Endgame | Critical Essay by Ruby Cohn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Endgame.
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Critical Essay by Ruby Cohn

A play aborted and a play jettisoned contrast with Beckett's favorite play, Endgame, which was worked, reworked, and translated from the French. As an approximation, Deirdre Bair is probably right in her Samuel Beckett, 1978 to surmise that Beckett turned to drama when he reached a creative impasse, but drama too can be an impasse, and Beckett labored two years over Fin de partie. Of all his plays, it underwent most extensive revision.

Beckett wrote his friend, anglicist Jean-Jacques Mayoux:

La rédaction définitive de Fin de partie est de 56. Mais j'avais abordé ce travail bien avant, peutêtre en 54. Une première, puis une deuxième version en deux actes avait précédé celle en un acte que vous connaissez.

[The final draft of Endgame dates from 56. But I had started this work much earlier, perhaps in 54. A first, then a second version in two acts had preceded the one act that you know.]

The "deuxième version en deux actes" of Fin de partie is in the Ohio State University Library, and the "première version" is in the Beckett collection of Reading University, England; Beckett does not mention a brief handwritten continuation of the latter, now in Trinity College Library, University of Dublin.

The twenty-one-page typescript at Reading bears no title, but Beckett's hand notes: "avant Fin de partie." Another hand labels the piece "Abandoned Theatre in French," and the text does apparently abandon its two actors in the middle of their action. Bair asserts that the play was begun with specific actors in Beckett's mind—Roger Blin who played Pozzo in Godot and Jean Martin who played Lucky. If this is so, the new play would continue their roles of master and servant, those staples of French comedy. Designated by the letters X and F (for Factotum), the master's baptismal spoon reads Jeannot, and the servant is variously called Donald, Lucien, and, mainly, Albert. As the letter X suggests, the master is almost as unknowable as Godot, but he is distinctly visible and audible. F wants to address X as "Votre Honneur" or "Monsieur" or even "Patron," but X rejects such honorifics. F declares himself incapable of calling X "vieux con" as directed; nevertheless, he does so once, even while continuing his plea for the privilege of saying: "Votre Honneur."

X and F interact in a place undescribed in the few scenic directions, but Beckett seems to have envisioned a shelter not unlike that of Endgame, since F speaks of two large windows (now aveuglées), and he retires to his offstage kitchen, whereas X is confined to his wheelchair. F locates the shelter in Picardy, where destruction occurred "dans des circonstances mystérieuses" between 1914 and 1918. (In the final Endgame only Nell's mention of the Sedan hints at the French War, where Napoleon III was disastrously defeated in 1871.) The location may be Picardy, but the props are neutral, and X recites their inventory—a drum and stick attached to X's chair (instead of the later whistle around his neck), a superfluous syringe, a baptismal spoon, and a Bible. X does not mention his Fahrenheit thermometer, but he desires a telescope. Beckett's few scenic directions specify silence, X's drums-beating to summon F, F's entrances and exits, X's vain efforts to move his wheelchair, and F's actual movements of the chair. Beckett evidently heard the dialogue before he saw all the gestures in his mind's eye. And what he heard is an action about playing, passing time, and ending. In X's first expository monologue he says he is blind and paralyzed, then says he is pretending to be blind and paralyzed, then wonders whether he is lying or mistaken. His self-doubt is more insidious than Hamm's, as is appropriate to his name, X. Perhaps the Cartesian heritage is stronger; he doubts, therefore he is, and he doubts out loud.

Of the twenty-one typed pages at Reading University, X's opening monologue (punctuated by ten silences) takes one and a half pages, the first X-F duologue takes four and a half pages, before X recites a shorter monologue. Another five pages of duologue are followed by a shorter X monologue. Like Hamm, X tells a story, and like Hamm he comments on the interaction of master and servant. Unlike Endgame, however, this play ends—or breaks off—in duologue (but is carried a little further in the Trinity College manuscript). X addresses F in the tu form, but F shows respect for X with his vous, instead of the familiar equality of the final version. The pointed pointlessness of the duologues recalls Godot and predicts the verbal ping pong of Endgame:

X: Pourquoi ne me tues-tu pas?

