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Critical Essay by Paul Lawley
The terminal world of Beckett's Endgame, with its "corpsed" aspect outside the stage-refuge and its barbed play inside, sustains life solely, it seems, by reason of its ruler's procrastination. "Enough, it's time it ended, in the refuge too," proclaims Hamm at the outset. "And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to … to end." His hesitation is a problem not least because of "that hatred of nature as process (birth and copulation and death) which runs through the whole play" Ronald Gaskell, Drama and Reality, 1972. For if Hamm's hesitation necessitatesa prolongation of life in the refuge, the processes of nature, in one form or another, are surely unavoidable.
There is one course of action open to Hamm which offers perpetuation of life without direct involvement in the processes of nature: adoption. Indeed, this seems to be a vital means of continuation for the (now) refuge-dynasty. The legless, ashbin-bound Nagg and Nell are the biological parents of Hamm, but Hamm's central narrative, referred to by him as his "chronicle" though presented as a fiction, provides a possible version of the adoption of Clov, Hamm's present servant and "son." The crucial question towards the end of the play surrounds the possible adoption of a small boy reported by Clov to be still alive outside the refuge. In view of these instances, one is not surprised that, according to S.E. Gontarski [in The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts, 1985], a note written as Beckett was embarking on a two-act holograph of the play "suggests that [Hamm's] father and son are adopted; that is, Nagg too may have been someone taken into the shelter as a servant: 'A un père adoptif / un fils adoptif.'" Thus although three generations are represented on the stage, we cannot be sure, despite what is said, that the characters constitute a genetic line.
The connection between adoption and servanthood is an important one. Hamm sees all relationships, whether with his "son" or with his toy dog (these two are associated more than once), with his retainers or with his "bottled" father, in terms of dominance and servitude. Upon an adopted son he can bring to bear a pressure of obligation:
HAMM. … It was I was a father to you.
CLOV. Yes. (He looks at Hamm fixedly) You were that to me.
HAMM. My house a home for you.
CLOV. Yes. (He looks about him) This was that for me.
HAMM. (Proudly) But for me (Gesture towards himself) no father. But for Hamm (Gesture towards surroundings) no home.
The adopted child is expected to feel he owes a debt because he was chosen. The trouble with biological parenthood, as one of the play's funniest exchanges suggests, is that you can't choose:
HAMM. Scoundrel! Why did you engender me?
NAGG. I didn't know.
HAMM. What? What didn't you know?
NAGG. That it'd be you.
Hamm's experience in his relationship with Clov has been one of dominance and control, as much now (at least on the face of it) as in the scenario of choice so lovingly fictionalized in the chronicle. In contrast Nagg has always been a subject of his son. In his toothless second childhood, the immobile papa calls out to his own child for "me pap!" and, having been tricked into listening to Hamm's chronicle by the promise of a non-existent sugar-plum, he presents a rich counterpoint to his current situation in his "curse." The counterpoint suggests that Hamm has retained power over his father not by growing into an independent adult but by remaining a dependent son:
Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark? Your mother? No. Me. We let you cry. Then we moved you out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace. (Pause) I was asleep, as happy as a king, and you woke me up to have me listen to you. It wasn't indispensable, you didn't really need to have me listen to you. Besides I didn't listen to you. (Pause) 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.
Hamm's need, both then (despite Nagg's claim) and now, is the need to exert power wilfully, even arbitrarily. As a biological son yet an adoptive father he is in an ideal position to fulfill that need.
Nagg's curse presents a scene of familial usurpation ("as happy as a king") and in doing so invites an Oedipal interpretation. Yet Endgame is concerned less with the dynamics of relations between father and mother and son than, as I have suggested, with the opposition of two kinds of dynastic perpetuation, biological and adoptive. In the following analysis I want to consider the significance of adoption, first in Hamm's chronicle, then in the play as a whole.
