Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Essay - Beckett, Samuel (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beckett, Samuel (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Endgame Samuel Beckett

The following entry presents criticism on Beckett's play Fin de partie (1957; Endgame). For further information on Beckett's complete career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 29, and 59. For discussion of En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot), see CLC, Volume 57.

One of the most celebrated authors in twentieth-century literature, Beckett is especially recognized for his significant impact on contemporary drama. Endgame, his second full-length play, focuses on the interaction of Hamm and Clov, two enigmatic modern figures forced to confront the nothingness of their existence. Like Waiting for Godot, Endgame features black humor, economical and fragmented language, experimental techniques, and stark images of alienation and absurdity. Despite the comic aspects of its surface level repartee, Endgame has been characterized by many critics as bleak, terrifying, and nihilistic.

Plot and Major Characters

Endgame is a long one-act play set during a single day in a bare room with two windows—one looking out onto an ocean, the other land—and a door that leads to a kitchen. The setting, as in most absurdist drama, serves to emphasize the central absurdity of everyday existence. The principal characters are Hamm and Clov. Hamm, who is blind and confined to an armchair mounted on castors, has been described by Beckett as "a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start, he knows he is making loud senseless moves…. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end." Clov, who cannot walk very well, waits on Hamm and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, who are legless and confined to two trash cans from which their heads periodically appear and disappear. Mutual dependence and hatred informs the relationships between Hamm and the other characters; as the play begins, Hamm's supply of food and pain killer is dwindling. Clov verbally spars with Hamm, and occasionally peers out the windows with a telescope to assure Hamm that nothing else is alive. Nagg and Nell discuss the past, and Nagg tells a story about a tailor and some trousers. Hamm relates two versions of a "chronicle" about a man and his son, and responds cruelly to pleas from the other characters for sustenance and relief from suffering. Toward the end of the play, Hamm orders Clov to seal the lids of the trash cans; Nagg and Nell apparently die. Looking out the window, Clov reports seeing a small boy. Hamm tells Clov he no longer needs him and Clov prepares to leave. The play concludes with Clov waiting by the door and Hamm, as he began the play, resting motionless in his chair with a bloody handkerchief over his face.

Major Themes

One of the most obvious themes of Endgame is the necessity of interdependence, even if the relationship is one of hate. Clov, for example, depends on Hamm for access to food since only Hamm knows how to open the larder, while Hamm relies on Clov to be his eyes and to move his chair. The play also focuses on confinement: Hamm is paralyzed, Nagg and Nell cannot leave their trash cans, and the action of the play occurs in a bare room, outside of which life apparently cannot survive. Generational conflict, particularly between father and son, also emerges as a prominent theme. Hamm twice tells a story about a father and son and seems to view parent-child relationships only in terms of power and resentment. Critics have argued that Hamm resents Nagg, his father, for not being kind to him when he was young, while Hamm resents Clov, his son, for being young at a time when his life is in decline. Endgame has also been interpreted as a depiction of humanity's denial of such life processes as death and procreation. Finally, the actors make numerous, explicit references throughout Endgame to their roles as characters in a play. For example, Hamm at one point states: "I'm warming up for my last soliloquy." At another point, Clov announces: "This is what we call making an exit." Critics contend that such references to the action of the play as a performance suggest that Endgame depicts humanity's penchant for self-dramatization, the act through which it assigns meaning to an otherwise meaningless universe.

Critical Reception

Critics often compare Endgame to Beckett's previous drama Waiting for Godot, noting, for instance, that characters in both plays are grouped in symmetrical pairs. However, Endgame is considered much bleaker and more perplexing than the latter play because it lacks the hope for redemption that informs Waiting for Godot. Speculation as to the significance of the play's setting, characters, and Hamm's and Nagg's narratives have generated diverse opinions. The metaphor governing the setting has been variously identified as a bomb shelter in the wake of a nuclear war, the interior of an individual's mind, and Noah's ark; Hamm and Clov have been supposed to represent James Joyce and Beckett, respectively; and interpretations of Hamm's chronicle range from an expression of guilt to the story of Hamm's adoption of Clov. Commentators have also focused on Beckett's numerous biblical allusions, his use of irony, and his attempt to "undo" cliches and idioms by having the characters respond to them on a literal level. Commenting on Endgame himself, Beckett identified the speech "nothing is funnier than unhappiness" as key to the play's interpretation and performance.