F: (Avec dégoût) Je vous aime. (Silence)

X: Pourquoi?

F: Je suis malade.

X: Moi aussi.

F: Vous êtes malade?

X: Je t'aime.

F: Alors nous nous aimons.

[X: Why don't you kill me?

F: (With disgust) I love you. (Silence)

X: Why?

F: I'm sick.

X: Me too.

F: You're sick?

X: I love you.

F: Then we love one another.]

X's story and its enactment—the playing theme—gradually assume importance, but the ending theme of Endgame is barely seeded. F repeatedly asks if he may address X as "Your Honor," which privilege is refused. He pleads for the stability of master-servant conventions, and it early becomes evident that this pair, like Vladimir and Estragon before them, have trouble in living through endless time. Dubiously, F remarks that everything has an end, and X retorts with the stale vaudeville joke about the sausage, which has two.

The two men touch on several other subjects that will preoccupy Hamm and Clov—weather, a dog, repetition, F's departure, X's centrality, whether their activities have any meaning. More explicitly than Hamm, X sighs: "Dommage que nous soyons les derniers du genre humain." He requests F to wheel him here and there, to take him for a promenade. The connection between fact and fiction is stronger in the early version: X calls for his dog, then amends this to his wife, and finally shifts to his mother, who becomes the protagonist of his story, as enacted by F.

The mother has had a terrible accident that invalids her, but she is carefully tended: "Et hop la revoilà sur pied." ["And hup there she is on her feet again."] Three times during his narrative, X cries out disjunctively, "Cherchezla dansle coin." ["Look for her in the corner."] After the last time, F enters disguised as the mother, but after a brief mother-son duologue, X instructs F to get rid of that putréfaction. Alone again, X broods: "Nous jouons si mal que ça n'a plus l'air d'un jeu." ["We're playing so badly that it no longer looks like a game."] Then, resolving that "Cette nuit sera comme les autres nuits" ["Tonight will be like other nights."], he corrects himself: "Nous ne jouons pas si mal que ça." ["We're not playing as badly as that."] On his drum X summons F, who informs his master: "Il s'agit de ne pas mourir." ["It's a question of not dying."] The Reading typescript breaks off after:

F: Eh bien, il y a toujours l'affaire Bom.

X: Bom … Ah oui, cette pauvre vieille qui réclame une goutte d'eau.

F: Non, ça c'est l'affaire Bim.

[F: Well, there's always the Bom business.

X: Bom…. Ah yes, that poor old woman who begs for a drop of water.

F: No, that's the Bim business.]

From the time of his collection of stories More Pricks Than Kicks, written over two decades earlier, Bim and Bom recur sporadically in Beckett's work. Russian clowns whose comic routines contained—and were permitted to contain—criticism of the Soviet regime, they became for Beckett emblems of human cruelty, disguised under a comic garb. In a deleted passage of Godot Vladimir and Estragon compare Pozzo and Lucky to Bim and Bom. In the Reading University piece Bim and Bom are transformed into parched old women, but, combined with the clown overtones of narration and disguise, their names are a not unfitting terminus for duologues at once cruel and comic.

The Trinity College manuscript continues for two hand-written pages that present a failing X informed by F that an old woman has died of thirst. Less directly reproachful than Clov, F turns a phrase that will later be modified for Hamm:

X: Et comment sais-tu qu'elle est morte?

F: Elle ne crie plus.

[X: And how do you know she's dead?

F: She's no longer crying.]

The Reading University manuscript (and its brief Trinity College continuation) do not manage to weave the several strands: the meditations of X, the master-servant duologues, the X narration that leads to an F enactment. But this abandoned piece already contains Endgame's physical space, a climate of illness and disaster, the love-hate interchange of master and servant, their penchant for story and play.

