[Lisa Dwan, Mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Photo: Allan Titmuss.]
‘Something is seen, but one doesn’t know what.’ Carl Jung, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958).
I have a strong memory from childhood of wandering outside in the evening, with my sister and some friends, searching the Yorkshire sky for – wait for it – UFOs. Looking back, it’s difficult to convey the sense of mystery and excitement when we spotted, now and again, blips of reddish light moving slowly across the heavens. Were they satellites, distant planes, meteors or something, well, intergalactic? We couldn’t be exactly sure and that small frisson of uncertainty – especially around the time of Close Encounters – was enough to fire the imagination. So, up and down the street we trotted, scoping the universe (until we got bored).
I’ve had cause to recall this memory for two reasons. First, I’ve been reading a famous work by Carl Jung on the psychology of UFOs; second, I saw Lisa Dwan’s performance of Mouth in the landmark production of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at the Duchess theatre. I found the latter such a viscerally arresting experience in part because it resonated with my childhood memory and current reading.
Before turning to the production, it’s worth glossing some of the key observations in Jung’s book. In 1958, around the time when reports of UFO sightings were at an apparently unprecedented high, Jung published Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. This work addresses the phenomenon of UFOs by seeking to account for their cultural and symbolic meaning at this historical juncture. His primary concern is to identify what the UFO-fever of the 1940s and 50s reveals about the collective psychology of western societies, particularly in the context of scientific and technological advancement, the intensifying threat of the nuclear arms race, and apocalyptic Cold War anxieties. He argues that flying saucers might best be described as ‘visionary rumours’:
The first requisite for a visionary rumour, as distinct from an ordinary rumour, for whose dissemination nothing more is needed than popular curiosity and sensation-mongering, is always an unusual emotion. Its intensification into a vision and delusion of the senses, however, springs from a stronger excitation and therefore from a deeper source. (315)
Rumours are usually defined as unverified verbal formulations, a kind of spoken contagion that’s dependent on the presence of a group and surfaces/spreads within its interstices. In Jung’s account, rumours manifest visually when the emotions underlying them reach a certain pitch of intensity. The ‘deeper [emotional] source’ of such phenomena leads Jung to conclude that UFOs represent externalized symbolic projections of a psychological disturbance in the collective unconscious; and, as he proceeds rather ingeniously to argue, they therefore fulfill the same psychic function as ancient mandalas – that is, they are symbols of ‘psychological totality’ (326) which means, basically, that they integrate and express both conscious and unconscious contents. In this respect, flying saucers are the latest in a long line of archetypal circular symbols arising in human culture: the UFO is a latter-day mandala (the word is Sanskrit for ‘circle’) dressed up in the garb of technological modernity. The UFO, he concludes, is ‘a living myth‘ (322) – an involuntary, symbolic and projected indice of the point of encounter between the conscious and unconscious in the collective imaginary.
So, how does theatre fit into all of this? I saw the triptych of plays by Beckett – Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby, all performed by Lisa Dwan and directed by Walter Aasmus – at the Duchess a couple of weeks ago (after its transfer from the Royal Court). All three were outstanding productions but Not I left the deepest imprint. It consists of a fragmented speech delivered at roller-coaster speed by a single performer (‘Mouth’ in the text) whose mouth is elevated on the stage and lit, close-up, from below – the body of the performer, the rest of her face, and the performance space itself are engulfed in darkness. At the Duchess, the whole auditorium was in total blackout with even the exit signs switched off.
There’s no gentle perambulation into this piece, no time for settling in. The frenzy of speech is already underway before Mouth is illuminated and her talking, that relentless excess of talking, is sustained even beyond the final dimming of the lights. The performance, in fact, hits you like a seizure or physical arraignment: it’s intended to flay the nerves not massage the intellect (I have very little recollection of the content of the speech at all). Not I is demanding, austere, torrential. And the darkness of the auditorium magnifies the edgy self-consciousness of the audience to the point that every gulp, cough, rustle, shift and whisper becomes cacophonous.
From the back row of the stalls where I sat, Mouth appears as a reddish dot in the blackness. And then there’s an almost imperceptible movement as the gabbling lips migrate slowly from one side of the space to the other, traversing the void like one of those unknowable (unidentified, flying) objects in the night sky of my youth.* The elastic and ceaseless choreography of Mouth: it’s at once an image of perseverance and fragility, of the madness that inheres in or shadows the monologue form, of inextinguishable life and semantic calamity, of language damned and undammed.
Lisa Dwan’s performance of Mouth, brilliant and compelling, suggests theatre as a site of ‘living myth’, a space for the collective encounter with symbols that are finally irreducible. And Beckett’s Not I, with its multiple psychological and archetypal valences, carries the emotional velocity of ‘visionary rumour’.
Jung, Carl Gustav. ‘Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies’ in The Collected Works of Carl Jung: Civilization in Transition. Volume 10. Trans. R. C. F. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970. 314-433. Page references in parentheses are from this source.
* UPDATE, MAY 2014: A couple of months after posting this piece, the photographer of the production, Allan Titmuss, sent me an email with a comment that made my jaw drop: ‘Lisa’s mouth didn’t move by even one millimeter in any direction throughout the whole piece – though a great many people who saw Not I share your belief that it did’. I was utterly convinced that Mouth had moved from one side of the stage to the other (in fact, during the performance, I recall thinking: ‘how are they doing that? how are they moving her around so quietly and so high up?!’). But, no – it seems that Dwan was completely static. The semblance of movement may have been an optical illusion produced by the total blackout and my distance from the stage; yet the experience also testifies to the hallucinatory power of Beckett’s piece, reinforcing Jung’s point about ‘delusion of the senses’ – that what (we think) we see carries the force of our own projections.