Importance of Metaphor in ‘Endgame’
It’s impossible to analyse Beckett without struggling with his work’s abstract, surreal nature; the typical minimalist language mixed with abnormal premises make it difficult to find comprehensible meaning. Due to this universal difficulty Beckett deliberately creates, his plays become open to freeform interpretation. ‘Endgame’ is the pinnacle of Beckett’s abstract style; to understand it in the usual sense is made purposefully awkward by Beckett so that each individual symbol, allusion and metaphor must be minutely explored. It’s the audience’s experience of these details, which hold immense depth, that forms ‘Endgame’s’ meaning. The play effortlessly transcends many aspects of human life, from faith to death, and Beckett forces the audience to reflect on their lives due to his completely open play, which contains many relatable fragments of life for them, that they must understand what each metaphor means. It remains debatable whether Beckett actually had strong opinions on Endgame’s subjects or whether he explores each concept simply because it’s interesting; Beckett once wrote ‘I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas.’(i) which suggests any worth audiences find in ‘Endgame’ simply arises from their own personal experience and Beckett has only slightly inspired them. However, to accept everything Beckett says about his plays is naïve. Elements of ‘Endgame’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’ can be recognised from Beckett’s life which implies that parts of the plays do have profound meaning for him. Therefore, Beckett does intend to make his audience re-examine their own lives, so I believe the statement is true.
Beckett branches into so many features of the audience’s life using metaphor that I will only look into the major metaphors and how they interact with the audience. One of the most common readings of Endgame is that it’s a single individual’s narrative and the stage is their head. This view can be easily backed up; the windows are eyes, the room is the brain and the bins are memories. The stage being a metaphor for a head has implications that hold resonance for the audience. The constant bickering between Clov and Hamm may be the internal struggle of the conscience or even the battle of super-ego and ego (Hamm being the super-ego and Clov the ego). Internal conflicts affect everyone and Beckett is reflecting them back to the audience. This may be because Beckett wants the audience to evaluate how they live; which part of their mind do they cave into? The rational Clov, who states that ‘I love order. It’s my dream.’, or the wildly emotional Hamm, who ponders, ‘Is there any misery loftier than mine?’ Beckett has no preference but simply implores the audience to understand themselves; if this theory is true then ‘Endgame’ is about an individual in complete turmoil, each character is physically injured showing how erosive internal struggle can be. The individual also loses touch with their reality; Clov describes the outside beyond the windows, the realm through the eyes, and ‘The light is sunk.’ Meaning that for the individual the tangible world has nothing to offer them, it’s dead to them because they’ve become obsessed with their own mind. Beckett warns the audience of this complete introspection as he proposes that the individual goes mad at the end of the play because Clov, a part of the mind, may leave and leave Hamm ‘crying out’ due to the ‘Infinite emptiness’.
Beckett then shows the audience that not only internal fixation leads to madness but also isolation can have similar effects. The staging has a very circular theme; the room is claustrophobic and enclosed as well as the stage being symmetrical. At one point Hamm demands to be moved around in a circle and then requests to be exactly in the stage’s centre emphasising the symmetrical, circular nature of the play. This cyclical pattern mirrors how an individual survives when faced with severe isolation, the mundane routine repeated endlessly. The characters experience this just as Beckett did during WWII when he spent huge periods in bleak, abandoned trenches. This is also the time when he suffered severe depression. This is one of Beckett’s clearest messages to the audience, it’s not an ambiguous symbol, he is stating with clarity that a person mustn’t be alone. Beckett even emphasises this by referencing ‘Dante’s Inferno’; as Hamm listens through the wall he describes it as ‘the other hell’ which has allusions to the cyclical qualities of the 9 stages of Hell. Being alone, for Beckett, is Hell.
The main source of dramatic tension in the play is whether Clov will leave Hamm. He’s told to ‘desert’ by Nell and constantly threatens Hamm by asserting ‘I’ll leave you.’ Even at the play’s end it’s unclear whether Clov leaves; the choice defines the play’s movement for the audience. This may seem as if Beckett puts choice high in human priorities, however, one line enlightens us on his true thoughts. When a rat enters the room Clov says, ‘If I don’t kill that rat he’ll die’; Beckett makes it clear to the audience that Clov is the rat. Clov may leave the room but then he’ll die as Hamm has the only food source but if he stays the food will run out and he’ll die anyway. Beckett is presenting us with the view that choice is an illusion, in a way the whole play is a farce because the dramatic tension is objectively flawed. Beckett forces audiences to assess the importance of choice in their lives and whether it adds meaning or by accepting determinism they will actually feel less responsibility and pressure, which result in the obsessive introspection, and become happier.
The characters in ‘Endgame’ provide a wealth of metaphorical possibilities, one major theme which Beckett scrutinises is the concept of memory, more specifically whether memory holds any value for an audience. The general opinion of memory, in a non-logistical form, is that it’s pleasant. Beckett uses Nagg and Nell to force audiences to re-examine this view. Both characters are consumed by their memories of ‘The Ardennes’ or on a ‘rowing boat’ except each time they reminisce they ‘laugh less heartily’. Their appearance is laughable; they are pale, old, broken and they’re located in trash bins as if they’re literally rubbish. They are gripped by memory and have lost reality; they have no influence in reality all they desire is ‘Me pap!’ They cannot even kiss anymore. Beckett sets up the clash between reality and memory using Nagg and Nell, making ultimately pathetic. Beckett believes less emphasis is needed on memory and more of life should be living the now.
The inter-dependency of Clov and Hamm is obvious from the outset, when Clov leaves the room Hamm shouts ‘Come back!’ and Clov understands that ‘There is nowhere else.’ What is very interesting about this relationship is Hamm’s main argument for their continued relationship is to ‘keep up the dialogue’ and Hamm even becomes annoyed when Clov doesn’t do this. The language is often overtly theatrical and non-naturalistic, this is because they’re trying to ‘keep up the dialogue’. When this forced language appears on stage it appears odd and uncomfortable. Beckett has created a mirror onstage; what Hamm and Clov are playing out, because they know they’re under inspection, is everyday small-talk which audiences can relate to. These conversations hold no meaning, they add nothing to our lives. In fact they’re a barrier to protect us from real meaning, which may be scary or unwelcome. Beckett is asking the audience through this phrase: ‘keep up the dialogue’ why we insist on small-talk, he’s shown them it’s actually just as painful as silence. Hamm and Clov actually move through the process of small-talk:
‘Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough.’
This firstly is a challenge from Beckett to audiences to understand ‘Endgame’, but also has much ideological weight behind it, then Clov replies to this poetry ‘I have a flea!’ Beckett produces a parallel for the audience to their life, at first the meaningful language, then the fear of what if it actually has meaning shown by the ellipses, and then finally the return to safe mundane conversation.
Beckett’s play forces us to examine one of the most concrete assumptions for humanity; that existing is good. Beckett forces us to do this by retracing the creation story, Beckett crafts the anti-creation story. The characters in ‘Endgame’ are obsessed with the end; they crave it and overall hate existence. ‘Endgame’ descends into nothing just as Genesis describes everything from nothing. The first allusion to Creation is when Hamm mentions Clov’s father was a gardener, God Eden’s creator, and that Hamm took Clov (who may represent Adam) away. Light is also constantly fading, Mother Pegg died from ‘darkness’ this is opposite to Genesis when God famously said ‘let there be light’. Hamm tells Clov that in the end there will be ‘infinite emptiness’ just like the world when it was ‘formless’. The anti-creation story of ‘Endgame’ asks us whether existence is actually innately good as we all assume; maybe there would be less pain and sorrow if nothing existed.
