert Camus thought that the fact- as he saw it- of life’s meaningless presented one obvious problem; why then, not kill oneself? Camus thought that suicide was not the best option, but that one should confront the ‘absurdity’ of a meaningless life and live with it. This is the key meaning of ‘absurdist’ and is present in many of Becket’s plays. In Waiting For Godot the two tramps ‘Vladimir and ‘Estragon’ contemplate suicide; ‘Why don’t we hang ourselves? ‘ seemingly the only termination to this alienated world.
In Not I MOUTH struggles with meaninglessness. She is ‘uncomprehending’, and struggles to ‘make something of’ her own destructive existence. Though, unlike Waiting For Godot, she never contemplates suicide. MOUTH does not die. However hard her life is, she struggles on to survive. The audience knows this because after the curtain closes, she keeps talking, though what she is saying is ‘unintelligible’. This shows a kind of surreal optimism that however miserable MOUTH’s life is, she still finds it in her to ‘keep on’.
MOUTH’s monologue seems to imply that she was silent for a long time before now, which suggests an obvious physical imprisonment of voice and psychological imprisonment of thought. There is a certain pathos in this, as MOUTH was silent all her life, and then when finally ‘words were coming’ the more she talks the more alienated the audience becomes from this constant stream of mostly unintelligible words. So MOUTH’s revelation (‘when suddenly… gradually… she realized’) is wasted because of the inadequacy, meaninglessness and repetition of words. And this is MOUTH’s tragedy.
When MOUTH’s ‘vehement refusal to relinquish the third person’ suffers from a moment of confusion she cries; ‘no!… she’ and the AUDITOR makes a ‘gesture of helpless compassion’ that grows weaker each time it happens. When the fifth such incident occurs, the AUDITOR makes no movement, whilst MOUTH burbles about ‘what she was trying… what to try… no matter… keep on’ as the curtain begins to fall. The most striking thing however is not these ‘compassionate movements’, which the AUDITOR makes, but the lack of any movement or recognition when MOUTH screams, again and again.
This lack of reaction from the AUDITOR is a reverse conflict- there is no regular human interaction, which could mean that this scream of MOUTH’s is in fact an inner scream. This implies that the AUDITOR could be internal to MOUTH- the same person but separated. Perhaps the fact that MOUTH is letting all the pain out, that she is ‘finally’ talking is considered healthy in this post- Freudian age. Through the play it gives a sense that MOUTH is talking to a psychoanalyst or Shrink, as she seems to be answering questions; ‘what?…
The buzzing?… yes’, though she is talking to no-one. This gives a slightly positive outlook to the play, that she is being helped and not bottling up her emotions. Ironically, the story of MOUTH’s dark, despair and isolation contrasts greatly with Beckett’s character in real life. He was said to be a kind, generous character who had a mostly uneventful life, though naturally with a rich imagination. Overall Not I is primarily a bleak play. The miserable story of a girl born into ‘no love’ and the dark stage casts a depressing shadow over it.
Beckett’s writing is not elegant or decorative, neither are his props or stage directions. He liked everything to have a purposes. He presented the harsh truth of human existence, and put into words the confusion and disillusionment of man. He famously said; ‘we are all born mad. Only some remain so’. Though you could say that Not I is a life assuring play only by the fact that MOUTH survives at the end when the curtain closes. Unlike in Shakespeare’s tragedies where the characters are obliged to die at the end, MOUTH does not.