- A Beckett Trilogy: Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby by Samuel Beckett
The role of Mouth in Beckett’s Not I is perhaps the most demanding in all modern theatre. More [End Page 652] an onslaught of logorrhea than monologue, the play is a run of terror that recounts in fragments a past trauma at the speed of thought in harrowing, blinding darkness. The role demands incredible feats of memorization and indefatigable athleticism. Not I’s reputation of difficulty, for actress and audience alike, oft precedes it. In Boston this was no different. The Boston Globe, reporting that one patron crawled on hands and knees to flee the theatre, glowingly reviewed Lisa Dwan’s Not I as “agonizing,” “extreme,” and “disturbing.”
The definitive interpreter of Mouth was Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s muse for whom the part was written. Beckett, famously disappointed by Jessica Tandy’s twenty-two-minute slog as Mouth, had only one word for Whitelaw’s performance—”miraculous.” Whitelaw’s Not I ran for fourteen minutes; Dwan did it in a punishing nine. Not that anyone who saw Dwan’s performance at the Paramount would know. Plunged as we were into black, bereft of any referents to mark time or space, the three plays of “A Beckett Trilogy” came to the audience as apparitions, no more and no less than what they each, in light and word and movement, carved from the sensory void. Harnessing Beckett the imagist, the production conjured a landscape not unlike the unconscious: ruled by recurrence, (m)others dead and undead, deathbeds, death chairs, haunted by memories that cut. Dwan, in solo performance under the direction of Beckett veteran Walter Asmus, offered Beckettians the opportunity to see these rarely produced plays staged together to new effect. If Not I drew thrill-seekers to the theatre in pursuit of sheer terror, the trilogy repaired Not I’s disintegrative trauma twice over in the luminous, lulling, death-bound meditations of Footfalls and Rockaby, effecting an experience of maddening self-loss followed by a steady, mournful, purgative ascent to self-revelation in its audience.
The start of “A Beckett Trilogy” was shot through with the weariness of hyper-vigilance. Police presence was high this Saint Patrick’s Day in parade-crazed, Irish-proud Boston, the memory of the Boston Marathon bombing from 2013 still fresh, the theatre no exception. An usher refused entry to myself and other patrons with suitcases, citing security threats, hurtling us back onto the street in search of a hotel. We were seated just in time for a regulatory announcement. A man from ArtsEmerson clambered onto the stage and asked audience members to turn off their cell phones completely for the blackout to come. The exit and floor flights would be cut entirely. In the event of an emergency audience members were instructed to wave their hands over their heads; the audience would be monitored with infrared technology.
Beckett’s instructions call for Mouth to be suspended eight feet above the stage. Seated in the balcony, I looked down on Mouth, a speck of roaming white in a black sea. In 1973 Whitelaw performed Not I seated in an armchair clutching an iron bar in a whisper-yell. In 2016 Dwan performed it standing strapped into a cutout of a wooden board rigged with metal bars for her arms, her face and neck covered in thick black makeup, head wrapped blind in black tights. The unseen madness of this practice of muting the standing body carried Dwan’s Mouth off in a high-intensity, frantic singsong that swarmed my ears as if from the other end of a long tunnel, more buzzing than language.
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Just as I had to focus to catch meaning from the rushing words, so also did I have to concentrate intensely to discern the contours of teeth and tongue to confirm that what appeared before me...