I had little idea of how my students would react to Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, although a couple of them had read Waiting for Godot and so knew what they were in for. To the others I suggested that they expect something odd and that they keep an open mind about it. We’d read some challenging writers and talked about how some kinds of literature require that you suspend your need to understand what’s going on, sometimes even on a basic level, at least for a while, so by “keeping an open mind” what I meant was to expect strangeness and to try to roll with it as best as they could.
Most of them loved the play, it turned out, and what they noticed most of all is the play’s humor. This is not something I’d paid much attention to on my first reading, and I don’t remember noticing it much when I studied Waiting for Godot, so it’s interesting to me that this is what my students picked up on. I suppose I’m more naturally attuned to darkness and despair than I am to humor (which is too bad for me), but the more I read and thought about the play, the more obvious it became that it is really very funny.
If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s about four characters — Hamm, a blind, paralyzed man who spends his days sitting in his chair as close to the middle of the room as possible; Clov, Hamm’s servant and companion of sorts, who continually threatens to leave Hamm; and Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, who live in ashbins. They poke their heads up every once in a while to say a few words and then retreat back into their cans. The characters stay in one room (except for Clov who wanders off into the kitchen now and then) and talk about the same things over and over. They live in a world that seems post-apocalyptic, although just what has happened is never clarified, but there seems to be nothing and no one outside their home, very little food available, and no hope of change whatsoever.
The dialogue wanders here and there, covering ground the characters have covered again and again — their dislike of one another, their questions about the weather and what’s going on outside their windows (generally nothing), their physical suffering, their memories, their weariness with life. Hamm and Clov contemplate suicide, but they always back off from acting on this impulse. They tell stories now and then, but often the stories don’t have an ending; they just trail off.
Here is a typical exchange:
Hamm: I feel a little queer. [Pause.] Clov!
Hamm: Have you not had enough?
Clov: Yes! [Pause.] Of what?
Hamm: Of this … this … thing.
Clov: I always had. [Pause.] Not you?
Hamm: [Gloomily.] Then there’s no reason for it to change.
Clov: It may end. [Pause.] All life long the same questions, the same answers.
Hamm: Get me ready. [Clov does not move.] Go and get the sheet. [Clov does not move.] Clov!
Hamm: I’ll give you nothing more to eat.
Clov: Then we’ll die.
Hamm: I’ll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You’ll be hungry all the time.
Clov: Then we don’t die. [Pause.] I’ll go and get the sheet.
Much of the dialogue is like this, and it doesn’t sound funny at all, right? And yet there are funny passages, particularly when you read them out loud, which we did a little of in class. There are exchanges like this one, for example:
Clov: I can’t sit.
Hamm: True. And I can’t stand.
Clov: So it is.
Hamm: Every man his specialty.
Clov: What is there to keep me here?
Hamm: The dialogue.
I love the way this exchange refers to the dialogue between the two characters — dialogue that surely wouldn’t keep anybody anywhere — and also to the fact that there’s an audience in the theater who is kept in their seats by the very same repetitive, despairing talk.
Then there’s a passage where Hamm starts talking like a pretentious artist and insists that Clov play along:
Hamm: I’ve got on with my story. [Pause.] I’ve on with it well. [Pause. Irritably.] Ask me where I’ve got to.
Clov: Oh, by the way, your story?
Hamm: [Surprised.] What story?
Clov: The one you’ve been telling yourself all your days.
Hamm: Ah, you mean my chronicle?
Clov: That’s the one. [Pause.]
Hamm: [Angrily.] Keep going, can’t you, keep going!
Clov: You’ve got on with it, I hope.
Hamm: [Modestly.] Oh not very far, not very far. [He sighs.] There are days like that, one isn’t inspired. [Pause.] Nothing you can do about it, just wait for it to come. [Pause.] No forcing, no forcing, it’s fatal. [Pause.] I’ve got on with it a little all the same. [Pause.] Technique, you know. [Pause. Irritably.] I say I’ve got in with it a little all the same.
Clov: [Admiringly.] Well I never! In spite of everything you were able to get on with it!
Beckett is having a little fun with artistic pretension and also taking up one of the play’s themes: the point of creativity in a world that makes no sense and that leads only to death. Clov is speaking ironically and only playing a role when he admires Hamm for continuing to work on his story “in spite of everything,” and yet there’s a sense in which the admiration is real — who, after all, would get on with it, in spite of everything?
This play is certainly despairing — the title refers to the part of a chess game where the end result is beyond doubt but there are a few moves still left to play, which becomes a metaphor for the situation of all human beings as they approach death — but there’s something energetic and exhilarating about the play too. It doesn’t leave you — or at least it didn’t leave me — feeling like there’s nothing to do but commit suicide. Instead, it left me with admiration for Beckett for creating something intricately, beautifully, well-made out of some of the darkest feelings people can have. In spite of everything, most of do get on with it, and there’s something wonderful in that.