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The Work of Poverty

Samuel Beckett’s Vagabonds and the Theater of Crisis

Lance Duerfahrd

Publication Year: 2013

How did Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot come to be performed in such places as San Quentin Prison, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, Sarajevo under military siege, New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, and Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests? The Work of Poverty: Samuel Beckett’s Vagabonds and the Theater of Crisis studies the appeal of Godot to audiences in settings of historical crisis and suffering. Lance Duerfahrd argues that these circumstances transform the performance and the reception of the play, thereby illuminating a cathartic and political dimension of Beckett’s work that goes unseen in traditional performance contexts. The resonance of one of the most canonical plays of the twentieth century within landscapes of disaster fulfills the aesthetic of “ultimate penury” that Beckett hones in his work. Here the subtractive and reductive dynamic of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s craft comes into clearer view, echoing with the despondent condition beyond the stage. In developing an aesthetic of penury, The Work of Poverty brings together the dispossessed characters in Godot; the derelict narrators of Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable; and the formal experimentation in poverty witnessed in his Endgame and Worstward Ho. Beckett forged increasingly destitute forms of theater and prose on the periphery of writing. Duerfahrd illustrates how this work speaks to our age by emphasizing characters on the periphery of society.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Begging Context

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pp. 1-11

This book is about Samuel Beckett’s destitute art. Though his body of work seems to offer audiences very little by way of lesson or entertainment, it nevertheless has an unusual performance history within settings of realworld crisis. In landscapes of ruin, Waiting for Godot emerges unexpectedly and Beckett’s impoverished aesthetic begins to resonate. A focus on poverty...

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1. Godot behind Bars

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pp. 12-62

Martin Esslin begins The Theatre of the Absurd, his landmark study of avantgarde drama, with the performance of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin State Prison in 1957. He asks, “Why did a play of the supposedly esoteric avant-garde make so immediate and deep an impact on an audience of convicts...

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2. Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo and New Orleans

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pp. 63-111

Shakespeare’s observation that “all the world’s a stage” turns unremarkable and everyday reality into space of dramatic potential. The stage gives the world its shape, its value, and its possibility. Yet in what moments does the world begin to resemble Beckett’s stage? When does the world...

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3. La Pensee Vagabonde: Vagabond Thought

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pp. 112-142

The first two chapters explored Beckett’s aesthetic of poverty as public performance and how Waiting for Godot becomes an echo chamber for the powerlessness, need, and inconsolable waiting beyond the stage. This chapter turns inward to the private crisis of Beckett’s characters. Beckett’s figure of private crisis is the vagabond who speaks in interior monologue whose...

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4. Textual Indigence: The Reader in an Aesthetics of Poverty

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pp. 143-177

Critics widely observe that Beckett’s work, characterized by broken syntax and a dearth of discernible narrative structure, verges on the unreadable.2 Much of Beckett criticism tries to deal with this problem. The best criticism of Beckett makes a paradox of this, taking the view that the reader’s difficulty...

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Afterword: Staging Godot in Zuccotti Park

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pp. 178-190

The transition from diagnosis (critical reading) of Beckett to prognosis (seeing Beckett in the world) is obstructed by a persistent Beckettian agnosis, an indifference to ideas and knowledge. Marcel Proust compares À la Recherche du temps perdu to a telescope that enables readers to bring into focus the...


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pp. 191-222


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pp. 223-230


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pp. 231-236

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814271148
E-ISBN-10: 0814271146
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814212370
Print-ISBN-10: 0814212379

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 7 photos
Publication Year: 2013