Inactivity and Despair in Beckett’s Dystopia
“The absence of action is intrinsic to Beckett’s vision of despair” Show how inactivity is linked to Beckett’s portrayal of a dystopia.Hamm’s realisation of the futility of the search for a meaning to life leads him to a state of satisfaction in the pursuit itself. Inaction is a word which connotes restriction of both the physical and the mental aspects of a person. Without either of these aspects progressing, humanity will, in Beckett’s view, be trapped in a state of dystopia.As Absurdist theatre, Endgame is a play which reveals to the audience the futility of the search for a meaning to life. Hamm’s realisation of this fact instead allows him to find meaning in the pursuit itself. However, pursuit connotes constant movement, a direct contrast to inaction. This cements Hamm’s reason for rejecting the very prospect of inaction. His longing for a constantly changing state is shown through his passion when he exclaims “we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth!” It is interesting, then, that Hamm longs for a state of nature which hasn’t changed and is “still green”. Rather than the constantly moving pursuit, the land free from physical confinement “down in the hole” is the final destination which Hamm hopes to achieve – the land “beyond those hills” is the metaphorical representation of the meaning to life, an area which the characters long to go, but never reach throughout the entirety of the play.Furthermore, Hamm speaks of using the “current which will take us far away”; the “current” is constantly moving, symbolising the character’s pursuit for meaning, but being a “current”, it will never stop and thus the character’s will never reach their final destination. In a physical sense, Hamm’s entrapment in the wheelchair is a state which Hamm refuses to accept due to the limitations of movement. At the introduction of the play, Clov’s dramatic unveiling of Hamm reveals to the audience a somewhat pitiful character due to his blindness and disability, highlighted by Clov’s “brief laugh”. The motionlessness of Hamm indeed reveals a certain aspect of the play addressing despair and dystopia, however, the many times which Hamm attempts to move in the wheelchair throughout the play in fact evokes a sense of admiration at Hamm’s determination to remain in a state of motion. When Hamm is unable to move despite using the gaff, he bids Clov to “oil the castors”. Hamm refuses to acknowledge his state of inaction despite failing using the gaff; instead, he seeks to try again. He realises that “the end is the beginning” yet “you still must go on”. Also, the scene when Hamm asks Clov to move him to the centre involves constant movement. Rather than accepting the fact that he is in the middle, Hamm continues to ask Clov to move him “a little to the left”, then “a little to the right”. Consequently, the effect achieved due to Hamm’s request for constant action achieves a comical effect in the view of the audience, which is a contrast to the dystopia which Hamm speaks of. The character of Hamm can be seen as Beckett’s authorial voice – a voice which reveals the view that action, whether physical or mental, is a requirement to prevent the entrapment of the soul in a state of dystopia. Endgame is written in a post-World War II era; a time, for some, when all hope has been lost, causing a stagnant condition. Being Absurdist theatre, Endgame is written not to allow the audience to have a night of entertainment to escape from their own despair, but rather to ask the audience to face despair and overcome their dystopia by overcoming inactivity. Beckett uses the character of Hamm as an example. While physically immobile, Hamm advances mentally through his forceful “bottling” of the representatives of his memories, Nagg and Nell. Instead, Hamm tells stories which refer to action, even in a state of suffering, such as the man “who came crawling towards me”, the sun “sinking down among the dead” and “dragging the madman to the window.” In order to be relieved from the state of dystopia, one must be in constant motion, even if one is in despair. It is interesting, then, that Hamm forcefully represses Nagg and Nell, his memories even though their speech consists largely of high mobility, such as “crashing on our tandem”. Hamm sees this as a revisiting of the past, something which will hinder his mental progression. Therefore, Hamm’s discard of his memories in the literal “garbage bins” in which Nagg and Nell reside is a revelation of Hamm’s determination to not only keep in motion, but to move forward, rather than being mentally trapped in the past. When reflected upon reality, what Beckett is attempting to portray is perhaps that the war is over, and dwelling in the past will only cause a sense of stagnancy which will inevitably keep us in a state of dystopia.The reason for the futility in the search for meaning is partially due to cycles, an important aspect of Absurdist theatre. A dystopia, by definition, is a state of absolute despair. It is a condition that Beckett hints at, one that does not only comprise the characters on stage, but everyone, shown through Hamm’s “throwing the whistle into the audience”. Along with despair however, comes hope, a piece of the infinite cycle. Being in a cycle, resonance between the two intricately fused elements of despair and hope is possible. For example, Clov rejects Hamm’s hope “will you not kiss me?”, “will you not give me your hand?”, but proceeds to fulfils the rat’s hope of dying – “If I don’t kill it, it’ll die”, meaning that if Clov does not “finish it”, then the rat will continue to be suffering. However, if the characters are caught in a position of inaction, they will forever be trapped in a single state of despair. Cycles indeed remove the possibility of reaching a destination, but the characters are able to discover meaning in the endless search for meaning itself. In fact, the cycle of day and night is seemingly blurred throughout the play. Time has been removed and yesterday has simply become “that bloody awful day before this bloody awful day” – a set of “endless routines” which is inactive and meaningless, as portrayed by Beckett to be the ultimate dystopia. Whenever Clov is told to look outside the window, the scenery would always be “nothing” and “zero”. The meaning of “nothing” and “zero” most probably doesn’t mean that there is absolutely nothing outside, as Hamm still asks Clov to look “at the ocean”. Instead, Clov’s reply is to reveal that there are no changes outside their room. In their view, nature has taken a form of inaction, thus clinching Clov’s despairing comment that “there’s no more nature.” However, Clov’s despair is accompanied by hope, as Hamm reveals. Nature has reached a standstill, but “we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth!” and the cycle continues on, not in their surroundings, but in the characters themselves. Clov’s despair is compounded by Hamm’s hope and vice versa. What is revealed by Beckett is that if the surroundings seem stagnant, as long as one continues to advance, then one can avoid a dystopia. Hamm’s remark that “I’m afraid that it will soon be the end of my story” is countered by Clov that “you’ll make up another.” If the stories of Hamm is a representation of Hamm’s desire for a utopia created by constant movement and pursuit for meaning, then the fact that “you’ll make up another” reveals that as long as one avoids inaction, then hope will continue to exist, thus erasing the idea of dystopia.The idea of a dystopia is linked with the idea of stagnancy and inaction. It is a state, as viewed by Beckett, which is achieved when there is neither physical nor mental progression. Even though the theme of Absurdist theatre is that any search for meaning to life will be utterly futile, as long as the cycle of searching remains moving, either physically or mentally, then hope can be evoked and the sense of dystopia can therefore be avoided.
