‘the brain in control…under control…’: Toward a cognitive approach to the spectatorship of Not I

Ryan O'Connor


This paper examines the critical approaches afforded to theatre studies by developments in cognitive sciences. In particular, Samuel Beckett’s 1972 short play, Not I, is examined with the aim being to establish the psychological processes the piece invokes in spectators. Moving the focus from approaches that take for granted (or elide altogether) the role that spectators play in the production of the theatrical event, I will argue, with the help of several contemporary cognitive scientists, theorists and theatre scholars, that a meaningful understanding of Beckett’s work must be grounded in an awareness of the cognitive processes elicited by its live performance. This essay puts forward the notion that the power of Beckett’s work lies in his meticulous exploitation and subversion of the typical cognitive processes used by spectators’ when engaged with a piece of theatre. To put this in the context of both Beckett- and theatre studies in general, I will look at Theodor Adorno’s seminal essay, ‘Trying to Understand Endgame’ and its implied notions of spectatorship, before going on to offer some brief observations on the concomitant nature of cognitive and non-cognitive approaches to theatre and cultural studies.


Beckett; Theatre; Cognitive; Spectatorship; Audience

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