|Written by||Samuel Beckett|
|Date premiered||3 April 1957|
|Place premiered||Royal Court Theatre, London|
Endgame, by Samuel Beckett, is a one-act play with four characters. It was originally written in French (entitled Fin de partie); Beckett himself translated it into English. The play was first performed in a French-language production at the Royal Court Theatre in London, opening on 3 April 1957. The follow-up to Waiting for Godot, it is commonly considered to be among Beckett's best works. The literary critic Harold Bloom called it the greatest prose drama of the 20th century, saying "I know of no other work of its reverberatory power", but that he couldn't handle reading it in old age for its harrowing, barebones existentialism. Samuel Beckett considered it his masterpiece. Briefly, it is about a blind, paralyzed man and his servant who await an unspecified “end” which seems to be the end of their relationship, death, and the end of the actual play itself. Much of the play consists of the characters bantering; the sole significant plot point is a story-within-a-story the character Hamm is telling.
- Hamm: Unable to stand, and blind. Hamm is dominating, acrimonious, banterous, and comfortable in his misery. He claims to suffer, but his pessimism seems self-elected. He chooses to be isolated and self-absorbed. His relationships come off as parched of human empathy; he refers to his father as a "fornicator", refused to help his neighbor with oil for her lamp when she badly needed it, and has a fake pet dog which is a stuffed animal.
- Clov: Hamm's servant who is unable to sit. Taken in by Hamm as a child. Clov is wistful. He longs for something else, but has nothing to pursue. More mundane than Hamm, he reflects on his opportunities but takes little charge. Clov is benevolent, but weary.
- Nagg: Hamm's father who has no legs and lives in a dustbin. Nagg is gentle and fatherly, yet sorrowful and aggrieved in the face of his son's ingratitude.
- Nell: Hamm's mother who has no legs and lives in a dustbin next to Nagg. Reflective, she delivers a monologue about a beautiful day on Lake Como, and apparently dies during the course of the play.
Samuel Beckett said that in his choice of character's names, he had in mind the word "hammer" and the word "nail" in English, French and German respectively, "clou" and "nagel".
Beckett was an avid chess player, and the term endgame refers to the ending phase of a chess game. The play is dimly visible as a kind of metaphorical chess, albeit with limited symbolic meaning. Hamm at one point says "My kingdom for a knight-man!". Hamm, limited in his movement, resembles the king piece on a chess board, and Clov, who moves for him, a knight.
Clov enters a dreary, dim and nondescript shack, draws the curtains from the windows and prepares his master Hamm for his day. He says “It’s nearly finished,” though it is not clear what he is referring to. He awakes Hamm by pulling a bloodstained rag from off his head. They banter briefly, and Hamm says “It’s time it ended.”
Eventually, Hamm’s parents, Nell and Nagg, appear from two trash cans at the back of the stage. Hamm is equally threatening, condescending and acrimonious to his parents, though they still share a degree of mutual humor. Hamm tells his father he is writing a story, and recites it partially to him, a fragment which treats on a derelict man who comes crawling on his belly to the narrator, who is putting up Christmas decorations, begging him for food for his starving boy sheltering in the wilderness.
Clov, his servant, returns, and they continue to banter in a way that is both quick-witted and comical yet with dark, overt existential undertones. Clov often threatens to leave Hamm, but it is made clear that he has nowhere to go as the world outside seems to be destroyed. Much of the stage action is intentionally banal and monotonous, including sequences where Clov moves Hamm’s chair in various directions so that he feels to be in the right position, as well as moving him nearer to the window.
By the end of the play, Clov finally seems intent on pursuing his commitment of leaving his cruel master Hamm. Clov tells him there is no more of the painkiller left which Hamm has been insisting on getting his dose of throughout the play. Hamm finishes his dark, chilling story by having the narrator berate the collapsed man for the futility of trying to feed his son for a few more days when evidently their luck has run out. Hamm believes Clov has left, being blind, but Clov stands in the room silently with his coat on, going nowhere. Hamm discards some of his belongings, and says that, though he has made his exit, the audience “will remain”.