∗Principal Works

Whoroscope (poem) 1930
Proust (essay) 1931
More Pricks than Kicks (short stories) 1934
Murphy (novel) 1938
Malone meurt (novel) 1951
 [Malone Dies, 1956]
Molloy (novel) 1951
 [Molloy, 1955]
En attendant Godot (drama) 1953
 [Waiting for Godot, 1955]
L'innommable (novel) 1953
 [The Unnamable, 1958]
Watt (novel) 1953
Nouvelles et textes pour rien (short stories) 1955
 [Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1967]
Actes sans paroles I (drama) 1957
All that Fall (drama) [first publication] 1957
Fin de Partie (drama) 1957
 [Endgame, 1958]
Krapp's Last Tape (drama) 1958
Actes san paroles II (drama) 1960
Comment c'est (novel) 1961
 [How It Is, 1964]
Happy Days (drama) 1961
Comédie (drama) 1964
 [Play, 1964]
Imatination morte imaginez (drama) [first publication] 1965
 [Imagination Dead Imagine, 1965]
Va et vient (drama) 1966
 [Come and Go, 1968]
Eh Joe, and Other Writings (drama and screenplay) 1967
No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945–1966 (dramas and short stories) 1967
Breath (drama) 1970
Le dépeupleur (drama) [first publication] 1970
 [The Lost Ones, 1972]
§Mercier et Camier (novel) 1970
 [Mercier and Camier, 1974]
§Premier amour (drama) [first publication] 1970
 [First Love, 1973]
Not I (drama) 1972
Ends and Odds (dramas and radio plays) 1976
Foot Falls (drama) 1976
That Time (drama) 1976
Companie (novel) 1979
 [Company, 1980]
A Piece of Monologue (drama) 1979
Ohio Impromptu (drama) 1981
Rockaby (drama) 1981
Texts for Nothing (drama) 1981
Mal vu mal dit (prose poem) 1981
 [Ill Seen Ill Said, 1982]
Westward Ho (novel) 1983
Stirrings Still (novella) 1989

∗Beckett translated or cotranslated from the French all of the translations listed.

†These dramas were first performed together.

‡This work includes Eh Joe, Act Without Words II, and Film.

§These works were originally written in 1945.

Criticism

Robert Hatch (review date 15 February 1958)

[In the excerpt below, Hatch presents a mixed assessment of Endgame.]

Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!

There is no bottom to the nihilism of Samuel Beckett, but each time, as he is going down forever, he finds a flicker of wit and kicks on for another few strokes. For a poet, total renunciation is probably impossible—he is forced to believe in his own poetry and from that he can rebuild a universe.

So Endgame (Cherry Lane) is not really the end; it merely approaches the end as the parallel lines approach infinity. However, it is much further along than Waiting for Godot: it looks as though we might be extinguished at any minute—not with a bang and not with a whimper, but stuttering importantly like a rundown clock. The past ("accursed progenitor") is refuse. Ancient father and mother, they stand in ash cans on the stumps of their legs, having lost their shanks "in the Ardennes" … "on the road to Sedan"; which may suggest where and when Beckett thinks the end officially began. The lord of the present is blind and paralyzed, enthroned in his filth, sardonic and mawkish with the worn-out poses of an eternity of posing. The slave is truculent and spavined, but still slaving—out of habit, and perhaps because it is the only activity left on earth. It is something to be able to get around, however painfully.

There has been a disaster...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Tom F. Driver (review date 5 March 1958)

[An American educator, theologian, and critic, Driver has written several books on modern drama. In the following excerpt, he considers Endgame less accomplished than Waiting for Godot.]

