News & Articles

Letter From Artistic Director on Endgame

by Martha Lavey

As we began reading plays for our 2009-2010 season exploring the idea of belief, several of the ensemble members participating in the process felt it was important to consider plays that spoke not just to faith and belief — but that challenged belief; plays that envisioned a world where the extant systems of belief had collapsed.We were particularly alert to those early- and mid-20th century plays that surveyed a world relativized by the science of evolution, by the psychological explorations of Sigmund Freud, by the horrors of world war. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the touchstones of religious belief felt less secure and alternative narratives were being proffered across the arts and sciences. Samuel Beckett’s work, emerging mid-century, has gained signature status as the record of this collective anxiety. Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, is commonly regarded as the emblematic expression of this godless world: an existential landscape in which the play’s “heroes” are figured as vaudevillian clowns, futilely anticipating their salvation. Endgame succeeds Godot in Beckett’s canon. It is, in the estimation of some, the greater play. Endgame is, in any case, a distillation of thought, a pressurized expression of the world of Godot. What happens in the play? Not much. And everything. Where in Godot, the setting of the play is a landscape, a plain, on which strangers meet, Endgame is a “bare interior,” a closed environment in which our characters, long known to each other, negotiate their relationships. The first word of the play? “Finished.” The play assays Beckett’s presiding theme: our confrontation with our mortality. From the opening moment of the play, Beckett is announcing that the game is over — over before it has begun. It is a world of limitations: a bare interior and four characters. Our protagonist, Hamm, is blind and cannot walk. His companion, Clov, cannot sit down. Their partnership — variously figured in the play as a servitude, a father/son relationship, a strange marriage — is, in any case, a symbiosis. A closed loop. Our two other characters, whom we learn are Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, spend the play in ashbins. Their appearance is summoned by Hamm’s commands which Clov executes. We are, in some sense, inside Hamm’s head, watching him play out his endgame. What is startling about this claustrophobic world, in Beckett’s rendering, is the eruption of the comic. Hamm’s first lines, “Me — to play” is a wonderfully layered expression of Beckett’s canny conflation of form and substance: we are watching a play about play. The central character’s name, “Hamm” alerts us to the fact that our guide into this world is an unreliable narrator of his own experience. (A “ham,” of course, is a label for an actor given to overstatement, unsubtle in his craft.) Watching a play within a play — this layering of acting and watching — invites a question: Who is watching us? Who is it that is seeing our lives as a play? The play in which we are acting — our lives — will end in our own deaths. That is our tragedy. In Endgame, Beckett suggests that what we, as Hamm, feel as tragic is also, always, comic, absurd play. We are always someone’s entertainment. Our urgencies are always within the context of an endgame: all human lives end the same way (we die) but we resist that surety, we play it out. Hamm’s first audience, his companion, his servant, Clov, dutifully plays his part in the game. The other two characters in the play, Nagg and Nell, are Hamm’s parents. It’s here that Hamm’s blindness is germane, summoning as it does, that great tragic character, Oedipus. If Hamm is in a play, Beckett suggests, by alluding to Oedipus, then it is a tragedy of his own making. Hamm struggles mightily (comically) in the kingdom of his own mind, blind to his own actions, but dedicated to constructing a narrative to make sense of life. Late in the play, Hamm says to himself, alone on the stage: Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that! (...) The end is in the beginning and yet you go on. (Pause) Perhaps I could go on with my story, end it and begin another. (...) It will be the end and there I’ll be, wondering what could have brought it on and wondering what can have... (he hesitates)...why it was so long in coming. A story that Hamm tells Clov earlier in the play becomes a meaningful inscription of his own condition: I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter — and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. 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! (Pause.) He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. (Pause.) He alone had been spared. (Pause.) Forgotten. (Pause.) It appears the case is...was not unusual. The great motif of the play is this layering of stories — stories narrated, stories acted out. Hamm can relate the story of this “madman” who misrecognizes the world and, by increments, has come to understand that “the case is...was not unusual.” The construction of the play as a series of stories and plays within their own stories and plays is Beckett’s genius: he uses the vocabulary of the theater to suggest our human condition. We are always an actor in/a teller of our own story, only partially able to see the whole picture. The marvel of Beckett’s work is that the profundity of his thought is matched by such a ridiculous sense of play. Scholars have written volumes about his plays, great theater artists have dedicated their lives to playing his texts. But the plays invite, as well, a naive approach. I love that one of the most famous productions of Waiting for Godot was performed by prisoners at San Quentin — men who came to the work understanding, quite simply, the reality of confinement, of a world without escape. The large, existential vision that Beckett was offering in his play was viscerally available to them as, one imagines, was the humor so intimately connected to that vision. Come, first, to Beckett’s play with the confidence that everything in the play is available to you. We know ourselves as storytellers, as a species given to play, as both actor and audience to our own lives. Endgame is a beautifully expressive vision of our endgame; a funny and sad and ultimately sympathetic view of our struggle with our own mortality.