Beckett's Endgame

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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,...

(This entire section contains 2392 words.)

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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 of one of the opposing pieces into its square. The king is the focus of the game as each player tries to checkmate the other player’s king. The king can move one square in any direction but only one square at a time and cannot move into check. Hamm,Endgame’s crippled king, can only move with the aid of Clov, the play’s knight, which ultimately leads to Hamm’s demise. The move of the knight in chess resembles a capital L (two squares vertically followed by one to the side, or two to the side and one up or down). In literary lore, the knight is often the king’s most ardent protector— or deceiver. Beckett uses both of these ideas with Clov, who exists in a master-servant relationship with Hamm. Clov eventually leaves Hamm (if the audience believes Clov does leave at the play’s end), which brings about Hamm’s death. The least valuable of all the chess pieces is the pawn. Pawns can move only one square, straight ahead, except for its first move, which can be two squares straight ahead. It is the only chess piece that may never move backwards. Pawns have special privileges; other pieces do not. Beckett’s pawns are of the sort that is unable to progress in the battlefield that is their shelter. Contained in ashbins, they are powerless to promote their own agenda and are trapped and dependent upon their son, Hamm.

Hamm, the king, for the purpose of the drama, is the center of all activity. Hamm is all too aware of his limited mortal power and abilities, and he struggles to survive the chess game by trying to dominate the other characters on stage. Afraid of losing what little control he does have, Hamm tells Clov to take him for a spin around the room in his wheelchair. As Clov, the obedient knight in service of his king, moves him, Hamm complains about the slightest inaccuracy of his desired position and yells to Clov that he has moved him a ‘‘little too far to the left’’ or a ‘‘little too far to the right.’’ Hamm tries to assert his dominance whenever he can. Beckett’s purposeful use of chess as the play’s central metaphor augments the dramatic maneuvers both Hamm and Clov contrive in their daily games with each other as they struggle with the purpose of going on at all. In his desperate requests for painkillers, Hamm creates devices that enable him to continue on for another day. Clov, on the other hand, exercises his love-hate relationship with Hamm by his committed performance of daily routines. Much of their dialogue implies an inner debate of each character vying for control of the other, such as when Clov asks, ‘‘Why do you keep me?’’ and Hamm answers, ‘‘There’s no one else.’’ Clov responds, ‘‘There’s nowhere else.’’ Hamm asserts, ‘‘You’re leaving me all the same.’’ Clov, answers honestly, ‘‘I’m trying.’’ The king, knight, pawn scenario can also be seen at work when Hamm chastises his father, Nagg, when he comes out from his ashbin demanding food. Hamm whistles Clov in to feed Nagg, and then Hamm orders Clov to push Nagg back into the bin and close the lid. In the game of chess, pawns are typically the first to lose their lives, and so it is in Endgame. Both Nagg and Nell expire before the king; only the knight survives.

The setting of Endgame has similar restrictions in time and space, as does chess. Endgame is set in a single room that may or may not be a bomb shelter after a nuclear war has devastated the earth. Beckett’s characters exist in a world that seems to be coming to an end, and here the audience can see Beckett’s characters’ actions and ideas in comparison to an Endgame in chess. P. H. Clarke notes in the translator’s forward to Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge, by Y. Averbakh:

Any deficiencies in positional judgment and technique which may have remained unnoticed amidst the complexities of the openings and middlegame are here ruthlessly revealed; errors stand out in greater relief and, what is worse, generally have more serious consequences.

Beckett’s characters know that the world and all of life outside their known shelter may have been destroyed—they are aware of the serious consequences facing them, yet they feel somewhat safe in the small room they inhabit (the game space or game board). Hamm describes the world that exists outside the known shelter as an ‘‘outer hell.’’ Like the king in a chess game, Hamm does not want to be taken off the game board, for if he is, he knows he has lost the battle. Thought and choice are the determining factors in any chess game. For the master player of chess, moves are planned in advance, and it takes time to set up strategy and position. The master player moves beyond tactics to strategy—long-term planning in preparation for later action. None of Beckett’s characters, like most people in real life, are master players. The chess metaphor is not simply an exercise but a way of coherently presenting the incoherent ideas of how humanity reconciles itself to itself. Just as the chess player is plagued by limitations, so are the characters in Endgame.

Beckett’s characters search for an understanding of themselves as Beckett explores human limitations and mortality—all the while continuing to move towards the question of a person’s signifi- cance in what may be a Godless world. Just as the king in chess can only move one space at a time, Hamm wonders why he is so limited. Through this game of chess Beckett examines the personal strug gle and often the inability to understand one’s own self. In looking to the future, the characters encounter a complexity of strategy and movement as real in life as it is in chess. Transformation can be difficult to pinpoint. Beckett does not provide easily defined dramatic moments when change does happen, and discernment is slippery at best. Clov describes a change that has occurred without completely understanding what precisely has transpired:

Then one day, suddenly, it ends, it changes. I don’t understand, it dies, or it’s me. I don’t understand, that either. I ask the words that remain—sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say.

Hamm also acknowledges this phenomenon: ‘‘Absent always. It all happened without me. I don’t know what’s happened.’’ Just as a bad player in chess suddenly finds the Endgame and potential victory slipping from his grasp, so do Beckett’s characters. As the Endgame begins to slip from grasp, the characters’ thoughts fall to mortality.

The characters in Endgame realize that they are mortal. The repetitions and routines throughout the play represent the habitual nature of man and imply that these habits are palliative to our awareness that death is certain and life mysterious. The characters discuss what may give life meaning and make it worth living. Experience in life should add up to a meaningful existence. Clov, in the second line of the play, describes what should be the accumulation of experiences that produce meaning: ‘‘Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.’’ This idea is again articulated by Hamm near the end of the play: ‘‘Moment by moment, pattering down like the millet grains of . . . (He hesitates) . . . that Old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life.’’ In examining their lives thus far, the characters, and the audience, must determine their futures. For Clov, the decision is to take his chances in the ‘‘outer hell,’’ leaving the safety of the only playing field he has known. As Clov prepares to leave Hamm, Hamm admits defeat. Hamm throws his worldly possessions towards the audience and places his handkerchief over his face, an act of the king giving up the game.