There is no date on the Reading University typescript, so that we cannot know how much time elapsed before Beckett turned to a new version—still untitled but complete by April, 1956—now in Ohio State University Library. We know from Beckett's letter to Jean-Jacques Mayoux that he may have started the first draft as early as 1954, and we know from his letters to Alan Schneider that he began the two-act version in December 1955, so that at least a year separates the two stages.

In the two-act version repetitions underline the playing theme and the ending theme. To some extent Beckett divided the two themes between the two couples who people the play. Master and servant (designated as A and B) are preoccupied with playing out their daily routines. However, the servant is less servile than F, and he is a more versatile player; he appears not only as a woman, but also as a boy. Like the mother of the first draft, this boy is engendered by the master's fiction. The other couple, M and P (for Mémé and Pépé, French for Granny and Grampy) are ending their long lives in stage ashbins. The two main characters, A and B in the manuscript, address each other by Christian names; A is French Guillaume, and B English James. Lacking any other national indication, they both speak colloquial French. M once addresses P as German Walther. A little boy in A's story is French André, but in references to what will become Mother Pegg, Beckett leaves a blank space for a name.

Gone is all reference to Picardy, and the two acts of the Ohio State version take place in the unnational set of the Endgame we know, except for the absence of the painting, and the presence of the color red—on Hamm's blanket, robe, nightcap, and handkerchief; on the faces of the three men in Act I. Nell's face is white, in premonition of her death. The "ensign crimson" versus the "pale flag," which Winnie will salvage from Romeo and Juliet, are already emblems of life and death. B's beret is yellow and the toy dog black, but other props are nondescript and not described—drum, Bible, and thermometer retained from the earlier draft; new additions are a gaff and an alarm-clock.

When Beckett directed Endgame in Berlin in 1967, he segmented the action into sixteen rehearsal scenes, which are already discernible in the two-act version, though differently proportioned. In the final play the ending action dominates the playing action after Scene 12, and Beckett emphasizes this in the English translation by borrowing Shakespeare's Tempest line, "Our revels now are ended"—in the original French "Finie la rigolade." The French phrase opens Act II of the earlier draft, appearing on page 35 of the sixty-five page typescript.

As in the final Endgame, the dialogue of the two-act version begins with an expository soliloquy by Clov-B and ends with a soliloquy of resignation by Hamm-A, but the earlier versions are longer and more repetitive. Clov's opening sentence illustrates the rhythm: "Mort lente, mort rapide, vais-je rester, vais-je le quitter, pour de bon, le quitter pour de bon, ou rester pour de bon, pour la vie, jusqu'à ce qu'il meure, ou jusqu'à ce que moi je meure?" ["Slow death, rapid death, will I stay, will I leave him, for good, leave him for good, or stay for good, for life, until he dies, or until I myself die?"] However, it is not dialogue but gesture that opens and closes the two-act play, as it does the final Endgame. Clov's opening mime is similar to that of Endgame, but at play's end Hamm-A buries his face in his hands—a less stoic gesture than curtaining his face with the "old stancher," Beckett's brilliant translation of "vieux linge."

Like his successor Hamm, A simultaneously desires an end and hesitates to end. Although the play in the theater has to end, an endless process is subliminally suggested by the repetition of phrases, gestures, pauses which do not add up to whole events. Of primary importance, therefore, is Beckett's change of Nell-M's death at the end of Act I to Clov's laconic report in revision: "Looks like it [her death]."

Death unhappens between the two-act and final Endgame. Less decrepit than Nagg, P wants to hold M's hand, and he knocks at the lid of her ashbin. Alarmed that she does not answer, P urges B to examine her bin. The servant bends over, looks in, bends still further. There is a long silence. Then B straightens up, gently covers the bin, and removes his beret. When Nagg-P asks: "Alors?" B removes the old man's skull-cap, but blind A yawns to close the act with French cliché syllables of dismay, "Oh là là."

