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Critical Essay by Richard Dutton
Endgame, like Waiting for Godot has its echo of The Tempest. But where Lucky remembered divine Miranda, Hamm derisively recalls the world-weary Prospero: 'Our revels now are ended. (He gropes for the dog.)' The difference is of a piece with the difference between Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The latter is at once a bleaker and a more perplexing play. Vladimir and Estragon have their basic health, for all their disappointments and discomforts, whereas Hamm is confined to a wheelchair, blood intermittently flowing from his head, and Clov is stiff-limbed, unable to sit down. Pozzo and Lucky degenerate physically in the course of the earlier play, but their situation is never so extreme, so dehumanised as that of Nagg and Nell, immobile in their ash-cans. The bare stage of Godot, with its focal tree, is an open metaphor for anywhere, at any time, but those ash-cans and the rest of the colourless set in which they stand pose a more disturbing challenge to our understanding, to our sense of the reality of the situation. Endgame is chillingly fixed within a room, but one that is as difficult to account for, in conventional terms, as are the events that take place within it.
The play in effect challenges us to find a metaphor that will explain or accommodate its abnormalities. The two favourite 'solutions' have been to see it as depicting either one of the last pockets of life after a (nuclear?) holocaust or the dying moments inside the skull of someone who has suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. But neither of these is totally satisfactory: the emphasis of the play seems more on progressive degeneration than on sudden cataclysm, and anyway it refuses to succumb to a single, rational interpretation. Perhaps it is more fruitful to start from the observation that, for all the difficulties it poses, Endgame is an intensely self-reflexive play, endlessly commenting on its own genesis and progress. Clov's opening words, for example—'Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished'—refer as much to the play/performance as they do to anything else, while Hamm is always conscious of the theatrical context in which he exists. When Clov asks, 'What is there to keep me here?' Hamm replies, 'The dialogue'. Towards the end he becomes irate when Clov misunderstands the force of something he says, '(angrily). An aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before? (Pause.) I'm warming up for my last soliloquy'. These moments of self-consciousness provide a running commentary on the play and its meaning, though it is one we should always treat warily:
HAMM. We're not beginning to … to … mean something?
CLOV. Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh) Ah that's a good one!
Bearing this in mind, we may approach the bleak and perplexing nature of Endgame through two of its most sustained passages of self-commentary, the stories told by Nagg and Hamm. These are not overtly 'about' the play itself—though the latter, as we shall see, is intriguingly adjacent in its subject matter—but both are verbal entertainments, interrupted by their authors with observations on style and performance, and as such mirror the wider verbal entertainment of which they form a part. They are very similar, in effect, to plays-within-plays in Renaissance drama, which always mirror in some sense the plays in which they occur. Nagg's story is a well-polished produce of the raconteur's art, as carefully tailored as the trousers of which it tells, gathering in fluency and profanity until its disdainful climax. As such, it stands out markedly from the dialogue around it, with Hamm's peremptory observations and Nell's wistful reminiscences, and even more markedly from the broader context of meandering repetition, aimless conversation and staccato demands for 'pap' and painkiller. The very fact that the story has a discernible climax sets it in antithesis to the play. It tells of a time when men had pride and a purpose in what they did, setting themselves a Renaissance goal—however difficult it might prove to achieve—of improving in their art on the nature of the world as they found it. ("'But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—(disdainful gesture, disgustedly)—at the world—(pause)—and look—(loving gesture, proudly)—at my TROUSERS!'"). It is set ('the bluebells are blowing') against the season of spring, with all its traditional associations of vigour and aspiration. The irony, of course, is that it is the tale of a pair of trousers told by a legless man, a mocking survival of the past in every respect. It has no real validity in the present, as the indifference of the immediate audience, and Nagg's own depressed conviction that 'I never told it worse' underline. This is typical of the play's constant evocations of the past. Echoes of a time when life had a purpose, language had grace and meaning, and the arts communicated vigorously with their audiences only underline the loss of such qualities in the Endgame world—epitomised by the picture with its face to the wall.
