Book of the Month Club: THE WORK OF POVERTY by Lance Duerfahrd

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“Art’s poverty and impotence, the fact that it cannot enter the world and remains useless to it, is its utility. In remaining only in terrible symmetry with the world rather than dissolving into it, Beckett’s play becomes a gym… where one undertakes preparation for the ‘irreconcilability of it all’ …between sense and the world, between people, between people and their situation, between need and the measures taken to address it, between individuals and their own waiting.”

What exactly are you waiting for? For the summer grades, perhaps, to come out. Or maybe a job acceptance after a period of unemployment. We all, at one point or another, suffer the grueling wait for something. So come and, just for a moment, imagine yourself waiting in a desolate landscape, for someone who you have never met and someone who you aren’t sure will come at all.

Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for Godot. Image credit: KlickingKarl/Wikimedia Commons

One of the cornerstones of the Theatre of the Absurd, Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” is a two-act play in which two characters try to pass the time while they pass the time —- guess what? —- waiting for the titular Godot. Spoiler alert: he never shows up.

The Work of Poverty explores productions of “Godot” through the years and in various locations, notably the 1957 production at San Quentin State Prison, in war-torn Sarajevo in 1993, 2005 post-Hurricane Katrina, and features an addendum about a 2011 production during Occupy Wall Street. Throughout the years, the play shifts and evolves as different actors (including, in later productions, women, to which Beckett strongly objected) come into the roles of Didi, Gogo, Pozzo, and Lucky, as the situations in which the play change, and as the audience shifts from prisoners to refugees. Yet can you change a play to be relevant to your audience, and still maintain integrity to the source work? Can you replace word “Godot” with something else? Can you finish the play only performing one act, to give the audience hope that Godot will come tomorrow?

The two sections I found the most interesting are those that discuss the San Quentin and the post-Katrina productions. The audiences are both waiting like the characters: the prisoners for their freedom, the hurricane victims for support. The audience’s response to the play is also quite surprising, as well. The San Quentin inmates were intensely moved by the performance, a response that surprised the prison staff. In a particular haunting instance, a poll distributed to the residents surrounding the post-Katrina production asked the residents of a New Orleans suburb what they were waiting for. There were the obvious things, such as FEMA and money but also simple things such as waiting for street signs to be back up and shopping centers to reopen, the answers give a moving look at post-Katrina New Orleans.

With liberal mentions of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze, and other Beckett works such as Molloy, The Unnamable, and Endgame, you do need some prior interest and background in philosophy and literary studies. Still, if you’re interested in the works of Samuel Beckett, it’s worth a study. Just be glad that Henri Bergson’s memory cones aren’t in there.

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