Rukhaya M.K

A Literary Companion

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: A Classic Instance of the Theatre of the Absurd

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is a statement on the contemporary times as a product of applied science and technology and not vice-versa. It focuses on four major characters who live in an apocalyptic era characterized by stagnation and a sense of nihilism. Originally written in French (entitled Fin de partie), the title refers to the last part in a game of chess. Unlike the introductory part and the middle game, the endgame is worked out by experienced players in advance and the outcome is certain; just as death is an inevitable certainty in the Game of Life predestined by the Invincible Champion.

Hamm is the protagonist of the drama and dictates the other characters on their action. He is at the centre of the room and the centre of the plot. In the Paris Review article “Exorcising Beckett”, the author writes that Beckett stated the names to be as follows: Hamm for Hammer, Clov for clou (the French for nail), Nagg for ‘nagel’ (the German for nail), and Nell because of its resemblance to the English word nail. Therefore, the naming is quite apt: Hamm stands for Hamm as in ‘Hammer’ as he sits at a distance and witnesses the action. The other characters in comparison move like nails where Clove moves to and fro; and Nagg and Nell move up and down in the ashbins. So as a hammer too, Hamm dictates the actions of others . Hamm also means ‘an aggressive actor’ and stands for the author-God-Narrator who holds all the other characters together, as he is the centre of the web of narrative.

A major theme of the novel is the juxtaposition of the end and the beginning. The novel beings with the line:”It’s finished.” The line that was the last statement of Christ; it followed the death of Christ but heralded the birth of Christianity. While ‘white’ stands for birth and ‘black’ stands for death, the prevailing grey atmosphere juxtaposes both these aspects. The end of a game of chess always paves the way for a new one. Hamm is found in the same state at the beginning of the novel and at the end, with a white sheet drawn across.”–The bigger the man is, the fuller he is. And the emptier.” (12) At a certain point, Clov checks the bin and finds Nagg crying and exclaims that then, he is living. The first sign of life in a newly born baby is when the baby cries. This motif again blends beginning and ends.
Death and stagnation is yet another important pattern in the play. The play defines death not as a state of being/not being. Rather it defines death as a state of decay and putrefaction. The play is about people who lead a vegetative existence. The rat is an eloquent emblem where he is torn half-way between life and death. Clov states:”If I don’t kill that rat he’ll die.” The setting as a whole resembles a skull with windows that stand for two hollow eyes, the ashbins for nostrils, and Hamm the only mouth that ‘speaks’. The windows are the opening to the two arenas where life thrives-and the four lives that people this play are beyond this biosphere, as they are living but do not live. Hamm is covered with a sheet at the beginning and at the end symbolizing a dead body. Nell as she emerges out of the ashbin is characterized by a “white face” reminiscent of a cadaver.” Nell asks Clov whether he has cleared her sawdust-waste pointing to the fact that she has a ’wooden’ or vegetative existence and is infested with termites due lack of utility. Ruby Cohn, in her book Back to Beckett, writes that “Beckett’s favorite line in the play is Hamm’s deduction from Clov’s observation that Nagg is crying: Then he’s living.” But in Berlin he felt that the most important sentence is Nell’s: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” and he directed his play to show the fun of unhappiness. A sense of nihilism pervades Endgame. The time is ‘zero’. Hamm finds his eyes to be white/blank. The bricks symbolic of the very base / foundation and even the roof are called ‘hollow’. The sun is ‘zero’ only a physical entity as mirrored by its shape. All the characters are like pawns in the endgame of chess. The King(Hamm) becomes important in the endgame. Clov stands for the Knight in that his movement is irregular; and Hamm rides on his back, just as he rides on a horse.

Distance and estrangement is another feature of the play. The couple Nagg and Nell are very much in love, as the alliteration of their names imply that they are an inseparable pair. But they are denied proximity by their own son and denied the affection of each other. he modern practice of children confining their parents to old-age homes is echoed here in the eloquent symbol of the ashbin. Hamm does not let them converse with each other with the demanding and interrupting: “Silence!’’ He frequently enquires with Clov whether they had been bottled. It is reminiscent of the genie –‘the maker’ of Aladdin being confined to a lamp. The disparity between Man and his Life, the Actor and his Setting, as stated by Martin Esslin in Theatre of the Absurd, characteristic of the Theatre of the Absurd, contribute to the theme of distance and estrangement in the play. This aspect is prominent as Hamm opines towards the end of the play about his ’aside’ and ‘soliloquy’ underlining the metatheatrical qualities of the play.

Movement and stillness is yet another significant aspect, in being static in spite of being kinetic; and being kinetic in spite of being static. Though Hamm wants to live; he wants to be confined to the centre of the room. Lack of movement and over-automation results in lack of activity and may dwarf away the human body. George Bernard Shaw has envisaged a stage when human beings will be reduced to a pulp of brain as that will be the only part that will be working in the human body due to over-mechanization and torpidity. The phrase “a heart in my head” shows human being to be condensed further where only emotion and intellect thrive in a calculative and manipulative era. ‘A heart in my head’ also echoes the fact that emotions may be imprisoned in an intellect where the driving force is profit or survival instinct.

