1. What is Theater of the Absurd?
In traditional theater, the audience expects a progressive plot, realistic characters and dialogue leading to a resolution. Drama usually concerns a storyline and character development. “Endgame,” however, is not traditional drama. It is a type of avant-garde theater often classified as theater of the absurd. The play does not have a plot that leads to a conclusion. The action is circular and repetitious because the characters are not going anywhere in life. They are stuck in a meaningless round of activity that does not lead to closure or problem-solving. No absolute truth is revealed about their predicament, and no final interpretation is possible. The characters do not know why they are living their lives and try to discover a meaning or direction with little luck.
Earlier influences on absurdist theater were the experimental dramatists Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), and Guilliame Apollinaire (1880-1918), the post-World War I Dadaists or nonsensical anarchists, and the Surrealists of the 1920s who excelled at illogical non-sequitur. Avant-garde theater used techniques that Beckett uses such as the play within a play, improvised comedy with costumed chracters, and the theme of illusion versus reality. Theater of the Absurd was a term coined by critic Martin Esslin in 1960. Absurdist playwrights began to be popular in the 1960s and include Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, Fernando Arrabal, and Suzanne Carbone. Their work typically shows the futility of human existence and the breakdown of communication and meaning. The plays are tragic and pessimistic in outlook but comic in delivery, making the audience laugh at the absurdity of human life. While “Endgame” shows humans battling with the awareness of their own insignificance and immanent death, their dialogue and actions are funny. Mime, Commedia dell’arte, Vaudevillie, and silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin had a major impact on absurdist theater.
Beckett does not even try to give the illusion of real life in his scenes, characters, or dialogue. Everything is symbolic or suggestive. The lines are delivered in a certain rhythm with pauses, like poetry. Sets, words, and props are minimal so as to defamiliarize the audience and show the barest terms of human existence. Hamm in a wheelchair and blind depicts the human feeling of limitation and helplessness in the universe. Hamm says, “Nature has forgotten us” (p. 11). The talk between Clov and Hamm is symbolic, trivial, or philosophical; it is repetitious and never gets anywhere. Often the characters are talking to themselves, not to each other. Theater of the Absurd may give the audience a jolt, make them see in a different way, but it does not come to a conclusion or give answers. Often the characters contradict themselves or each other. The audience keeps waiting for clues or disclosures, waiting for bits to add up to a meaning, but there is none.
Critics have noted the way “Endgame” progresses more like music than drama. Characters are like orchestral instruments or jazz instruments that play solos and duets, some recitative, cadenzas, and lyrics. Speeches are delivered in careful rhythms in sections rather than acts. Pauses and silence are also part of the tone created. Beckett was interested in the effect of words rather than solely in their meaning.
2. Is Beckett a Modernist or Post-Modernist?
“Endgame” could be interpreted as a Modernist play or the beginning of a Postmodernist outlook. Beckett matured as an artist during the great flowering of Modernism in the early twentieth century, with such famous writers as James Joyce, visual artists as Marcel Duchamp, and playwrights as Pirandello and Strindberg. Modernism as a movement usually refers to Western art and philosophy that developed from a secular humanism dating from the Renaissance. This philosophy was confident that humans could understand and master their lives through art and science. Though the world is constantly battered by war, famine, and disease, the basic optimism that humans could make a better future and could make sense of life through reason held up until the holocaust of the great world wars.
Modernism in the early twentieth century turned its back on traditional solutions from religion and philosophy but did not doubt that artists, scientists, and thinkers could come up with new answers to old problems. Artists were often seen as the avant-garde of society, with insights and progressive thought. These thinkers were often liberal and supported political freedom and freedom of expression. They fostered experimentalism, such as in abstract art or stream-of-consciousness novels. Modernists were not so interested in nationalism as in internationalism, and for this reason, many left their native lands for progressive cities like Paris where they could mingle with other artists, as Beckett and Joyce did. They believed they were the advanced minds of humanity, but after World War II, philosophers began to question whether art or human reason could cope with existence at all.
In many ways Hamm is the quintessential Modern artist confronting a hostile nature (“Nature has forgotten us”). He must make up his own version of truth to keep going. Clov points out that Hamm has been telling his story to himself all his days. He is also Modernist in the way he feels superior in reason and makes the others listen to his narrative about the way life is. Repeatedly, he explains how they are all facing death and how there is no inherent meaning to life except what he cleverly imparts to it. He congratulates himself on his use of words. He explains to Clov how he is going to end his days, as if he has all the answers and Clov will have to learn from him. Like the Modernists, Hamm believes he is the advanced brain of the human race. He dismisses his parents and their world as useless. He pronounces there is no God, as if he is certain.
Postmodernism either revises or rejects Modernism. It does not view human reason as supreme or able to make or find truth. For the Postmodernists, truth is something that has been constructed by humans for certain agendas, and they unmask those agendas. For instance, Hamm’s narrative of the end of the world and immanent death is contradicted when Clov spies a little boy out the window. Hamm immediately tries to explain him away so he won’t undo his prediction that they are all going to die, but Clov calls the boy a “potential procreator” (p. 78), implying life will go on. Hamm gives up then, knowing his storytelling game is over. His purpose is checkmated, and he puts the handkerchief on his face. Hamm’s motive behind his philosophy is revealed. He constructs his story to stay in power and to intimidate Clov and his parents. As long as he is on center stage, everything revolves around what he says is going on, but he cannot maintain his own fiction. Postmodernism unmasks those in power, showing they do not own the truth but construct it for their own purposes.
