Endgame | Critical Essay by Antony Easthope

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Endgame.
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Critical Essay by Antony Easthope

One way in which a play holds the attention of an audience for the duration of its performance is by presenting an action which may be formulated as a question: Who killed Laius? How will Hamlet revenge his father? Endgame has a plot at least to the extent that it holds its audience with an uncertainty, one which is continuously reiterated from the stage: Will Clov leave Hamm? At the end, when the final tableau shows Clov standing there, with umbrella, raincoat, and bag, unable to stay and unable to go, the question remains unresolved. Nevertheless, any discussion of Endgame, including one which proposes to consider the play's dramatic method, should begin with this question, or rather with the relationship between Hamm and Clov from which it arises. And since Clov is for the most part a passive victim, a pawn dominated by Hamm's active mastery, it is with Hamm that we should start.

In order to get even as far as the play will let us towards understanding why Hamm keeps Clov (assuming that he could in fact let him go), we must try to see what Hamm is like. He is like a king, with Clov as his servant, for he refers to "my house," "my service," and even, echoing Shakespeare's Richard III, to "my kingdom." On one occasion he uses the royal plural to Clov, "You can't leave us." In a former time he had real power, or so he claims, when Clov, as he reminds him, "inspected my paupers." Now his realm has shrunk almost to nothing and he is left with Clov, Nagg, and Nell as his courtiers. His relationship with Clov is like that between Pozzo and Lucky in Godot, and its quality is well conveyed by Lionel Abel's suggestion that it is an analogue of the relationship between the young Beckett and the old, blind, Joyce. Hamm treats Nagg and Nell as further objects for gratuitous affliction—"Bottle him!" Hamm seems to be a tyrant, who lives to enjoy the exercise of his power over others. But it is at this point that the difficulties begin, for to say that Hamm enjoys exercising power is to attribute a familiar form of psychological motivation to him—and it is hard to be sure he has the capacity for this. Together with its many other connotations, Hamm is the name for an actor, for one who creates an identity which has only an imaginary existence. And the tone of what Hamm says is frequently consistent with that of an assumed identity, one deliberately acted out. So he deals with the requests of his servants:

CLOV. He wants a sugar-plum.

HAMM. He'll get a sugar-plum.

Hamm's reply is such a fulsome expression of largesse and arrogant condescension that it seems merely a verbal gesture. Nagg does not get his sugarplum, but what we might take to be Hamm's intentional malice cannot properly be distinguished from a pretence of high-handed magnificence which is part of the role he plays. Hamm orders Clov to screw down the lids of the ashbins on Nagg and Nell, and then comments on himself, "My anger subsides, I'd like to pee." It is this continuous self-consciousness in Hamm's words and tone of voice which inhibits us from ascribing his cruelty to an impulse beyond the need for rhetorical coherence in the role he plays.

Hamm appears to suffer, but with this there is the same doubt as with his cruelty. While introducing himself, Hamm proclaims his agony:

Can there be misery—(He yawns)—loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now?

His expression of "loftier misery" is laden with echoes of Oedipus the King and of Christ as presented in Herbert's poem, "The Sacrifice," with the famous refrain, "Was ever grief like to mine?" The salt of genuine affliction dissolves among these overtones into a self-conscious rhetoric, a heavy irony directed at the very possibility of real suffering. Hamm takes the magnitude of his "misery" as guarantee for the importance of his role. On several occasions in the play introspection leads him to talk as though he were suffering, but each time his words become a performance. When Hamm speaks of a heart dripping in his head, he is exposed immediately to the ridicule of Nagg and Nell, who react to his unhappiness as a fiction, "it's like the funny story we have heard too often." Later Hamm tells Clov that he too will go blind one day and find himself alone in "infinite emptiness"—but this again may be seen as an act, a set speech which the stage directions mark as to be performed "With prophetic relish." Beckett has written of Endgame that it is "more inhuman than Godot" and Hamm's cruelty earns the play this adjective. But it may be understood in a double sense. In so far as Hamm is felt as a real character, then he is inhuman in the sense we use the word of a man whose actions are so extreme that they seem to place him beyond the pale of humanity. His boundless cynicism may be seen as a desperate attempt to anticipate the cruelty of a universe which is indifferent to his wishes, and his expressions of suffering may be symptoms of genuine agony. Thus, in his hatred of "life," Hamm becomes like King Lear, who, when stripped of all he values, can only cry, "Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill." To describe Hamm's putative character in such melodramatic language is an appropriate response to the play, for all this may be no more than an aspect of his deliberate playacting. Hamm may in fact be inhuman only in the strict sense of being not human, if the fiction of his role is so perfectly sustained that it excludes any capacity for genuine motive and what we take to be real humanity. Such perhaps is the implication of Hamm's admission to Clov, "I was never there," though this depends upon the stress an actor gives to the personal pronoun. So a full account of Hamm must comprehend both the surface fiction of his role and the psychological depths suggested beneath it. And the main event in Endgame, Hamm's story, manifests this ambiguity or doubleness with a clarity which must be considered in detail.

