Symbolic Structure and Creative Obligation in ‘Endgame’


Paul Lawley


Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front right, a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture.1 And the figures, covered and uncovered, human but barely human. The inscrutable ‘brief tableau’ which opens Endgame typifies the uncompromising stylization which is a characteristic of the play’s every facet. Even more obviously than Waiting for Godot this play is conscious of itself as a parody of a play. As Ronald Gaskell has written, ‘it is an art more abstract than one would have thought possible in the theatre, its intensity.2 The characters are not only players but also pieces to be played with in the endgame. Games are being played with the audience: Beckett challenges us with such portents of significance and meaning as the characters’ names, the picture turned facing the wall, Hamm’s veronica and, most of all, the nature of what is outside the stage-refuge. Even the characters’ physical debilities—Clov’s ‘stiff, staggering walk’ (11), and inability to sit down, Hamm’s blindness and inability to stand up, and the ‘bottled’ parents’ loss of their ‘shanks’—though their primary function is no doubt to increase our sense of the body as a wrecked machine, make themselves felt as an element of the play’s stylization. As they themselves point out, Hamm and Clov are made complementary, interlocking:


            Hamm: Sit on him!

            Clov:     I can’t sit.

            Hamm: True. And I can’t stand.

            Clov:     So it is.

            Hamm:  Every man his speciality. (16)


The dialogue too, as this specimen illustrates, is even more stylized than that of Godot. We seem to be several degrees nearer to the abstraction of music than in the earlier play.


In a discussion of the linguistic structure of Godot the musical analogy is frequently invited but here it virtually forces itself upon us.3 Ruby Cohn4 notes that in rehearsing his Berlin production of Endspiel (in 1967) Beckett used musical terminology—legato, andante, piano, scherzo, fortissimo. In the same rehearsals Beckett spoke of the operation of an essentially musical ‘echo principle’5 in the play: ‘There are no accidents in Fin de partie. Everything is based on analogy and repetition.’6 The ‘echo principle’ not only accounts for the meticulous mechanical construction of the play, the scaffolding around which it was built; it also suggests the presence of a symbolic structure, though one which is operating on a far more abstract level than the usual Modernist symbolic structure. In order to investigate the implications of this high degree of abstraction we need to begin with a conventional discussion of the play’s symbolic organization. Let us turn first to the most richly complex (though perhaps not the most obvious) of its structural parallelisms. Slightly later than half-way through the play, Hamm tells Clov to oil the castors on his armchair. Clov replies that he ‘oiled them yesterday’:


            Hamm:  Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!

            Clov:     (violently). That means that bloody awful day, long ago,

                           before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If

                           they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let

                           me be silent.




            Hamm:  I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had

                           come. He was a painter - and engraver. I had a great fond-

                           ness 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 as

                           ashes. (Pause). He alone had been spared. (Pause.) For-

                           gotten. (Pause.) It appears the case is  . . . was not so . . . so                                         

                           unusual. (2)


I want to place by the side of this Clov’s final speech, his aria di sortita, which he delivers when Hamm requests ‘something . . . from your heart . . . A few words . . . from your heart’:


Clov :    (fixed gaze, tonelessly, towards auditorium). They said to

  me.  That’s love, yes yes, not a doubt, now you see how —

Hamm :  Articulate!

            Clov :    (as before). How easy it is. They said to me, That’s friend-

                          ship, 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. That order! They said to me, Come now, you’re not a

                          brute beast, think upon these things and you’ll see how all

                          becomes clear. And simple! They said to me, What skilled

                          attention they get, all these dying of their wounds.

            Hamm :  Enough!

            Clov :    (as before). I say to myself—sometimes, Clov you must

                          learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of

                          punishing you—one day. I say to myself—sometimes,

                          Clov, you must be there better than that if you want them to let

                          you go—one day. But I feel too old, and too far, to form new

                          habits. Good, it’ll never end, I’ll never go. (Pause.) Then one

                         day, suddenly it ends, it changes, I don’t understand, it dies,

                         or it’s me, I don’t understand that either. I ask the words that

                         remain—sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have

                         nothing to say. (Pause.) I open the door of the cell and go. I

                         am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and

                         between my legs a little trail of black dust. I say to myself that

                         the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit. (Pause.)

                         It’s easy going. (Pause.) When I fall I’ll weep for happiness.



Both passages concentrate on the sense of having been left behind, spared or ‘forgotten,’ which is one of the moving forces of the play. Yet there is nothing simple about this sense. In a sketch Beckett wrote after Endgame, so similar in its chief elements (the two characters are an old man in a wheelchair and a blind but mobile fiddler amidst a ruined urban landscape) that one could take it as his attempt to write himself out of the impasse created by the finished play, a blind man says:


            Sometimes I hear steps. Voices. I say to myself, They are coming

            back, some are coming back, to try and settle again, or to look for

            something they had left behind, or to look for someone they had left



The tone and rhythms, with the accompanying syntactic structure (‘Sometimes . . . I say to myself, They . . .’) are virtually identical to Clov’s (though the ‘someone they had left behind’ is more obviously reminiscent of Hamm’s mad painter). But the Endgame situation is rather more complex. The stage-picture of Theatre I—’Street corner. Ruins’—might be taken, in the light of the two speeches from Endgame, simply as an image of the speaker’s mind or of how he ‘sees the world’—‘All he had seen was ashes.’ He waits, perhaps, and yearns for the re-unification which is represented by the return of ‘them’: an image in social terms of a psychological restoration. In contrast, the ‘corpsed’ world of Endgame is off-stage: ‘outside of here it’s death’ (15). In front of us we see only a ‘bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn.’ Hugh Kenner’s observation is well known: when Clov draws the curtains, says Kenner, ‘this is so plainly a metaphor for waking up that we fancy the stage, with its high peepholes, to be the inside of an immense skull.’8 When Clov looks out of the stage-eyes he, like the mad painter, sees the ashes of a ‘corpsed’ world. This outside world is for the spectator not an objective fact - as it is in Theatre I—but a datum of the perception of one particular individual, Clov. Thus, whereas in Theatre I the ‘corpsed’ world is a given fact—we see it represented on stage—in Endgame it is a perceived thing, the perception of which depends on the state of consciousness of one of the characters. We can ‘see’ the outside only through Clov, just as he can only see it through his telescope (‘One day you’ll be blind, like me,’ 28). This is an important point because, turning to the two speeches under consideration, we find that in both cases the sufferer (the mad painter, Clov) looks upon—is forced to look upon—the same landscape as the punisher (Hamm, ‘they’) but sees exactly the opposite: and what he sees obviously depends upon the state of his consciousness. The sense of being ‘spared’ or ‘forgotten’ in Endgame is primarily a mental or psychological one. In one way it hardly matters if the outside world is as Clov describes it: what matters is that that is the way he perceives it to be, just as the mad painter perceived Hamm’s ‘loveliness’ as ‘ashes,’ and just as Clov himself perceives ‘their’ ‘beauty’ and ‘order’ as a punishment. This is a play about the alienation and end of the mind rather than the end of the world.


