illustrated portrait of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

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Robert Hatch (review date 15 February 1958)

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[In the excerpt below, Hatch presents a mixed assessment of Endgame.]

Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!

There is no bottom to the nihilism of Samuel Beckett, but each time, as he is going down forever, he finds a flicker of wit and kicks on for another few strokes. For a poet, total renunciation is probably impossible—he is forced to believe in his own poetry and from that he can rebuild a universe.

So Endgame (Cherry Lane) is not really the end; it merely approaches the end as the parallel lines approach infinity. However, it is much further along than Waiting for Godot: it looks as though we might be extinguished at any minute—not with a bang and not with a whimper, but stuttering importantly like a rundown clock. The past ("accursed progenitor") is refuse. Ancient father and mother, they stand in ash cans on the stumps of their legs, having lost their shanks "in the Ardennes" … "on the road to Sedan"; which may suggest where and when Beckett thinks the end officially began. The lord of the present is blind and paralyzed, enthroned in his filth, sardonic and mawkish with the worn-out poses of an eternity of posing. The slave is truculent and spavined, but still slaving—out of habit, and perhaps because it is the only activity left on earth. It is something to be able to get around, however painfully.

There has been a disaster (at least we are now deep in a "shelter"), or perhaps it is just cosmic fatigue—the tides no longer flow, nothing moves, nothing grows, there is no sunlight "out there." Or was that a child, flashing just past the edge of the window? Impossible, absurd, ha ha! And yet if it were so, we could give up this silly game, this word play, this humiliating crawl to infinity. We could die without committing the treason of extermination. Beckett will not quite give up the hope he does not have:

HAMM. The bastard! [God, that is] He doesn't exist!

CLOV. Not yet.

"This is not much fun," says Hamm the master, and compared to Waiting for Godot it really isn't. The mad dialogue still rings like china, and shocks of wicked laughter still spill out of the surrounding gibberish:

CLOV. Do you believe in the life to come?

HAMM. Mine has always been that.

But when two of your four characters are stuck in ash cans (with the tops on a good part of the time) and a third is confined to a throne on casters, you must rely for action on the comings and goings of the one remaining on his feet (just barely on his feet). This degenerates fairly soon into a sorry pendulum of busyness…. Endgame is in one act and runs for about ninety minutes, but it seems a long evening.

The new parable lacks the playfulness, the lovable naughtiness of its predecessor. That was not all Bert Lahr's doing—Beckett kicked up his own heels. Now it is so much later in the day that defiance and gaiety are almost used up—the effect is powerful enough, but there is less theatre to it. And more poetry, perhaps. The characteristic staccato lines clash against one another like cymbals, the voices within voices are like the supporting and echoing choirs in an orchestra. It is the song of final dissolution by a minstrel-prophet with the logic of death in his mind and the conviction of life forever in his blood. The great drama of Beckett is always his inability...

(This entire section contains 623 words.)

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to subdue himself.

Robert Hatch, in a review of "Endgame," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 186, No. 7, February 15, 1958, pp. 145-46.


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Endgame Samuel Beckett

The following entry presents criticism on Beckett's play Fin de partie (1957; Endgame). For further information on Beckett's complete career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 29, and 59. For discussion of En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot), see CLC, Volume 57.

One of the most celebrated authors in twentieth-century literature, Beckett is especially recognized for his significant impact on contemporary drama. Endgame, his second full-length play, focuses on the interaction of Hamm and Clov, two enigmatic modern figures forced to confront the nothingness of their existence. Like Waiting for Godot, Endgame features black humor, economical and fragmented language, experimental techniques, and stark images of alienation and absurdity. Despite the comic aspects of its surface level repartee, Endgame has been characterized by many critics as bleak, terrifying, and nihilistic.

Plot and Major Characters

Endgame is a long one-act play set during a single day in a bare room with two windows—one looking out onto an ocean, the other land—and a door that leads to a kitchen. The setting, as in most absurdist drama, serves to emphasize the central absurdity of everyday existence. The principal characters are Hamm and Clov. Hamm, who is blind and confined to an armchair mounted on castors, has been described by Beckett as "a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start, he knows he is making loud senseless moves…. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end." Clov, who cannot walk very well, waits on Hamm and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, who are legless and confined to two trash cans from which their heads periodically appear and disappear. Mutual dependence and hatred informs the relationships between Hamm and the other characters; as the play begins, Hamm's supply of food and pain killer is dwindling. Clov verbally spars with Hamm, and occasionally peers out the windows with a telescope to assure Hamm that nothing else is alive. Nagg and Nell discuss the past, and Nagg tells a story about a tailor and some trousers. Hamm relates two versions of a "chronicle" about a man and his son, and responds cruelly to pleas from the other characters for sustenance and relief from suffering. Toward the end of the play, Hamm orders Clov to seal the lids of the trash cans; Nagg and Nell apparently die. Looking out the window, Clov reports seeing a small boy. Hamm tells Clov he no longer needs him and Clov prepares to leave. The play concludes with Clov waiting by the door and Hamm, as he began the play, resting motionless in his chair with a bloody handkerchief over his face.

Major Themes

One of the most obvious themes of Endgame is the necessity of interdependence, even if the relationship is one of hate. Clov, for example, depends on Hamm for access to food since only Hamm knows how to open the larder, while Hamm relies on Clov to be his eyes and to move his chair. The play also focuses on confinement: Hamm is paralyzed, Nagg and Nell cannot leave their trash cans, and the action of the play occurs in a bare room, outside of which life apparently cannot survive. Generational conflict, particularly between father and son, also emerges as a prominent theme. Hamm twice tells a story about a father and son and seems to view parent-child relationships only in terms of power and resentment. Critics have argued that Hamm resents Nagg, his father, for not being kind to him when he was young, while Hamm resents Clov, his son, for being young at a time when his life is in decline. Endgame has also been interpreted as a depiction of humanity's denial of such life processes as death and procreation. Finally, the actors make numerous, explicit references throughout Endgame to their roles as characters in a play. For example, Hamm at one point states: "I'm warming up for my last soliloquy." At another point, Clov announces: "This is what we call making an exit." Critics contend that such references to the action of the play as a performance suggest that Endgame depicts humanity's penchant for self-dramatization, the act through which it assigns meaning to an otherwise meaningless universe.

Critical Reception

Critics often compare Endgame to Beckett's previous drama Waiting for Godot, noting, for instance, that characters in both plays are grouped in symmetrical pairs. However, Endgame is considered much bleaker and more perplexing than the latter play because it lacks the hope for redemption that informs Waiting for Godot. Speculation as to the significance of the play's setting, characters, and Hamm's and Nagg's narratives have generated diverse opinions. The metaphor governing the setting has been variously identified as a bomb shelter in the wake of a nuclear war, the interior of an individual's mind, and Noah's ark; Hamm and Clov have been supposed to represent James Joyce and Beckett, respectively; and interpretations of Hamm's chronicle range from an expression of guilt to the story of Hamm's adoption of Clov. Commentators have also focused on Beckett's numerous biblical allusions, his use of irony, and his attempt to "undo" cliches and idioms by having the characters respond to them on a literal level. Commenting on Endgame himself, Beckett identified the speech "nothing is funnier than unhappiness" as key to the play's interpretation and performance.

Tom F. Driver (review date 5 March 1958)

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[An American educator, theologian, and critic, Driver has written several books on modern drama. In the following excerpt, he considers Endgame less accomplished than Waiting for Godot.]

Two years ago, Samuel Beckett's theatrical parable Waiting for Godot came to the attention of American audiences and moved many of us to wild enthusiasm. (The fact that many others were put off entirely by it only added to the fun.) Whatever Mr. Beckett may have intended in that play, actually he had written an enigma which teased one with the question whether it was worth it to wait for the appearance of an absolute that seemed perpetually slow in coming. The play was open-ended, somewhat like Frank Stockton's story "The Lady or the Tiger?" It left at least the possibility that the attitude of waiting is a part of salvation.

It was too much to hope that Mr. Beckett's next play would be as good. Any such hope is now disappointed with the arrival of Endgame, which, however, is not without its points.

Samuel Beckett's plays have no plot. Little or nothing happens in them. To write plays about a world in which there is no action is a neat trick, and surely the playwright deserves some sort of award for pulling if off at all. In Waiting for Godot the situation was partly relieved by the expectation that something might happen. The symbols Beckett used in that play were closely associated with Christian symbols, and therefore of themselves (not to mention the dialogue and form of the play) they engendered the notion that action might at any moment break into the thoroughly inactive situation.

In Endgame, on the other hand, there is no such possibility. The set is in a filthy courtyard, bricked in on every side. All the characters are on stage at the beginning: nobody comes and nobody goes. One of them speaks of going and even gets packed to leave; but it is impossible to imagine him anywhere else, and so he stays. The principal character is blind and sits in a wheelchair; he cannot stand. His menial is afflicted in the legs and cannot sit. The parents of the blind man have lost their legs and are kept in a couple of ash cans. Their son feeds them on dog biscuits.

Theatrically, the remarkable part of it is how such a play, if not dull, could turn out to be anything but horrifying. At the deepest level it is horrifying; but the playwright manages to keep the surface of it interesting, comic, and even sentimental. It will be hard for me to erase the memory of the sweet old couple, popping up from under their galvanized lids and reminiscing about the day their boat capsized in Lake Como. It made us children laugh and cry.

Beckett writes plays of the spirit, plays of man's relation to his hopes and to his neighbor. The form of Endgame and its tone suggest that the game is up. Mr. Beckett is tolling a little tinkly bell for the end of the world. Man has made such ugly use of his neighbor that the two are now inextricably bound together by iron chains of exploitation. They suffer their mutual captivity by learning to find moments of love.

At times Mr. Beckett's anger at this condition flares out. Once, the blind man rolls his chair to the edge of the stage and cries to the audience: "Get out of here and love one another!" Yet the audience I was in made no stir. The playwright's irony is that even though we may begin to see the nature of our sickness it is too far advanced for cure.

Tom F. Driver, "Out in Left Field," in The Christian Century, Vol. LXXV, March 5, 1958, pp. 282-83.

∗Principal Works

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Whoroscope (poem) 1930
Proust (essay) 1931
More Pricks than Kicks (short stories) 1934
Murphy (novel) 1938
Malone meurt (novel) 1951
 [Malone Dies, 1956]
Molloy (novel) 1951
 [Molloy, 1955]
En attendant Godot (drama) 1953
 [Waiting for Godot, 1955]
L'innommable (novel) 1953
 [The Unnamable, 1958]
Watt (novel) 1953
Nouvelles et textes pour rien (short stories) 1955
 [Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1967]
Actes sans paroles I (drama) 1957
All that Fall (drama) [first publication] 1957
Fin de Partie (drama) 1957
 [Endgame, 1958]
Krapp's Last Tape (drama) 1958
Actes san paroles II (drama) 1960
Comment c'est (novel) 1961
 [How It Is, 1964]
Happy Days (drama) 1961
Comédie (drama) 1964
 [Play, 1964]
Imatination morte imaginez (drama) [first publication] 1965
 [Imagination Dead Imagine, 1965]
Va et vient (drama) 1966
 [Come and Go, 1968]
Eh Joe, and Other Writings (drama and screenplay) 1967
No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945–1966 (dramas and short stories) 1967
Breath (drama) 1970
Le dépeupleur (drama) [first publication] 1970
 [The Lost Ones, 1972]
§Mercier et Camier (novel) 1970
 [Mercier and Camier, 1974]
§Premier amour (drama) [first publication] 1970
 [First Love, 1973]
Not I (drama) 1972
Ends and Odds (dramas and radio plays) 1976
Foot Falls (drama) 1976
That Time (drama) 1976
Companie (novel) 1979
 [Company, 1980]
A Piece of Monologue (drama) 1979
Ohio Impromptu (drama) 1981
Rockaby (drama) 1981
Texts for Nothing (drama) 1981
Mal vu mal dit (prose poem) 1981
 [Ill Seen Ill Said, 1982]
Westward Ho (novel) 1983
Stirrings Still (novella) 1989

∗Beckett translated or cotranslated from the French all of the translations listed.

†These dramas were first performed together.

‡This work includes Eh Joe, Act Without Words II, and Film.

§These works were originally written in 1945.

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1961)

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[Kenner is the foremost American critic and chronicler of literary Modernism. He is best known for The Pound Era (1971), an extensive study of the Modernist movement, and for his influential works on T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Wyndham Lewis. In the following essay originally published in 1961 in his Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study, he interprets Endgame as a self-conscious performance designed to explore the boundaries of theatricalism.]

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—K, 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 closed 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 night-man!" 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 suffices 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 twentieth-century 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 isconsiderably 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.

Hugh Kenner, "Life in the Box," in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame", edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 41-48.

Further Reading

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Andonian, Cathleen Culotta. Samuel Beckett: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1989, 754 p.

Annotated bibliography of criticism on Beckett through 1984.


Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, 736 p.

Includes a chapter that chronicles Beckett's life during the writing and early productions of Endgame.


Bernstein, Jay. "Philosophy's Refuge: Adorno in Beckett." In Philosopher's Poets, edited by David Wood, pp. 177-91. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Analyzes Theodor Adorno's essay "Trying to Understand Endgame."

Chevigny, Bell Gale, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Endgame: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969, 120 p.

Contains essays on Endgame by such well known critics as Theodor Adorno, Ruby Cohn, and Richard Goldman.

Connor, Steven. "The Doubling of Presence: Waiting for Godot, Endgame." In his Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text, pp. 118-25. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Examines meaning, repetition, and unity in Endgame, noting that "Endgame refuses the consummation of an ending which its form and title suggest."

Esslin, Martin, ed. Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965, 182 p.

Collection of essays dealing with various aspects of Beckett's career and works. Several essays comment on Endgame.

Friedman, Melvin J., ed. Samuel Beckett Now: Critical Approaches to His Novels, Poetry, and Plays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, 275 p.

Contains several essays with commentary on Endgame as well as a checklist of Beckett criticism.

Gassner, John. "Beckett's Endgame and Symbolism." In his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage, pp. 256-61. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Early, mixed review of Endgame.

Gontarski, S. E. "Sources, False Starts, and Preliminary Versions of Fin de partie" and "Fin de partie Itself." In his The Intent of "Undoing" in Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts, pp. 25-41, pp. 42-54. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Traces the development of Endgame from early drafts to the final version.

Hale, Jane Alison. "Endgame: 'How Are Your Eyes?'" In her The Broken Window: Beckett's Dramatic Perspective, pp. 45-60. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987.

Examines Beckett's use of time and space in Endgame.

Lyons, Charles R. "Endgame." In his Samuel Beckett, pp. 50-74. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1983.

Critical overview of Endgame, covering Beckett's treatment of such topics as character, scene, and time.

Maughlin, Susan. "Liminality: An Approach to Artistic Process in Endgame." In Myth and Ritual in the Plays of Samuel Beckett, edited by Katherine H. Burkman, pp. 86-99. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1987.

Interprets Endgame as "the inevitable unfolding and the seemingly impossible coalescence of the creative process."

Simon, Bennett. "Beckett's Endgame and the Abortion of Desire." In his Tragic Drama and the Family: Psychoanalytic Studies from Aeschylus to Beckett, pp. 212-52. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Focuses on the conflict between procreation and the social necessity of abortion as depicted in Endgame, which Simon, a medical doctor, considers to be "the archetypal modern tragedy."

Smith, Joseph H. "Notes on Krapp, Endgame, and 'Applied' Psychoanalysis." In The World of Samuel Beckett, edited by Joseph H. Smith, pp. 195-203. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

A psychiatrist comments on Hamm, as well as questions of mental health and existence, in Endgame.

Martin Esslin (essay date 1961)

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[Esslin, a prominent and sometimes controversial critic of contemporary theater, is perhaps best known for coining the term "theater of the absurd." His The Theatre of the Absurd (1961) is a major study of the avant-garde drama of the 1950s and early 1960s, including the works of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in that work, he critiques various interpretations of Endgame and discusses the significance of the small boy that Clov sees near the play's conclusion.]

If Waiting for Godot shows its two heroes whiling away the time in a succession of desultory, and never-ending, games, Beckett's second play deals with an "endgame," the final game in the hour of death.

Waiting for Godot takes place on a terrifyingly empty open road, Endgame in a claustrophobic interior. Waiting for Godot consists of two symmetrical movements that balance each other; Endgame has only one act that shows the running down of a mechanism until it comes to a stop. Yet Endgame, like Waiting for Godot, groups its characters in symmetrical pairs.

In a bare room with two small windows, a blind old man, Hamm, sits in a wheelchair. Hamm is paralyzed, and can no longer stand. His servant, Clov, is unable to sit down. In two ash cans that stand by the wall are Hamm's legless parents, Nagg and Nell. The world outside is dead. Some great catastrophe, of which the four characters in the play are, or believe themselves to be, the sole survivors, has killed all living beings.

Hamm and Clov (ham actor and clown?) in some ways resemble Pozzo and Lucky. Hamm is the master, Clov the servant. Hamm is selfish, sensuous, domineering. Clov hates Hamm and wants to leave him, but he must obey his orders "Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why?" Will Clov have the force to leave Hamm? That is the source of the dramatic tension of the play. If he leaves, Hamm must die, as Clov is the only one left who can feed him. But Clov also must die, as there is no else left in the world, and Hamm's store is the last remaining source of food. If Clov can muster the will power to leave, he will not only kill Hamm but commit suicide. He will thus succeed where Estragon and Vladimir have failed so often.

Hamm fancies himself as a writer—or, rather, as the spinner of a tale of which he composes a brief passage every day. It is a story about a catastrophe that caused the death of large numbers of people. On this particular day, the tale has reached an episode in which the father of a starving child asks Hamm for bread for his child. Finally the father begs Hamm to take in his child, should it still be alive when he gets back to his home. It appears that Clov might well be that very child. He was brought to Hamm when he was too small to remember. Hamm was a father to him, or, as he himself puts it, "But for me … no father. But for Hamm … no home." The situation in Endgame is the reverse of that in Joyce's Ulysses, where a father finds a substitute for a lost son. Here a foster son is trying to leave his foster father.

Clov has been trying to leave Hamm ever since he was born, or as he says, "Ever since I was whelped." Hamm is burdened with a great load of guilt. He might have saved large numbers of people who begged him for help. "The place was crawling with them!" One of the neighbors, old Mother Pegg, who was "bonny once, like a flower of the field" and perhaps Hamm's lover, was killed through his cruelty: "When old Mother Pegg asked you for oil for her lamp and you told her to get out to hell … you know what she died of, Mother Pegg? Of darkness." Now the supplies in Hamm's own household are running out: the sweets, the flour for the parents' pap, even Hamm's painkiller. The world is running down. "Something is taking its course."

Hamm is childish; he plays with a three-legged toy dog, and he is full of self-pity. Clov serves him as his eyes. At regular intervals he is asked to survey the outside world from the two tiny windows high up in the wall. The right-hand window looks out on land, the left-hand onto the sea. But even the tides have stopped.

Hamm is untidy. Clov is a fanatic of order.

Hamm's parents, in their dustbins, are grotesquely sentimental imbeciles. They lost their legs in an accident while cycling through the Ardennes on their tandem, on the road to Sedan. They remember the day they went rowing on Lake Como—the day after they became engaged—one April afternoon (cf. the love scene in a boat on a lake in Krapp's Last Tape), and Nagg, in the tones of an Edwardian raconteur, retells the funny story that made his bride laugh then and that he has since repeated ad nauseam.

Hamm hates his parents. Nell secretly urges Clov to desert Hamm. Nagg, having been awakened to listen to Hamm's tale, scolds him: "Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened in the dark? Your mother? No. Me." But he immediately reveals how selfishly he ignored these calls.

We let you cry. Then we moved out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace…. I hope the day will come when you'll really need to have me listen to you…. Yes, I hope I'll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny little boy, and were frightened, in the dark, and I was your only hope.

As the end approaches, Hamm imagines what will happen when Clov leaves him. He confirms Nagg's forecast: "There I'll be in the old shelter, alone against the silence and … the stillness…. I'll have called my father and I'll have called my … my son," which indicates that he does indeed regard Clov as his son.

For a last time, Clov looks out of the windows with his telescope. He sees something unusual. "A small … boy!" But it is not entirely clear whether he has really seen this strange sign of continuing life, "a potential procreator." In some way, this is the turning point. Hamm says, "It's the end, Clov, we've come to the end. I don't need you any more." Perhaps he does not believe that Clov will really be able to leave him. But Clov has finally decided that he will go: "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…. It's easy going…. When I fall I'll weep for happiness." And as blind Hamm indulges in a last monologue of reminiscence and self-pity, Clov appears, dressed for departure in a Panama hat, tweed coat, raincoat over his arm, and listens to Hamm's speech, motionless. When the curtain falls, he is still there. It remains open whether he will really leave.

The final tableau of Endgame bears a curious resemblance to the ending of a little-known but highly significant play by the brilliant Russian dramatist and man of the theatre Nikolai Evreinov, which appeared in an English translation as early as 1915—The Theatre of the Soul. This one-act play is a monodrama that takes place inside a human being and shows the constituent parts of his ego, his emotional self and his rational self in conflict with each other. The man, Ivanov, is sitting in a café, debating with himself whether to run away with a night-club singer or go back to his wife. His emotional self urges him to leave, his rational self tries to persuade him of the advantages, moral and material, of staying with his wife. As they come to blows, a bullet pierces the heart that has been beating in the background. Ivanov has shot himself. The rational and emotional selves fall down dead. A third figure, who has been sleeping in the background, gets up. He is dressed in traveling clothes and carries a suitcase. It is the immortal part of Ivanov that now has to move on.

While it is unlikely that Beckett knew this old and long-forgotten Russian play, the parallels are very striking. Evreinov's monodrama is a purely rational construction designed to present to a cabaret audience what was then the newest psychological trend. Beckett's play springs from genuine depths. Yet the suggestion that Endgame may also be a monodrama has much to be said for it. The enclosed space with the two tiny windows through which Clov observes the outside world; the dustbins that hold the suppressed and despised parents, and whose lids Clov is ordered to press down when they become obnoxious; Hamm, blind and emotional; Clov, performing the function of the senses for him—all these might well represent different aspects of a single personality, repressed memories in the subconscious mind, the emotional and the intellectual selves. Is Clov then the intellect, bound to serve the emotions, instincts, and appetites, and trying to free himself from such disorderly and tyrannical masters, yet doomed to die when its connection with the animal side of the personality is severed? Is the death of the outside world the gradual receding of the links to reality that takes place in the process of aging and dying? Is Endgame a monodrama depicting the dissolution of a personality in the hour of death?

It would be wrong to assume that these questions can be definitely answered. Endgame certainly was not planned as a sustained allegory of this type. But there are indications that there is an element of monodrama in the play. Hamm describes a memory that is strangely reminiscent of the situation in Endgame:

I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter—an engraver…. 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!… He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes…. He alone had been spared. Forgotten … It appears the case is … was not so … so unusual.

Hamm's own world resembles the delusions of the mad painter. Moreover, what is the significance of the picture mentioned in the stage directions? "Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture." Is that picture a memory? Is the story a lucid moment in the consciousness of that very painter whose dying hours we witness from behind the scenes of his mind?

Beckett's plays can be interpreted on many levels. Endgame may well be a monodrama on one level and a morality play about the death of a rich man on another. But the peculiar psychological reality of Beckett's characters has often been noticed. Pozzo and Lucky have been interpreted as body and mind; Vladimir and Estragon have been seen as so complementary that they might be the two halves of a single personality, the conscious and the subconscious mind. Each of these three pairs—Pozzo-Lucky; Vladimir-Estragon; Hamm-Clov—is linked by a relationship of mutual interdependence, wanting to leave each other, at war with each other, and yet dependent on each other. "Nec tecum, nec sine te." This is a frequent situation among people—married couples, for example—but it is also an image of the interrelatedness of the elements within a single personality, particularly if the personality is in conflict with itself.