Endgame: The Tragedy of Its Time. Putting a Beckett Play to the Aristotelian Test
At first glimpse, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame has absolutely nothing in common with the model provided in Aristotle’s Poetics. Where Aristotle claims the most important element of any tragedy is plot, Endgame seems to have no plot. Where Aristotle discusses the importance of speech(es) conveying moral purpose and character, Endgame has characters that speak metalanguage (language that talks about language), and only speak in order to pass time. Where Aristotle discusses action being a movement of spirit, Endgame seems to be totally devoid of characters that go through a movement of spirit. But after observing the structure of the play, Martin Esslin’s essay The Theatre of the Absurd, and, most importantly, Endgame in context with the time period that it was written in, Endgame appears to have several points of contact with the model provided in Poetics and can be called a tragedy for the post World War II era.Endgame, written in French, was first produced in 1957. Esslin explains that the movement of absurdism emerged in France after World War II as a rebellion against the traditional values and beliefs of Western culture and literature (878). Absurdist drama creates an environment where people are isolated and the characters make their way through life ineptly because they don’t know what else to do. The post World War II era was filled with people asking for meaning in their lives and that is exactly what the characters of Endgame are searching for. In Endgame, the characters stay together simply because they are afraid to be alone in such an incomprehensible world. They also live in a world of interdependence (Clov can’t sit, Hamm can’t stand or see; they rely on each other). Aristotle says “…poetry tends to express the universal….By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity…”(68). Aristotle believes that it is important to educate the emotions, so that the spectator understands what they watch is universal. The only difference is that “the universal” in Aristotle’s time was that fate is the great equalizer of man, while in Beckett’s time it is that death and dependence is the great equalizer of man.In terms of structure, Endgame’s presentation highly coincides with Aristotle’s concepts of mimesis. Poetics deals very much with the idea of mimesis, or imitation, and Aristotle believes that truth is embedded in imitation. Esslin discusses many writers that wrote about the senselessness of life before the absurdists, but they differ from the absurdists in that their plays contain logical and rational characters talking and reasoning about their meaningless lives. The absurdists, however, present the senselessness of the human condition by abandoning rational characters, actions, and plot. “The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being – that is, in terms of concrete stage images. This is the difference between the approach of the philosopher and that of the poet…” (Esslin, 877). In reference to Aristotle and his history, the difference between the philosopher and the poet can be seen as the difference between Plato and Aristotle. The former was a philosopher who explains why he is against drama and why drama shouldn’t be on stage; the latter was a theater theoretician who believed imitation to be the highest form of truth. If Aristotle sees imitation as the highest form of truth, then Endgame is a perfect example of imitating that which the time period believed in (rather than discussing the ideas of that time period).In Chapter IV of Poetics, Aristotle raises the question of the origin and development of poetry. He believes it comes from two instincts in human nature: that of imitation and that of harmony and rhythm (55-56). Here, Aristotle is recognizing both the content (imitation) and the form (harmony and rhythm) of art. Imitation has already been discussed. Harmony and rhythm can be seen clearly in Endgame: the characters talk in prose and the language is metalinguistic – it’s dialogue about dialogue; the characters speak only to pass time. One of the most frequently used words in Endgame is “Pause,” creating a monotonous, dragged-out rhythm. All of this is done with a rational purpose in mind; Beckett wants the theme of death, repetition, and meaninglessness to be conveyed to the spectator. Many could argue that Endgame does not follow Aristotle’s model at all because Aristotle stresses the significance of rationality while Endgame seems irrational. However, for the time period it is representing, imitating, and commenting on, Endgame is actually highly rational, and harmony and rhythm is only one place that this can be seen in.Another place where this can be seen is through character. It is clear that in Endgame there is a focus on the incomprehensibility of the world, and each of the characters manifests this theme. If we look at one theme in Endgame being an attempt to rationalize an irrational, disorderly world, one need not look farther than the character of Clov. Clov is indecisive – constantly torn between duty and hatred. He asks questions like “Why this farce, day after day?” (761) and “Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why?” (764) These are the questions that were asked at the time this the play was written: “Why live if we will eventually die?” “What is the point of our existence?” One of the goals of creating a character, according to Aristotle, is that the character must be true to life (81). At a time when the world is trying to make order out of chaos, Clov commenting that he loves order, that it’s his dream, “A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the dust” (767), seems very true to life. If Clov was a character in a play during Aristotle’s time, the perception of him would be entirely different.If Clov asks the questions, Hamm provides, or tries to provide, the answers. The theme of life moving towards death in a meaningless world is emphasized by the seriousness with which Hamm talks about death and ending in his soliloquies. The metaphor for death or coming to the “end” of something is apparent in the very first lines of the play as Clov states, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (754). Hamm’s response to Clov’s ramblings as he awakens is “Me to play” (754), a metatheatrical response which suggests to the spectator that all we do in our meaningless lives is act to one another, or put up fronts and not reveal who we truly are. Hamm’s reluctance to die follows shortly after when he says, “And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to…to end. Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to- to end”(754). This beginning scene suggests the unwillingness to end or to die. Yet, there remains a struggling to understand death, to give it some meaning so that life has meaning – once again coinciding with the ideas running rampant during the time it was written.Watching these characters, the spectator can’t help but notice how pitiful they are. The end of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is “…through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (61). This is where the term “catharsis” comes from. In Endgame, the spectator will go through a catharsis of pity and fear: pity for what the characters have to endure day after day (boring routine, senselessness of life, searching for meaning when there is none, etc.), and fear for themselves that during this time, post World War II, this is what their lives have become – meaningless, irrational, and extremely interdependent.It is through this interdependence of Hamm and Clov that a reversal of fortune, a recognition of a higher truth, and an imitation of a movement of spirit occurs. Throughout the play, Hamm and Clov demonstrate a love/hate, dependent relationship. Hamm’s disabled state makes him need Clov, but Clov needs Hamm simply because Hamm’s home is the only home he has, and even if he did leave there is no place for him to go in the void which exists outside. This is illustrated in the scene where Hamm asks, “Why do you stay with me?” to which Clov asks, “Why do you keep me?” and Hamm responds, ” There’s no one else” while Clov responds “There’s nowhere else. (755)” But they not only need each other physically, they also need each other to know that they exist. Clov asks, “What is there to keep me here?” to which Hamm responds, “The dialogue” (767).The entire play can be looked at as a single cycle of a daily routine or ritual in the endless life of these meaningless characters. The “reversal of fortune” that occurs is that they both realize that it will never end, that Clov will never leave. He’s had plenty of opportunities to leave but in the end he explains that he is too old to “form new habits” (773). Hamm also realizes Clov will not leave him. The closing lines of the play echo this acceptance as Hamm states, “Old stancher! You…remain” (774). In Oedipus, the higher truth that was recognized was that every man is subject to the Gods and fate, and this reflected the beliefs of the time period in which it was written. The higher truth that is recognized in Endgame is that death is inching ever closer and is within our sights, and that we are all dependent on each other to know that we exist. This realization is highly reflective of the post World War II world in which it was written and also, in turn, goes back to Esslin’s comment on the function of absurdity to help us live in closer accord with reality.The internal movement of spirit that occurs in Hamm is that he realizes an end is coming while he previously was under the assumption that it will never end. He says – his thought – near the closing of the play, “…time was never and time is over, reckoning closed and story ended” (774). This movement of spirit will evoke a catharsis from the audience (as previously discussed). This reversal, recognition, and movement of spirit is definitely unlike those described in Poetics. This is because the Poetics is describing a completely different world than the one in which Endgame was meant to be presented to. Hamm and Clov are heroes, but not classical heroes like those discussed in the Poetics. Oedipus is a hero of his time; he presents the spectators with the truth of their existence- they are ultimately under the control of fate and multiple gods. Hamm and Clov are heroes of their time; they present the spectators with the truth of their existence- they are ultimately moving towards death, dependent on one another, and searching for meaning in their lives. Aristotle says that tragedy “is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life” (62). Oedipus Rex was a true tragedy of its time, and Endgame is too; one presents a world in which there is a belief in multiple Gods, the other a world in which the existence of a god is questionable.