Having said this, we should be careful not to limit the larger resonances of Endgame too drastically. A. Alvarez uses Kenner’s observation to explain away rather than to explain when he suggests that the play is ‘simply a day in the life of a man at the end of his tether’: ‘If Kenner is right in thinking that the stage setting is like that of a giant skull, then the play itself is a way of representing what goes on in the internal world of a man suffering from chronic depression.’9 But Endgame will not allow itself ‘simply’ to be packed off into someone’s head and it will not allow us to get rid of the ‘overtones’ which are apt to create such a headache.10 As Beckett himself has said, the play is ‘rather difficult and elliptic, depending upon the power of the text to claw,’11 that is, to tease out precisely those irritating overtones which make Endgame more than ‘simply a day in the life of a man at the end of his tether,’ or indeed, more than simply anything. I have said the play is about the end of the alienated mind, the mind that sees only ashes where others see beauty and order. Yet the hints are frequent and irresistible of a terminal situation which is nothing less than universal, apocalyptic. (Hamm’s mad painter did, after all, think that ‘the end of the world had come.’) If there are no alternative perceptions of the universe remaining it is because devastation is general: ‘The whole place stinks of corpses. The whole universe,’ (33). As Hamm remarks of his mad painter, ‘it appears the case is . . . was not so . . . so unusual.’ However we must not lose track of our original observation amongst the overtones. It needs to be emphasized that the central image of Endgame, resonant and pregnant as it is, has for its origin and core a particular psychological condition, of which the skull-like appearance of the stage-picture serves as a permanent and teasing reminder. The play presents the end of the mind in apocalyptic terms.


Alvarez remarks that the ‘poignancy’ of Endgame depends on the ‘continual tension between a lost world of feeling, once known and still yearned for, and the devastated present,’ and that the ‘glimmerings’ of ‘the knowledge of something valuable that has been irredeemably lost’12 go to make up a real tragic sense in the play. The contrast between a richly fertile past and the devastated present is certainly an important factor in the play: it emerges powerfully, if briefly, in Hamm’s evocation of the landscape he showed the mad painter: ‘Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness.’ And yet our sense of the past in Endgame is not a firm one, Hamm himself harbours ontological doubts:


            Hamm :  Clov.

            Clov :     (absorbed [He is looking out of the window]). Mmm.

            Hamm :  Do you know what it is?

            Clov :     (as before). Mmm.

            Hamm :  I was never there. (Pause.) Clov!

            Clov :     (turning towards Hamm, exasperated). What is it?

            Hamm :  I was never there.

            Clov :     Lucky for you.

                           He looks out of window.

            Hamm :  Absent always. It all happened without me. (47)


And Clov’s final speech comes to a climax in the bitter statement: ‘I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit.’ He and Hamm make themselves a duality, that of light/darkness, which, so far as they know, never really existed. They use it in order to make some sense of their present situation, breaking the existential flux up into contrasting components, and endowing each of these components with a particular moral and existential charge. ‘Grey light’ states Beckett with characteristic baldness in his initial stage-direction, but Hamm at least insists on separating up grey into black-white (without these contrasting colours there would be no chess game), light-dark, often with comical consequences:


                           Enter Clov holding by one of its three legs a black toy dog.

                           He hands the dog to Hamm who feels it, fondles it.

            Hamm :  He’s white, isn’t he?

            Clov :     Nearly.

            Hamm :  What do you mean, nearly? Is he white or isn’t he?

            Clov :      He isn’t. (30)


            Hamm :   Is it night already then?

            Clov :     (Looking). No.

            Hamm :  Then what is it?

            Clov :     (Looking). Grey. (Lowering the telescope, turning towards

                           Hamm, louder.) Grey! (Pause. Still louder.) GRREY! Pause.

                           He gets down, approaches Hamm from behind, whispers in

                           his ear.

            Hamm :  (starting). Grey! Did I hear you say grey?

            Clov :      Light black. From pole to pole.

            Hamm :  You exaggerate. (26)


This chain of imagery, which begins with Hamm’s comment about his own blind eyes, ‘it seems they’ve gone all white’ (13), is brought to an ironic climax by his ‘composition’ in his final soliloquy of a line of Baudelaire:

                        A little poetry. (Pause.) You prayed - (Pause. He corrects himself.)

                       You CRIED for night; it comes - (Pause. He corrects himself.) It

                       FALLS: now cry in darkness. (He repeats, chanting.) You cried for

                       night; it falls: now cry in darkness. (Pause.) Nicely put, that. (52)


Clov uses the same duality, despite his realization of its falsity (‘I never saw it lit’):


            Clov :      I’ll leave you, I have things to do.

            Hamm :   In your kitchen?

            Clov :      Yes.

            Hamm :   What, I’d like to know.

            Clov :       I look at the wall.

            Hamm :   The wall! And what do you see on your wall? Mene, mene?

                            Naked bodies?

            Clov :       I see my light dying.

            Hamm :   Your light dying! Listen to that! Well, it can die just as well

                             here, your light. Take a look at me and then come back and

                             tell me what you think of your light. (17)


Perhaps the best-known instance of light-darkness imagery is Mother Pegg:


            Hamm :  Is Mother Pegg’s light on?

            Clov :     Light! How could anyone’s light be on?

            Hamm :  Extinguished!

            Clov :     Naturally it’s extinguished. If it’s not on it’s extinguished.

            Hamm :  No, I mean Mother Pegg.

            Clov :     But naturally she’s extinguished! (31)

            Clov :    (harshly). When old Mother Pegg asked you for oil for her

                          lamp and you told her to get out to hell, you knew what was

                          happening then, no? (Pause.) You know what she died of,

                          Mother Pegg? Of darkness. (48)


A few moments later Hamm himself takes up the death-of-darkness image:


            Clov :    (imploringly). Let’s stop playing!

            Hamm :  Never! (Pause.) Put me in my coffin.

            Clov :     There are no more coffins.

            Hamm :  Then let it end! [. . .] With a bang! [. . .] Of darkness! (49)


‘I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit.’ Existing without understanding amidst the ruined ‘GRREY’ world of Endgame, Hamm and Clov ‘divide’ the grey, the only experience they have ever had, into the white of day-light, rightness, richness, fertility and life, and the black of night, darkness, ruin, aridity and devastation. In doing this, they are both locating themselves in a particular pattern (the darkness, or the near-darkness) and creating a mythology for themselves of an idealized past, a past which is now ‘extinguished’ and which they missed. Their fictive dualism enables them to think temporally in an apparently non-temporal universe and to conceive of richness in the midst of a wasteland. This simple mental system is crucial to the continuance of the endgame.