Despite his eventual loss, throughout the play Hamm desires personal significance. Beckett’s play culminates in the most universal question of all: is there a God and do we matter to Him? Beckett asks the audience to consider if God does exist or if he is a myth made up by man to allow man to ease his fear of death and his fear of insignificance. In one scene, Hamm orders both Clov and Nagg to pray to God, but Hamm cries in agony, ‘‘The bastard! He doesn’t exist!’’ Hamm and the other characters solemnly question the existence of God. One of the comedic moments of the play is when Nagg and Nell discuss the joke about an Old Jewish tailor who took more than three months to make a decent pair of trousers, the results of which were more satisfactory than God’s six-day effort to create the world. Beckett raises these questions, but he does not provide easy answers. For the believer, perhaps Beckett is saying that only God has complete knowledge of the world and that human ideas are limited. Such is not the case for Hamm, who seriously doubts the existence of God. Hamm says that it would seem impossible for the millions of moments in a lifetime to amount to anything significant. Do any actions or relationships in life bring anything but pain, suffering, and insignificance? In Beckett’s work, one cannot take things at face value. Each person must rise to Beckett’s challenge and search himself or herself for the answers and solutions to these universal and timeless questions.

The fact that Beckett finds an unconventional yet successful way to address these weighty questions of life in an hour-and-a-half play is what distinguishes it as great drama. Beckett succeeds by exploding the paradigms of traditional drama. He uses allusions to, and forms resembling, chess in order to create structure where there initially seems to be none. Beckett treats his audience with the utmost respect by investigating the human condition without allowing for the hope of an absolute answer to life’s biggest puzzles. Beckett’s Endgame, though a labyrinth in its complex construction, is an extraordinary work of twentieth-century art.

Source: Daryl McDaniel, Critical Essay on Endgame, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.

Life in the Box

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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 two high windows and inspect the universe; his second is to remove the sheets and fold them carefully over his arm, disclosing two ash cans and a figure in an armchair. This is so plainly a metaphor for waking up that we fancy the stage, with its high peepholes, to be the inside of an immense skull. It is also a ritual for starting the play; Yeats arranged such a ritual for At the Hawk’s Well, and specified a black cloth and a symbolic song. It is finally a removal from symbolic storage of the objects that will be needed during the course of the performance. When the theater is empty it is sensible to keep them covered against dust. So we are reminded at the outset that what we are to witness is a dusty dramatic exhibition, repeated and repeatable. The necessary objects include three additional players (two of them in ash cans). Since none of them will move from his station we can think of them after the performance as being kept permanently on stage, and covered with their dust cloths again until tomorrow night.

The rising of the curtain disclosed these sheeted forms; the removal of the sheets disclosed the protagonist and his ash cans; the next stage is for the protagonist to uncover his own face, which he does with a yawn, culminating this three-phase strip tease with the revelation of a very red face and black glasses. His name, we gather from the program, is Hamm, a name for an actor. He is also Hamlet, bounded in a nutshell, fancying himself king of infinite space, but troubled by bad dreams; he is also ‘‘a toppled Prospero,’’ remarking partway through the play, with judicious pedantry, ‘‘our revels now are ended’’; he is also the Hammer to which Clov, Nagg and Nell (Fr. clou, Ger. Nagel, Eng. nail) stand in passive relationship; by extension, a chess player (‘‘Me—[he yawns]—to play’’); but also (since Clov must wheel him about) himself a chessman, probably the imperiled King.

Nagg and Nell in their dustbins appear to be pawns; Clov, with his arbitrarily restricted movements (‘‘I can’t sit’’) and his equestrian background (‘‘And your rounds? Always on foot?’’ ‘‘Sometimes on horse’’) resembles the Knight, and his perfectly cubical kitchen (‘‘ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, nice dimensions, nice proportions’’) resembles a square on the chessboard translated into three dimensions. He moves back and forth, into it and out of it, coming to the succor of Hamm and then retreating. At the Endgame’s end the pawns are forever immobile and Clov is poised for a last departure from the board, the status quo forever menaced by an expected piece glimpsed through the window, and King Hamm abandoned in check:

Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing. . . Since that’s the way we’re playing it, let’s play it that way . . . and speak no more about it . . . speak no more.

Even if we had not the information that the author of this work has been known to spend hours playing chess with himself (a game at which you always lose), we should have been alerted to his long-standing interest in its strategy by the eleventh chapter of Murphy, where Murphy’s first move against Mr. Endon, the standard P—K4, is described as ‘‘the primary cause of all [his] subsequent difficulties.’’ (The same might be said of getting born, an equally conventional opening.) Chess has several peculiarities which lend themselves to the metaphors of this jagged play. It is a game of leverage, in which the significance of a move may be out of all proportion to the local disturbance it effects (‘‘A flea! This is awful! What a day!’’). It is a game of silences, in which new situations are appraised: hence Beckett’s most frequent stage direction, ‘‘Pause.’’ It is a game of steady attrition; by the time we reach the Endgame the board is nearly bare, as bare as Hamm’s world where there are no more bicycle wheels, sugarplums, painkillers, or coffins, let alone people. And it is a game which by the successive removal of screening pieces constantly extends the range of lethal forces, until at the Endgame peril from a key piece sweeps down whole ranks and files. The king is hobbled by the rule which allows him to move in any direction but only one square at a time; Hamm’s circuit of the stage and return to center perhaps exhibits him patrolling the inner boundaries of the little nine-square territory he commands. To venture further will evidently expose him to check. (‘‘Outside of here it’s death.’’) His knight shuttles to and fro, his pawns are pinned. No threat is anticipated from the auditorium, which is presumably off the board; and a periodic reconnaissance downfield through the windows discloses nothing but desolation until very near the end. But on his last inspection of the field Clov is dismayed. Here the English text is inexplicably sketchy; in the French one we have,

CLOV: Aïeaïeaïe!

HAMM: C’est une feuille? Une fleur? Une toma—(il bâille)—te?

CLOV (regardant): Je t’en foutrai des tomates! Quelqu’un! C’est quelqu’un!

HAMM: Eh bien, va l’exterminer. (Clov descend de l’escabeau.) Quelqu’un! (Vibrant.) Fais ton devoir!

