Endgame | Richard Gilman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Endgame.
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Richard Gilman

If such categories as optimism and pessimism pertain at all to Beckett, then Endgame is much more pessimistic than Waiting for Godot. In its seedy room whose windows look out on empty ocean, the living world seems to have been narrowed down to four survivors: Hamm, who cannot see or stand; Clov, his servant, who cannot sit; and Nagg and Nell, his parents, who exist throughout in ash cans. Everything is winding down to a finish, as in that ultimate phase of a chess match which gives the play its title. Humanly, it is dissolution rather than explicit death that seems to be in the offing. There are no more coffins, we are told; death as a rite, and therefore as connection to human truth, has been abrogated.

In this burned-out world, which has been compared to that of Lear at the end of his drama but perhaps more closely resembles that of Woyzeck, despair is an axiom. When at one point Clov tells Hamm that his father is weeping down in his ash can, Hamm replies, "Then he's living." He then asks Clov, "Did you ever have an instant of happiness?" to which the response is "Not to my knowledge." "You're on earth," Hamm tells him, "there's no cure for that." Only Clov seems to have any desire or capacity for a change of circumstances; he grumbles or protests bitterly throughout at his subjection to Hamm, and in fact seems in the end to have made good his repeated threats to leave, as though from a doomed house.

It is tempting to see in all this a parable of man at the end of his rope, more specifically post atomic man, and the play has indeed been staged along the lines of a vision of the world after nuclear holocaust, as well as, from a different but equally "contemporary" perspective, along Freudian and Marxist ones. But this is in a peculiar way to take the play too seriously, to give it a weight of commentary and social earnestness its imaginative structure continually subverts. We ought to know from Beckett's entire body of work that of all living writers he is the least interested in the present, in the changes time effects, and in what we might call local, temporally or spatially differentiated existence. His imagination functions almost entirely outside history: what is, has been, and what has been, will be, so that writing for him is the struggle to find new means to express this proposition of stasis. In this struggle is one source of the tension of his work.

Another related source is in the unending dialectic between what he is "expressing" on an immediate level in the words and gestures and his obsession with the literary and dramatic impulses in themselves, the human need to say and show. This is his truest subject: the illusion that our speech and movements make a difference, the knowledge that this is an illusion, and the tragicomic making of speech and gestures in the face of the knowledge. The materials may vary, like those of an orator on different occasions, but they remain those of a voice engaging in utterance precisely for its own sake, for the sake, that is, of meeting the obligation of making human presence known.

Such materials do not add up to a reassembling of the phenomenal world, such as we ordinarily expect from literature and drama, nor do they constitute a commentary on the present state of personality or society. "He is not writing about something, he is writing something," Beckett once said of Joyce, and it is even truer of himself. What he is writing—bringing into being—in Endgame is another version of his Ur-text on the human self caught between actuality and desire, the craving for justification and its objective absence; at the same time it is a drama to show the impulse of playing—by which we fill in the void—to show it up. If it is more desperate than its predecessor, this isn't because Beckett has seen the world grow grimmer or has less hope than before (he had never had any) but because he has pushed the undertaking of artifice closer to the edge, cut down the number of possible ways out. There is not even a Godot now to provide by his felt absence a prospect of a future.

From the opening "tableau," as the stage directions call it, with Hamm sitting covered with a sheet like a piece of furniture in storage, Clov standing "motionless by the door, his eyes fixed on him," and the ash cans adding their silly, mysterious presence, the play proceeds to unfold as though it were the partly self-mocking work of a weary company of barnstormers who have set up their portable stage in some provincial town and laid out their shabby scenery and props. The text they speak has a "content" of desolation and end-of-the-world malaise, but it is interspersed with literary ironies and internal theatrical references and jokes, all of which go to sustain the thesis, most brilliantly propounded by Hugh Kenner, that Endgame is a play about playing, a performance "about" performing.

"What is there to keep me here?" Clov asks at one point, to which Hamm (ham actor? the reading is now a commonplace) replies, "The dialogue." "What about having

Roger Blin as Hamm in the first production of Endgame.Roger Blin as Hamm in the first production of Endgame.
a good guffaw the two of us together?" Hamm says. Clov (after reflection): "I couldn't guffaw again today." Hamm (after reflection): "Nor I." "Let's stop playing!" Clov pleads near the end; Hamm calls one remark of his an "aside" and says that he's "warming up for my last soliloquy"; Clov says of his departure at the end that "this is what we call making an exit." It is all theatrical, rehearsed, in a deeply important sense perfunctory; the scene is not one of despair in a darkening world as much as a weary, self-conscious enactment of what such a scene is supposed to be like, of what it would be like in literature.

