Review: The Royal Court Theatre, London: Beckett’s 70th birthday season

(Endgame with Patrick Magee, Stephen Rea, Rose Hill and Leslie Sarony. Directed by Donald McWhinnie. Designed by Andrew Sanders. First performance, 6 May 1976.)

John Calder

The world première of Fin de partie, before the author had translated it into English, was given in French at the Royal Court Theatre in April 1957. Evidently Roger Blin, who played Hamm and directed the play, was doubtful of its Parisian reception and counted on Samuel Beckett’s rising British reputation to ensure it a respectful press and a reasonable audience in London before opening in Paris. In the event it was well received, except by the more philistine London reviewers and by Kenneth Tynan, who used it as a vehicle for some heavy-handed parody. The English-language première came a year later with George Devine replacing Blin as actor and director, and the subsequent history of the play in London, with Beckett himself increasingly involved in rehearsals, was of growing public appreciation by larger audiences, mystified but fascinated. It is difficult now to see where the audiences of nearly twenty years ago had so many difficulties in understanding Endgame, because the play now seems very open in that respect. Yet in 1976, with Beckett well known and much better understood by the public that goes to art theatres, the audiences for Endgame, and indeed for the whole season, were surprisingly small.

The basic situation of a hammer and three nails, from which the characters derive their names, is plot enough to sustain the play, but plot is never as important (although it is always there) in any Beckett work, play or novel, as memory, characterization and the exteriorization of anguish, sometimes seen through the fabric of self-deception that enables realization to be bottled up, and sometimes nakedly. In Endgame the deceptions do not go very deep, each member of the quartet knowing well enough the fate that is coming and getting a grim satisfaction out of the plight of the others, even pleasurably anticipating the moment when bad news can be broken with greatest effect, shattering another false security. Clov keeps Hamm waiting until it is the usual hour for his pain-killer before announcing that there is no more pain-killer, rubbing in the full implication and forcing Hamm to muster up his stoicism to face the end much earlier than he had anticipated. As in Godot, the characters draw their strength from their mutual dependence on each other, and we watch this dependence crumble, until each is alone, dead or dying in a dying world.

London has seen four great Hamms, Roger Blin, George Devine, Patrick Magee (who first played the part in the 1964 production that transferred from the Théâtre de Poche in Paris to the Aldwych) and Ernst Schröder, the latter in a previous visit of the Berlin Schiller Theater Company, directed by Beckett himself. In this latest revival, Patrick Magee was back in the part, a commanding tyrant with the magical rasping voice that first fascinated Beckett when he heard it reading Molloy on BBC radio in the fifties and wrote Krapp’s last tape for an actor he had never met. Magee’s performance was as magisterial as ever, but the discipline and tension has declined. The strain of the whole season and the problems of his future commitments did not improve Magee’s concentration, and missing lines and cues on many nights did not make the task of the other actors easier. Nevertheless, he is still the best Hamm in English today, conveying the terror and the courage marvellously, while the organ of his voice can still grip the musical sensitivities of his audience, and the poetry was always there.

Stephen Rea’s first crack at Clov was commendable, but he was unfortunate in following the late Jack MacGowran who made this part peculiarly his own as nothing else in the Beckett canon. He is in any case an actor whose style is suited to a very different kind of theatre, O’Casey, O’Neill or Synge, which allows more leeway to adapt parts to one’s own talents and personality. He lacked the precision, the timing, and above all the legato delivery needed for the great moments, especially the devastating last speech (‘How easy it is. They said to me, that’s friendship, yes yes, no question, you’ve found it. They said to me, Here’s the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty.’) where the punctuation marks are like musical bars and the capitals like stress marks, the whole scored for the breath, where any variation from the author’s rhythms and cadences is unforgivable. It was not Rea’s fault. He is obviously a good actor, but Beckett’s style requires the training and the concentration of a musician, and although he obviously understands the poetry, he was unable to deliver it.

The Nagg and the Nell were both good. The parts are less demanding and the veteran music-hall comedian Leslie Sarony was able to put over the pathos and the humour effectively. Some felt that Rose Hill was too genteel-accented for Nell, but to me she was convincing and a good foil to her stage husband. Donald McWhinnie, a veteran Beckett director, must take the responsibility for the one serious miscast and for failing to attain the precision of the last three London productions, but he was short on rehearsal time with the responsibility for other plays in the same season, and did not have the easiest of actors to work with.