In the subsequent interrogatory we learn the distance of this threat (fifteen meters or so), its state of rest or motion (motionless), its sex (presumably a boy), its occupation (sitting on the ground as if leaning on something). Hamm, perhaps thinking of the resurrected Jesus, murmurs ‘‘La pierre levée,’’ then on reflection changes the image to constitute himself proprietor of the Promised Land: ‘‘Il regarde la maison sans doute, avec les yeux de Moïse mourant.’’ It is doing, however, nothing of the kind; it is gazing at its navel. There is no use, Hamm decides, in running out to exterminate it: ‘‘If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here. And if he doesn’t . . .’’ And a few seconds later he has conceded the game:

It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you any more.

He sacrifices his last mobile piece, discards his staff and whistle, summons for the last time a resourceless Knight and an unanswering Pawn, and covers his face once more with the handkerchief: somehow in check.

Not that all this is likely to be yielded up with clarity by any conceivable performance. It represents however a structure which, however we glimpse it, serves to refrigerate the incidental passions of a play about, it would seem, the end of humanity. It is not for nothing that the place within which the frigid events are transacted is more than once called ‘‘the shelter,’’ outside of which is death; nor that the human race is at present reduced to two disabled parents, a macabre blind son, and an acathisiac servant. Around this shelter the universe crumbles away like an immense dry biscuit: no more rugs, no more tide, no more coffins. We hear of particular deaths:

CLOV (harshly): When old Mother Pegg asked you for oil for her lamp and you told her to get out to hell, you knew what was happening then, no? (Pause.) You know what she died of, Mother Pegg? Of darkness.

HAMM (feebly): I hadn’t any.

CLOV (as before): Yes, you had.

We observe particular brutalities: Hamm, of his parents: ‘‘Have you bottled her?’’ ‘‘Yes.’’ ‘‘Are they both bottled?’’ ‘‘Yes.’’ ‘‘Screw down the lids.’’ What has shrunken the formerly ample world is perhaps Hamm’s withdrawal of love; the great skull-like setting suggests a solipsist’s universe. ‘‘I was never there,’’ he says. ‘‘Absent, always. It all happened without me. I don’t know what’s happened.’’ He has been in ‘‘the shelter’’; he has also been dosed within himself. It is barely possible that the desolation is not universal:

HAMM: Did you ever think of one thing?

CLOV: Never.

HAMM: That here we’re down in a hole. (Pause.) But beyond the hills? Eh? Perhaps it’s still green. Eh? (Pause.) Flora! Pomona! (Ecstatically.) Ceres! (Pause.) Perhaps you won’t need to go very far.

CLOV: I can’t go very far. (Pause.) I’ll leave you.

As Hamm is both chessman and chess player, so it is conceivable that destruction is not screened off by the shelter but radiates from it for a certain distance. Zero, zero, words we hear so often in the dialogue, these are the Cartesian coordinates of the origin.

Bounded in a nutshell yet king of infinite space, Hamm articulates the racking ambiguity of the play by means of his dominance over its most persuasive metaphor, the play itself. If he is Prospero with staff and revels, if he is Richard III bloodsmeared and crying ‘‘My kingdom for a nightman!’’ if he is also perhaps Richard II, within whose hollow crown

Keeps Death his court, and there the Antic sits, Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, Allowing him a breath, a little scene To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks—

these roles do not exhaust his repertoire. He is (his name tells us) the generic Actor, a creature all circumference and no center. As master of the revels, he himself attends to the last unveiling of the opening ritual:

(Pause. Hamm stirs. He yawns under the handkerchief. He removes the handkerchief from his face. Very red face, black glasses.

HAMM: Me—(he yawns)—to play. (He holds the handkerchief spread out before him.) Old stancher!

(. . . He clears his throat, joins the tips of his fingers.) Can there be misery—(he yawns)—loftier than mine?

The play ended, he ceremoniously unfolds the handkerchief once more (five separate stage directions governing his tempo) and covers his face as it was in the beginning. ‘‘Old Stancher! (Pause.) You . . . remain.’’ What remains, in the final brief tableau specified by the author, is the immobile figure with a bloodied Veronica’s veil in place of a face: the actor having superintended his own Passion and translated himself into an ultimate abstraction of masked agony.

Between these termini he animates everything, ordering the coming and going of Clov and the capping and uncapping of the cans. When Clov asks, ‘‘What is there to keep me here?’’ he answers sharply, ‘‘The dialogue.’’ A particularly futile bit of business with the spyglass and the steps elicits from him an aesthetic judgment, ‘‘This is deadly.’’ When it is time for the introduction of the stuffed dog, he notes, ‘‘We’re getting on,’’ and a few minutes later, ‘‘Do you not think this has gone on long enough?’’ These, like comparable details in Godot, are sardonic authorizations for a disquiet that is certainly stirring in the auditorium. No one understands better than Beckett, nor exploits more boldly, the kind of fatalistic attention an audience trained on films is accustomed to place at the dramatist’s disposal. The cinema has taught us to suppose that a dramatic presentation moves inexorably as the reels unwind or the studio clock creeps, until it has consumed precisely its allotted time which nothing, no restlessness in the pit, no sirens, no mass exodus can hurry. ‘‘Something is taking its course,’’ that suf- fices us. Hence the vast leisure in which the minimal business of Godot and Endgame is transacted; hence (transposing into dramatic terms the author’s characteristic pedantry of means) the occasional lingering over points of technique, secure in the knowledge that the clock-bound patience of a twentiethcentury audience will expect no inner urgency, nothing in fact but the actual time events consume, to determine the pace of the exhibition. Clov asks, ‘‘Why this farce, day after day?’’ and it is sufficient for Hamm to reply, ‘‘Routine. One never knows.’’ It is the answer of an actor in an age of films and long runs. In Endgame (which here differs radically from Godot) no one is supposed to be improvising; the script has been well committed to memory and well rehearsed. By this means doom is caused to penetrate the most intimate crevices of the play. ‘‘I’m tired of going on,’’ says Clov late in the play, ‘‘very tired,’’ and then, ‘‘Let’s stop playing!’’ (if there is one thing that modern acting is not it is playing). In the final moments theatrical technique, under Hamm’s sponsorship, rises into savage prominence.

HAMM: . . . And me? Did anyone ever have pity on me?