The Theatre Of The Absurd: A Dramatic Revolution
During a time of the utmost rationality, when the serious nature of man was exposed in its most raw form, Samuel Beckett– author of Endgame — tackled subject matters that stepped out from under the issue of war and the tangible problems of his era, and instead chose to focus on more abstract topics, oftentimes with an emphasis on existentialist ideals. Beckett, as influential as any writer of his time period, played a vital role in the formation of the avant-garde movement know as the Theatre of the Absurd, an unincorporated group of playwrights whose work mainly took place from the late 1940’s through the 1960’s. Among those who are also classified as “absurdists” are Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter, men with similar styles and equally comparable philosophies, intellectuals that believed, “man is inhabiting a universe with which he is out of key. Its meaning is indecipherable and his place within it is without purpose. He is bewildered, troubled and obscurely threatened” (Esslin.43). This existentialist view is found throughout Endgame, and echoed in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, in which, similarly to Beckett, the author writes dialogue in a repetitive, purposeless, nonsensical manner, proving the ineffectualness of verbal communication.While the constituents the Theatre of the Absurd may have shunned the standard spoken communication of our traditional society, artists through the decades have likewise struggled to convey the message these visionaries worked so hard to get across. One artist, however, who has made an attempt to express the true sentiments of their work, and who has done a valiant job, is Nesreen Nabil, who in 1999 painted Waiting, self-described as “Stage set design for the Theatre of the Absurd, this one is for Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett”(Esslin.136). Also representative of the time and period discussed thus far, interpreted by a small Repertory Company, is a playbill from a performance of The Bald Soprano, featuring four sets of silent, observant eyes. These four pieces represent a thought process of a bygone era, a time in which brilliant writers could separate themselves from the norms of the masses and write as they chose, without fear of persecution or low box-office returns. They wrote on what they felt, and asked permission from nobody. In return for this complete autonomy, they have given us great pieces of literature, which have withstood the test of time, and even today stand as shining examples of the finest work man has to offer.Samuel Beckett was born in Foxrock, Ireland in 1906, to a lower middle class Protestant Family. Unhappy even to his earliest recollection, Beckett worked his way through the education system, graduating from Trinity College of Dublin with a BA. Soon after his graduation, Beckett, a discontented boy transformed into a discontented man, moved to Paris, where he joined a growing number of expatriate artist in France, eager to explore the rebellious avant-garde. Shortly after his arrival in Paris, a mutual friend introduced the aspiring writer and playwright to a fellow Irishman, James Joyce. Immediately attracted to Joyce’s style and intellect, Beckett quickly joined the inner circle of the seminal Irish author. After several years of studying under James in France, Beckett again moved on, and traveled for nearly half a decade throughout Europe, gaining practical knowledge at every stop. In 1937, he returned to Paris, and settled down, ready to begin his writings. However, the impending commencement of World War II led Beckett to join the radical anti-war movement in Paris, and he remained to protest the fighting even as the Germans invaded France. When several members of his group were arrested and prosecuted by the invading Third Reich, however, Beckett fled the country to an unoccupied territory, where he remained with his girlfriend (and future wife) until the conclusion of the war. In 1945, with France restored to order, Beckett returned to his favored Paris, and embarked on what evolved into one of the most prolific writing careers of the twentieth century.Derived from the “Myth of Sisyphus”, written in 1942, French philosopher Albert Camus broaches the subject of absurdity in dramatic theatre, incorporating ideas that define the human situation as meaningless and absurd. While Camus offers the most concrete source from which the notion of absurdity is taken, the foundation for the Theatre of the Absurd may have originally been drawn from Danish philosopher Sren Kierkegaard, who is the first to use the term “absurd” in its current context, explaining the incomprehensible and unjustifiable nature of Christianity, and in turn illustrating the fragmented, illogical, chaotic reality of society. Former Stanford professor and author Martin J. Esslin, expounding on the ideas of Camus, Kierkegaard, and Sarte, amongst others, coined the phrase “Theatre of the Absurd”, in an attempt to classify a group of expatriate writers residing and working in Western Europe and America in the middle of the twentieth century. His book, considered the premiere authority on the authors of the time period in the genre in question, and titled The Theatre of the Absurd, brought much international attention to the previously misunderstood and largely ignored subsection of drama. The ideas infused in the plays of the period, particularly those of Beckett, also dictate their structure, or lack thereof. Absurdist playwrights, therefore, did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre, opting instead to utilize a more open, free flowing dialogue. There is little dramatic action as had conventionally been seen; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence. In addition, their conversations seem to have no foreseeable beginning or end; instead, circular patterns of banter are noticeable in many of the works.Undoubtedly, playing a crucial role in the development of absurd theatre was World War II, a devastating battle that enveloped nearly an entire decade and influenced every aspect of life, particularly for those living in Europe and involved in even the most minor aspect of the war, be it offering support, or in the case of many of the authors of the era, engaging in actively protesting the military action. Of those authors who did choose to dispute World War II, including Beckett and Ionesco, the protest served to fuel the already smoldering embers of rebellion, further fanning the flames of discontent by illustrating a disturbing lack of any values, subsequently exposing the precarious nature of human life and its fundamental lack of meaning. To the authors of the period, this armed aggression signaled the increasingly downward spiral of society, reconfirming the disillusionment and skepticism we see expressed in their ensuing works. While examining some of the first plays put out directly following the conclusion of the Second World War, we come to understand there is a strong suspicion on the part of the authors that a devaluation of language is driving humanity towards a pit of despair.One of those early works– and an important piece in the evolution of absurd drama—is Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, a play written by the Romanian that firmly entrenches the Theatre of the Absurd as a respectable, enjoyed form of theatre. As one of the fathers of the genre, Ionesco was once quoted as saying, “It’s not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it’s mankind”, a sentiment that concisely sums up his distaste for popular culture and the dumbing down of humankind ( ). In The Bald Soprano, the playwright uses his forum to satirize the monotony and absurdity of the daily life of a bourgeois society petrified in the meaningless formalities of the time. Interestingly enough, Ionesco came about his profession by chance; having moved from his native Romania to Paris to complete his doctoral thesis, he took on the task of learning English, using a translation guide as one of his chief teaching tools. It is here that Ionesco first discovers the emptiness and clichs of daily conversation, many of which appear in his phrase book2E Ionesco intends for The Bald Soprano to dramatize the pedestrian communication of daily existence as a reflection of the basic emptiness of life, a cornerstone tenant of the Theatre of the Absurd. In addition, he finds the conformity of society’s words of utmost humor, not to mention more than a little bit ridiculous the majority of the time. Ionesco is also adept at picking at the arbitrary peculiarities of language—words used more to mask and conceal reality than to inform and enlighten.When compared with the works of Ionesco, Samuel Beckett’s plays come off as morose and depressing at first, although after more careful analysis, it is clear that behind every pessimistic comment lies a clever double entendre, carefully concealing the true wit of the author. On the other hand, the joviality of The Bald Soprano is evident from the very beginning, and the reader is easily swept up in the frivolous world of Mr. And Mrs. Smith as they entertain their friends the Martins. Adding to the levity of the surreal setting are Mary the Maid and The Fire chief, both of whom add an offbeat, nonsensical air to the whole proceedings.While The Bald Soprano is a silly, free-spirited lark, Endgame is something completely different, a fatalistic view of the world as only Beckett can write it. The two main protagonists, Hamm and Clov, go about their everyday duties as if they were a married couple, sniping back and forth, despondent and depressed. Hamm, slowed by old age and his complete blindness, is unable to survive on his own, and relies on Clov to assist him with even the most menial of tasks. He is a cynical, bitter old man, and makes his displeasure felt on a regular basis, contributing to the unhappiness of his caretaker, as well as his parents, Nagg and Nell. The routine that is essentially the basis for the entire play is very representative of Beckett’s work, not to mention the works of many of the members of the Theatre of the Absurd. Regardless of how futile said routine is—and it is indeed futile—it is Beckett’s contention that humans need such a regimented way of living to pass the days, rationalizing to themselves that death is not just around the corner. However, in a twist of irony that is purely “absurd”, these tedious schedules are what bring the end closer, day after day.Though both men are clearly unhappy with their respective lives, they push forward, complaining with each step. Beckett’s cyclical view of the world and our time spent here is perfectly phrased in the opening lines of the play, as Clov says to Hamm, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap”(2473). Through Clov, Beckett is stating his own ideals, that life is one repetitive step after another, a mundane existence that is only finalized with ones own death. Each grain can be considered an individual day, a singular moment in time that, over the years, accumulates to form a “heap.” At the end of all those minutes and days and years, after all those experiences have been finalized, when that heap is finally ready to topple over, that is when death arrives, and the moments of life are finalized. Again, the despair and basic existential nature characteristic of the Theatre of the Absurd is reconfirmed, as Clov says, “It may end. All life long the same questions, the same answers” (2474). This quote is just another testament to the sentiments of the author on the lack of meaning life has to offer, and again demonstrates the circular nature of human life.The authors of absurd theatre, as a whole, attempt to snap the viewer out of their comfort zone, to startle them into understanding a new, genuine reality. In order to achieve this unstated goal, the playwrights implement an unconventional, innovative form unseen in any form before World War II. The Theatre of the Absurd openly rebelled against conventional theatre, fighting the long established tropes that were no longer valid in the post-war society. Instead, the new form of dramatic art was surreal, illogical, lacking both conflict and plot, the complete polar opposite of everything society expected from the theatre. One of the most important aspects of absurd drama was its distrust of language as a means of communication. Language had long been established as a vehicle in which people could engage in conventional, meaningless exchanges of little importance and even less validity. When Hamm asks, “We’re not beginning to…to…mean something”, Clov’s immediate reply is to dismiss this as madness, answering, “Mean something? You and I, mean something? Ah, that’s a good one” (2483)! While this is standard fair for “absurdists”, this line would have been rare in conventional drama. Many characters found in the Theatre of the Absurd were portrayed as introspective, capable of grasping how meaningless everything truly is.While playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd flourished for nearly thirty years, other forms of art were not nearly as prolific when trying to associate their work with that of the famous authors. One piece, however, that fits perfectly with the ideals of these “absurdists” is Waiting, by Nesreen Nabil, a work that seamlessly matches the thoughts of the Theatre of the Absurd. In Waiting, Nabil is portraying a stage set design, and the stage is utterly barren, with the exception of a number of chairs in the center. This illustrates the importance of dialogue in the works of Beckett and his compatriots, in addition to reconfirming the lack of action that takes place in many of the plays, a distinct departure from the conventional forms of drama of the first half of the twentieth century. The style Nabil chooses to use also perfectly compliments the sentiments depicted in Endgame, with a dark, brooding, colorless canvas, with only a spot of bright light in the middle of the stage; this spotlight represents Hamm, and his desire to move into the light, not to mention his predilection for being in the middle of the room at all times.When considering the most important aspect of The Bald Soprano, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is the four main characters and their interaction with one another. That being said, there is no better way to gain an understanding of someone’s character faster than by looking into their eyes; after all, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Keeping that in mind, the attached playbill, from a small theatre company, flawlessly idealizes the importance of the characters themselves in Ionesco’s play, with their personalities and intricacies exposed for all to see, through the windows that are their eyes. Again, this allows us to visualize the importance of human interaction and dialogue in the works of the Theatre of the Absurd2EIn a short period of less than thirty years, a small contingent of foreign expatriates converged upon Western Europe, and in short order created a brand new type of drama, which was in turn titled the Theatre of the Absurd2E This avant-garde movement was predicated on abstract, existentialist ideals, including the belief that man is living in a world out of balance, its meaning indecipherable and confusing. Characteristics of this revolution in drama include the use of repetitive, often meaningless dialogue, and a lack of action that creates a far different feel from the conventional theatre of the first half of the twentieth century. At the forefront of this movement were two visionaries, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, men who saw a world torn apart by war and drowning in a sea of ambiguity. They also foresaw a breakdown in language, and a society whose ability to communicate via the spoken word was decreasing exponentially. However, with works such as Endgame and The Bald Soprano, Beckett and Ionesco, respectively, were able to take the ineffective communication skills of their era and turn them completely around, mocking the cyclical nature of mankind and illustrating the importance of verbal skills by mocking our deficiencies. To writers who fell under the umbrella of the Theatre of the Absurd, life was impossible to explain, and unexplainable and without logic. With their vision, however, at least those of us still living in a society full of confusion and dismay can still enjoy the theatre.