In Beckett's first play, Eleutheria, the basic situation was, superficially, analogous to the relationship between Clov and Hamm. The young hero of that play wanted to leave his family; in the end he succeeded in getting away. In Endgame, however, that situation has been deepened into truly universal significance; it has been concentrated and immeasurably enriched precisely by having been freed from all elements of a naturalistic social setting and external plot. The process of contraction, which Beckett described as the essence of the artistic tendency in his essay on Proust, has here been carried out triumphantly. Instead of merely exploring a surface, a play like Endgame has become a shaft driven deep down into the core of being; that is why it exists on a multitude of levels, revealing new ones as it is more closely studied. What at first might have appeared as obscurity or lack of definition is later recognized as the very hallmark of the density of texture, the tremendous concentration of a work that springs from a truly creative imagination, as distinct from a merely imitative one.

The force of these considerations is brought out with particular clarity when we are confronted by an attempt to interpret a play like Endgame as a mere exercise in conscious or subconscious autobiography. In an extremely ingenious essay ["Joyce the Father, Beckett the Son," The New Leader (December 14, 1959)] Lionel Abel has worked out the thesis that in the characters of Hamm and Pozzo, Beckett may have portrayed his literary master, James Joyce, while Lucky and Clov stand for Beckett himself. Endgame then becomes an allegory of the relationship between the domineering, nearly blind Joyce and his adoring disciple, who felt himself crushed by his master's overpowering literary influence. Superficially the parallels are striking: Hamm is presented as being at work on an interminable story, Lucky is being made to perform a set piece of thinking, which, Mr. Abel argues, is in fact a parody of Joyce's style. Yet on closer reflection this theory surely becomes untenable; not because there may not be a certain amount of truth in it (every writer is bound to use elements of his own experience of life in his work) but because, far from illuminating the full content of a play like Endgame, such an interpretation reduces it to a trivial level. If Endgame really were nothing but a thinly disguised account of the literary, or even the human, relationship between two particular individuals, it could not possibly produce the impact it has had on audiences utterly ignorant of these particular, very private circumstances. Yet Endgame undoubtedly has a very deep and direct impact, which can spring only from its touching a chord in the minds of a very large number of human beings. The problems of the relationship between a literary master and his pupil would be very unlikely to elicit such a response; very few people in the audience would feel directly involved. Admittedly, a play that presented the conflict between Joyce and Beckett openly, or thinly disguised, might arouse the curiosity of audiences who are always eager for autobiographical revelations. But this is just what Endgame does not do. If it nevertheless arouses profound emotion in its audience, this can be due only to the fact that it is felt to deal with a conflict of a far more universal nature. Once that is seen, it becomes clear that while it is fascinating to argue about the aptness of such autobiographical elements, such a discussion leaves the central problem of understanding the play and exploring its many-layered meanings still to be tackled.

As a matter of fact, the parallels are by no means so close: Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot, for example, is anything but a parody of Joyce's style. It is, if anything, a parody of philosophical jargon and scientific double-talk—the very opposite of what either Joyce or Beckett ever wanted to achieve in their writing. Pozzo, on the other hand, who would stand for Joyce, is utterly inartistic in his first persona, and becomes reflective in a melancholy vein only after he has gone blind. And if Pozzo is Joyce, what would be the significance of Lucky's dumbness, which comes at the same time as Pozzo's blindness? The novel that Hamm composes in Endgame is characterized by its attempt at scientific exactitude, and there is a clear suggestion that it is not a work of art at all, but a thinly disguised vehicle for the expression of Hamm's sense of guilt about his behavior at the time of the great mysterious calamity, when he refused to save his neighbors. Clov, on the other hand, is shown as totally uninterested in Hamm's "Work in Progress," so that Hamm has to bribe his senile father to listen to it—surely a situation as unlike that of Joyce and Beckett as can be imagined.

The experience expressed in Beckett's plays is of a far more profound and fundamental nature than mere autobiography. They reveal his experience of temporality and evanescence; his sense of the tragic difficulty of becoming aware of one's own self in the merciless process of renovation and destruction that occurs with change in time; of the difficulty of communication between human beings; of the unending quest for reality in a world in which everything is uncertain and the borderline between dream and reality is ever shifting; of the tragic nature of all love relationships and the self-deception of friendship (of which Beckett speaks in the essay on Proust), and so on. In Endgame we are also certainly confronted with a very powerful expression of the sense of deadness, of leaden heaviness and hopelessness, that is experienced in states of deep depression: the world outside goes dead for the victim of such states, but inside his mind there is ceaseless argument between parts of his personality that have become autonomous entities.

This is not to say that Beckett gives a clinical description of psychopathological states. His creative intuition explores the elements of experience and shows to what extent all human beings carry the seeds of such depression and disintegration within the deeper layers of their personality. If the prisoners of San Quentin responded to Waiting for Godot, it was because they were confronted with their own experience of time, waiting, hope, and despair; because they recognized the truth about their own human relationships in the sadomasochistic interdependence of Pozzo and Lucky and in the bickering hate-love between Vladimir and Estragon. This is also the key to the wide success of Beckett's plays: to be confronted with concrete projections of the deepest fears and anxieties, which have been only vaguely experienced at a half-conscious level, constitutes a process of catharsis and liberation analogous to the therapeutic effect in psychoanalysis of confronting the subconscious contents of the mind. This is the moment of release from deadening habit, through facing up to the suffering of the reality of being, that Vladimir almost attains in Waiting for Godot. This also, probably, is the release that could occur if Clov had the courage to break his bondage to Hamm and venture out into the world, which may not, after all, be so dead as it appeared from within the claustrophobic confines of Hamm's realm. This, in fact, seems to be hinted at by the strange episode of the little boy whom Clov observes in the last stages of Endgame. Is this boy a symbol of life outside the closed circuit of withdrawal from reality?

It is significant that in the original, French version, this episode is dealt with in greater detail than in the later, English one. Again Beckett seems to have felt that he had been too explicit. And from an artistic point of view he is surely right; in his type of theatre the half-light of suggestion is more powerful than the overtly symbolical. But the comparison between the two versions is illuminating nevertheless. In the English version, Clov, after expressing surprise at what he has discovered, merely says:

CLOV. (Dismayed). Looks like a small boy!

HAMM. (Sarcastic). A small … boy!

CLOV. I'll go and see. (He gets down, drops the telescope, goes towards the door, turns) I'll take the gaff. (He looks for the gaff, sees it; picks it up, hastens towards the door)


(Clov halts)

CLOV. No? A potential procreator?

HAMM. If he exists he'll die there or he'll come here. And if he doesn't … (Pause)

In the original, French version, Hamm shows far greater interest in the boy, and his attitude changes from open hostility to resignation.

CLOV. There is someone there! Someone!

HAMM. Well, go and exterminate him! (Clov gets down from the stool) Somebody! (With trembling voice) Do your duty! (Clov rushes to the door) No, don't bother. (Clov stops) What distance? (Clov climbs back on the stool, looks through the telescope)

CLOV. Seventy … four meters.

HAMM. Approaching? Receding?

CLOV. (continues to look). Stationary.

HAMM. Sex?

CLOV. What does it matter? (He opens the window, leans out. Pause. He straightens, lowers the telescope, turns to Hamm, frightened.) Looks like a little boy.

HAMM. Occupied with?

CLOV. What?

HAMM. (Violently). What is he doing?

CLOV. (Also). I don't know what he's doing. What little boys used to do. (He looks through the telescope. Pause. Puts it down, turns to Hamm.) He seems to be sitting on the ground, with his back against something.

HAMM. The lifted stone. (Pause) Your eyesight is getting better. (Pause) No doubt he is looking at the house with the eyes of Moses dying.


HAMM. What is he looking at?

CLOV. (Violently). I don't know what he is looking at. (He raises the telescope. Pause. Lowers the telescope, turns to Hamm.) His navel. Or thereabouts. (Pause) Why this cross-examination?

HAMM. Perhaps he is dead.

After this, the French text and the English version again coincide: Clov wants to tackle the newcomer with his gaff, Hamm stops him, and, after a brief moment of doubt as to whether Clov has told him the truth, realizes that the turning point has come:

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

The longer, more elaborate version of this episode clearly reveals the religious or quasi-religious symbolism of the little boy; the references to Moses and the lifted stone seem to hint that the first human being, the first sign of life discovered in the outside world since the great calamity when the earth went dead, is not, like Moses, dying within sight of the promised land, but, like Christ the moment after the resurrection, has been newly born into a new life, leaning, a babe, against the lifted stone. Moreover, like the Buddha, the little boy contemplates his navel. And his appearance convinces Hamm that the moment of parting, the final stage of the endgame, has come.

It may well be that the sighting of this little boy—undoubtedly a climactic event in the play—stands for redemption from the illusion and evanescence of time through the recognition, and acceptance, of a higher reality: the little boy contemplates his own navel; that is, he fixes his attention on the great emptiness of nirvana, nothingness, of which Democritus the Abderite has said, in one of Beckett's favorite quotations, "Nothing is more real than nothing."

There is a moment of illumination, shortly before he himself dies, in which Murphy, having played a game of chess, experiences a strange sensation:

… and Murphy began to see nothing, that colorlessness which is such a rare post-natal treat, being the absence … not of percipere but of percipi. His other senses also found themselves at peace, an unexpected pleasure. Not the numb peace of their own suspension, but the positive peace that comes when the somethings give way, or perhaps simply add up, to the Nothing, than which in the guffaw of the Abderite naught is more real. Time did not cease, that would be asking too much, but the wheels of rounds and pauses did, as Murphy with his head among the armies [i.e., of the chessmen] continued to suck in, through all the posterns of his withered soul, the accidentless One-and-Only conveniently called Nothing.

Does Hamm, who has shut himself off from the world and killed the rest of mankind by holding on to his material possessions—Hamm, blind, sensual, egocentric—then die when Clov, the rational part of the self, perceives the true reality of the illusoriness of the material world, the redemption and resurrection, the liberation from the wheels of time that lies in union with the "accidentless One-and-Only, conveniently called Nothing"? Or is the discovery of the little boy merely a symbol of the coming of death—union with nothingness in a different, more concrete sense? Or does the reappearance of life in the outside world indicate that the period of loss of contact with the world has come to an end, that the crisis has passed and that a disintegrating personality is about to find the way back to integration, "the solemn change towards merciless reality in Hamm and ruthless acceptance of freedom in Clov," as the Jungian analyst Dr. Metman puts it?

There is no need to try to pursue these alternatives any further; to decide in favor of one would only impair the stimulating coexistence of these and other possible implications. There is, however, an illuminating commentary on Beckett's views about the interrelation between material wants and a feeling of restlessness and futility in the short mime-play Act Without Words, which was performed with Endgame during its first run. The scene is a desert onto which a man is "flung backwards." Mysterious whistles draw his attention in various directions. A number of more or less desirable objects, notably a carafe of water, are dangled before him. He tries to get the water. It hangs too high. A number of cubes, obviously designed to make it easier for him to reach the water, descend from the flies. But however ingeniously he piles them on top of one another, the water always slides just outside his reach. In the end he sinks into complete immobility. The whistle sounds—but he no longer heeds it. The water is dangled in front of his face—but he does not move. Even the palm tree in the shade of which he has been sitting is whisked off into the flies. He remains immobile, looking at his hands.

Here again we find man flung onto the stage of life, at first obeying the call of a number of impulses, having his attention drawn to the pursuit of illusory objectives by whistles from the wings, but finding peace only when he has learned his lesson and refuses any of the material satisfactions dangled before him. The pursuit of objectives that forever recede as they are attained—inevitably so through the action of time, which changes us in the process of reaching what we crave—can find release only in the recognition of that nothingness which is the only reality. The whistle that sounds from the wings resembles the whistle with which Hamm summons Clov to minister to his material needs. And the final, immobile position of the man in Act Without Words recalls the posture of the little boy in the original version of Endgame.

The activity of Pozzo and Lucky, the driver and the driven, always on the way from place to place; the waiting of Estragon and Vladimir, whose attention is always focused on the promise of a coming; the defensive position of Hamm, who has built himself a shelter from the world to hold on to his possessions, are all aspects of the same futile preoccupation with objectives and illusory goals. All movement is disorder. As Clov says, "I love order. It's my dream. A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust."

Martin Esslin, "Samuel Beckett: The Search for the Self," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'Endgame': A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, pp. 22-32.

Antony Easthope (essay date February 1968)

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[Easthope is an English educator and critic. In the following essay originally published in Modern Drama in February 1968, he remarks on Hamm and Clov's relationship in Endgame and analyzes Beckett's dramatic method.]

One way in which a play holds the attention of an audience for the duration of its performance is by presenting an action which may be formulated as a question: Who killed Laius? How will Hamlet revenge his father? Endgame has a plot at least to the extent that it holds its audience with an uncertainty, one which is continuously reiterated from the stage: Will Clov leave Hamm? At the end, when the final tableau shows Clov standing there, with umbrella, raincoat, and bag, unable to stay and unable to go, the question remains unresolved. Nevertheless, any discussion of Endgame, including one which proposes to consider the play's dramatic method, should begin with this question, or rather with the relationship between Hamm and Clov from which it arises. And since Clov is for the most part a passive victim, a pawn dominated by Hamm's active mastery, it is with Hamm that we should start.

In order to get even as far as the play will let us towards understanding why Hamm keeps Clov (assuming that he could in fact let him go), we must try to see what Hamm is like. He is like a king, with Clov as his servant, for he refers to "my house," "my service," and even, echoing Shakespeare's Richard III, to "my kingdom." On one occasion he uses the royal plural to Clov, "You can't leave us." In a former time he had real power, or so he claims, when Clov, as he reminds him, "inspected my paupers." Now his realm has shrunk almost to nothing and he is left with Clov, Nagg, and Nell as his courtiers. His relationship with Clov is like that between Pozzo and Lucky in Godot, and its quality is well conveyed by Lionel Abel's suggestion that it is an analogue of the relationship between the young Beckett and the old, blind, Joyce. Hamm treats Nagg and Nell as further objects for gratuitous affliction—"Bottle him!" Hamm seems to be a tyrant, who lives to enjoy the exercise of his power over others. But it is at this point that the difficulties begin, for to say that Hamm enjoys exercising power is to attribute a familiar form of psychological motivation to him—and it is hard to be sure he has the capacity for this. Together with its many other connotations, Hamm is the name for an actor, for one who creates an identity which has only an imaginary existence. And the tone of what Hamm says is frequently consistent with that of an assumed identity, one deliberately acted out. So he deals with the requests of his servants:

CLOV. He wants a sugar-plum.

HAMM. He'll get a sugar-plum.

Hamm's reply is such a fulsome expression of largesse and arrogant condescension that it seems merely a verbal gesture. Nagg does not get his sugarplum, but what we might take to be Hamm's intentional malice cannot properly be distinguished from a pretence of high-handed magnificence which is part of the role he plays. Hamm orders Clov to screw down the lids of the ashbins on Nagg and Nell, and then comments on himself, "My anger subsides, I'd like to pee." It is this continuous self-consciousness in Hamm's words and tone of voice which inhibits us from ascribing his cruelty to an impulse beyond the need for rhetorical coherence in the role he plays.

Hamm appears to suffer, but with this there is the same doubt as with his cruelty. While introducing himself, Hamm proclaims his agony:

Can there be misery—(He yawns)—loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now?

His expression of "loftier misery" is laden with echoes of Oedipus the King and of Christ as presented in Herbert's poem, "The Sacrifice," with the famous refrain, "Was ever grief like to mine?" The salt of genuine affliction dissolves among these overtones into a self-conscious rhetoric, a heavy irony directed at the very possibility of real suffering. Hamm takes the magnitude of his "misery" as guarantee for the importance of his role. On several occasions in the play introspection leads him to talk as though he were suffering, but each time his words become a performance. When Hamm speaks of a heart dripping in his head, he is exposed immediately to the ridicule of Nagg and Nell, who react to his unhappiness as a fiction, "it's like the funny story we have heard too often." Later Hamm tells Clov that he too will go blind one day and find himself alone in "infinite emptiness"—but this again may be seen as an act, a set speech which the stage directions mark as to be performed "With prophetic relish." Beckett has written of Endgame that it is "more inhuman than Godot" and Hamm's cruelty earns the play this adjective. But it may be understood in a double sense. In so far as Hamm is felt as a real character, then he is inhuman in the sense we use the word of a man whose actions are so extreme that they seem to place him beyond the pale of humanity. His boundless cynicism may be seen as a desperate attempt to anticipate the cruelty of a universe which is indifferent to his wishes, and his expressions of suffering may be symptoms of genuine agony. Thus, in his hatred of "life," Hamm becomes like King Lear, who, when stripped of all he values, can only cry, "Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill." To describe Hamm's putative character in such melodramatic language is an appropriate response to the play, for all this may be no more than an aspect of his deliberate playacting. Hamm may in fact be inhuman only in the strict sense of being not human, if the fiction of his role is so perfectly sustained that it excludes any capacity for genuine motive and what we take to be real humanity. Such perhaps is the implication of Hamm's admission to Clov, "I was never there," though this depends upon the stress an actor gives to the personal pronoun. So a full account of Hamm must comprehend both the surface fiction of his role and the psychological depths suggested beneath it. And the main event in Endgame, Hamm's story, manifests this ambiguity or doubleness with a clarity which must be considered in detail.

Hamm's story may be seen as a fictional extension of his role, demonstrating clearly how conscious he is of the part he plays. He fancies himself as a great lord, a Pharaoh or a Czar. A father comes to him, begging some corn for a starving child. With enormous complacency the master waits for the end of the plea, for the most dramatic moment, before giving his crushing reply:

Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!

This fantasy account of the exercise of power seems no more than a perfect opportunity for Hamm to practise his histrionic talents. Yet there are many suggestions in the telling of the story which imply that Hamm is seriously involved and that his fiction reflects real anxiety and suffering. For, latent beneath the surface of his chronicle, a tenuous connection of metaphors and phrases repeated in different contexts renders Hamm's relationship with Clov as the hidden subject of his story.

Throughout the play Clov is likened to a dog. He refers to his birth as being "whelped"; he comes to Hamm when he whistles, and the master wears a whistle round his neck for this purpose. Great play is made with a stage prop, a stuffed dog, and once Clov hands this to Hamm with the revealing plural, "Your dogs are here." Clov stands continually, he cannot sit, and Hamm is concerned that the stuffed animal should be able to stand. Like Clov, the dog cannot leave, "He's not a real dog, he can't go." But, as we discover, the function of the toy dog for Hamm is to enlarge his role, bolstering his grandeur by standing there imploring him, "as if he were begging … for a bone." Through the figures of dog and beggar, Hamm's relationship to Clov becomes transposed into his story. So also with the reference to a child. Clov is Hamm's child, or at least, Hamm "was a father" to him. Hamm tells Clov he will give him just enough to keep him from dying, so that, like the starving boy in the story, Clov will be "hungry all the time." At the end, when Clov says he sees a small boy approaching, Hamm tells him he will need him no longer, implying that the small boy will take Clov's place. Thus Hamm's violent pronouncement to the beggar and his child is felt as though spoken to Clov. Twice elsewhere in the play Hamm says "Use your head," on both occasions while addressing Clov.

It may be that Hamm keeps coming back to his story simply in the interest of art. For the raconteur practice makes perfect, and Hamm appears to think his only concern with the anecdote is to polish its phrasing—"Technique, you know." But it is hard not to respond to the way he returns again and again to his story as symptomatic of a genuine obsession with it. If this is so, it is consistent with the character suggested behind Hamm's role. The telling of the story looks like a guilty attempt by Hamm to convince himself that nihilism justifies hardness of heart, "you're on earth, there's no cure for that!" Guilt would result if Hamm feared that his cynicism were merely a rationalization for a cruel impulse prior to it, and Clov awakens exactly this fear later in the play, the effect being to drive Hamm almost into silence:

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.

That Hamm's story disturbs him at a level which he cannot—or will not—recognize is implied by what follows it in the rest of the play. Immediately after Hamm's story the famous prayer to God takes place. Perhaps this is another facet of Hamm's role, another fiction, since it is prefaced by his remark that he may need "other characters." Or again, it may be a symptom of remorse and an authentic quest for grace, particularly if Hamm has remembered the biblical parable echoed in his story, that of Dives and Lazarus, and thought of the appalling punishment meted out to the cruel master at the end of that. Earlier Hamm had made a jocular reference to Clov's kissing him goodbye before leaving; after the story the motif recurs, but this time Hamm's phrasing sounds personally insistent:

HAMM. Kiss me. (Pause) Will you not kiss me?

Is this another patronising demand for homage, dictated by the master's role? Or are we to detect in it a lurking desire for forgiveness? All through the play Hamm has nagged Clov for his painkiller; on the single occasion he repeats his request after the story, he is answered in the affirmative, and then told by Clov, "There's no more painkiller." Hamm's reaction to this seems to be the hysteria of uncontrollable agony:

HAMM. (Soft) What'll I do? (Pause. In a scream.) What'll I do?

Yet the violence of this disappears in his next words to Clov, "What are you doing?" Anaphora smooths over the expressive intensity of Hamm's cry, making it seem less a cry of pain and more like a mere ruffle in the verbal surface. At the end of the play Clov's reported sighting of a small boy is followed by Hamm's final soliloquy, which contains a last reference to his story, "If he could have his child with him."

What this argument has tried to show is that Hamm has a double nature, existing both as consciously played role and as real character. His role as king and master seems to be unbroken and self-contained. Any subject to which he directs his attention, even his own suffering, becomes falsified through absorption into conscious rhetoric and turned into the performance of an actor. Yet there is something more about Hamm, which escapes his attention, a network of possibilities, a string of metaphorical connections and repeated phrases, leading beyond the role he knows he is playing. This implies obliquely a psychological reality in him, one which would perhaps evaporate into fiction if Hamm were able to give it explicit articulation. And this ambivalent relationship between surface and depth in the way that Hamm is dramatised is worked out as a structural principle in the whole of Endgame. The depths of the play, its metaphorical and suggestive qualities, have occupied the attention of most critics of the play. Hugh Kenner in his book on Beckett and also Robert Benedetti in a recent article for the Chicago Review have shown how the play is aware of itself as a text performed in a theater. It is sufficient to list the technical theatrical terms used in it in order to remark the rigor with which this effect is created: "farce," "audition," "aside," "soliloquy," "dialogue," "underplot," "exit." The result of these references is that many lines come to sound as comments on the play made from the stage, "This is slow work," and so on. But if Endgame contains a consciousness of itself as a theatrical performance generated according to the conventions of that form, this is only part of the whole. For the verbal surface of the play is pervaded by a deliberate sense of artifice, which never allows an audience to forget they are watching a game played according to certain rules. As Hamm says, "Since that's the way we're playing it … let's play it that way." And a principal effect of the drama derives from the deft manner in which a consciously sustained surface, itself a meaningless exercise in various techniques, is held in tension with the expressive significance of what is suggested beneath it.

One of the most unusual rhetorical techniques which occurs in Endgame is this:

NAGG. I had it yesterday.

NELL. (Elegaic) Ah yesterday! (They turn painfully towards each other)

A little later the same turn is again given to the word "yesterday" in an exchange between Nagg and Nell. A word from the first speaker's sentence is repeated with an exclamation mark in reply. The effect in both these cases is, as the stage directions make clear, to parody sentimental evocation. On another occasion the tone is marked to imply scepticism:

CLOV. (Dismayed) Looks like a small boy!

HAMM. (Sarcastic) A small … boy!

But when it is not discriminated by the directions the tone of the exclamation must combine contempt, scepticism and sadness. The function of the device seems to be to sterilise an emotional gesture by questioning assumptions it contains. Thus it is perfectly placed at a point when the dialogue discusses just such a movement as the turn of phrase enacts:

HAMM. We're not beginning to … to … mean something?

CLOV. Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh) That's a good one!

By the end of the play the device has become a cliché, and thus when it is used twice on the mention of a heart as Hamm and Clov exchange goodbyes, the exclamation has been robbed of most of the force it had as an assertive protest:

HAMM. A few words … to ponder … in my heart.

CLOV. Your heart!

Of course what Hamm says may be a sincere plea for kindness from Clov, just as his reply may be taken to express bitter contempt for the way he has been exploited by the master. But it would be a misreading of the play to respond to the emotional significance of the exchanges without recognising that this is entirely subordinated to what is now a stock response, a merely verbal gesture. The rhythm of this rhetorical device is insidious and easily acquired by a good ear; it contributes a great deal to the unique resonance of the play.