This, surely, is the force of the Shakespearean echoes in the play. The revels to which Hamm alludes—the mysteries of the masque of Juno, Ceres and Iris which Prospero stages for Ferdinand and Miranda—are a long time gone in this world. It seems absurdly melodramatic, moreover, that Hamm should evoke the climax of Richard III—'My kingdom for a nightman!'—in his fit of exasperation with Nagg and Nell: melodramatic and in poor taste, given that a nightman is someone employed to remove night-soil—so that Shakespeare's moment of high drama has been reduced to a moment of pique and disgust. The two quotations, ironically transposed as they are, have similar effects in the broader context of the play. Both evoke masters of enterprise, politicians in their different styles—Prospero, the Renaissance mage, and Richard, the Machiavel—but focus on their moments of world-weariness and defeat. These are important moments in the Shakespearean originals, no doubt, but only moments; yet the moods they represent threaten totally to engulf the less ambitious and less articulate world of Endgame.
What caused the decline from Renaissance energy to Endgame apathy is never explained, though possibilities are obliquely suggested in other memories, particularly Nagg and Nell's recollections of a free and mobile past. Nagg's story is actually associated with their happiness, rowing on Lake Como, though also with a capsizing that almost drowned them. They also remember cycling on a tandem in the Ardennes, on the road to Sedan—a memory coloured by its association with a crash that lost them their 'shanks'. For the audience, the further association of these two places with the First World War may obliquely hint at what brought such a carefree, sugar-plum existence to an end. An even obliquer hint in the same direction may occur in the preamble to Hamm's story, where he refers to 'Something dripping in my head, ever since the fontanelles'. The latter phrase is an extremely odd one. The fontanelle is the soft, uncovered spot on a new-born baby's head, before the plates of the skull have joined together. So Hamm seems to be saying 'ever since birth'. But why be so circuitous about it, and why use the plural? It may be that Beckett is playing on the sound and shape of a relatively unfamiliar word, and so conjuring with the more familiar sound and shape of 'Dardanelles'—the scene of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. The phrase 'ever since the Dardanelles', in the context of a head-wound, would be much more conventional English than 'ever since the fontanelles', and perhaps the net effect of this aural pun is a running together of birth and battle which would be quite appropriate in this play.
If this punning seems a little far-fetched, it is worth noting that two lines later Hamm/Beckett again plays with the aural ambiguity of words: 'Perhaps it's a little vein. (Pause.) A little artery. (Pause.)'. Does the listener hear 'vein' or 'vain'?—particularly given that Nagg has previously mocked Hamm's self-dramatisations about the dropping in his head (including the phrase, 'Perhaps it's a little vein') as a piece of vanity. The addition of 'A little artery' seems at first to confirm that we are dealing with blood vessels, but the pause after that phrase allows the word 'artery' to reverberate and perhaps break down into art-ery—a product of art or affectation, chiming with vanity. No precision is possible here because the text is straining at—playing with—the limits of language itself, in typically tragicomic manner. This is the nature of language in the post-Renaissance, post-First World War of Endgame—an unpredictable medium, an untrustworthy tool, a gamble. And the stories that language embodies have the same qualities.
Hamm's story is not as finished as Nagg's; it has an openendedness which is far more in tune with the play as a whole. Indeed, it co-exists with the play, and may even overlap it, in very pointed ways. When the main telling of the story dries up, it does so with observations—'I'll soon have finished with this story. (Pause.) Unless I bring in other characters. (Pause.) But where would I find them?'—that might be those of Beckett on his play at this juncture, as much as of Hamm on his story. And in fact the story does not end here. Hamm intermittently adds details and tried new wordings for it until the dying moments of the play.