Two years ago, Samuel Beckett's theatrical parable Waiting for Godot came to the attention of American audiences and moved many of us to wild enthusiasm. (The fact that many others were put off entirely by it only added to the fun.) Whatever Mr. Beckett may have intended in that play, actually he had written an enigma which teased one with the question whether it was worth it to wait for the appearance of an absolute that seemed perpetually slow in coming. The play was open-ended, somewhat like...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1961)

[Kenner is the foremost American critic and chronicler of literary Modernism. He is best known for The Pound Era (1971), an extensive study of the Modernist movement, and for his influential works on T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Wyndham Lewis. In the following essay originally published in 1961 in his Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study, he interprets Endgame as a self-conscious performance designed to explore the boundaries of theatricalism.]

The stage is a place to wait. The place itself waits, when no one is in it. When the curtain rises on Endgame, sheets drape all visible objects as in a furniture warehouse. Clov's first act is to uncurtain the...

(The entire section is 3192 words.)

Martin Esslin (essay date 1961)

[Esslin, a prominent and sometimes controversial critic of contemporary theater, is perhaps best known for coining the term "theater of the absurd." His The Theatre of the Absurd (1961) is a major study of the avant-garde drama of the 1950s and early 1960s, including the works of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in that work, he critiques various interpretations of Endgame and discusses the significance of the small boy that Clov sees near the play's conclusion.]

If Waiting for Godot shows its two heroes whiling away the time in a succession of desultory, and never-ending, games, Beckett's second...

(The entire section is 4674 words.)

Antony Easthope (essay date February 1968)

[Easthope is an English educator and critic. In the following essay originally published in Modern Drama in February 1968, he remarks on Hamm and Clov's relationship in Endgame and analyzes Beckett's dramatic method.]

One way in which a play holds the attention of an audience for the duration of its performance is by presenting an action which may be formulated as a question: Who killed Laius? How will Hamlet revenge his father? Endgame has a plot at least to the extent that it holds its audience with an uncertainty, one which is continuously reiterated from the stage: Will Clov leave Hamm? At the end, when the final tableau shows Clov standing there, with umbrella,...

(The entire section is 4052 words.)

Stanley Cavell (essay date 1969)

[Cavell is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1969 as "Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's 'Endgame'" in his Must We Mean What We Say, Cavell examines Beckett's use of language in Endgame and interprets the play in relation to the story of Noah and to Christ's Sermon on the Mount.]

Various keys to [Endgame's] interpretation are in place: "Endgame" is a term of chess; the name Hamm is shared by Noah's cursed son, it titles a kind of actor, it starts recalling Hamlet. But no interpretation I have seen details the textual evidence for these relations nor shows how the play's meaning opens with them....

(The entire section is 8598 words.)

Jack MacGowran with Richard Toscan (interview date July-September 1973)

[An Irish actor, MacGowran appeared in several productions of Beckett's plays, including Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Eh Joe, a play that Beckett wrote specifically for MacGowran. In the following excerpt from an interview first published in Theatre Quarterly, July-September 1973, he discusses Endgame and Beckett's attitude toward the play.]

[Toscan]: What about Endgame, in which you played Clov?

[MacGowran]: Endgame presented different problems [from Waiting for Godot]. The world upon which Clov looked, through the window, was a world devoid of anything, any human living being. So perhaps this could be taken as a...

(The entire section is 1921 words.)

Richard Gilman (essay date 1974)

[Gilman is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on modern drama. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1974 in his The Making of Modern Drama, he interprets Endgame as a play about performing.]

If such categories as optimism and pessimism pertain at all to Beckett, then Endgame is much more pessimistic than Waiting for Godot. In its seedy room whose windows look out on empty ocean, the living world seems to have been narrowed down to four survivors: Hamm, who cannot see or stand; Clov, his servant, who cannot sit; and Nagg and Nell, his parents, who exist throughout in ash cans. Everything is winding down to a finish,...

(The entire section is 2207 words.)