The verbal surface of Endgame is aware of itself as being organized in accordance with the conventions governing conversation and stage dialogue, particularly a kind of two person dialogue not unlike that of the old music-hall tradition of the comic and the straight-man. The conversational form admits several kinds of monologue, and these are performed as such. Two anecdotes are available to eke out the entertainment, Hamm's story and Nagg's joke about the Englishman and the tailor. This he is directed to pronounce in a "(Raconteur's voice)." Hamm, as the best talker on the stage, has the largest repertoire of monologues. Besides anecdote he is also capable of the philosophic speculation, "Imagine if a rational being came back to earth …," and, with a sense of tour de force, the prophetic admonition, "One day you'll say to yourself …," which he declaims for Clov. In each case the significant undertones are ignored by the surface, so that even Hamm's frightening account of the madman who saw the beauty of the world as ashes is presented as a formal exercise, it being of course that standby of conversation, the reminiscence:

CLOV. A madman? When was that?

HAMM. Oh way back, way back, you weren't in the land of the living.

The language of Clov's last speech at the end of the play describes with delicate and appalling precision the feelings of a man released after a lifetime of imprisonment:

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 world is extinguished, though I never saw it lit. (Pause) It's easy going. (Pause) When I fall I'll weep for happiness.

Yet the stage directions insist that the evocative power of this language is to be deliberately suppressed: "CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly, towards auditorium)." The speech is, as Clov reminds us, the correct theatrical gesture for making an exit. For this, as for the other monologues, including Hamm's self-styled "last soliloquy," the play will accept no responsibility beyond that for applying certain theatrical and conversational conventions.

The dialogue of Endgame is a brilliantly contrived exercise in the art of repartee. Unfortunately, discussion of a single passage, one of the best, will have to stand for analysis of a quality of conscious formal elegance which pervades the whole:

HAMM. Nature has forgotten us.

CLOV. There's no more nature.

HAMM. No more nature! You exaggerate.

CLOV. In the vicinity.

HAMM. But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!

CLOV. Then she hasn't forgotten us.

HAMM. But you say there is none.

CLOV. (Sadly) No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.

HAMM. We do what we can.

CLOV. We shouldn't.

The issue behind this exchange is clear enough—whether Nature and Nature's God have temporarily withdrawn themselves from man or have actually ceased to exist. But serious concern with this question is submerged in this sharp, witty, paradoxical dialogue, often dependent on the interplay of verbal connection and logical nonsequitur, which is of a kind that has fascinated the Irish from Swift to Shaw. Hamm's straight-man assertion provokes Clov's stock response, "There's no more Nature." His denial is categorical in form, an either/or, but Hamm impossibly calls it an exaggeration, at the same time employing a rhetorical exclamation made familiar by the rest of the play. Hamm's response, instead of collapsing the conversation, elicits an equally impossible concession from Clov, "In the vicinity," as though Nature, if it existed, could exist locally but not universally. This Hamm ignores, launching into the vigorous if paradoxical proof that universal decay is evidence for Nature's continued existence. Instead of replying to this in terms consistent with his previous denial, Clov counters wittily by accepting the existence of human decay as evidence of Nature's benevolence, "Then she hasn't forgotten us." Hamm takes this to be Clov's admission that he was wrong, a move which Clov tries to thwart with a sententious aphorism, "No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we." Hamm pounces on this by implying that crooked thinking is all to the good. But his words are ambiguous, for "can" here means both "the best we can" and "what we have to do." Thus the Parthian shaft comes from Clov, who outwits Hamm by repeating his disapproval of crooked thinking in a way which supposes that people do by choice what Hamm has unintentionally said they do by necessity. After a pause, this vigorous little canter earns Clov his master's praise, "You're a bit of all right, aren't you?" This adapts the vulgar British phrase as admiration for Clov's high technical proficiency in playing games with a concept whose varying definitions have worried thinkers of our civilization for over two thousand years. It is because of a similar delight in technical expertise that Hamm on a later occasion cannot resist self-congratulation:

CLOV. Do you believe in the life to come?

HAMM. Mine was always that. (Exit Clov) Got him that time!

Once again, a serious subject, the fate of man's external soul, is used mainly as an occasion for repartee, and this juxtaposition of a formal surface with serious, often terrifying depths accounts for much of what Beckett in his correspondence with Alan Schneider referred to as "the power of the text to claw."

A word frequently applied to Beckett's work is "poetic." What the adjective really points to in Beckett's plays (a context in which it is perjorative if it replaces the honorific qualification "dramatic") is the extraordinary ability of the language and stagecraft to imply, suggest, connote, evoke, and set off expressive nuances. In this respect Endgame fulfills expectations which derive to us from our experience of the symbolist tradition in poetry and drama, for it was Mallarmé's principle that "to name is to destroy; to suggest is to create." It is this, and the traditional assumption that drama imitates a reality beyond itself, which Beckett has chosen to exploit. And he exploits it by providing the play with a level of action, which ignores its own significant implications. The surface of Endgame insists upon itself as a meaningless technical exercise of the medium in its own right and refuses to acknowledge anything beyond its own expertise. Beckett stresses this in his own comment on the play, again in a letter to Alan Schneider:

My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin. Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, together as stated, nectecum sine te, in such a place, and in such a world, that's all I can manage, more than I could.

The life of Endgame is in the tension it creates by the harsh juxtaposition of the depths and the surface, the "overtones" and what is stated, a doubleness which is apparent in the frequent pauses in the play. On the one hand these are hushed silences in which the resonances of the text may vibrate and amplify in the mind of the audience—"God," "light," "Nature," "ended." At the same time these pauses are merely technical requirements, rests between moves in the last game which is Endgame, no more, no less. Thus the dramatic structure of the play enacts a dialectic which Beckett has stated elsewhere—in Watt, his second novel—as, "this pursuit of meaning, in this indifference to meaning." In so far as we recognise this as an insight into the conditions of human existence we will be able to respond to the full effect of Endgame.

Antony Easthope, "Hamm, Clov, and Dramatic Method in 'Endgame'," in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 49-58.

Stanley Cavell (essay date 1969)

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[Cavell is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1969 as "Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's 'Endgame'" in his Must We Mean What We Say, Cavell examines Beckett's use of language in Endgame and interprets the play in relation to the story of Noah and to Christ's Sermon on the Mount.]

Various keys to [Endgame's] interpretation are in place: "Endgame" is a term of chess; the name Hamm is shared by Noah's cursed son, it titles a kind of actor, it starts recalling Hamlet. But no interpretation I have seen details the textual evidence for these relations nor shows how the play's meaning opens with them. Without this, we will have a general impression of the play, one something like this: Beckett's perception is of a "meaningless universe" and language in his plays "serves to express the breakdown, the disintegration of language"—by, one gathers, itself undergoing disintegration. Such descriptions are usual in the discussions of Beckett I am aware of, but are they anything more than impositions from an impression of fashionable philosophy?…

The first critical problem is to discover how Beckett's objects mean at all, the original source of their conviction for us, if they have conviction. My argument will be that Beckett, in Endgame, is not marketing subjectivity, popularizing angst, amusing and thereby excusing us with pictures of our psychopathology; he is outlining the facts—of mind, of community—which show why these have become our pastimes. The discovery of Endgame, both in topic and technique, is not the failure of meaning (if that means the lack of meaning) but its total, even totalitarian, success—our inability not to mean what we are given to mean.

Who are these people? Where are they, and how did they get there? What can illuminate their mood of bewilderment as well as their mood of appalling comprehension? What is the source of their ugly power over one another, and of their impotence? What gives to their conversation its sound, at once of madness and of plainness?

I begin with two convictions. The first is that the ground of the play's quality is the ordinariness of its events. It is true that what we are given to see are two old people sticking half up out of trash cans, and an extraordinarily garbed blind paraplegic who imposes bizarre demands on the only person who can carry them out, the only inhabitant of that world who has remaining to him the power of motion. But take a step back from the bizarrerie and they are simply a family. Not just any family perhaps, but then every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—gets in its own way in its own way. The old father and mother with no useful functions anymore are among the waste of society, dependent upon the generation they have bred, which in turn resents them for their uselessness and dependency. They do what they can best do: they bicker and reminisce about happier days. And they comfort one another as best they can, not necessarily out of love, nor even habit (this love and this habit may never have been formed) but out of the knowledge that they were both there, they have been through it together, like comrades in arms, or passengers on the same wrecked ship; and a life, like a disaster, seems to need going over and over in reminiscence, even if that is what makes it disastrous. One of their fondest memories seems to be the time their tandem bicycle crashed and they lost their legs: their past, their pain, has become their entertainment, their pastime. Comfort may seem too strong a term. One of them can, or could, scratch the other where the itch is out of reach, and Nagg will tolerate Nell's girlish rerhapsodizing the beauties of Lake Como if she will bear his telling again his favorite funny story. None of this is very much comfort perhaps, but then there never is very much comfort.

The old are also good at heaping curses on their young and at controlling them through guilt, the traditional weapons of the weak and dependent. Nagg uses the most ancient of all parental devices, claiming that something is due him from his son for the mere fact of having begot him. Why that should ever have seemed, and still seem, something in itself to be grateful for is a question of world-consuming mystery—but Hamm ought to be the least likely candidate for its effect, wanting nothing more than to wrap up and send back the gift of life. (His problem, as with any child, is to find out where it came from.) Yet he keeps his father in his house, and lays on his adopted son Clov the same claim to gratitude ("It was I was a Father to you"). Like his father, powerless to walk, needing to tell stories, he masks his dependence with bullying—the most versatile of techniques, masking also the requirements of loyalty, charity, magnanimity. All the characters are bound in the circle of tyranny, the most familiar of family circles.

Take another step back and the relationship between Hamm and his son-servant-lover Clov shows its dominance. It is, again, an ordinary neurotic relationship, in which both partners wish nothing more than to end it, but in which each is incapable of taking final steps because its end presents itself to them as the end of the world. So they remain together, each helpless in everything save to punish the other for his own helplessness, and play the consuming game of manipulation, the object of which is to convince the other that you yourself do not need to play. But any relationship of absorbing importance will form a world, as the personality does. And a critical change in either will change the world. The world of the happy man is different from the world of the unhappy man, says Wittgenstein in the Tractatus. And the world of the child is different from the world of the grown-up, and that of the sick from that of the well, and the mad from the unmad. This is why a profound change of consciousness presents itself as a revelation, why it is so difficult, why its anticipation will seem the destruction of the world: even where it is a happy change, a world is always lost. I do not insist upon its appearing a homosexual relationship, although the title of the play just possibly suggests a practice typical of male homosexuality, and although homosexuality figures in the play's obsessive goal of sterility—the nonconsummation devoutly to be wished.

The language sounds as extraordinary as its people look, but it imitates, as Chekhov's does, the qualities of ordinary conversation among people whose world is shared—catching its abrupt shifts and sudden continuities; its shades of memory, regret, intimidation; its opacity to the outsider. It is an abstract imitation, where Chekhov's is objective. (I do not say "realistic," for that might describe Ibsen, or Hollywoodese, and in any case, as it is likely to be heard, would not emphasize the fact that art had gone into it.) But it is an achievement for the theater, to my mind, of the same magnitude. Not, of course, that the imitation of the ordinary is the only, or best, option for writing dialogue. Not every dramatist wants this quality; a writer like Shakespeare can get it whenever he wants it. But to insist upon the ordinary, keep its surface and its rhythm, sets a powerful device. An early movie director, René Clair I believe, remarked that if a person were shown a film of an ordinary whole day in his life, he would go mad. One thinks, perhaps, of Antonioni. At least he and Beckett have discovered new artistic resource in the fact of boredom; not as a topic merely, but as a dramatic technique. To miss the ordinariness of the lives in Endgame is to avoid the extraordinariness (and ordinariness) of our own.

I said there are two specific convictions from which my interpretation proceeds. The second also concerns, but more narrowly, the language Beckett has discovered or invented; not now its use in dialogue, but its grammar, its particular way of making sense, especially the quality it has of what I will call hidden literality. The words strew obscurities across our path and seem willfully to thwart comprehension; and then time after time we discover that their meaning has been missed only because it was so utterly bare—totally, therefore unnoticeably, in view. Such a discovery has the effect of showing us that it is we who had been willfully uncomprehending, misleading ourselves in demanding further, or other, meaning where the meaning was nearest. Many instances will come to light as we proceed, but an example or two may help at the outset.

At several points through the play the names God and Christ appear, typically in a form of words which conventionally expresses a curse. They are never, however, used (by the character saying them, of course) to curse, but rather in perfect literalness. Here are two instances: "What in God's name could there be on the horizon?"; "Catch him [a flea] for the love of God." In context, the first instance shows Hamm really asking whether anything on the horizon is appearing in God's name, as his sign or at his bidding; and the second instance really means that if you love God, have compassion for him, you will catch and kill the flea. Whether one will be convinced by such readings will depend upon whether one is convinced by the interpretation to be offered of the play as a whole, but they immediately suggest one motive in Beckett's uncovering of the literal: it removes curses, the curses under which the world is held. One of our special curses is that we can use the name of God naturally only to curse, take it only in vain. Beckett removes this curse by converting the rhetoric of cursing; not, as traditionally, by using the name in prayer (that alternative, as is shown explicitly elsewhere in the play, is obviously no longer open to us) but by turning its formulas into declarative utterances, ones of pure denotation—using the sentences "cognitively," as the logical positivists used to put it. Beckett (along with other philosophers recognizable as existentialist) shares with positivism its wish to escape connotation, rhetoric, the noncognitive, the irrationality and awkward memories of ordinary language, in favor of the directly verifiable, the isolated and perfected present. Only Beckett sees how infinitely difficult this escape will be. Positivism said that statements about God are meaningless; Beckett shows that they mean too damned much.

To undo curses is just one service of literalization; another is to unfix clichés and idioms:

HAMM. Did you ever think of one thing?

CLOV. Never.

The expected response to Hamm's question would be, "What?"; but that answer would accept the question as the cliché conversational gambit it appears to be. Clov declines the move and brings the gesture to life by taking it literally. His answer means that he has always thought only of many things, and in this I hear a confession of failure in following Christ's injunction to take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, nor for tomorrow—the moral of which is that "thine eye be single." Perhaps I hallucinate. Yet the Sermon on the Mount makes explicit appearance in the course of the play, as will emerge. Our concerns with God have now become the greatest clichés of all, and here is another curse to be undone.

CLOV. Do you believe in the life to come?

HAMM. Mine was always that.

Hamm knows he's made a joke and, I suppose, knows that the joke is on us; but at least the joke momentarily disperses the "belief" in the cliché "life to come," promised on any Sunday radio. And it is a terribly sad joke—that the life we are living is not our life, or not alive. Or perhaps it's merely that the joke is old, itself a cliché. Christ told it to us, that this life is nothing. The punch line, the knockout punch line, is that there is no other but this to come, that the life of waiting for life to come is all the life ever to come. We don't laugh; but if we could, or if we could stop finding it funny, then perhaps life would come to life, or anyway the life of life to come would end. (Clov, at one point, asks Hamm: "Don't we laugh?", not because he feels like it, but out of curiosity. In her longest speech Nell says: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness … It's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more.") As it is, we've heard it all, seen it all too often, heard the promises, seen the suffering repeated in the same words and postures, and they are like any words which have been gone over so much that they are worn strange. We don't laugh, we don't cry; and we don't laugh that we don't cry, and we obviously can't cry about it. That's funny.

So far all that these examples have been meant to suggest is the sort of method I try to use consistently in reading the play, one in which I am always asking of a line either: What are the most ordinary circumstances under which such a line would be uttered? Or: What do the words literally say? I do not suggest that every line will yield to these questions, and I am sharply aware that I cannot provide answers to many cases for which I am convinced they are relevant. My exercise rests on the assumption that different artistic inventions demand different routes of critical discovery; and the justification for my particular procedures rests partly on an induction from the lines I feel I have understood, and partly on their faithfulness to the general direction I have found my understanding of the play as a whole to have taken. I have spoken of the effect of literalizing curses and clichés as one of "undoing" them, and this fits my sense, which I will specify as completely as I can, that the play itself is about an effort to undo, to end something by undoing it, and in particular to end a curse, and moreover the commonest, most ordinary curse of man—not so much that he was ever born and must die, but that he has to figure out the one and shape up to the other and justify what comes between, and that he is not a beast and not a god: in a word, that he is a man, and alone. All those, however, are the facts of life; the curse comes in the ways we try to deny them.

I should mention two further functions of the literal which seem to me operative in the play. It is, first, a mode which some forms of madness assume. A schizophrenic can suffer from ideas that he is literally empty or hollow or transparent or fragile or coming apart at the seams. It is also a mode in which prophecies and wishes are fulfilled, surprising all measures to avoid them. Birnam Forest coming to Dunsinane and the overthrow by a man of no woman born are textbook cases. In the Inferno, Lucifer is granted his wish to become the triune deity by being fixed in the center of a kingdom and outfitted with three heads. Endgame is a play whose mood is characteristically one of madness and in which the characters are fixed by a prophecy, one which their actions can be understood as attempting both to fulfill and to reverse.

A central controversy in contemporary analytic philosophy relates immediately to this effort at literalizing. Positivism had hoped for the construction of an ideal language (culminating the hope, since Newton and Leibniz at the birth of modern science, for a Characteristica Universalis) in which everything which could be said at all would be said clearly, its relations to other statements formed purely logically, its notation perspicuous—the form of the statement looking like what it means. (For example, in their new transcription, the statements which mean "Daddy makes money" and "Mommy makes bread" and "Mommy makes friends" and "Daddy makes jokes" will no longer look alike; interpretation will no longer be required; thought will be as reliable as calculation, and agreement will be as surely achieved.) Postpositivists (the later Wittgenstein; "ordinary language philosophy") rallied to the insistence that ordinary language—being speech, and speech being more than the making of statements—contains implications necessary to communication, perfectly comprehensible to anyone who can speak, but not recordable in logical systems. If, for example, in ordinary circumstances I ask "Would you like to use my scooter?", I must not simply be inquiring into your state of mind; I must be implying my willingness that you use it, offering it to you.—I must? Must not? But no one has been able to explain the force of this must. Why mustn't I just be inquiring? A positivist is likely to answer: because it would be bad manners; or, it's a joke; in any case most people wouldn't. A post-positivist is likely to feel: That isn't what I meant. Of course it may be bad manners (even unforgivable manners), but it may not even be odd (e. g., in a context in which you have asked me to guess which of my possessions you would like to use). But suppose it isn't such contexts, but one in which, normally, people would be offering, and suppose I keep insisting, puzzled that others are upset, that I simply want to know what's on your mind. Then aren't you going to have to say something like: You don't know what you're saying, what those words mean—a feeling that I have tuned out, become incomprehensible. Anyway, why is the result a joke when the normal implications of language are defeated; what kind of joke?

Hamm and Clov's conversations sometimes work by defeating the implications of ordinary language in this way.

HAMM. I've made you suffer too much.


Haven't I?

CLOV. It's not that.

HAMM. (Shocked) I haven't made you suffer too much?

CLOV. Yes!

HAMM. (Relieved) Ah you gave me a fright!

(Pause. Coldly.)

Forgive me.

(Pause. Louder.)

I said, Forgive me.

CLOV. I heard you.

Hamm's first line looks like a confession, an acknowledgment; but it is just a statement. This is shown by the question in his next speech, which is to determine whether what he said was true. His third speech looks like an appeal for forgiveness, but it turns out to be a command—a peculiar command, for it is, apparently, obeyed simply by someone's admitting that he heard it. How could a command for forgiveness be anything but peculiar, even preposterous? (Possibly in the way the Sermon on the Mount is preposterous.) An ordinary circumstance for its use would be one in which someone needs forgiveness but cannot ask for it. Preposterous, but hardly uncommon. (One of Hamm's lines is: "It appears the case is … was not so … so unusual"; he is pretty clearly thinking of himself. He is homme. And "Ha-am" in Hebrew means "the people." Probably that is an accident, but I wouldn't put anything past the attentive friend and disciple of James Joyce.) In Hamm's case, moreover, it would have been trivially preposterous, and less honest, had he really been asking for forgiveness "for having made you suffer too much": How much is just enough? We have the need, but no way of satisfying it; as we have words, but nothing to do with them; as we have hopes, but nothing to pin them on.

Sometimes the effect of defeating ordinary language is achieved not by thwarting its "implications" but by drawing purely logical ones.

HAMM. I'll give you nothing more to eat.

CLOV. Then we'll die.

HAMM. I'll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You'll be hungry all the time.

CLOV. Then we won't die.

Clov can hardly be meaning what his words, taken together and commonly, would suggest, namely "It makes no difference whether we live or die; I couldn't care less." First, in one sense that is so trivial a sentiment, at their stage, that it would get a laugh—at least from clear-headed Hamm. Second, it is not true. How could it make no difference when the point of the enterprise is to die to that world? (Though of course that kind of living and dying, the kind that depends on literal food, may make no difference.) And he could care less, because he's trying to leave. If he were really empty of care, then maybe he could stop trying, and then maybe he could do it. The conventional reading takes Hamm's opening remark as a threat; but there are no more threats. It is a plain statement and Clov makes the inference; then Hamm negates the statement and Clov negates the conclusion. It is an exercise in pure logic; a spiritual exercise.

The logician's wish to translate out those messy, nonformal features of ordinary language is fully granted by Beckett, not by supposing that there is a way out of our language, but by fully accepting the fact that there is nowhere else to go. Only he is not going to call that rationality. Or perhaps he will: this is what rationality has brought us to. The strategy of literalization is: you say only what your words say. That's the game, and a way of winning out.

I refer to contemporary analytical philosophy, but Hamm presents a new image of what the mind, in one characteristic philosophical mood, has always felt like—crazed and paralyzed; this is part of the play's sensibility.

One thinks of Socrates' interlocutors, complaining that his questions have numbed them; of Augustine faced with his question "What is Time?" (If you do not ask me, I know; if you ask me, I do not know). Every profound philosophical vision can have the shape of madness: The world is illusion; I can doubt everything, that I am awake, that there is an external world; the mind takes isolated bits of experience and associates them into a world; each thing and each person is a metaphysical enclosure, and no two ever communicate directly, or so much as perceive one another; time, space, relations between things, are unreal…. It sometimes looks as if philosophy had designs on us; or as if it alone is crazy, and wants company. Then why can't it simply be ignored? But it is ignored; perhaps not simply, but largely so. The question remains: What makes philosophy possible? Why can't men always escape it? Because, evidently, men have minds, and they think. (One mad philosophical question has long been, Does the mind always think? Even in sleep? It is a frightening thought.) And philosophy is what thought does to itself. Kant summarized it in the opening words of the Critique of Pure Reason: "Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which … it is not able to ignore, but which … it is also not able to answer." And Wittgenstein, saying in his Investigations that his later methods (he compared them to therapies) were to bring philosophy peace at least, seemed to find opportunity, and point, within such disaster: "The philosopher is the man who has to cure himself of many sicknesses of the understanding before he can arrive at the notions of the sound human understanding" (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics)—as though there were no other philosophical path to sanity, save through madness. One will not have understood the opportunity if one is eager to seize it. Genuine philosophy may begin in wonder, but it continues in reluctance….

Does the play take place, as is frequently suggested, after an atomic war? Are these its last survivors? Well, Beckett suggests they are, so far as they or we know, the last life. And he says twice that they are in "the shelter." Is it a bomb shelter? These considerations are doubtless resonant in the play's situation; it tells its time. But the notion leaves opaque the specific goings on in the shelter. Do these people want to survive or not? They seem as afraid of the one as of the other. Why do they wish to insure that nothing is surviving? Why are they incapable of leaving? That Hamm and Clov want (so to speak) the world to end is obvious enough, but an understanding of the way they imagine its end, the reason it must end, the terms in which it can be brought to an end, are given by placing these characters this way: The shelter they are in is the ark, the family is Noah's, and the time is sometime after the Flood.