The contiguity of Hamm's story and Beckett's play is announced in the preamble, when Hamm's gloomy reflection—'It's finished, we're finished. (Pause.) Nearly finished.'—so closely echoes Clov's opening words to the play. Thereafter, a range of possible overlaps emerges, hinging principally on the fact that the story is a first-person narrative. Hamm never asserts that the 'I' of the story is in fact himself, and the narrative tone he adopts for the story-telling always preserves some distance between the two of them, but there are sufficient similarities in their manner and circumstances to suggest that it is likely. His puzzled reaction to the idea of introducing new characters into the story—'But where would I find them?'—further confirms the possibility; his powers of pure invention seem to be as diminished as any other commodity in the play, so the likelihood that his story is based on 'fact', however embroidered in the telling, is all the stronger. The most marked similarities between the character in the story and the character in the play are the histrionic, dictatorial manner and the implication that he alone can dispense food and patronage; on the other hand, the 'I' in the story seems to be fit and mobile, busily putting up his festive decorations and only troubled by a touch of lumbago—a far cry from the haemorrhaging figure confined to his wheelchair. This is easily explained, however, if the events of the story are some time in the past, when Hamm was a younger man; this would further allow the possibility that the 'little boy' was Clov and the man his father, who (if this is 'true') must have disappeared from the scene very shortly after these events:
HAMM. Do you remember when you came here?
CLOV. No. Too small, you told me.
HAMM. Do you remember your father?
CLOV. (Wearily) Same answer.
Of course, this version of how Clov came to be with Hamm may be just as much, or as little, fiction ('you told me') as the story itself.
The timing of the story in the past, perhaps the late Victorian era, is suggested by a few incidental details. The character speaks of lighting a meerschaum pipe with 'let us say a vesta', while distance is measured by 'a good half-day, on horse'. While the timing of the 'present' in the play is never fixed, these details seem pointedly anachronistic, like the memories of Nagg and Nell. They chime, moreover, with one of the marked characteristics of the character telling the story, his obsession with a certain kind of scientific or technological factuality, constantly measuring the weather: 'zero by the thermometer'; 'fifty by the heliometer'; 'a hundred by the anemometer'; 'zero by the hygrometer'. The mixture of meerschaum and scientific data perhaps evokes the popular image of Sherlock Holmes: it certainly evokes the dispassionate, rather autocratic assumption of an absolute and verifiable physical truth which is often associated with late-Victorian science and finds its archetype in Sherlock Holmes. At its most extreme, it can be a heartless doctrine of the survival of the fittest, as in the character's contemptuous conviction of his own superiority over the man on his belly and his little boy ('as if the sex mattered')—a conviction not even shaken by the fact that this is Christmas Eve, with its message of peace on earth, good-will to all men. The outward show of decorations takes precedence over any question of human feelings or spiritual needs.
The position of the arrogant man of science is not as secure, however, as he would like to believe. For one thing, a heliometer would not give him the reading he so confidently ascribes to it; a heliometer measures the angles between the stars, or possibly the diameter of the sun, but not its brightness, for which some form of photometer would be necessary. Moreover, if all his measurements were correct, he would be in the midst of extreme, not to say apocalyptic weather conditions—hardly the time to be lording it over some unfortunate suppliant. This may help to explain the anticlimactic ending: just as the character relishes his triumph over the defiant suitor, Hamm's powers of invention flag and the performance ends lamely and ironically, like a sermon: 'Let us pray to God'. At least for the time being, religious faith of a sort wins out over scientific truth.