CLOV (lowering the telescope, turning towards Hamm): What? (Pause.) Is it me you’re referring to?

HAMM (angrily): An aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before? (Pause.) I’m warming up for my last soliloquy.

Ten seconds later he glosses ‘‘More complications!’’ as a technical term: ‘‘Not an underplot, I trust.’’ It is Clov who has the last word in this vein:

HAMM: Clov! (Clov halts, without turning,) Nothing. (Clov moves on.) Clov! (Clov halts, without turning.)

CLOV: This is what we call making an exit.

By this reiterated stress on the actors as professional men, and so on the play as an occasion within which they operate, Beckett transforms Hamm’s last soliloquy into a performance, his desolation into something prepared by the dramatic machine, his abandoning of gaff, dog, and whistle into a necessary discarding of props, and the terminal business with the handkerchief into, quite literally, a curtain speech. Endgame ends with an unexpected lightness, a death rather mimed than experienced; if it is ‘‘Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, together as stated,’’ the mode of statement has more salience than a paraphrase of the play’s situation would lead one to expect.

The professionalism also saves the play from an essentially sentimental commitment to simpliste ‘‘destiny.’’ Much of its gloomy power it derives from contact with such notions as T. H. Huxley’s view of man as an irrelevance whom day by day an indifferent universe engages in chess. We do not belong here, runs a strain of Western thought which became especially articulate in France after the War; we belong nowhere; we are all surds, ab-surd. There is nothing on which to ground our right to exist, and we need not be especially surprised one day to find ourselves nearly extinct. (On such a despair Cartesian logic converges, as surely as the arithmetic of Pythagoras wedged itself fast in the irrationality of √2.) Whatever we do, then, since it can obtain no grip on our radically pointless situation, is behavior pure and simple; it is play acting, and may yield us the satisfaction, if satisfaction there be, of playing well, of uttering our cris du coeur with style and some sense of timing. We do not trouble deaf heaven, for there is only the sky (‘‘Rien,’’ reports Clov, gazing through his telescope; and again, ‘‘Zéro.’’) We stir and thrill, at best, ourselves. From such a climate, miscalled existentialist, Beckett wrings every available frisson without quite delivering the play into its keeping; for its credibility is not a principle the play postulates but an idea the play contains, an idea of which it works out the moral and spiritual consequences. The despair in which he traffics is a conviction, not a philosophy. He will even set it spinning like a catharine wheel about a wild point of logic, as when he has Hamm require that God be prayed to in silence (‘‘Where are your manners?’’) and then berate him (‘‘The bastard!’’) for not existing.

The play contains whatever ideas we discern inside it; no idea contains the play. The play contains, moreover, two narrative intervals, performances within the performance. The first, Nagg’s story about the trousers, is explicitly a recitation; Nell has heard it often, and so, probably, has the audience; it is a vaudeville standby. Nagg’s performance, like a production of King Lear, whose story we know, must therefore be judged solely as a performance. Its quality, alas, discourages even him (‘‘I tell this story worse and worse’’), and Nell too is not amused, being occupied with thoughts of her own, about the sand at the bottom of Lake Como. The other is Hamm’s huffe-snuffe narrative, also a recitation, since we are to gather that he has been composing it beforehand, in his head. This time we do not know the substance of the tale, but contemplate in diminishing perspective an actor who has memorized a script which enjoins him to imitate a man who has devised and memorized a script:

The man came crawling towards me, on his belly. Pale, wonderfully pale and thin, he seemed on the point of—(Pause. Normal tone.) No, I’ve done that bit.

Later on he incorporates a few critical reflections: ‘‘Nicely put, that,’’ or ‘‘There’s English for you.’’ This technician’s narcissism somewhat disinfects the dreadful tale. All Hamm’s satisfactions come from dramatic self-contemplation, and as he towers before us, devoid of mercy, it is to some ludicrous stage villain that he assimilates himself, there on the stage, striking a stage-Barabbas pose (‘‘Sometimes I go about and poison wells’’). It is to this that life as play-acting comes.

In the end he asked me would I consent to take in the child as well—if he were still alive. (Pause.) It was the moment I was waiting for. (Pause.) Would I consent to take in the child . . . (Pause.) I can see him still, down on his knees, his hands flat on the ground, glaring at me with his mad eyes, in defiance of my wishes.

‘‘It was the moment I was waiting for’’: the satisfaction this exudes is considerably less sadistic than dramatic, and the anticlimax into which the long performance immediately topples would try a creator’s soul, not a maniac’s:

I’ll soon have finished with this story. (Pause.) Unless I bring in other characters. (Pause.) But where would I find them? (Pause.) Where would I look for them? (Pause. He whistles. Enter Clov.) Let us pray to God.

So the hooks go in. There is no denying what Beckett called in a letter to Alan Schneider ‘‘the power of the text to claw.’’ It strikes, however, its unique precarious balance between rage and art, immobilizing all characters but one, rotating before us for ninety unbroken minutes the surfaces of Nothing, always designedly faltering on the brink of utter insignificance into which nevertheless we cannot but project so many awful significances: theater reduced to its elements in order that theatricalism may explore without mediation its own boundaries: a bleak unforgettable tour de force and probably its author’s single most remarkable work.

Source: Hugh Kenner, ‘‘Life in the Box,’’ in Samuel Beckett’s ‘‘Endgame,’’ edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 41–48.

Endgame: The Playwright Completes Himself

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A common practice in the theater is to cover the set once the play is over so that it will be the same set, ‘‘virginal’’ if you will, at the next performance, not changed by the dust and dirt that make their way into the playhouse. Endgame opens with the figurative ‘‘birth’’ of its playwright as the servant Clov ‘‘goes to Hamm, removes sheet covering him, folds it over his arms.’’ To use the technical term from the Elizabethan stage, Hamm is ‘‘discovered,’’ though for a time he is stationary while Clov holds the stage.

Some critics have seen in Clov’s opening lines, ‘‘Finished, it’s nearly finished, it must be nearly finished,’’ echoes of the creation story, though the lines themselves are ambiguous: is the creation (Hamm?) nearly finished and therefore soon to blossom in its own right? Or is the world about to end, ‘‘finished?’’ Clov then departs for the kitchen, his own orderly offstage world (‘‘Nice dimensions, nice proportions’’).