Many surface details find a place within this picture. Most immediately there is the name of Hamm. He is, in particular, the son of Noah who saw his father naked, and like Oedipus, another son out of fortune, he is blinded by what he has seen. Because of his transgression he is cursed by his father, the particular curse being that his sons are to be the servants of men. Clov, to whom Hamm has been a father, is his servant, the general servant of all the other characters. We are told (Genesis 9:23) that Shem and Japheth, the good brothers, cover their father while carefully contriving not to look at him. I hear a reference to their action when Hamm directs Clov to "bottle him" (i.e., clamp the lid down on his father)—one of the most brutal lines in the play, as if Hamm is commenting on what has passed for honorable conduct; he is now the good son, with a vengeance. At two points Hamm directs Clov to look out of the windows, which need to be reached by a ladder (they are situated, as it were, above the water line) and he looks out through a telescope, a very nautical instrument. (Another significant property in the shelter is a gaff.) One window looks out at the earth, the other at the ocean, which means, presumably, that they are at the edge of water, run aground perhaps. Earlier he has asked about the weather, and there was a little exchange about whether it will rain and what good that would do. Now he asks Clov to look at the earth and is told, what both knew, that all is "corpsed": Man and beast and every living thing have been destroyed from the face of the earth. Then Hamm directs Clov to look at the sea, in particular he asks whether there are gulls. Clov looks and answers, "Gulls!", perhaps with impatience (how could there be?), perhaps with longing (if only there were!), perhaps both. Hamm ought to know there aren't any, having looked for them until he is blind, and being told there are none day after day. And Hamm ought to ask what he really wants to know but is afraid to know, namely, whether there is a raven or a dove.

Let this suffice to establish a serious attention to the tale of Noah. Its importance starts to emerge when we notice that the entire action of the play is determined by the action of that tale. After the flood, God does two things: he establishes a covenant with Noah that the earth and men shall no more be taken from one another; and presses a characteristic commandment, to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth. Hamm's behavior is guided by attempts to undo or deny these specific acts of God.

Something has happened in the ark during those days and nights of world-destroying rain and the months of floating and waiting for the end, for rescue. Hamm has seen something in the ark of the covenant. I imagine it this way.

He has seen God naked. For it is, after all, the most fantastic tale. God repented, it says, that he created man. How does a God repent? How does anyone? Suppose he has a change of heart about something he has done. If this is not mere regret, then the change of heart must lead to mending one's ways or making amends. How does a God mend his ways; can he, and remain God? A further question is more pressing: How does God justify the destruction of his creation? A possible response would be: Man is sinful. But that response indicates at most that God had to do something about his creatures, not that he had to separate them from earth. He might have found it in himself to forgive them or to abandon them—alternatives he seems to have used, in sequence, in future millennia. Why destruction? Suppose it is said: God needs no justification. But it is not clear that God would agree; besides, all this really means is that men are God's creatures and he may do with them as he pleases. Then what did he in fact do? He did not, as he said, cause the end of flesh to come before him, for he preserved, with each species, Noah's family; enough for a new beginning. He hedged his bet. Why? And why Noah picked from all men? Those are the questions I imagine Hamm to have asked himself, and his solution is, following God, to see the end of flesh come before him. As before he imitates his good brothers, so now he imitates his God—a classical effort. Why is this his solution?

God saves enough for a new beginning because he cannot part with mankind; in the end, he cannot really end it. Perhaps this means he cannot bear not to be God. (Nietzsche said that this was true of himself, and suggested that it was true of all men. It seems true enough of Hamm. We need only add that in this matter men are being faithful to, i. e., imitating, God.) Not ending it, but with the end come before him, he cannot avoid cruelty, arbitrariness, guilt, repentance, disappointment, then back through cruelty…. Hamm and Clov model the relationship between God and his servants.

And if the bet must be hedged, why with Noah? The tale says, "Noah walked with God." That's all. Well, it also says that he was a just man and perfect in his generations, and that he found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Is that enough to justify marking him from all men for salvation? It is incredible. Perhaps God has his reasons, or perhaps Noah does not deserve saving, and perhaps that doesn't matter. Doesn't matter for God's purposes, that is. But how can it not matter to those who find themselves saved? The tale is madly silent about what Hamm saw when he saw his father naked, and why it was a transgression deserving an eternal curse. Perhaps all he saw was that his father was ordinary, undeserving of unique salvation. But he saw also that his father was untroubled by this appalling fact. Nell, at one point in her reminiscence of Lake Como, says to Nagg: "By rights we should have been drowned"—a line which both undoes a cliché ("by rights" here literally means: it would have been right if we had, and hence it is wrong that we weren't) and has the thrill of revelation I spoke of earlier (it is not Lake Como she is thinking of). But Nagg misses the boat. So blind Hamm sees both that he exists only as a product of his father ("Accursed fornicator!"), and that if either of their existences is to be provided with justification, he must be the provider; which presents itself to him as taking his father's place—the act that blinds Oedipus.

And how is one to undertake justifying his own—let alone another's—existence? One serious enough solution is to leave this business of justification to God; that is what he is for. But God has reneged this responsibility, and doubly. In meaning to destroy all flesh, he has confessed that existence cannot be justified by him. And in saving one family and commanding them to replenish the earth, there is the high hint that man is being asked to do a god's work, that he is not only abandoned to his own justification, but that he must undertake to justify God himself, to redeem God's curse and destruction. God cursed the world, and he is cursed. This seems to me to set the real problem of Theodicy, to justify God's ways to God. Its traditional question—Why did God create man and then allow him to suffer?—has a clear answer: Because it is man that God created; all men are mortal, and they suffer.

The Covenant, therefore, is a bad bargain, and the notion of replenishing the earth is a losing proposition. Promising not to destroy man again is hardly the point, and is not so much a promise as an apology. (As the rainbow is more a threat than a promise.) The point is to understand why it was done the first time, and what man is that he can accept such an apology. As for replenishing the earth, what will that do but create more fathers and sons, and multiply the need for justification? God was right the first time: the end of flesh is come, God's destruction is to be completed. Or rather, what must end is the mutual dependence of God and the world: this world, and its god, must be brought to a conclusion. Hamm's strategy is to undo all covenants and to secure fruitlessness. In a word, to disobey God perfectly, to perform man's last disobedience. No doubt Hamm acts out of compassion. ("Kill him, for the love of God.") The creation and destruction of a world of men is too great a burden of responsibility even for God. To remove that responsibility the world does not so much need to vanish as to become uncreated. But to accomplish that it seems that we will have to become gods. For mere men will go on hoping, go on waiting for redemption, for justification, for meaning. And these claims ineluctably retain God in creation—to his, and to our, damnation. And yet, where there is life there is hope. That is Hamm's dilemma….

Hamm's problem, like Job's, is that of being singled out. Job is singled out for suffering, Hamm for rescue, and it is something of an insight to have grasped the problem still there. Job, presumably, has his answer in recognizing that there is no humanly recognizable reason for being singled out to suffer. That is, none having to do with him. Life becomes bearable when he gives up looking for such a reason. Couldn't we give up looking for a reason for being singled out for rescue? For certain spirits that is harder, for the good Christian reason that others are there, unrescued.

It is in some such way that I imagine Hamm's thoughts to have grown. It is from a mind in such straits that I can make sense (1) of his attempt to reverse creation, to empty the world of salvation, justification, meaning, testaments; and (2) of the story he tells, the composing of which is the dominant activity of his days.

He calls his story a "chronicle," suggesting that it is a record of fact. It concerns a man who had come to him for help, begging him at least to "take his child in." And we learn that this is not an isolated case, for Hamm refers to

All those I might have helped.








The place was crawling with them!

"Might have." With those words every man takes his life. Hamm is remembering something that actually happened. I imagine him to be remembering the ark being built. It would have taken a while—all those cubits to arrange, and all that food and all the paired beasts to collect. People would have got wind of it, perhaps some were hired to help in the preparations. God, the tale says, went away while it was being done, perhaps to let the family get used to the idea of their special fortune, and to get a full appreciation of God's love. Then he returned to order them into the ark, and when the family and each kind had gone in unto Noah into the ark, "the Lord shut him in" (Genesis 7:7), preserved him, bottled him. At first people would have been skeptical at Noah's folly rising there in the middle of land, but some would eventually have believed, and even if these were the gullible and lunatic who believe every announcement of doom, Noah would have known that this time they were right; but he would have had to refuse their crazed petitions to be let in. Finished, the ark stood there closed for seven days, then the rain began, and some days would have passed before it lifted off its scaffolding to be held up in the palm of God's sea. Suppose it had been built just by the family, in secret. But now the water is deep, raising the general horizon, and the ark is visible for as far as the eye can see, to anyone who is still afloat. Perhaps no one is, but Noah's family doesn't know that. Perhaps the sounds of pounding are not survivors screaming for rescue, only dead wreckage in the water. They don't know that either, but it wouldn't require much imagination to wonder whether it was. They must not imagine, or they must be mad. Imagination has to be bottled. But in Hamm it has started to leak out. He complains twice that "There's something dripping in my head"; both times his father has to suppress a laugh—how comical the young are, so serious, so pure; they'll learn. The first time is his over-hearing his parents together; he tells himself it's a heart, "A heart in my head." Something is pounding. Children will give themselves some explanation. The second time he thinks of it as splashing, "Splash, splash, always on the same spot." Now he tries pressing his earlier thought that it is a little vein, and now adds the idea that it is a little artery; but he gives it up and begins working on his chronicle, his story, his art-work. (His art-ery? That could mean, following Eric Partridge on the origin of the suffix "-ery," either the action [compare "drudgery"], the condition [compare "slavery"], the occupation [compare "casuistry"], the place of actions [compare "nursery"], the product of the action [compare "poetry"], or the collectivity [compare "citizenry"] of art. Each of these would fit this character and this play.) Art begins where explanations leave off, or before they start. Not everything has an explanation, and people will give themselves some consolation. The imagination must have something to contain it—to drip into, as it were—or we must be mad. Hamm is in both positions.

Whatever God's idea in destroying men, to have saved one family for himself puts them in the position of denying life to all other men. To be chosen, to be special, singled out, for suffering or for salvation, is an inescapable curse. Perhaps this was something Christ tried to show, that even to be God is to be completely unspecial, powerless to claim exemption. To deny this is to be less than a man: we are all in the same boat. But can any man, not more than a man, affirm it?

It seems possible to me that this is what Endgame is about, that what it envisions is the cursed world of the Old Testament ("Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there's nothing like them") and that what is to be ended is that world, followed by the new message, glad tidings brought by a new dove of redemption, when we are ready to receive it. Without it we are paralyzed.

But I do not think this is what is seen, though it may be a permanent segment. For the new message is also present in the play, and it too is helpless. Immediately after Hamm's first full telling of the story, his telling of it to date, he wonders how he is to continue (as anyone does, artist or man, in final difficulties) and says: "Let us pray to God." There are references to food (not to loaves, but to the bribe of a sugarplum, and to calling Clov from the kitchen), and he finally persuades Clov and Nagg to join him. Nagg wants his sugarplum before he prays, but Hamm insists "God first!"—thus summarizing the First Commandment, according to Christ the first and greatest commandment. Whereupon Nagg begins to recite the Lord's Prayer, taught during the Sermon on the Mount. That occasion is alluded to further in the way Hamm immediately interrupts his father's prayer: "Silence! In silence! Where are your manners?" Christ cautions that prayer be offered "in secret" immediately before he delivers his Father's Prayer. If here Hamm's teaching parodies Christ's he will later imitate him more directly, as in his chronicle he presents himself as in God's position, distributing life and death to supplicants. That's the position God has put him in.

The next time he tries to finish his story, instead of praying to God he ends by calling his father. "Father, Father" he says, echoing the repeated among the seven last words, and addressed to the same old party. ("Father, Father" he says again near the end of his, and the play's, last speech.) And now it looks as if he is not only the son of the only spared man, hence has the same ancestor as all men; but the one and only son, with the father to end all fathers. No wonder he is confused about whether he is father or son.

He goes back to his chronicle, to try to end it, or make some continuation, a third time; again he gets to the point at which he is begged for salvation and again this is the stumbling block. Now he quotes the Sermon on the Mount more openly: "Get out of here and love one another! Lick your neighbor as yourself!" And now he becomes petulant: "When it wasn't bread they wanted it was crumpets." And wrathful: "Out of my sight and back to your petting parties." He can find no conclusion to the story of suffering and sin, and no answer to the prayer for salvation, no answer old or new. He has just told them again everything eternity knows: "Use your head can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!" But they can't use their heads; men are enough to try the patience of a God. "How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadduccees" (Matthew 16:11-12). Use your head, can't you? It was a parable! Get it? But he's said that before and he'll say it again, and nobody gets it. They want signs, miracles, some cure for being on earth, some way of getting over being human. Maybe that's just human; and there's no cure for that.

So Hamm renounces parable in favor of the perfectly literal. (People, he might say, have no head for figures.) Only it is just as hard to write his anti-testament that way. Maybe to receive either word one would have to have a heart in one's head. No doubt it is not very clear how that could be, but then Christ sees his disciples' lack of understanding as a lack of faith, and it has never seemed unusually clear what that would be either. ("Believe," said Augustine, "and you have eaten"; Luther thought he understood what that meant.) However it is to come, nothing less powerful than faith will be needed to remove God and his curse, the power to un-create God. Hamm, however, may believe, or half-believe—believe the way little children believe—that he really has got a blood-pumping organ upstairs. We have known for a long time that the heart has its reasons which reason knows not of. But we have come to think that reason can know them, that the knowing of them takes over the work of the heart, that what we require for salvation is more knowledge, knowledge of the sort we already know, that will fit the shape of our heads as they are. Hamm is half-crazy with his efforts at undoing knowledge, at not knowing. But no half-crazier than we are at our frenzy for knowledge, at knowing where we should love, meaning our lives up.

Finally, he tries to imagine that it can end without ending his story. "If I can hold my peace and sit quiet, it will be all over with sound, and motion, all over and done with." But it seems to be just the same old story. "I'll have called my father and I'll have called my … [he hesitates] … my son." He hesitates, as if not knowing whether he is the new god or the old, son or father. But at least he is putting himself into the picture; no attitude is struck now towards father or son; the son is now not another's—as if to acknowledge that all sons are his. "I'll have called … I'll say to myself, He'll come back. [Pause] And then? [Pause] … He couldn't, he has gone too far. [Pause] And then?" And then a description of confusion: "Babble, babble …" (Babel? If so, what does it mean? What caused Babel and its aftermath? Our presumption, in desiring God's eminence? Or our foolishness, in imagining that a tower is the way to reach heaven? In either case the confusion of tongues is God's punishment, hence proof of his existence. Or is the din rather the sound of our success, that we reached heaven and found it empty? Better to bite the tongue than admit that. Better to take over and punish ourselves than to forgo that proof.)

Here is at least one possible endgame other than the act of ending the story: I call; there is no answer. But this ending is unclear. The problem seems to be that there is no way of knowing there is no answer, no way of knowing the call was heard, and therefore unanswered. (An unconnected telephone cannot be left unanswered.)

One source of confusion seems clear enough. Who has gone too far to come back? The father or the son? Is it God who has gone too far, in inflicting suffering he cannot redeem? Or Christ, in really dying of suffering we cannot redeem? What does it matter? The one threatened, the other promised, the end of the world; and neither carried through. We are left holding it.

There are three other allusions to Christ which need mentioning, one at the beginning, one near the middle, and one at the end of the play. The first may seem doubtful: "Can there be misery loftier than mine?" If confirmation is wanted beyond the fact that the tone of this remark perfectly registers Hamm's aspiration (perhaps the usual tone in which Christ is imitated) there is the refrain of George Herbert's "The Sacrifice": "Was ever grief like mine?", in which the speaker is Christ. The middle allusion is the only explicit one, and it occurs with characteristic literality. After Hamm's instruction in the etiquette of prayer, the three men have a try at it, whereupon each confesses in turn that he has got nowhere. King Claudius, in a similar predicament, gives the usual honest explanation for this failure: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: words without thoughts never to heaven go." Hamm has a different, perhaps more honest, certainly no less responsible, explanation: "The bastard! He doesn't exist." To which Clov's response, in full, is: "Not yet," and the subject is dropped. Removing the curse, what Hamm has just said is that the bastard does not exist. That Christ was literally a bastard was among the first of the few things I was ever told about him, and I suppose other Jewish children are given comparable help to their questions. I take it this exciting gossip makes its way in other circles as an advanced joke. So it is Christ whom Clov says does not exist yet. This may mean either that we are still, in the play, in the prechristian age, with rumors, prophecies, hopes stirring; or that since we know there is a bastard, he has come, but not returned. (The French version notates the ambiguity: "Pas encore" is "Not yet." But also, I take it, "Not again.") Either way, "Not yet" is the most definite expression of hope—or, for that matter, of despair—in the play, the only expression of future which is left unchallenged, by contradiction, irony or giggles.

What weight is to be attached to this? Do those two words give the Endgame to this play of suffering, that with Christ's coming this will all have meaning? It seems unimaginable in this total context of run-down and the fallout of sense. Yet there is a coming at the end of the play, one which Hamm apparently takes to signal the awaited end, and upon which he dismisses Clov. Clov spies a small boy through the glass; it is a moment which is considerably longer in the French, but for some reason cut down in Beckett's English version. In the French, the boy is said to be leaning against a stone, and this seems a clear enough suggestion of the sepulchre. But even without this description, the character is sufficiently established by Hamm's response, which is to speculate about whether what Clov sees exists. (This is the only use of "exists" in the play outside the bastard remark.) The important fact for us is that after that earlier exchange between Hamm and Clov, it is Clov whose immediate response is to prepare to kill the newcomer, whereas Hamm, for the first time, prevents the destruction of a "potential procreator," saying in effect that he cannot survive anyway, that he will make no difference, present no problem. Earlier, Clov had expressed the straightest hopes for this coming, but he misses it when it comes; Hamm is now ready to admit that perhaps it has come but he sees that it is too late, that it was always too late for redemption; too late from the moment redemption became necessary. We are Christ or we are nothing—that is the position Christ has put us in….

Stanley Cavell, "Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's 'Endgame'," in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame", edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishing, 1988, pp. 59-77.

Jack MacGowran with Richard Toscan (interview date July-September 1973)

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[An Irish actor, MacGowran appeared in several productions of Beckett's plays, including Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Eh Joe, a play that Beckett wrote specifically for MacGowran. In the following excerpt from an interview first published in Theatre Quarterly, July-September 1973, he discusses Endgame and Beckett's attitude toward the play.]

[Toscan]: What about Endgame, in which you played Clov?

[MacGowran]: Endgame presented different problems [from Waiting for Godot]. The world upon which Clov looked, through the window, was a world devoid of anything, any human living being. So perhaps this could be taken as a futuristic play, an example of genocidal factors, of races that have been killed off. The world upon which Clov looks is more a moon-scape than an earthly vision. That's why Endgame is the harshest of the plays and the most tragic. There's less laughter to be found in Endgame than any other play—except for little moments like when Clov discovers he's got a flea or the dummy dog with the leg and sex missing.

The reason Clov doesn't leave at the end is because Hamm puts a doubt into his mind whether he does see life outside or not. If he did see life outside, Clov would escape, and Hamm wouldn't worry because he would take in the new life to help him. I have part of the original manuscript of this scene; it's much longer than the English translation and Clov talks at great length about what he's seeing outside. But Beckett wanted to leave a doubt about the existence of human life and he cut that sequence out, so as to make Clov less sure of going. Hamm says, "I don't need you any more." Clov doesn't like the fact that he's not needed—he must be needed. That is why he never leaves.

Is that Beckett's attitude toward it—that Clov will not leave?

Yes. Clov will not go because he cannot face what's outside without anybody. He's achieved one thing: He will not answer the whistle any more. But he's still dependent upon Hamm no matter what happens.

Did you discuss Endgame in some detail with Beckett?

Oh yes. Actually, the best Endgame we ever played was directed by Beckett in Paris in 1964. I got Patrick Magee to play Hamm, and I played Clov, and we got two very good character players to play the dustbin people. Beckett came over and spent six weeks directing it. He didn't go on the program as director, because there was a young director who let Beckett take over. Beckett is a marvelous director of his own work, but he's a strict disciplinarian. The play ran for nine weeks in Paris, then for two seasons at the Aldwych Theatre in London and was still playing to packed houses when we closed it.

What was Beckett's interpretation of the play as he approached it from the point of view of a director?

Interdependency—that man must depend upon his fellow-man in some way no matter how awful; a love-hate relationship between Hamm and Clov that exists right through the play.

So he put the major emphasis on their relationship, rather than the "something" that's taking its course outside?

Yes. Harold Pinter came to see it one night. He dashed around afterward—he's an honest man, Pinter, and a very good playwright influenced by Beckett's work. He said to me and Pat Magee, "You know, it's not what you were saying to each other, it's what was happening in between that gave me tickles up my spine." So you see, the relationship was working. This is what Sam made sure would happen—that the relationship he wanted between Hamm and Clov was taking place. Clov takes an insane delight in saying, "There's no more painkiller," and when he wheels Hamm to the center, he doesn't wheel him to the center. Clov is constantly not doing what Hamm wants him to do. Hamm knows he's not in the center; he has a sixth sense for knowing. He places a terrible curse on Clov when he says, "One day you'll be blind like me … except that you won't have anyone with you." This hurts Clov; this worries him a lot. So they hurt each other mentally. They're mentally both very damaged people anyway.

Did Beckett ever talk about what it was that has decimated the population and left only Hamm and Clov?

No, never. It's some vision—there is a visionary in Beckett. The seeds of Endgame were in fact in Lucky's speech—"In the great deeps, the great cold on sea, on land and in the air"—referring to the return of the world to its former state of a ball of fire or the glacial age that will get rid of all the population and perhaps, by sheer luck, two people will remain. Lucky also says, "In the year of their Lord six hundred and something…." Beckett can't remember the actual date, but he read it somewhere, and it was nearest to a glacial age the earth ever got in mankind's time.

Though there is the suggestion in Endgame that the flea might be the first chain in the development of a new race of humans.

That's right, and it's so awful that they want to kill it quickly before it starts, because the same thing will happen again.

In Hamm's story, he refers to the baby who was brought to him by the man who came crawling….

I played it as if Clov was the person who was brought there by the man, so that the story is not really fiction at all. It's a retelling of those early years, which Clov may or may not remember because he has been there so long.

What was Beckett's attitude toward Hamm's parents, who were in the dustbins?

I think he feels that's the way most of us, in later life, treat our own parents—we put them into homes and we give them the minimum kind of treatment to keep them alive for as long as we can. The human race generally does that to an aging parent and this was his conception of how stark it could be—putting them into dustbins and giving them a biscuit or a biscuit and a half a day, anything to keep them going just for a while.

I gather then that Beckett would dismiss the critical approach to Endgame that says it takes place in the mind of one man and the parents in the dustbins symbolize subconscious repression.

He would reject that idea completely. People may think that because the play makes it possible to think that way. But I know for a fact that that's not Beckett's idea of what's happening….

Many of Beckett's characters like Krapp and Vladimir have physical problems….

They all have some physical problem or another. For instance, Hamm is blind and unable to move, while Clov cannot sit down. This is not just imagination. There are people in the world, Beckett has discovered, who do suffer from these kinds of things, and yet they're related, they're married to each other—in a love-hate relationship, maybe.

When Beckett gave up teaching French at Trinity College, Dublin, he left suddenly, because, as he said to me, he felt he was teaching something he knew nothing about. That decision was the birth of a writer. He came to London and took a job as an attendant in a mental home for a year. That influenced him very much—I know that Murphy, his first novel, came out of his experiences as a mental attendant. And, then, he has seen many people who were handicapped severely in some way. When he was young, there was a war pensioners' hospital very close to where he was born. He saw them regularly every day—they were in various stages of physical disability. I am sure these experiences have influenced the fact that his characters are largely damaged people.

Beckett has said to me often, "People must think I had a very unhappy childhood, but I hadn't really. I had a very good childhood, and a very normal childhood as childhoods go. But I was more aware of unhappiness around me"—not in his own home, but just in people—"than happiness." So the sensitive chords in Beckett's nature were attuned to the unhappiness in humankind rather than the happiness.

In Endgame and several of the other plays there are references to the fact that a play is going on. Does he do that deliberately as a kind of theatrical device?

Yes, he does. Pozzo [from Waiting for Godot] said, "Where are we? It isn't by any chance the place known as the Board?" The "board" is the stage, so that conveys that they know it's a play that's going on. He wants to make the audience feel that it's a play that's taking place and not what really is happening.

When you work with Beckett, does he treat the plays that he has written first in French and then translated into English as equivalent plays, that is, does he make references back to the French text as being different from the English version?

