Absurdism, Books

On Samuel Beckett

Hamm: The whole thing is comical, I grant you that.

Beckett’s play Endgame (1957) has no story, no plot development, is set in an depleted world of four characters confined to a room with two small windows out of which, because they are too high, it is impossible to see. Hamm is blind, paralytic, cannot stand and in constant physical pain. Nagg and Nell have no legs and are confined to dustbins; they indicate a desire to kiss and touch each other (they are married) but their bins are too far apart for that. Clov can walk and so is keeping the others alive but he is unable to sit down. Even the toy dog lacks a leg. The only dramatic tension comes from Hamm’s insistence that Clov leave him alone while making his exit impossible, and Clov’s repeated failed attempts to leave Hamm. Hamm provides Clov’s food and shelter and Clov stands in for Hamm’s legs and eyesight, but each is antagonistic. They are locked together by an adversarial dependence.

Hamm: Why do you stay with me?
Clov: Why do you keep me?
Hamm: There’s no one else
Clov: There’s nowhere else

Hamm: Gone from me you’d be dead.
Clov: And vice versa.

Hamm: I’ll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You’ll be hungry all the time.
Clov: Then we shan’t die.

Hamm: Why don’t you kill me?
Clov: I don’t know the combination to the larder

Hamm: I’ll tell you the combination of the larder if you promise to finish me.

The play opens with the word ‘finished’ and then repetitively twists its way cyclically to its non conclusion. In an atmosphere of entropy Beckett under-delivers with a play of inaction in which nothing happens, once. Bicycle wheels, sugar plums, rats, fleas, rugs, Turkish Delight, coffins, sawdust, painkillers, the tide and food are all declared to be running low: there is scarcity in this depleted universe. When Nell dies she is simply left in her bin; even the rat in the kitchen is dying. Demise is imminent.

Hamm: And Nagg…what’s he doing?
[Clov raises lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, looks into it. Pause]
Clov: He’s crying
Hamm: Then he’s living.

Hamm: Is he still crying?
Clov: No
Hamm: The dead go fast [Pause] What’s he doing?
Clov: Sucking his biscuit.
Hamm: Life goes on.

Clov: Why this farce day after day?

Hamm: Clov!
Clov: Yes.
Hamm: Nature has forgotten us.
Clov: There’s no more nature.
Hamm: There’s no more nature? You exaggerate.
Clov: In the vicinity.
Hamm: But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!
Clov: Then she hasn’t forgotten us.

Endgame (def.): the stage of a chess game after major reduction of forces, the players strain through the final moves when there are very few pieces left on a board.

The only thing of plenty in the universe of Endgame is language, the characters speak and speak and speak. They tell stories, they deliver jokes, they ask endless questions, they declaim soliloquies, they answer rhetorical questions but not real ones, they bandy about non-sequiturs, they recycle stories. Language is the one commodity that is in inexhaustible supply. Language is always incomplete. There is a tension in the play between desire for the end and desire to postpone the end by talking.

Clov: You’ve asked me these questions a million times.
Hamm: I love the old questions. Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!

Hamm: Before you go say something.
Clov: There is nothing to say.

Hamm: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!
Clov: That means the 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.

Clov: What is there to keep me here?
Hamm: The dialogue.

Language may be abundant but meaning is absent. This is a play with no psychology, no morality, no chronology, no motivation, no causation, no geographical bearings, no temporal orientation, no back story, no dramatic action, no narrative drive. For Beckett it was important that the words afforded no abstract verities, no universal lesson, no meaning, no philosophical truth, no attributable thesis. He wrote in an essay that he was drawn to statements “before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect”. This play’s ending has no catharsis no redemption no dramatic resolution no forgiveness no reconciliation no promise. Beckett by deploying precision, spareness and pedantry, combined with a refusal to provide meaning, made utter futility appear formally coherent. Meaning has long since expired while language remains inexhaustible.

Hamm: We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?
Clov: Mean something? You and I mean something? Ah, that’s a good one.
Hamm: I wonder. Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough? [Voice of rational being] Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes now I understand what they’re at! And without going so far as that, we ourselves…we ourselves…at certain moments. To think perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing?
Clov: I have a flea.

