Endgame Essays and Criticism
by Samuel Beckett

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Beckett's Endgame

(Drama for Students)

Samuel Beckett’s writing can be something of a puzzle. There are no final positions or absolute interpretations. Endgame is, however, a unique masterpiece with an intricate dramatic structure that runs contrary to traditional theatrical structure.

Endgame was groundbreaking because it dared not to adhere to accepted dramatic rules. Beckett uses circular dialogue, refuses to accessorize the play or its characters with anything but the bare minimum, yet he creates a complex fictional and highly theatrical world for his characters to inhabit. Beckett chooses his words carefully, and the nature of the dialogue is circular, for example in Hamm’s opening soliloquy: ‘‘And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to . . . to end. Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to—(he yawns)—to end.’’ The language Beckett uses demonstrates the precarious balance between cognition and bewilderment. The breakdown of language reflects the breakdown of the characters’ ability to perceive the world around them. His use of self-reflexive dialogue informs the audience that they are sitting in a theater watching a play, alluding to the play as a ‘‘game.’’ Just as the words Beckett uses are few, he removes all extraneous material from his play. Endgame’s structure breaks from the theory that shaped centuries of dramas and tragedies. Aristotle wrote that tragedy is ‘‘an imitation of an action.’’ Beckett is not concerned with trying to create and maintain an imitation or illusion of reality. Beckett strips bare all detail except the necessary minimum, and the detail he does provide is often vague. Beckett’s use of dramatic motivation is also minimal. In traditional drama, a character’s motivations are made clear to the audience, but the character’s actions in Endgame are peculiar. One may wish to go to the theater to come away with conclusions and answers, but Beckett presents a fictional world as complex as the real world, where conclusions are uncertain and answers not easily defined. Endgame can be seen as the highest sort of theater, where events take place in the midst of the life of the audience, and it is the audience’s responsibility to take what it can from what is presented rather than being force fed easily discernible plots. Despite flying in the face of recognized theatrical devices, there is an innovative dramatist at work, who decides to use chess as a way to play out this human predicament.

Beckett uses chess as the play’s controlling metaphor, and he explores the human dilemma, mortality, and God’s existence, without providing simple answers, as his characters, and the audience, move through an uncertain existence. The game of chess becomes the metaphor that gives a seemingly structureless play a dramatic scheme. The characters in Endgame resemble chess pieces. The metaphorical king of Endgame is the center of attention, and the rules of chess apply to the characters, their setting, and their situation. In Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, Anthony Cronin writes:

When it was produced in Berlin in 1967 Beckett told one of the actors, ‘Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start . . . Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would . . . He is only trying to delay the inevitable end . . . He’s a bad player.’

And the audience can see the moves of the king once the game has been set up. Hamm and Clov can be viewed as king and knight, and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, function as pawns. Beckett further emphasizes this by using two different colors to describe his characters. When introduced, Hamm and Clov both have a ‘‘very red face.’’ Nagg and Nell both have a ‘‘very white face.’’ Though his characters have two differing colors, they do not perform as contrasting pieces would in a standard game of chess played between two opponents. In chess, each piece is moved according to specific rules and is removed from the board when it is captured by the move...

(The entire section is 10,847 words.)