Yes, he does. There was a point in Endgame that worried me. When Clov realizes that he's had a little victory over Hamm, he starts humming, and Hamm, if you recall, says "Don't sing," and Clov says, "One hasn't the right to sing anymore." Hamm says, "No," and Clov says, "Then how can it end?" I said to Beckett, "I'm really not quite sure what that means." He said, "Well, that was a difficulty in translation I had. When I wrote it in French, there is a French proverb which is well known, 'Everything ends with a song,' and I could not translate that proverb, which is particularly French, into English unless I did it that way." You see, it was more readily understood in French, Clov intimating that this is the end of their relationship.

Jack MacGowran and Richard Toscan, in an interview in On Beckett: Essays and Criticism, edited by S. E. Gontarski, Grove Press, 1986, pp. 213-25.

Richard Gilman (essay date 1974)

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[Gilman is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on modern drama. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1974 in his The Making of Modern Drama, he interprets Endgame as a play about performing.]

If such categories as optimism and pessimism pertain at all to Beckett, then Endgame is much more pessimistic than Waiting for Godot. In its seedy room whose windows look out on empty ocean, the living world seems to have been narrowed down to four survivors: Hamm, who cannot see or stand; Clov, his servant, who cannot sit; and Nagg and Nell, his parents, who exist throughout in ash cans. Everything is winding down to a finish, as in that ultimate phase of a chess match which gives the play its title. Humanly, it is dissolution rather than explicit death that seems to be in the offing. There are no more coffins, we are told; death as a rite, and therefore as connection to human truth, has been abrogated.

In this burned-out world, which has been compared to that of Lear at the end of his drama but perhaps more closely resembles that of Woyzeck, despair is an axiom. When at one point Clov tells Hamm that his father is weeping down in his ash can, Hamm replies, "Then he's living." He then asks Clov, "Did you ever have an instant of happiness?" to which the response is "Not to my knowledge." "You're on earth," Hamm tells him, "there's no cure for that." Only Clov seems to have any desire or capacity for a change of circumstances; he grumbles or protests bitterly throughout at his subjection to Hamm, and in fact seems in the end to have made good his repeated threats to leave, as though from a doomed house.

It is tempting to see in all this a parable of man at the end of his rope, more specifically post atomic man, and the play has indeed been staged along the lines of a vision of the world after nuclear holocaust, as well as, from a different but equally "contemporary" perspective, along Freudian and Marxist ones. But this is in a peculiar way to take the play too seriously, to give it a weight of commentary and social earnestness its imaginative structure continually subverts. We ought to know from Beckett's entire body of work that of all living writers he is the least interested in the present, in the changes time effects, and in what we might call local, temporally or spatially differentiated existence. His imagination functions almost entirely outside history: what is, has been, and what has been, will be, so that writing for him is the struggle to find new means to express this proposition of stasis. In this struggle is one source of the tension of his work.

Another related source is in the unending dialectic between what he is "expressing" on an immediate level in the words and gestures and his obsession with the literary and dramatic impulses in themselves, the human need to say and show. This is his truest subject: the illusion that our speech and movements make a difference, the knowledge that this is an illusion, and the tragicomic making of speech and gestures in the face of the knowledge. The materials may vary, like those of an orator on different occasions, but they remain those of a voice engaging in utterance precisely for its own sake, for the sake, that is, of meeting the obligation of making human presence known.

Such materials do not add up to a reassembling of the phenomenal world, such as we ordinarily expect from literature and drama, nor do they constitute a commentary on the present state of personality or society. "He is not writing about something, he is writing something," Beckett once said of Joyce, and it is even truer of himself. What he is writing—bringing into being—in Endgame is another version of his Ur-text on the human self caught between actuality and desire, the craving for justification and its objective absence; at the same time it is a drama to show the impulse of playing—by which we fill in the void—to show it up. If it is more desperate than its predecessor, this isn't because Beckett has seen the world grow grimmer or has less hope than before (he had never had any) but because he has pushed the undertaking of artifice closer to the edge, cut down the number of possible ways out. There is not even a Godot now to provide by his felt absence a prospect of a future.

From the opening "tableau," as the stage directions call it, with Hamm sitting covered with a sheet like a piece of furniture in storage, Clov standing "motionless by the door, his eyes fixed on him," and the ash cans adding their silly, mysterious presence, the play proceeds to unfold as though it were the partly self-mocking work of a weary company of barnstormers who have set up their portable stage in some provincial town and laid out their shabby scenery and props. The text they speak has a "content" of desolation and end-of-the-world malaise, but it is interspersed with literary ironies and internal theatrical references and jokes, all of which go to sustain the thesis, most brilliantly propounded by Hugh Kenner, that Endgame is a play about playing, a performance "about" performing.

"What is there to keep me here?" Clov asks at one point, to which Hamm (ham actor? the reading is now a commonplace) replies, "The dialogue." "What about having a good guffaw the two of us together?" Hamm says. Clov (after reflection): "I couldn't guffaw again today." Hamm (after reflection): "Nor I." "Let's stop playing!" Clov pleads near the end; Hamm calls one remark of his an "aside" and says that he's "warming up for my last soliloquy"; Clov says of his departure at the end that "this is what we call making an exit." It is all theatrical, rehearsed, in a deeply important sense perfunctory; the scene is not one of despair in a darkening world as much as a weary, self-conscious enactment of what such a scene is supposed to be like, of what it would be like in literature.

The importance of this is hard to overestimate, for it is what lifts the play wholly above the chic status of a "God-is-dead" document or an allegory of Life after the Bomb. Endgame's thoroughgoing artificiality as tragedy, its self-derision—in his opening speech Hamm says, "Can there be misery—(he yawns)—loftier than mine?"—point directly to its imaginative purpose. As in all of Beckett's work, what is being placed on sorrowfully mocking exhibition is not the state of the world or of inner life as any philosopher or sociologist or psychiatrist could apprehend it (or as we ourselves could in our amateur practice of those roles) but the very myths of meaning, the legends of significance that go into the making of humanistic culture, providing us with a sense of purpose and validity separated by the thinnest wall from the terror of the void.

It is not that Beckett doesn't experience this emptiness—no living writer feels it more—but that he is more pertinently obsessed, as an artist, with the self-dramatizing means we take to fill it. The mockery that fills his first plays is a function of his awareness of this activity, not a repudiation of it: we can't do otherwise, Waiting for Godot and Endgame are saying; we fill the time with our comic or lugubrious or tragic dramas. Still, we have to know that they are inventions, made up in the midst of indifferent nature—stone, tree, river, muskrat, wasp—all that has no question to ask and no "role" to take on.

Thus the derision does not deny the horror or the stress on artifice annul the real. But palpable actuality isn't Beckett's subject, which is, as has been said, the relationship between actuality and our need to express it, to express ourselves. Such expression is always "artificial," always self-conscious (since it is consciousness of being conscious that we are impelled by), and never directly "true." "Matter has no inward," Coleridge had said, and it is this truth that we are trapped in, material beings who crave inwardness and have the capacity to imagine it. At its most formal level the expression of our inwardness becomes literature, drama, which, as Ibsen beautifully described it in The Master Builder, make up "castles in the air."

What Endgame demonstrates is how our self-dramatizing impulses, our need for building Ibsen's castles, is inseparable from the content of our experiences, how we do not in fact know our experience except in literary or histrionic terms. And this is independent of whether the experience is solemn or antic, exalted or base. We give it reality and dignity by expressing it, we validate it by finding, or rather hopelessly seeking, the "right" words and forms. This is what is going on in Endgame beneath the lugubriousness and anomie: "Something is taking its course," Clov says, not their lives—they are actors, they have no "lives"—but their filling in of the emptiness with their drama.

"By his stress on the actors as professional men and so on the play as an occasion in which they operate," as Kenner has written, Beckett turns the piece from a report, however fantastic, on the state of the world to an image of the world being dramatized. In this performance the actor is not an interpreter or incarnation of surrogate emotion for the audience but simply the professional embodiment of an activity we all engage in, at every moment, to build the wall against silence and nonbeing. "Outside of here it's death," Hamm says, and what he means is not that death is closing in but that inside, in this stage-as-room and room-as-stage, the play goes forward to enact the human answer to it, the absurd, futile, nobly unyielding artifice of our self-expression.

If the true action and subject of the play are therefore the enactment of despair rather than despair itself, then the relationships of the characters to one another have to be seen in an untraditional light. Like Pozzo and Lucky, Hamm and Clov have been thought of as impotent master and sullenly rebellious servant (capitalism and the working class? imperialism and emerging nations?) or, more subtly, as paradigmatic of every human relation of exploitation and tyranny. But once again this is to take their connection too literally, at its verbal surface. We ought to remember that Beckett is not interested in human relations as such but in human ontology, in the status of the stripped, isolated self beneath social elaboration. It is the requirement of the stage that there be at least duality, tension demanding otherness, that turns his play away from the nearly solipsistic interior monologues of his novels.

Yet something is carried over from the fiction to the drama, and it is a central clue to Beckett's new dramaturgy. If Hamm and Clov do not represent or incarnate any types discoverable in the social world, they are not even discrete personalities, except as they possess a sort of provisional and tactical individuation as a source of dialogue and therefore of dramatic propulsion. For many things about the play suggest that there is really only one consciousness or locus of being in the room, a consciousness akin to that of the "narrator" of the novels, so that it is more than plausible to take the room or stage as the chamber of the mind and the figures in it as the mind's inventions, the cast of characters of its theater. This is almost irresistibly indicated by a passage in one of Hamm's soliloquies: "Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together and whisper together, in the dark."

Clov would then be an extension of Hamm, the seated, reigning, perhaps dreaming figure. Hamm has invented a servant to be his eyes and agent of mobility, as we speak of our senses and legs serving us, and he has reinvented his parents, turning them into his own grotesque children. He is now complete, the play can be staged, the desperate drama in the dark. And Beckett's play Endgame takes on still another implication: that it is an illusion that there are fellow actors in our dramas, we have to invent them as they invent us; we are all children in the dark, solitary, babbling, inconsolable. But we play, in this case the end game, the last phase of an abstract life worked out in the mind.

The recognition that there is nothing beyond this last invention except silence—the scenery trundled off, the props put away, the stage lights down—is the true source of the feeling of extremity that rises from Endgame. There is no doom impending from outside, no tragic or deracinated situation to live through. There is only that silence on the other side of the wall … and we are running out of scripts.

Richard Gilman, "Beckett," in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame", edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishing, 1988, pp. 79-88.

Harold Clurman (review date 16 February 1980)

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[Highly regarded as a director, author, and longtime drama critic for The Nation, Clurman was an important contributor to the development of modern American theater. In the excerpt below, he comments on the tone and humor of Endgame.]

Samuel Beckett's Endgame is a Mystery of final things: as death, the end of an age. Being altogether modern, it is also a comedy. We do not weep in the theater nowadays over futility, protracted dreariness or doom: we laugh.

"Endgame" is a technical term signifying the last stage in playing a hand, the position of the important card having been generally known, and the play being determined accordingly; or the point in the game when the forces (in chess or checkers) have been greatly reduced.

The central image of the piece is that of Hamm, a blind man, paralyzed, shut off in a bare, gray room with his legless parents who remain immobilized in two dustbins. His condition does not change from first to last. Hamm has an alter ego, Clov, who might be likened to an enslaved son. There is much scurrying about on Clov's part but little action; the earth and sea outside have nothing on the horizon: all is still, inert, "corpsed." At the end of Clov's long submission to his "father" and master, Hamm, he appears to be on the verge of escape. Is there hope of resurrection in this? Probably not, but we cannot be sure. Hamm "gives up," with a weary finality: "Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing."

I append further citations to convey the tone of what is essentially a dramatic poem. Hamm asks Clov, "Have you not had enough?" "Of what?" Clov asks. The answer is, "Of this—this—thing." He refers no doubt to the burden of life. Clov is always seen in movement, obeying Hamm's senseless orders. "I can't sit," he cries out, to which Hamm responds with, "And I can't stand…. Every man his specialty." "What's happening?" Hamm wants to know. Clov's reply is, "Something is taking its course." Hamm wonders, "We're not beginning to mean something?" "Mean something!" Clov mocks, "You and I mean something…. Oh, that's good." Hamm speculates for a moment, "Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn't he be able to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough…. To think perhaps it won't all have been for nothing!" Clov asks the supreme question, "Do you believe in the life to come?" and receives the superb answer, "Mine was always that." This is the special humor, the Beckett "joke," which makes his work seem like a scenario for a farce. Clov asks, "What is there to keep us here?" Hamm answers, "The dialogue."

The cream of the jest is the story told by the male dustbin occupant about a man who brought cloth to a tailor to have trousers made. The tailor takes an unconscionable time to finish the job. The customer, at the end of his patience, explodes, "In six days, do you hear me, six days God made the World! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months!" The tailor retorts, "But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look at the world and look at my trousers."

When I saw Endgame in Paris in 1957 I thought it "at times impressive and drab, at other times snarling through a grin…. Its writing has humor, tang and obliquely lyric dialogue." But I thought it lacked the tenderness which alleviated the restlessness of Waiting for Godot. Since then, I have seen it directed by Alan Schneider, André Greogry and now by Joseph Chaikin in the present production at M.T.C. Each of these productions had different characteristics and merits, but none of the quiet and numb ache of the first one which, though in French, had something of the wonderful lostness and melody of Jack MacGowran's eminently Irish reading of the Beckett anthology we heard some years ago at the Public Theater.

I am reminded now of what Aaron Copland once said on receiving a complete recording of Anton Webern's compositions. He admired Webern, considered him a seminal figure in modern music, a highly significant artist, but found that he had no special urge to return to repeated hearings of his work. Perhaps because I have seen Endgame four times I feel the same way about it. I do not feel quite this way about Waiting for Godot. But it may be that I have grown weary of weariness, the standstill of pained bewilderment—now become a prevalent posture—even though I cannot help being in awe of the genius of Beckett's methods of expressing it….

In writing about Beckett I cannot help but contrast him in certain respects with Pinter: the first is the progenitor of the second.

The abstractions in Beckett's writing may make understanding it difficult, but its mood is always emotionally persuasive. Though Pinter may be obscure or elusive in some of his detail, his work on the whole is more "realistic": he is of his time and place and always unmistakably English. Pinter is wed to his ambiguity, as if to divulge precisely what he means would be simple-minded, almost vulgar.

Harold Clurman, in a review of "Endgame," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 230, No. 6, February 16, 1980, pp. 187-88.

Ruby Cohn (essay date 1980)

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[Cohn is an American educator and critic whose writings on Beckett include Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (1962), Back to Beckett (1973), and Samuel Beckett (1987). In the following excerpt from her Just Play: Beckett's Theater, she compares the various drafts of Endgame.]

A play aborted and a play jettisoned contrast with Beckett's favorite play, Endgame, which was worked, reworked, and translated from the French. As an approximation, Deirdre Bair is probably right [in her Samuel Beckett, 1978] to surmise that Beckett turned to drama when he reached a creative impasse, but drama too can be an impasse, and Beckett labored two years over Fin de partie. Of all his plays, it underwent most extensive revision.

Beckett wrote his friend, anglicist Jean-Jacques Mayoux:

La rédaction définitive de Fin de partie est de 56. Mais j'avais abordé ce travail bien avant, peutêtre en 54. Une première, puis une deuxième version en deux actes avait précédé celle en un acte que vous connaissez.

[The final draft of Endgame dates from 56. But I had started this work much earlier, perhaps in 54. A first, then a second version in two acts had preceded the one act that you know.]

The "deuxième version en deux actes" of Fin de partie is in the Ohio State University Library, and the "première version" is in the Beckett collection of Reading University, England; Beckett does not mention a brief handwritten continuation of the latter, now in Trinity College Library, University of Dublin.

The twenty-one-page typescript at Reading bears no title, but Beckett's hand notes: "avant Fin de partie." Another hand labels the piece "Abandoned Theatre in French," and the text does apparently abandon its two actors in the middle of their action. Bair asserts that the play was begun with specific actors in Beckett's mind—Roger Blin who played Pozzo in Godot and Jean Martin who played Lucky. If this is so, the new play would continue their roles of master and servant, those staples of French comedy. Designated by the letters X and F (for Factotum), the master's baptismal spoon reads Jeannot, and the servant is variously called Donald, Lucien, and, mainly, Albert. As the letter X suggests, the master is almost as unknowable as Godot, but he is distinctly visible and audible. F wants to address X as "Votre Honneur" or "Monsieur" or even "Patron," but X rejects such honorifics. F declares himself incapable of calling X "vieux con" as directed; nevertheless, he does so once, even while continuing his plea for the privilege of saying: "Votre Honneur."

X and F interact in a place undescribed in the few scenic directions, but Beckett seems to have envisioned a shelter not unlike that of Endgame, since F speaks of two large windows (now aveuglées), and he retires to his offstage kitchen, whereas X is confined to his wheelchair. F locates the shelter in Picardy, where destruction occurred "dans des circonstances mystérieuses" between 1914 and 1918. (In the final Endgame only Nell's mention of the Sedan hints at the French War, where Napoleon III was disastrously defeated in 1871.) The location may be Picardy, but the props are neutral, and X recites their inventory—a drum and stick attached to X's chair (instead of the later whistle around his neck), a superfluous syringe, a baptismal spoon, and a Bible. X does not mention his Fahrenheit thermometer, but he desires a telescope. Beckett's few scenic directions specify silence, X's drums-beating to summon F, F's entrances and exits, X's vain efforts to move his wheelchair, and F's actual movements of the chair. Beckett evidently heard the dialogue before he saw all the gestures in his mind's eye. And what he heard is an action about playing, passing time, and ending. In X's first expository monologue he says he is blind and paralyzed, then says he is pretending to be blind and paralyzed, then wonders whether he is lying or mistaken. His self-doubt is more insidious than Hamm's, as is appropriate to his name, X. Perhaps the Cartesian heritage is stronger; he doubts, therefore he is, and he doubts out loud.

Of the twenty-one typed pages at Reading University, X's opening monologue (punctuated by ten silences) takes one and a half pages, the first X-F duologue takes four and a half pages, before X recites a shorter monologue. Another five pages of duologue are followed by a shorter X monologue. Like Hamm, X tells a story, and like Hamm he comments on the interaction of master and servant. Unlike Endgame, however, this play ends—or breaks off—in duologue (but is carried a little further in the Trinity College manuscript). X addresses F in the tu form, but F shows respect for X with his vous, instead of the familiar equality of the final version. The pointed pointlessness of the duologues recalls Godot and predicts the verbal ping pong of Endgame:

X: Pourquoi ne me tues-tu pas?

F: (Avec dégoût) Je vous aime. (Silence)

X: Pourquoi?

F: Je suis malade.

X: Moi aussi.

F: Vous êtes malade?

X: Je t'aime.

F: Alors nous nous aimons.

[X: Why don't you kill me?

F: (With disgust) I love you. (Silence)

X: Why?

F: I'm sick.

X: Me too.

F: You're sick?

X: I love you.

F: Then we love one another.]

X's story and its enactment—the playing theme—gradually assume importance, but the ending theme of Endgame is barely seeded. F repeatedly asks if he may address X as "Your Honor," which privilege is refused. He pleads for the stability of master-servant conventions, and it early becomes evident that this pair, like Vladimir and Estragon before them, have trouble in living through endless time. Dubiously, F remarks that everything has an end, and X retorts with the stale vaudeville joke about the sausage, which has two.

The two men touch on several other subjects that will preoccupy Hamm and Clov—weather, a dog, repetition, F's departure, X's centrality, whether their activities have any meaning. More explicitly than Hamm, X sighs: "Dommage que nous soyons les derniers du genre humain." He requests F to wheel him here and there, to take him for a promenade. The connection between fact and fiction is stronger in the early version: X calls for his dog, then amends this to his wife, and finally shifts to his mother, who becomes the protagonist of his story, as enacted by F.

The mother has had a terrible accident that invalids her, but she is carefully tended: "Et hop la revoilà sur pied." ["And hup there she is on her feet again."] Three times during his narrative, X cries out disjunctively, "Cherchezla dansle coin." ["Look for her in the corner."] After the last time, F enters disguised as the mother, but after a brief mother-son duologue, X instructs F to get rid of that putréfaction. Alone again, X broods: "Nous jouons si mal que ça n'a plus l'air d'un jeu." ["We're playing so badly that it no longer looks like a game."] Then, resolving that "Cette nuit sera comme les autres nuits" ["Tonight will be like other nights."], he corrects himself: "Nous ne jouons pas si mal que ça." ["We're not playing as badly as that."] On his drum X summons F, who informs his master: "Il s'agit de ne pas mourir." ["It's a question of not dying."] The Reading typescript breaks off after:

F: Eh bien, il y a toujours l'affaire Bom.

X: Bom … Ah oui, cette pauvre vieille qui réclame une goutte d'eau.

F: Non, ça c'est l'affaire Bim.

[F: Well, there's always the Bom business.

X: Bom…. Ah yes, that poor old woman who begs for a drop of water.

F: No, that's the Bim business.]

From the time of his collection of stories More Pricks Than Kicks, written over two decades earlier, Bim and Bom recur sporadically in Beckett's work. Russian clowns whose comic routines contained—and were permitted to contain—criticism of the Soviet regime, they became for Beckett emblems of human cruelty, disguised under a comic garb. In a deleted passage of Godot Vladimir and Estragon compare Pozzo and Lucky to Bim and Bom. In the Reading University piece Bim and Bom are transformed into parched old women, but, combined with the clown overtones of narration and disguise, their names are a not unfitting terminus for duologues at once cruel and comic.

The Trinity College manuscript continues for two hand-written pages that present a failing X informed by F that an old woman has died of thirst. Less directly reproachful than Clov, F turns a phrase that will later be modified for Hamm:

X: Et comment sais-tu qu'elle est morte?

F: Elle ne crie plus.

[X: And how do you know she's dead?

F: She's no longer crying.]

The Reading University manuscript (and its brief Trinity College continuation) do not manage to weave the several strands: the meditations of X, the master-servant duologues, the X narration that leads to an F enactment. But this abandoned piece already contains Endgame's physical space, a climate of illness and disaster, the love-hate interchange of master and servant, their penchant for story and play.

There is no date on the Reading University typescript, so that we cannot know how much time elapsed before Beckett turned to a new version—still untitled but complete by April, 1956—now in Ohio State University Library. We know from Beckett's letter to Jean-Jacques Mayoux that he may have started the first draft as early as 1954, and we know from his letters to Alan Schneider that he began the two-act version in December 1955, so that at least a year separates the two stages.

In the two-act version repetitions underline the playing theme and the ending theme. To some extent Beckett divided the two themes between the two couples who people the play. Master and servant (designated as A and B) are preoccupied with playing out their daily routines. However, the servant is less servile than F, and he is a more versatile player; he appears not only as a woman, but also as a boy. Like the mother of the first draft, this boy is engendered by the master's fiction. The other couple, M and P (for Mémé and Pépé, French for Granny and Grampy) are ending their long lives in stage ashbins. The two main characters, A and B in the manuscript, address each other by Christian names; A is French Guillaume, and B English James. Lacking any other national indication, they both speak colloquial French. M once addresses P as German Walther. A little boy in A's story is French André, but in references to what will become Mother Pegg, Beckett leaves a blank space for a name.

Gone is all reference to Picardy, and the two acts of the Ohio State version take place in the unnational set of the Endgame we know, except for the absence of the painting, and the presence of the color red—on Hamm's blanket, robe, nightcap, and handkerchief; on the faces of the three men in Act I. Nell's face is white, in premonition of her death. The "ensign crimson" versus the "pale flag," which Winnie will salvage from Romeo and Juliet, are already emblems of life and death. B's beret is yellow and the toy dog black, but other props are nondescript and not described—drum, Bible, and thermometer retained from the earlier draft; new additions are a gaff and an alarm-clock.

When Beckett directed Endgame in Berlin in 1967, he segmented the action into sixteen rehearsal scenes, which are already discernible in the two-act version, though differently proportioned. In the final play the ending action dominates the playing action after Scene 12, and Beckett emphasizes this in the English translation by borrowing Shakespeare's Tempest line, "Our revels now are ended"—in the original French "Finie la rigolade." The French phrase opens Act II of the earlier draft, appearing on page 35 of the sixty-five page typescript.

