As I studied Beckett, I was performing in and promoting the Concordia Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The concepts of Brechtian theatre and the themes of Endgame fell right into place with one another, and my comparative analysis took root.
Irish playwright Samuel Beckett is often classified amongst Absurdist Theatre contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco (Brockett 392-395). However, Endgame, Beckett’s second play, relates more closely to the theatrical ideology of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, father of epic theatre and the alienation effect. Through the use of formal stage conventions, theatrical terminology, and allusions to Shakespearean texts within Endgame, Beckett employs Brecht’s alienation concept, distancing the audience empathetically from players of the game and instead focusing attention upon the game itself.
Bertolt Brecht, whose final work, Galileo, was last revised three years before Beckett published Endgame, was personally and professionally influenced by Marxist theory and the political events which plagued the middle of this century. According to drama anthologist Oscar G. Brockett, Brecht asserted that theatre must do more than simply entertain the passive spectator; theatre must recognize and incite change. Brecht suggested a system of "productive participation, in which the spectator actively judges and applies what he sees on stage to conditions outside the theatre" (365-366). Brecht’s alienation effect was a direct means of evoking this participation—the audience is emotionally distanced from characters to allow objective observation. "The audience should never be allowed to confuse what it sees on the stage with reality. Rather the play must always be thought of as a comment upon life— something to be watched and judged critically" (Brockett 366).
Samuel Beckett distances the audience from his comment on life through constant reminders that his staged play is merely a staged play. Through the dialogue of Hamm, Beckett directly implores the audience to be objective onlookers to the absurd tale of Endgame. Hamm ponders: "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?" The stage directions prescribe he continue in the "voice of rational being." "Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they’re at" (Beckett 33). The audience is called to step away from the stage, to recognize the emotion-blocking proscenium between themselves and the text’s four characters. The audience must realize that it is from another time and place—reality. The reality proscenium is enforced through theatrical references and techniques throughout the play.
For example, despite the minimalist set used in Endgame, Beckett employs the formal convention of a rising curtain during Clov’s opening dramatic action. The text indicates that the initial movement involve the set’s two windows. By purposefully acknowledging their existence, Clov unveils to the audience the characters’ limited eyes to the outside world. Clov then continues to raise the curtain on each of the characters. He removes the sheets from each bin and examines its contents. Finally, Clov pulls the sheets from atop Hamm, leaving only the handkerchief upon his face (Beckett 1). Through one paragraph of stage directions, the stage has amply been set before the audience’s rationally onlooking eyes.
Though not segmentally indicated in the text, the first two monologues, shared between Clov and Hamm, serve the formal function of prologue to Endgame. After undressing the stage, Clov "turns towards auditorium" to address the onlookers. "Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished" he promises them. Clov then begins to explain his situational context to the audience of outsiders. Hamm interrupts Clov’s storytelling with his exclamation, "Me—(he yawns)—to play" and continues the prologue by himself (Beckett 1-2). Beckett’s indirect use of a prologue reflects a theatrical introduction convention which began in early Greek drama. The prologue sets the story within the story—the play within the play. The prologue presents the audience with a situation to be critically observed, as exemplified in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s political commentary, The Life of King Henry the Fifth ; the chorus speaks:
Admit me Chorus to this history,
Who, Prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. (Prologue.32-34)
To judge Endgame, the audience must be aware of it’s central dilemma, which Hamm addresses at the close of the prologue: "it’s time it ended . . . and yet I hesitate to—(he yawns)—to end" (Beckett 3). With the question—to end or not to end?—in mind, the play’s premise has been highlighted for the rational audience.
With the stage and scenario set for the audience, it is time for what literary critic Ruby Cohn coins the "ham-actor" (48)—a slight pun directed at the naming of Hamm, the character—to take stage. Within the theatre world, the phrase "hamming it up" is informally defined as purposely calling attention to oneself during performance. Hamming may include physical exaggeration, begging the moment for laughter or emotional response—usually through melodramatic line interpretation or pause, and body placement in the focal area of the acting plane. The placement of one’s body in a focal area is best represented in Endgame by Hamm’s constant insistence that he be placed directly in the center of the room (Beckett 27): accepted stage blocking principles assert that center stage is the strongest placement for stage picturization (Black 113). From center stage, Hamm delivers several lengthy, "hammed up" monologues, including his superfluous narration of the beggar man and his infant son (50). Nagg likewise shares his repeated chronicle—the tale of the prolonged trousers (22). Both father and son enact their stories in grand theatrical style, using narrative voices and dramatic pauses. These "hammy" stories within the story, like the prologue, remind the rational onlookers that they are viewing a similar performance, filled with its own narration and dramatic pause.
In addition to his chronicle monologues and prologue speech, Hamm frequently makes tongue-in-cheek references to the ongoing production of Endgame. Hamm’s initial prologue proclamation, "Me to . . . play" (Beckett 2) is repeated later in the text (68). During an early exchange with Clov, Hamm critiques, "This is slow work" (12), which may be applied as a commentary on the repetitious dialogue employed in Endgame. Much later in the text, Hamm reflects, "The end is in the beginning and yet you go on" (69). Whether the "you" Hamm is addressing is himself, Clov, human existence, or Beckett’s creation remains to be determined. Regardless, the end was proposed at the start of the play, and yet the end has not come to its end. The dialogue between Clov and Hamm nevertheless proceeds. The play continues to play. The rational observers continue to observe.
