The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

In the center of a dimly lighted, bare interior, Hamm sits in an armchair, covered by a sheet. Two ashbins, similarly covered, stand at front left. Clov walks stiffly to the back wall and looks at two small windows, high up left and right; then, with the aid of a stepladder, he looks out of both. He removes the sheet from the ashbins, looks into one, and finally uncovers Hamm, laughing briefly after each of these activities.

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Hamm, in a dressing gown and apparently asleep, has several objects about his person, the most striking of which is a large, bloodstained handkerchief over his face. He awakes and removes the handkerchief to disclose a red face and dark glasses. It is soon apparent that his is unable either to walk or to see. He and Clov, whose principal duty is attending to Hamm’s needs, engage in short, clipped dialogue about the weather, their health, food, and the possibility of Clov’s leaving Hamm’s service. At one point Hamm asks, “Why don’t you kill me?” The response is, “I don’t know the combination of the cupboard.” Shortly thereafter Hamm observes laconically, “Outside of here it’s death.”

Soon the lid of one of the ashbins stirs and reveals, under a nightcap, the head of Hamm’s father Nagg, who demands “pap,” is given a biscuit, and then is pushed back beneath his lid. Clov and Hamm dispute inconclusively about the possibility of nature’s having forgotten them. Clov has planted some seeds but doubts that they will germinate. Nagg’s head reappears; he wakes his wife in the next bin, and they try to kiss, but their heads will not quite reach each other. Their conversation oscillates between reminiscences and the needs of the moment, such as the state of the sand in the bottom of their bins.

Nagg laughs at the muttering of Hamm but is shocked when the disapproving Nell nevertheless concedes that unhappiness is amusing. Nagg insists on telling an elaborate joke about a tailor, a story that for her has paled from repetition. It concerns a customer’s irritation at the tailor’s inability to finish a pair of trousers for him in less than three months. After the customer points out that God made the whole world in six days, the tailor responds:

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But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—(disdainful gesture, disgustedly)—-at the world-—(pause)and look—(loving gesture, proudly)————at my TROUSERS!

Hamm, characteristically scornful of his parents, orders Clov to close their lids again, and Clov pushes Hamm about the circumference of the room. At the end of his ride, Hamm insists on being “roughly” (by which he clearly means “exactly”) in the center. Then he orders Clov to point a telescope out the window and report on conditions. Clov also turns it on the audience and observes “a multitude . . . in transports . . . of joy.”

Soon Clov suspects a flea on his person, and Hamm urges him to catch it; otherwise “humanity might start from there all over again.” They argue further about Clov’s leaving, which Hamm seems simultaneously to desire and discourage. Hamm orders his “dog”—a toy, three-legged and sexless, Clov’s work—brought to him. Then he demands that Nagg be wakened to hear a story. In it, a man comes to the narrator on Christmas Eve to beg bread for his little boy. Nagg, who admits that he refused to minister to Hamm when he was small and afraid of the dark, does not want to be bothered by Hamm’s stories; he is interested only in sugar plums, now no longer available. After Nagg again retires, Hamm continues with his story. Offered a job as gardener, the man asks if he may have his little boy with him, at which point Hamm stops, for he has gotten no further with his composition.

Hamm has Clov check again on Nagg and Nell; Clov reports, in a matter-of-fact way, that Nell is dead, Nagg alive but crying. Hamm asks to be pushed near a window so he can feel sunlight on his face and hear the waves, but he only thinks that he can feel the sun, and he hears the sea not at all. Clov moodily continues such tasks but will not, when asked, kiss or even touch Hamm. Clov exits, and Hamm soliloquizes for several minutes, pondering whether to go on with his story, throw himself on the floor, wait for what transpires, or simply “get it over.”

He summons Clov but is informed that the painkiller for which he has asked several times is no more. Again requested to focus the telescope out the window, Clov sees what he takes to be a small boy. On the brink of going out and doing violence to the boy as “a potential procreator,” Clov is checked by Hamm, who now dismisses Clov from service, soliciting a few final personal words, which Clov obediently offers—none too lucidly—on love, friendship, and suffering. At parting, they both politely confess themselves “obliged” to each other, but Clov exits before Hamm’s request to cover him again with the sheet.