Hamm's story may be seen as a fictional extension of his role, demonstrating clearly how conscious he is of the part he plays. He fancies himself as a great lord, a Pharaoh or a Czar. A father comes to him, begging some corn for a starving child. With enormous complacency the master waits for the end of the plea, for the most dramatic moment, before giving his crushing reply:

Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!

This fantasy account of the exercise of power seems no more than a perfect opportunity for Hamm to practise his histrionic talents. Yet there are many suggestions in the telling of the story which imply that Hamm is seriously involved and that his fiction reflects real anxiety and suffering. For, latent beneath the surface of his chronicle, a tenuous connection of metaphors and phrases repeated in different contexts renders Hamm's relationship with Clov as the hidden subject of his story.

Throughout the play Clov is likened to a dog. He refers to his birth as being "whelped"; he comes to Hamm when he whistles, and the master wears a whistle round his neck for this purpose. Great play is made with a stage prop, a stuffed dog, and once Clov hands this to Hamm with the revealing plural, "Your dogs are here." Clov stands continually, he cannot sit, and Hamm is concerned that the stuffed animal should be able to stand. Like Clov, the dog cannot leave, "He's not a real dog, he can't go." But, as we discover, the function of the toy dog for Hamm is to enlarge his role, bolstering his grandeur by standing there imploring him, "as if he were begging … for a bone." Through the figures of dog and beggar, Hamm's relationship to Clov becomes transposed into his story. So also with the reference to a child. Clov is Hamm's child, or at least, Hamm "was a father" to him. Hamm tells Clov he will give him just enough to keep him from dying, so that, like the starving boy in the story, Clov will be "hungry all the time." At the end, when Clov says he sees a small boy approaching, Hamm tells him he will need him no longer, implying that the small boy will take Clov's place. Thus Hamm's violent pronouncement to the beggar and his child is felt as though spoken to Clov. Twice elsewhere in the play Hamm says "Use your head," on both occasions while addressing Clov.

It may be that Hamm keeps coming back to his story simply in the interest of art. For the raconteur practice makes perfect, and Hamm appears to think his only concern with the anecdote is to polish its phrasing—"Technique, you know." But it is hard not to respond to the way he returns again and again to his story as symptomatic of a genuine obsession with it. If this is so, it is consistent with the character suggested behind Hamm's role. The telling of the story looks like a guilty attempt by Hamm to convince himself that nihilism justifies hardness of heart, "you're on earth, there's no cure for that!" Guilt would result if Hamm feared that his cynicism were merely a rationalization for a cruel impulse prior to it, and Clov awakens exactly this fear later in the play, the effect being to drive Hamm almost into silence:

CLOV. (Harshly) When old Mother Pegg asked you for oil for her lamp and you told her to get out to hell, you knew what was happening then, no? (Pause) You know what she died of, Mother Pegg? Of darkness.

HAMM. (Feebly) I hadn't any.

CLOV. (As before) Yes, you had.

That Hamm's story disturbs him at a level which he cannot—or will not—recognize is implied by what follows it in the rest of the play. Immediately after Hamm's story the famous prayer to God takes place. Perhaps this is another facet of Hamm's role, another fiction, since it is prefaced by his remark that he may need "other characters." Or again, it may be a symptom of remorse and an authentic quest for grace, particularly if Hamm has remembered the biblical parable echoed in his story, that of Dives and Lazarus, and thought of the appalling punishment meted out to the cruel master at the end of that. Earlier Hamm had made a jocular reference to Clov's kissing him goodbye before leaving; after the story the motif recurs, but this time Hamm's phrasing sounds personally insistent:

HAMM. Kiss me. (Pause) Will you not kiss me?

Is this another patronising demand for homage, dictated by the master's role? Or are we to detect in it a lurking desire for forgiveness? All through the play Hamm has nagged Clov for his painkiller; on the single occasion he repeats his request after the story, he is answered in the affirmative, and then told by Clov, "There's no more painkiller." Hamm's reaction to this seems to be the hysteria of uncontrollable agony:

HAMM. (Soft) What'll I do? (Pause. In a scream.) What'll I do?

Yet the violence of this disappears in his next words to Clov, "What are you doing?" Anaphora smooths over the expressive intensity of Hamm's cry, making it seem less a cry of pain and more like a mere ruffle in the verbal surface. At the end of the play Clov's reported sighting of a small boy is followed by Hamm's final soliloquy, which contains a last reference to his story, "If he could have his child with him."

