Style and strategy in ‘Endgame


Rei Noguchi



In analyzing the language of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Gerald Weales found delight in the ‘sudden recognition of the rhythm and grace of simple sentences in repetitive patterns; the incongruity of an ordinary conver­sation in an unlikely context; and, most important, the surprise that follows when a word in daily use is taken literally’.1 Weales went on to say that many of the exchanges in Endgame bring to mind the sounds of vaudeville or the music hall and sometimes even suggest the old Abbott and Costello routine of ‘Who’s on first?’:


HAMM: He comes crawling on his belly -


CLOV: Who?


HAMM: What?


CLOV: Who do you mean, he?


HAMM: Who do I mean! Yet another.


CLOV: Ah him! I wasn’t sure. (p. 59-60)


Stanley Cavell has also pointed out that, among other things, repartee is highly characteristic of Endgame and of Beckett in general, but repartee of a special kind, one in which ‘victory or salvation consists (not exactly in proving a point or defending a position but) in coming up with the right answer - or rather, the next answer, one which continues the dialogue, but whose point is to win a contest of wits by capping a gag or getting the last word’ .2


It is not part of my purpose to dispute the stylistic perceptions of Cavell and Weales. No one could deny that Hamm and Clov converse in certain distinctive ways and that these distinctive ways can find agreement among readers. I should, however, like to extend the terms of their analyses by examining why Hamm and Clov speak the way they do. To put it another way, given the kinds of stylistic features identified by Weales and Cavell, why do such features occur in the dialogue of Endgame in the first place?


The optimum way of answering this question is to approach it by way of conversational ends and conversational means. I assume that when characters in drama participate in conversation they do so with purposes similar to those of people in real life; that is, they converse to convey information, to implement some action, to reaffirm the bonds of social union, and the like. I assume further than when characters in drama seek certain ends they do not seek to achieve them in a solely random way; thus characters in drama, like people in real life, will take care to fashion their utterances to produce certain effects, to gain certain preliminary outcomes, to make certain impressions. The accomplishment of ends, I suggest, requires or is at least facilitated by the use of certain verbal ploys or what one language scholar has called ‘conversational strategems’ - devices which achieve conversational purposes but which simul­taneously conceal these purposes.3


Verbal ploys, of course, are not magic formulae. Their effectiveness depends on, among other things, matching the right ploy not only to the end in mind but also to the situation. A field commander should not expect to inspire confidence in his troops by being mealy-mouthed before the big battle. But what is the situation in Endgame? Obviously, this is a question which cannot be answered easily in a few words, for in the play we encounter a range of situations as the play develops. We can, however, fruitfully explore ends and means by focusing on some essentials, or better yet, a specific kind of essential.


According to Eugene Webb, what is important in Beckett’s plays is not so much the conventional elements of plot but rather the essential situation - the stark, perplexing, and often cruel reality in which the characters find themselves.4 Although the essential situation in Endgame broaches the loftier metaphysical situation (is there a God? Does he care?), my purposes are served by focusing on a more limited and mundane sphere - the essential conversational situation. This focus seems appropriate if for no other reason than that Hamm and Clov must cope not only with the cosmic elements (or lack of them) but also with each other. For Clov, the situation is especially harsh and trying since he must daily cope with the verbal tyranny of Hamm. The question then is, how does Clov cope or try to cope? That is, what strategies does he employ or try to employ? In addressing this issue, we obviously need to take a closer look at the conversational situation (greater and smaller) existing between Hamm and Clov. Scrutiny here will, I believe, help to explain why certain strategies are used and, ultimately, why stylistic features of the kind Weales and Cavell have identified are basic to the dialogue of Endgame.


One obvious but important aspect of the conversational situation in Endgame is that Hamm and Clov stand in a distinct hierarchical relation­ship to each other. As adoptive and putative father, Hamm holds a superordinate position, while Clov, as adopted and putative son, holds a subordinate position. The inequality of status between Hamm and Clov is socially marked in the way the two characters speak to each other; that is, father and son differ not only in what they say to each but also in how they say it. The difference in relative status does not, however, correlate consistently with any fixed speaking order. As far as can be discerned, either party may speak first. Another way of stating this would be to say that the order of speakers in Endgame is more dependent upon the immediate situation than upon some prearranged speaking order.5


I raise the issue of speaking order here because the question of who speaks first in conversational exchanges has considerable interactional consequences. As analysts of conversation have pointed out, he who issues the first solicitation (question, request, or remark) in exchanges not only socially obligates the addressee to give a proper response to the solicitation but also reserves for himself a slot after the response to issue another solicitation .6 For example, a first question, if given a proper answer, may invite another question after the answer. Interactionally, what happens is that the first speaker, by issuing a solicitation and receiving a proper response, gains the soliciting position. I should emphasize that in the two-part sequence of solicitation + response, the two speakers tacitly negotiate the role of solicitor.7 When the first speaker issues a solicitation, he lays claim to solicitorship; he establishes solicitor­ship when the second speaker ratifies the claim by issuing a proper response to the solicitation.


