“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.
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