from The Plays of Samuel Beckett by Eugene Webb, Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle,1974, pp.54-65.
for Godot, which was
written at the same time as the trilogy of novels -- Molloy, Malone Dies, and The
Unnamable -- was essentially
a dramatic presentation of the vision developed in those works.1
In the trilogy the destiny of the three characters shows that "on,"
in that universe, leads nowhere. They journey on quests and even grow,
at least in the sense of losing illusions, but the ultimate end of their development
is the condition of the Unnamable, bewildered, lost, disillusioned completely
with even the possibility of knowledge, but unable to stop talking to himself
and trying to explain the inexplicable.2
And All That Fall, though written approximately seven
years later, reflects essentially the same vision of human life.
Endgame, however, is a new departure. This play does not provide answers any more than the earlier works did, but it leaves open the possibility that a new path out of the old ruts might lead, if one has the courage to walk it, to a new vision and a new life. Although it does not lead us on this quest, it points the way to it and prepares for it by exploring the moral and intellectual failures that currently imprison us.
Writing to his American director, Alan Schneider, in 1956 while he was still working on Endgame, Beckett describes the new play as "rather difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than 'Godot.'"3 The reason it is so much more abrasive and inhuman than Godot is that, with more hope for what man might become, it is more brutal and unyielding in the way it probes into the etiology of our present condition. Vladimir and Estragon were isolated to a large degree in their egocentric preoccupations with their own thoughts and their own sufferings, but there was also an element of warmth in their relationship. They were frequently cruel to one another -- as when Estragon tells the story of the Englishman in the brothel to torture Vladimir (Godot, p. 11a) -- but they could also embrace and make up. In a universe in which nothing was possible, company was at least a distraction and the play left them free to make of it what they could. In Endgame, on the other hand, the relationship between Hamm and Clov is part of the trap, and for there to be any hope, the trap must be seen through and broken out of.
The play is built around images of isolation and imprisonment. The scene opens upon two trash cans within another similar container, the room itself. The content of all the containers is refuse : Nagg and Nell in the two ashbins, Hamm and Clov in the room. The house is both a "shelter" (p. 3) and a place of isolation, in which old ways of thought, clung to out of fear or stubbornness, both protect the inhabitants and cut them off from the reality outside. "High up" on the rear wall are "two small windows, curtains drawn" (p. 1), which suggests that the room may represent the inside of the skull of a man who has closed his eyes to the external world.
Eva Metman has suggest that in Beckett's plays generally, "The various figures which he puts on the stage are not really persons but figures in the inner world," and in regard to Endgame, at least, there seems to be truth to this.4 Nagg and Nell in their cans remind one of Proustian involuntary memories sealed in jars : Hamm frequently feels he would like to suppress the memory of them but it comes back to him apart from his volition as they emerge now and then from their cans to remind him of their existence.5 And the dialogue of Hamm and Clove often seems like that of a mind with itself. To interpret the characters of the play as only symbols of psychological forces would be too simple by itself, however ; Beckett's characters rarely seem to be only anything. They are probably this, seen in one respect, but they are also real individuals with real interactions that are significant.
At the center of the household, both literally and figuratively, is Hamm. He is the proprietor, and from his chair, in the center of the room, he presides over the others. And he will not let them forget it. Nothing is more important to him than his power. He exercises it over Nagg and Nell, his parents, by offering to give or withhold biscuits and sugar plums as he commands their attention, participation, or disappearance. Over Clov he holds the power of one who is both master and a sort of foster father. "But for me, . . . no father," Hamm likes to tell him, "But for Hamm, . . . no home" (p.38).
Evidently Hamm took Clov into the house while Clove was still quite young and raised him to be his servant. He was hardly a generous guardian, however; in fact, he takes pride in having killed any affection Clov might ever have had for him :
Hamm : You loved me once.
Clov : Once!
Hamm : I've made you suffer too much. (Pause.) Haven't I?
Clov : It's not that.
Hamm (shocked) : I haven't made you suffer too much?
Clov : Yes!
