Performing Dispossession: Samuel Beckett’s Theatre
The intersections between Samuel Beckett’s work and philosophy are well documented: both his own reading in philosophy as a young man, and the contemporary philosophers (such as Derrida, Cixous, Badiou and Deleuze) who ‘think through’ Beckett (in Herbert Blau’s phrase). In this paper I propose to reflect on concepts of embodiment, performance and dispossession in relation to Beckett’s theatre, bringing material performances into dialogue with some recent Anglo-American-Greek thought, including Judith Butler’s Precarious Life and, with Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: the Performative in the Political, and Simon Critchley’s Very Little Almost Nothing. Beckett’s theatre stages the vulnerable bodies and subjects that, in Butler’s and Athanasiou’s dialogues, challenge dominant norms of identity and subject-hood associated with (self) possession. However my paper will focus on two productions which highlight the performance of dispossession: Paul Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans in 2007, and a production of Act Without Words I and Rough for Theatre I, directed by Sarah Jane Scaife in a disused car park in the quays of Dublin, Ireland (near the newly constructed Beckett bridge and major bank buildings) in 2013. Both productions relocated the plays to outdoor non-theatre spaces in which the audience were immersed in devastated or abandoned locations; both used trained performers to foreground the representation of contemporary, local figures of dispossession, and also deployed the material evidence of dispossession as a mode of questioning the hierarchies of value that produced it. These stagings re-pose Critchley’s question: ‘Who speaks in Beckett’s work?’ (175), and introduce an echo of Gayatri Spivak’s question about subaltern access to a public voice. What kinds of corporeal materialisation were enacted here and what were the ethical implications of producing and witnessing these performances? Can the performance of dispossession become a mode of critical thinking / action?
Anna McMullan is Professor of Theatre at the University of Reading. She is author of Performing Embodiment in Samuel Beckett’s Drama (London: Routledge, 2010) and Theatre on Trial: The Later Drama of Samuel Beckett (Routledge, 1993), and has published widely on Beckett’s theatre and on Irish theatre and performance. She is Principal Investigator of the AHRC Staging Beckett project, a collaboration between the Universities of Chester and Reading and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Staging Beckett is documenting and analysing the impact of productions of Beckett’s plays on theatre cultures and practices in the UK and Ireland.