Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1906, Samuel Beckett lived in Paris during the 1920’s and made his permanent residence there from 1937 until his death more than fifty years later. In the late 1940’s, Beckett, who had published a few novels and some poetry in English, began writing in French, with almost immediately positive results. Beginning with Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955) Beckett achieved critical if not popular success, exploring the possibilities and limits of the novel. Ironically, however, it was as a playwright, composing originally in French, that Beckett achieved his full measure of fame and critical acclaim, initially with En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954).
As with his novels, Beckett prepared his own English translations of the plays, achieving an originality of style that had eluded him when he wrote originally in English. Endgame was his second play to be performed and published, its fortunes closely rivaling those of the earlier, groundbreaking Waiting for Godot. With the early efforts of Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet, Beckett’s first two plays helped to define and illustrate the trend described, analyzed, and labeled by Martin Esslin in 1961: Theater of the Absurd. Although the three playwrights were, as Esslin points out in his study The Theatre of the Absurd, more different than similar, their combined works would redefine and reorient the “serious” Paris stage for the next two or three decades, with worldwide repercussions.
Endgame is interpreted by certain observers as a psychodrama portraying the fragmentation of the human personality. Much of the so-called stage business, prescribed in the written text, accounts for a fair share of the action: Clov folding sheets, moving or stepping on the stepladder, or wheeling Hamm around the room. Hamm, although stationary, utilizes gestures and poses that constitute stage business as well, such as his movement with his glasses, or his handkerchief or stuffed pet dog. Many of these moments of stage business help to instill a comic effect that is a counterpoint to the depressing aspects of the play, or “the game.” Many of the lines in the play, in particular those of Hamm, reference the game, how it is proceeding, and how it ends.
The dialogue often deals with various elements of humanity. The aspect of aging is approached in the conversations between Hamm and his father, Nagg, who seems to return to his infancy by needing his pap and by feeling he is no longer needed or wanted; thus the reason for his living in an ash bin, or trash can. A constant game exists between Clov and Hamm: Clov wants to know if he is Hamm’s son. A monologue by Hamm, which Clov does not hear, makes it clear that Clov is indeed his son, or is considered so by Hamm. The game comprises the continuous torture of the characters, whether by each other or by the desolate world around them. It is a game the characters are all forced, or choose, to play.
Endgame has four highly individuated and memorable characters, and their interactions are no less dramatic for the compression of dialogue and plot that often borders on the cryptic. The end of the world is at hand, and play, or playing, is all that is left to do. By the end of the play the audience is left with questions: Is this actually the final stage of the game, much like in chess, the endgame, or does the game continue to go on and on? Because the play ends with the characters in a tableau, only Beckett knows the answers.
If the desolate landscape of Waiting for Godot can be likened to that of war-torn, occupied France, the ravaged interior of Endgame seems to suggest the threat of a world laid to waste by nuclear war. In neither case, however, is the equation expressly stated. Interpretation is left to the director, actors, and spectators. Arguably, Endgame is addressed even more to the actor than to the spectator, as its greatest potential impact derives from participation in the play that is made central.
Following the success of Endgame, Beckett went on to write Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958), an equally remarkable spectacle featuring a single actor and a tape recorder on which the character has attempted to keep track of time; the play also explores time’s effects on his personality. Unlike most of Beckett’s other mature work in any genre, Krapp’s Last Tape was written first in English, then translated into French. Although Beckett continued to write for the theater well into the 1970’s, none of his later pieces achieved quite the success or impact of his first three efforts for the theater. Endgame remains perhaps the most remarkable, rivaled only by Waiting for Godot.