Janusz Pyda OP: In Happy Days the main character starts out as a torso, and by the end is only a head. In Play, the characters are from the start only faces that emerge from the darkness when a spotlight falls on them. In Not I we are down to a mouth.
This looks like a deliberate reduction. But why? Is Becket just indulging in minimalism, wanting gradually to reduce what is on stage down to the absolute minimum, or is he making some sort of point, expressing an idea?
Antoni Libera: Before we come to the reduction in Not I, let's briefly recall how it is done in Eh Joe, which was written in 1966, between Play and Not I, and was Beckett's first television play. Here the reduction takes place as we watch, with the aid of the camera. The opening scene is of a man in a room; the camera gradually closes in, so that by the end we only see a close-up of the man's face and at the very end only his eyes. The camera moves in to the sound of a woman's voice – a monologue spoken offstage.
But even without invoking Eh Joe we can see quite soon that the reduction here is not a purely formal experiment – one intended, for example, to test the limits of what can be done with a character on stage – but a technique to express a certain idea. Very broadly, that idea is the essence of the human: the inalienably human. In Beckett's prose that essence was the conscious self, the thinking being who articulates his thoughts in words. This is best seen in his Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. In the plays, where there is no way (except by allegory) to show the human mind and its workings, that essence is shown by concentrating on the head, and especially the mouth, which, as the place from which the voice issues, represents the source of human speech.
In short, the physical reduction of a character is part of the process of getting at the essence of the human being. Beckett, setting aside our various senses, faculties, capacities and predispositions, wants to show that that essence can be reduced to what is in the head and to the mouth and throat, which contain the tongue and vocal cords – the instruments of speech.