3. Is this an existentialist play?
Though few absurdist writers formally adhered to the ideas of existentialism, their work has in common with this philosophy certain basic precepts. The philosophy of existentialism, particularly of French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), was a popular philosophy in the 1940s and 1950s because of the trauma of World War II. Existentialism speaks of the indifference of the universe to human concerns. Humans are aware of their mortality and the uncertainty of existence. Life has no inherent meaning except the meaning the individual constructs for him or herself. Life is not rational and appears absurd or arbitrary. Hamm complains of his life, that he was not even present for it: “Absent, always. It all happened without me” (p. 74). This feeling of helplessness can produce anxiety, but it also means humans are free to act as they will. The actions one engages in may not produce an effect in the universe, but it is important to follow one’s own conscience and act “authentically,” or in good faith. It is a philosophy that does not make reference to God or to divine intervention. Humans find themselves alone in the universe and must act as gods themselves. Hamm tells the others that they must stop to pray to God and then announces bitterly: “The bastard! He doesn’t exist” (p. 55).
This, of course, reinforces the Absurdist or Existentialist idea of human life as having no clear purpose or direction, of life being an interminable waiting for a sense of purpose or closure that is not likely to ever arrive. Beckett’s plays do not progress towards a catharsis but are circular, with nothing ever happening or being resolved. Seen clearly, life seems to these thinkers as something we simply do while we are waiting to die, and the illusions human beings create to give their lives a sense of purpose will not finally sustain the thoroughly reflective human being.
4. How does this play compare to “Waiting for Godot”?
“Waiting for Godot,” another absurdist play, was written four years earlier than “Endgame” and is Beckett’s most famous play in which four characters (Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo, and Lucky) do nothing except wait for someone named Godot. Both plays have three clownish characters and one serious character. In “Endgame” the serious character is Hamm, and in “Godot” it is Pozzo. As “Godot” opens, Estragon keeps trying to remove his boot over and over again unsuccessfully and then says “Nothing to be done,” the theme of the play. Similarly, Clov opens “Endgame” by repeatedly looking out the window and announcing the theme, “it must be nearly finished” (p. 1). In both plays, characters struggling with the simplest of tasks illustrate the frustration of living in an indifferent universe that is unresponsive to human needs.
The action of both plays is repetitious and circular. The abstract point of view in “Godot” is fixed in a place that seems outside of time and space. “Endgame” has a slightly more defined set inside a room, but both are minimalist environments so the symbolic actions are more noticeable. As Hamm has intimidated Clov into serving him, Pozzo has enslaved Lucky with a rope around his neck. Hamm’s poetic statements about the human predicament are echoed in Pozzo’s conclusions about life: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more” (Act II). By this time Pozzo is blind like Hamm is, an evocation of Oedipus, the blind king, or Tiresias, the blind prophet. The lack of light indicates humans do not know where they are or where they are going. Both plays comment on the apparent absurdity of life by showing the characters repeating meaningless acts and dialogue. In “Endgame” they are waiting for an end that never comes but has already happened. In “Godot” they are waiting for someone who never shows up, probably God (Godot). The characters try to fill up the time of waiting with aggression or affection, stories, jokes, and black humor. Nothing they do changes anything.
5. What historical background explains the dark feeling of the play?
“Endgame” was written during the Cold War (1945-1991) when the threat of nuclear annihilation was in everyone’s awareness. Hamm refers to the room they are living in as a “shelter,” possibly a bomb shelter. The supplies are dwindling, and they cannot go out to get more. He refers to the population outside as dying. They are also waiting to die inside the shelter and are in various stages of bodily decay. It appears to be the end of the world, as in a nuclear holocaust because nothing living stirs outside the window when Clov looks out.
The Cold War was a continuing state of political tension after World War II between the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, with smaller proxy wars like Vietnam and Korea. The conflict was indirect and took place with a weapons race, a space race, propaganda wars, technological competition, and espionage. Bomb drills in schools, and the building of bomb shelters, were common features in an age that threatened imminent nuclear attacks. It was thought there could be few survivors or that survivors would be mutants. Nagg and Nell suggest such mutants with no legs. There was little optimism in philosophy and art when individual creativity appeared to be next to useless. Of what value are Hamm’s clever phrases when everyone is dying around him? No human felt safe or competent in such a world ruled by faceless bureaucrats who could make a mistake at any minute and accidentally wipe out the human race. The concern that there would be a trigger-happy overreaction to implied threats and the possible annihilation of civilization on earth by the military-scientific complex was a topic in much Cold War fiction and film, such as Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964). Theater of the absurd is another appropriate response to such an atmosphere, pointing out the inadequacy of human ideas to cope with a planetary catastrophe.