In what ways does this story mirror or comment on Endgame as a whole? Whether or not it literally describes Hamm's past and how Clov came into his service, it emblematically describes (as does Nagg's story) a stage in the intellectual and emotional journey to the Endgame world. Where Nagg's tailor had a zeal to improve on nature as he found it, the 'I' in the story is determined to dominate both it and his fellow men by force of character and by the powers of scientific reason. Both approaches fail. The myth of progress (and the art of story-telling which it in some respects resembles) evaporates in the light of human inadequacy and of the overwhelming forces both of time and of nature that oppose them. The world that is left in Endgame has neither zeal nor conviction, neither faith nor reason, though habits of arrogance and servitude linger on in Hamm and Clov respectively, like the memories of Nagg and Nell. The movement towards extinction seems assured. And yet it never comes: 'Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished'; 'It's finished, we're finished. (Pause.) Nearly finished'. Both Clov and Hamm start from the proposition that they have finished but retreat, reluctantly, to 'nearly finished'. Unlike Christ, whose final words on the Cross they are doubtless both of them echoing, they cannot achieve the satisfaction of completion. Like Hamm's story, like the play itself, they 'remain' (the play's final word) rather than end.
The speaker in Hamm's story doubted whether the little boy existed, much less could still be alive. Clov's survival into the present may just be testimony that he was wrong. By the same token, Clov's claim to see with his telescope 'a small boy' may be true, despite all the suggestions throughout the play that such development is impossible. The existence of such a 'potential procreator', as Clov calls him, might imply that life of a sort would go on, perhaps even if Clov were to leave Hamm. This is a measure of the irreducible level not so much of optimism as of pertinacity in the play. Hamm and Clov seem to form one of the sterile symbiotic relationships which are a hallmark of modern tragicomedy; each apparently needs the other to survive—Hamm chairbound, unable to reach the larder on his own, Clov mobile but not knowing the combination of the larder. They seem indispensable to each other, even though little love is lost between them: 'It's we are obliged to each other' is how Hamm Irishly puts it at the end, though Clov's version is equally valid: 'If I could kill him I'd die happy'—a sardonic summing-up of their interdependence. Yet the existence of the boy would allow the possibility of their independent survival: the boy could replace Clov with Hamm, and Clov might survive outside, since Hamm's claim that 'Outside of here it's death' would demonstrably not be true. This would be a new character for Hamm's story, just as he despaired of finding one. Life, the story and the play would go into another chapter, another act, bleaker no doubt than the present, further fallen from the glories of the past, but unquenched.
This is the real location of the play: not a particular time and space, but a place in the life-cycle, whether it be of an individual, or of a society and its civilisation, or of the human species. It represents a syndrome of moments before extinction, dragged out interminably by habit and will: finished, nearly finished is the emotional climate of the whole play, however we interpret its perplexing particularities. It is an emotional climate that virtually precludes the tragicomic hope of redemption which is so central to Waiting for Godot. Indeed, Endgame could be seen as a remorseless closing down of the possibilities both of meaning and salvation which the earlier play had grudgingly kept alive. 'We're not beginning to … to … mean something?' asks Hamm, with an incredulity that underlines just how unthinkable that is in this play. The emphasis here is not on waiting and the future, but on remembering a past to which the present seems a pointless addendum. Yet the past, as it is recalled and transmuted into 'art' by Nagg and Hamm, really has less to pride itself on than might be assumed: the trousers never achieved the desired perfection, and scientific rationalism was not the answer to everything it claimed to be. The presumption that the past was better—that life and civilisation had meaning, and so could make sense of the immense mysteries of time, age and death—is shown to be fallacious, and as that happens priorities change. The mere fact of survival into the present takes on an unlooked-for dignity, which is compounded by at least the possibility that it will go on into yet another generation. In such ironic topsyturveydom, the mere fact of 'remaining' becomes itself the miracle solution for which tragicomedy is always looking, and the play's 'strangeness' becomes a way of celebrating the mysterious fact that life goes on despite the odds. The mere performance or reading of so artfully self-absorbed a play becomes a proof of that fact. Every new performance or reading of Endgame is thus a little miracle in itself, a continuation and celebration—however weary—of the mystery of life, a tragicomedy despite itself.
Richard Dutton, in a review of "Endgame," in his Modern Tragicomedy and the British Tradition: Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, Albee and Storey, The Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 81-9.
This section contains 3,187 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)