Samuel Beckett's 'Endgame': Comedy or Tragedy

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In ‘Endgame’, Samuel Beckett explores the dark absurdity of the human condition through the undynamic, loveless relationships between each of the four characters, primarily Clov and Hamm. Tension is maintained throughout the play through the constant suggestion that Clov will abandon Hamm, however the fact that this never happens highlights the repetitive nature of their apocalyptic world, and their painful unwillingness to face its bleakness alone. Beckett drew inspiration from the Greek philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus, the former who believed that the meaninglessness of life was comical, whereas Heraclitus found the ephemerality of the world extremely sad. These contrasting philosophies form the basis for the tragicomic nature of Beckett’s play, as summarised by Nell, the only character who appears to recognise the absurdity of their situation, in the words “nothing is funnier than unhappiness”.

Beckett alludes to Genesis and the Bible throughout the play, referring to God’s creation of the world as a parallel to his characters’ desire to end it. Hamm, placed in the centre of the room, is a God-like figure, and his obsession with ‘finishing’ shows his desire to die and be at peace. He repeatedly insists on Clov looking out of both windows for him, one of which shows the sea and the other the earth. This is reminiscent of Genesis 1:9, where land and water are created by God: “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so”. This way of mirroring God’s first actions is appears almost as an attempt to reverse them, to bring the universe back to a state of un-creation. Furthermore, Hamm comes up with an idea to make a “raft”, for him and Clov to sail away and find “other mammals”- this echoes the tale of Noah’s ark in Genesis 6-8, with a dark twist- Beckett has made it clear that Clov, Hamm and his parents appear to be the only ‘mammals’ left in the world, putting another absurd spin on the creation story. Finally, the final scene of the play sees elements mirrored from the very start of Genesis: Hamm flings his various possessions away from him in the belief that Clov has left him, exclaiming “good!” each time he does so. This is vividly reminiscent of the beginning of the creation in Genesis, where the words “God saw that it was good” are used each time something new is created. Thus, we see Hamm’s desperate attempts to reverse God’s creation of the world in the face of Beckett’s apocalypse, and the futility of his efforts contribute to the tragicomic nature of the play.

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Beckett pushes this imagery further through the prevailing theme of beginnings and endings, and their cyclical nature. The word “finished” is repeated many times throughout the play, first in Clov’s opening speech: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.”, and then in Hamm’s repeated exclamations that he wants to be “finished”, despite his and Clov’s hesitations. The characters are frozen in static routines which are unchanging from the play’s start to its finish- despite Clov’s frequent threats to “leave” and abandon Hamm and his parents, he cannot even manage to leave the room for long. Hamm is obsessed with returning to the centre of the room after each “little turn” when Clov wheels him around the room, a mindless necessity to provide some sort of comfort against the meaninglessness of their existence as they wait for the end. However, the meaninglessness of their lives does appear to provide some comical comfort against the pain of their own existence: Clov’s dark amusement at Hamm’s sudden query “We’re not beginning to… to… mean something!”. Thus Beckett provides a darkly humorous tone, the irony of Hamm and Clov’s exchanges becoming more and more evident. All of this is reinforced by the prevalent motif of chess constructed by Beckett, a chess player himself, throughout the play. Hamm, with his limited mobility and central position, represents the king, and Clov a knight, due to his repetitive and disjointed movements caused by his lameness. Thus, Hamm and Clov are stuck in the perpetual “endgame” of their lives, neither being willing to surrender, yet neither able to end the other’s life; and thus the game. This contributes to the more comedic nature of the play, as audiences will enjoy unravelling Beckett’s complex imagery.

Beckett uses the Heroclitan pessimism of the play to explore the darkness of the human condition and the idea that one’s time on Earth is to be endured rather than enjoyed. Each of the characters participates in meaningless talk and actions, such as Nagg’s insistence to tell once again his story about the tailor, and virtually all that Hamm says and does throughout the play. This emphasises the absurd futility of their continued existence, and the seeming impossibility of death. The one exception is Nell, who appears to recognise the meaninglessness of their lives: “Why this farce, day after day?- and is thus apparently rewarded by her death, which notably alarms nobody. This idea of a circular existence is exemplified by many of the dramatic techniques used throughout the play - Hamm’s irrational desire to be returned to the exact centre of the room after each chair-ride, and his compulsion to feel the walls around him, the only thing separating them from the “other hell… beyond”- here Beckett alludes to the infamous circles of hell of Dante’s Inferno. Hamm and Clov’s conflicted desire for death is reflected in Dante’s words “They yearn for what they fear for”, as each repeatedly asserts this desire despite assurances that they cannot- for example, Hamm asks Clov to “finish” them both; Clov replies “I couldn’t finish you”, and Hamm finalises “then you shan’t finish me”. This ironically pointless exchange highlights the seeming endless “farce” of their daily routine, the stagnant stasis in which they circle boundlessly as they await an end to their suffering.