In Act II Nell-M's ashbin is gone from the stage. Hamm-A wears a black nightcap, Clov-B a black beret, Nagg-P a black skull-cap. The faces of A, B, and P are white, like M's in Act I; are they close to death? To A's question about whether P is happy that M is dead, the old man replies, "Très." Toward the middle of Act II, P tells B that it isn't worth the trouble to make sawdust for his bin, and B declares that these may be P's last words. They are certainly his last words in this version of the drama. Before the end of the two-act version, A speaks Hamm's final speech of Endgame (with a few variants); then he and B engage in a last duologue. B leaves, and A continues to speak a few feeble words. Though A has earlier told B that he has pondered about his last words, the one spoken on stage is simply "Bon."

Present from the beginning of the two-act version is the visual impression of the play we know: two ashbins and one wheelchair in a bare shelter, with two windows that B can reach only by means of a ladder. Although A asks B suspiciously whether he has shrunk (as Hamm will ask Clov), it is rather the dialogue that shrinks between Beckett's two-act and one-act versions (from sixty-five to thirty-seven typed pages). Of the four characters, only Nell-M speaks similar lines although her speeches come in a different order, and she lacks memories of Lake Como.

Beckett curtails many speeches of the three men in the final Endgame. Nagg-P no longer comments on Hamm-A's meditations, nor does he declare that Nell-M can crawl out of her bin; nor does he swear an oath on his honor (although Hamm does). Also excised are Clov-B's reminiscences about seaweed and seagulls, his clown business with rolling-pin and telescope, his recitation of an undesignated sonnet, his difficulties with the dative case and pronunciation of the word Pentateuch, and his regret that he cannot lie to Hamm-A. From the master Beckett takes away a Pascalian exclamation about infinite spaces, the measurement of temperature at 98.6 Fahrenheit, the recitation of B's basic duties, and A's ruminations about preparing his last words. Excision shortens the A-B duologues where both men struggle through time in sequences about passing the time, about the toy dog, and about tears and laughter. In one routine A and B cry in synchrony, giving a comic tone to their tears. Also deleted is B's hesitation between two commands—that of A to wheel his chair to the center of the shelter and that of P to replace the skuli-cap on his head. Both commands desire a return to the status quo ante, delaying an end. B weighs his choice: "Mon coeur balance. (Un temps.) A moins d'un fait nouveau nous sommes figés pour l'éternité." ["My heart is poised between the two. (Pause.) Unless a new fact enters, we're fixed for eternity."] Eyes front, B begins to recite from Rimbaud: "O saisons, o châteaux!" The impasse passes when A commands that B serve P, and B therefore comments: "On repart. Dommage." ["We're off again. Pity."]

Beckett's most telling revision is the complete elimination of two Clov-B scenes of disguise, one in each act. Without the anticlimactic color of these scenes, the ending action becomes more continuous and relentless, apparently dating from the biblical flood. In the two-act draft, the Flood reference is specific, for B reads to A from Genesis, then turns to the descendants of Shem, chanting a litany of long-lived patriarchs who engendered large families. A's response is Oedipal since he asks for his mother to help him engender. When B protests that A must mean his wife, the master retorts that it's all the same to him whether it is mother, wife, sister, daughter; what counts are two breasts and a vulva. B exits, to re-enter in blonde wig, false breasts, and a skirt over his trousers. It is not clear whether A is deceived by the disguise, for B also assumes a woman's voice, and it is B who speaks what will become Nell's line in the final Endgame: "Alors, mon gros, c'est pour la bagatelle?" ["What is it, my pet? Time for love?" (Beckett's translation in English Endgame.)] Since B is both himself and the woman, there follows a comic triangular scene, but instead of two men competing for the favors of the woman, both A and B wish to foist her on the other. If a child is conceived, B's woman's voice tells A, they will drown it.