Even the implied geography of the Endgame-world is a mental or mythical geography, relying as it does less on ideas or information than on individual words which light up the otherwise stark grey text. All the alternative worlds are exotic-sounding:

            Hamm :  Did you ever think of one thing? . . . That here we’re down in a

                           hole. (Pause.) But beyond the hills? Eh? Perhaps it’s still

                           green. Eh? (Pause.) Flora! Pomona! (Ecstatically.) Ceres!

                           (Pause.) Perhaps you won’t need to go very far. (30)

            Nell :      It was in the Ardennes.

                          They laugh less heartily.

            Nagg :   On the road to Sedan. (19)

            Nell :     It was on Lake Como. (Pause.) One April afternoon. (Pause.)

                         Can you believe it? . . . It was deep, deep. And you could see

                         down to the bottom. So white. So clean. (21)


Add to these Nagg’s taste for ‘Turkish Delight, for example, which no longer exists’ (38); Hamm’s former subjects ‘at Kov, beyond the gulf’ (36; and a gulf there certainly is between that past and this present), and Hamm’s dog: ‘He’s a kind of Pomeranian’ (30). In each case a single word lights up the text with a mythopoeic glow. Both the mythic past and the exotic elsewhere of Endgame are above all linguistic creations.


It is not only romantic and exotic words which have a mythopoeic effect. If language as a semantic system can be used to create a mythical past which helps to explain the experience of grey atemporal flux (an imagined fertile past implies a universal holocaust), then the same system will inevitably imply a mythical present, an ‘after-time’ of desolation and devastation. If words call forth from the flux a yesterday, they will also call forth a today. Even these simple everyday words threaten to cave in in Endgame:


            Hamm :  Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!

            Clov :     (violently). That means that bloody awful day, long ago,

                           before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me.

                           If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let

                           me be silent.


The myths the language transmits, the myths words are, have become transparent and unimportant in the terminal world: ‘I ask the words that remain - sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say.’ The related dualisms of the play—light/darkness, white/black, day/night, yesterday/today, lit/extinguished, waking/sleeping, morning/evening—are seen for what they are: so many intellectual efforts to mythologize, to gain control of and therefore to survive in a world of meaningless flux.


The moribund structures make ‘experience’ itself impossible to define:


            Hamm :  . . . Clov!

            Clov :    Yes.

            Hamm : Nature has forgotten us.

            Clov :    There’s no more nature.

            Hamm : No more nature! You exaggerate.

            Clov :    In the vicinity.

            Hamm : But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth, our

                          bloom! Our ideals!

            Clov :    Then she hasn’t forgotten us.

            Hamm : But you say there is none.

            Clov :    (sadly). No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as


            Hamm : We do what we can.

            Clov :    We shouldn’t. (16)


Clov succeeds in breaking down Hamm’s dualism of nature (before)/ non-nature (now) but in the process forfeits his own opinion that ‘there’s no more nature,’ so that in the end it doesn’t matter whether there is such a thing as nature or not. The arguments cancel each other out and neither player wins. But then winning the endgame is hardly the point: the playing is the strategy of survival—itself a meaningless exercise—until the end comes. The game is language, and the play is about the struggle with this inevitably defunct tool of perception and survival.


Endgame, then, we need to reassert, is concerned not just with a terminal world but with the survival of the perceiving and creating self within a terminal world—a more subtle and complex matter altogether. Wordsworth, the great poet of the relation between perception and creation, declared himself ‘a lover of all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear—both what they half create / And what perceive.’ (‘Tintern Abbey,’ 11. 105-7) Thus it can be on the ‘green earth,’ but on the grey earth of Endgame the delicate balance between creation and perception (so exquisitely enacted in the Wordsworth by the line-ending) is impossible. Nor is the need and possibility of this balance merely excluded from the play. Indeed what seems to be a decisive moment in the drama turns on exactly this issue of the perception and/or creation of the external world. Near the end of the play Clov, looking out of the window, sights a small boy. He offers to ‘go and see’; ‘I’ll take the gaff,’ he adds. ‘No!’ cries Hamm.


            Clov :     No? A potential procreator?

            Hamm :  If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here. And if he

                          doesn’t . . .


            Clov :    You don’t believe me? You think I’m inventing?


            Hamm : It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you

                          any more.


            Clov :    Lucky for you. (49-50)


What is at issue here, as most critics (decoyed by the self-conscious ‘symbolism’ of the small boy) fail to see, is the actual existence of the boy. Clov’s ‘You think I’m inventing?’ should make it clear that what Hamm was going to say was not ‘And if he doesn’t come here . . . ,’ as most critics seem to believe, but ‘And if he doesn’t exist. . . .’ The game is at its most serious. Making the assumption that Clov is calling his bluff by inventing a small boy (presumably as an excuse to get outside and away from his master), Hamm in turn calls Clov’s bluff by suggesting that the boy does not really exist and that because his servant has told him a lie—which he has seen through—he can now do without Clov. Clov’s ‘You think I’m inventing?’ (rather than the more obvious ‘You think I’m lying?’) serves to remind us that Hamm himself has invented an ‘offstage’ small boy in his ‘chronicle’-story (35-7)—thus as far as Hamm is concerned Clov is probably only copying him anyway. The ‘echo-principle’ is here working in a suggestive way, and in consequence it is impossible for us to draw the dividing line between reality and invention, perception and creation. If Hamm’s ‘chronicle’ was pure invention, that suggests that Clov has invented the small boy he ‘sees’; on the other hand if the ‘chronicle’ was a fictionalized version of how Hamm came by the boy Clov, the ‘potential procreator’ spotted by Clov might really be out there. At first it seems that when Clov makes his sighting we, the audience, are in substantially the same position as the blind Hamm—totally reliant upon the servant and his telescope. But if Hamm knows the truth of his chronicle—is it ‘chronicle’ or is it story (he calls it both but prefers the former)?—he may be surer about Clov’s small boy than we can be.