Hamm tries to move his chair, and Clov reenters, dressed for the road, and stands by the door, watching Hamm through the latter’s final ritual and accompanying soliloquy. Hamm throws away his gaff (with which Clov would have attacked the presumably approaching boy), keeps his dog, cleans and replaces his glasses, recites a little poetry, and alludes again to the child of his story and the man’s possible motives for wanting the boy fed:. . . You want him to bloom while you are withering? Be there to solace your last million last moments? (Pause) He doesn’t realize, all he knows is hunger, and cold, and death to crown it all. But you! You ought to know what the earth is like, nowadays. Oh I put him before his responsibilities!

Hamm whistles, as if for Clov, and, apparently aware of his presence, calls him, but accepts the fact that Clov’s service is ended. Discarding his dog and whistle, Hamm covers his own face with the bloody handkerchief and sits motionless at the curtain.

Dramatic Devices

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Endgame’s simple set and stage properties immediately establish an atmosphere of mortality. A picture, turned to the wall, hangs near the door. A sheet covers Hamm, another the two ashbins, themselves reminders of the inevitable human destiny: dust and ashes. The two high windows and the walls, which Clov at one point describes as hollow, suggest a skull. Combined with the prevalent crucifixion imagery, the skull calls to mind Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, as does Hamm’s bloodstained handkerchief. To reinforce the many overt references to death, ending, and finishing, Clov removes the picture from the wall near the end of the play and replaces it with an alarm clock. When asked what he is doing, he replies, “Winding up.”

Endgame employs and at the same time parodies familiar theatrical terms and devices. Nagg is promised a sugar-plum “after the audition.” Clov interrupts one of Hamm’s speeches and draws the rebuke, “An aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before?” Then Hamm explains, “I’m warming up for my last soliloquy.” He has in fact yawned his way through an opening soliloquy. In his story of the man and starving child he checks himself once, “No, I’ve done that bit.” Hamm is the quintessential ham actor, always conscious of the effects he creates, insistent upon occupying the exact center of the stage.

All this self-conscious stage business reinforces the metaphor of the world as a stage and the life of man as play and game. It also works as comic relief in what would otherwise amount to an unbearably depressing portrayal of human life, but Samuel Beckett’s characters in both fiction and drama always seem able to leaven their plights with fooling. Hamm can play with the very materials of a play, have fun in the midst of his agony. As Hamlet staged a play-within-a-play, Hamm tells a story in Beckett’s play-within-a-play, which, like Hamlet’s, has an admonitory function, involving as it does a father begging bread for his son. Hamm refuses to gratify Nagg with a happy ending. Nagg later relates, unabashedly, how he and Hamm’s mother had answered the boy’s cries in the dark by moving out of earshot. Now Hamm is a vengeful son, and Nagg is reduced to dozing in his ashbin and waiting for doles of food.

The staging also reinforces the chess theme. Nagg and Nell are pawnlike, while Clov, stiff and restricted in his movements, is perhaps the knight. Hamm, the king, acknowledges that he is held in check at the end. Endgame’s deliberate pace also resembles that of chess; scores of pauses appear in the stage directions. Hamm is both piece and player, both actor and director. This double role has its analogy in the crucifixion theme, for Hamm is, like the other characters, a “nailer,” but he is also the sufferer who at the end of the play meticulously arranges his own Passion. He covers his own face with the handkerchief, but he is not covered with the sheet, as at the beginning. Thus Endgame does not quite end, but ceases in suspension, as if the suffering Hamm cannot or will not accept his own death.

Places Discussed

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Shelter

Shelter. Unnamed place which is apparently the last refuge of humankind on Earth. In addition to providing the characters with protection from the outside world and sustaining them in the last moments of their lives, the shelter serves as both a prison and a tomb. High up on the left and right sides of the back wall are two small windows with curtains drawn. These windows look out on the other world, nature. All that is visible are an ashen gray sea, sky, and sun in the ever-fading light that represents the winding down of time and the extinction of life. Covered by a sheet in the center of the room is Hamm, the blind master of the house. Confined to a chair on castors because he cannot walk, Hamm must be awakened every morning with stimulants and painkillers, fed, and then “put to bed” in the evening. Clov, Hamm’s servant, provides these functions, without which Hamm would die. The shelter contains two other characters, both legless, Nagg and Nell, the remnants of Hamm’s parents, who are confined to ash cans located at the front of the stage. This confinement suggests their status as “garbage” to Hamm, who refers to them as “accursed progenitors.” Periodically, they poke their heads out of their covered cans and speak to each other or ask for sustenance.

Outside world

Outside world. Although dying, the world outside the shelter appears to be more desirable than the world within, which is a psychological hell and a prison almost devoid of provisions. Three of the four characters are physically unable to leave, and the fourth, Clov, who seems to be preparing to leave, is tied psychologically to Hamm. Hamm, a sadistic master, “father figure,” and adult child enjoys tormenting his dependents. However, at the end of the play, Clov, suitcase in hand, waits at the door, apparently ready to leave.

