After concentrating on poetry and fiction earlier in his career, Samuel Beckett gained a large international audience with his first play, En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). His next, Endgame, confirmed his preeminence among practitioners of an emerging genre that came to be known as the Theater of the Absurd. The second play is yet sparer and bleaker—a reduction of the theatrical experience to a minimal set, a vestigial plot, and simple but intellectually charged dialogue among characters who continue to play a game of life apparently already lost. Although the play has been interpreted as a cry of despair, some of its features, notably Nagg’s zestful reiteration of his story of the tailor and Hamm’s determination to face down adversity (he uses the word “good” four times in his final soliloquy), suggest that Beckett’s characters refuse to succumb to hopelessness.
Beckett’s ingenious interweaving of the themes of play and Passion capture the modern skepticism toward beliefs and values long regarded as redemptive and more recently as at least sustaining. Beckett provoked a long battle with British censorship by making Hamm refer to God as a “bastard,” but the religious echoes in the play have by and large not offended audiences more inclined to view Christ’s Passion as human drama rather than as part of a divine salvific scheme. Nor has Beckett’s parody of theatrical conventions undermined the play’s credibility. Modern audiences are as willing as those of Shakespeare’s time to accept the implications of life seen not only as a play but as a game—willing, in fact, to see life reduced to its last act, its “endgame,” with man facing the likelihood of losing the game he has devised to occupy himself.
The fascination of Endgame owes much to its dramatization of the paradoxes that modern life has fostered or intensified. People constantly on the move nevertheless recognize emblems of their plight in Beckett’s characteristically immobile protagonists. Nominal believers—often thoroughgoing skeptics under the skin—identify with the unbelieving Hamm in his “imitation of Christ.” An inarticulate audience listens as the simple words of everyday life give rise to eloquence. Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the goal of the game is to reach the end—living is also dying.
As strange and innovative as Waiting for Godot and Endgame initially seemed, their acceptance testifies to Beckett’s ability to find dramatic means adequate to express deeply sensed truths. The audience may first reject or perceive only dimly a vision of life which, in the process of enactment on the stage, gradually compels recognition and acceptance as a faithful mirror of the serious, yet somehow comical, human predicament.