The scene of the sighting of the small boy brings into sharp focus one of the most important factors about the play and the kind of response it invites. It is only here, when we need, for our own, conventional spectatorial purposes, to believe that what one of the characters says is true, when we need to be assured of an objective fact which might actuate a turning point in the play, that we become fully aware of the nature of the play and our position in relation to it. For if we, like Hamm (or unlike Hamm?), cannot be sure whether or not Clov is inventing when he reports what he sees out of the window, if we cannot ‘believe’ (on the terms of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’) this, how can we safely believe anything else he, or any of the other characters, has said during the play about anything other than that which we can corroborate with our own eyes? The grounds of the willing suspension of disbelief have been rendered unstable: this is the essence of Endgame—its game-ness. ‘In Endgame,’ writes Hugh Kenner ‘(which here differs radically from Godot) no one is supposed to be improvising; the script has been well committed to memory and well rehearsed.’13 This may be so, but something needs to be said about the vital ambiguity which is created by the fact of an audience. For the characters words are inert aural blocks emptied of all meaning (‘If they don’t mean anything any more . . . ‘) but for the audience, though this aspect—the game aspect—is of course inescapable, the normal semantic function of language is still a crucial element. The play only tends towards the abstraction of music: it has not achieved it. This is not ‘pure’ game, consequently the conventional willing suspension of disbelief is still an important element of the spectator’s response. For without this basic response the essential ambiguity which surrounds the nature of Endgame would be lost.


When we look at the stage-set of Endgame we are looking at a visual image of the function of language in the play. In a world in which invention, fictional creation, is (as we have seen) always tending to become absolute and all forms tend towards abstraction, language, the only remaining creative medium, ceases to function as a medium, a tool or instrument for organizing and making sense of the perceptions of an external world, and becomes instead a separate self-sufficient structure in the midst of the alien environment. It is fitting, then, that the stage-picture of Endgame should represent a ‘refuge.’ The functions of language and the ‘refuge’ in the play are identical. Both serve to insulate and protect rather than to mediate and connect. The words of the game are like the bricks of the refuge; metaphorically speaking, they are the bricks of the refuge.


                          Hamm leans towards wall, applies his ear to it.

            Hamm : Do you hear? (He strikes the wall with his knuckles.) Do you

                          hear? Hollow bricks! (He strikes again.) All that’s hollow!



‘Keep going, can’t you, keep going!’ (40) cries Hamm at one point. The game of language is a hated thing (‘Why this farce, day after day?’ [18]) but existence is intolerable without the refuge it provides:


            Clov :    (imploringly). Let’s stop playing!

            Hamm : Never! (49)


To leave the refuge would mean to leave ‘the words that remain’: ‘They have nothing to say (Pause). I open the door of the cell and go. I am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and between my legs a little trail of black dust.’ The last image, one of existence outside the world-refuge, is one of slow yet inexorable dissolution of self. Even at the ‘end,’ Hamm and Clov are bound by a basic ontological obligation to their hated ‘cell,’ which is at once a structure of hollow bricks and a game of hollow words. Existence, such as it is, is the game. And Endgame itself, with its governing ‘echo principle,’ is mirrored by Clov’s kitchen: ‘ten feet by ten feet by ten feet . . . Nice dimensions, nice proportions (12).


But there is a further, more complex dimension to Beckett’s conception of the nature of language in this play. It is hinted at by the Shakespearean allusion in the English version of Clov’s outburst about words: ‘I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.’ This echoes the speech of Caliban to Prospero and Miranda (I quote also the lines which lead up to the relevant passage, since the juxtaposition of prison and language seems extraordinarily suggestive in the light of the Endgame situation):


            Miranda :  But thy vile race,

                            Though thou didst learn had that in’t which good natures

                            Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou

                            Deservedly confin’d into this rock,

                            Who hadst deserv’d more than a prison.

            Caliban : You taught me language; and my profit on’t

                            Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

                            For learning me your language! (The tempest [Arden

                            edition], I, ii, 360-7)


In both Endgame and The Tempest the master forces the alien system of his own language on the slave and is in turn cursed with that very language. Language stands as an omnipresent emblem of the master-slave relationship. In Endgame, however, language seems not only to represent that relationship but also to take its place within it as the master. If we consider Clov’s last speech by the side of Hamm’s reminiscence about the mad painter, the alignment of Hamm with Clov’s tyrannical ‘they’ is unavoidable in the light of his treatment of the madman: ‘I’d take him by the hand and drag him to the window.’ Clov :’They said to me, there’s the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty.’ Yet, as he continues, we feel that Clov’s ‘they’ are far more terrible than Hamm (whose gesture—‘I’d take him by the hand’—is at least one of companionship and goodwill). In fact ‘they,’ the tyrants whose evoked values consist only in dead words (‘beauty,’ ‘order’), seem to merge with the words, to become the words: ‘I don’t understand . . . I ask the words that remain - sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say.’ The words too are ‘they,’ silent implacable personifications of dead meaning. The sense of words as people—the tyrannisers of Clov—is even more acute in the French original, where language itself plays into the playwright’s hands: ‘Je le demande aux mots qui restent—sommeil, réveil, soir, matin. Ils ne savent rien dire.’14 ‘Restent’ is perhaps more suggestively concrete than ‘remain’ and ‘they know (of) nothing to say’ is a more explicit personification than ‘they have nothing to say’ (though the English sounds far more implacable.) The Two versions of Clov’s outburst about ‘yesterday,’ present a similar case. (I quoted the English earlier.)


            Hamm : Hier! Qu’est - ce que ça veut dire. Hier!

            Ciov :    (avec violence). ça veut dire il y a un foutu bout de misère.

                          J’emploie les mots que tu m’as appris. S’ils ne veulent plus

                          rien dire apprends-m’en d’autres. Ou laisse-moi me taire.15


One does not think generally of words as doing something active when they mean - and this does not really come across in the English. By linking the ordinary idiomatic ‘ça veut dire’ with ‘s’ils ne veulent plus rien dire. . .’ (where ‘ils’ are ‘les mots’) Beckett nudges the idiom to life and thus creates the suggestion that when words mean it is a volitional act; literally: ‘They no longer want to say anything.’


Hamm, though himself a ruined tyrant, is no less subject to the tyranny of language than his own slave. But, as we have seen, he is not so much punished by words as teased and led on by them. They dangle like carrots before him the possibilities of meaning and escape. ‘To think perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing!’ (27), he cries ‘vehemently’ when he imagines a ‘rational being’ come ‘back to earth’ (yet another suggestion that the world was once lit with meaning and ‘rationality’). The desire for rationality is a desire for the agents of rationality, words, still to mean. It is because Hamm is still so attached to words and all their existence implies that they tease him so cruelly. As we have already noted, it is in terms of the individual word that he conceives of his alternative, paradisal world:


‘Flora! Pomonal! [...] Ceres!’ Similarly, it is the word rather than the idea which climaxes his fantasies:


            If I could sleep I might make love. I’d go into the woods. My eyes

            would see . . . The sky, the earth. I’d run, run, they wouldn’t catch me.

            (Pause.) Nature! (19)


            (with ardour). Let’s go from here, the two of us! South! You can make

            a raft and the currents will carry us, far away, to other . . . mammals!