The importance of this is hard to overestimate, for it is what lifts the play wholly above the chic status of a "God-is-dead" document or an allegory of Life after the Bomb. Endgame's thoroughgoing artificiality as tragedy, its self-derision—in his opening speech Hamm says, "Can there be misery—(he yawns)—loftier than mine?"—point directly to its imaginative purpose. As in all of Beckett's work, what is being placed on sorrowfully mocking exhibition is not the state of the world or of inner life as any philosopher or sociologist or psychiatrist could apprehend it (or as we ourselves could in our amateur practice of those roles) but the very myths of meaning, the legends of significance that go into the making of humanistic culture, providing us with a sense of purpose and validity separated by the thinnest wall from the terror of the void.

It is not that Beckett doesn't experience this emptiness—no living writer feels it more—but that he is more pertinently obsessed, as an artist, with the self-dramatizing means we take to fill it. The mockery that fills his first plays is a function of his awareness of this activity, not a repudiation of it: we can't do otherwise, Waiting for Godot and Endgame are saying; we fill the time with our comic or lugubrious or tragic dramas. Still, we have to know that they are inventions, made up in the midst of indifferent nature—stone, tree, river, muskrat, wasp—all that has no question to ask and no "role" to take on.

Thus the derision does not deny the horror or the stress on artifice annul the real. But palpable actuality isn't Beckett's subject, which is, as has been said, the relationship between actuality and our need to express it, to express ourselves. Such expression is always "artificial," always self-conscious (since it is consciousness of being conscious that we are impelled by), and never directly "true." "Matter has no inward," Coleridge had said, and it is this truth that we are trapped in, material beings who crave inwardness and have the capacity to imagine it. At its most formal level the expression of our inwardness becomes literature, drama, which, as Ibsen beautifully described it in The Master Builder, make up "castles in the air."

What Endgame demonstrates is how our self-dramatizing impulses, our need for building Ibsen's castles, is inseparable from the content of our experiences, how we do not in fact know our experience except in literary or histrionic terms. And this is independent of whether the experience is solemn or antic, exalted or base. We give it reality and dignity by expressing it, we validate it by finding, or rather hopelessly seeking, the "right" words and forms. This is what is going on in Endgame beneath the lugubriousness and anomie: "Something is taking its course," Clov says, not their lives—they are actors, they have no "lives"—but their filling in of the emptiness with their drama.

"By his stress on the actors as professional men and so on the play as an occasion in which they operate," as Kenner has written, Beckett turns the piece from a report, however fantastic, on the state of the world to an image of the world being dramatized. In this performance the actor is not an interpreter or incarnation of surrogate emotion for the audience but simply the professional embodiment of an activity we all engage in, at every moment, to build the wall against silence and nonbeing. "Outside of here it's death," Hamm says, and what he means is not that death is closing in but that inside, in this stage-as-room and room-as-stage, the play goes forward to enact the human answer to it, the absurd, futile, nobly unyielding artifice of our self-expression.

If the true action and subject of the play are therefore the enactment of despair rather than despair itself, then the relationships of the characters to one another have to be seen in an untraditional light. Like Pozzo and Lucky, Hamm and Clov have been thought of as impotent master and sullenly rebellious servant (capitalism and the working class? imperialism and emerging nations?) or, more subtly, as paradigmatic of every human relation of exploitation and tyranny. But once again this is to take their connection too literally, at its verbal surface. We ought to remember that Beckett is not interested in human relations as such but in human ontology, in the status of the stripped, isolated self beneath social elaboration. It is the requirement of the stage that there be at least duality, tension demanding otherness, that turns his play away from the nearly solipsistic interior monologues of his novels.

Yet something is carried over from the fiction to the drama, and it is a central clue to Beckett's new dramaturgy. If Hamm and Clov do not represent or incarnate any types discoverable in the social world, they are not even discrete personalities, except as they possess a sort of provisional and tactical individuation as a source of dialogue and therefore of dramatic propulsion. For many things about the play suggest that there is really only one consciousness or locus of being in the room, a consciousness akin to that of the "narrator" of the novels, so that it is more than plausible to take the room or stage as the chamber of the mind and the figures in it as the mind's inventions, the cast of characters of its theater. This is almost irresistibly indicated by a passage in one of Hamm's soliloquies: "Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together and whisper together, in the dark."

Clov would then be an extension of Hamm, the seated, reigning, perhaps dreaming figure. Hamm has invented a servant to be his eyes and agent of mobility, as we speak of our senses and legs serving us, and he has reinvented his parents, turning them into his own grotesque children. He is now complete, the play can be staged, the desperate drama in the dark. And Beckett's play Endgame takes on still another implication: that it is an illusion that there are fellow actors in our dramas, we have to invent them as they invent us; we are all children in the dark, solitary, babbling, inconsolable. But we play, in this case the end game, the last phase of an abstract life worked out in the mind.

The recognition that there is nothing beyond this last invention except silence—the scenery trundled off, the props put away, the stage lights down—is the true source of the feeling of extremity that rises from Endgame. There is no doom impending from outside, no tragic or deracinated situation to live through. There is only that silence on the other side of the wall … and we are running out of scripts.

Richard Gilman, "Beckett," in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame", edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishing, 1988, pp. 79-88.

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This section contains 2,148 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Richard Gilman from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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