A child is conceived in the two-act draft. Even in the final version, Clov reports seeing a small boy through the window (a report abridged in Beckett's English translation), whereupon Hamm informs Clov that he is no longer needed. In the two-act draft, B surmises this on his own, once the boy is sighted. Soon after A calls his father the boy appears on stage, played by B in his second disguise—red cap, short trousers, and the gray smock of French school-children. Changing voice with costume, B complains of hunger, and A seems to believe B's disguise. He bribes the boy with an offer of chocolate and orders him to look into an ashbin, to push his wheelchair, to bring his gaff. But when B as boy claims the chocolate, A announces that there is no more chocolate. Recalling how he desired a drum when he was a child, A offers his instrument to the boy and pleads: "Viens." The boy backs out of the shelter, but blind A continues to address him. He attributes to the boy the greed that Hamm will attribute to old folks. Only after a long silence does A realize that he is alone. He tries vainly to move his chair, as X tried in Beckett's Reading piece, as Hamm will try in Endgame. Then, throwing away the gaff, A whispers "Bon," his last word before burying his face in his hands.

In the theater B's disguises would be comic in spite of the grim overtones of Beckett's two-act play. Beckett's elimination of these comic scenes balances his decision to cut the cruellest scene from the earlier draft. In that version P is reluctant to listen to his son's story, so that A orders B to put P's head into a pillory, making him a literally captive audience. A then stages a professor-pupil scene in which he plays both professor and pupil in a lesson on madness. Not satisfied with his father as mere listener, A orders him to recite the story of his life. Canged though he is, P refuses until A, wheeled by B to P's ashbin-pillory hits him on the head with his drumstick, and then threatens him with hammer and gaff. Thus beaten into speech, the old man delivers a seriocomic life story in telegraph phrases. In Beckett's novels Molloy strikes his mother on the head, and a stranger strikes Malone, but Beckett must have decided that such physical violence is too crude for his stage, and Hamm's hostility toward his father is reduced to the verbal in the final Endgame. (Servant strikes master with the toy dog in both versions, but the weapon mitigates cruelty.)

In spite of the crucial concentration of two acts into one, the final Endgame seems more symmetrical. Hamm and Clov are more evenly balanced than are A and B. Their dialogue is more equitably shared; Clov's five laughs at the beginning are balanced by Hamm's five yawns; Hamm's wheelchair by Clov's ladder; Hamm's dark glasses by Clov's telescope, and his whistle by Clov's alarm-clock. Re-inforcing such balance is the way Hamm and Clov speak of kissing, whereas Nagg and Nell try to kiss.

Because Beckett's revision achieves balance, economy, and concentration, his few additions are noteworthy. Beckett molded Endgame at its beginning and end to suggest that "The end is in the beginning." Thus, only in the final version are all four characters in the same stage space at beginning and end. Only in the finished play does Hamm address his handkerchief as "old stancher" near beginning and end, and only there does he sniff for Clov near beginning and end.

Beckett supplies new binding threads in the final version. He concretizes the difficulties of ending by reference to Eleatic grains and moments, he makes the characters more aware of playing, and he underlines the ending theme by references to more phenomena running out. Dwelling on the entropic action, Beckett embellishes Hamm's wasteland prophecy and his recollection of the painter; Beckett moves the master's richest and loneliest speech to the very end of Endgame.

Only into the final version does Beckett introduce the old vaudeville joke about hearing that has not failed—"our what?"—and only there does he add Nagg's significant joke about the poor quality of God's created world. Endgame intensifies pathos as well as humor; in the final version alone we find the last moving Hamm-Clov exchange, from Hamm's "Before you go … say something" through Clov's most extended speech that begins: "I say to myself—sometimes…." Both characters imply a link between speech and suffering, but that link is stronger in Endgame because Beckett's words are stronger, and they are ordered for maximum tension.