Hamm (relieved) : Ah you gave me a fright !
As with Nagg and nell, Hamm uses material possessions as a means of controlling him. When Clov was younger, Hamm had refused him a bicycle, for example : "When there were still bicycles I wept to have one. I crawled at your feet. You told me to go to hell" (p. 8) And now, in a world in which there are no more bicycles to withhold, Hamm tries to torment him with the threat of hunger : "I'll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You'll be hungry all the time" (p. 5). As Clov implies when Hamm orders him to bring him his toy dog, Clov's position is essentially the same as that of the stuffed animal. "Your dogs are here," he says (p. 40). Typically magisterial, Hamm wants to know, "Is he gazing at me? . . . As if he were asking me to take him for a walk? . . . Or as if he were begging me for a bone" (p. 41). "Leave him like that, standing there imploring me," he says.
Clov too, however, is as attached to the relationship as Hamm is. Clov says that he has been trying to leave ever since he "was whelped' (p. 14), but he has never been able to do it. And although he says he cannot understand why he always obeys Hamm, he has obeyed him all his life. As in the relationship of Lucky and Pozzo, it seems the slave needs a master as much as the master needs a slave.
One reasons Hamm needs the others is that they serve as a captive audience for his story. It is a story he has been working on for some time. How much of it is fiction, and how much is based on the memory of real events, is not clear. That he calls it his "chronicle" (p. 58) makes it sound at least somewhat historical, but whether the specific events really took place or not, the story is essentially true as a revelation of Hamm's attitudes toward other people and toward life. The scene is a cold, bright winter day, Christmas Eve, and Hamm is putting up decorations. A man comes, "crawling towards me, on his belly" (p. 50), looking for help for himself and his little boy. "Come on, man, speak up," says Hamm. "what is [it] you want from me, I have to put up my holly" (p. 52). When the man asks for bread or corn to revive his boy, Hamm tantalizes him with the description of "a nice pot of porridge . . . a nice pot and a half of porridge, full of nourishment" and of how when the boy eats it the color will "come back into his little cheeks." Then after arousing the man's hopes in this way, he dashes them violently : "Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!" (p. 53). "But what in God's name do you imagine?" he demands, "That the earth will awake in spring? That the rivers and seas will run with fish again? That there's manna in heaven still for imbeciles like you?"
From the context the boy appears to be the symbol of fertility and vitality. He was left "deep in sleep" three full days earlier, recalling the period between the death and resurrection of Christ, whose birth Hammb is preparing to observe, in a purely external way, with holly. Both the birth and the resurrection of Christ are traditional symbols of the renewal of life, but Hamm refuses to contribute to the revival of this present embodiment of the same force. To Hamm life no longer seems worth renewing, even if its renewal were possible. When he later finishes the sltory, or at least seems to, on page 83, his last words are an unequivocal repudiation of life itself : "He doesn't realize . . . . But you ! You ought to know what the earth is like, nowdays. Oh I put him before his responsibilities !"
What is the life that Hamm is rejecting here? And why does he reject it?
It is the life that he and those in his household experience -- life as seen through the eyes of this room-skull. The opening speech of Clov presents the whole picture :
Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. (Pause) Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a big heap, the impossible heap. (Pause) I can't be punished any more. (Pause.) I'll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. (Pause.) Nice dimensions, nice proportions, I'll lean on the table, and look at the wall, and wait for him to whistle me.
The life these characters know is a slow process of dying. The moments pile up, "grain upon grain," but the impossible culmination always remains somewhere ahead of them. In the meantime, all they can do is comfort themselves with a little order, like the "nice proportions" of the kitchen, and wait impatiently, watching the "light dying" (p. 12) on the walls.
Both outside and inside the house, life is slowly coming to an end. There is "no more nature" (p. 11); in the garden the seeds no longer sprout (p. 13). When Clove looks out the window, he says all is "corpsed" (p. 30). The waves are "lead" (p. 31), the sun is "zero," the light is an even gray, "light black. From pole to pole" (p. 32).