Alternating its "narrative tone" with the "normal tone" used by Hamm to comment on his own varying powers of composition, the chronicle tells of how a surviving vassal of Hamm's came begging him for bread for his child. Hamm recounts how, though doubting the very existence of the child, he proceeded to berate the man for his stupidity, optimism, and irresponsibility. The climax of the narrative, Hamm's decision about the child, is prepared with relish but never delivered:
In the end he asked me would I consent to take in the child as well—if he were still alive. (Pause) It was the moment I was waiting for. (Pause) Would I consent to take in the child … (Pause) I can see him still, down on his knees, his hands flat on the ground, glaring at me with his mad eyes, in defiance of my wishes. (Pause. Normal tone.) I'll soon have finished with this story. (Pause) Unless I bring in other characters. (Pause) But where would I find them? (Pause) Where would I look for them? (Pause. He whistles. Enter Clov.) Let us pray to God.
The melodrama of the confrontation with the defiant vassal rather distracts from the decision about adoption, but it enables an effectively bathetic interruption to be made by the narrator's reflexive anxieties. The contrast is jolting, yet there is a striking similarity of phrasing which occurs across the division of "narrative" and "normal" tones: "Would I consent to take in the child …"; "Unless I bring in other characters." The resemblance invites us to consider the fictionalized situation in terms of the fictionalizer's situation, the narration of situation in terms of the situation of narration—and vice-versa. The difference between the two dimensions is diminished further by Hamm's speaking of the narrator's situation ("bring in other characters") in spatial metaphors ("where would I find them?… Where would I look for them?") which would apply literally to the fictional situation (where was the vassal's child?—"assuming he existed,"). The aesthetic dimension of the chronicle and the experiential dimension of the chronicler move into identity through the figure of adoption: Hamm the tyrant might "take in the child" as Hamm the narrator might "bring in other characters." In each case adoption is the sole means of continuance. We can go further: in Endgame adoption is a figure for the fictional process itself, the only acceptable means of self-perpetuation for characters who reject the processes of nature.
A similar movement between dimensions is apparent when we consider the idea of termination in the play. "I'll soon have finished with this story," says Hamm. When, moments later, Clov enters in response to the whistle, he announces that there is a rat in the kitchen:
HAMM. And you haven't exterminated him?
CLOV. Half. You disturbed us.
HAMM. He can't get away?
HAMM. You'll finish him later. Let us pray to God. (my emphasis)
To be finished with something is different from having finished it. Yet the odd thing here is that though it is the narrator Hamm who has finished with something, it is the ratkiller Clov whose activity is spoken of in the way one might speak of a story: the story-teller might be more frequently said to have finished his story than to have finished with it. The aesthetic connotation of "finish" (as opposed to "finish with") is strongly present—largely because of insistent repetition—in an earlier exchange:
HAMM. Why don't you finish us? (Pause) I'll tell you the combination of the larder if you promise to finish me.
CLOV. I couldn't finish you.
HAMM. Then you shan't finish me.
The primary meaning of "finish" is clear. But, in addition, it is as though Hamm himself is a story that needs to be finished (off). The poise in (or of) the word is as delicate here as it is in the opening phrases of the play: "Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished." Within Clov's sentence is the feeling not just of some experience coming to an end, but (especially after the opening ritual) of a predetermined pattern about to be completed. The inflections are distinct even though combined.
The moment near the end of the play when Clov sights what looks "like a small boy!" brings together the themes of adoption (and continuance through fiction) and of termination. Having made the sighting, Clov makes for the door with the gaff:
CLOV. No? A potential procreator?
HAMM. If he exists he'll die there or he'll come here. And if he doesn't …
CLOV. You don't believe me? You think I'm inventing?
HAMM. It's the end, Clov, we've come to the end. I don't need you any more.
In this episode the adoption-decision is transferred out of the narrative dimension of the chronicle into the dimension of the action itself. Again a migration is effected: the episode from the fictional narrative is "adopted" by the actual dramatic world, or, more accurately, by Clov. But, crucially, the element of indeterminacy in the chronicle-version ("assuming he existed") has now assumed a pivotal position. Hamm's decision to end turns, it seems, not upon the decision to take in or not take in the small boy, but upon his belief that Clov is "inventing." At last Hamm too perceives adoption as the figure of fiction-as-continuance. Even though Clov intends to kill the boy, it is his proposal of the fiction that matters, his attempt to bring the boy in to their life-story. Hamm resists. "Not an underplot, I trust," he exclaims when Clov first registers an outside presence. He puts himself in the position of a spectator at his own endgame. "It's the end … we've come to the end"—not just of the experience but of the game's aesthetic pattern too: the statement is poised between the participator's (or actor's) perception of termination and the spectatorial perception of it. It is this profoundly uneasy poise which ultimately thwarts the "attempt to determine if Endgame imitates the act of dying or whether it imitates a game in which the players pretend to move towards death" [Charles R. Lyons, Samuel Beckett, 1983].