Gaining the soliciting position, of course, brings considerable power. For example, by holding the soliciting position, a speaker can socially con­strain the type of utterance immediately following the solicitation. A question calls for an answer; a request, for a response; a remark, for an evaluation. Holding the soliciting position also allows a speaker to control to a large extent the topic or topics that can enter the conversation proper. From the advantageous position of solicitor, a speaker can, for example, readily initiate the opening, changing, and closing of topics. In sum, solicitorship brings power because the speaker who gains and maintains it can control to a large extent the direction the conversation will take.


Fortunately for Clov, there exists in Endgame no precedence rule stipu­lating that the speaker of higher status always speaks first. Unfortunately for Clov, the lack of such a precedence rule does not hinder Hamm from gaining the soliciting position and asserting his authority over Clov once the conversation has been initiated. Indeed, after gaining the soliciting position, so strongly and arbitrarily does Hamm assert his authority that Clov becomes no more than a servant running hither and thither to satisfy his master’s whims. Hamm’s propensity for exploitation naturally puts Clov in a highly vulnerable position, for he cannot appeal to fair play or mercy. Indeed, it is a striking feature of Endgame that Hamm is as unfeeling to Clov at the end of the play as he is in the beginning.


Despite his vulnerability to Hamm’s tyranny, Clov is not, however, completely defenseless. Apparently the relationship between Hamm and Clov is such that it will allow (up to a point) an inferior to issue a countering speech, or ‘counter’, to the speech of a superior. By ‘counter’ I mean a type of speech which, instead of satisfying the expectations and obligations established by the immediately preceding solicitation (i.e., which succeeds as a ‘proper response’), simultaneously challenges and solicits a speech of its own.8 Of the many counters in Endgame (which constitute much of the so-called ‘repartee’ in the play), the following are illustrative:


HAMM: . . . Why do you stay with me?


CLOV: Why do you keep me? (p. 6)


HAMM: . . . It’s a lie! Why do you lie to me!


CLOY: There! There! (p. 25)


HAMM: . . . Is she buried?


CLOV: Buried? Who would have buried her? (p. 42)


HAMM: . . . Go and get the oilcan.


CLOV: What for? (p. 43)


HAMM: Is it working?

  The alarm, is it working?


CLOV: Why wouldn’t it be working? (p. 47)


HAMM: Don’t sing.


CLOV: One hasn’t the right to sing any more? (p. 72)



In each of these examples, we find a solicitation followed not by a ‘proper’ response but by an utterance which both challenges and solicits (i.e., a ‘counter’). In each of these examples, it is clear that Clov not only can, but does make use of counters to challenge many of Hamm’s speeches. To the extent that these challenges display Clov’s dissatisfaction with Hamm’s actions and to the extent that Hamm can correctly interpret these displays and heed their meanings, Clov can evidently control some of Hamm’s subsequent behaviour.


Yet, to view some of Clov’s speeches as challenges to Hamm’s speeches and leave it at that does little justice to some of the interactional subtleties involved. A less obvious and perhaps more revealing way of viewing Clov’s counters is to view them as purposive devices to oust Hamm from his solicitor position. Indeed, part of the potency of counters stems from their capacity not only to challenge some aspect of the preceding solici­tation but also reverse the solicitor-solicited roles. And as Clov must realize, a Hamm without solicitorship is a Hamm without access to much of his power.


Because of its soliciting function, a counter, like a solicitation, serves as a claim to solicitorship, and, as with a solicitation, a proper response by the other party serves as a ratification of that claim. What Clov must do to effect a reversal of the typical alignment in Endgame (i.e., Hamm as solicitor and Clov as solicited) - and this is no easy task - is to extract from Hamm a proper response to a counter and, hence, a ratification of solicitorship.


The following interactional sequence provides a good example of Clov trying to obtain the solicitor role for Hamm and Hamm trying equally hard to maintain it:



HAMM: . . . Do you know what’s happened? (Pause.) Clov!