Many people find it not credible that a writer could set out to not mean anything. The more Beckett denied meaning the more he seemed to stimulate a frenzied pursuit of it. Language is always open to interpretation as the written word implies hidden messages, codes, symbols and secrets. When a text turns on an absence of meaning it stimulates the urge of critics to foist themselves upon it. The tantalisingly blank suggestion of non meaning is an affront to critics’s erudition of conjecture. Where there is absence humans discover inherent meaning, once they have ascribed it. The instinct for interpretation is stimulated by the ineffable and few modern writers have provoked a larger volume of critical comment and exegesis than Beckett.

Here are some diverse interpretations of Endgame that have proliferated as the critics strive in vain to comprehend incomprehensibility:

  • In this Cartesian body-mind dualism Hamm is mind and Clov body. Nagg’s reference to his lost bicycle (that caused him and Nell to loose their legs) is a reference to Descartes’ perfect corporeal mechanism and the mind-body relationship. But the bicycle is long gone, like the Cartesian Cogito.
  • The disorder and disconsolation comes from Beckett’s experience as a volunteer ambulance driver for the red cross in a ravaged 1945 Normandy landscape and/or the death and suffering of his brother Frank from lung cancer at the time he was writing the play.
  • This is the inside of a writer’s mind. Hamm is the writer, Clov a character and Nagg and Nell discarded characters in the waste bin.
  • Taking a cue from the narrator in Beckett’s short story The Calamative who says ‘we are needless to say in a skull’, the Endgame stage is the inside of a skull (the high windows are the eye sockets).
  • Hamm and Clov’s terse and tense co-dependency comes from Beckett’s strained marital relationship with his wife in the mid 1950s.
  • In Beckett’s first novel Murphy there is a game of chess between a psychotic and neurotic. In Endgame Hamm is the king on the board and Clov mimics the movements of a knight. Nagg and Nell are captured pawns. The king is the most important and powerful but at the same time the least dynamic and most vulnerable piece on the board. ‘Hamm: Me to play’. The limited moves are merely a cyclical stasis of repetition.
  • The bins that contain Nagg and Nell symbolise the death of consciousness.
  • Hamm is a short form of the word hammer. Clov is the same as clou (u and v being interchangeable) the French for nail. Nell is an abbreviation for the Italian nello and Nagg the first syllable of the German nagel. These nails and hammer refer to the crucifixion itself. The frequent references to Christianity indicates that these character are in purgatory sinking low enough for sin to be wiped out before entry into paradise.
  • This is the barren world of a post-nuclear apocalypse or the desiccated moral world after the devastation of the Holocaust.
  • These are characters sheltering in a beached Noah’s ark after the flood has recently subsided (Hamm is the name of one of Noah’s sons).

Beckett famously refused to comment on or explain his work and claimed not to be able to offer privileged insight. This was not obstinance or coyness on his part but a denial that commentary or explanation was pertinent. Beckett was not there to facilitate understanding but to thwart it. It is said that Beckett’s favourite word was ‘perhaps’. Theodore Adorno, in a celebrated essay, wrote that ‘To understand Endgame can only mean understanding why it cannot be understood’.

Clov: Don’t we laugh?
Hamm: [After reflection] I don’t
Clov: [After reflection] Nor do I

Hamm: Don’t we laugh?
Clov: I don’t feel like it.
Hamm: Nor do I

Beckett offered a syntax that wards off narrative and creates the sterile linguistic conditions in which only comedy can thrive. Beckett’s denial of causation places him into the realm of comedy, an effortlessly spare pungent style discarding the vanities and values of the world. His sparse language maintains a comic distance that explores the tension between the human need for meaning and the sense of its elusiveness. Laughter is another thing running in short supply in Endgame. Nell explains how laughter can become a diminishing return.

Nell: Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. But –
Nagg: Oh
Nell: 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.