Mother Pegg is not just described with an allusion; in a sense she is an allusion: ‘She was bonny once, like a flower of the field.’ (31) Again and again Hamm is carried away by the delusive current of his own eloquence, only to be brought back to the realization that ‘Ceres’ or ‘nature’ or the ‘South’ is just the cruellest trick of the language-refuge, still only words. Language used to be Hamm’s slave: he ‘invented’ it, used it to build himself a refuge that would protect him from the devastated outside, and taught it to his slave. But a relationship with language can never be static—‘pure’ medium can never be pure; now he is the slave, together with his own slave, and words the masters (‘The medium is the master’?):


            Clov : What is there to keep me here?

            Hamm : The dialogue. (39)


The dialogue, not Hamm himself. Indeed, Hamm might say of his slave- turned-master language what his predecessor Pozzo says of Lucky, the master-turned-slave (‘Guess who taught me all these beautiful things’) who at one point appears mysteriously to be taking over again: ‘He used to be so kind . . . so helpful . . . and entertaining . . . my good angel . . . and now . . . he’s killing me.’16


Thus the two dominant images of Endgame - the stage-picture of the refuge and the master-servant relationship of the chief characters—can both be seen as metaphors of the way language functions in the play. But, of course, language can function neither as refuge nor as tyrant if it is not sustained and perpetuated by the creativity of the endgame players. Refuge and tyrant cannot exist independently of Hamm and Clov; they need to be continually and perpetually created, and it is for this reason that creativity stands as the large central concern of the play. Let us approach it by way of the two major speeches we started with.


I have left until now the observation of one of the most obvious and important contrasts between the two speeches: both are about the same situation, but whereas Clov describes it from the inside looking out - he is the object of punishment who is forced to raise his head and look—Hamm describes it from the outside looking in—it was he who dragged the madman to the window and exhorted him to witness the outside world. Of course Hamm has a dual perspective; now he is on the inside: ‘It appears the case is . . . was not so . . . so unusual.’ This allows him to have it both ways, for Clov, irretrievably entrenched in his own situation, reveals the ‘beauty’ and ‘order’ ‘they’ show to him for the empty values they are, Hamm is able, even by way of reminiscence, to evince a real belief in and commitment to the beauty and order he once evoked. Clov’s grinding bitterness of tone serves to empty the invoked moral positives of value and to leave them hollow words:


            They said to me, That’s love, yes yes, not a doubt, now you see

            how - . . . 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. That order! They said to

            me, Come now, you’re not a brute beast, think upon these things and

            you’ll see how all becomes clear. And simple! They said to me, What

            skilled attention they get, all these dying of their wounds.


The speech is to be delivered ‘tonelessly,’ but its strength is precisely there, in its tone. The same positives are present in Hamm’s speech—yet how different the tone. ‘Love,’ ‘friendship’ and ‘attention’: ‘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.’ ‘Beauty’ and ‘order,’ ‘clarity’ and ‘simplicity’: ‘Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!’ The unreported (no ‘I said . . . ‘ to parallel Clov’s ‘they said’), exclamatory nature of the phrases serves to underline our sense of Hamm’s commitment to the ‘loveliness.’ (Note that whereas Clov deals entirely in abstractions, Hamm evokes concrete details.) For once his apprehension seems to be of something more than just words (though these, if only evanescent, are rich enough); a yearning and a need for natural creativity.


It hardly needs to be said that creativity in Beckett is not the great positive it is for so many other writers. But if Beckett and his creatures can scarcely be said to affirm creativity, neither, on the other hand, can they afford the luxury of denying it. They are bound by what Beckett recognized in his ‘Denis Devlin’ review of 1938 as ‘the need that is the absolute predicament of particular human identity,’17 a need which ten years later (in Three dialogues) is to harden into the terrible impersonality of the ‘obligation to express.’18 That the obligation to express is ‘the absolute predicament of particular human identity’ is made clear enough by Endgame, with its word-refuge outside of which is dissolution and death.


As I have suggested, Hamm, with his poignant apprehension of natural beauty and order, is the chief agent of creativity in Endgame. The loadstone of his creative impulses, the scaffold about which they all accrue, also stands as the structural pivot of the play: his fictional ‘chronicle.’ This is, in Beckett’s own words, ‘just about the centre of Endgame,’19 and that its centrality may be rather more than just a matter of chronological positioning is suggested by the responses of some commentators. The story is one of cruelty—Hamm tells how he, or a fictional version of himself, once refused bread and corn to a starving retainer and his child—But, as Hugh Kenner notes, the ‘technician’s narcissism somewhat disinfects the dreadful tale.’20 Anthony Easthope observes: ‘It is the continuous self-consciousness in Hamm’s words and tone of voice [as he tells the story] which inhibits us from ascribing his cruelty to an impulse beyond the need for rhetorical coherence in the role he plays.’21 The narrative is frequently punctuated by comments like ‘No, I’ve done that bit,’ ‘That should do it,’ ‘there’s English for you’ and ‘A bit feeble, that’ (all 35, 36), all of which make it plain that in his fiction, as in his life, Hamm’s values are aesthetic rather than ethical: ‘(Narrative tone.) . . . He raised his face to me, black with mingled dirt and tears. (Pause. Normal tone.) That shoud do it,’ (35-6) ‘Yet,’ continues Easthope, ‘there are many suggestions in the telling of the story which imply that Hamm is seriously involved and that his fiction reflects real anxiety and suffering.’22 He does not enlarge on the significance of these suggestions, but a fine intuition of Gerald Weales’s (in a fairly early discussion of Endgame) centres on them interestingly: ‘Occasionally . . . Beckett seems to get caught in his own language. Take, for instance, another of the speeches of Hamm to the imaginary beggar: ‘But what in God’s name do you imagine? That the earth will awake in spring? That the rivers and seas will run with fish again? That there’s manna in heaven still for imbeciles like you?’ Obviously, in context, the speech is one about the hopelessness of the human condition in which the first two questions about the natural world pick up a blackness from the third, the supernatural one. The exchange might as easily work the other way. Since Beckett is not likely to be sucked in by the pathetic fallacy (although Hamm might well be), one is tempted to assume that spring will return again and the rivers run with fish; manna, then, becomes a possiblity and hope blooms incongruously on the sterile ground where the endgame is being played.’23 Whatever the validity of his speculations, Weales’s intuition of a power in the language (similar and indeed closely related to Hamm’s earlier evocation of natural fertility to his madman) which is felt to be in some way disproportionate to the story-teller’s immediate needs is I think a sure one. Let us consider Hamm’s outburst in its context. The chronicle is prefaced—and in a sense introduced—by an echo of Clov’s first words and two droll puns:


            Hamm:  (. . . Gloomily.) It’s finished, we’re finished. (Pause.) Nearly

                          finished. (Pause.) There’ll be no more speech. (Pause.)

