No’s Knife: much ado about nothing? Absolutely not

Beckett’s ‘Textes Pour Rien’ convey a sense of being cut adrift from life, from existence itself. Actor Lisa Dwan conveys this absence with startling presence

Lisa Dwan in ‘No’s Knife’ by Samuel Beckett at the Abbey Theatre:  She has a unique ability to draw us into the mesmeric rhythms and alluring forms of Beckett’s texts even while keeping us at the distance their enigmatic poetry demands.

Lisa Dwan in ‘No’s Knife’ by Samuel Beckett at the Abbey Theatre: She has a unique ability to draw us into the mesmeric rhythms and alluring forms of Beckett’s texts even while keeping us at the distance their enigmatic poetry demands.

 

“I’ve given myself up for dead all over the place, of hunger, of old age, murdered, drowned . . .”

In September 1951, when he was working on his Textes Pour Rien (published much later in English as Texts for Nothing and adapted now as No’s Knife), Samuel Beckett wrote to Mania Péron. She and he had shared a near-death experience: both were members of a French Resistance cell betrayed to the Nazis and had barely escaped capture by the Gestapo. Péron’s husband – and Beckett’s very close friend – Alfred was not so lucky: he was caught and died at Mauthausen concentration camp.

Now, Beckett and Mania had evidently been discussing the short, strange texts he was working on. He chided his friend: “Asking me what it is that does not exist! Come on! As if that mattered.”

What does not exist is nothing. Nothing, insists King Lear, will come of nothing. Lear’s tragedy, of course, is that he is wrong: everything comes from nothing. When Beckett wrote his Texts for Nothing in French in the early 1950s, the idea of annihilation was hardly abstract: the world was barely on the far side of the great abyss of fascism, the Holocaust and the second World War.

That “Come on!” in Beckett’s letter to Péron is as eloquent as it is brief. Surely, it says, you know even better than I do that what does not exist – what has ceased to be – is no less alive for us than what we see and hear and touch every day. We do not just live with what exists: we live with what has been annihilated.

This is a very strange thought – and a very familiar experience. The philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed that the most basic question of all is: why is there something and not nothing? Physicists and biologists and cosmologists would agree.

Strange creatures

So how can Beckett say that it doesn’t matter? Because we humans are strange creatures. To us, the dead are not gone. The figments of our imagination may not exist but they are real. The line between what is and what is not may be clear enough, outside our heads. But inside our heads, it is a very porous border.

Is there life after death? In Beckett, there is no other kind of life

As in these texts, even when we are utterly alone, we are in a crowd of the dead and the imaginary. The mind creates people who do not exist and they talk back at their creator: “I don’t exist, that was no kind of life, he couldn’t have that . . .”

Is there life after death? In Beckett, there is no other kind of life. The living exist in the shadow of the dead but equally the dead carry on as if they were alive. They won’t shut up. And they won’t lie down. The voice in Texts for Nothing is silenced – and talking away. The body is buried deep in the bog and “standing, stirring about”. Does it matter, not existing? Come on!

Beckett called these short texts a kind of afterbirth of his great trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable. But they are also a kind of afterdeath, the remnants of a great mortality, a postmortem on language, on meaning, on storytelling, on humanity. And they’re a kind of afterlife too: to be “given up for dead” is not at all the same thing as being dead. They are a kind of something that goes very deep into nothing – and emerges very profoundly from it.

Is this an absurd paradox? Of course. Is it remote from human experience? Not at all. Can you be both a person and a non-person? Ask the millions of stateless people. Can you be, like the voice in No’s Knife, both somewhere and nowhere? Ask the millions who live in the limbo of refugee camps and the no-man’s lands between borders. Can you feel that you are in an afterlife even when you are still alive? Can you be at once profoundly stuck and yet entirely uprooted? How many of the almost-murdered, almost-drowned would find it odd that we even have to ask?

Historical resonances

And, beyond these epic historical resonances, the texts surely speak of a psychological state that anyone can enter, the sense of being cut adrift from life. When he supervised the recording of the texts with Patrick Magee in 1974, Beckett told Magee to imagine a person looking out from a window into a street with people passing just a few yards beyond the window pane but feeling “as if it were 10,000 miles away”.

This is perhaps what we, as an audience in the theatre, need to feel too: like we are watching something both very near and very far from us, both intimately close and way beyond the beyonds. This is perhaps why this selection of texts, though they have been read from the stage many times, have not been performed before. It is a lot to ask. How can an actor be near and far? How can she embody nothing, find a voice for the unspoken?

Lisa Dwan in ‘No’s Knife’ by Samuel Beckett at the Abbey Theatre
Lisa Dwan in ‘No’s Knife’ by Samuel Beckett at the Abbey Theatre

It seems important at this moment that the form these texts inhabit on stage is female. They have traditionally been read as male but there is no reason for this to be so: as the text has it, “there has to be a man, or a woman.” Nothing has no gender, but women have particular insights into what it means to be a non-person.

Vivid non-person

If anyone can be that ultimate impossibility, a vivid non-person, an absence with a compelling presence, it is Lisa Dwan, who has emerged as one of the great Beckett actors. Dwan’s extraordinary performances of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby straddled all the contradictions, being at once ferocious and mysterious, intensely intimate and utterly strange.

She has a unique ability to draw us into the mesmeric rhythms and alluring forms of Beckett’s texts even while keeping us at the distance their enigmatic poetry demands. And she has the kind of operatic vocal range that can negotiate the dizzying shifts of tone, from the lyrical to the abstract, from childhood memory to broad comedy, from rage to rapture.

There has always been a sense that these great texts, though not written for the theatre, somehow require it. It is striking that Beckett was not only very receptive to a proposal from Joseph Chaikin in 1980 for a stage version (and for a title other than Texts for Nothing). He specifically suggested what Dwan, by her own process, has ended up doing: a voice that is “different voices, male or female”.

He also obliquely directed Chaikin towards Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the goddess Juno creates a shadow being that looks like Aeneas: “she fills it with hollow words, gives it a voice,/ sound without sense.”

It is only in the theatre that we can be in the living presence of such non-existent people. The stage is the ultimate no-man’s land between what is and what is not. It is the place we look to in order to see something and nothing as the same thing. It feels like the kind of ghostly place that is, alone, appropriate for these voices from a half-life. But it has taken a long time to find the actor to haunt them and the audience to be haunted.

  • No’s Knife is at the Abbey Theatre from June 10th-17th
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