Inside, the means of sustaining life, or of making it endurable, are gradually running out. There are no more sugar plums, no more sawdust, no more rugs, no more pain-killers. And far more important, the patterns that gave intelligible structure to life are crumbling. Like Beckett's characters generally, Hamm and Clov are both driven by a need to know. If they cannot know ultimate answers, then they need all the more to feel that the patterns of the details can be grasped, even if the details themselves are trivial. Hamm insists, for example, when Clov talks about leaving, that he will have to have a way of knowing whether Clov has really gone or is "merely dead" (p. 46) in his kitchen. it does not matter that "the result would be the same" ; Hamm has to know. To know anything at all, however, is becoming increasingly difficult as the most basic patterns of experience break down.
Clov's description of time as a piling up of moments is an indication of this. The "impossible heap" he hopes for would be both a terminus and a pattern. Hamm, at a later point, takes up the same image : "Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of . . . that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life" (p. 70). The "old Greek" he refers to is evidently Zeno the Eleatic, who is supposed to have used the image of millet grains falling in diminishing quantities-- a bushel, a single grain, the ten thousandth part of a grain-- in a dispute with Protagoras.6 Zeno was concerned mainly with the sound of the grains, but Hamm adapts the image to his own purposes as a symbol of the manner in which time seems to be always striving toward a shape, but without ever drawing nearer to it. Once again, as in Waiting for Godot, the experience of time echoes that of the Unnamable :
. . . the question may be asked . . . why time doesn't pass, doesn't pass from you, why it piles up all about you, instant on instant, on all sides, deeper and deeper, thicker and thicker, your time, others' time, the time of the ancient dead and the dead yet unborn, why it buries you grain by grain neither dead nor alive. . . .7
Time is a shapeless pile of infernal moments, all alike. "What time is it?" asks Hamm on page four. "The same as usual," answers Clov.
Deprived of natural patterns, Hamm and Clov have to structure their experience by imposing artificial ones on it. Since the even gray light no longer gives them more than vestigial day-night cycles, as though time had slowed down almost to a standstill, Clov has to reconstruct the old pattern by waking hamm at a certain time and setting him going with stimulants, then at another determined time, preparing him for sleep with a pain-killer. "In the morning they brace you up and in the evening they calm you down," says Hamm, "Unless it's the other way round" (p. 24). And there is another special time to tell stories.
With little real life left, the artificial life created in stories becomes all the more important. Here is something the characters can still shape, and the way they talk about their technique indicates how important formal control is to them. When Nagg tells his story of the Englishman's trousers, he is depressed to find his technique slipping : "I never told it worse. (Pause. Gloomy.) I tell this story worse and worse" (p. 22). Hamm, on the other hand, is still very pleased with his ability ; his Christmas Eve story is sprinkled throughout with self-congratulatory asides ; "Nicely put that . . . There's English for you . . . . A bit feeble, that . . . . That should do it" (pp. 51-52).
When Hamm is not shaping stories, he makes up various little rituals or games with which to impose pattern on what is left of life in the house. On two occasions, for example, he tries to draw Clov into a "forgive me" game (pp. 7, 12). Clov, however, will not play, as this is probably a game he has long since tired of. Hamm has better luck getting Clove to act out the ritual of asking him to tell his story, though even then he has to do a lot of coaxing :
Hamm : Ask me where I've got to.
Clov : Oh, by the way, your story?
Hamm (surprised) : What story? . . . (angrily) Keep going, can't
you, keep going!
Clov : You've got on with it, I hope.
And, of course, the play derives its title from Hamm's analogy of his final scene to an endgame in chess : "Old engame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing" (p.82).
No matter how rudimentary the form, to these characters, seems something that must be maintained as far as possible. When Clov wheels Hamm about, for example, for a circuit of the walls or a trip to the window, Hamm is very concerned with returning precisely to the center of the room :
Hamm : Am I right in the center?
Clov : I'll measure it.
Hamm : More or less ! More or less !
Clov (moving chair slightly) : There !
Hamm ; I'm more or less in the center ?
Clov : I'd say so.
Hamm : You'd say so ! Put me right in the center ! . . .