Hamm says that anyway he prefers weeping to laughing. For him laughter is something to be avoided. ‘You weep, and weep, for nothing, so as not to laugh, and little by little…you begin to grieve.’ Here is a version of (what he declares is) his comic story:

It was an extraordinary bitter day, I remember, zero by the thermometer. It was a glorious bright day, I remember, fifty by the heliometer. It was an exceedingly dry day, I remember, zero by the hygrometer. It was Christmas Eve and I was preparing for the festivities by putting up holly. A man came crawling towards me, pale, wonderfully pale and thin, on his belly. I filled my pipe and drew a few puffs and said “What ill wind blows you my way.” He raised his face to me mingled with dirt and tears. He said it had taken him three days to reach me and he wanted bread, and perhaps a little corn, to take back to his son who he’d left alone deep in sleep. I said he could have corn to make some porridge for his son but “you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that…do you expect the earth to awake in spring, that the rivers and seas will run with fish again… that there’s manna in heaven for imbeciles like you?” I finally offered to take him into my service as a gardener and he knelt and pleaded with me to take his son as well….

Hamm: The whole thing is comical, I grant you that. What about having a good guffaw the two of us together?
Clov: [After reflection] I couldn’t guffaw again today.
Hamm: [After reflection] Nor could I.

Nagg tells a more obviously recognisably comic story:

Nagg: Will I tell you the story of the tailor?
Nell: No [Pause] What for?
Nagg: To cheer you up.
Nell: It’s not funny.
Nagg: It always made you laugh. [Pause] The first time I thought you’d die.

An English Gentleman ordered a pair of striped trousers from a tailor who told him to collect them in four days. Four days later the tailor said “Come back in week, I’ve made a mess of the seat”. A week later he said “Come back in a ten days, I’ve made a hash of the crutch”. Ten days later he said “Come back in a fortnight, I’ve made a balls of the fly”.
“God damn it all, Sir” said the Englishman “No, it’s indecent, there are limits. In six days God made the world. Yes, Sir, the WORLD. And you can’t make a decent pair of trousers in three months?”
“But” replied the tailor “But my dear Sir, look at the world and look at my trousers.”

At the conclusion of this story Nell breaks into a high forced laugh then dies. Beckett plays with the phrase I laughed so much I thought I’d die and makes it literal. Hamm’s comedy then is not comic and Nagg’s comic comedy kills. You takes your choice.

Nagg: Do you remember –
Nell: No
Nagg: When we crashed on our tandem and lost our shanks? [They laugh heartily]
Nell: It was in the Ardennes [They laugh less heartily]
Nagg: On the road to Sedan [They laugh less heartily] Are you cold?
Nell: Yes perished. And you?
Nagg: Freezing.

In this cosmos the laughter is bracing. Beckett reduces the distance between laughter and death and laughter and suffering to touching point. Does his grim laughter insist that the incongruities of life must be faced full on and acknowledged comically? Is the provisionality of his writing ironically aware that things might just as well never have existed, or at least been very different? Is his a form of comedy that strives for a stoic heroism in the face of the firing squad? Beckett seems to be playful in a deeply serious way.

Beckett denied theatre directors and designers the freedom to bend and innovate as they saw fit. He said in 1984 ‘Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me.’ Stage directions in all his plays were marked by meticulous exactitude to which it was necessary to strictly adhere. This refusal has been continued by the literary executors of his estate. Deborah Warner, for example, was banned in 1994 by the Beckett estate from directing another Beckett play after her production of Footfalls allowed Fiona Shaw to roam around the stage contravening the stage directions that stipulated the actor should only move a certain number of paces from a fixed spot. The estate lifted the ban twenty years later for Warner’s obedient production of Happy Days, but it refused her application to direct Waiting for Godot with two female actors. Directors and designers of plays like to adapt plays to provide cultural bearings, bring a piece up to date, find modern resonance etc. This would be a thwarting of Beckett’s thwarting of understanding. His edict continues from beyond the grave.

This is a play that puts the idea of meaning under siege. To live with the world as comedy is to know that no matter how deeply it is probed there will be found only enigmas and Beckett refuses to use a language that deploys self-deceiving stratagems. He is the poet of discomfort who wrenches chaos from order and loves it. Beckett’s art is an obsession with positive nothingness. All his suggestive, elliptical language cries out for a philosophical interpretation but one that is doomed to fail. He deploys a comic syntax of discontinuity and destabilising shifts that highlight the unbridgeable gap between what we demand of the world and what we know to be true. All his comedy offers is a lofty disdain for the ethos of certainty and a courageous reflection on the nature of human existence. There is a deep seriousness underlying Beckett’s laconic exactitude of verbal play.

Nell: Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.


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