The audience can observe several references to theatric genres within Endgame. In response to Nagg’s futile effort to reach Nell for a blissful kiss, Nell replies, "Why this farce, day after day?" (Beckett 14). Farce, a term explained by Oscar G. Brockett as "a kind of inspired nonsense with situations so obviously contrived that a sensible word from any character would resolve the action at once" (54), can be applied to the situational genre in which Endgame exists. Farce is classified as a form of comedy—based upon "some deviation from normality in action, character, thought, or speech" (Brockett 53). Later in the dialogue, while Hamm discusses his chronicle, he admits, "The whole thing is comical, I grant you that" and invites Clov to join him in a "good guffaw" (Beckett 60). Through this indirect address to the audience, Hamm suggests that they, as well as Clov, appreciate the absurd humor of the unfolding tale. A welcomed guffaw from the objective onlookers is requested; the audience is reminded that they are viewing a contrived scenario.
In addition to belonging to the farcical genre of theatre, several dialogue passages in Endgame can be classified amongst the high-jinx humor of a two-man comedy routine. As literary critic Antony Easthope suggests, the wordplay in Endgame is "in accordance with the conventions governing conversation as stage dialogue, particularly a kind of two person dialogue not unlike that of the old music-hall tradition of the comic and the straight-man" (67). For example, the first verbal interaction between Nagg and Nell resembles the simplistic humor of Abbott and Costello’s "Who’s on First?" routine.
Nagg: Can you hear me?
Nell: Yes. And you?
Nagg: Yes. (Pause) Our hearing hasn’t failed.
Nell: Our what?
Nagg: Our hearing.
Nell: No. (Beckett 15-16)
The familiarity of this mainstream comedy serves to remind the amused onlookers that they are observing a presentational theatrical performance, not the reality of their own world.
In addition to genre categories and familiar performance routines, Endgame contains numerous theatrical terms within the characters’ dialogue. For example, when Nagg asks if he’ll be given a sugar-plum, Hamm replies, "After the audition." Hamm soon silences Nagg and continues to audition his chronicle through a lengthy monologue (Beckett 49-54). Several pages later, upon one of Clov’s abundant threats to depart, Hamm orders him to stay. When Clov questions, "What is there to keep me here?" Hamm answers, "The dialogue. (Pause) I’ve got on with my story" (58). Much later, after Hamm has once again been distracted from completing his chronicle, he and Clov contemplate the coming of the end. Hamm asks, "Did anyone ever have pity on me?" When Clov inquires who Hamm is addressing, Hamm angrily responds, "an aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before? (Pause) I’m warming up for my last soliloquy" (77-78), which is postponed by the discovery of the child. With the arrival of this unseen character so late in the play, Hamm assures the audience that the new turn of events is "not a subplot, I trust" (78). The plot turns once more as Clov prepares for his final departure. As he has set the farewell alarm clock and donned his traveling clothes, Clov halts on his way to the door to explain, "This is what we call making an exit" (81). The preempted exit line, warning the audience that the play’s end is finally within sight, reminds the onlookers that the curtain between the absurd story of Endgame and the reality of the outside world is about to be drawn. Rational observation must soon result in practical application.
In addition to technical dramatic references made throughout the text, Beckett furthers the theatric emphasis by employing several Shakespearean allusions in Endgame. Antony Easthope compares Hamm to King Lear; both, when stripped of their values—their worlds, turn to a hatred of "life" (65). King Lear, a stray from Shakespeare’s optimistic, Christianity-based plays, is considered by many critics to be pagan and pessimistic (Lell). Endgame, though laced with religious symbolism, may be considered the same. Easthope cites another Shakespearean reference, Hamm’s proclamation, "My kingdom for a nightman!" (Beckett 23), which is derived from the king’s last line, "My kingdom for a horse!" in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (5.4.13). Additionally, Ruby Cohn notes an allusion made to a less dismal Shakespearean play, The Tempest. Beckett’s original French text, "finie la rigolade" translates roughly into English as Prospero’s Act IV line, "Our revels now are ended" (qt. in Cohn 48). These allusions, by reminding the audience of others plays they have objectively observed, reminds them that they are currently in the process of objective observation.
The strongest Shakespearean connection to Endgame
can be observed through the comparison of Hamm and Hamlet. In addition
to the derivation of the name, Hamm’s presentation of the question—to end
or not to end?—mirrors Hamlet’s to be or not to be soliloquy (3.1.57-91).
Shall I continue leading a life devoid of meaning, or do I take action,
end the ludicrous game, face what unknown sentence eternity holds as a
result? (Lell)—the issue is pondered by both. Additionally, hidden within
Hamm’s dialogue are Hamlet’s dying words, "the rest is silence" (5.2.362).
Early in Endgame, Hamm states, "Nothing stirs. All is—"
(Beckett 29). Later Clov suggests a dream existence, "A world where all would be silent" (57). Then, as Hamm presupposes the final end, he predicts being "alone against the silence" (69). The moment of silence arrives at the end of Endgame. Hamm diminishes, "speak no more . . . You . . . remain." A pause of silence follows. The curtain closes (84). The audience is left alone with its silent thoughts.
Thoughts formed as the audience leaves the performance result from Samuel Beckett’s intentional use of the Brechtian alienation theory. Beckett uses Shakespearean allusions, theatric references, and formal stage conventions to constantly remind the audience that the play is a fictitious performance within the boundaries of a stage. The text’s connection to the outside world relies upon the audience. The play continues to speak through the application of everyday life. Endgame may have ended, but to the audience, its voice is all but silent.
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Cohn, Ruby. "Endgame." Chevigny 40-52.
Easthope, Antony. "Hamm, Clov, and Dramatic Method in Endgame." Chivgny 61-70.
Lell, Gordon. "Discussion of Value in Shakespeare’s Hamlet"
English 401X Lecture. Concordia College. 8 April
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