CLOV: (turning towards Hamm, exasperated) Do you want me to look at this muckheap, yes or no?


HAMM: Answer me first.


CLOV: What?


HAMM: Do you know what’s happened?


CLOV: When? Where?


HAMM: (violently)

When! What happened? Use your head, can’t you! What has happened?


CLOV: What for Christ’s sake does it matter?


HAMM: I don’t know. (p. 74-75)



When Hamm issues the solicitation ‘Do you know what’s happened?’ and Clov responds with silence (as indicated by the pause in the stage directions), Clov fails to reconfirm Hamm’s solicitorship. Lacking this reconfirmation, Hamm issues his ‘Clov!’, an utterance whose semantic import is a command for Clov to pay attention or to answer the preceding question (or both) and whose interactional purport is, once again, to acquire a reconfirmation of his solicitorship. Clov’s `Do you want me to look at this muckheap, yes or no?’ tells Hamm that Clov is, indeed, paying attention; however, by putting this display in the form of a solici­tation, Clov manages to place himself halfway to achieving solicitorship. If Hamm’s next utterance were to give a proper response to what is requested in the solicitation, Clov would have established himself in the solicitor position. Hamm’s next utterance (‘Answer me first’), however, not only fails to respond properly to the solicitation (and thereby to ratify Clov’s ascension into the solicitor position) but also again places Clov in a situation where a proper response by him would reconfirm Hamm’s solicitorship. Clov declines this invitation by issuing a solicitous ‘What?’ Hamm’s subsequent response (‘Do you know what’s happened?’) satisfies Clov’s query, but because it takes the form of a question, it once again invites Clov to supply a reconfirmation of his solicitorship. Clov once again declines the invitation, this time by issuing a double solici­tation (`When? Where?’), to which Hamm responds with his own series of solicitations, to which Clov responds with yet one more solicitation.


When viewed as purposive devices to secure solicitorship, then, the manifestations of counters (both single and multiple) in Endgame take on much greater significance than mere repartee. On a more abstract level, they form a set of connected interactions in which Clov and Hamm verbally challenge each other for temporary control of the conversation, each party issuing counters in hopes of receiving a proper response which will establish him (in Clov’s case) or re-establish him (in Hamm’s case) in the solicitor position. (Even the old Abbott and Costello routine which I cited at the beginning of this essay could be construed in this way). We might even say that the number of counters, especially the number of back-to-back counters, is but a measure of the intensity with which this interactional struggle is being waged. As the example above suggests, this struggle can extend through a multiplicity of speaking turns with neither party willing to acquiesce to the other.


That Clov cannot win these sallies and acquire solicitorship (or if he were to acquire it, maintain it) means, of course, that he will have to resort to other courses of action to cope with Hamm. In the event Clov does seem to have a number of options open to him, but each has its drawbacks. Clov could, for instance, abandon Hamm as he does, or at least, as he attempts to do, at the end of the play. Clov realizes, however, that outside of Hamm’s abode ‘it’s death’. Moreover, to leave Hamm would mean certain death for Hamm since he is paraplegic and cannot feed himself. Another course of action would be for Clov to remain in Hamm’s abode and to try to avoid Hamm as much as possible. This would, however, appear difficult not only because of the small size of Hamm’s abode but also because of Hamm’s penchant for asserting his authority over Clov whenever the opportunity arises. Just as futile, perhaps, would be for Clov to wait until Hamm undergoes a change of heart in his behaviour towards him. Clov has suffered numerous cruelties at the hands of his putative father, but these cruelties, as Clov realizes, have produced in Hamm neither pangs of conscience nor physical exhaustion.


A careful reading of the play shows that, throughout most of the play, Clov chooses to remain with Hamm and, if not to enjoy, then at least to endure Hamm’s whims. Clov, in short, adopts a strategy of accom­modation. That this strategy of accommodation is only intermittently successful is evidenced by Clov’s repeated recourse to counters. But since Clov maintains this general strategy of accommodation (or at least partial accommodation) throughout most of the play, the relevant question becomes: what verbal strategy can Clov adopt to cope with the likely abuse he will receive from Hamm? Since Clov’s general plan is to accommodate as much as possible Hamm’s dictatorial behavior, he cannot use counters to prevent the introduction of unpleasant topics or to shut down conversation altogether (with, for example, a resounding ‘Shut up!’). Although Clov no doubt wishes he could take such measures, these options are largely unavailable to him given his subordinate relationship to Hamm. Moreover, even if he could resort to such measures they would seem to be doomed to failure given Hamm’s insistence on having things his own way. A shutdown of conversation would in fact be especially repugnant to Hamm given his fondness for dialogue.9


While Clov cannot summarily shut down conversation, he can do (or attempt to do) the next best thing under the circumstances, namely, to accommodate Hamm conversationally but to make him struggle every step of the way. In this regard, counters of the following type are of particular importance to Clov’s strategy of accommodation:


HAMM: Go and get two bicycle-wheels.