On Clov’s departure, Hamm himself completes the discovery, first yawning under the handkerchief that covers his head and then removing it to reveal a ‘‘Very red face. Black glasses.’’ Hamm’s opening line, ‘‘Me,’’ may suggest a tremendous ego, though, as we will see, an ego quite appropriate if we think of him as the play’s lead actor, its ham or Hamlet, or perhaps the playwright himself, the creative force behind the stage world. A second yawn introduces the next suggestive line, actually a continuation of ‘‘Me’’: ‘‘to play.’’ We might take the word play either as a verb—meaning ‘‘now I will play’’—or as a noun, a compression of ‘‘to the play’’: Hamm will now get to his play. We have heard the phrase before in Beckett: Malone speaks of ‘‘play’’ and the Unnamable directs ‘‘Worm to play.’’ If, to echo Hamm himself, we would allow ‘‘every man his speciality,’’ then I believe that Hamm’s speciality creation itself, however bleak the created world of this play may seem.

Hamm’s creation here seems to be an internal one, that inner world peopled by the imagination of a blind man. Whereas Clov is concerned with the external, with the one physical setting itself—he speculates that ‘‘There’s nowhere else’’—Hamm’s concern is that of ‘‘Text 2’’: ‘‘Perhaps we’re in a head.’’ Deprived of a sense of perspective by his blindness, he can only think of man and, more specifically, of himself as the macrocosm. Appropriately, his speculation is that there is ‘‘no one else.’’ For Hamm the external world is the illusion, in the most negative sense of that word: ‘‘Outside of here it’s death.’’

At the start Hamm is asleep, his power of creation dormant. He may well be dreaming, for several times during the play he makes reference to the pleasures of this state. As in the medieval dream vision, he moves, after Clov’s discovery, from sleep to waking, from dreams to the informing of his dreams. The source of that informing, as it was for the medievalist, is not ultimately the external world, for the vision, thus formed, is only an approximation of an internal state that, without art, cannot be known.

There is a falling off, a loss of clarity as one moves from the dream vision to the waking reality. If Hamm could continue sleeping he ‘‘might make love’’; he might ‘‘go into the woods . . . and [his] eyes would see . . . the sky, the earth.’’ His vision here is one of absolute freedom, of a world where one can move, ‘‘run’’—ironic for an invalid con- fined to a wheelchair. Still, this idyllic world conjured by the dreamer’s fancy is irrelevant to the present play, whose concern, as Hamm immediately qualifies the vision, is the ‘‘Nature’’ of his own ‘‘head’’ and ‘‘heart.’’ If that idyllic world, where one is free in space and time, is reality, it represents an external force that, later made manifest in the figure of the small boy, would intrude on and ultimately destroy the artist’s fictive inscape.

This inner space, the single stage set before us, is the artist’s domain, the ‘‘now’’ informed by the narrative itself, with a past that is either irrelevant or tragic (sometime in the past Nagg and Nell lost their legs) and a future that is either irrelevant or potentially tragic (the boy who threatens to unravel Hamm’s creation). In an extraordinary compression of the body’s two most vital organs, Hamm finds his ‘‘heart in his head’’ (the line is repeated by Nagg), thereby reversing the cliché about thinking with one’s heart. The playwright’s internal process is a rational one: the feelings of the heart, those emotions allowing him to react positively or negatively to life, are given form in the head. By a sort of reverse gravity the juices of the heart flow upward to the head; Hamm confesses that there is something ‘‘dripping’’ in his head.

We have made a quantum leap from Godot. There the set, while clearly external, was sparsely populated, and so the impoverished tree and rock only underscored the barren outer world that, given the intellectual and imaginative capacities of Vladimir and Estragon, served as an appropriate stage for their waiting. Here the set is an inner one, a room, but it is heavily populated with ashbins, a ladder, windows, a picture, numerous props, and with the suggestion of a kitchen just offstage. However, this relatively lavish set, if taken literally, seems an inadequate correlative for the world Hamm struggles to define. Clov, who dons a traveler’s costume in the play’s final moments, may be a holdover from Godot. If this is so, then Hamm, while not Godot himself, is a dominant force, a master or godlike figure who, more than the relatively shallow Pozzo, might be a suitable object for the tramps’ quest in the earlier play.

Hamm is physically blind, and Clov must serve as his eyes. Still, the inner eye, the ‘‘mind’s eye’’ as Hamlet would have it, works overtime here. That eye sees not objective reality, nor is it subject to the historic materialism that confirmed existence for those eighteenth-century philosophers like Berkeley whom Beckett studied and in part rejected. Instead, Hamm’s ‘‘eye’’ views only an ‘‘in- finite emptiness’’ that is ‘‘all around.’’ The trick in Endgame is to ‘‘play’’ on that infinite emptiness, to give it form through words, even though words themselves are ultimately only empty abstractions. The ‘‘game,’’ in the sense that word is used in ‘‘Enueg I,’’ is to make something—however meager—out of nothing. Hamm’s prediction is that Clov will someday experience that same emptiness, seeing, like the painter-engraver, the apparent something of the external world for what it truly is.

That engraver, surely, is a surrogate for the central character, because Hamm has no other source of reference than himself and yet finds it too painful, as well as inappropriate by the rules of this Endgame, to reveal himself too completely too soon. For the engraver the entire physical world, from rising corn to the sails of the herring fleet, all that ‘‘loveliness’’ as bounded by land and sea, was nothing—‘‘ashes.’’ Even the possibility of an external world subject to the engraver’s or—as Hamm alters it—painter’s interpretation no longer exists, for that was ‘‘way back,’’ during a time ‘‘in the land of the living.’’ Clov delivers the benediction to a reality that is no more: ‘‘God be with the days.’’ When he complains that today, in contrast, ‘‘There are so many terrible things,’’ he errs not so much in the adjective ‘‘terrible’’ as he does in the assumption that there are still ‘‘things.’’ Hamm cautiously corrects him: ‘‘No, no, there are not so many now.’’ That correction allows for the more proper definition of the present world, a world of theater or play, an artifice created by Hamm: ‘‘Do you not think this has gone on long enough?’’ It is the play world, then, that is ‘‘this . . . this . . . thing.’’ Hamm doubts that Clov will be equal to the task of giving form to nothing or this inner world of artifice, doubting that his actor can turn playwright. (As we shall see, the play itself, Endgame, partially disproves this gloomy assessment, but then Hamm has an image to protect.)