Endgame is a powerful expression of existential angst and despair and depicts Beckett’s philosophical worldview, namely the extreme futility of human life and the inescapable dissatisfaction and decay intrinsic to it. The existential feelings buried in the work achieve their most vocal moments in lines such as “It will be the end and there I'll be, wondering what can have brought it on and wondering what can have... why it was so long coming,” and “Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn't fill it, and there you'll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe,“ in both of which Hamm seems to contemplate the sense of dread awakened by the obliterating force of death.
Endgame is also a quintessential work of what Beckett called “tragicomedy”, or the idea that, as Nell herself in the play puts it, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” Another way to think about this is that things which are absurd can be encountered both as funny in some contexts and horrifyingly incomprehensible in others. Beckett’s work combines these two responses in his vast artistic vision of depicting not a segment of lived experience but the very philosophical nature of life itself, in the grandest view, as the central subject material of the play. To Beckett – due to his existential worldview – life itself is absurd, and this incurs reactions of both black mirth and profound despair. To Beckett, these emotions are deeply related, and this is evident in the many witty yet dark rejoinders in the play, such as Hamm’s comment in his story, “You’re on Earth, there’s no cure for that!”, which both implies in a melodramatic fashion that being born is a curse, but sounds perhaps like a biting, bar-talk joke, such as telling someone “You’re Irish, there’s no cure for that!”
NELL (without lowering her voice):
Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. But—
Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more.
Endgame is a meticulously constructed and tightly-coiled work which achieves its powerful, diffuse effect through a range of technical devices. Samuel Beckett makes heavy use of repetition, in which certain recurrent short phrases or sentence patterns are spread out throughout the play and in various characters’ dialogue. Many of the ideas are conceptually, logically novel, almost reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, such as the play beginning with the ingeniously, witty subversion of a rhetorical question “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” with the literal answer, “No doubt,” the sense of cleverness of design in the way the first thing Hamm requests after Clov has woken him up is to be gotten ready to go back to bed, and in the odd yet entrancing way in which Hamm describes the scene of his story with recourse to a wide variety of instruments such as a heliometer. Beyond this high degree of conceptual playfulness, the play is suffused, in characteristic Beckett fashion, with everyday expressions which are subverted and take on either mind-bending, absurd meanings and/or an existential resonance, as if lurking beneath the surface of our most common daily doings and parlance lies the unmistakable absurdity, or illogicality, of life and the world. One small example of many would be when Hamm asks “What time is it?” and Clov replies “The same as usual.”
Most key to the overall functioning of the play seems to be core aesthetic ideas, new explorations of form that were at work throughout Beckett’s oeuvre and very central to the foregoing Godot – a play in which almost nothing happens, plot-wise, and furthermore, as many elements or levels of narrative craft seem to take a null value – there is seemingly no character development, and the location is vague and very poorly defined. Although Beckett had a reputation for keeping mum about the ideas behind his work, he specifically had published a conversation he had with a painter detailing precisely this aspect of his aesthetic vision which he wanted people to know – that his work was a realization of there being “nothing to express, no way to express it”.
Overall, the value, or effect, or the play is a unique, hypnotic aesthetic experience which gives a kind of slow-burning existential catharsis. Being unconventional in form and material, it does not have a traditional Aristotelian catharsis, importantly because it does not seek redemption for its characters. Beckett, who understood and wrote about his understanding of tragedy as the pure depiction or expression of a sorry fate, created the ultimate negative art form. Thus, while many people suffer quietly from existential fear or horror, only in Beckett is this feeling provocatively confronted, rather than ameliorated or suppressed. To gaze so clearly into the depiction of something so tragic yet so true has the true effect of art, which is expression. The mere act of a singer lamenting a sad story is an aesthetic act in itself, a listener takes value in the sentimentality of the experience. The same is true for Beckett: merely to encounter the direct, pure expression of existential feeling is experienced as inherently rewarding.
A Stanford undergraduate journal published a transhumanist interpretation of Endgame.
Possible themes in Endgame include decay, insatiety and dissatisfaction, pain, monotony, absurdity, humor, horror, meaninglessness, nothingness, existentialism, nonsense, solipsism and people's inability to relate to or find completion in one another, narrative or story-telling, family relations, nature, destruction, abandonment, and sorrow.
Key features, symbols and motifs
Hamm's story is broken up and told in segments throughout the play. It serves essentially as part of the climax of Endgame, albeit somewhat inconclusively.