As in the final Endgame, the dialogue of the two-act version begins with an expository soliloquy by Clov-B and ends with a soliloquy of resignation by Hamm-A, but the earlier versions are longer and more repetitive. Clov's opening sentence illustrates the rhythm: "Mort lente, mort rapide, vais-je rester, vais-je le quitter, pour de bon, le quitter pour de bon, ou rester pour de bon, pour la vie, jusqu'à ce qu'il meure, ou jusqu'à ce que moi je meure?" ["Slow death, rapid death, will I stay, will I leave him, for good, leave him for good, or stay for good, for life, until he dies, or until I myself die?"] However, it is not dialogue but gesture that opens and closes the two-act play, as it does the final Endgame. Clov's opening mime is similar to that of Endgame, but at play's end Hamm-A buries his face in his hands—a less stoic gesture than curtaining his face with the "old stancher," Beckett's brilliant translation of "vieux linge."

Like his successor Hamm, A simultaneously desires an end and hesitates to end. Although the play in the theater has to end, an endless process is subliminally suggested by the repetition of phrases, gestures, pauses which do not add up to whole events. Of primary importance, therefore, is Beckett's change of Nell-M's death at the end of Act I to Clov's laconic report in revision: "Looks like it [her death]."

Death unhappens between the two-act and final Endgame. Less decrepit than Nagg, P wants to hold M's hand, and he knocks at the lid of her ashbin. Alarmed that she does not answer, P urges B to examine her bin. The servant bends over, looks in, bends still further. There is a long silence. Then B straightens up, gently covers the bin, and removes his beret. When Nagg-P asks: "Alors?" B removes the old man's skull-cap, but blind A yawns to close the act with French cliché syllables of dismay, "Oh là là."

In Act II Nell-M's ashbin is gone from the stage. Hamm-A wears a black nightcap, Clov-B a black beret, Nagg-P a black skull-cap. The faces of A, B, and P are white, like M's in Act I; are they close to death? To A's question about whether P is happy that M is dead, the old man replies, "Très." Toward the middle of Act II, P tells B that it isn't worth the trouble to make sawdust for his bin, and B declares that these may be P's last words. They are certainly his last words in this version of the drama. Before the end of the two-act version, A speaks Hamm's final speech of Endgame (with a few variants); then he and B engage in a last duologue. B leaves, and A continues to speak a few feeble words. Though A has earlier told B that he has pondered about his last words, the one spoken on stage is simply "Bon."

Present from the beginning of the two-act version is the visual impression of the play we know: two ashbins and one wheelchair in a bare shelter, with two windows that B can reach only by means of a ladder. Although A asks B suspiciously whether he has shrunk (as Hamm will ask Clov), it is rather the dialogue that shrinks between Beckett's two-act and one-act versions (from sixty-five to thirty-seven typed pages). Of the four characters, only Nell-M speaks similar lines although her speeches come in a different order, and she lacks memories of Lake Como.

Beckett curtails many speeches of the three men in the final Endgame. Nagg-P no longer comments on Hamm-A's meditations, nor does he declare that Nell-M can crawl out of her bin; nor does he swear an oath on his honor (although Hamm does). Also excised are Clov-B's reminiscences about seaweed and seagulls, his clown business with rolling-pin and telescope, his recitation of an undesignated sonnet, his difficulties with the dative case and pronunciation of the word Pentateuch, and his regret that he cannot lie to Hamm-A. From the master Beckett takes away a Pascalian exclamation about infinite spaces, the measurement of temperature at 98.6 Fahrenheit, the recitation of B's basic duties, and A's ruminations about preparing his last words. Excision shortens the A-B duologues where both men struggle through time in sequences about passing the time, about the toy dog, and about tears and laughter. In one routine A and B cry in synchrony, giving a comic tone to their tears. Also deleted is B's hesitation between two commands—that of A to wheel his chair to the center of the shelter and that of P to replace the skuli-cap on his head. Both commands desire a return to the status quo ante, delaying an end. B weighs his choice: "Mon coeur balance. (Un temps.) A moins d'un fait nouveau nous sommes figés pour l'éternité." ["My heart is poised between the two. (Pause.) Unless a new fact enters, we're fixed for eternity."] Eyes front, B begins to recite from Rimbaud: "O saisons, o châteaux!" The impasse passes when A commands that B serve P, and B therefore comments: "On repart. Dommage." ["We're off again. Pity."]

Beckett's most telling revision is the complete elimination of two Clov-B scenes of disguise, one in each act. Without the anticlimactic color of these scenes, the ending action becomes more continuous and relentless, apparently dating from the biblical flood. In the two-act draft, the Flood reference is specific, for B reads to A from Genesis, then turns to the descendants of Shem, chanting a litany of long-lived patriarchs who engendered large families. A's response is Oedipal since he asks for his mother to help him engender. When B protests that A must mean his wife, the master retorts that it's all the same to him whether it is mother, wife, sister, daughter; what counts are two breasts and a vulva. B exits, to re-enter in blonde wig, false breasts, and a skirt over his trousers. It is not clear whether A is deceived by the disguise, for B also assumes a woman's voice, and it is B who speaks what will become Nell's line in the final Endgame: "Alors, mon gros, c'est pour la bagatelle?" ["What is it, my pet? Time for love?" (Beckett's translation in English Endgame.)] Since B is both himself and the woman, there follows a comic triangular scene, but instead of two men competing for the favors of the woman, both A and B wish to foist her on the other. If a child is conceived, B's woman's voice tells A, they will drown it.

A child is conceived in the two-act draft. Even in the final version, Clov reports seeing a small boy through the window (a report abridged in Beckett's English translation), whereupon Hamm informs Clov that he is no longer needed. In the two-act draft, B surmises this on his own, once the boy is sighted. Soon after A calls his father the boy appears on stage, played by B in his second disguise—red cap, short trousers, and the gray smock of French school-children. Changing voice with costume, B complains of hunger, and A seems to believe B's disguise. He bribes the boy with an offer of chocolate and orders him to look into an ashbin, to push his wheelchair, to bring his gaff. But when B as boy claims the chocolate, A announces that there is no more chocolate. Recalling how he desired a drum when he was a child, A offers his instrument to the boy and pleads: "Viens." The boy backs out of the shelter, but blind A continues to address him. He attributes to the boy the greed that Hamm will attribute to old folks. Only after a long silence does A realize that he is alone. He tries vainly to move his chair, as X tried in Beckett's Reading piece, as Hamm will try in Endgame. Then, throwing away the gaff, A whispers "Bon," his last word before burying his face in his hands.

In the theater B's disguises would be comic in spite of the grim overtones of Beckett's two-act play. Beckett's elimination of these comic scenes balances his decision to cut the cruellest scene from the earlier draft. In that version P is reluctant to listen to his son's story, so that A orders B to put P's head into a pillory, making him a literally captive audience. A then stages a professor-pupil scene in which he plays both professor and pupil in a lesson on madness. Not satisfied with his father as mere listener, A orders him to recite the story of his life. Canged though he is, P refuses until A, wheeled by B to P's ashbin-pillory hits him on the head with his drumstick, and then threatens him with hammer and gaff. Thus beaten into speech, the old man delivers a seriocomic life story in telegraph phrases. In Beckett's novels Molloy strikes his mother on the head, and a stranger strikes Malone, but Beckett must have decided that such physical violence is too crude for his stage, and Hamm's hostility toward his father is reduced to the verbal in the final Endgame. (Servant strikes master with the toy dog in both versions, but the weapon mitigates cruelty.)

In spite of the crucial concentration of two acts into one, the final Endgame seems more symmetrical. Hamm and Clov are more evenly balanced than are A and B. Their dialogue is more equitably shared; Clov's five laughs at the beginning are balanced by Hamm's five yawns; Hamm's wheelchair by Clov's ladder; Hamm's dark glasses by Clov's telescope, and his whistle by Clov's alarm-clock. Re-inforcing such balance is the way Hamm and Clov speak of kissing, whereas Nagg and Nell try to kiss.

Because Beckett's revision achieves balance, economy, and concentration, his few additions are noteworthy. Beckett molded Endgame at its beginning and end to suggest that "The end is in the beginning." Thus, only in the final version are all four characters in the same stage space at beginning and end. Only in the finished play does Hamm address his handkerchief as "old stancher" near beginning and end, and only there does he sniff for Clov near beginning and end.

Beckett supplies new binding threads in the final version. He concretizes the difficulties of ending by reference to Eleatic grains and moments, he makes the characters more aware of playing, and he underlines the ending theme by references to more phenomena running out. Dwelling on the entropic action, Beckett embellishes Hamm's wasteland prophecy and his recollection of the painter; Beckett moves the master's richest and loneliest speech to the very end of Endgame.

Only into the final version does Beckett introduce the old vaudeville joke about hearing that has not failed—"our what?"—and only there does he add Nagg's significant joke about the poor quality of God's created world. Endgame intensifies pathos as well as humor; in the final version alone we find the last moving Hamm-Clov exchange, from Hamm's "Before you go … say something" through Clov's most extended speech that begins: "I say to myself—sometimes…." Both characters imply a link between speech and suffering, but that link is stronger in Endgame because Beckett's words are stronger, and they are ordered for maximum tension.

The variety of words is diminished by the increase of repetition, which was already markedly increased between the Reading and Ohio State University drafts. Several Clov threats to depart are added to the final version of Endgame. The most frequent scenic direction in the Reading fragment is "Silence," but "Un temps" takes the lead in the last two versions, and the final Endgame contains new repetitions of "Alors" and "Même jeu." As is often noted, Hamm begins his three soliloquies with the same striking phrase: "A moi de jouer," and in the final version Mother Pegg, the light, and the earth are all "éteint." Repetition itself sounds starker and more continuous in the economy of the single act.

Although the immense effort required to play, pass time, and end is common to the three versions, Beckett did not set out to compose on given themes. He probably began like other playwrights in other styles with characters in a setting—with a paralyzed master and an ailing servant in an almost hermetic room. The two-act version accommodated a second couple. With four characters confined to a single act, however, the play achieves the linear force of a tragedy by Racine, an author long appreciated by Beckett. Still, it is a circle rather than a straight line that diagrams Endgame, whose end echoes its beginning, whose hero orders his servant to wheel him round his shelter, whose dialogue is riddled by pauses and zeros, in all versions.

Along with sustained themes—playing, passing time, ending—comes a consistency of detail in the three versions. The bare set with its centered wheelchair and offcenter ashbins is the dominant image. The physical Bible of the first two drafts evaporates into words in the final version; conversely, the Reading draft merely mentions a dog, which subsequently becomes a visible toy. In the three versions the master accuses the servant of stinking, but the servant's appreciation of the master's honor undergoes a curious development. X's honor, the right to be called "Your Honor," is the most insistent phrase of the Reading draft. In the two-act Ohio State version, honor belongs to Nagg-P, or at least he mentions it when swearing an oath that he will appear when summoned. In the final play it is Hamm who promises on his honor to give Nagg a sugarplum, at which they laugh heartily. The innuendo is that Hamm has no honor, and we learn that he does indeed lack it, for "There are no more sugar-plums"—the only "no more" announced by Hamm rather than Clov. Moreover, the very coupling of honor and sugar-plums deflates honor as effectively as does Falstaff.

Few lines of dialogue survive revision into one act. However, each master—in different words—requires his servant to kiss him, and each is refused. In exactly the same words in each version, the master asks the servant why the latter doesn't kill him; in the original French the sound play mitigates the grimness: "Pourquoi ne me tues-tu pas?" In another verbal survival through only two versions, Beckett converts a question by X to a statement by Hamm. The Reading typescript has X anxiously interrogate F: "Est-ce une journée comme les autres jusqu'à présent?" pleading to be reassured about the insignificance of this day. Early in Endgame Hamm asks a comparable question: "C'est une fin de journée comme les autres, n'est-ce pas, Clov?" Hamm is more or less reassured by Clov's reply: "On dirait." Later in Endgame, after Hamm tells Clov of the painter's catastrophic vision, master and servant agree that: "Ça a assez duré." And Hamm draws the gloomy conclusion: "Alors c'est une journée comme les autres." The English is more pointedly repetitive: "It's the end of the day like any other day, isn't it, Clov?" and "Then it's a day like any other day."

But of course Hamm is wrong. It is not like any other day, for only on this day are there "no more" things, from bicycle-wheels to coffins. Only on this day does Clov sight a small boy and propose to leave. It is only this unending day that Beckett stages, with the symmetries and repetitions that seem to support Hamm's conclusion—the old questions, the old answers, the old moves, the old pauses. This day and only this day is distinguished by its brave comic play against a background of tragic waning, but Beckett's skill—exercised in revision—leaves us with Hamm's impression. Hamm is wrong about the insignificance of the day, but he is right to worry about "beginning to mean something." For Beckett has revised Endgame into its present meaningful economy.

Ruby Cohn, in her Just Play: Beckett's Theater, Princeton University Press, 1980, 313 p.

Kristin Morrison (essay date 1983)

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[An American educator and critic, Morrison has written extensively on modern drama. In the following excerpt, she examines Beckett's use of narrative in Endgame, focusing on Hamm's chronicle and its biblical allusions.]

After the little canters of Waiting for Godot, Beckett composed a substantial "chronicle" for Endgame, providing one of the best examples of extended narrative as an essential part of drama: the presence of story is unmistakable here, both to the audience and to characters within the play. Hamm refers by name to his "chronicle" and is self-conscious in his narration of it, aware of himself assuming the role of historian, aware of himself adopting a special voice and manner setting off these words from his other speech. His chronicle itself has to do both with origins and with ends; it "accounts for" an entire world by presenting critical events and interpreting their meaning. Hamm is the Moses of a garden desolate, the Polidore Virgile of a wrecked kingdom. He records bereft existence, a modern inversion of "providential history." The whole point of Endgame lies in the interrelationship between this chronicle, this value-laden record of past events, and the words and actions which make up the dramatic present of the play. The play ends when the narrative ends.

The chronicle is presented at length in two different versions at two different times. The occasions for recital of the story, the interruptions and editorial changes all suggest the extent to which this narrative is emotionally and philosophically important to Hamm, a way to give "meaning" to his life, a way to justify his behavior. First reference to the story occurs about halfway through the play, after Hamm and Clov have attempted various other diversions to make their existence bearable. Hamm's announcement "It's time for my story" is much like Winnie's in Happy Days; there is a sense that the best distraction has been saved till last. The story—Hamm corrects the word to "chronicle"—is one which Clov states "you've been telling yourself all your days." It has an ongoing continuity suggested by Hamm's comments "where was I?" and "No, I've done that bit." It gets Hamm through difficult moments and leads him to that final moment when "time is over, reckoning closed and story ended."

Basically, this chronicle has to do with a man and his son, the son starving, the man petitioning Hamm for aid. As is usual throughout Beckett's work, the account contains a number of clear scriptural references, three of which epitomize Christian belief: the time is Christmas Eve (when life and light are born into the world), the boon sought is bread (the divine gift that sustains life), the child has been deep in sleep for three days (prototype of death and resurrection). The bare event itself has many counter-parts in Biblical stories where a parent intercedes on behalf of a dying child (or in some cases, a master tries to save a beloved servant). In most of these stories the passionate commitment of the parent is shown by his or her traveling a distance and being undeterred by difficulties (whether awe of the prophet from whom aid is sought, rebuke of his or her efforts, or the premature arrival of death itself). The story of Jairus's daughter and the story of the centurion and his servant are well known versions. In John, the event involves a solicitous father, not put off by rebuke, and a dying son:

And there was a certain nobleman, whose son was sick at Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus was come out of Judea into Galilee, he went unto him, and besought him that he would come down, and heal his son: for he was at the point of death. Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. The nobleman saith unto him, Sir, come down ere my child die. Jesus saith unto him, Go thy way; thy son liveth. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way. And as he was now going down, his servants met him, and told him, saying, Thy son liveth. Then inquired he of them the hour when he began to amend. And they said unto him, Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. So the father knew that it was at the same hour, in which Jesus said unto him, Thy son liveth: and himself believed, and his whole house.

                                        [John 4:46-53]

In the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, there is the added element of imminent starvation, both food and life being restored to the woman and her son by the man of God in response to the widow's prayers. But as is also the case in Beckett's other work, these remote biblical allusions suggest ironic contrast: Hamm questions the suppliant father's belief that "there's manna in heaven still for imbeciles like you." There is "no cure" for being on this earth, no providential bread in this wilderness; the great faith of this father does not move Hamm's "divinity" to provide miraculous sustenance. On the contrary, Hamm tempts the man to betray his role as father, to abandon his own beneficence. Such a twist to the prototypical stories suggests what is central in Hamm's own bitter disappointment about his own existence.

One of the clues to the importance of this malevolent twist comes from the fact that Hamm interrupts his narrative before getting to his "punch line":

Well to make it short I finally offered to take him into my service. He had touched a chord. And then I imagined already that I wasn't much longer for this world.

(He laughs. Pause.)



Well? Here if you were careful you might die a nice natural death, in peace and comfort.




In the end he asked me would I consent to take in the child as well—if he were still alive.


It was the moment I was waiting for.


Would I consent to take in the child …


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.

(Pause, Normal tone.)

I'll soon have finished with this story.


Unless I bring in other characters.


But where would I find them?


Where would I look for them?

(Pause. He whistles. Enter Clov.)

Let us pray to God.

He rationalizes that he will soon have finished his story, implying that he does not want to get to the end too quickly and thus needs to stop for a while. But what he turns to when he stops reveals indirectly what there was in the narrative itself that he needed to avoid. Apparently out of the blue he says, "Let us pray" (that "oremus" of sacred liturgy which introduces commentary on the "lesson" or scriptural narrative just recited) and the prayer he gets Nagg and Clov to participate in results in an important assertion ("Our Father which art—") and an even more important judgment: "The bastard! He doesn't exist!"

Here is the source of Hamm's desolation: there is no father to care for him, no heavenly father, no earthly father to hear his cries and to provide solace. "The bastard! He doesn't exist!" serves as commentary both on traditional prayer and also on the story Hamm was just telling. The cause of all this desolation is Hamm's relationship with Nagg; the effect of it all is seen in Hamm's relationship with Clov and other "creatures." In order to understand the painful significance of the content of Hamm's chronicle, it is necessary to look carefully at both his experíence as son and his experience as father.

First, Hamm's own experience as son. His hatred for Nagg ("Accursed progenitor!") is revealed early in the play and is connected with hatred for his own existence: "Why did you engender me?" is not a question so much as an expression of resentment. Hamm's lament about existence, the desire to end, has its root in his first experience of existence, his infancy and childhood. If he curses the ideal father, "that bastard" who doesn't exist, it is due to neglect from his actual father; the passage that establishes this fact comes immediately after the prayer sequence, as Nagg complains about being wakened unnecessarily:

Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark? Your mother? No. Me. We let you cry. Then we moved you out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace.


I was asleep, as happy as a king, and you woke me up to have me listen to you. It wasn't indispensable, you didn't really need to have me listen to you.


I hope the day will come when you'll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice.


Yes, I hope I'll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark, and I was your only hope.

This passage connects several important elements in Endgame: Hamm's childhood fear, the dark, his father's neglect, the need to call out, the need to have a listener. The story Hamm tells now—the prayer sequence and this subsequent passage are only an interruption of that chronicle, which will eventually resume—is simply an adult version of his childhood cry. Then, and now, he does need someone to listen to him, and then, as now, his "only hope," his father, fails him by refusal. Later in the play, as an introduction to his final, terminal soliloquy, Hamm repeats a number of these elements in a passage similar to Nagg's. After thinking of fearful events, of being deserted by a father, "all kinds of fantasies," Hamm says: "Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark."

The adult, as well as the child, finds remedy for desertion in storytelling: the babbles, the whispers, the pretense that others are there make the dark not so lonely, so frightening. This passage of Hamm's, like the earlier one of Nagg's, comes immediately after Hamm has speculated about the ending of the story he has been telling. If he ends his story, he will indeed be alone in the dark, a solitary child abandoned, no father to listen and comfort. And, as is the case with all of Beckett's use of narrative, it is not the mere fact of storytelling that is important, but the very content of the story itself is crucial, allowing the character simultaneously to reveal and conceal himself. Hamm's chronicle does not serve as mere distraction; it betrays his deepest fear and need, as his final brief reference to it reveals in the important last minutes of the play.

But before discussing that ending, it is necessary to examine Hamm's own experience as "father" and note how that correlates with his experience as son. Fatherhood is, in Hamm's case, a metaphor for power, a power he exercises in three ways. First, like a biological father, Hamm has given a specific son his chance in life; he says to Clov, "I was a father to you," "my house a home for you." Second, he has supplanted his own father; now he is the one to dispense pap, to promise and withhold sugarplums; now he controls Nagg, not vice versa, and in that process he duplicates Nagg's own earlier treatment of him; for example, he objects to Nagg's keeping him awake now by storytelling just as earlier Nagg had objected to having his own sleep interrupted by Hamm's infant cry. But Hamm's third and greatest assertion of power is established by his references to himself as divine, the ultimate and most powerful of fatherhoods.

Hamm is an ineffectual god of a "corpsed" world, parodying the traditional role of divinity in a number of ways. He is master-generator whose will is carried out by a servantson. He is right at the center of his world but also, through that son, visits the perimeters, beyond which is hell, that "other hell" since as a god manqué his own paradise is itself infernal. Both he and Clov use the regal or Trinitarian plural on one occasion. Enthroned at the center of his world, he trains his blindness on the earth and "sees"—through his son, Clov—"a multitude … in transports … of joy." [In a footnote, Morrison states: "This biblical-sounding phrase is not a direct quotation, but it has the resonance of many passages in Revelation (see, for example, 19:1-8). This association is particularly ironic since Revelation is permeated with the refrain 'behold, I come quickly.'"] Since Clov's telescope is turned toward the auditorium when he makes this grim little biblical joke, the audience, too, is included in that gray lifeless world outside of Hamm's room. That world is dead because Hamm has failed as savior: "All those I might have helped. (Pause) Helped! (Pause) Saved." Throughout the play Hamm manifests a desire to have creatures pray to him; he likes to have his dog "gazing" at him, "asking," "begging," "imploring" him. But whether it be a bone for the dog, bread and crumpets for the starving multitudes, or meaning for the audience, Hamm does not provide any manna in this wilderness, any light in this darkness. He implies, in fact, that the desolation of the earth is due to his own absence from it: "I was never there…. Absent, always. It all happened without me."

Thus in Hamm traditional divine attributes—benevolence, omnipotence, ubiquity, omniscience—are all inverted. Toward the end of the play Beckett introduces a biblical allusion that illustrates how deadly Hamm's pseudo-divinity is. Despite Hamm's protestation that he does not himself know what has happened or whether it matters, Clov challenges Hamm's feigned innocence: "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." This passage with its oil lamp and outer darkness contains clear reference to the New Testament parable about the wise and foolish virgins:

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore; for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. [Matthew 25:1-13]. In a footnote, the critic suggests that the reader "see also the parable of the marriage feast, which ends with lines associating darkness and damnation; 'Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen'; Matthew 22:1-14."]

Parables are literary forms (stories) used to teach a lesson. Beckett picks up the images and basic message of this particular well-known parable and inverts it for his own purposes. Hamm is thus the god who damns by withholding or being unable to provide the means which make life possible, whether it be bread in the wilderness or light in the darkness. After facing this revelation about himself (which clearly rankles, because the phrase "Of darkness!" interrupts Hamm's speculations about his own death a few minutes later), Hamm moves on to what he calls his "last soliloquy," that moment which will end Hamm, end the play, and reveal how very significant his chronicle really is.

As son, Hamm was mistreated and abandoned, and as father, he has mistreated and failed his own creation. His chronicle is an attempt to offset the pain of these two basic related experiences.

The chronicle deals with the paternal benevolence Hamm never experienced, a father's selfless efforts to try to save a starving son. As he recounts this chronicle, Hamm uses three voices: his special narrating voice to tell the story, the father's voice as quoted by the narrating voice, and his own voice to comment on the other two. The narrating voice describes the scene and most of the action: "The man came crawling towards me, on his belly. Pale, wonderfully pale and thin, he seemed on the point of—" And then his own voice ("normal tone," Beckett calls it) comments: "No, I've done that bit." After describing at length the harshness of this Christmas day, the narrating voice gets to the main issue, narrating, commenting, and quoting:

It was then he took the plunge. It's my little one, he said. Tsstss, a little one, that's bad. My little boy, he said, as if the sex mattered. Where did he come from? He named the hole. A good half-day, on horse. What are you insinuating? That the place is still inhabited? No no, not a soul, except himself and the child—assuming he existed. Good. I enquired about the situation at Kov, beyond the gulf. Not a sinner. Good. And you expect me to believe you have left your little one back there, all alone, and alive into the bargain? Come now!