As one of the key leaders of the Absurdist French theatrical movement, Beckett borrows existentialism philosophy in his exploration of the human condition. The meaningless, disjointed and cyclical dialogue throughout the play reflects this idea that human existence is inherently senseless and absurd, as does the undeveloped plot and improbable situation of each of the characters. Nagg and Nell especially reflect this, as due to their lack of legs they are kept by their own son in literal dustbins, unable to even kiss each other. This idea is so absurd that it brings genuine humour to the play, as Beckett explains through Nell that audiences will enjoy the unhappiness of their situation. Beckett underlines this idea further through Nagg’s story following Nell’s statement that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness”, as he insists on telling it despite her pleas that “we have heard it too often” and “it’s not funny”. Nagg believes his joke is so funny it once had Nell in “fits”, however his “high, forced laugh” at the end of the poorly told story reinforces Nell’s conclusion, as he is really only laughing at his own incompetence and bleak situation. Furthermore, Beckett creates sympathetic irony through the use of self conscious form, a typical feature of Absurdist theatre. Whilst looking through the windows with his telescope, Clov frequently reverses it onto the audience, creating a parallel between the characters trapped in the room of their interminable existence and the audience’s attempt to escape their own troubles through the distraction of theatre. As explored by Chevigny in his paper of essential interpretations of Endgame, Beckett maintains an “unrelenting vigilance over illusion”, with his use of “self conscious performance” undermining any realistic aspects of the play, laying more and more absurd situations over one another.

A prevalent theme throughout the play is that of isolation and suffering, highlighted through the relationships between each of the four characters, and reinforcing arguments that Endgame belongs in the tragic genre. Clov and Hamm, a submissive-dominant pair typical of Beckett’s writings, are both consumed with the idea of being without the other, yet neither can bear to lose the other. Hamm repeatedly tells Clov to leave him alone - “why do you stay with me?” - to which Clov replies, “why do you keep me?”, and they both agree they each have no one else. This codependency reflects humanist theories that any other human presence, however trying, is preferable to complete isolation. Moreover, Hamm frequently calls on his father, waking him for no apparent reason but to help assuage his loneliness- he even bribes him with “sugar-plums” to force him to keep him company. Nagg resents this, and claims that had he known Hamm would be his son, he would never have allowed him to be born - “I didn’t know… that it’d be you”. Nagg also recalls the times when Hamm was a child and would cry out for his father, and compares this to Hamm’s unnecessary need to have him “listen to his story whilst he was asleep. He tells him that one day he’ll truly need him again, like a child, and relishes in the thought of Hamm being truly alone and afraid- despite the horrors of his morbid existence in Beckett’s post-apocalyptic world, Nagg’s greatest worry is his isolation and irrelevance.

On the other hand, as Clov is the one character who can actually walk and therefore leave, his suffering is arguably self-induced. He constantly says things like 'If I could kill him I’d die happy”, yet is never able to even leave the room for long, let alone actually leave the house. Thus, Beckett again argues that isolation is the worst form of human suffering, and that the human condition makes us unable to isolate ourselves, even when death is the entirely preferable alternative.

Overall, whilst clearly comprising elements of both genres, Beckett’s play ultimately will fall under the genre of comedy, as despite the overwhelmingly tragic aspects of both the setting and the situation of the characters’ existences, the audience will continue to be amused by Beckett’s perpetually ironic and self-conscious dialogue. As stated by Hamm, the only thing keeping them all there is indeed “the dialogue” - not only does this represent their desperate need for human interaction, but also the fact that they are characters in a play for which dialogue is needed. Thus, through his use of sympathetic irony and minimalist Absurdist theatrical devices, Beckett creates a comedy out of the tragically pathetic and unhappy characters, and the dark inevitability of the human condition.

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