What this argument has tried to show is that Hamm has a double nature, existing both as consciously played role and as real character. His role as king and master seems to be unbroken and self-contained. Any subject to which he directs his attention, even his own suffering, becomes falsified through absorption into conscious rhetoric and turned into the performance of an actor. Yet there is something more about Hamm, which escapes his attention, a network of possibilities, a string of metaphorical connections and repeated phrases, leading beyond the role he knows he is playing. This implies obliquely a psychological reality in him, one which would perhaps evaporate into fiction if Hamm were able to give it explicit articulation. And this ambivalent relationship between surface and depth in the way that Hamm is dramatised is worked out as a structural principle in the whole of Endgame. The depths of the play, its metaphorical and suggestive qualities, have occupied the attention of most critics of the play. Hugh Kenner in his book on Beckett and also Robert Benedetti in a recent article for the Chicago Review have shown how the play is aware of itself as a text performed in a theater. It is sufficient to list the technical theatrical terms used in it in order to remark the rigor with which this effect is created: "farce," "audition," "aside," "soliloquy," "dialogue," "underplot," "exit." The result of these references is that many lines come to sound as comments on the play made from the stage, "This is slow work," and so on. But if Endgame contains a consciousness of itself as a theatrical performance generated according to the conventions of that form, this is only part of the whole. For the verbal surface of the play is pervaded by a deliberate sense of artifice, which never allows an audience to forget they are watching a game played according to certain rules. As Hamm says, "Since that's the way we're playing it … let's play it that way." And a principal effect of the drama derives from the deft manner in which a consciously sustained surface, itself a meaningless exercise in various techniques, is held in tension with the expressive significance of what is suggested beneath it.

One of the most unusual rhetorical techniques which occurs in Endgame is this:

NAGG. I had it yesterday.

NELL. (Elegaic) Ah yesterday! (They turn painfully towards each other)

A little later the same turn is again given to the word "yesterday" in an exchange between Nagg and Nell. A word from the first speaker's sentence is repeated with an exclamation mark in reply. The effect in both these cases is, as the stage directions make clear, to parody sentimental evocation. On another occasion the tone is marked to imply scepticism:

CLOV. (Dismayed) Looks like a small boy!

HAMM. (Sarcastic) A small … boy!

But when it is not discriminated by the directions the tone of the exclamation must combine contempt, scepticism and sadness. The function of the device seems to be to sterilise an emotional gesture by questioning assumptions it contains. Thus it is perfectly placed at a point when the dialogue discusses just such a movement as the turn of phrase enacts:

HAMM. We're not beginning to … to … mean something?

CLOV. Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh) That's a good one!

By the end of the play the device has become a cliché, and thus when it is used twice on the mention of a heart as Hamm and Clov exchange goodbyes, the exclamation has been robbed of most of the force it had as an assertive protest:

HAMM. A few words … to ponder … in my heart.

CLOV. Your heart!

Of course what Hamm says may be a sincere plea for kindness from Clov, just as his reply may be taken to express bitter contempt for the way he has been exploited by the master. But it would be a misreading of the play to respond to the emotional significance of the exchanges without recognising that this is entirely subordinated to what is now a stock response, a merely verbal gesture. The rhythm of this rhetorical device is insidious and easily acquired by a good ear; it contributes a great deal to the unique resonance of the play.

The verbal surface of Endgame is aware of itself as being organized in accordance with the conventions governing conversation and stage dialogue, particularly a kind of two person dialogue not unlike that of the old music-hall tradition of the comic and the straight-man. The conversational form admits several kinds of monologue, and these are performed as such. Two anecdotes are available to eke out the entertainment, Hamm's story and Nagg's joke about the Englishman and the tailor. This he is directed to pronounce in a "(Raconteur's voice)." Hamm, as the best talker on the stage, has the largest repertoire of monologues. Besides anecdote he is also capable of the philosophic speculation, "Imagine if a rational being came back to earth …," and, with a sense of tour de force, the prophetic admonition, "One day you'll say to yourself …," which he declaims for Clov. In each case the significant undertones are ignored by the surface, so that even Hamm's frightening account of the madman who saw the beauty of the world as ashes is presented as a formal exercise, it being of course that standby of conversation, the reminiscence:

CLOV. A madman? When was that?

HAMM. Oh way back, way back, you weren't in the land of the living.

The language of Clov's last speech at the end of the play describes with delicate and appalling precision the feelings of a man released after a lifetime of imprisonment:

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 world is extinguished, though I never saw it lit. (Pause) It's easy going. (Pause) When I fall I'll weep for happiness.