The narration continues in this manner to recount the man's plea for bread for his child, the narrator's scorn and anger, his denial that "there's manna in heaven still" or that there is any resurrection (the earth will not awake in spring nor will one deep in sleep for three days arise), and concludes with a temptation: "I finally offered to take him into my service." At this point Hamm interrupts his narrative, worrying that his story will soon end, forcing Nagg and Clov to join in prayer, tormenting Nagg about the sugarplum, and finally talking with Clov about the dog and Clov's leaving. Then he resumes the story. This entire interruption reveals why he stops the story where he does and why he resumes it when he does. The temptation directed toward the fictional father is a crucial one: here is a man, himself starving (or so Hamm's description suggests), who seems to care more for his son than for himself. Rather than face the pain which the spectacle of such benevolence inflicts on Hamm—he so much wishes he had had that kind of love as a child—he turns away from narration in order to berate those fathers who failed him (Our Father and Nagg) and to dominate those who stand as his "sons" (the dog and Clov). [In a footnote, the critic adds: "The similar servile role for these two is further suggested by Beckett's production notes for Endspiel (1967): 'Clov's pose when trying to make dog stand. Parallel backs.'"] Then, having vented his hostility in two directions, against both fathers and sons, he is able to resume narration only to break off again at the same point: "Before accepting [the proffered job] he asks if he may have his little boy with him." Hamm seems not to be able to move the narrative beyond this point. what if the man does indeed care for the child's welfare more than for his own? What if he refuses the narrator's offer of help if it does not include his son? How can Hamm face such altruism?

In both his narrative and his "normal" speculations, Hamm argues against benevolence and altruism by suggesting that earthly existence is an incurable disease. In his narrating voice he says to the suppliant father, "Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!" and repeats the line word for word later, in his "normal tone" as he speculates about all those he might have saved. But this repeated violent outburst is not followed, as it is in the chronicle, by a return to innocuous description of the weather; instead it continues, parodying the chief injunction of the New Testament: "Get out of here and love one another! Lick your neighbor as yourself!" Hamm himself has refused the starving multitude bread (and crumpets); it is a small matter for his fictive narrator to deny one small boy life.

Throughout Endgame, Hamm has been talking about ending, bringing all life to a halt, his own as well. In the final moments of the play there is the suggestion such a winding down to absolute zero does occur. And one of the elements that makes cessation possible is final desertion among fathers and sons: "I'll have called my father and I'll have called my … (he hesitates) … my son." If they are gone, he will again be a solitary child alone in the dark, telling himself stories. And when the story ends, Hamm will end. In the last few moments of the play, his "last soliloquy," when Nagg and Clov are silent and Hamm thinks they are both irrevocably gone, Hamm finishes his story and "gives up." The last words of his story reveal the real nature of his hatred and desolation. He picks up the narrative now at its critical point, where he had abandoned it twice before—"If he could have his child with him…."—and he continues to comment:

It was the moment I was waiting for.


You don't want to abandon him? You want him to bloom while you are withering? Be there to solace your last million last moments?


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!

(Pause, Normal tone.)

Well, there we are, there I am, that's enough.

"That's enough" of the story because Hamm has finally stated what is particularly offensive to him in this altruistic father-son relationship. The narrator's apparent argument—life on earth is so bad that a father's real responsibility is to avoid sustaining his son's existence—is really only a mask for the narrator's true feelings of resentment. The words "bloom" and "wither" betray the narrator's real motive, Hamm's real feelings. The corollary of a son's life is the father's death. By the natural order of human development, as the one grows into prime, the other passes beyond it, and the only term of that beyond is death. Hamm resents the fact that he will degenerate while another flourishes; thus his determination that there be no more potential procreators in this world, no fleas nor small boys from which humanity might start all over again. His is the resentment of age toward youth, compounded by his own personal sense of never having had the solace he needed, not in childhood and not now in his old age. So he berates the father in his story, presuming to lay bare that father's true motive, to prove it not altruistic but selfish: "Be there to solace your last million last moments?" But this accusation that the father only wants to help the son so that the son will help him has no foundation in the narrative as Hamm recounts it; this is pure projection at the most critical moment of the story. Hamm is the one unsolaced.

This story has allowed Hamm to reveal his deep sense of not having been cared for (his own father moved him out of earshot and certainly did nothing so beneficent as try to save his life at the expense of his own) and his deep resentment that such care could ever exist for anyone else: the father in his story must surely be a fake altruist, as the narrator's arguments about responsibility are supposed to prove. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "In Avant fin de partie, there is a story about a mother and a son, in which the son expresses great care for the mother; he alone knows her well enough to realize that her disappearance is a serious matter; he alone knows where she is to be found ('Cherchez, cherchez, elle est dans le coin'); and he alone nearly perishes from shock when her battered body is finally discovered, like a sponge, every bone broken, every fracture open. Somehow, she survives and after fifteen years in casts and on a bland diet, actually recovers, nursed by her watchful son. A sense of terrible disaster and abiding loss permeates the story (years later the narrator keeps repeating not the lines about recovery but the lines 'cherchez-la dans le coin, je la connias,' as if that moment of fear were perpetually present to him). These emotional elements are much like those in Hamm's chronicle, but the reversed roles and the alternate parent are significant differences. As Beckett finally chose to formulate the play, mothers are negligible and fathers are of central importance; and the son's pain comes not from loss of the parent (by death) but from loss of the parent's care (which results in the child's death)."] At the same time, the story has allowed him to disguise this revelation as fiction: he is not saying anything about him and Nagg; he is only making up events and details to pass the time. And yet this story is also a reckoning, a way to account for his life and himself. He is able to give up, to end, to die only when "time is over, reckoning closed and story ended." These words introduce that final moment of his narrative, which has just been discussed. He can terminate that narrative only after he has reached the stage in it when he can say, however colloquially, "there I am"; only then is the story "enough." He has recounted his deepest feelings of neglect, resentment, and hatred (felt as a child and reenacted in reversed roles as an adult), but in doing this he has also disguised and protected himself. He has never had to say "I" except as a supposedly fictional narrator.

The final seconds of the play dramatize what the story has also revealed. Thinking he has already lost both father and son, Hamm continues to divest himself of the things that give him solace—he throws away the dog, he throws away the whistle, he repeats the announcement "Discard." Only one possession remains, his handkerchief, and his word for it betrays with concentrated irony everything that the chronicle has revealed. "Old stancher!" he says, "You … remain." At the beginning and at the end of the play, Hamm's first and last words contain this rather unusual term, "old stancher." Its immediate meaning is available to the audience without a dictionary, but in its etymology it carries a grim pun that establishes once more how bereft Hamm feels.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several meanings of the basic term "stanch:" to stop the flow of water, the flow of blood; to stop a leak, to make something watertight; to quench, repress, extinguish (thirst, appetite, hatred, anger); to weary. And under the noun form "stancher" ("One who or that which stanches"), two examples are particularly apt: "This is the first and chiefest Bloud stencher" and "Friendship, stancher of our wounds and sorrows." The two most familiar modern uses of this word correspond to these two earlier literary examples. The audience does not need a dictionary in hand because it certainly knows the clichés "a staunch friend" and "to stanch a wound." "Friend," "wound," love and death: Beckett makes capital of these two apparently distant associations contained in Hamm's exclamation, "Old stancher! (Pause) You … remain."

Literally this stancher is the "large blood-stained handkerchief" which covers Hamm's face when the play opens and which he replaces when the play ends. It stops the flow of blood, and thus is a true and loyal friend. It literally stands by him when all else fails and must be discarded. The irony of this reference and its associations comes from the fact that "blood" itself has failed Hamm, blood relationships. Fathers and sons, sources of life and sustenance during both infancy and old age, have not been loyal and true. Fathers and sons seem, in fact, to cause "wounds and sorrows," not to bind them up. There is no young boy (as in the chronicle) to solace Hamm's "last million last moments." He is left with just a bloody rag of extinction, himself and his story ended.

In addition to this extensive use of a single narrative, Endgame also contains shorter narrative forms of the kind … seen in Waiting for Godot: the joke and the anecdote. When Hamm begins his brief recital "I once knew a madman," he is ostensibly recounting an event he actually experienced, as distinct from his chronicle, which is presented in its form and context as first-person narrative fiction. This anecdote is brief, moving, self-contained, recounted once and not referred to again:

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!


He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.


He alone had been spared.




It appears the case is … was not so … so unusual.

This flash of memory into Hamm's mind makes perfect sense in context: he and Clov have been talking about the desolation all around them, the unburied dead who once were bonny "like a flower of the field"; they both are present in a room which, like that asylum, imprisons them, opening out, through windows, on the world outside. It is not unusual that the wreck of this present world should remind Hamm of that painter in the past who only perceived ashes and devastation. What is important about the memory in this context is that it shows the madman to have been a prophet. Even Hamm, in those days, saw the rising corn, the herring fleet, "all that loveliness" of fecund, nourishing nature. The painter seemed then to be insane, but he is proved, by the passage and development of time, to have been visionary—not mentally crippled, but swift. Hamm's hesitating concession, "the case is … was not so … so unusual" betrays both how pained he is by the loss of that golden world (that corn which would have fed some child, if there were beneficence) and also his awareness (kept down, like Lear's early realizations) that the madman indeed spoke true, that apparent madness was in fact real sanity.

Much critical commentary on Endgame has associated the play with postnuclear destruction. It is interesting in this regard to compare Hamm's anecdote of the mad painter with Alain Resnais's film Hiroshima Mon Amour, where scenes of lovemaking are counterpointed with memory flashes of maimed and burned bodies. Or, for that matter, to go back in time to the medieval and renaissance tradition of memento mori with its countless woodcut emblems showing the beautiful woman (to take only one example) gazing into her mirror which reflects the skeleton she will become. This apocalyptic vision, to see the ashes of "all that loveliness" even while it still flourishes is, apparently, as Hamm reluctantly realizes, "not so unusual." His reply to Clov's observation that "There are so many terrible things" has an interesting double meaning to it: "No, no, there are not so many now" seems a denial if the focus is on "now" and also a confirmation of the devastation if the focus is on "many."

Nagg and Nell's amusement over similar devastations serves as "subplot parallel" to Hamm's anecdote and chronicle. Nagg and Nell laugh heartily remembering "When we crashed on our tandem and lost our shanks," and Nagg's favorite joke about the tailor puts into comic relief the miserable state of that world, that botched creation, in which such horrors regularly occur. This "engagement joke" so tickled Nell that she capsized the canoe on Lake Como where Nagg first told it to her. "By rights we should have been drowned" does not, of course, testify to an odd kindness on the part of the cosmos but rather to that continuing misfortune which has plagued Hamm's life. With no Nagg, no Nell, no marriage, no engendering, Hamm would not have found himself where he is now, surrounded by ashes and the memories and stories by which he both looks at his misery and tries to evade it.

Kristin Morrison, "Canters and Chronicles," in her Canters and Chronicles: The Use of Narrative in the Plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, The University of Chicago Press, 1983, pp. 9-151.

Scott Cutler Shershow (essay date 1986)

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[Shershow is an American editor and critic. In the following excerpt, he remarks on comic aspects of Endgame.]

Beckett locates his comedy precisely in the no-man's-land between the play and the world. His characters and his audience face the same dilemma: they must get through their lives and we must get through the play. "What's happening, what's happening?" asks the main character of Beckett's masterpiece Endgame. The play's audiences may ask the same question—and receive the same answer: "Something is taking its course." Stranded like us in the theatrical darkness, in an unspecified landscape of future time or despairing imagination, Hamm and Clove, Nagg and Neil manage to get through "this … this … thing," somehow making their dialogue a plot and themselves characters. "We're getting on," Hamm periodically reassures us, enduring as we do, his boredom and frustration, his ironic but inextinguishable self-interest.

Endgame is comedy stripped to the skeleton, to the merest blueprint of familiar comic devices and conventions. A father and a son, a master and a servant, share a series of passing conflicts which are, as it were, much ado about nothingness: a few last moments of gallows humor just this side of paralysis and annihilation:

HAMM. Sit on him!

CLOVE. I can't sit.

HAMM. True. And I can't stand.

CLOVE. So it is.

HAMM. Every man his speciality.


No phone calls?

This comedy goes beyond malice, beyond personality itself, to the purest incongruity of matter and spirit. There are few scenes in the history of comedy where comic derision turns so fiercely, excruciatingly, to recognition. Founded on the ironic identity between theater and life, Endgame returns again and again to that most ancient and characteristic of comic devices: the joke in which the actors "break" their characters and reveal frankly that the play is just a play:

CLOVE. (He gets down, picks up the telescope, turns it on auditorium)

I see … a multitude … in transports … of joy.


That's what I call a magnifier.

(He lowers the telescope, turns toward Hamm)

Well, don't we laugh?

HAMM. (After reflection) I don't.

CLOVE. (After reflection) Nor I.

Here Beckett nods to the convention, but leaves his spectators separate and distant, their laughter disconnected from its object. In the comic tradition, by contrast, when a witty servant confides his schemes to the peanut gallery, or some ironist finally tires of the contrivances of the stage—

ORLANDO. Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind!

JACQUES. Nay then God buy you, and you talk in blank verse.

                           (As You Like It)

—we are included in the action: invited to share the comedy's magic and illusion as we will share symbolically in its concluding banquet. In Beckett, the effect of these jokes is entirely different:

CLOVE. What is there to keep me here?

HAMM. The dialogue.

Hamm and Clove admit they are part of a play without breaking character, because the dialogue is indeed the means and end of their shared existence. For these characters, the very last word in comic degradation, the play is, quite literally, the thing.

But even here, in this theater and this world, the show goes on: still tying the knot of complications—

CLOVE. (He moves the telescope)

Nothing … nothing … good … good … nothing … goo—

(He starts, lowers the telescope, examines it, turns it again on the without. Pause.)

Bad luck to it!

HAMM. More complications!…

Not an underplot, I trust.

—and still striving to achieve, if not a happy ending, then any kind of ending. The fragments of wit, occasional bursts of lyricism, and random literary echoes marooned among nonsense manage to get both the characters and us through this brief theatrical and historical moment before the rest is silence. Ironic comedy can go no further. The playwright is no longer godlike: he is more like the tailor in Nagg's joke:

NAGG. … "God damn you to hell, Sir, no it's indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes, Sir, no less, Sir, than the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months?"

(Tailor's voice, scandalized)

"But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—

(Disdainful gesture, disgustedly)

—at the world—


and look—

(Loving gesture, proudly)

—at my TROUSERS!"

Just so the playwright, holding up his play to the world, finds reason, one way or another, to be proud. Here, pausing at the butt end of our days and ways, comedy constricts our movement, and pinches in sensitive places: but it still fits, it still plays, and it still matters.

Scott Cutler Shershow, "The Play and the World," in his Laughing Matters: The Paradox of Comedy, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986, pp. 89-102.

Richard Dutton (essay date 1986)

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[In the excerpt below, Dutton focuses on the relationship between Hamm's and Nagg's stories and the overall setting and meaning of Endgame.]

Endgame, [like Waiting for Godot] has its echo of The Tempest. But where Lucky remembered divine Miranda, Hamm derisively recalls the world-weary Prospero: 'Our revels now are ended. (He gropes for the dog.)' The difference is of a piece with the difference between Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The latter is at once a bleaker and a more perplexing play. Vladimir and Estragon have their basic health, for all their disappointments and discomforts, whereas Hamm is confined to a wheelchair, blood intermittently flowing from his head, and Clov is stiff-limbed, unable to sit down. Pozzo and Lucky degenerate physically in the course of the earlier play, but their situation is never so extreme, so dehumanised as that of Nagg and Nell, immobile in their ash-cans. The bare stage of Godot, with its focal tree, is an open metaphor for anywhere, at any time, but those ash-cans and the rest of the colourless set in which they stand pose a more disturbing challenge to our understanding, to our sense of the reality of the situation. Endgame is chillingly fixed within a room, but one that is as difficult to account for, in conventional terms, as are the events that take place within it.

The play in effect challenges us to find a metaphor that will explain or accommodate its abnormalities. The two favourite 'solutions' have been to see it as depicting either one of the last pockets of life after a (nuclear?) holocaust or the dying moments inside the skull of someone who has suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. But neither of these is totally satisfactory: the emphasis of the play seems more on progressive degeneration than on sudden cataclysm, and anyway it refuses to succumb to a single, rational interpretation. Perhaps it is more fruitful to start from the observation that, for all the difficulties it poses, Endgame is an intensely self-reflexive play, endlessly commenting on its own genesis and progress. Clov's opening words, for example—'Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished'—refer as much to the play/performance as they do to anything else, while Hamm is always conscious of the theatrical context in which he exists. When Clov asks, 'What is there to keep me here?' Hamm replies, 'The dialogue'. Towards the end he becomes irate when Clov misunderstands the force of something he says, '(angrily). An aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before? (Pause.) I'm warming up for my last soliloquy'. These moments of self-consciousness provide a running commentary on the play and its meaning, though it is one we should always treat warily:

HAMM. We're not beginning to … to … mean something?

CLOV. Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh) Ah that's a good one!

Bearing this in mind, we may approach the bleak and perplexing nature of Endgame through two of its most sustained passages of self-commentary, the stories told by Nagg and Hamm. These are not overtly 'about' the play itself—though the latter, as we shall see, is intriguingly adjacent in its subject matter—but both are verbal entertainments, interrupted by their authors with observations on style and performance, and as such mirror the wider verbal entertainment of which they form a part. They are very similar, in effect, to plays-within-plays in Renaissance drama, which always mirror in some sense the plays in which they occur. Nagg's story is a well-polished produce of the raconteur's art, as carefully tailored as the trousers of which it tells, gathering in fluency and profanity until its disdainful climax. As such, it stands out markedly from the dialogue around it, with Hamm's peremptory observations and Nell's wistful reminiscences, and even more markedly from the broader context of meandering repetition, aimless conversation and staccato demands for 'pap' and painkiller. The very fact that the story has a discernible climax sets it in antithesis to the play. It tells of a time when men had pride and a purpose in what they did, setting themselves a Renaissance goal—however difficult it might prove to achieve—of improving in their art on the nature of the world as they found it. ("'But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—(disdainful gesture, disgustedly)—at the world—(pause)—and look—(loving gesture, proudly)—at my TROUSERS!'"). It is set ('the bluebells are blowing') against the season of spring, with all its traditional associations of vigour and aspiration. The irony, of course, is that it is the tale of a pair of trousers told by a legless man, a mocking survival of the past in every respect. It has no real validity in the present, as the indifference of the immediate audience, and Nagg's own depressed conviction that 'I never told it worse' underline. This is typical of the play's constant evocations of the past. Echoes of a time when life had a purpose, language had grace and meaning, and the arts communicated vigorously with their audiences only underline the loss of such qualities in the Endgame world—epitomised by the picture with its face to the wall.

This, surely, is the force of the Shakespearean echoes in the play. The revels to which Hamm alludes—the mysteries of the masque of Juno, Ceres and Iris which Prospero stages for Ferdinand and Miranda—are a long time gone in this world. It seems absurdly melodramatic, moreover, that Hamm should evoke the climax of Richard III—'My kingdom for a nightman!'—in his fit of exasperation with Nagg and Nell: melodramatic and in poor taste, given that a nightman is someone employed to remove night-soil—so that Shakespeare's moment of high drama has been reduced to a moment of pique and disgust. The two quotations, ironically transposed as they are, have similar effects in the broader context of the play. Both evoke masters of enterprise, politicians in their different styles—Prospero, the Renaissance mage, and Richard, the Machiavel—but focus on their moments of world-weariness and defeat. These are important moments in the Shakespearean originals, no doubt, but only moments; yet the moods they represent threaten totally to engulf the less ambitious and less articulate world of Endgame.

What caused the decline from Renaissance energy to Endgame apathy is never explained, though possibilities are obliquely suggested in other memories, particularly Nagg and Nell's recollections of a free and mobile past. Nagg's story is actually associated with their happiness, rowing on Lake Como, though also with a capsizing that almost drowned them. They also remember cycling on a tandem in the Ardennes, on the road to Sedan—a memory coloured by its association with a crash that lost them their 'shanks'. For the audience, the further association of these two places with the First World War may obliquely hint at what brought such a carefree, sugar-plum existence to an end. An even obliquer hint in the same direction may occur in the preamble to Hamm's story, where he refers to 'Something dripping in my head, ever since the fontanelles'. The latter phrase is an extremely odd one. The fontanelle is the soft, uncovered spot on a new-born baby's head, before the plates of the skull have joined together. So Hamm seems to be saying 'ever since birth'. But why be so circuitous about it, and why use the plural? It may be that Beckett is playing on the sound and shape of a relatively unfamiliar word, and so conjuring with the more familiar sound and shape of 'Dardanelles'—the scene of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. The phrase 'ever since the Dardanelles', in the context of a head-wound, would be much more conventional English than 'ever since the fontanelles', and perhaps the net effect of this aural pun is a running together of birth and battle which would be quite appropriate in this play.

If this punning seems a little far-fetched, it is worth noting that two lines later Hamm/Beckett again plays with the aural ambiguity of words: 'Perhaps it's a little vein. (Pause.) A little artery. (Pause.)'. Does the listener hear 'vein' or 'vain'?—particularly given that Nagg has previously mocked Hamm's self-dramatisations about the dropping in his head (including the phrase, 'Perhaps it's a little vein') as a piece of vanity. The addition of 'A little artery' seems at first to confirm that we are dealing with blood vessels, but the pause after that phrase allows the word 'artery' to reverberate and perhaps break down into art-ery—a product of art or affectation, chiming with vanity. No precision is possible here because the text is straining at—playing with—the limits of language itself, in typically tragicomic manner. This is the nature of language in the post-Renaissance, post-First World War of Endgame—an unpredictable medium, an untrustworthy tool, a gamble. And the stories that language embodies have the same qualities.

Hamm's story is not as finished as Nagg's; it has an openendedness which is far more in tune with the play as a whole. Indeed, it co-exists with the play, and may even overlap it, in very pointed ways. When the main telling of the story dries up, it does so with observations—'I'll soon have finished with this story. (Pause.) Unless I bring in other characters. (Pause.) But where would I find them?'—that might be those of Beckett on his play at this juncture, as much as of Hamm on his story. And in fact the story does not end here. Hamm intermittently adds details and tried new wordings for it until the dying moments of the play.

The contiguity of Hamm's story and Beckett's play is announced in the preamble, when Hamm's gloomy reflection—'It's finished, we're finished. (Pause.) Nearly finished.'—so closely echoes Clov's opening words to the play. Thereafter, a range of possible overlaps emerges, hinging principally on the fact that the story is a first-person narrative. Hamm never asserts that the 'I' of the story is in fact himself, and the narrative tone he adopts for the story-telling always preserves some distance between the two of them, but there are sufficient similarities in their manner and circumstances to suggest that it is likely. His puzzled reaction to the idea of introducing new characters into the story—'But where would I find them?'—further confirms the possibility; his powers of pure invention seem to be as diminished as any other commodity in the play, so the likelihood that his story is based on 'fact', however embroidered in the telling, is all the stronger. The most marked similarities between the character in the story and the character in the play are the histrionic, dictatorial manner and the implication that he alone can dispense food and patronage; on the other hand, the 'I' in the story seems to be fit and mobile, busily putting up his festive decorations and only troubled by a touch of lumbago—a far cry from the haemorrhaging figure confined to his wheelchair. This is easily explained, however, if the events of the story are some time in the past, when Hamm was a younger man; this would further allow the possibility that the 'little boy' was Clov and the man his father, who (if this is 'true') must have disappeared from the scene very shortly after these events:

HAMM. Do you remember when you came here?

CLOV. No. Too small, you told me.

HAMM. Do you remember your father?

CLOV. (Wearily) Same answer.

Of course, this version of how Clov came to be with Hamm may be just as much, or as little, fiction ('you told me') as the story itself.