                          Something dripping in my head, ever since the fontanelles.

                          (Stifled hilarity of Nagg.) Splash, splash, always on the same

                          spot. (Pause). Perhaps it’s a little vein - (Pause.) A little

                          artery. (Pause. More animated.) Enough of that, its story

                          time, where was I? (35, my emphases.)


The puns are comical, nonetheless they touch on the point at issue, creativity: is Hamm’s art-ery24 (his story) merely vain, or is it something more?


Hamm is telling himself and his unwilling ‘bottled’ father a story which, though parts of it may be ‘true’ (he calls it his ‘chronicle,’ thus suggesting that it is ‘historical’), bears all the characteristics of fiction, as we have noted. The speech is a long one and the actor is instructed to use two distinct ‘tones’: the ‘narrative tone’ in which the story is to be told and the ‘normal tone’ in which Hamm is to comment on the story and his telling of it. As the story progresses the ‘normal tone’ disappears and the ‘narrative tone’ dominates to such an extent that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to apprehend the specified tonal distinction. The story is about a beggar—like Clov crawling at Hamm’s feet for a bicycle (15); like Mother Pegg begging oil for her lamp (48); like Nagg asking for Turkish Delight (38); or like Hamm’s own idea of the pathetic toy dog ‘begging me for a bone. . . standing there imploring me’ (31). A man comes ‘crawling . . . on his belly ‘to Hamm’s fictional version of himself, begging ‘bread for his brat,’ or perhaps a little corn?’ Hamm goes on:


            I lost patience. (Violently.) Use your head, can’t you, use your head,

            you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that! (Pause.) It was an ex-

            ceedingly dry day, I remember, zero by the hygrometer. Ideal weather

            for my lumbago. (Pause. Violently.) But what in God’s name do you

            imagine? That the earth will awake in spring? That the rivers and seas

            will run with fish again? That there’s manna in heaven still for

            imbeciles like you? (Pause.) Gradually I cooled down, sufficiently at

            least to ask him how long he had taken on the way. Three whole days.

            Good. In what condition he had left the child. Deep in sleep.

            (Forcibly.) But deep in what sleep, deep in what sleep already? (p. 37)


Ostensibly Hamm is talking to his grovelling subject, and his story enables him to re-enact the ‘great days’ of his rule (‘I inquired about the situation at Kov, beyond the gulf,’ [36]). But the instruction to the actor, who should still be in ‘narrative tone,’ to speak ‘violently’ introduces a suggestive and fruitful ambiguity into the text, for whilst Hamm might conceivably only be acting his ‘violence,’ in performance it would be impossible to communicate any distinction between faked violence and genuine violence. At such heights the distinctions blur and violence becomes generalized and always genuine. In the telling of the chronicle we know that Hamm is meant only to be acting out the violence of his fictional self, yet here the impossibility (in practical terms) of the actor being able to communicate fine distinctions is even plainer. How does he—how do we—distinguish the ‘violent’ ‘normal tone’ from the ‘violent’ ‘narrative tone’? The situation would become absurd: there is only one ‘violently.’ The intervening comments about the weather and his lumbago might seem at first to undermine any genuine passion, yet, paradoxically, they only serve to make the violence more extraordinary by offering such an acute, even forced, contrast to it. Not only the words, but the changes of tone are violent; thus the urbane comments interact with rather than undermine the surrounding fury.


The point of this is that we feel Hamm’s show of violence exceeds its object—even then and certainly now. Why do we feel such a grave and savage undercurrent to what is ostensibly only ‘acting’? The answers are within the play itself. We have noted Hamm’s sense of and commitment to natural creativity. His ‘chronicle,’ itself a created thing, is his chief means of destroying, consciously or unconsciously, that sense and that commitment. To begin with: Hamm berates his vassal for imagining ‘that the earth will awake in spring,’ but it is he who has provoked Clov’s violent responses by inquiring about the sprouting of seeds:


            Hamm : Did your seeds come up?

            Clov :    No.

            Hamm : Did you scratch round them to see if they had sprouted?

            Clov :    They haven’t sprouted.

            Hamm : Perhaps its still too early.

            Clov :    If they were going to sprout they would have sprouted.

                         (Violently.) They’ll never sprout. (17)


Hamm belabours; his vassal for anticipating the teeming foison of nature which never will return, yet in the play’s anticipation of nature the ecstasy is all his: ‘But beyond the hills? Eh? Perhaps its still green. Eh? (Pause.) Flora! Pomona! (Ecstatically.) Ceres! (Pause.) Perhaps you won’t need to go very far.’ Hamm rants at his vassal for imagining (‘in God’s name’) there to be ‘manna in heaven still,’ but it is he who, immediately after he leaves his story, tries praying to God (who is only a name: ‘The bastard! He doesn’t exist!’ [38]). And it is here that the parallel between the ‘chronicle’ and the mad-painter speech becomes important, for whilst he raves at the vassal for imagining ‘that the earth will awake in spring ‘and’ that the rivers and seas will run with fish again,’ he also revels in the corresponding evocation for the madman: ‘Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!’


‘Where was I?’ asks Hamm before launching into his ‘chronicle.’ Where indeed; notjust ‘where have I got to in the story?’ ‘but also where was I to be found in it?’ I have tried to suggest by quotation that the answer is everywhere. Exemplifying a technique which is characteristic of Beckett’s handling of narrative forms within a play, Hamm’s ‘chronicle’ exists as an elaborately-worked metaphorical counterpoint to what we see before us as the ‘action’ of the play, at least insofar as that action concerns Hamm. The story has three ‘characters’: the ‘I’ is not Hamm as he was, but a fictional persona who does not ‘hesitate to end’ or, indeed, hesitate to do anything. He takes the vassal ‘into service’(‘He had touched a chord’) only because ‘then I imagined already that I wasn’t much longer for this world. (He laughs. Pause.) Well? (Pause.) Well? Here if you were careful you might die a nice natural death, in peace and comfort’ (37). The ‘Well?’ challenges himself to justify himself to himself (Well, why did you take him into service?), as though the taking of a servant is the great mistake. The vassal is nothing less than a personification of Hamm’s own impulse to survive—we have already noted the parallels. It is because of the contemptible vassal in him that Hamm, as he informs us himself (12), hesitates to end.


