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Samuel Beckett’s Not I: 50 Years on, its references to Irish female suffering are clear

Most scholarship has ignored the relationship between the avant garde 1972 play and the State’s history of confining women

Can a positive theatrical experience be traumatising? This thought has been with me since the first time I watched Samuel Beckett’s Not I more than seven years ago. An eager final-year student at the National University of Ireland Galway (now UG) and undertaking a module entitled “Beckett on Page and Stage”, I switched the lights off in my room before clicking play on YouTube. From out of the obscurity. a mouth faded into view, babbling furiously and incessantly. Horrified, I was unable to peel my eyes from the spectacle that – mercifully – only lasted 12 minutes. I hadn’t grasped every word spoken by Mouth, the aptly named protagonist of Beckett’s play, but the pain expressed by this woman was visceral.

Dentists aside, few others inspect mouths as closely as viewers of the televised version of Not I from 1973 performed by Billie Whitelaw. Flecks of spittle congeal on the corner of Whitelaw’s lips which are alive and pulsing throughout the play’s duration, disturbingly sexual and sensual as Beckett surely intended them to be.

Although my first experience of Not I was the televised version, the theatrical mise en scène is even more startling and innovative. The audience sees little more than a woman’s mouth suspended eight feet above them. Beneath her stands a faintly-lit “auditor” figure, cloaked in a black djellaba, raising his arms in “helpless compassion”. Throughout the play’s short duration – normally between 10 and 12 minutes depending on the performer – the audience is assaulted by this woman’s tortured words.

Irish context

This year, on November 22nd, Beckett’s play celebrated its 50th anniversary. The writer composed the play between March and April 1972 and it was first performed in New York that autumn. More interesting than the play’s anniversary, however, is how relevant the script has become in a contemporary context. Recent political and social developments have highlighted the need for Not I to be re-read within an Irish context. By paying close attention to why this woman is suffering, we see that Beckett truly was an avant garde artist, very much ahead of his time with regards to his depiction of female suffering in Ireland.


The majority of published scholarship on Not I tends to ignore the relationship between the play and Ireland’s history of female confinement. Yet Beckett himself noted that one of the main sources of inspiration for Not I came from his experience of seeing mentally ill women in Ireland. He told Deirdre Bair that “I knew that woman in Ireland… I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, behind the hedgerows. Ireland is full of them. And I heard ‘her’ saying what I wrote in Not I. I actually heard it.” Beckett seems to have been marked by the vision of these suffering women, whose “stumbling” and mumbling were clearly the result of psychological trauma caused by institutional abuse within his native country. Perhaps he used the pejorative word “crone” to deflect attention from his real feelings of compassion for female victims of confinement in Ireland.

The play is set in an Ireland that Beckett was familiar with. When the text was performed by Whitelaw, an English actor with a received pronunciation (RP) accent, she was instructed to pronounce the word “baby” as “babby”, in other words, how it would be pronounced by many Irish women, especially those belonging to a poorer demographic. Whitelaw’s appeal for the role of Mouth is clear: her perfect diction allows her to perform a clear and rapid delivery of the play’s text, yet Beckett insisted on her emphasising this important word “baby” as an Irish woman would. In addition, the play’s topographical markers (“Croker’s Acres”) decisively sets Not I directly within an Irish context.

‘Survivor’s testimony’

My personal understanding of Not I is that it is a fictional “survivor’s testimony” from the perspective of a woman raised in a religious institution in Ireland. Since the publication of the report by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in January 2021, this idea of “testimony” has been to the forefront of the collective Irish consciousness. This is not to suggest, of course, that we should confound Mouth’s account with the testimonies given to the commission. These were formal accounts given to a committee by real-life survivors of these homes. Beckett’s play script is instead a fictional account of what he claims to have “heard” in Ireland.

Mouth’s testimony, thus, is a testimony from the 20th century, an earlier era when no official body was ready or willing to listen to the cries of a “deviant” woman. With no governing body willing to listen to Mouth’s testimony, she is left, a traumatised and institutionalised 70-year-old woman, “wandering in a field”. To employ terminology used by James M Smith, an early chronicler of Ireland’s “architecture of containment”, Mouth is treated as “aberrant” and “deemed deserving of scorn and punishment”. Even the title of the play evokes Mouth’s disconnection from herself stemming from years of institutional abuse and control exerted over her by a religious order in a state obsessed with policing women’s bodies and sexuality.

The notion of “testimony” is further complicated by the play’s formal resistance to straightforward interpretation in performance. Indeed, the words spoken by Mouth can be very difficult to catch or make sense of, due to the playwright’s expectation of a rapid delivery. But Beckett’s theatre is nothing if not challenging, and even a first-time spectator of the play might pick up on the clear Irish textual referents if their ear and attention are carefully attuned. Despite the formal and performative challenges that the text presents, upon close scrutiny there are many textual-level signifiers in Not I that clearly point to an institutionalised childhood in Ireland.

Mouth’s testimony is fragmented but clear. She was born “into this world” where, in a particularly cruel formulation, she was “spared” the love “such as normally vented on the… speechless infant”. Abandoned by her mother and father, “he having vanished… thin air […] she similarly… eight months later…”, Mouth reflects on her time as an unwanted, “aberrant” child, “brought up” with the “other waifs”, other children like her who might have been abandoned, orphaned or born to young single mothers without the means to support them. Indeed, most women and babies ended up in mother-and-baby homes or Magdalene laundries because of a lack of familial support, or indeed, support from the man responsible for fathering the baby. Punished for the Beckettian sin of being born has overt political resonances when we consider the play within Ireland’s cultural context of institutionalism. Smith notes that “[c]ontaining ‘sexual immorality,’ specifically illegitimacy and prostitution, behind the walls of Ireland’s mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene asylums helped constitute and perpetuated the fiction of Irish cultural purity”. This emphasises the truly tragic nature of Mouth’s incarceration. She had been locked away in order to preserve appearances in an emerging independent state.

Relentless torrent

Having spent her life oppressed under Ireland’s “culture of confinement”, Mouth is shocked by her testimony which spills out of her in a relentless torrent. Having been “speechless… all her days”, she barely recognises her own voice (indeed, the word “speechless” occurs six times in Mouth’s monologue).

The confessional, torturous nature of her predicament is emphasised by Mouth’s admission that she had spent time in court: “that time in court… what had she to say for herself”. This “time in court”, arguably the focal point of the text, is likely the result of her mentally ill behaviour in public, deemed “inappropriate” in 20th-century Ireland. She is treated brusquely by a judge who also treats her as a nameless subject: “stand up woman… speak up woman”. With no services in place to support her and no compassion from those in positions of judicial or legislative power, she is “led away”, a traumatised victim of state-funded institutionalism. Mouth is forced to testify to herself and to the outside world as she wanders in a field, speaking into the ground, her “face in the grass”.

Mouth suffers, thus, not for her own sins, but for the sins of her parents. And because of the culture and architecture of confinement, she feels her punishment is deserved. Yet at the same time, she understands that it is happening for “no particular reason… for its own sake… thing she understood perfectly… that notion of punishment…” As a parentless, illegitimate infant, Mouth would have had no choice in her affairs, nowhere to be placed in other than a State-funded institution. Yet when we consider the number of dead bodies discovered at Tuam, Bethany House and other such institutions, she might count herself lucky to be among the survivors.

The final words of Not I are “pick it up” as the curtain descends and the voice “continues behind curtain, unintelligible”. This suggests that the torrent of words will continue indefinitely, alluding to the relentless cycle of abuse, institutionalism and suffering caused to many women living in 20th-century Ireland.