Hamm’s play thereby becomes the informing of his ‘‘misery’’—of himself, to be more exact. Whereas Clov has ‘‘nothing to say,’’ Hamm has a ‘‘few words’’ to ‘‘ponder’’ in his heart, the heart that, we know, leads to the head. For him the greater his suffering the ‘‘emptier’’ he must become: the resulting form has an inverse correlation to its origin. Lesser men—if we can stand Hamm’s arrogant pronouncement at the opening of the play— can hold a greater portion of their suffering. Hamm’s lot, the playwright’s lot—and the very condition about which Shakespeare complains in his Sonnets— is to express everything, to prostitute inner emotions before an audience. The artistic fate is analogous, as several contemporary artists have observed, to the act of masturbation, a metaphor Beckett will revisit in Eh Joe. It must be complete, not half-hearted; and once started, there is no turning back. The act is intimate and pleasurable—yet sterile in any biological sense. Hence the bleak bomb shelter of Hamm’s world is also the hive of great imaginative activity. Once this inner world is ‘‘peopled,’’ given form, the tragedy itself is not resolved but rather is made public. The tragedy remains gruesome, yet there is an aesthetic pleasure in the form, and hence we applaud, rather than weep, at its conclusion. This informing is essentially comic, and while parents may die in Beckett’s plays and novels (in Malone Dies, for example), the lead characters do not. In Beckett the lead characters informing of their tragedies, whether it be Malone on his deathbed or Winnie in her earthly prison, depends on their own consciousness of their creation. Malone has a pad and a pencil, however much they have deteriorated; and Winnie has props galore, plus half-remembered snatches from songs, proverbs and poetry. Aesthetic ‘‘life’’ springs from thematic ‘‘death,’’ and in Endgame death, though ever-present, does not touch Hamm. Similarly, Vladimir and Estragon, though only dim creators when compared with Hamm, cannot die: the suicide tree is inadequate and the belt breaks.

As a creator Hamm craves rain, since its nourishment is necessary for the seeds of his mind; Clov is equally positive that it won’t rain. Eager for Clov’s seeds to sprout, Hamm is distressed when Clov contends that they won’t. He then suggests that Clov might do well to scratch about a bit more; perhaps they were planted too early.

If Hamm opens the play by enumerating his miseries, it is still true that he, as opposed to Nagg whom he dismisses as an ‘‘accursed progenitor,’’ is the blessed progenitor of Endgame and is strangely optimistic, despite those miseries, whereas Clov, the son, is the pessimist. Old-fashioned in such optimism, Hamm is the sometimes benevolent god or the playwright as god to his little world. Positioned at its center, given to surveying the walls defining its circumference, attended by his not always obedient Ariel—who, like his Shakespearean prototype, also yearns for freedom—Hamm is a jealous god, fearful of having any other god raised before him, whether it be in the person of a small boy or a flea. Like Prospero, he is a word-giver, both father and teacher to Clov. And he is egocentric, as gods are wont to be, just as Vladimir and Estragon are ego-deficient, as true subjects are wont to be. The single set of Endgame, the shabby room, is the world, the theater of the world both literal and figurative that the father, the playwright, offers his adopted son, Clov. ‘‘You can’t leave us,’’ he explains ruthlessly, for Clov is an inseparable part of Hamm’s world.

Again, Kenner’s hypothesis, that the set of Endgame resembles the inside of a human skull, with the two rear windows serving as eyes, is especially relevant here. For when the generation of the 1970s spoke of ‘‘blowing the mind,’’ that phrase only implied a readjustment in the mind’s link to external reality. But ‘‘outside of here,’’ outside Endgame’s set, outside the mind that is being informed through the artistic process, it is clearly ‘‘death.’’ Life, in Beckett’s definition here, is not a fact but rather a process involving conscious creation through words, and also actions, as in the two mimes. By such creation one gives the ‘‘illusion’’ of existence, a conscious artifice to be set against the misguided assumption of reality held by those outside Endgame’s single stage set. I think it is his avoidance of death, of nothingness, an avoidance not studied but inevitable, that makes Beckett, like Shaw’s hero in Arms and the Man, the ‘‘true romantic.’’

Hamm as god, Hamm as artist—the ascription seems to work both ways. If he is a god, his world is horribly shrunken, yet, however shrunken that world, Hamm guards it jealously against the rival, outside world of earth, water, color, and light that he knows only through his servant’s reports. Omniscient on the stage set, his knowledge of this outside ‘‘set’’ is fully dependent on Clov’s eyes. In the several drafts of Endgame, Beckett pared away at the description of that rival world, particularly as embodied in the young boy. Yet the mere suggestion of its existence terrifies Hamm, even though for us, as audience, the poverty of reality only accents the richness of the ever-present ‘‘little room’’ before us.

Conversely, we may see Hamm as the artist, his world limitless, eternally growing in his head and heart. Waiting for the painkiller may be only a comic bow in the direction of Godot. In point of fact, Hamm as artist uses words as productively in informing his suffering as Vladimir and Estragon used words unproductively in waiting for what they imagine will be their savior, rather than their painkiller or terminus.

Given to stories, Hamm is his own story and storyteller, the narrator/narrated, spinning his tales spiderlike from within himself. Beckett’s artists, such as Words in Words and Music, protest that the stories do not come from inside them, but I think that by such assertions they only call attention to the ultimate end, the informing or ‘‘publication’’ of an inner vision. All begins from within, from ‘‘Me’’ (again, Hamm’s first word), from precisely that acute consciousness that Clov for the most part lacks and that Vladimir and Estragon experience only in dream lapses, or when Lucky and Pozzo provide a mirror image of their own condition. As we shall see, the story of the man begging alms for his son is only superficially about someone else. As Hamm says, ‘‘There’s no one else,’’ and in his way Hamm embodies all people: he is the man seeking bread, and the object of that charity, and the stern judge who denies succor, and Mother Pegg who, like Socrates, seeks truth with her light, as well as Mother Pegg barely existing in her final days with that light extinguished. In a sense the play is one large monologue parading as a four-character drama. Like Shakespeare’s Richard II in his cell, Hamm peoples his little world through this union of heart and head—his equivalent for that coupling of mind and soul in his royal counterpart.

