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Samuel Beckett: From Start to Endgame

by Rebecca Stevens, Artistic Apprentice

Midway through Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Hamm laments,“Nature has forgotten us.” His servant Clov corrects him,“There is no more nature.” These men, seen only in the small room that shields them from the outside, live in a world where nothing stirs or breathes. Clov repeatedly searches the horizon with a telescope only to report, “…zero…zero…zero.” Beckett crafts this landscape through subtraction — of place, of objects, and even of language — until the world of the play is bare. Audiences and academics alike have sought to interpret this inhospitable and hopeless terrain, declaring it a post atomic wasteland or a manifestation of nihilism. However one chooses to decipher the sparse world in which these characters bicker and survive, the task of interpretation is a daunting one. How does one find meaning in a world characterized by nothingness? Beckett would disagree that searching for meaning is a necessary task for his plays (when asked, he once snapped, “It means what it says.”) Nonetheless, examining his life in the years leading up to Endgame allows one to glimpse how his experiences and influences may have shaped the landscape he created. Without World War II, the world might never have had the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett. His most famous works, Endgame and Waiting for Godot were first produced in 1957 and 1953 respectively, a decade after the fighting ended. Before the war, he lived in Paris, assisting fellow Irishman James Joyce on Finnegans Wake and dabbling in writing. As his biographer Deirdre Bair notes, “It is interesting to speculate what sort of writer Beckett might have become if it hadn’t been for the war; from his correspondence and conversation, it seems likely that he would have concentrated on criticism and reviewing as the most immediately remunerative and might have turned to poetry and fiction in his spare time.” But the war began, and as it approached Beckett’s doorstep in Paris, he chose to stay in France — first out of skepticism about the coming conflict and eventually because he could not leave. He finally fled Paris when the Nazis arrived, fearing the consequences of not having his citizenship and immigration papers in order. For nearly a month, he wandered by train and foot, evading checkpoints, sleeping on dirt floors and scavenging for food. He eventually returned to Paris, where he joined the fledgling (and highly disorganized) French Resistance. He translated intelligence, embedded microfilm with messages, and allowed his apartment to serve as a drop off location. After several terrifying brushes with discovery, betrayal arrived at his doorstep and he fled with his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil mere hours ahead of the Germans. From these incidents, one can grasp what Beckett might have meant when Hamm tells Clov not to leave the shelter of the room warning, “Outside of here it’s death,” and how a world turned upside down, scant for resources and filled with fear and uncertainty, feels and looks. Beckett escaped to Roussillon, a farm community in the mountainous regions of southeast France, relatively free of German occupation. There he waited for the war to end. At first, the countryside was a welcome haven after the terror of Paris, but eventually the open countryside became an unbearable prison for Beckett. He suffered deteriorating health and psychosomatic illnesses manifested in coughs, boils and hallucinations brought on by sleeplessness. Beckett’s physical ailments are interesting when compared with those of his characters. Clov, the servant in Endgame moves with a “stiff, staggering walk” and cannot sit. Beckett reportedly had foot problems that led to a lurching gait and a history of cysts in his anus. While Beckett’s characters did not always mirror his own health troubles so closely, a preoccupation with the body’s decay populates his work. This deep interest reflected not only his reoccurring struggles psychosomatic illness, but also his intimate experience with the chronic sickness of others. He worked in the Irish Red Cross directly after the war and served as his dying brother’s nursemaid when his sister-in-law could not bear the task. When Beckett finally returned, he discovered post-war Paris was not the city it once was. Its nightlife and economy remained in shambles, and its citizens were horrified and disoriented by the past six years of unthinkable war. Though the correlation between war time Europe and the bleak plays he wrote in its aftermath seems obvious, Beckett resisted such simple parallels. Beckett lived through the terror of being an alien in an occupied country, struggled against a dictator of unthinkable evil, and survived self imposed imprisonment in a sparse countryside. Yet, throughout this time he repeatedly risked his life by joining a resistance movement to help others. “I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends,” he explained on more than one occasion. The gulf between his experiences and his attitude reflect the duality so often found in his work and in Endgame in particular: the intrinsic belief that there is humanity worth fighting for grinding against a world so bleak that Clov believes, “it must be nearly finished.” Though the events of the war had an undeniable impact on him, he never acknowledged it. He was puzzled and frustrated by the wide disinterest in his novels and the frequent criticism that he should “stop trying to ‘disguise his wartime memoirs within the framework of fiction’ and write a ‘realistic account’ instead.” He did not believe he was creating a landscape that deliberately characterized the world during or after the war. Unable to sustain a career as a novelist, Beckett slipped into the de-habilitating depression and heavy drink that had characterized periods of his life before the war. Hoping to pull himself away from what he felt was a creative impasse, he began writing plays. “I turned to writing plays to relieve myself of the awful depression the prose led me into,” he explained. “Life at that time was too demanding, too terrible and I thought theatre would be a diversion.” As a self-identified novelist, Beckett found playwriting a delightful exercise, a game of pitting players and their actions against each other. He likened this deliberate plotting to chess, a favorite pastime whose scholars, in particular the artist and champion chess player Michael Duchamp, he deeply admired. Its importance is echoed in the title Endgame, the third and final stage of the game, in which players make their last moves toward an inevitable conclusion. In playwriting, Beckett found an audience engaged in his work that he never found in his novels. Part of Beckett’s significance as a playwright lies in landscape he created, in his pioneering of a form that had not yet emerged when he first began writing. He wrote recognizable, colloquial dialogue and situations that were impossibly stripped of context. The landscape of Beckett’s work and the characters he depicts within them don’t require an understanding of his personal attitudes and circumstances in order to engage them. Beckett strongly believed that Hamm and Clov “were not representative of a universal situation, but were two personalities operating within the framework of a specific, localized incident.” He did not seek to create characters who broadly represented any part of the history he had lived through or his own personal conflicts. They are distinct to the environment and relationships Beckett created. By understanding Beckett’s history, one has a greater sense of why he sought to portray such a barren landscape. And in delving into the reasons why, the story of the four people surviving in it becomes deeply moving.