Nothing happens in Endgame and that nothing is what matters. The author’s feeling about nothing also matters, not because it is true or right but because it is a strongly formed attitude, a felt and expressed viewpoint. . . . The yardsticks of dialectical materialism and moralism are equally out in appraising the play. Dialectical materialism could only say that Endgame is decadent. Moralism and theology would say that the play is sinful, since nothing damns the soul so much as despair of salvation. Neither yardstick could tell us that this hauntingly powerful work of the imagination is art.
—John Gassner, Theater at the Crossroads
Endgame is Samuel Beckett’s terminal work. If Waiting For Godot presents a repeating sequence of frustrated anticipation, Endgame imagines the moment before extinction, before the lights go out and a final realization, encapsulated in the play’s opening line: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” As its chess title suggests, the play stages the final moves in a game ending either in checkmate or stalemate. Contracted down from the two acts of Godot and its blank open road to a single act in a claustrophobic bare room, Endgame enacts the apocalyptic moment that Gogo and Didi anticipate, but it is far from the relief they imagined. If Waiting for Godot is Beckett’s existential comedy of affirming persistence, Endgame is his existential tragedy of willed cessation. Harold Hobson, writing about Endgame in 1973, commented: “In recent years there has been some danger of Mr. Beckett being sentimentalized. Self-defensively we are driven to persuade ourselves that his plays are not really filled with terror and horror, but are, at bottom, jolly good fun. Well, they are not jolly good fun. They are amongst the most frightening prophecies of, and longing for, doom ever written.” In Endgame, critic Ruby Cohn has suggested, Beckett presents “the death of the stock props of Western civilization—family, cohesion, filial, parental, and connubial love, faith in God, artistic appreciation and creation.” A work of astonishing economy and suggestive power, Endgame is a last will and testament of a desperate consciousness seeking relief from the pain of itself.
Endgame emerged out of one of the most tormenting periods of Beckett’s life. Following the remarkable creative burst that produced his three great novels—Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—and the groundbreaking Waiting for Godot, Beckett struggled through several years of “inertia,” in which he confessed not having “the least desire to put pen to paper.” Having completed Waiting for Godot in 1949, his second full-length play, Endgame, would not appear until 1956. In the intervening years Beckett spent time in Ireland attending to both his mother and brother during their final illnesses. It was his daily, three-month-long vigil at his brother Frank’s bedside before he succumbed to lung cancer, in particular, that stimulated the writing of End-game. Watching his brother’s slow decline, Beckett wrote in letters, “things drag on, a little more awful every day, and with so many days yet probably to run what awfulness to look forward to” and “Waiting [is] not so bad if you can fidget about. This is like waiting tied to a chair.” Endgame would be built on “waiting tied to a chair.” After his brother’s death, in September 1954, Beckett returned to France and gradually began work on the first version of what would become Fin de partie (Endgame). As Beckett’s biographer James Knowlson states, “it followed hard on the heels of Beckett’s experience of the sickroom and of waiting for someone to die, and is not only preoccupied with the slowness of an approaching end but haunted by the tiny, practical details of caring for a dying patient.” His initial draft was a two-person, two-act play involving a patient and his attendant, designated A and B. In a letter Beckett wrote: “I have A out of his armchair flat on his face on the stage at the moment and B trying in vain to get him back. I know at least I’ll go on to the end before using the waste-paper basket.” A month later he announced: “Yes, I finished the play, but it’s no good and I have to begin all over again.” A final version, now with four characters, in a single act to be “played without a break,” was ready by 1956. However, despite Beckett’s notoriety and success with Waiting for Godot, no Paris theater could be found for the premiere of Fin de partie. George Devine, the director of the English Stage Company in London, had contracted to produce Beckett’s English translation of the play when it was finished; however, when he learned of Beckett’s difficulty in opening the play in Paris, Devine decided not to wait for the translation, and Fin de partie had its world premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre in April 1957. In May the French text was published, and the play finally opened in Paris. In 1958 the English-language version opened in London on a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Beckett admitted that Endgame was “rather difficult and elliptic” and “more inhuman than Godot,” which helps to explain its initial reception. Beckett described the premiere as “rather grim, like playing to mahogany, or rather teak.” The woodenness of the audience was matched by the hostility of reviewers who were baffled or annoyed by the play. Kenneth Tynan observed that Beckett’s new play made it “clear that his purpose is neither to move nor to help us. For him, man is a pygmy who connives at his own inevitable degradation.” Comparing it to his first play, reviewer T. C. Worsley said that in Waiting for Godot, “Mr. Beckett’s neurosis and mine were for quite long stretches on the same theme; in Endgame they never tangled. He has, in Endgame . . . expanded not the public but the private images. He has concentrated not on what is common between his audiences and him but on what is private in himself.” Beckett would long insist that Endgame was one of his two favorite works (Malone Dies being the other). It would not be until several successful revivals in the 1960s that Endgame would be increasingly recognized as a masterpiece and one of the most suggestive and profound modern dramas.