Bang in the center !
Although Clov is not such a gamester or a raconteur as Hamm, he is equally attached to the idea of order and perhaps even more frustrated by its elusiveness. "I love order," he says. "It's my dream. A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust" (p. 57). There is much that is significant in this statement. Clov evidently intends it to mean simply that he would like to attain the final peace of death. But for the audience it suggests far more. It suggests that perfect order of the kind Hamm and Clov long for would necessarily be a kind of death, in the sense that there would no longer be any room in it for movement and change. And it also suggests that perhaps it has been this very attempt to force form on the Protean body of reality that has severed their relationship with the forces of life. Hamm raises several times the question of whether somewhere outside their house, that is, outside the circumscribed world of their present experience, there may still be life. On page 39, for example, he asks, "Did you ever think of one thing? . . . That here we're down in a hole. . . . But beyond the hills? Eh? Perhaps it's still green. Eh? . . . Flora ! Pomona ! (Ecstatically.) Ceres !" Of course his enthusiasm does not carry over into any kind of action. He talks of making a raft and letting the currents carry them south "to other . . . mammals" (p. 34), but when confronted with the reality of such a voyage -- "Wait ! Will there be sharks, do you think?" (P. 35) -- he turns back to his pain-killer.
The possibility that there may be more to the world than the living death Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell see from their point of view in Hamm's house is further suggested by the story Hamm tells of a "madman" he once knew, a painter and engraver :
I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look ! There ! All that rising corn ! And there ! Look ! The sails of the herring fleet ! All that loveliness ! . . . He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes . . . . He alone had been spared.
Even Hamm seems momentarily struck by the possible implications of this. "It appears the case is . . . was not so . . . so unusual," he adds. But again, he does not pursue the idea.
If the vitality of the life in Hamm's household has been dimished by a special way of looking at the world, then it would seem likely that part of the problem derives from an attempt to cling to inadequate ideas and to force them on reality. One reason time has slowed to a stop for both Hamm and Clov is that their clinging to dead ideas will not let it move. "All life long the same questions, the same answers," says Clov (p. 5). For a mind going round and round in the same channel, it is natural that every moment would appear the same. "You've asked me these questions millions of times," says Clov wearily (p. 38). "I love the old questions," answers Hamm,"(with fervour.) Ah the old questions, the old answers, there's nothing like them." The familiar, though monotonous, provides a feeling of security.
But it can also become a frustrating trap, and that is what the inhabitants of this house have made of it. Although he holds fast to the old questions and the old answers, hamm also sees through them, and this leads to boredom and anger. He orders the household to join him in the Lord's Prayer, for example-- "Again!" says Clov (p. 54) -- but he ends the prayer with a curse : "The bastard ! He doesn't exist !" (p. 55). Already beyond the condition of Vladimir, for whom hope in a discredited idea could still be somewhat revived, even if only feebly, Hamm, by his refusal to let go of the old patterns of thought, has chained himself to a corpse.
Another cause of the monotony and barrenness of their existence is the moral isolation that characterizes the life of Hamm's house. "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?" asks Clov at one point. "You know what she died of, Mother Pegg? Of darkness" (p. 75).8 Inability to see beyond empty ideas is one form of darkness, but the state of being entirely alone is another, and both can kill. Even when Hamm appears to be reaching out to others in speech, he is not really trying to communicate with them. The only relationship he wants with others is that of a master with dehumanized slaves, and his ham-acting is the opposite of real communication.9 The performance is mainly for himself ; his audience is simply a group of victims for him to impose himself on. Both the separation of the ego from others and the attempt to use old ideas as a shield against reality are aspects of a single moral failure : the attempt to close oneself off from life rather than open oneself to it.
This is Clov's problem as well as Hamm's, of course, but for Clov it is not necessarily the whole story. Hamm predicts, with "prophetic relish," that Clov's end will eventually be the same as his.
day you'll be blind, like me. You'll be sitting there, a speck in the void,
in the dark, for ever, like me . . . . Yes, one
day you'll know what it is, you'll be like me, except
that you won't have anyone with you, because you won't have had pity on anyone
and because there won't be anyone left to have pity on.
not certian," answers Clov. And it is not -- not only because, as Clov
says, he "can't sit down" (p. 37), but also because something is happening.