The theme of light and darkness is prominent Dark stands for ‘ignorance’ that the four thrive in. Clov repeatedly searches for light on the wall as ‘knowledge’ (of the outer world) or a ray of hope that would end his predicament. Grey light pervades the atmosphere signaling doom. Darkness prevails in the ashbins where Nagg and Nell thrive, in a state of exile. Hamm is blind and invaded by darkness as he is sightless. Moreover, he has a pair of dark glasses on him and a kerchief over his face that makes him ‘thrice removed from reality’. His achluophobia is more related to being lonely than being alone. The Sun is said to be ’zero’ devoid of light making it obvious that nuclear winter has set in. Grey atmosphere prevails in the whole of the room. And Hamm talks of ”a spark in the void, in the dark” pointing to a streak of optimism.

Clov’s life is based on existentialist facticity in the sense that his past constitutes and determines his being. Though he wants to leave, his inclination to stay springs from the fact that Hamm adopted him and did him a favour by taking him into his house and giving him shelter. Hamm considers Clov to be his foster-child in a way. The sense of indebtedness deters him from leaving the house. Hamm can be related to existentialist Angst with reference to the negative feelings that he harbours, the feelings that rise from the experience of human freedom and responsibility and fears something without a proper object to have qualms about. He is pervaded with a sense of existentialist angst in the sense that there is nothing that predetermines his death/loneliness, he can dictate it and yet he has the full freedom to decide the same. Nell leads an existence characterized by authencity as she lives in accordance with her freedom.

With reference to the definition of inauthentic, Nagg leads such an existence, as he lives in denial to live in accordance with his freedom. Such a person pretends that choices are meaningless or random. Like Nagg says that nobody suffers as much as he does. While Nell is now resigned to her fate and lives within the means that she has, Nagg’s attitude to his freedom and responsibility is indeed significant. He does not let his facticity influence him but makes choices randomly.

The refutation of logic is another major motif in line with the theatre of the absurd. The questions that if a collection of grains is a heap, then life is also constituted of critical moments and does not result in a sum total of them but only in death. The recurrent motifs, the meaninglessness of several questions point to a pointless existence. The repetitions signify the monotonous routine of life devoid of any meaning. The plot is circular and point to a mechanical existence devoid of any essence. The wheel of existence runs but at the same point connoting lack of progression. The circularity of expressions point to the lack of a transcendental signified as Derrida points out. One entity is explained or holds identity or value or meaning only in relation with another. The preoccupation with death and disease implies that man endeavours towards nullity and emerges from the same.

Ionesco said that most writers “were talking about absurdity and death, but that they never really lived these themes, that they did not feel them within themselves in an almost irrational, visceral way that all this was not deeply inscribed in their language. With them it was still rhetoric, eloquence. With Adamov and Beckett it really is a very naked reality that is conveyed through the apparent dislocation of language”. And the language that the playwright employs, echoes the same. Clov says:”I must kill the rat before it dies.” If the title of the play is ‘Endgame’ then the characters are puppets in the game of Destiny. Albert Camus utilizes the term ‘Absurd’ in his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, with reference to “man’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning, and/or man as a puppet controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces.” Hamm tries to embody this aspect of being the narrator-God, in a world stripped of values, which is why he wants to be repeatedly moved to the centre of the room, and be the central focus of his kingdom. A centre can have many circles, but a circle can possess only one centre.
Furthermore, as there is only one centre for a circle, his counterpart in the external world is the sun. Just as he is the centre of the room, the sun is the centre of the solar system. But due to the nuclear war, both of them have lost their utility value. All the characters are handicapped and act as cogs in the wheel of destiny. The repetitions, the questions asked and the circularity of the plot are reminiscent of Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajit and are hallmarks of the theatre of the Absurd.”All lifelong the same questions, the same answers.”(13) And when Hamm says that it is ”the end of the day like any other day,” there is no meaning or essence to be perceived from life. Hamm has “no one else and Clov has “nowehere else.” The play is reminiscent of Luigi Prindello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, in that the characters have an existentialist freedom with reference to their director-Hamm. They do not always listen to Hamm. The distancing techniques of Brecht are adopted not to emotionally drain, but intellectually stimulate. Other motifs used by absurd theatre are the play-within-a-play and role-playing as Nagg assumes the roles of various characters. Like a typical absurd play this role-enacting presents”. a highly-theatricalized vision of identity” And in line with the realism of playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, the fourth wall is brought down. The design of the play-within-a-play characteristic of the Theatre of the Absurd is found in the role-playing enacted by Hamm and Nagg.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt states in his essay “Problems of the Theatre”, “Comedy alone is suitable for us … But the tragic is still possible even if pure tragedy is not. We can achieve the tragic out of comedy. We can bring it forth as a frightening moment, as an abyss that opens suddenly; indeed, many of Shakespeare’s tragedies are already really comedies out of which the tragic arises.”Likewise the bottom-line of play is:”Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” This is meant to satirize human misery. It signals not only the end of the game, but the endgame of it all.

©Rukhaya MK 2013

The content is the copyright of Rukhaya MK. Any line reproduced from the article has to be appropriately documented by the reader. ©Rukhaya MK. All rights reserved.

(Also published in the journal Voices of the Indian English Writers, Authorspress India, Delhi)

Beckett, Samuel .Collected Dramatic Works. London: Faber,1986.

Camus,Albert and Alfred A. Knopf. The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays.UK: Everyman’s Library, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-4255-0
Cohn,Ruby. Back to Beckett. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. “Problems of the Theatre”. The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi. Grove Press, 1964. ISBN 394171985. pg. 30-31.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. NY: Doubleday, 1961.

Ionesco, Eugène. Fragments of a Journal. Tr. Jean Stewart. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.

Shainberg, Lawrence, “Exorcising Beckett.” The Paris Review 29. 104 (Fall 1987): 100-36.

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting information!Perfect just what I was looking for!

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