The frenetic mind: No’s Knife

It’s not often that one goes fresh and fragile into a  situation or encounter to be greeted with a bewildering recognition amidst the distracting newness of the thing. This was my experience of Lisa Dwan’s performance of ‘No’s Knife’ at the Old Vic Theatre.

‘No’s Knife’ is a selection of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Texts for Nothing’ (1950-52), 13 short prose pieces written shortly after his novel ‘Malone Dies’. I was familiar with this longer length text, characterising Beckett’s acknowledgement of, and working through, the inevitability of death. From the outset, ‘Malone Dies’ sets itself up to be a certainty , (‘the’ / ‘a’ death), but through the course of the text, readers are invited to assess the information they are given to work out why Malone is so assured in his convictions. The only certainties become the questions themselves.


The same is asked of us in ‘Texts for Nothing’. The title invites interrogation, with the ambigious preposition ‘for’ offering possible interpretations of purpose, value or motivation – are these pieces gratis, or are they purposeless; indeed, who might ‘Nothing’ be if not understood as ‘no-thing’? Quite simply, Beckett manages to disrupt certainty, and give possible importance to the seemingly inconsequential or themes that self-parade as such.

Beckett, and performances of his texts, are often lambasted for being inaccessible to all but the intellectually elite, or pretentious, depending on who’s making the accusations, but my readings and experiences of Beckett have never aligned with either standpoint. I’d never seen any Beckett performed live before, but I found reading his textual work forms strangely thrilling in the jumble of words and mentally worded sounds.

‘No’s Knife’ affected me in a way I hadn’t expected. I’d preliminarily prepared myself to be inspired by Dwan’s reportedly extraordinary performing tour-de-force, projecting accent, emotion and movement into what was effectively a 70-minute monologue, but otherwise to be left empty – ‘sans plus’.


All this happened – and more. It was impossible to experience Beckett or this performance passively. Humans automatically tune into words and make associations or connections, trying to draw threads and to make sense of nonsense. So the piece became both exhausting and rousing, taking on a life of its own to leave me somehow altered, but not necessarily changed. It has been claimed that Beckett’s texts leave one with nothing, but for me it felt like everything and nothing, not quite an emptiness but an unexpected introspection on what it is ‘to be’.

Perhaps this was, in part, because of the very evident contextual relevance of some of the allusions and concerns of the pieces. As Dwan commented during an interview with her co-director, “Beckett wrote these at a time when Europe was trying to understand itself after the war with resonances with the way we, and Europe are – or is currently – understanding itself”.


It may also have had something to do with the following. I have periods where I momentarily lose sense or experience of self; not in a rational questioning of life purpose but as a sometimes alarming, other times otherworldly, disconnect from a sense of being. It happens at the strangest moments, most recently while I was at the hairdresser. A rare event, and one I don’t find particularly enjoyable, I realised I had lapsed into this form of depersonalisation, looking back at a face that wasn’t even remarkable as a stranger’s let alone definable as my own. I’ve never been able to articulate it, but it doesn’t feel surreal, rather alien. For those few seconds until I consciously trigger a transition to ‘sense’, it is as though my existence is in a  vacuum.

It so happened that I had been experiencing a few weeks of this, after not having done so for several years, with episodes becoming increasingly frequent and extended at the time of this performance. There was resonance in the frenetic, often obscure thinking, the disconnect  between self and substance, between thinking and visceral – not that these are dichotomies, but questions raised, albeit actively, and consciously, in a way that demands your consideration as viewer and being.

And it would seem that I am not alone. Dwan comments of her first interaction with the texts: “what I saw was a transcript of how my mind works […]. They’re a real exploration into the self: into who we are – into identity”. In ‘No’s Knife’, Beckett puts the mind on stage, a stage which featured three sets or planes:  one as though looking down into a jagged, swollen, wound in the ground with Dwan strung across it in various Messiah-like contortions; one on the flat studded with rubble and pooling water and a final spotlight on, alternatingly, Dwan’s face and chest or full body sitting in a swinging chair.


The wounds of the stage landscape extend into the fleshy and mental disruptions of the audience, inviting us to examine them in the space of the performance within the prodding fingers of our own mental dialogue. In the first and final texts, Dwan was somehow constrained, either by the crevace of the swing, concentrating all activity into her core while the ambiguity over who, where and ‘if’ she was alive embodied Beckett’s notion that death is a state of being immobile.

The performance we went to was captioned. Aside from offering a ‘meta’ level, the visualised text was a surprisingly powerful addition, albeit one made for other purposes. While the reading or spectating process is not passive – it feels as though something is being done to you – the process of creating narrative is about anticipating the directions the plot might go from the information you are given. There is delight in this enterprise, and one that Beckett repeatedly turns to, only for him to take us in a certain direction that will be completely overturned later on.


We are in the habit of trying to answer these gaps because as social animals we step into the spaces occupied by other human beings to see how we would experience them ourselves. Gutteral, frenetic, comic, self-conscious, desperate, terrible, religious, safe, unstable, isolating, alienating, togetherness, illusion: all were a part of the performance, both explicit and implicit. I have no doubt that the piece will last with me, not only for the resonances I can pin-point, but also for the multiplicity in its brevity – its state of being whole but with missing parts; parts which will not let you rest.


Photo credits: Manuel Harlan

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