Few texts can be more explicitly structured upon binary oppositions than Endgame. "Outside of here it's death" announces Hamm, and in doing so he loads the onstage/offstage, inside/outside opposition with a decisive weight of signification. Upon this fundamental prescription the play's other oppositions—past/present, land/sea, nature/non-nature, light/darkness—depend. Some of the routines and jokes even underline the habit of polarization:
(Enter Clov holding by one of its three legs a black toy dog)
CLOV. Your dogs are here.
(He hands the dog to Hamm who feels it, fondles it)
HAMM. He's white, isn't he?
HAMM. What do you mean, nearly? Is he white or isn't he?
CLOV. He isn't.
And when Clov reports that the light outside is "GRREY!", Hamm queries the information, eliciting the confirmation: "Light black. From pole to pole" (my emphasis).
The ubiquitous patterns of opposition form an essential context for the operation of the figure of adoption. We have seen that adoption, as presented in the play, involves a negotiation between the distinct areas or terms of an opposition, a crossing of vital boundaries for the purposes of the perpetuation of life. Yet if adoption is the agency of perpetuation, it is also an operation which cannot avoid compromising the stability of the world it is designed to maintain. In examining the climax of Hamm's chronicle, we were able to identify two distinct dimensions: that of the narrative, in which the fictionalized Hamm decides whether or not to take the vassal's child into the refuge, and that of the narrator, the actual dimension of the drama, in which the Hamm we see on the stage decides whether or not to bring other characters into his story. Although each of these dimensions insists upon a sharp inside/outside opposition, with a definite boundary, they themselves, despite separation by a boundary apparently no less definite (that between inset story and dramatic action, narrative of situation and situation of narrative) are blurred together by the association of the child Hamm might "take in" and the characters he might "bring in." For this is an association, a merging, of Hamm's art and his life. His life contains art, certainly, but we cannot be sure that the reverse is not also true: does art "contain" his life? Is he (self-) invented, a story? ("… if you promise to finish me.")
It is at the moment Clov sights—or invents—the small boy outside the refuge that the fictional chronicle impinges most strongly upon the stage-world. The process by which action echoes—or has been pre-echoed by—fiction at this point brings the question of the ontological status of the stage-world to crisis-point—and both characters recognize this. Hamm's refusal constitutes a decision not to adopt a fresh fiction into the stage-world rather than a decision not to take in a child. Indeed, by acknowledging the possibility of fiction ("You think I'm inventing?") Hamm is uncovering the process which has enabled the game to continue. Now he can begin to renounce: "It's the end, Clov, we've come to the end …" And yet this renunciation of fiction can be read, and played, as a grand theatrical gesture, a richly fictional moment. As ever in Beckett, it is the imagination-dead-imagine stalemate.
In a chapter entitled "Marking and Merging Horizons" in his book The Modern Stage and Other Worlds, Austin E. Quigley suggests that "the glass walls marking the borders of Mrs. Alving's house in Ibsen's Ghosts become, in many ways, a summarizing image of the solid but permeable horizons of the modern theatre. The solid penetrability of the glass wall gradually becomes an emblem of repeatedly asserted but repeatedly undermined divisions between inner and outer, good and bad, past and present, self and other, and so on." The refuge of Endgame reproduces Mrs. Alving's house in a terminal phase. The divisions are more starkly asserted and the mergings correspondingly more radical, for the zone of action is now ontological and being itself is at stake. The figure of adoption is the agency through which this world of divisions is perpetuated, yet it also precipitates those mergings which compromise the divisions. In this way it simultaneously establishes and renders unstable the very ground upon which Endgame is played out. Adoption in Endgame makes, and unmakes, a world of difference.
Paul Lawley, "Adoption in 'Endgame'," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 529-35.
This section contains 2,518 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)