Why does Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot have such resonance when performed in extreme circumstances? Why does a play in which little happens, and which offers little hope for transformation, have such strong “emotive appeal” when performed for those locked in prisons for long sentences, for those undergoing the siege of Sarajevo, or suffering from the hurricane, flood damage, and inadequate government response in New Orleans? Why does a play that is not overtly political or “committed,” and that does not put forth a prospect for change, illuminate the conditions in which it is performed (the prison, the city in crisis) in ways that the plays of Brecht would not?
Lance Duerfahrd’s The Work of Poverty: Samuel Beckett’s Vagabonds and the Theater of Crisis provides illuminating and multilayered responses to these questions, as it develops an understanding of Beckett’s writing as “destitute art,” a work of elimination, subtraction, and depletion, an “impoverished aesthetic.” At the center of this lively, engaging, and well-researched study are chapters that explore the performances of Waiting for Godot in prisons (most famously San Quentin, but several others around the world as well) and in places of civil catastrophe (Susan Sontag’s performance of Godot in Sarajevo, Paul Chan’s in New Orleans). These first two chapters open up our understanding of this much discussed play, deftly exploring several ways in which the play and the situations it is performed in illuminate each other. The second half turns to some of Beckett’s prose works, focusing on the figure of the vagabond, and on reader response. How do we confront “the indigence of Beckett’s work and respond to its needfulness without substituting something of value in its place?” (10). The book concludes with a brief discussion of Duerfahrd’s own staging of Waiting for Godot in Zucotti Park during Occupy Wall Street.
The Work of Poverty opens with a short introduction that incisively juxtaposes the work of Beckett and Brecht (a juxtaposition that was central for Adorno) and wonderfully analyzes Brecht’s own rarely discussed efforts, very late in his life, to rewrite (to produce a Gegenentwurf of) Waiting for Godot. Brecht’s attempt to rework the dialogue hit an impasse, and he decided instead to recontextualize it, preserving Beckett’s words but projecting cinematic footage of social revolutions behind the actors. Duerfahrd writes, “Brecht understands something crucial in his effort to elicit meaning from Beckett: though too poor to instantiate a reality, Godot demands juxtaposition to one. The condition of need on Beckett’s stage exerts a radiant effect over contiguous spaces” (4). This discussion serves to set up Duerfahrd’s larger point that the performances of Godot in prisons and in Sarajevo and New Orleans are not footnotes to the play’s performance history, not deviant or aberrant performances (and Beckett was notoriously restrictive in allowing productions that took license with his work, altering the text or even stage directions), but rather are essential for understanding Beckett’s “aesthetic of poverty.” Duerfahrd claims, “The response of the flood evacuee, the inmate, and the siege victim help us engage the play’s drastic address. As I will show, these audiences’ reception illuminate waiting, structures of the waiting process, names for waiting, and the awaited” (6). For the inmate, with plentiful experience of impoverishment and destitution, and certainly of waiting, the play is not the type of mimetic representation that it is for the theatergoer in New York or Paris.
The first chapter, exploring the production history of Godot in various prisons, and Beckett’s own involvement with some of these productions as well as his interactions with prisoners, is the most wide ranging and provocative part of the book. It contains fascinating material, including information gleaned from Duerfahrd’s own discussions with Rick Cluchey, who first saw Godot as an inmate in San Quentin and later became friends with Beckett and acted in several of his plays. Particularly interesting is a biographical anecdote about Beckett’s writing space in an apartment of his...