The variety of words is diminished by the increase of repetition, which was already markedly increased between the Reading and Ohio State University drafts. Several Clov threats to depart are added to the final version of Endgame. The most frequent scenic direction in the Reading fragment is "Silence," but "Un temps" takes the lead in the last two versions, and the final Endgame contains new repetitions of "Alors" and "Même jeu." As is often noted, Hamm begins his three soliloquies with the same striking phrase: "A moi de jouer," and in the final version Mother Pegg, the light, and the earth are all "éteint." Repetition itself sounds starker and more continuous in the economy of the single act.

Although the immense effort required to play, pass time, and end is common to the three versions, Beckett did not set out to compose on given themes. He probably began like other playwrights in other styles with characters in a setting—with a paralyzed master and an ailing servant in an almost hermetic room. The two-act version accommodated a second couple. With four characters confined to a single act, however, the play achieves the linear force of a tragedy by Racine, an author long appreciated by Beckett. Still, it is a circle rather than a straight line that diagrams Endgame, whose end echoes its beginning, whose hero orders his servant to wheel him round his shelter, whose dialogue is riddled by pauses and zeros, in all versions.

Along with sustained themes—playing, passing time, ending—comes a consistency of detail in the three versions. The bare set with its centered wheelchair and offcenter ashbins is the dominant image. The physical Bible of the first two drafts evaporates into words in the final version; conversely, the Reading draft merely mentions a dog, which subsequently becomes a visible toy. In the three versions the master accuses the servant of stinking, but the servant's appreciation of the master's honor undergoes a curious development. X's honor, the right to be called "Your Honor," is the most insistent phrase of the Reading draft. In the two-act Ohio State version, honor belongs to Nagg-P, or at least he mentions it when swearing an oath that he will appear when summoned. In the final play it is Hamm who promises on his honor to give Nagg a sugarplum, at which they laugh heartily. The innuendo is that Hamm has no honor, and we learn that he does indeed lack it, for "There are no more sugar-plums"—the only "no more" announced by Hamm rather than Clov. Moreover, the very coupling of honor and sugar-plums deflates honor as effectively as does Falstaff.

Few lines of dialogue survive revision into one act. However, each master—in different words—requires his servant to kiss him, and each is refused. In exactly the same words in each version, the master asks the servant why the latter doesn't kill him; in the original French the sound play mitigates the grimness: "Pourquoi ne me tues-tu pas?" In another verbal survival through only two versions, Beckett converts a question by X to a statement by Hamm. The Reading typescript has X anxiously interrogate F: "Est-ce une journée comme les autres jusqu'à présent?" pleading to be reassured about the insignificance of this day. Early in Endgame Hamm asks a comparable question: "C'est une fin de journée comme les autres, n'est-ce pas, Clov?" Hamm is more or less reassured by Clov's reply: "On dirait." Later in Endgame, after Hamm tells Clov of the painter's catastrophic vision, master and servant agree that: "Ça a assez duré." And Hamm draws the gloomy conclusion: "Alors c'est une journée comme les autres." The English is more pointedly repetitive: "It's the end of the day like any other day, isn't it, Clov?" and "Then it's a day like any other day."

But of course Hamm is wrong. It is not like any other day, for only on this day are there "no more" things, from bicycle-wheels to coffins. Only on this day does Clov sight a small boy and propose to leave. It is only this unending day that Beckett stages, with the symmetries and repetitions that seem to support Hamm's conclusion—the old questions, the old answers, the old moves, the old pauses. This day and only this day is distinguished by its brave comic play against a background of tragic waning, but Beckett's skill—exercised in revision—leaves us with Hamm's impression. Hamm is wrong about the insignificance of the day, but he is right to worry about "beginning to mean something." For Beckett has revised Endgame into its present meaningful economy.

Ruby Cohn, in her Just Play: Beckett's Theater, Princeton University Press, 1980, 313 p.

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