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.
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