Apocalypse and Renewal in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame
Endgame, as the very title suggests, is about ends or an end. Its opening words, ‘Finished, it’s finished…’ pervade the action, or perhaps rather inaction, that follows, and throughout the play Beckett, like Shakespeare in King Lear, employs a lexicon of decay and nothingness that implies an apocalypse. Clov sees ‘zero’ when he examines the beyond with his telescope, the anonymous painter and engraver views only ashes from the window to which he is dragged, while Hamm estimates that, ‘Outside of here it’s death’. The dialogue is crammed with references to the dead and the dying, sych as the rat, the flea, Mother Pegg and Nell, and time and again we are told that ‘There is no more…’ (painkiller, bicycle wheels, sugar plums, pap to mention but a few) Yet language itself seems to be falling apart, to be running out: CLOV: I’m back again, with the glass. [He goes to window right, looks up at it.] I need the steps.HAMM: Why? Have you shrunk? [Exit CLOV with telescope.] I don’t like that, I don’t like that.[Enter CLOV with ladder, but without telescope.]CLOV: I’m back again, with the steps. [He sets down the ladder under the window right, gets up on it, realises he has not the telescope, gets down.] I need the glass.[He goes towards the door.]HAMM: [Violently.] But you have the glass!CLOV: [Halting, violently.] No I haven’t the glass![Exit CLOV.]HAMM: This is deadly. (pp.24/25) This interaction is both comic and tragic in that it is entirely unsuccessful and the play seems to repeat this same tableau of misunderstanding over and over. Word and meaning are dislocated and the result is ‘deadly’ a complete breakdown in communication. The language of the play embodies the idea of an end of a world in content, but also in its blatant failure to perform its function. Thus, as much as Clov and Hamm need each other, they appear to us, the audience, as utterly alone on stage since what they say goes either unheard or unheeded. The prolonged nature of the pauses that constantly interpolate their speeches are precisely demonstrative of a language that is as handicapped as the characters who speak it, and it is the silence, not the words, that conveys the tragedy.However, even before Hamm speaks the audience is presented with an image of irreparable decay in the set and scenery. Grey light illuminates a ‘bare interior’ that somewhat resembles a skull and in the centre a blind old tyrant sits in his dressing gown with his face covered by a blood stained handkerchief. At the front of the stage stand two ashbins side by side that contain Hamm’s legless, toothless parents, and all three are waited on by a limping servant. The spectator is bombarded with literal images of degeneration; the human race become waste material. Yet, for all that the visual and linguistic decay prophesies an apocalypse, the small boy that Clov spots in the zero and death that lie beyond the window may be seen to provide a beacon of hope and life that counters this desolation. The English text offers little in the way of an illustration of this figure, but the original French is more forthcoming. In lines that Beckett did not translate, Clov describes the boy as immobile, leaning against a rock and contemplating his naval. This foetal position is suggestive of birth, an idea reinforced by the image of the stone which draws associations to Christ’s tomb and thus a possible resurrection. Perhaps this small boy is a symbol of redemption, of possible continuance and of renewal.But the sense of renewal in Endgame is inversive, and its tragedy lies not in the fact that the characters are condemned to die, but that they are condemned to live to go on repeating the same tableau again and again. Hamm’s final word, ‘remain’, has, in the first instance, associations with decay and ruin. He and Clov are essentially ‘remains’: the final ‘smithereens’ of a shattered humanity, the ‘undead’ of Eliot’s The Waste Land. And yet the word is also suggestive of continuity and survival, things that in the solipsistic world on stage become horrific negations. Lifting the lid on Nagg’s bin, Clov peers in and says to his master ‘He’s crying.’; ‘Then he’s living’ concludes Hamm (p.42). The premise on which the universe of the play sits is not ‘Cogito ergo sum’ , it is a perversion of this Cartesian assertion: ‘I suffer therefore I am’. Thus, the son damns his father as an ‘Accursed progenitor’ and throughout the play ‘potential procreators’, such as the rat and the flea, are quickly eliminated: HAMM: A flea! Are there still fleas?CLOV: On me there’s one. [Scratching.] Unless it’s a crablouse.HAMM: [Very perturbed.] But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God! (p.27) Beckett inverts the tragic since to kill is an act of ‘love’ and to die is the desired end, but it is an end that is never reached because, after all, things are only ‘nearly finished’. In Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author the characters that invade the stage have no destiny other than the script. Their fate is inescapable and their actions can have no contingency. Equally Clov and Hamm act in the only way that the playwright allows. In a particularly metatheatrical moment Clov asks, ‘What is there to keep me here?’, and his master responds laconically, ‘The dialogue’ (p.40). When the curtain falls both are positioned exactly as they were when the curtain was lifted: Clov stands by the door and Hamm slouches in his armchair, his face veiled by a handkerchief. They understanding that they are simply ‘playing’ and must go on doing so perpetually, trapped within the drama. Hamm and Clov are very much aware of the roles in which they have been imprisoned; they are self-conscious fictions that recognise their own inability to free themselves from the necessity not only of living, but also of acting. Renewal becomes a vicious circle that reinforces, rather than defies, the suffering and it is in this sickening irony that the essential tragedy of Endgame may be found.