The urge to survive fathers creativity: the little boy left ‘deep in sleep’ ‘at Kov beyond the gulf’ (Clov beyond the gulf?) stands as an explicit symbol of the creativity within himself which Hamm needs to renounce or deny, but which his urge to survive will not allow him to. Creativity is essential to survival. That is why Hamm speaks ‘forcibly’ of the possibility of the ‘deep sleep’ being the sleep of death. His violent fulminations against the vassal, like his evocation of natural ‘loveliness’ for the mad-painter, enable him to have it both ways (as Gerald Weales recognized): he can anathematize creativity whilst at the same time colluding with it.


Eugene Webb writes that ‘from the context the vassal’s little boy appears to be a symbol of fertility and vitality. He was left “deep in sleep” three full days earlier, recalling the period between the death and resurrection of Christ, whose birth Hamm is preparing to observe, in a purely traditional way, with holly. Both the birth and resurrection of Christ are traditional symbols of the renewal of life, but Hamm refuses to contribute to the revival of the present embodiment of the same force.’25 ‘Refuses to contribute’? But this is exactly the point. The ‘chronicle’ trails off thus:


            Hamm : In the end he asked me would I consent to take in the child as

                          well—if he were still alive. (Pause.) It was the moment I was

                          waiting for. (Pause.) Would I consent to take in the child . . .

                          (Pause.) I can see him still, down on his knees, his hands flat

                          on the ground, glaring at me with his mad eyes, in defiance of

                          my wishes. (Pause. Normal tone.) I’ll soon have finished with

                          this story. (Pause.) Unless I bring in other characters.

                          (Pause.) But where would I find them? (Pause.) Where would

                          I look for them? (Pause. He whistles. Enter Clov.) Let us pray

                          to God.

            Nagg :   Me sugar-plum!

            Clov :    There’s a rat in the kitchen!

            Hamm : A rat! Are there still rats?

            Clov :    In the kitchen there’s one.

            Hamm : And you haven’t exterminated him?

            Clov :    Half. You disturbed us.

            Hamm : He can’t get away?

            Clov :    No.

            Hamm : You’ll finish him later. Let us pray to God. (37)


We have here an odd but characteristic bit of counterpointing between the stage-situation and the ‘situation’ within Hamm’s narrative. The moment Hamm says he was waiting for is also the moment we are waiting for. Will he or will he not consent to take in the child as well? Yet Hamm, hesitating to end as usual, sidesteps the crucial symbolic decision. Can he deny creativity and thus end? Or must he submit to the impulse for survival and accept creativity? Apparently he does neither: instead he starts talking about bringing in other characters and then decides to pray to God. This seems to be merely a bored, arbitrary abandonment of the subject, yet in one sense the fiction is continuing, only on another level - having merged imperceptibly with the ‘reality’ of the stage-situation. As narrator of the story, Hamm is a kind of God, and the great issue of his story, whether or not ‘he’ will consent to ‘take in’ the little boy, is directly parallel to his situation as narrator: ‘I’ll soon have finished with this story [. . .] Unless I bring in other characters.’ And since he is the God of the story, it is only logical that he should pray to God for more characters (‘But where would I find them? . . . Where would I look for them?’). Clov and the rat in the kitchen present a second parallel to Hamm’s predicament. As a direct result of Hamm’s hesitations over creativity and the little boy, Clov has only half-exterminated the rat in the kitchen. The failure to finish off mirrors Hamm’s own. The ‘climax’ of the ‘chronicle,’ then, is an impasse. Hamm wants to end, wants to destroy all the springs of creativity within himself, yet he cannot because there is always a part of him which wants to survive, hesitating to end. Creativity is a hated obligation. Nonetheless the climax of the ‘chronicle’ does not exactly disappear; rather it is displaced. Hamm cannot deny the symbolic potency of his own invented small boy, but when Clov seems to be inventing the identical symbol for his master’s benefit, Hamm finally feels that he can give up. Again, the ‘echo-principle’ works to confirm the link between the boy in Hamm’s story and the boy Clov sees out of the window near the end. When Clov sights the boy Hamm conjectures:’If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here. And if he doesn’t. . . ‘(my emphasis: the continuation, as we have seen, would have been ‘and if he doesn’t exist. . . ‘). Turning back to the ‘chronicle’ we find Hamm doubting the existence of the child which the wretched vassal has left behind: ‘No no, not a soul, except himself and the child - assuming he existed . . . And you expect me to believe you have left your little one back there, all alone, and alive into the bargain? Come now!’(36).26 The issue is one which concerns invention (or creation): for Hamm to reject Clov’s small boy outside the refuge is for him to reject the putative inventor ‘You think I’m inventing?’). If we take the ‘chronicle’ to be partially true the most obvious implication is that the small boy at ‘Kov’ is a fictional version of Clov. The rest of the play hints as much :


            Hamm : Do you remember when you came here?

            Clov :    No. Too small, you told me.

            Hamm : Do you remember your father?

            Clov :   (wearily). Same answer. (Pause.) You’ve asked me these

                         questions millions of times.

            Hamm : I love the old questions. (With fervour.) Ah the old questions,

                          the old answers, there’s nothing like them! (Pause.) It was I

                          was a father to you.

            Clov :    Yes. (He looks at Hamm fixedly.) You were that to me.        

            Hamm : My house a home for you.

            Clov :    Yes. (He looks about him.) This was that for me. (29)


And again when Hamm summarizes the ‘chronicle’ for Clov :


            Hamm : Crawling on his belly, whining for bread for his brat. He’s

                          offered a job as gardener. Before - (Clov bursts out

                          laughing.) What is there so funny about that?

            Clov :    A job as a gardener!

            Hamm : Is that what tickles you?

            Clov :    It must be that.

            Hamm : It wouldn’t be the bread?

            Clov :   Or the brat. (40)


Clov is the living presence of the small-boy symbol. When Hamm tells him ‘I don’t need you any more,’ he is symbolically disclaiming creativity.


But of course Hamm’s disclaiming, like everything else at the end of the play, is ambiguous. He takes up the ‘chronicle’ again momentarily in his final soliloquy, but still nothing is resolved, except perhaps the elements of the story :


            ... (Narrative tone.) If he could have his child with him . . . (Pause.) It

            was the moment I was waiting for. (Pause.) You don’t want to

            abandon him? You want him to bloom while you are withering? Be       

            there to solace your last million last moments? (Pause.) He doesn’t

            realise, all he knows is hunger, and cold, and death to crown it all. But

            you! You ought to know what the earth is like nowadays. Oh, I put him

            before his responsibilities! (Pause. Normal tone.) Well, there we are,

            there I am, that is enough. (52)


There he is indeed. And there is Clov ‘impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on Hamm, till the end.’ The way the text mirrors the stage-situation is now clearer than ever. The characters seem almost to merge into their fictions: Hamm into the vassal, Clov into the small boy ; Hamm withering and Clov solacing his father’s last million last moments. The ‘chronicle’ can now be seen for what it always was: an expanded image of Hamm’s own creative situation.


