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Bowler Hat Project examines Beckett with lecture, performances

October 11, 2010

November 04, 2010
5 p.m.

Samuel Beckett, one of the most important writers of the 20th century, and the bowler hat, an important symbol following the formation of the Irish Free State in 1932, are not only intertwined but are the subject of the Bowler Hat Project at Arizona State University’s West campus, Nov. 4 in the Kiva Lecture Hall.

“Beckett, the Bowler Hat and the Performance of Ascendancy” is a lecture by Sean Kennedy, associate professor of English and the director of the Irish Studies program at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. Kennedy’s presentation, which begins at 5:30 p.m., will be accompanied by performances of the bowler hat scene from Beckett’s internationally acclaimed play “Waiting for Godot,” an art installation and media work centering on the cultural significance of the bowler hat in the 20th century.

The lecture is presented by the Philosophy, Rhetoric and Literature (PRL) Research Cluster in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, with support from the college’s Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies; the New College Center for Critical Inquiry and Cultural Studies; and the ASU Institute for Humanities Research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Admission is free to the community.  Visitor parking at the West campus is available at $2 per hour.

“I think our audience will find the lecture and accompanying events to be both engaging and entertaining,” says Patrick Bixby, New College associate professor of English and director of the M.A. degree program in interdisciplinary studies.

“They should take home a new appreciation for the connection between cultural production and its historical context, and a new appreciation for the vibrant intellectual work being done at the intersection of traditional disciplines.

“Here is an occasion that brings together literary study, political science, cultural history, theatrical performance and the visual arts; it should be great fun.”

The Bowler Hat Project was the brainchild of a pair of faculty in the New College interdisciplinary arts and performance degree program, Charles St. Clair and Arthur Sabatini. Intrigued by the topic of Kennedy’s lecture, they suggested a multimedia event to accompany the talk, with the idea of involving their West campus students in an investigation of the bowler hat as a particularly noteworthy item of material culture. Students in Sabatini’s class, “Traditions of the Avant-Garde and Experimental Art,” will contribute performances, media and installations to the evening’s activities.

Bixby is the author of “Samuel Beckett and the Postcolonial Novel” (Cambridge University Press, 2009), which explores Beckett’s novels in the context of the newly liberated Irish Free State and looks at how his works confronted the legacies of both Irish nationalism and British imperialism.  Bixby sees the interdisciplinary, multimedia presentation and the involvement of students as a natural fit.

“The members of the PRL Research Cluster come from a variety of academic disciplines, but we share an interdisciplinary interest in the ways that the terms of our title – philosophy, rhetoric and literature – intersect in research, practice and teaching. Dr. Kennedy’s talk presents a fascinating example of this kind of disciplinary intersection by examining Beckett’s writing in relation to the political rhetorics of the Irish Free State.

“Many of us will recognize that items of headwear, whether head scarves, cowboys hats, or sideways baseball caps, can be more powerful markers of political and ideological affiliation,” says Bixby.  “This lecture will take us back to a historical moment when two items perhaps unfamiliar to us – the bowler hat and the cloth hat – were charged with a similar kind of significance and, in the process of his talk, Dr. Kennedy will give us new ways to think about how such cultural artifacts function in our own political context.”

Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1906, and died in Paris in 1989. He is best known for “Waiting for Godot,” composed in 1949 and premiered in Paris in 1953, and “Endgame,” which made its stage debut in London in 1957. The plays, like much of Beckett’s writing, are focused on human suffering and survival, and his characters struggle with meaninglessness. In “Godot,” written at a time when the bowler hat was a sign of social identity, the only description of costume is that all four major characters wear the headwear.

“In Ireland in the 1930s, at a time of considerable adjustment after Irish independence, the kind of hat one wore said something about the kind of Ireland one hoped for,” says Kennedy, a native of Killarney in County Kerry, Ireland. “I like to think that the bowler hat remains in Beckett’s writings as a condensed symbol of all sorts of things, perhaps, most significantly, as a sign of the continuing relevance of his Irish upbringing.

“The point, I think, is not that Beckett engaged with Irish history, but rather that Irish engaged with him, in the sense that he was raised there, came to consciousness there, and also became conscious of his desire to be an artist there.”
Kennedy received his B.A. in English and psychology from Trinity College in Dublin and his M.A. in culture and colonialism at the National University of Ireland in Galway. He completed his doctoral dissertation, “The Artist from Nowhere: Historicising Beckett,” at National University.

“Beckett is still relevant because he is still read and because he still speaks, in profound ways, to the contemporary moment,” says Kennedy. “His writing constantly guards against complacency and urges us to do the same.  Also, in important ways, we are still only figuring out what it was that Beckett achieved, and the relevance of Ireland to that.”

The Bowler Hat Project will begin at 4 p.m. with an exhibit in the University Center Building Interdisciplinary Arts and Performance (IAP) Gallery on the second floor. A performance of the hat scene from “Waiting for Godot” will be featured in the Kiva Lecture Hall at 5 p.m. as a prelude to Kennedy’s talk. After the talk, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., a hosted reception will take place in the IAP Gallery, allowing attendees to view the exhibition and talk with the guest lecturer.
ASU’s West campus is located at 4701 West Thunderbird Road in Phoenix.

For more information about the Bowler Hat Project and “Beckett, the Bowler Hat and the Performance of Ascendancy,” email Bixby at