Analysis of the Setting in Endgame
The setting of Endgame is characteristic of a Beckett play; a décor reduced to the barest minimum. A naked stage, both a poetic symbol and a parody of traditional theater, with only two dust bins, a chair, and a backward painting to look at. High up on the walls we get an idea of the rest of Beckett’s blank universe through to small windows looking out. “On these boards of disaster the characters play out their derisory role.” (Fletcher, 48)Traditional theater attempts to put a slice of life out onto the stage for the audience’s enjoyment. The general idea is to fool the audience into thinking that they are looking at something that they have seen before. For example, a roach infested apartment or even a relatively simple office scene helps one relate to the characters before they speak. We know what to expect because we are familiar with the plight of the starving artist with his dinky little flat and we already expect the businessman to be under a great deal of stress. Beckett sets his text in a place we’ve never been, and God willing, a place that will never exist: a bunker of sorts, that resembles the inside of a skull with its neuroses bickering inside.When the curtain opens on a place like that, the only thing you can do is start preparing yourself for what could possibly dwell in such a setting. The gap between the world we live in and the one before us has been established before any of the characters open their mouths and it up to us as an audience to figure out where we are. As we find out, slowly but surely, we are at the end of the world. Comedian Lewis Black claims he saw the end of the world in Texas when he found a street with a Starbucks directly across from another Starbucks, but Beckett made the end of the world the type of place where the question, “what time is it?” evokes the answer, “The same as usual.”The action in this play, if one could call it that, is a Beckettian standard of people moving about the stage and talking for the sole purpose of quelling boredom. They talk and talk anticipating the arrival of death, and like Godot, the sweet release of death never comes (except for Nell who is the only one to ask the direct question, “Why this farce everyday?”). The only thing between these wretched characters and death is the mindless tedium of their lives. Clov knows as well as anyone else that there is nothing to see out on the horizon, but going to get the ladder, climbing up and down, and even dropping his spyglass on purpose helps to while away the hours of the day. What other possible reason other than warding off insanity would there be for telling the same joke over and over again. Not to mention recalling fondly the first time the joke was told before telling it. “The Beckettian hero is a sort of clown who uses words and performs gestures that are intended to be amusing, in order to pass the time. But unlike a real clown, he seeks not to amuse others, but to cheat his own boredom; he is acting, but for himself.” (Fletcher, 58) This is the type of world where a slow-moving half-starved man pushing a crippled old man’s chair around in a circle is considered the action sequence. They have the same conversations over and over again, they muse about being forgotten by nature. It would seem that nature would have no part in the meaninglessness on stage, but they are confronted with the reality of nature continuing to age their bodies. Despite the absence of meaning they proceed with their monotonous lives. To offer explanation of this behavior Hamm says, “We do what we can,” and Clov replies simply, “We shouldn’t.” Soon after, seemingly out of nowhere, Hamm asks in anguish, “What’s happening, what’s happening?” Clov refers to nature’s persistence: “Something is taking its course.” Clov then exits to the kitchen where he has maid plans to stare at the wall.As if the bare stage was not enough to indicate that we are not witnessing real life, Clov looks to the auditorium and mentions seeing the audience. “A multitude…in transports…of joy.” In that moment, Beckett tears down the fourth wall and a great deal of convention along with it. The suspension of disbelief requires that the audience give up their common sense to believe that they have been transported to another place and time. The audience pretends to be wherever the author has told them that they are and so the drama can unfold. When Clov spies the audience something special happens. This is no longer a play about four characters in a bunker, living their lives, waiting for the whole thing to take its course. Now it is a play about four actors, who are playing four characters in front of an audience. This is significant because in that instant Beckett achieves the level of absurdity for which he is worshiped by the performance artists of today. A play about people watching people wait to die, how absurd!Beckett created a world that had yet to exist. It was a world that was on a stage but it was not familiar to the theatergoers of the fifties. Beckett wrote plays that were aware that they were plays and in a way that seemed to bring his plays to life, however if they are indeed living, they are not all that animated. It makes one wonder about the nature of the play if the characters are aware that we are watching them. It is noted in the play that outside the shelter is death, since Clov needed a spyglass to see us, then we are most likely outside the shelter. Samuel Beckett was not a man to hand out false hopes. Works CitedFletcher, John. Samuel Beckett’s Art. Barnes & Noble Inc., New York, N.Y., 1967.Shaw, George Bernard. “Pygmalion.” Modern Drama: Selected Plays from 1879 to the Present. 1st ed. Ed. Walter Levy. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999. 93-137.
The Elusive Nature of Time: Temporality and Perseverance in Endgame
Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame presents time in a way that no human has previously had to experience or comprehend. Consequently, when the characters of the play attempt to make sense of their situation, they often seem confused and disoriented. This feature of the drama is brought about by many different efforts to converse and explain the present that the characters share, but all of them fail to express and accept the true feeling of nothingness that the play’s setting provides.
At the very beginning of the play we’re given insight into the desperate situation that the characters find themselves in, mainly the idea of their time running out or having already ran out. Clov’s opening lines speak toward the feeling that something, though not described in words, is coming to an end, and with little imagination you can figure that the something that he is referring to is his everything: their lives. He speaks tonelessly, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (Beckett). Clov appears to be trying to rationalize what is happening, or what is about to happen. The barren wasteland that they are living in is the residue of a world that was, which makes you question if he is speaking of the past world being almost completely finished, as if the characters are all that is left; a responsibility has been placed on them, and they are not able to fulfill what is being asked. On another level, perhaps he has only his and his housemates’ lives in mind when speaking of the “it” in his soliloquy. The death that they face is certain, and it is hard to tell if he is dreading it or impatiently awaiting it, either way, he is anticipating it. Hamm later repeats and confirms Clov’s lines in his own, “It’s finished, we’re finished. Nearly finished” (Beckett). In his article Disintegrative Process in “Endgame”, Eric P. Levy expands on what the two may be speaking of, “As Hamm’s remarks suggest, this alternate process concerns the lived experience of time or, in alternate formulation, the temporality of living” (263). The temporality of living is just what is putting pressure on these characters. No others before them have lived under such circumstances, ones that leave them wondering not only what their world holds for them, but also what the world as a whole holds for anyone else. Though, Hamm still understands that they exist, and that time is continuing, “But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom, our ideals!” (Beckett). Such is too confusing and important for Hamm to just leave to the side; he wants to gain a grip on exactly what it is that he is living in, or he wants to be able just to ignore it, but he can do neither. Everyone has a vague and general understanding that their time will come to an end, but in this case, all time has come to an end, and Clov and Hamm are simply trying their best to deal with it.
Another effect that we see the play’s presentation of time have on the characters is their obsession with recalling previous times, as there is no way to create new experiences in the present. Hamm has no trouble repeating the story of the tailor taking his sweet time and consistently butchering a pair of trousers in which an Englishman has brought in, but by the time he is telling the story in the play, he barely has enough enthusiasm left to get it out. While telling the tale, he pauses with “I never told it worse… I tell this story worse and worse” (Beckett). It is as if someone is forcing him to tell this story, as if he does not have the option to. The man has no further potential to learn of or experience such a moment that would be worth another story, and so he has resorted to this repetitive state. He needs an experience or time like this in order to keep his sanity, or to give him some sort of purpose, though banal as it may be; they are simply bored. As well, Hamm directly lets us know of his affection for the past in certain instances, “I love the old questions… Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!” (Beckett). The previous time for them has become of the present, and the group is constantly attempting to distract themselves or pass time toward a goal or destination that is not expressed. Probably it is death, which is the only possible salvation that could imaginably come from the world that they have been left in. And perhaps these confused and disoriented acts are the moves that Endgame’s title suggests toward the audience. Stuck in the state of certain loss, death, and no potential, it would make sense for them simply to curl up and submit to their situation. But they do not submit, they move on. The human drive to exist and push on prevails, and reflecting on a past that was is their only possible positive move, keeping themselves sane through the art of remembering. We know it well that time holds more value when in retrospect, and for them there is no difference. On top of passing time, this seems to be the only way that they can really feel. Old times for them held meaning and purpose unlike anything that they have in the present state, and all chances of finding purpose seem to have been exasperated. Hamm and Clov go into brief discussion on this, but fail to make anything further of it, as a flea then distracts them, “We’re not beginning to… to… mean something?” (Beckett). Just as easily as the thought comes into their lives, it is gone. The time that they are presented with once again proves too complex for them to comprehend.