Endgame is as explicit as anything in Beckett, with the possible exception of Krapp, and now it seems to have lost the pejorative labels (‘dust-bin drama,’ etc.) that have been attached to it in the past. The situation of the characters and their relationship to each other, to their past lives and idiosyncrasies are not ambiguous. The reason for Hamm’s parents being in dust bins, although unusual, is strictly logical as well as theatrically practical. The author needed to have them appear and disappear on stage with the minimum of movement or interruption of the flow of words and silences. Given that they are both legless, and chairs or crutches would have created tiresome problems, cluttering up the stage and breaking the concentration of the drama, he has solved the situation with the directness and logic that he has brought to bear on every other literary and dramatic problem, a directness and an audacity that is an important part of his genius. At the same time he had created on the stage a visual picture of an enclosed space, not unlike the skull that crops up so often throughout his work, which can enclose the whole world and its knowledge, with eye-like windows looking blindly into the void. And his quartet of complementary pairs, producing a similar chamber music to Godot, (the division can also be seen as one against three, as in Play) voice what is possibly the most moving poetry on the subject of facing death since Shakespeare. Indeed the most emotive and poetic lines are those conveying loss.

Beckett’s use of theology, especially medieval and Cartesian, is never more effective than when he redefines Hell or Purgatory. The loss of God to an Aquinas is two things to Beckett: on one level the loss of the world, its pleasures, gaieties, human relationships, and aesthetic delights, of which he is himself intensely aware (although without talent for deriving happiness from them), the enjoyment of which depend on an ability to be selfish and to ignore the transitoriness of youth, love, happiness, and the power of the senses; and secondly, a rejection of altruism, with its other satisfactions, as transitory as the more mundane pleasures, of having done some good, been public-spirited or simply to have advanced the comforts, freedoms, or intellectual and aesthetic potential of some portion of humanity. Man is the victim of a cruel and cosmic joke, all he promises himself is deceit, and he is left with no honourable course of action except to look reality squarely in the face and accept it, with courage and resignation if he can. Beckett is intensely aware of Honour, an aspect of his work that has so far been almost totally ignored by the academics. The sense of loss, the grim acceptance of the inevitable, comes out magnificently in the closing pages of Endgame, first in Clov’s speech: ‘They said to me, ‘Here’s the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty. That order!’ They said to me, ‘Come now, you’re not a brute beast, think upon these things and you’ll see how it all becomes clear. And simple!’ They said to me, ‘What skilled attention they get, all these dying of their wounds.’ And later, ‘I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit.’’ Immediately afterwards, Hamm, in his last speech, must also face the ultimate reality of his slow death, without any solace or comfort to ease his going except self-admiration for his own stoicism, repeating an elegant phrase with grim satisfaction: ‘You cried for night, it falls: now cry in darkness. Pause. Nicely put, that.’

The greatness of Endgame is perhaps most apparent when it is read, but it needs performance and only a first-class company with meticulous direction can do it justice. Much of the poetry, the tension, the emotion, was lost at the Royal Court, and the whole production was in a very different league from the magnificent Schiller company Godot and the triple bill with its effective Play, fascinating That time and extraordinary virtuosity of Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls, surely the performance of her life. Endgame needs revival again soon, with more rehearsal time and more attention given to line readings, perhaps next at the National Theatre. The uniqueness of Beckett’s drama is now generally realized in the theatre and the special attention it requires puts it outside the reach of companies living within a commercial budget.

Endgame is to Beckett what King Lear is to Shakespeare. Ultimately, Beckett is a mannerist poet in the tradition of the Greeks, the Cinquecento and the Elizabethans. His art has been succinctly summed up in Arnold Hauser’s brilliant insight into Mannerism, linking the late Renaissance and modern art. ‘Art,’ he says, ‘may be altogether less an expression of inner peace, strength, and self-confidence, and of a direct, unproblematic relationship with life such as we meet in the fleeting moments of classical art, than a spontaneous, often wild and desperate, and sometimes barely articulate cry, the expression of an ungovernable urge to master reality, or of the feeling of being hopelessly at its mercy.’ Could one think of a better definition of the art of Samuel Beckett?