There are several references during the play to the idea that some kind of change is taking place. On page thirteen, for example, Hamm asks, with anguish, "What's happening, what's happening?", and Clov answers, "Something is taking its course." Then at a later point, after the same exchange, Hamm goes on to ask, "We're not beginning to . . . to . . . mean something?" (p. 32). "Mean something ! You and I, mean something?" laughs Clov. it is nothing so comforting as a meaning, however. What eventually happens is something far more surprising : a mystery and a challenge.
The change is taking place not in Hamm, but in Clov. "I was never there," says Hamm, "Absent always. It all happened without me" (p. 74). Hamm has shut himself off altogether from life and change, but in the meantime an obscure process of development has been going on in Clov, and at the end of the play it comes to the surface.
During all their life together Clov has been locked with Hamm in a relationship of hatred and dependence. He would like to kill him, but he never can. he would like to leave, but he never has. "Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why?" he asks (p. 43). "you're not able to," says Hamm. Hamm even teases him occasionally with the idea of disobedience : "I can't prevent you," says Hamm when Clov says he wants to sing in spite of hamm's command not to (p. 73). And Clov does not sing. Hamm has little real power, but Clov has a strong need to obey.
As the end approaches, however, it becomes evident that a new spirit of independence is growing in Clov. Although Clov has been trying all his life to leave and has never succeeded in doing so, it now begins to seem even to Hamm as if perhaps he may. As Clov sets up the alarm clock they had agreed upon as the device that would let Hamm know whether Clov was gone or "merely dead," (p. 72). Hamm then orders him to look at the earth again, "Since it's calling you." And when Clov looks, he sees something completely new and completely unexpected : ". . . a small boy !" (p. 78).10
What the sudeen appearance of the boy means is as obscure to Clov as it is to Hamm, but what is important is that it starts him thinking in a new way which seems for the first time to be entirely his own. Previously he had always depended on Hamm or at least on others for his categories of thought, and if old categories became inadequate he still looked to hamm for replacements. When Hamm taunted him with the meaninglessness of the world "yesterday" in their world of attenuated time, Clov had answered violently ; "That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent" (pp. 43-44). Now, however, in trying to understand what this new event means for him, Clov shifts from dependence on the thoughts of others to a personal and immediate confrontation with mysterious reality. he begins by speaking of the ideas that "they" have given to him throughout his life :
They said to me, That's love, yes, yes. . . .
They said to me, That's friendship, yes, yes, no question, you've found it. They said to me, Here's the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty. That order ! They said tyo me, Come now, you're not a brute beast, think upon these things and you'll see how all becomes clear. And simple.
And sometimes, he says, he goes over the same kind of outmoded processes of thought himself :
he says, he goes over the same kind of outmoded processes of thought himself
: "I say to myself -- sometimes, Clov, you must learn to suffer better
than that if you want them to weary of punishing you -- one day." But now
that is behind him : "Then one day suddenly, it ends, it changes, I don't
understand, it dies, or it's me, I don't understand that either" (p. 81).
There are no concepts for what he now is facing, and he can no longer hide behind
them : "I ask the words that remain -- sleeping, waking, morning, evening.
They have nothing to say." Finding "them" silent -- collective
patterns of thought, the authority of Hamm, all of those other than himself
upon whom he has previously unloaded the burden of responsibility for his life
and acts -- he is forced finally to turn to the obscure forces within his self
which are leading him out of Hamm's house to face what lies beyond : "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 earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit."
Although there is a new sense of self-reliance evident in this speech, from Clov's point of view it is hardly a cause for rejoicing. It is not easy to be one's own man in a universe like this one, so completely devoid of the signposts that once made it seem familiar, even if they misled. If Clov really does have the courage to set forth, it is clear neither to him nor to the audience what he will face outside--life, death, or ultimate meaninglessness. Nor is Clov at all optimistic. Although now he says it is easy to go, he also says, "When I rfall I'll weep for hapiness."