The play opens with Clovstiffly and staggeringly entering a “bare interior,” drawing the curtains from the room’s two high windows and removing old sheets covering three forms: two trash cans and the blind Hamm, confined to an armchair on castors in the center of the room. Roused, Hamm begins to issue commands and insults to his truculent attendant. Clov, the only one of the play’s characters who can move, resembles the chessboard’s knight; while Beckett described Hamm as “a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves. . . . He is only trying to delay the inevitable end.” As in Waiting for Godot, Endgame focuses on the interdependence of linked pairs, but the patient-attendant roles assumed by Hamm and Clov suggest not the more affable and collegial Didi and Gogo, but master and slave Pozzo and Lucky. Asked by Hamm, “Why do you stay with me?” Clov replies: “Why do you keep me?” Hamm responds, “There’s no one else,” and Clov counters, “There’s nowhere else.” In the details that emerge from their dialogue, there is the suggestion that the occupants of this room, with one window looking out onto the sea and the other toward land, are the sole survivors of some devastating apocalyptic event. “Outside of here it’s death,” Hamm remarks. Inside, the provisions that Hamm controls in a cupboard with a combination lock are running out along with other essentials. Clov reports there are no more bicycle wheels for Hamm’s chair, no more of the painkiller Hamm demands, nor the “pap” to feed Hamm’s legless parents—Nagg and Nell—whose heads pop out of the two trash cans. To the master-servant relationship of Hamm and Clov Beckett adds a generational conflict involving Hamm and his parents and Clov as Hamm’s actual or adopted son (“It was I was a father to you,” Hamm tells Clov). Hamm treats his parents with the same insults and recriminations he directs at Clov. Ordered to be quiet, Nagg regales Nell with a joke that made her laugh years earlier when they were young, healthy, and in love at Lake Como. It concerns a tailor who takes more than three months to make a pair of trousers, provoking his exasperated customer to complain that God made the entire world in six days. “But my dear Sir,” says the tailor, “. . . look—at the world—and look—at my TROUSERS!” Hamm furiously interrupts the couple’s recollections, declaring, “Have you not finished? Will you never finish? Will this never finish?” and orders Clov to “screw down the lids.”
Reclaiming his preeminence as the center of attention, Hamm orders Clov to take him on a turn around the room—“Right round the world!”—before being returned, precisely, to his place in the center. Asked for a weather report and a survey of what can be seen outside the windows, Clov reports that all is “As usual”: “Light black. From pole to pole.” Characterizing the world outside in a single word, Clov offers “Corpsed.” After Clov observes that “Something is taking its course,” Hamm responds by asking: “We’re not beginning to . . . to . . . mean something?” Speculation is broken off when Clov feels a flea biting him, and Hamm anxiously urges its extinction, lest “humanity might start from there all over again.” Calling for his makeshift, three-legged toy dog, Hamm puts it through its paces before asking Clov if “this thing has gone on long enough?” Clov agrees, and while Hamm cannot leave, he can, prompting Hamm to ask how he will know whether or not Clov has left or died, since the stench of rotting corpses is pervasive. Clov’s solution is to set an alarm clock: If it rings, he has gone; if it does not, he is dead. Testing the clock to see that it still rings, Clov observes “The end is terrific!” Hamm replies: “I prefer the middle.”