The timing of the story in the past, perhaps the late Victorian era, is suggested by a few incidental details. The character speaks of lighting a meerschaum pipe with 'let us say a vesta', while distance is measured by 'a good half-day, on horse'. While the timing of the 'present' in the play is never fixed, these details seem pointedly anachronistic, like the memories of Nagg and Nell. They chime, moreover, with one of the marked characteristics of the character telling the story, his obsession with a certain kind of scientific or technological factuality, constantly measuring the weather: 'zero by the thermometer'; 'fifty by the heliometer'; 'a hundred by the anemometer'; 'zero by the hygrometer'. The mixture of meerschaum and scientific data perhaps evokes the popular image of Sherlock Holmes: it certainly evokes the dispassionate, rather autocratic assumption of an absolute and verifiable physical truth which is often associated with late-Victorian science and finds its archetype in Sherlock Holmes. At its most extreme, it can be a heartless doctrine of the survival of the fittest, as in the character's contemptuous conviction of his own superiority over the man on his belly and his little boy ('as if the sex mattered')—a conviction not even shaken by the fact that this is Christmas Eve, with its message of peace on earth, good-will to all men. The outward show of decorations takes precedence over any question of human feelings or spiritual needs.

The position of the arrogant man of science is not as secure, however, as he would like to believe. For one thing, a heliometer would not give him the reading he so confidently ascribes to it; a heliometer measures the angles between the stars, or possibly the diameter of the sun, but not its brightness, for which some form of photometer would be necessary. Moreover, if all his measurements were correct, he would be in the midst of extreme, not to say apocalyptic weather conditions—hardly the time to be lording it over some unfortunate suppliant. This may help to explain the anticlimactic ending: just as the character relishes his triumph over the defiant suitor, Hamm's powers of invention flag and the performance ends lamely and ironically, like a sermon: 'Let us pray to God'. At least for the time being, religious faith of a sort wins out over scientific truth.

In what ways does this story mirror or comment on Endgame as a whole? Whether or not it literally describes Hamm's past and how Clov came into his service, it emblematically describes (as does Nagg's story) a stage in the intellectual and emotional journey to the Endgame world. Where Nagg's tailor had a zeal to improve on nature as he found it, the 'I' in the story is determined to dominate both it and his fellow men by force of character and by the powers of scientific reason. Both approaches fail. The myth of progress (and the art of story-telling which it in some respects resembles) evaporates in the light of human inadequacy and of the overwhelming forces both of time and of nature that oppose them. The world that is left in Endgame has neither zeal nor conviction, neither faith nor reason, though habits of arrogance and servitude linger on in Hamm and Clov respectively, like the memories of Nagg and Nell. The movement towards extinction seems assured. And yet it never comes: 'Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished'; 'It's finished, we're finished. (Pause.) Nearly finished'. Both Clov and Hamm start from the proposition that they have finished but retreat, reluctantly, to 'nearly finished'. Unlike Christ, whose final words on the Cross they are doubtless both of them echoing, they cannot achieve the satisfaction of completion. Like Hamm's story, like the play itself, they 'remain' (the play's final word) rather than end.

The speaker in Hamm's story doubted whether the little boy existed, much less could still be alive. Clov's survival into the present may just be testimony that he was wrong. By the same token, Clov's claim to see with his telescope 'a small boy' may be true, despite all the suggestions throughout the play that such development is impossible. The existence of such a 'potential procreator', as Clov calls him, might imply that life of a sort would go on, perhaps even if Clov were to leave Hamm. This is a measure of the irreducible level not so much of optimism as of pertinacity in the play. Hamm and Clov seem to form one of the sterile symbiotic relationships which are a hallmark of modern tragicomedy; each apparently needs the other to survive—Hamm chairbound, unable to reach the larder on his own, Clov mobile but not knowing the combination of the larder. They seem indispensable to each other, even though little love is lost between them: 'It's we are obliged to each other' is how Hamm Irishly puts it at the end, though Clov's version is equally valid: 'If I could kill him I'd die happy'—a sardonic summing-up of their interdependence. Yet the existence of the boy would allow the possibility of their independent survival: the boy could replace Clov with Hamm, and Clov might survive outside, since Hamm's claim that 'Outside of here it's death' would demonstrably not be true. This would be a new character for Hamm's story, just as he despaired of finding one. Life, the story and the play would go into another chapter, another act, bleaker no doubt than the present, further fallen from the glories of the past, but unquenched.

This is the real location of the play: not a particular time and space, but a place in the life-cycle, whether it be of an individual, or of a society and its civilisation, or of the human species. It represents a syndrome of moments before extinction, dragged out interminably by habit and will: finished, nearly finished is the emotional climate of the whole play, however we interpret its perplexing particularities. It is an emotional climate that virtually precludes the tragicomic hope of redemption which is so central to Waiting for Godot. Indeed, Endgame could be seen as a remorseless closing down of the possibilities both of meaning and salvation which the earlier play had grudgingly kept alive. 'We're not beginning to … to … mean something?' asks Hamm, with an incredulity that underlines just how unthinkable that is in this play. The emphasis here is not on waiting and the future, but on remembering a past to which the present seems a pointless addendum. Yet the past, as it is recalled and transmuted into 'art' by Nagg and Hamm, really has less to pride itself on than might be assumed: the trousers never achieved the desired perfection, and scientific rationalism was not the answer to everything it claimed to be. The presumption that the past was better—that life and civilisation had meaning, and so could make sense of the immense mysteries of time, age and death—is shown to be fallacious, and as that happens priorities change. The mere fact of survival into the present takes on an unlooked-for dignity, which is compounded by at least the possibility that it will go on into yet another generation. In such ironic topsyturveydom, the mere fact of 'remaining' becomes itself the miracle solution for which tragicomedy is always looking, and the play's 'strangeness' becomes a way of celebrating the mysterious fact that life goes on despite the odds. The mere performance or reading of so artfully self-absorbed a play becomes a proof of that fact. Every new performance or reading of Endgame is thus a little miracle in itself, a continuation and celebration—however weary—of the mystery of life, a tragicomedy despite itself.

Richard Dutton, in a review of "Endgame," in his Modern Tragicomedy and the British Tradition: Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, Albee and Storey, The Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 81-9.

Paul Lawley (essay date December 1988)

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[In the essay below, Lawley analyzes the significance of the theme of adoption in Endgame.]

The terminal world of Beckett's Endgame, with its "corpsed" aspect outside the stage-refuge and its barbed play inside, sustains life solely, it seems, by reason of its ruler's procrastination. "Enough, it's time it ended, in the refuge too," proclaims Hamm at the outset. "And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to … to end." His hesitation is a problem not least because of "that hatred of nature as process (birth and copulation and death) which runs through the whole play" [Ronald Gaskell, Drama and Reality, 1972]. For if Hamm's hesitation necessitatesa prolongation of life in the refuge, the processes of nature, in one form or another, are surely unavoidable.

There is one course of action open to Hamm which offers perpetuation of life without direct involvement in the processes of nature: adoption. Indeed, this seems to be a vital means of continuation for the (now) refuge-dynasty. The legless, ashbin-bound Nagg and Nell are the biological parents of Hamm, but Hamm's central narrative, referred to by him as his "chronicle" though presented as a fiction, provides a possible version of the adoption of Clov, Hamm's present servant and "son." The crucial question towards the end of the play surrounds the possible adoption of a small boy reported by Clov to be still alive outside the refuge. In view of these instances, one is not surprised that, according to S.E. Gontarski [in The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts, 1985], a note written as Beckett was embarking on a two-act holograph of the play "suggests that [Hamm's] father and son are adopted; that is, Nagg too may have been someone taken into the shelter as a servant: 'A un père adoptif / un fils adoptif.'" Thus although three generations are represented on the stage, we cannot be sure, despite what is said, that the characters constitute a genetic line.

The connection between adoption and servanthood is an important one. Hamm sees all relationships, whether with his "son" or with his toy dog (these two are associated more than once), with his retainers or with his "bottled" father, in terms of dominance and servitude. Upon an adopted son he can bring to bear a pressure of obligation:

HAMM. … It was I was a father to you.

CLOV. Yes. (He looks at Hamm fixedly) You were that to me.

HAMM. My house a home for you.

CLOV. Yes. (He looks about him) This was that for me.

HAMM. (Proudly) But for me (Gesture towards himself) no father. But for Hamm (Gesture towards surroundings) no home.

The adopted child is expected to feel he owes a debt because he was chosen. The trouble with biological parenthood, as one of the play's funniest exchanges suggests, is that you can't choose:

HAMM. Scoundrel! Why did you engender me?

NAGG. I didn't know.

HAMM. What? What didn't you know?

NAGG. That it'd be you.

Hamm's experience in his relationship with Clov has been one of dominance and control, as much now (at least on the face of it) as in the scenario of choice so lovingly fictionalized in the chronicle. In contrast Nagg has always been a subject of his son. In his toothless second childhood, the immobile papa calls out to his own child for "me pap!" and, having been tricked into listening to Hamm's chronicle by the promise of a non-existent sugar-plum, he presents a rich counterpoint to his current situation in his "curse." The counterpoint suggests that Hamm has retained power over his father not by growing into an independent adult but by remaining a dependent son:

Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark? Your mother? No. Me. We let you cry. Then we moved you out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace. (Pause) I was asleep, as happy as a king, and you woke me up to have me listen to you. It wasn't indispensable, you didn't really need to have me listen to you. Besides I didn't listen to you. (Pause) I hope the day will come when you'll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice.

Hamm's need, both then (despite Nagg's claim) and now, is the need to exert power wilfully, even arbitrarily. As a biological son yet an adoptive father he is in an ideal position to fulfill that need.

Nagg's curse presents a scene of familial usurpation ("as happy as a king") and in doing so invites an Oedipal interpretation. Yet Endgame is concerned less with the dynamics of relations between father and mother and son than, as I have suggested, with the opposition of two kinds of dynastic perpetuation, biological and adoptive. In the following analysis I want to consider the significance of adoption, first in Hamm's chronicle, then in the play as a whole.

Alternating its "narrative tone" with the "normal tone" used by Hamm to comment on his own varying powers of composition, the chronicle tells of how a surviving vassal of Hamm's came begging him for bread for his child. Hamm recounts how, though doubting the very existence of the child, he proceeded to berate the man for his stupidity, optimism, and irresponsibility. The climax of the narrative, Hamm's decision about the child, is prepared with relish but never delivered:

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. (Pause. Normal tone.) 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.

The melodrama of the confrontation with the defiant vassal rather distracts from the decision about adoption, but it enables an effectively bathetic interruption to be made by the narrator's reflexive anxieties. The contrast is jolting, yet there is a striking similarity of phrasing which occurs across the division of "narrative" and "normal" tones: "Would I consent to take in the child …"; "Unless I bring in other characters." The resemblance invites us to consider the fictionalized situation in terms of the fictionalizer's situation, the narration of situation in terms of the situation of narration—and vice-versa. The difference between the two dimensions is diminished further by Hamm's speaking of the narrator's situation ("bring in other characters") in spatial metaphors ("where would I find them?… Where would I look for them?") which would apply literally to the fictional situation (where was the vassal's child?—"assuming he existed,"). The aesthetic dimension of the chronicle and the experiential dimension of the chronicler move into identity through the figure of adoption: Hamm the tyrant might "take in the child" as Hamm the narrator might "bring in other characters." In each case adoption is the sole means of continuance. We can go further: in Endgame adoption is a figure for the fictional process itself, the only acceptable means of self-perpetuation for characters who reject the processes of nature.

A similar movement between dimensions is apparent when we consider the idea of termination in the play. "I'll soon have finished with this story," says Hamm. When, moments later, Clov enters in response to the whistle, he announces that there is a rat in the kitchen:

HAMM. And you haven't exterminated him?

CLOV. Half. You disturbed us.

HAMM. He can't get away?


HAMM. You'll finish him later. Let us pray to God. (my emphasis)

To be finished with something is different from having finished it. Yet the odd thing here is that though it is the narrator Hamm who has finished with something, it is the ratkiller Clov whose activity is spoken of in the way one might speak of a story: the story-teller might be more frequently said to have finished his story than to have finished with it. The aesthetic connotation of "finish" (as opposed to "finish with") is strongly present—largely because of insistent repetition—in an earlier exchange:

HAMM. Why don't you finish us? (Pause) I'll tell you the combination of the larder if you promise to finish me.

CLOV. I couldn't finish you.

HAMM. Then you shan't finish me.

The primary meaning of "finish" is clear. But, in addition, it is as though Hamm himself is a story that needs to be finished (off). The poise in (or of) the word is as delicate here as it is in the opening phrases of the play: "Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished." Within Clov's sentence is the feeling not just of some experience coming to an end, but (especially after the opening ritual) of a predetermined pattern about to be completed. The inflections are distinct even though combined.

The moment near the end of the play when Clov sights what looks "like a small boy!" brings together the themes of adoption (and continuance through fiction) and of termination. Having made the sighting, Clov makes for the door with the gaff:


(Clov halts)

CLOV. No? A potential procreator?

HAMM. If he exists he'll die there or he'll come here. And if he doesn't …


CLOV. You don't believe me? You think I'm inventing?


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

In this episode the adoption-decision is transferred out of the narrative dimension of the chronicle into the dimension of the action itself. Again a migration is effected: the episode from the fictional narrative is "adopted" by the actual dramatic world, or, more accurately, by Clov. But, crucially, the element of indeterminacy in the chronicle-version ("assuming he existed") has now assumed a pivotal position. Hamm's decision to end turns, it seems, not upon the decision to take in or not take in the small boy, but upon his belief that Clov is "inventing." At last Hamm too perceives adoption as the figure of fiction-as-continuance. Even though Clov intends to kill the boy, it is his proposal of the fiction that matters, his attempt to bring the boy in to their life-story. Hamm resists. "Not an underplot, I trust," he exclaims when Clov first registers an outside presence. He puts himself in the position of a spectator at his own endgame. "It's the end … we've come to the end"—not just of the experience but of the game's aesthetic pattern too: the statement is poised between the participator's (or actor's) perception of termination and the spectatorial perception of it. It is this profoundly uneasy poise which ultimately thwarts the "attempt to determine if Endgame imitates the act of dying or whether it imitates a game in which the players pretend to move towards death" [Charles R. Lyons, Samuel Beckett, 1983].

Few texts can be more explicitly structured upon binary oppositions than Endgame. "Outside of here it's death" announces Hamm, and in doing so he loads the onstage/offstage, inside/outside opposition with a decisive weight of signification. Upon this fundamental prescription the play's other oppositions—past/present, land/sea, nature/non-nature, light/darkness—depend. Some of the routines and jokes even underline the habit of polarization:

(Enter Clov holding by one of its three legs a black toy dog)

CLOV. Your dogs are here.

(He hands the dog to Hamm who feels it, fondles it)

HAMM. He's white, isn't he?

CLOV. Nearly.

HAMM. What do you mean, nearly? Is he white or isn't he?

CLOV. He isn't.

And when Clov reports that the light outside is "GRREY!", Hamm queries the information, eliciting the confirmation: "Light black. From pole to pole" (my emphasis).

The ubiquitous patterns of opposition form an essential context for the operation of the figure of adoption. We have seen that adoption, as presented in the play, involves a negotiation between the distinct areas or terms of an opposition, a crossing of vital boundaries for the purposes of the perpetuation of life. Yet if adoption is the agency of perpetuation, it is also an operation which cannot avoid compromising the stability of the world it is designed to maintain. In examining the climax of Hamm's chronicle, we were able to identify two distinct dimensions: that of the narrative, in which the fictionalized Hamm decides whether or not to take the vassal's child into the refuge, and that of the narrator, the actual dimension of the drama, in which the Hamm we see on the stage decides whether or not to bring other characters into his story. Although each of these dimensions insists upon a sharp inside/outside opposition, with a definite boundary, they themselves, despite separation by a boundary apparently no less definite (that between inset story and dramatic action, narrative of situation and situation of narrative) are blurred together by the association of the child Hamm might "take in" and the characters he might "bring in." For this is an association, a merging, of Hamm's art and his life. His life contains art, certainly, but we cannot be sure that the reverse is not also true: does art "contain" his life? Is he (self-) invented, a story? ("… if you promise to finish me.")

It is at the moment Clov sights—or invents—the small boy outside the refuge that the fictional chronicle impinges most strongly upon the stage-world. The process by which action echoes—or has been pre-echoed by—fiction at this point brings the question of the ontological status of the stage-world to crisis-point—and both characters recognize this. Hamm's refusal constitutes a decision not to adopt a fresh fiction into the stage-world rather than a decision not to take in a child. Indeed, by acknowledging the possibility of fiction ("You think I'm inventing?") Hamm is uncovering the process which has enabled the game to continue. Now he can begin to renounce: "It's the end, Clov, we've come to the end …" And yet this renunciation of fiction can be read, and played, as a grand theatrical gesture, a richly fictional moment. As ever in Beckett, it is the imagination-dead-imagine stalemate.

In a chapter entitled "Marking and Merging Horizons" in his book The Modern Stage and Other Worlds, Austin E. Quigley suggests that "the glass walls marking the borders of Mrs. Alving's house in Ibsen's Ghosts become, in many ways, a summarizing image of the solid but permeable horizons of the modern theatre. The solid penetrability of the glass wall gradually becomes an emblem of repeatedly asserted but repeatedly undermined divisions between inner and outer, good and bad, past and present, self and other, and so on." The refuge of Endgame reproduces Mrs. Alving's house in a terminal phase. The divisions are more starkly asserted and the mergings correspondingly more radical, for the zone of action is now ontological and being itself is at stake. The figure of adoption is the agency through which this world of divisions is perpetuated, yet it also precipitates those mergings which compromise the divisions. In this way it simultaneously establishes and renders unstable the very ground upon which Endgame is played out. Adoption in Endgame makes, and unmakes, a world of difference.

Paul Lawley, "Adoption in 'Endgame'," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 529-35.

Shimon Levy (essay date 1990)

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[In the excerpt below, Levy analyzes Beckett's use of space in Endgame.]

In a play "you have definite space and people in this space. That's relaxing" [Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett, 1973]. But the actual locations Beckett chooses for his characters and for the actors who play them, is anything but relaxing. In the first plays there is at least something an actor can relate to spatially—a country road and a tree; an empty room with two windows, two ashbins and a wheelchair; a mound in the middle of a "trompe l'oeil" desert. In later plays the actors find urns, a narrow-lit strip to pace on, a hole in the backdrop to stick a head as a mouth through. In some plays pieces of furniture are deliberately detached from the room to which they might have belonged—a bench, a table, a rocking chair. The rest of the stage space is referred to in words, lights, gestures and movement, etc. Some of the characters dwell on the very edge of the stage, suggesting that their existence is psychologically interior and real rather than exterior and fictitious.

Beckett characters are well aware of their spaces and stage locations; they go through precise routines of examining their whereabouts. In most plays they refer to their location first and foremost as a stage in a theatre; only then might they make other suggestions to where they are. There exists a whole range of unease between a Beckett character and his space—from slight discomfort to excruciating pain and suffering. In actually referring space to themselves, or describing it as a space of themselves, the plays manage to turn the public event of a theatre performance into a highly private matter. Lack of specificity on stage naturally avoids the realistic fallacy; rather, it calls for a process of "gap filling." Indeterminacies in the text … can here be seen in theatrical-performative and actual terms rather than as just "reading" into lines. In presenting a stage full with emptiness, Beckett activates the audience's imagination and involvement, and extends an invitation to make this stage space their own: a well-furnished fully decorated stage is perhaps more appealing at first sight, yet it cannot compete with the suggestiveness of an empty one….

The play most concerned with space is Endgame, where the stage is presented as the only still barely living place on earth. The main motif of waiting in Waiting for Godot is here replaced with "I'll leave you—you can't," justified by the "objective" statement "there's nowhere else." Waiting is associated mainly with time; location is of lesser importance. Perhaps the meeting with Godot is to take place somewhere else on the open-ended road. Accordingly, the activity in a "waiting for … waiting" play is a centrifugal pressure toward the outside. With all its variations of inner and outer places, psychological spaces and many "voids in enclosure" (which serve as spatial metonyms), Endgame examines the confinements of a location "finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished."

The characters in Endgame embody three stages of immobility, each governed by a corresponding limitation of space. Clov confines himself to his relatively large kitchen space (10m. × 10m.); Hamm is confined to his armchair on castors but can be moved; Nagg and Nell can only raise their heads out of the ashbins. In addition, the characters are all closed in by the stage, actors and audience are closed in by the theatre, and so on, ad infinitum; no one can escape.

Clov's opening moves in the play establish stage space by examining it. Stiffly staggering through the room, Clov defines the shape and size of the playing area; he moves sideways and downstage-upstage, and climbs up to the windows. His moves are related to the inside and outside worlds, and to the various "lids" and curtains that lie between them. He completes his trip in stage space by dryly commenting: "Nice dimensions, nice proportions."

The outside is said to include "earth," "sea," "hills," "nature," "flora," "pomona." Inner or closed space is represented by covers, and by closed and covered props and objects—ashbins, windows, the handkerchief on Hamm's face, the sheets over the bins—and in the dialogue: "here we're in a hole" or "put me in my coffin." Significantly, body and heart are also described in terms of closed space: "last night I saw the inside of my breast" and "the bigger a man is, the fuller he is … and the emptier."

It soon becomes clear that the concept of outer space and the possibility of escaping there is illusory. "Outside of here it's dead," says Hamm. Morbid imagery dominates references to the outside: "corpsed", "extinguished", "zero", "ashes" and "grey." Reversing the picture of Creation, in which Light, Earth and Water were the beginning of life, Beckett here reduces life to a blood-stained "old stancher." The room, grim as it is, remains the last source of life. In order to avoid a new beginning, a re-creation of the world, the rat will die outside and the little boy will not be allowed in. The colorful and lively scene of fishing on open seas dissipates into "there is no more nature." Nature exists, but only as a negative force: "We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!"

Through his manipulation of space, Beckett implies that spatial relationships and structures on stage correspond to the relationship between stage and audience. The characters are provided with various "lids" which reveal or unveil: a telescope, glasses, sheets, curtains. Through the curtains, however, one sees only death, the telescope detects nothing but extinction, and the sheets, once removed, reveal the pitiful sight of Hamm. All are momentary glimpses into closed and open spaces. Inasmuch as Clov brings Hamm information from the outside, he brings the same information to the audience. Opening lids, uncovering sheets and drawing back curtains suggest a person looking inside himself, and a stage being opened and exposed to the audience. The audience is drawn into the act of looking out, but the audience is on the "outside" and so ends up looking at itself. Like Clov, the audience cannot escape. Relationships among the characters mirror their spatial arrangement on stage. Clov's yearning to leave Hamm is counteracted by Hamm's paralysis and lack of will; Nagg and Nell echo this oppressive bond. The outer space for which Clov supposedly longs is suggested on stage by the two windows facing away from the audience. But the audience is also on the outside. Thus a third parallel is implied in the relationship between audience and actors, whereby the audience's yearning for freedom is counteracted by the actor's entrapment, or vice versa. Nagg and Nell, confined to their bins, often fantasize about far and open places. They speak of the Ardennes, the road to Sedan and Lake Como. Hamm, just a little more mobile than his parents, is interested in his immediate surroundings rather than in distant places. Clov, the most mobile character, is obsessed with his closed-in kitchen space. He says: "I love order. It's my dream. A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust." Beckett thus endows his most stationary characters with memory and imagination that can compensate them for their immobility, while his more mobile characters yearn for close and closed spaces.

Ultimately, the stage in Endgame is a self-reflective metaphor of internal or inner space. Because Hamm is blind, his perception of space is already interior; he can indeed look only inside his breast. Throughout the play, Hamm's gaze is directed inwards, whereas Clov looks outwards—sometimes with the help of a telescope—and mutters vague remarks as to what he observes. Neither the audience nor Hamm is convinced that the objects he describes exist in reality. Does he invent them? Does he speak of them in order to aggravate Hamm, console him, or both? The audience, with Hamm, is forced to depend on Clov's eyes, on his repeated walks to the windows, and on his reports about "offstage."

In Waiting for Godot, Pozzo remarks, "The blind have no notion of time. The things of time are hidden from them too." But the blind do have a sense of space. By referring to its own use of space, Endgame brings us closer to the concept of internal or inner space.

Shimon Levy, in his Samuel Beckett's Self-Referential Drama: The Three I's, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990, 137 p.


Samuel Beckett World Literature Analysis


Beckett, Samuel (Drama Criticism)