Time itself as an object and an idea is, for the most part, far under-explored, but Endgame has no problem making the audience think and question what it means to truly experience time, and the alternate perceptions of time in which we rarely try to understand. The characters of the play are experiencing this strange form of time that is their present, and are confused and dis-oriented because of it. Hamm in particular is frequently questioning when the time for his pain-killer should come around, “Is it not yet time for my pain-killer?” as if the setting of the play has left him out of the 24/7 hourly and weekly schedule, and given him nothing but a continuous and free-flowing existence (Beckett). Mary Crossan, et al.’s article Time and Organizational Improvisation discusses different theories and ideas of time, and discusses why the characters seem to have such trouble comprehending what exactly they are living through, and how they are structuring their lives, “time is the most widely used noun in the English language, yet we think about it rarely and discuss it with difficulty” (Crossan, et al.). It’s as if time and discussing time as a concept has become a sort of taboo. The ideology of time has stayed exactly the same for years, and in most situations in works just fine. Time has been employed as a sort of machine that aids us in productivity and structure, the article reads “managers see time as a scarce resource and are continuously ‘competing against time’” (Crossan, et al). Not to say that this is a bad thing, but as is often the case, the choice is not given to the everyday human on whether they will follow their own model of time rather than the accepted standard. The characters in Endgame have no standard left, and we see the degeneration of their structure in front of our eyes. Time is a remembered concept, and seems to have stopped from being further created as a whole, so all they can do is bring up past times and attempt to relive them in a cyclical-time schedule. Another theory and perception of time is brought up in the article that is relatable to the Endgame’s characters, “Despite the persistent emphasis… theorists have introduced other concepts of time. Event time, for example, is perceived through the occurrence of meaningful events” (Crossan, et al.). We see all of the characters in the play reflecting on past events that held meaning, and building their current lives without structure because they are not prepared for or expecting any meaningful events. And so, their lives seem to have boiled down to a shell of the past, constantly looking back and attempting to further understand and make new of old occurrences, as there is a clear lack of new ones.
The present that Endgame provides seems to be completely beyond comprehension for the characters and the audience. The sense in their dialogue often seems to lack, and this is why the play comes off as rather confusing or abstract at first and to the common viewer. But when looking through the lens of the time that they live in, their words and actions become more understandable. Clov, for example, seems to stand up and assert himself at one point, but then immediately decides against himself, contradicting what he is trying to do, “So you all want me to leave you… Then I’ll leave you… Then I won’t leave you… I’ll leave you, I have things to do” (Beckett). The time, or lack thereof, in the play has seemed to drive these men mad. In trying constantly to comprehend their surroundings, they have exhausted themselves and lost touch with the dead reality that they are a part of. We as viewers struggle to comprehend this, because we know no such thing. To continue to live in an abomination such as the scenario pictured in the play is unknown to us. For us, time means everything, and defines what we are to do, and usually, when we are to do it. But for the characters, time is meaningless. They give no sure ideas or opinions of what is going on around them, and they make no effort to change it; their time is irrelevant because there is no future, and if there were, it would be hard to imagine them being willing to totally adapt to whatever it demanded. A strong part of their disorientation is their disabilities, all four characters having a physical lack in some sort. If their troubling time were to be solved, I’m not so sure that they would be fully relieved or distraught. They float on as is – day to day – waiting for something to change or give them answers, but they are working toward no such things, simply adding to the calm waste that is their present.
It is in unfamiliar and unique situations that we find our deepest human qualities coming into the forefront. There have been few rarer than what Beckett has created for his characters in Endgame, specifically his presentation of time, and so the way that these characters and their audiences react speaks heavily to the nature, condition and instinct of us as humans. Our automatic questioning, defense, and nostalgia headline our battle with the strange concept of time that we are given through this play. And in a world where there is no future – just a burnt out present and a regretful past – it is fascinating that Beckett suggests that we should continue to live on, moving and remembering, even in pain. Time has eluded us, and time will elude us.
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. Web.
Crossan, Mary et al. “Time and Organizational Improvisation.” The Academy of Management Review 30.1 (2005): 129-145. Web. March 19, 2016.
Levy, Eric. “Disintegrative Process in ‘Endgame’.” Samuel Beckett Today 12 (2002): 263-279. Web. March 20, 2016.
“The End Is in the Beginning and yet You Go On”: Circularity and Perpetuity in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame
After its release in 1957, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame has baffled readers and cemented Beckett as one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century. It is commonly ascribed to the “theatre of the absurd”, a term coined by renowned literary critic Martin Esslin (1962) and it has frequently been noted that the play does not easily allow construction of latent meaning (Hasselbach 196). Although the play does not necessarily want to make sense, it continuously invites the reader to search for meaning. Here, I will try to shed light on one particular implicit theme and its potential effects. Ruby Cohn once wrote that “it is a circle rather than a straight line that diagrams Endgame” (184). Note that, if you trace the circumference of a circle with your finger you eventually end up where you began – an idea that plays a big role in this particular drama.The play interestingly starts off with the lines “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (6), signalling that ‘ending’ is part of the beginning of the play. One of our protagonists, Hamm, tells us that although the end is in the beginning, Clov –and, in fact, all the characters-, still “go on” (41). In Endgame, Beckett creates a world of inexorable despair in which no character ever gets anywhere, seem stuck in a loop and are never allowed final closure. It seems as if, in Esslin’s words: “man is no longer asserting a position, but enduring a fate” (114). Thus, in this essay, I will investigate how what I call perpetuity (the ‘never-ending’) and circularity (the ‘cyclical’) emerge from the play while also suggesting the possible effects of those themes. The cyclical stasis Beckett’s characters live in is echoed by the deterioration of their human faculties and the confinement of meticulously delineated space. Thus, the omnipresence of physical immobility could indicate the characters’ difficulty in ‘moving on’. After a brief tableau of a bare grey room, the audience gets to see what is in many ways a pantomime of the servant character, Clov, who stands on a ladder to look out of the two small windows on scene almost as if it is routine. After the literal setting of the scene –which is incidentally full of repetitiveness (again adding to the theme of circularity), the audience is introduced to the characters who all have disabilities: Hamm, a blind man in a wheelchair who cannot sleep, Clov, his servant with a limp who seems unable to sit down and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, Nagg being nearly deaf and Nell unable to cry. Both do not have any legs and reside in ash-bins for the duration of the play. In these first scenes, the audience gets the idea that humans are in fact props in never ending stasis: covered in white sheets and in bins, as if they are antique furniture or waste; forever at the end of the line. As Clov reports when he looks out of the window at Hamm’s request, everything outside is “zero” and, in one word, “corpsed” (20), adding to the feeling of isolation. Everything is a gloomy grey, seemingly right in between white (life) and black (death), again adding to the feeling of a perpetual stand-still. There is also a noticeable mental stasis in Beckett’s play, which seems suggestive of an existential condition. As Esslin writes, the characters are “on the uncrossable threshold of infinity” (160). His remarks are mirrored in Hamm’s interjections in his final monologue: “And now? [Pause.] Moments for nothing, now as always, time was never and time is over story ended” (49). They seem to be in a cycle in which everything is constantly ending and beginning at the same time. As stated before, the play is set in barren world that is, from the very first scene, bound to end: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished”. Hamm claims he want to be “finished” but “hesitates” to do so: “Enough, it’s time it ended, in the refuge too. [Pause.] And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to … to end. Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to – [he yawns] – to end. [Yawns.] God, I’m tired, I’d be better off in bed” (6-7). It appears that Hamm is tired of life in the refuge but is somehow indifferent at the same time. He seems miserable but is stuck in that mental state: life in Beckett’s world is so depleted and seemingly devoid of meaning and action that the minute he gets up, he is tired again. Clov, Hamm’s servant, is also tired of the conditions in the barren room. During the play, we get the idea that he wants to leave the refuge, maybe because of his ability to staggeringly walk around and look out of the window, which in some ways makes him less ‘fixed’ than the other characters. Clov, at times, has outbursts in which he seems adamant to leave it all behind. Hamm, on the other hand, is convinced that there is no reason for it to change, possibly because he would quickly die without the help of his servant: Have you not had enough? CLOV: Yes! [Pause.] Of what? HAMM: Of this … this … thing. CLOV: I always had. [Pause.] Not you? HAMM: [Gloomily.] Then there’s no reason for it to change. CLOV: It may end. [Pause.] All life long the same questions, the same answers (7). Hamm’s attitude towards Clov’s potential departure seems ambiguous. In the passage above, he claims that there is no reason for anything to change because Clov always wanted to leave but never did. This idea yet again implies that they are stuck in a loop. In fact, it seems that Clov cannot leave, even if he wanted to: “CLOV: So you all want me to leave you. HAMM: Naturally. CLOV Then I’ll leave you. HAMM: You can’t leave us. CLOV Then I shan’t leave you” (24). Here, Hamm says everyone wants him to leave, suggesting that Hamm deeply desires things to be “finished” but realises that, at the same time, none of the characters can leave. Later in the play, Hamm again asks his servant if he has had enough of “this thing” (28). The dialogue that ensues differs from the first time Hamm asked that particular question, though. Instead of saying that there is no reason for “it” to change, Hamm says that “it’s a day like any other day” (28). Clov now seems to provide an answer to his last remark: “All life long the same inanities” (28). The same questions have the same answers: there is no point and their existence is nonsensical. There is a constant alternation between despair and indifference. That indifference might come from the fact that they know deep down that their existence is fundamentally cyclical. Recurring statements, actions and motifs further fuel the circularity inherent to Endgame. They each go through the “farce” of routine actions because there is nothing else to do but wait for something they subconsciously know will never come. Nell, Hamm’s mother, first mentions their “farce”. A couple of scenes later, Clov utters the exact same words: “CLOV: Why this farce, day after day? HAMM: Routine. One never knows. [Pause]” (21). On four separate occasions, Hamm says “we’re getting on” (9, 12, 25, 41), initially making it seem as if the play is coming to a conclusion. Similarly, Clov mentions that “something is taking its course” in two separate scenes (12, 22). These statements imply that something is about to happen, while in the end nothing really does, making these recurring statements seem ironic. The characters simply never get anywhere. Hamm never gets the pain-killers he repeatedly asks for (8, 11, 17, 23, 30, 42) because in the end there do not seem to be any left. Additionally, Nagg, regularly ‘nags’ for his “sugar-plum” (30, 31, 32, 34) but he too never gets it. Recurring actions such as Hamm’s insistence on asking Clov to look outside to see if something stirs and Clov’s failure to remember to bring the ladder to do so, also emphasise their fixed routine. Notably, Clov frequently attempts to leave but even returns after his passionate vow to do so. Hamm, on the other hand, weirdly obsesses over his wheelchair being in the exact centre of the room. I would argue that, these motifs support the fact that they have a very specific role to play in their routine. A role which they cannot abandon. The fact that they keep on ‘playing the part’ also emphasises their immobility. At one point Hamm tells Clov: “I thought I told you to be off.” Clov responds: “I’m trying. Ever since I was whelped.” (12). Clov will forever be the servant and Hamm his master, simply because they are not able to ‘break character’: “CLOV: Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why? HAMM: You’re not able to.” (27). The play suggests that the characters will be just like they have always been: “only about to die and to leave” (Esslin 160). The title already hints at this idea. Kumar points out a chess metaphor central to Endgame. In his view, the play acts as a representation of the last phase of a game of chess, in which the losing player essentially already lost and has to endure his fate. Hamm is both king in the chess game and a bad chess player, waiting for a checkmate that never comes. He tries to prolong his miserable existence as long as possible, but there is no fixed time for a game of chess to conclude; and “the time taken is indefinite, with the ending perpetually delayed” (Kumar 542). Moreover, Clov’s reference to Zeno’s heap could imply that although these individual moments in life are stacked upon one another, they never amount to anything final: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s heap, a little heap, the impossible heap”. The heap remains “impossible” and, as Kumar writes: “The endgame of […] existence continues without mounting up to a life” (545). Clov is tired of the fact that they keep ‘going on’ despite the fact that they never get anywhere as he says to Hamm: “I’m tired of our goings on, very tired” (45). The last scenes, in which he determines to leave are fundamentally inconclusive. Clov planned to set an alarm to notify his master that he has actually left him behind. Since there is no explicit reference to an actual alarm being set, the audience is left in the dark as to whether he actually does leave or cannot muster the courage to do so. As Gerrard has suggested, “they remain, locked together in suffering” (395). The characters’ seeming inability to escape the cycle might induce feelings of discomfort as the reader is left wanting. Here, at the inconclusive ending of Endgame, the viewer/reader really feels the uncrossable threshold of infinity Martin Essler talks about because even the possibility of an ending seems to be negated. There is, of course, a possibility that the curtain will rise and everything will be repeated all over again. Beckett’s work is notoriously hard to decipher. The reader constantly has to try to make sense of the events on stage while also trying not to destroy the paradigms the play promotes. The implicit theme of perpetual circularity might mean a couple of things. Perhaps, it highlights Hamm as the existential hero: both the sufferer and the actor; both the player and the king of the chessboard; someone who wants things to be over but hesitates in the process. Possibly, the circularity of life in the refuge is meant to leave audiences with an uncomfortable inconclusiveness and feelings of claustrophobia, urging them to reflect on their personal life; or conceivably, society and its workings. The play could also be a meta-theatrical statement: the play’s events keep unfolding performance after performance but only ever end when the actors stop performing the actual play; raising ontological questions about a literary piece and its life-span. As long as the play is brought to the stage, the story lives on in a cycle of performances, just like the cyclical story of the play itself. The curtain is raised and the curtain falls, and then it happens all over again. Maybe –and this is what I would argue- the play really has no latent meaning. At one point Hamm excitedly ponders over the fact that they might begin to mean something: We’re not beginning to … to … mean something?” (22). The syntax of Hamm’s crucial question –the delays and repetitions- mirror the cyclical nature of the play. In response to this question, Clov, ridicules his master’s naïveté and in doing so reveals Beckett’s radical irony: “Mean something! You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that’s a good one!” (22). The play continuously starts to mean something but never actually ‘finalises’ meaning, making it difficult to scrutinise and filling the viewer with feelings of existential futility while also making them wonder what defines existence.
Because of the mundanity of the world of Endgame, the characters seem desperate while at times also sounding indifferent, thus meandering between the desire to finish and the hesitation to do so. Their indifference might come from the subconscious realisation – and perhaps even acceptance – of the perpetual routines they are stuck in. The themes of perpetuity and circularity are strengthened though repetition of certain actions on stage and the words uttered by the characters. The allusion to chess hints at an endgame of existence which can carry on indefinitely, just like a game of chess theoretically could. As the ‘ending’ of the drama is inconclusive and possible negated, the play is perpetually ‘beginning’ and ‘ending’ at the same time. One could ask oneself the question “where does a circle begin?” and struggle to find a satisfying answer. Similarly, the circular nature of Endgame’s world implies that endings and beginning are the same and what we see on stage might have happened before and will happen again; or perhaps merely exists and nothing more. Beckett once said that the key word in his plays is ‘perhaps’. Keeping that in mind, I did not claim to have found out what the significance of these two themes are. I have indicated, however, alongside other possible interpretations, that in my view the absence of finality both strengthens feelings of discomfort and futility in the audience and raises questions about what it means to exist. Endgame ends appropriately with the line “You…remain.” (50). The characters will all remain –be it on stages around the world or in Beckett’s script- until the curtain falls. Yet, when it is performed or read again, the cycle shall forever continue.
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. Faber and Faber, 2009. Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton University Press, 2014. Esslin, Martin. Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays. Vol. 51. Prentice Hall Direct, 1965. Hasselbach, Hans-Peter. “Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: A Structural Analysis.” Modern Drama, vol. 19, no. 1, 1976, pp. 25–34. Project Muse, doi: doi:10.1353/mdr.1976.0006. Kumar, K. Jeevan. “The Chess Metaphor in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.” Modern Drama, vol. 40, no. 4, 1997, pp. 540–552. Project Muse, doi:doi:10.1353/mdr.1997.0041.  References without an explicit author refer to: Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. Faber and Faber, 2009.  In Driver, Tom F. “Keynote Address: “The Blessed Assurance of Perhaps”. Theatre Symposium, vol. 21, 2013, pp. 7-25. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tsy.2013.0012, Driver quotes Beckett’s response in an interview he once conducted with the playwright.