Historical Context

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Nuclear Capability
Although Beckett does not place the characters and actions of Endgame in a specific time and place, the play’s only set can be viewed as a bomb shelter after a nuclear bomb has detonated and destroyed much, if not all, life outside the shelter. This was certainly a looming fear when Beckett wrote the play and when it was performed in 1957. Although today this fear is still present, in 1957 the fear was at an all-time high, and the likelihood of such an event seemed all too possible and near.

The Cold War
The late 1950s and the 1960s were dominated by the cold war, an intense rivalry between the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union. After World War II, Europe was divided into two zones of power, a capitalist west and a socialist east. The rivalry soon became worldwide, and there was always a threat that it could have developed into full-scale nuclear war. The struggle did become violent in 1950 when communist North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War, which ended with the country divided.

The Eisenhower Doctrine
The Eisenhower Doctrine, announced by United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 5, 1957, pledged military and economic support to any Middle Eastern country needing help in resisting communist aggression. Marking another escalation in the cold war, the doctrine was intended to check the increase of Soviet influence in the Middle East and the increasingly strong Soviet support given the Arab states.

The Absurdists
Of the French writers known as the absurdists, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett were the most significant. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, writers were trying to overthrow dramatic conventions and wanted to challenge audiences with something new. Antonin Artaud wrote The Theatre and Its Double (1938), which advocated a ‘‘theatre of cruelty,’’ and in 1943 Jean- Paul Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness and No Exit, which dramatize Sartre’s existentialist viewpoint. Sartre’s viewpoint, combined with Albert Camus’s writings, provided the building blocks for the absurdist movement, which began to take shape in the early 1950s.

In 1952, Ionesco premiered his play The Chairs, which is an excellent example of the theater of the absurd. However, it was not until 1953 and the premiere of En Attendant Godot, or Waiting for Godot, that absurdism reached a popular and international audience.

Waiting for Godot is perhaps the best-known work from the absurdist movement. The two-act tragicomedy tells the story of two old men, Vladimir and Estragon, who cannot decide if they should leave or stay and wait for Godot, who may or may not arrive and rescue them from their desperate situation. Endgame takes this struggle to the next level as Hamm and Clov struggle with the meaning, if there is any, of living at all. Beckett’s importance to the absurdist movement is obvious, but saying that he is an absurdist writer is not giving full credit to his wide range of work. Beckett’s writing stands out above the other absurdist works in its ingenuity, universality, and humanity.

Literary Style

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Words and Stage Directions
Endgame’s visual performance and self-reflexive dialogue constantly remind the audience that they are watching a performance by actors. Hamm broods: ‘‘All kinds of fantasies! That I’m being watched!’’ This tells the audience that they are part of the structure of the play, just as words, physical movement, lighting, whistles, dogs, ladders, windows, and silence play their roles. Beckett uses stage directions to create dynamic relationships between characters and the things they require to live: Hamm needs his armchair, and Nagg and Nell require their ashbins. Beckett creates a vivid physical world to complement the powerful and strippeddown dialogue.

Beckett presents the characters’ inability to understand through abstract language and stagnant dramatic structure. Beckett has stripped down and broken apart his words and sentences. Words are able to contradict each other and are often elliptic. Clov utters the first line of the play: ‘‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.’’ By beginning the play with the word ‘‘Finished,’’ Beckett directs our attention toward endings. As Beckett’s characters search themselves and the world around them, language reflects the precarious balance between understanding and confusion.

Beckett’s Minor Plot
Samuel Beckett’s plots are notable for their lack of the classical dramatic structure. The minor plot line of Endgame is that of Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell. It is clear that they had a romantic love in their youth, but they now live in ashbins and are not well-taken-care-of by their son. The end of the play finds both Nagg and Nell dead, without having experienced much satisfaction throughout the play. Indeed, most of their interactions are attempts to recall their past happiness or to endure their current helpless situation.

Theater of the Absurd
Drama known as the theater of the absurd begins in the 1950s. Endgame, Beckett’s first play after Waiting for Godot, continues in the tradition that Waiting for Godot established.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: The United States and the Soviet Union are split over Middle East loyalties and support. Fear of a nuclear war increases.

Today: The United States and England engage in war with Iraq. The United States wages war on terrorism throughout the world. North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, and the potential for nuclear war again seems all too possible.