Thus constricted, Hamm sets about creating, or ‘‘we do what we can’’; it is ‘‘slow’’ and, I would add, painful ‘‘work.’’ For that story actors are required—and hence Clov. The playwright also needs an audience; unlike the theoretical audience for those novels with which Beckett began his career, the audience here is actual. So dependent, the artist’s inner vision relies for its informing on the collective abilities and consciousness of a host of people. The play is a public testament to an inner world. Krapp’s one book was a failure—Effie sold only thirteen copies—whereas his tape recordings are overheard by a real audience.

If such publication of an inner state can ‘‘mean something,’’ then perhaps it ‘‘won’t all have been for nothing.’’ Given this pragmatic, even didactic sense of mission, I find it misguided, though natural, to say that Beckett has nothing to say. Hamm’s struggle to make or to mean something, ‘‘to say’’ himself—to borrow a favorite infinitive from Beckett—separates him as playwright light years from writers of the so-called absurdist theater.

Source: Sidney Homan, ‘‘Endgame: The Playwright Completes Himself,’’ in Samuel Beckett’s ‘‘Endgame,’’ edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 123–46.

Son of Oedipus

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Endgame is constructed in more or less clearly defined sections which are ‘played without a break’; the sections being frequently marked off by pauses but never by an interval as significant as that between the movements in a piece of music. Hamm and Clov correspond constructionally less to the ‘characters’ in a traditional play than to musical instruments. Their special characteristics are not used in the development of a plot, but to carry as it were pitch and timbre, to give off matching or dissonant tones and colours. If we think of Hamm and Clov in the first instance as, for example, ’cello and violin instead of as two people that we might see walking the streets; if we think of Nell and Nagg as, say, a pair of flutes; we are already closer to understanding the construction of the play. This can be summarized as follows: short solo prologues for Clov and Hamm lead into an extended duo for both which is joined briefly by Nagg. Then comes a duo for Nagg and Nell, with occasional interjections from Hamm and a solo passage for Nagg. A second long duo for Hamm and Clov, including two solo flourishes for Hamm, is broken by a short recitative for Hamm and Nagg before Hamm embarks on his central cadenza. A short trio for Hamm, Nagg and Clov ends with Nagg’s second and last solo passage. At this point, with Hamm’s stolen words ‘Our revels now are ended’, the play seems to embark on its finale, a duo for Hamm and Clov, punctuated by a solo passage for each and finishing with an epilogue for Hamm.

Within these main sections of the play scraps of material are introduced which are sometimes stated simply in a single line, sometimes tossed from one character-instrument to another over several lines of dialogue between two pauses, but which almost always recur throughout the play. The second sentence of Clov’s solo prologue is: ‘Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.’ This material only recurs directly once more, when it is given to Hamm, in his solo passage during the finale: ‘Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of . . . (he hesitates) . . . that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life.’ The identity of the old Greek—Beckett himself only remembers him to be one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, but not Zeno—is less germane than the fact that his image re-echoes across thirty-odd pages of the text and between Hamm and Clov, with perhaps half-heard reminders at other points in the play: during the first duo when Hamm asks Clov ‘Did your seeds come up?’ and in Hamm’s cadenza (his ‘story’), ‘Corn, yes, I have corn, it’s true, in my granaries.’

The ‘pain-killer’ which Hamm asks for during his first duo with Clov recurs in the same duo, three times in their second duo and again in the finale. But the form of its final recurrence, in Clov’s words ‘There’s no more pain-killer,’ links it to several other diverse strands of material: ‘There are no more bicycle-wheels’ and ‘There’s no more pap’ in the first duo, ‘There are no more sugar-plums’ in the trio, ‘There’s no more tide’, ‘There are no more rugs’, ‘There are no more coffins’ in the finale.

In addition to this type of material—the subject- matter of conversation—there are the physical objects, the stage-properties, such as the telescope, the gaff, the toy dog with three legs, the step-ladder, which also recur from one section of the play to another. Then there are catch-phrases, such as Clov’s constantly repeated ‘I’ll leave you’ and ‘I have things to do’ or Hamm’s ‘Me to play’ and ‘We’re getting on’ which recall the little windings up or windings down with which composers cross from one musical plateau to another.

More remarkable still are the longer passages which seem to reflect one another across the play, but elusively, with certain distortions, as though refracted in water. In his central cadenza Hamm tells a story, complete with embellishments in a ‘narrative tone’, about a man who ‘came crawling towards me, on his belly’, his face ‘black with mingled dirt and tears’ and who asked for bread to take back to his little boy, ‘as if the sex mattered.’ Hamm tells how he offered to take the man into his service, since ‘he had touched a chord’, but leaves it doubtful whether he consented to take in the boy too. Earlier in the play Hamm has said to Clov: ‘It was I was a father to you’ and ‘My house a home for you’, while just before the end Clov sees through one of the windows, with the aid of the telescope, what he says ‘Looks like a small boy!’ Whether or not these three elements can be made to bear a rational concatenation is an open question. Their function in the play is to lack definition when placed one on top of the other, while remaining, each in itself, as clear as glass; and in this way they create an effect of mystery, a situation comparable to life itself in which, as Beckett said in an interview with Tom Driver, we are aware simultaneously of things that are obscure and things that are clear.

In one of Hamm’s solo flourishes we are given what seems to be a reflection of the whole play, but seen in miniature from a long way off, as though at the wrong end of a telescope:

I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter—and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I’d take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring-fleet! All that loveliness! (Pause.) He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. (Pause.) He alone had been spared. (Pause.) Forgotten. (Pause.) It appears the case is . . . was not so . . . so unusual.

In his final solo passage Clov seems to be seeing the same reflection, though with the eyes of the painter-engraver and so of course with all the pictorial elements burned away:

They said to me, Here’s the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty. That order! They said to me, Come now, you’re not a brute beast, think upon these things and you’ll see how all becomes clear. And simple! They said to me, What skilled attention they get, all these dying of their wounds . . . I open the door of the cell and go. I am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and between my legs a little trail of black dust. I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit.