Hamm's story is gripping for how the narrative tone it is told in contrasts with the way the play the characters are in seems to be written or proceed. Whereas Endgame is somehow lurching, starting and stopping, rambling, unbearably impatient and sometimes incoherent, Hamm's story in some ways has a much more clear, liquid, fluid, descriptive narrative lens to it. In fact, in the way it uses run-of-the-mill literary techniques like describing the setting, facial expressions or an exchange of dialogue, in slightly bizarre ways, it almost seems like a parody of writing itself. Beckett's eerie, weird stories about people at their last gasp often doing or seeking something futile somehow seems to return again and again as central to his art. It could be taken to represent the inanity of existence, but it also seems to hint at mocking not only life but storytelling itself, inverting and negating the literary craft with stories that are idiotically written, anything from poorly to put-on and overwrought.
Extremely characteristic Beckettian features in the work, represented by many lines throughout the work, are bicycles, a seemingly imaginary son, pity, darkness, a shelter, and a story being told.
The play was premiered on 3 April 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre, London, directed by Roger Blin, who also played Hamm; Jean Martin was Clov, Georges Adet was Nagg and Christine Tsingos was Nell. In the early 1960s, an English language production produced by Philippe Staib and, directed by Beckett with Patrick Magee and Jack MacGowran was staged at the Studio des Champs-Elysees, Paris. Other early productions were those at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York, 28 January 1958, directed by Alan Schneider with Lester Rawlins as Hamm, Alvin Epstein as Nagg and Gerald Hiken playing Clov (a recording of the play, with P. J. Kelly replacing Epstein, was released by Evergreen Records in 1958); and at the Royal Court directed by George Devine who also played Hamm, with Jack MacGowran as Clov.
After the Paris production, Beckett directed two other productions of the play: at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt, Berlin, 26 September 1967, with Ernst Schröder as Hamm and Horst Bollmann as Clov; and at the Riverside Studios, London, May 1980 with Rick Cluchey as Hamm and Bud Thorpe as Clov.
In 1984, JoAnne Akalaitis directed the play at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The production featured music from Philip Glass and was set in a derelict subway tunnel. Grove Press, the owner of Beckett's work, took legal action against the theatre. The issue was settled out of court through the agreement of an insert into the program, part of which was written by Beckett:
Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this.
In 1992, a videotaped production directed by Beckett, with Walter Asmus as the television director, was made as part of the Beckett Directs Beckett series, with Rick Cluchey as Hamm, Bud Thorpe as Clov, Alan Mandell as Nagg and Teresita Garcia-Suro as Nell.
In 2005, Tony Roberts starred as Hamm in a revival directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York City with Alvin Epstein as Nagg, Adam Heller as Clov and Kathryn Grody as Nell.
In 2008 there was a brief revival staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring John Turturro as Hamm, Max Casella as Clov, Alvin Epstein as Nagg and Elaine Stritch as Nell. New York theatre veteran Andrei Belgrader directed, replacing originally sought Sam Mendes at the helm of the production.
The British theatre company Complicite staged the play in London's West End with Mark Rylance as Hamm and Simon McBurney (who also directed the production) as Clov. The production also featured Tom Hickey as Nagg and Miriam Margolyes as Nell. The production opened on 2 October 2009 at the Duchess Theatre. Tim Hatley designed the set.
In 2010, Steppenwolf Theatre Company staged Endgame. It was directed by Frank Galati and starred Ian Barford as Clov, William Petersen as Hamm, Francis Guinan as Nagg, and Martha Lavey as Nell. James Schuette was responsible for set and scenic design.
In 2015, two of Australia's major state theatre companies staged the play. For Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton directed the production, featuring Hugo Weaving as Hamm  and for Melbourne Theatre Company, Colin Friels starred in a production directed by Sam Strong and designed by visual artist Callum Morton.
In 2019 the play was produced by Pan Pan Theatre at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin. The production was directed by Gavin Quinn and starred Andrew Bennett, Des Keogh, Rosaleen Linehan and Antony Morris. The production was designed by Aedin Cosgrove.
The play was adapted into an opera by György Kurtág, premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in 2018. The play also inspired Pixar's short film Geri's Game, portraying a static chess game.
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