Announcing that it is time for “my story,” Hamm orders Clov, who refuses to listen, to rouse Nagg to serve as his audience. Hamm recollects a past Christmas Eve when he was visited by a poor man begging food for his infant son. Agreeing to take the man in as a gardener and care for his son (who may have been Clov), Hamm is interrupted in this pleasing memory of his own beneficence by Nagg demanding a sugarplum, his reward for listening to the story. When Clov informs them that there are no more sugarplums, Nagg curses his son, saying, “I hope the day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice any voice. Yes, I hope I’ll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark, and I was your only hope.” Knocking on the lid of Nell’s bin, Nagg gets no response and sinks back into his bin, prompting Hamm to repeat Prospero’s line from The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended.” Ordered to investigate the bins, Clov reports that Nell appears to be dead, and Nagg is crying. “Then he’s living,” Hamm concludes. Asking Clov for another report on what he sees from the windows, Hamm is surprised when Clov sees through his telescope a small boy. This sign of continuing life or, as Clov speculates, “a potential procreator,” causes Hamm to declare: “It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you any more.” Clov responds with his intention to leave, imagining his departure: “I open the door of the cell and go. I am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and between my legs a little trail of black dust. I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit. It’s easy going. When I fall I’ll weep for happiness. . . . That is what we call making an exit.” Returning from the kitchen dressed for departure with a panama hat, tweed coat, raincoat over his arm, umbrella, and bag, Clov halts before the door and turns to watch Hamm deliver the monologue that closes the play. “Me to play,” Hamm says wearily. “Old Endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing.” As he makes his preparations for the end, fragments of his earlier story emerge that seem to address the child he took in. After calling twice for his father and once for Clov, he unfolds his bloody handkerchief (“Old stancher!”), placing it over his face while saying, “Since that’s the way we’re playing it . . . let’s play it that way . . . speak no more. Old stancher! You . . . remain.” Clov stands motionless.
Endgame supports, and demands, multiple interpretations. On one level the play seems to enact a kind of morality drama in which the imperious and selfish Hamm must meet his end, forecasted in his own threat to Clov: “Infi -nite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fi ll it, and there you’ll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe. Yes, one day you’ll know what it is, you’ll be like me, except that you won’t have anyone with you, because you won’t have had pity on anyone and because there won’t be anyone left to have pity on.” On a symbolic level the enthroned and commanding Hamm is the king in this Endgame with Clov, unable to sit, the knight in service to the king, forever mounted on his horse, and Nagg and Nell, ineffectual pawns in a fated and futile game, encapsulated by Hamm’s realization that “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.” On a psychological level the play, with its brain-gray interior and its two windows, suggests the inside of a skull with its four characters as conflicting aspects of a single personality or consciousness. An inner, subjective world is suggested by Hamm’s story of a madman he once visited in his asylum: “I’d take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.” From inside the play’s consciousness all is ashes, as the constituent parts of the integrated identity war with each other. In such a reading the blind self-centered Hamm represents the id; Clov, the rational caregiver and stickler for order, suggests the ego; and Nagg and Nell, the internalized voice of parental authority and conscience, resemble the superego. On the point of extinction, these forces enact a final death struggle as consciousness itself aspires to the terminal condition conjured by Clov: “A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust.”
Few plays have ever reached the existential core as Endgame does. Replacing conventional characterization and incident with basic and resonating pat-terns of meanings and suggestive images, Beckett manages to find a dramatic equivalent for the instant between being and nothingness.
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time