Yet the stage directions insist that the evocative power of this language is to be deliberately suppressed: "CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly, towards auditorium)." The speech is, as Clov reminds us, the correct theatrical gesture for making an exit. For this, as for the other monologues, including Hamm's self-styled "last soliloquy," the play will accept no responsibility beyond that for applying certain theatrical and conversational conventions.

The dialogue of Endgame is a brilliantly contrived exercise in the art of repartee. Unfortunately, discussion of a single passage, one of the best, will have to stand for analysis of a quality of conscious formal elegance which pervades the whole:

HAMM. Nature has forgotten us.

CLOV. There's no more nature.

HAMM. No more nature! You exaggerate.

CLOV. In the vicinity.

HAMM. But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!

CLOV. Then she hasn't forgotten us.

HAMM. But you say there is none.

CLOV. (Sadly) No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.

HAMM. We do what we can.

CLOV. We shouldn't.

The issue behind this exchange is clear enough—whether Nature and Nature's God have temporarily withdrawn themselves from man or have actually ceased to exist. But serious concern with this question is submerged in this sharp, witty, paradoxical dialogue, often dependent on the interplay of verbal connection and logical nonsequitur, which is of a kind that has fascinated the Irish from Swift to Shaw. Hamm's straight-man assertion provokes Clov's stock response, "There's no more Nature." His denial is categorical in form, an either/or, but Hamm impossibly calls it an exaggeration, at the same time employing a rhetorical exclamation made familiar by the rest of the play. Hamm's response, instead of collapsing the conversation, elicits an equally impossible concession from Clov, "In the vicinity," as though Nature, if it existed, could exist locally but not universally. This Hamm ignores, launching into the vigorous if paradoxical proof that universal decay is evidence for Nature's continued existence. Instead of replying to this in terms consistent with his previous denial, Clov counters wittily by accepting the existence of human decay as evidence of Nature's benevolence, "Then she hasn't forgotten us." Hamm takes this to be Clov's admission that he was wrong, a move which Clov tries to thwart with a sententious aphorism, "No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we." Hamm pounces on this by implying that crooked thinking is all to the good. But his words are ambiguous, for "can" here means both "the best we can" and "what we have to do." Thus the Parthian shaft comes from Clov, who outwits Hamm by repeating his disapproval of crooked thinking in a way which supposes that people do by choice what Hamm has unintentionally said they do by necessity. After a pause, this vigorous little canter earns Clov his master's praise, "You're a bit of all right, aren't you?" This adapts the vulgar British phrase as admiration for Clov's high technical proficiency in playing games with a concept whose varying definitions have worried thinkers of our civilization for over two thousand years. It is because of a similar delight in technical expertise that Hamm on a later occasion cannot resist self-congratulation:

CLOV. Do you believe in the life to come?

HAMM. Mine was always that. (Exit Clov) Got him that time!

Once again, a serious subject, the fate of man's external soul, is used mainly as an occasion for repartee, and this juxtaposition of a formal surface with serious, often terrifying depths accounts for much of what Beckett in his correspondence with Alan Schneider referred to as "the power of the text to claw."

A word frequently applied to Beckett's work is "poetic." What the adjective really points to in Beckett's plays (a context in which it is perjorative if it replaces the honorific qualification "dramatic") is the extraordinary ability of the language and stagecraft to imply, suggest, connote, evoke, and set off expressive nuances. In this respect Endgame fulfills expectations which derive to us from our experience of the symbolist tradition in poetry and drama, for it was Mallarmé's principle that "to name is to destroy; to suggest is to create." It is this, and the traditional assumption that drama imitates a reality beyond itself, which Beckett has chosen to exploit. And he exploits it by providing the play with a level of action, which ignores its own significant implications. The surface of Endgame insists upon itself as a meaningless technical exercise of the medium in its own right and refuses to acknowledge anything beyond its own expertise. Beckett stresses this in his own comment on the play, again in a letter to Alan Schneider:

My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin. Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, together as stated, nectecum sine te, in such a place, and in such a world, that's all I can manage, more than I could.

The life of Endgame is in the tension it creates by the harsh juxtaposition of the depths and the surface, the "overtones" and what is stated, a doubleness which is apparent in the frequent pauses in the play. On the one hand these are hushed silences in which the resonances of the text may vibrate and amplify in the mind of the audience—"God," "light," "Nature," "ended." At the same time these pauses are merely technical requirements, rests between moves in the last game which is Endgame, no more, no less. Thus the dramatic structure of the play enacts a dialectic which Beckett has stated elsewhere—in Watt, his second novel—as, "this pursuit of meaning, in this indifference to meaning." In so far as we recognise this as an insight into the conditions of human existence we will be able to respond to the full effect of Endgame.

Antony Easthope, "Hamm, Clov, and Dramatic Method in 'Endgame'," in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 49-58.

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