‘But if the occasion appears as an unstable term of relation, the artist, who is the other term, is hardly less so, thanks to his warren of modes and attitudes.’27 This, from Three dialogues, might be a gloss on Hamm, than whom no Beckett character, unless it be Winnie in Happy days, has a more extensive and thoroughly explored warren of modes and attitudes. Hugh Kenner, in a review of Ends and odds (1977), maintains that Beckett’s plays ‘work by locating the most lyrical or the most outrageous sentiment firmly within the compass of an alien voice -the kind of thing he says—and then letting the voice multiply voices, create more characters, till the voice we first heard seems but another creation and the sentiment is dispersed by a wilderness of mirrors. ‘Can there be misery . . . loftier than mine?” That was Hamm, hamming, and later Hamm becomes the fantasist of a dreadful tale in which peasants (sic) crawl toward him on their bellies. Then wasn’t the Hamm we first heard a fantasy too? His own? Whose?’28 As Kenner’s questions suggest, Hamm himself is not a ‘stable term.’ I said that he was Everywhere in his story, and yet, because all those versions of himself are incomplete, imperfect, there is a sense in which he is Nowhere. What, for example, do we see in front of us on the stage? Hamm is, as his name suggests, the type of the Actor, ‘a creature all circumference and no center.’29 He is made up of his ‘stiff toque’ and whistle, his dressing-gown, his rug, his thick socks, his black glasses and his sudarium, placed ‘more or less’ ‘roughly’ ‘right in the centre’ of the stage, assuming his various ‘modes and attitudes.’ Even more obviously than any of the characters in Godot (save perhaps his immediate ancestor Pozzo), Hamm’s, to use Alain Robbe-Grillet’s fine phrase, a ‘provisional being.’30 His presence is not authentic, completed, but the parody presence of the Actor.


Endgame is full of things imperfect or unfinished : the half-exterminated rat; the nearly-white dog which ‘isn’t finished’ (the sex goes on at the end); Hamm’s ‘chronicle’ itself (‘I’ll soon have finished with this story’); his image of ‘the millet grains of . . . that old Greek’ - ‘all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life’ (45); the physical states of all the characters, and the endgame itself (‘Old stancher . . . You . . . remain,’ 53). The play’s opening words—‘finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished’ (12)—are also its most poignantly ironic ones. The dog, the ‘chronicle,’ the game itself are all creations: they are not just imperfect but imperfectly created. Hamm invents images, stories and fantasies because, in order to survive against the threatening outside (‘outside of here it’s death’), he is obliged to create himself; he is perpetually attempting to ‘finish off’ a self imperfectly created and therefore existing only in a parodic dimension, a ‘parody presence.’


Though it is less obvious here than in the plays which follow, Endgame too has as its prime mover the creative obligation of which its author spoke in Three dialogues. There the nature of the obligation remains obscure (‘I don’t know’ admits Beckett when Duthuit asks him why the artist is obliged to create31). The insurmountable problem of statement which faces Beckett in the essentially theoretical medium of the dialogues is made plain at every turn; indeed it is one reason why these pieces are cast in dialogue-form and not as short essays by Beckett alone—in dialogue he can be meaningfully silent, he can exit weeping, he can even retract his central contentions. But a play like Endgame is not confined by the exigencies of theory: it may state (though even then its ‘statement’ will be of a different kind from those made in a theoretical work) but it is not bound to. As we have seen, Endgame works by indirection: image, symbol, narrative, gesture and echo all converge patiently on a centre which is, like Hamm himself, unstable, indefinable, perhaps even non-existent. Ultimately, the play’s form constitutes its most significant insight into the essentially ontological nature of the creative obligation.


1 Endgame followed by Act without words, London, Faber and Faber, 1958. 11. All references, cited  

   parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.

2 Drama and reality, (London, 1972) 152. Gaskell’s whole discussion is illuminating on Beckett’s rejection of naturalism.

3 See, for example, John Spurling’s discussion of the play in Beckett: a study of his plays, (London, 1972) 72 ff.

4 In Back to Beckett, (Princeton, N.J., 1973) 153.

5 Quoted in Back to Beckett, 142.

6 Quoted in Back to Beckett, 152.

7 ‘Theatre I’ in Ends and odds, (London: Faber and Faber, 1977) 63.

8 Samuel Beckett: a critical study, (London: John Calder, 1962) 155.

9 Samuel Beckett, (Glasgow, 1973) 94.

10 I have in mind, of course, the words of Beckett to Alan Schneider in a letter dated 12 August 1957: ‘My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no pun intended) made as fully as possible and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have head-aches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.’

11 Quoted in Alec Reid, All I can manage, more than I could: an approach to the plays of Samuel Beckett, (Dublin, 1968) 71.

12 Alvarez, 92.

13 Critical study, 162.

14 Fin de partie suivi de Acte sans paroles, (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957) 108-9.

15 Fin de partie, 62.

16 Waiting for Godot, (London: Faber and Faber, 1956) 34.

17 transition, 27 (1938) 289.

18 In ‘Tal Coat,’ Proust and Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, (London: John Calder, 1965) 103.

19 Quoted in Hans-Peter Hasselbach, ‘Samuel Beckett’s Endgame : a structural analysis,’ (Modern drama, 19, 1976) 27.

20 Critical study, 164.

21 ‘Hamm, Clov, and Dramatic Method in Endgame’ in Twentieth century interpretations of ‘Endgame’: a collection of critical essays, (ed. Bell Gale Chevigny, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969) 62.

22 Op. cit., 63.

23 ‘The Language of Endgame,’ (Tulane drama review, 6, No. 4, June 1962) 116.

24 Stanley Cavell has spotted this pun before me in Must we mean what we say? a book of essays, (New York, 1969) 143.

25 The plays of Samuel Beckett, (Seattle, 1972) 57.

26 The original (and in this episode much longer) French text also provides a firm link between the two (?) boys. In the ‘chronicle’ Hamm’s vassal speaks of ‘my little boy, he said, as if the sex mattered’(36), and in the French text when Clov spots the child (‘C’est quelqu’un!’) Hamm asks ‘Sexe?’ ‘Quelle importance?’ retorts Clov (Fin de partie, 104). The varying concern with sex is another example of the way his fictional persona differs from the hesitating Hamm on the stage.

27 Proust and Three dialogues, 124.

28 ‘Hope-less Verse,’ (Hibernia, 24 June 1977) 19.

29 The phrase is Hugh Kenner’s, Critical study, 160.

30 See ‘Samuel Beckett, or “Presence” in the Theatre’ in Samuel Beckett: a collection of critical essays, (ed. Martin Esslin, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965) 115.

31 Proust and Three dialogues, 119.