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.
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.
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.