Endgame | Scott Cutler Shershow

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Endgame.
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Scott Cutler Shershow

Jean-jacques Mayoux on "reality" in Endgame:

Endgame (1957), more definitely even than Godot, is 'in a head', and the brain-grey bare room with its two high windows is evidently a gloomy inner aspect of the microcosm. 'Reality' is here twice removed: it is not Beckett's but Hamm's vision, sick, subjective, severely coherent as such, yet again slyly bursting those bounds; and doublelevelled since Hamm pointedly is an actor playing Hamm:

CLOV: What is there to keep me here?

HAMM: The dialogue.

And again:

HAMM: I'm warming up for my last soliloquy …

Jean-Jacques Mayoux, in his Samuel Beckett, Longman Group, 1974.

Beckett locates his comedy precisely in the no-man's-land between the play and the world. His characters and his audience face the same dilemma: they must get through their lives and we must get through the play. "What's happening, what's happening?" asks the main character of Beckett's masterpiece Endgame. The play's audiences may ask the same question—and receive the same answer: "Something is taking its course." Stranded like us in the theatrical darkness, in an unspecified landscape of future time or despairing imagination, Hamm and Clove, Nagg and Neil manage to get through "this … this … thing," somehow making their dialogue a plot and themselves characters. "We're getting on," Hamm periodically reassures us, enduring as we do, his boredom and frustration, his ironic but inextinguishable self-interest.

Endgame is comedy stripped to the skeleton, to the merest blueprint of familiar comic devices and conventions. A father and a son, a master and a servant, share a series of passing conflicts which are, as it were, much ado about nothingness: a few last moments of gallows humor just this side of paralysis and annihilation:

HAMM. Sit on him!

CLOVE. I can't sit.

HAMM. True. And I can't stand.

CLOVE. So it is.

HAMM. Every man his speciality.


No phone calls?

This comedy goes beyond malice, beyond personality itself, to the purest incongruity of matter and spirit. There are few scenes in the history of comedy where comic derision turns so fiercely, excruciatingly, to recognition. Founded on the ironic identity between theater and life, Endgame returns again and again to that most ancient and characteristic of comic devices: the joke in which the actors "break" their characters and reveal frankly that the play is just a play:

CLOVE. (He gets down, picks up the telescope, turns it on auditorium)

I see … a multitude … in transports … of joy.


That's what I call a magnifier.

(He lowers the telescope, turns toward Hamm)

Well, don't we laugh?

HAMM. (After reflection) I don't.

CLOVE. (After reflection) Nor I.

Here Beckett nods to the convention, but leaves his spectators separate and distant, their laughter disconnected from its object. In the comic tradition, by contrast, when a witty servant confides his schemes to the peanut gallery, or some ironist finally tires of the contrivances of the stage—

ORLANDO. Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind!

JACQUES. Nay then God buy you, and you talk in blank verse.

                           (As You Like It)

—we are included in the action: invited to share the comedy's magic and illusion as we will share symbolically in its concluding banquet. In Beckett, the effect of these jokes is entirely different:

CLOVE. What is there to keep me here?

HAMM. The dialogue.

Hamm and Clove admit they are part of a play without breaking character, because the dialogue is indeed the means and end of their shared existence. For these characters, the very last word in comic degradation, the play is, quite literally, the thing.

But even here, in this theater and this world, the show goes on: still tying the knot of complications—

CLOVE. (He moves the telescope)

Nothing … nothing … good … good … nothing … goo—

(He starts, lowers the telescope, examines it, turns it again on the without. Pause.)

Bad luck to it!

HAMM. More complications!…

Not an underplot, I trust.

—and still striving to achieve, if not a happy ending, then any kind of ending. The fragments of wit, occasional bursts of lyricism, and random literary echoes marooned among nonsense manage to get both the characters and us through this brief theatrical and historical moment before the rest is silence. Ironic comedy can go no further. The playwright is no longer godlike: he is more like the tailor in Nagg's joke:

NAGG. … "God damn you to hell, Sir, no it's indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes, Sir, no less, Sir, than the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months?"

(Tailor's voice, scandalized)

"But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—

(Disdainful gesture, disgustedly)

—at the world—


and look—

(Loving gesture, proudly)

—at my TROUSERS!"

Just so the playwright, holding up his play to the world, finds reason, one way or another, to be proud. Here, pausing at the butt end of our days and ways, comedy constricts our movement, and pinches in sensitive places: but it still fits, it still plays, and it still matters.

Scott Cutler Shershow, "The Play and the World," in his Laughing Matters: The Paradox of Comedy, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986, pp. 89-102.

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This section contains 839 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Scott Cutler Shershow
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