Harold Clurman (review date 16 February 1980)

[Highly regarded as a director, author, and longtime drama critic for The Nation, Clurman was an important contributor to the development of modern American theater. In the excerpt below, he comments on the tone and humor of Endgame.]

Samuel Beckett's Endgame is a Mystery of final things: as death, the end of an age. Being altogether modern, it is also a comedy. We do not weep in the theater nowadays over futility, protracted dreariness or doom: we laugh.

"Endgame" is a technical term signifying the last stage in playing a hand, the position of the important card having been generally known, and the play being determined accordingly; or the point in the game...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Ruby Cohn (essay date 1980)

[Cohn is an American educator and critic whose writings on Beckett include Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (1962), Back to Beckett (1973), and Samuel Beckett (1987). In the following excerpt from her Just Play: Beckett's Theater, she compares the various drafts of Endgame.]

A play aborted and a play jettisoned contrast with Beckett's favorite play, Endgame, which was worked, reworked, and translated from the French. As an approximation, Deirdre Bair is probably right [in her Samuel Beckett, 1978] to surmise that Beckett turned to drama when he reached a creative impasse, but drama too can be an impasse, and Beckett labored two years over Fin de...

(The entire section is 4664 words.)

Kristin Morrison (essay date 1983)

[An American educator and critic, Morrison has written extensively on modern drama. In the following excerpt, she examines Beckett's use of narrative in Endgame, focusing on Hamm's chronicle and its biblical allusions.]

After the little canters of Waiting for Godot, Beckett composed a substantial "chronicle" for Endgame, providing one of the best examples of extended narrative as an essential part of drama: the presence of story is unmistakable here, both to the audience and to characters within the play. Hamm refers by name to his "chronicle" and is self-conscious in his narration of it, aware of himself assuming the role of historian, aware of himself adopting a special...

(The entire section is 5639 words.)

Scott Cutler Shershow (essay date 1986)

[Shershow is an American editor and critic. In the following excerpt, he remarks on comic aspects of Endgame.]

(The entire section is 883 words.)

Richard Dutton (essay date 1986)

[In the excerpt below, Dutton focuses on the relationship between Hamm's and Nagg's stories and the overall setting and meaning of Endgame.]

Endgame, [like Waiting for Godot] has its echo of The Tempest. But where Lucky remembered divine Miranda, Hamm derisively recalls the world-weary Prospero: 'Our revels now are ended. (He gropes for the dog.)' The difference is of a piece with the difference between Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The latter is at once a bleaker and a more perplexing play. Vladimir and Estragon have their basic health, for all their disappointments and discomforts, whereas Hamm is confined to a wheelchair, blood intermittently...

(The entire section is 3272 words.)

Paul Lawley (essay date December 1988)

[In the essay below, Lawley analyzes the significance of the theme of adoption in Endgame.]

The terminal world of Beckett's Endgame, with its "corpsed" aspect outside the stage-refuge and its barbed play inside, sustains life solely, it seems, by reason of its ruler's procrastination. "Enough, it's time it ended, in the refuge too," proclaims Hamm at the outset. "And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to … to end." His hesitation is a problem not least because of "that hatred of nature as process (birth and copulation and death) which runs through the whole play" [Ronald Gaskell, Drama and Reality, 1972]. For if Hamm's hesitation necessitatesa prolongation of life in the refuge, the...

(The entire section is 2583 words.)

Shimon Levy (essay date 1990)

[In the excerpt below, Levy analyzes Beckett's use of space in Endgame.]

In a play "you have definite space and people in this space. That's relaxing" [Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett, 1973]. But the actual locations Beckett chooses for his characters and for the actors who play them, is anything but relaxing. In the first plays there is at least something an actor can relate to spatially—a country road and a tree; an empty room with two windows, two ashbins and a wheelchair; a mound in the middle of a "trompe l'oeil" desert. In later plays the actors find urns, a narrow-lit strip to pace on, a hole in the backdrop to stick a head as a mouth through. In some plays pieces of...

(The entire section is 1412 words.)