1950s: Russian scientists launch Sputnik into orbit, initiating the space race between the United States and Russia.

Today: Beginning in the 1990s, Russian cosmonauts worked together with American astronauts on the space station Mir. The United States and Russia continue to have cooperative working efforts in space exploration and research.

1950s: Eugene O’Neill is posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama for Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Today: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

1950s: Albert Camus receives the Nobel Prize for literature ‘‘for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.’’

Today: Imre Kertsz (Hungary) receives the Nobel Prize for literature ‘‘for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.’’

Media Adaptations

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Released by Ambrose Video on DVD in 2002, the Beckett on Film DVD set is the first ever cinematic screening of all nineteen of Samuel Beckett’s plays. The acclaimed Beckett on Film project brings together some of the most distinguished directors and actors working today. Directors include Atom Egoyan, Damien Hirst, Neil Jordan, Conor McPherson, Damien O’Donnell, David Mamet, Anthony Minghella, Karel Reisz, and Patricia Rozema. The exceptional acting talent involved includes Michael Gambon, the late Sir John Gielgud, John Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Julianne Moore, Harold Pinter, Alan Rickman, and Kristen Scott-Thomas. Several of the films from the Beckett on Film project have been exhibited at international film festivals around the world including New York, Toronto, and Venice.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Aristotle, ‘‘VI,’’ in Aristotle’s Poetics, translated by S. H. Butcher, Hill and Wang, 1989, p. 61.

Bernard, Marc, Review of Endgame, in Nouvelles litteraires, May 5, 1957.

Clarke, P. H., ‘‘Translator’s Foreword,’’ in Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge, by Y. Averbakh, Pergamon Press, 1966, p. vii.

Cronin, Anthony, ‘‘Chapter Twenty-Nine,’’ in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 459–60.

Gussow, Mel, ‘‘The Stage: Chaikin Directs Beckett’s Endgame,’’ in the New York Times, January 14, 1980.

Tynan, Kenneth, Review of Endgame, in the Observer, April 7, 1957.

Worsley, T. C., Review of Endgame, in the Listener, November 4, 1957.

Further Reading
Abbott, H. Porter, The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect, University of California Press, 1973. This book contains chapters on Beckett’s early short fiction and the relationship between his stories and novels.

Bair, Deidre, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. This biography about the reclusive Samuel Beckett is broad in scope and understandably flawed.

Ben-Zvi, Linda, Samuel Beckett, Twayne Publishers, 1986. Because of the large scope of Beckett’s writings, this study of Beckett’s complete works has necessitated a brief coverage of each work.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Samuel Beckett’s ‘‘Endgame,’’ Modern Critical Interpretations series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Bloom brings together a representative selection of what many consider to be the best eight critical interpretations of the play.

Coe, Richard, Samuel Beckett, Grove Press, 1964. Coe’s study of Beckett focuses on his philosophical background.

Cohn, Ruby, Back to Beckett, Princeton University Press, 1973. Cohn presents a detailed study of Beckett’s fiction and drama.

Zurbrugg, Nicholas, ‘‘Ill Seen Ill Said and the Sense of an Ending,’’ in Beckett’s Later Fiction and Drama: Texts for Company, edited by James Acheson and Kateryna Arthur, Macmillan Press, 1987. Zurbrugg asserts that Ill Seen Ill Said is not so much a story as a poetic evocation of those rituals by which the living and the dead within Beckett’s fiction endlessly, and quite ineffectively, strive to attain a definitive ‘‘sense of an ending.’’

Bibliography

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Chevigny, Bell Gale, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Endgame.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Contains illuminating contributions by director Alan Schneider, critics Ross Chambers and Hugh Kenner, and others. Also contains an excerpt from Martin Esslin’s landmark book The Theatre of the Absurd.

Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. This volume by a “lifelong” student and critic of Beckett contains a useful comparison/ contrast of French and English texts of Endgame.

Kalb, Jonathan. Beckett in Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. An exhaustive and perceptive production study of Beckett’s plays, primarily in Western Europe. Good on productions of Endgame.

Kennedy, Andrew K. Samuel Beckett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Published shortly before Beckett’s death, Kennedy’s study provides a balanced view of all of his work. Particularly stimulating analysis of Beckett’s plays in general and Endgame in particular.

McMillan, Dougald, and Martha Fehsenfeld. From “Waiting for Godot” to “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Vol. 1 in Beckett in the Theatre. London: Calder, 1988. Complements Kalb’s study of Beckett in Performance. Useful production notes and history on Endgame.

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