Will he go? The ending is uncertain. Although his new sense of independence enables him to disobey Hamm for the first time-- he does not cover Hamm with the sheet when ordered to -- and although he changes to traveling clothes, we do not actually see him leave. The stage directions say that "he halts by the door and stands there, impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on Hamm, till the end" (p. 82).
What, then, can we say with certainty about this ending? In Beckett's plays the details of conventional plot are less important than the essential situation, and in this case the essential situation is quite clear, whatever the denouement. We cannot tell whether Clov will actually leave or not, but what is certain is that he is confronted with the challenge of leaving. The boy who has now appeared in the wilderness, like the boy in Hamm's Christmas Eve story, represents the possibility that life may be renewable, and the new forces stirring within Clov are impelling him toward the exploration of this possibility. Hamm is blind and immobile and has already made his own decision against life ; when the boy is sighted Hamm says he is not even worth the bother of killing, though he had previously insisted on Clov's exterminating anything that might serve as a potential progenitor of the human race. "If he exists he'll die there or he'll come here," says Hamm, who now no longer believes that life is even possible : if the boy exists he will die one way or the other, either a physical death in the wilderness or a moral death in Hamm's house. But Clov still has the power to walk out into the world and possibly make a new life of his own. Until now he has lived in Hamm's orbit, seeing the world through Hamm's eyes, which can only see ashes, but if he breaks out of the orbit, as he now seems about to do, his own vision might become an entirely different one. To a person imprisoned within the framework of the "old questions, the old answers" there is no hope for renewal in a world the old patterns of thought cannot fit. Clov, however, is confronted with the challenge of learning to walk out into an absurd universe, to face it, and to live in it. Whether this will work out or not Clov does not know, nor do we.
1Collin Duckworth, in "The Making of Godot," Casebook, ed. Cohn, p.89, reports that Godot was written between October 9, 1948, and January 29,
1949, as an interlude during the writing of Malone meurt.
2See Webb, Beckett : Novels, pp. 111-13, 125, 128-29, 150.
3Letter of June 21, 1956, in The Village Voice Reader, ed. Daniel Wolf and Edwin
4Eva Metman, "Reflections on Samuel Beckett's Plays," in Samuel Beckett, ed. Esslin, p. 120.
5See Beckett, Proust, pp. 17-21, for a discussion of Proust's idea of involuntary memory.
6According to the Commentaria of Simplicius. See Wheelwright, ed. The Presocratics, pp. 111-12.
7Unnamable, p. 143.
8It is possible that "Mother Pegg" may be an allusion on the part of the author to something in his won life. Peggy Guggenheim, in her memoirs, tells of how she tried, and failed, to draw Beckett into an emotional relationship with her. See Marguerite Guggenheim, Out of This Century (new York : Dial Press, 1946), pp. 194ff.
9The translation of certain phrases in the French origjnal as Shakespearean tags emphasizes Hamm's tendency to play the actor. "Mon royaume pour un bouex" (French, p. 38), for example, becomes "my kingdom for a nightman" (English, p. 23) ; "nightman" as a play on the horse-like figure that represents the knight in chess makes this a pun on "my kingdom for a horse," the words of another ruined monarch in King Richard III. "Finie la rigolade" in the French text (p. 78) becomes Prospero's "my revels now are ended" (English, p. 56) from The Tempest.
9In the French original (pp. 103-5) the episode of the discovery of the boy is much more elaborate, with definite religious overtomes alluding to both Christian and oriental traditions. When Hamm hears about the boy he says, "La pierre levee" ("the lifted stone"), and when he surmises, "Il regarde la maison sans doute, avec les yeux de Moise mourant" ("No doubt he is looking at the house with the eyes of the dying Moses"), Clov answers that he is contemplating his navel. When translating the play Beckett must have decided that these allusions were too specific and distracting. Cf. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (New York : Doubleday, 1961), p. 35-37.