This complex web of references, recurrences, reflections might easily turn into a mere tangle. It is given coherence by the play’s dominant and almost absurdly simple theme, which is stated in the opening sentence of Clov’s prologue: ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.’ Two sentences later Clov gives the theme his own thin timbre—‘I can’t be punished any more’—and five sentences after that Hamm plays it with a kind of hollow, if mellow, grandeur: ‘Can there be misery—(he yawns)—loftier than mine?’ Nagg’s laconic opening squeak is ‘‘Me pap!’’ and Nell, perhaps more of an oboe than a flute, having failed to kiss Nagg, says: ‘Why this farce, day after day?’ Then, discarding almost immediately this bold, practical tone in favour of another, which Beckett characterizes as ‘elegiac’, she restates the theme: ‘Ah yesterday!’ Thereafter she alternates between the practical and the elegiac.

The whole play is in effect a mass of variations on the theme, variations of material, variations between solo, duo and ensemble, variations of tone between one character and another and within a single character, variations of pace and mood (comic, tragic, bombastic, maudlin, etc.). There could hardly be an easier play to grasp the drift of—the title alone tells all. If it is, as Beckett says it is, ‘more difficult . . . more inhuman than Godot,’ the difficulty is emotional, aesthetic. Endgame can only be enjoyed, understood in the emotional sense, through its presentation, which is as complex, as many-layered and multiple, as its theme is simple and single. And when Beckett uses the word ‘inhuman’, which might tend to confirm the worst prejudices of those for whom the word ‘human’ has become as much a moral cliché as ‘gentleman’ once was, we should perhaps take it in the rather Wildean sense suggested by M Krap in Eleuthéria:

MME PIOUK. You used to be natural.

M KRAP. By dint of what artifice!

The four character-instruments of Endgame have given much food for thought to Beckett’s commentators. Hamm is Hamlet and a ham-actor and the son of Noah, also the ham that comes from a pig and Clov his clove; Hamm is the hammer, Clov the French nail (clou), Nagg the German nail (Nagel), Nell the English nail. Bearing in mind Beckett’s remark in Proust that ‘name is an example of a barbarous society’s primitivism, and as conventionally inadequate as ‘‘Homer’’ or ‘‘sea’’’, we would probably do best to look upon the characters’ names as deliberately blurred labels, more succinctly blurred than, for example, Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, who is called ‘Didi’ by his companion and ‘Mr. Albert’ by Godot’s messenger-boy. As to who the characters may be and what their relationship with each other, no commentator has better expressed the matter than H.R.H. The Duke of Windsor:

Sometimes when my father admonished me for something that I had done with ‘My dear boy, you must always remember who you are,’ I used to think: Now, who am I? No answer.

Interview with Kenneth Harris

Just as the construction of Endgame can be most easily understood by analogy with music, so the characters lend themselves to an analogy with painting. Their special characteristics as well as the relationships between them are like layers of different- coloured pigment superimposed on one another, set off against one another, to produce a rich texture and a balanced composition. Unlike the sections into which the play as a whole is divided, and the sections within sections, all of which are clearly marked off by pauses, the superimposed elements which make up the characters constantly blend into one another, so that it is quite often difficult to tell which characteristic is uppermost, which relationship operating. . . .

In addition to playing Hamm’s long-suffering author, Clov has the further misfortune to be on stage with him in the role of straight man and confidant—a situation which he supports only with incessant complaint and a whole repertoire of naked contempt for his principal. And just as this relationship of actor to actor is superimposed on the basic one of author to character, so other relationships are superimposed in their turn: servant and master, son and father, nurse and invalid. Sometimes Hamm and Clov seem to be the survivors of some global disaster. They often speak as if all life beyond their ‘refuge’ had ended, they are alarmed at the appearance of a rat in Clov’s kitchen and a flea in Clov’s trousers (though this rat and flea also bring us back to Clov’s authorship and Hamm’s actorship, with their reference, taken together, to the drinking scene in Goethe’s Faust). The little boy whom Clov sees through the window near the end of the play is perhaps another, unexpected, survivor, though he may also be (‘potential procreator’, as Clov calls him) an enemy pawn crawling towards the back line to become a Queen, since Hamm and Clov are apt to look like chesspieces in some lights and the whole affair quite literally an Endgame on a chequered board. Then again it could be the love-affair of Hamm and his handkerchief (‘old stancher’) or of Clov and the contents of his own head, with Hamm representing Clov himself in more imaginative guise and the two windows Clov’s eyes which see the ‘big world’ outside only as a double desolation of earth and water.

To attempt to force the whole play into any one of these ‘meanings’ would be as meaningless as to try to force a painting into the meaning of one of its many layers of paint. Nevertheless there is one enigma which requires an answer, since it concerns the effect of the play on its audience. Why, when every prospect within the play has been so devastatingly bleak, when, whatever else we cannot say about it, we can undoubtedly say we have witnessed an endgame, something attempting to coil itself to a close and just failing (as Mr Endon’s King just failed to step back into his own square), why do we feel so exhilarated as we leave the theatre?

In his study of Proust, Beckett discusses Habit and writes:

The pendulum oscillates between these two terms: Suffering—that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom—with its host of top-hatted and hygienic ministers, Boredom that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.

And he goes on:

I draw the conclusion of this matter from Proust’s treasury of nutshell phrases: ‘If there were no such thing as Habit, Life would of necessity appear delicious to all those whom Death would threaten at every moment, that is to say, to all Mankind.’

In Endgame, we have participated with Clov in his suffering and Hamm in his boredom, with Clov in his boredom and Hamm very occasionally in his suffering (‘no more painkiller’), but we have also, after the curious fashion of a theatrical experience, been all the time in our seats and received with our own senses the unique shape that Beckett has made. Within the play we have experienced Habit, but in a manner the very reverse of habitual. So unhabitual has it been that we have actually confronted the banal certainty of death as though for the first time. No wonder that, if only for a moment, life appears delicious.

Source: John Fletcher and John Spurling, ‘‘Son of Oedipus,’’ in Beckett: The Playwright, Hill and Wang, 1985, pp. 69–81.


Critical Overview