If Waiting for Godot recalls France during the Nazi occupation, where people waited in desolate spots for others who might or might not appear, Endgame recalls a bizarre bomb shelter in the wake of Hiroshima and worse disasters, or perhaps the post-Freudian human skull. In the center, at his own request, sits Hamm, a ham-actor or failed Hamlet, often confusing himself with King Lear, now blind and immobile, confined to a makeshift wheelchair that more closely resembles a throne mounted on casters. Downstage, contained in trash cans, are Hamm’s parents Nagg and Nell, left legless after a tandem-bicycle accident years earlier in the Ardennes. The only character left standing is Cloy, who suffers from an ailment that keeps him from sitting down and who may or may not be Hamm’s son.
In many ways, Hamm recalls Pozzo of Waiting for Godot. Used to the exercise of power, turning blindness to his own advantage as he spins his dreams and memories into delusions of grandeur, Hamm rules his shrinking domain with the endless “mind games” alluded to in the play’s title, drawn from the game of chess. “Me to play,” says Hamm in the first line of the English version, delivered after nearly five minutes of illuminated stage business on the part of Cloy. Using his own French original, Beckett might better have translated the line as “It’s my turn, now,” to be delivered in a childish, churlish tone.
Throughout the action of Endgame, Hamm does indeed take his turn, doing most of the talking and insisting on a “turn” around the room, in his chair pushed by Cloy, after which he must return “to the center.” A seemingly endless monologue, interrupted only by the nagging of his father, Nagg, recalls or imagines a time when Hamm, like Pozzo, was truly in control, sufficiently rich and influential to control far more than the space to which his questionable influence is now limited. There are no more bicycle wheels, indeed no more bicycles, a luxury that Hamm never afforded Cloy as a boy. “The light is sunk,” planted seeds will never sprout, and Hamm is looking at “the end” even as Cloy jauntily seeks to make “an exit.”
Even more self-conscious of the stage than Waiting for Godot, Endgame is still—for good or for ill—considered by many of Beckett’s commentators to be his finest play, perhaps more satisfying for actors than for spectators. Technology, although much in evidence—the makeshift wheelchair, an invisible telephone long past usefulness, the defunct bicycles, a key-wound alarm clock that still rings loud enough “to wake the dead” but not the deaf—offers no exit or salvation to those held captive in the “end game,” perhaps the game eternally played inside one’s own skull. At the end of the play, with Hamm having staged his own death—but perhaps having really died—and his parents presumed dead, Cloy, bags in hand, moves downstage as if to make good on his threat or promise. Like Vladimir and Estragon, however, he remains poised but, as the curtain falls, still does not move. Where, indeed, would he go?
The world is nearing its end when Clov begins another day. He carefully surveys his employer’s unfurnished living space, then with the aid of a ladder looks out each window. With a single laugh, he seems to sum up what he sees. He then moves on to uncover two trash cans, one at a time, and looks inside each. With a brief laugh once again, he sums up what he sees within and then replaces the lids. He goes to remove the sheet that is covering the man he is caring for, Hamm, who sits in a makeshift wheelchair made of a wooden armchair on casters. Hamm is dressed in a housecoat, socks, a felt hat, and dark glasses to cover his sightless eyes.
Hamm awakens slowly and pulls off the bloodstained handkerchief that has been covering his face. Then, Clov says “it” is nearly finished. Hamm talks briefly to himself, ending his little monologue by saying that it is time to play the game. The two men talk about...
(The entire section is 3,339 words.)