For this project, I wanted to read some short plays at some point, as short plays can get away with doing deviant formalistic things that longer plays can’t. I chose these three plays by Samuel Beckett because they are sometimes collected together, or performed together, and with good reason. While each play was written separately, all of them overlap in their treatments of time and memory.
Not I is a monologue performed by “Mouth.” When staged, the actor playing Mouth wears black make-up over her face, and the lighting is as isolated as possible to just the mouth. The effect is of a disembodied mouth, floating in darkness, rapidly reciting sentence fragments which tell a story of a woman—presumably the owner of the mouth—who has lived a solitary, bleak life, and who has scarcely spoken throughout all of it. The title comes from the repeated refrain of Mouth: “what? … who? … no! … she!”—denying that what she is describing happened to her.
The play explores the disjuncture between experience and retelling, with the speaker being an extreme case of someone whose speech has become drastically separated from her experience of the world. The whole play, Mouth is trying to make sense of the woman’s life, constantly asking questions, constantly doubling back, always unsure, and always careening forward to dig up some other scrap of memory. The way Mouth bolts through fragmented sentences puts in mind a person searching through a library for a book, and reading aloud titles and last names of authors as they go.
The speech is not just an attempt to retell what has happened in this woman’s life for the sake of the audience—it is an attempt to make sense of it for herself. Almost all her life she has been speechless, unable or unwilling to connect her experiences with linguistic structure, and so Not I is an attempt to do so. It is a demonstration of the difficulties of manifesting a life verbally, of making sense of events through retelling, and of the disconnect between the person who lived an experience and the person telling it (even if they are one and the same.)
Footfalls is a short play about an old woman and her daughter, middle-aged, who has lived with her all her life, taking care of her. Similar to the woman in Not I, the daughter in Footfalls, May, has had very little interaction with the outside world. She spends a great deal of the play pacing, slowly and methodically, back and forth on the stage.
Footfalls explores the monotony of time, with the paradox of the footfalls. While the footfalls very clearly, literally, mark time, the play moves at a glacial pace, creating the illusion that no time is passing. The play is full of pauses, and long moments of silence in which the only sound is the clomping of May’s feet.
At one point, May asks her mother “Would you like me to inject you again?”, and the mother answers, “Yes, but it is too soon.” May then asks “Would you like me to change your position again?”, and the mother answers, “Yes, but it is too soon.” May follows this by offering a litany of services, from “Pass you the bedpan?” to “Moisten your poor lips?” concluding the whole list with, “Again.” And the mother answers, “Yes, but it is too soon.” (240) In this little interaction, Beckett uses a present moment to give us a sense of the entire continuum of these two’s existence. Although May is asking her mother if she wants her to change her position now, she ends the sentence with “again,” evoking a series of regular events that stretches far back into the past. And when the mother answers, she says it is too soon, evoking a series of regular events that will continue into the future, and an impression that there will never be an end to the “again”s.
While the footfalls are an attempt to count down, and measure away the minutes and hours of May’s life, they seem to have the opposite effect, only highlighting how endless and repetitive her existence is, as she repeats the same routines with her mother, and paces back and forth along the same line on the stage.
After these two plays, the first a reckless ransacking of memory, the second a drudgery of time measured without any change, Rockaby feels merciful. The play is essentially a monologue, focusing on an old woman in a rocking chair, as she listens to a recording of her voice. The recorded voice is lineated, and performed with slight pauses in between each line, as the woman slowly rocks back and forth in her chair. In this way, it is like a slowed down version of Not I, with the voice often repeating fragments, and describing the events of her own life in third-person.
The difference between Rockaby and Not I is that the voice in Rockaby is not attempting to make sense of her life. It speaks on command from the old woman, then eventually stops, and after a pause, when the old woman says, “More,” it will start speaking again. Rockaby portrays an old woman sifting through her memories in the last stretches of her life, not trying to understand them, or retell them. The memory is performing the same function as the chair—it marks time in a slow, steady, rhythm, and it gives the woman some small gentle comfort.
Perhaps the biggest distinction between this play and the others is that it has an ending. In Not I, the stage directions instruct that Mouth be talking, unintelligibly, before the curtain rises, and to continue talking unintelligibly after the curtain falls—the idea being that this unending stream of telling and retelling, cycling through memories over and over, has no end in sight. Of course in Footfalls, the whole impression is that time is painfully slow (at one point May is told that she is in her forties, and she responds, “So little?” .) However, in the end of Rockaby, the voice describes herself dying one night in her rocker, and the play ends with the line “Rock her off,” (282) and the rocking chair coming to a stop, followed by a slow fade out. The only end of time—of the convolutions of memory, and of the tedium of time in general—is death.