CLOY: There are no more bicycle-wheels.


HAMM: What have you done with your bicycle?


CLOY: I never had

a bicycle. (p. S)


HAMM: Give him his pap.


CLOV: There’s no more pap. (p. 9)


HAMM: Sit on him!


CLOV: I can’t sit. (p. 10)


HAMM: Nature has forgotten us.


CLOV: There’s no nature. (p. 11)


HAMM: Has he changed your sawdust?


CLOV: It isn’t sawdust. (p. 17)


HAMM: . . . The dog’s gone.


CLOV: He’s not a real dog, he can’t go. (p. 56)


HAMM: . . . Give me a rug, I’m freezing.


CLOV: There are no more rugs. (p. 67)


HAMM: He can’t go far. Eh?


CLOV: He doesn’t need to go far.


HAMM: Is it time for my pain-killer?


CLOY: Yes.


HAMM: Ah! At last! Give it to me!



CLOV: There’s no more pain-killer. (p. 71)


HAMM: . . . Put me in my coffin.


CLOV: There are no more coffins. (p. 79)


HAMM: Before you go . . . . . . say something.


CLOV: There is nothing to say. (p. 79)


These responses are examples not so much of what Weales calls the ‘incongruity of an ordinary conversation in an unlikely context,’ but rather the repetitive pattern of simple sentences to which he also refers. The pattern here is, of course, not only syntactic but semantic as well: the counters here generally challenge a presupposition that a particular ability or particular referent exists.


But how do these counters relate to Clov’s strategy of accommodation? We can get a clearer picture by focusing on one example. When Hamm says to Clov ‘Go and get two bicycle-wheels’ and Clov responds ‘There are no more bicycle-wheels,’ Clov interactionally accomplishes several important accommodative actions. On the more superficial level, he provides an utterance that indicates to Hamm that he has heard and interpreted the solicitation and that it deserves some relevant response. Clov’s utterance, in other words, signals to Hamm that Clov is attuned to Hamm’s speech and that he is willing to continue participation (though not necessarily happily) in the ongoing conversation.


On a deeper level, however, Clov’s utterance has more important inter­actional consequences with respect to his accommodative strategy. One peculiar quality of the counters above is that they allow Clov, so to speak, to have his cake and to eat it too. On the one hand Clov’s ‘There are no more bicycle-wheels’ is accommodative insofar as it cannot be construed as a direct refusal to execute the command. Clov does not explicitly state that he will not get the two wheels. Indeed, the response could be interpreted as ‘I would get two bicycle-wheels if there were two bicycle­ wheels to get’. But Clov’s utterance is accommodative in a much more profound sense. By saying ‘There are no more bicycle-wheels,’ Clov not only indicates to Hamm that Hamm has erred in making such a solicitation when, in fact, no bicycle-wheels exist to get but also indicates that he is willing to help Hamm correct the error. Clov, in other words, accom­modates Hamm by offering him assistance when and where (whether he is aware of it or not) assistance is clearly needed.


The same kind of situation obtains in respect of those counters which point out some mistakenly assumed ability. When, for example, Hamm says ‘Sit down on him’ and Clov replies ‘I can’t sit,’ this should not be construed as a refusal on Clov’s part to comply. Beckett has stressed repeatedly that the dramatic situation in Endgame (as in other plays) is essentially simple, and a simple appraisal of Clov’s remark yields the eminently mundane meaning that he would sit down if he were physically capable (which he is not). Clov’s ‘I can’t sit’ is in essence accommodative in that it points out an error and attempts to help rectify it.


Yet it would be false to the play to interpret the counters cited above as merely accommodative. However much they may exhibit deference on one level of analysis, they are obviously challenges on another. Utterances of this type invariably challenge certain presuppositions inherent in the solicitations themselves. In Endgame they represent a challenge to Hamm’s ability to produce logically appropriate solicitations, and by extension they call in question his ability to handle the solicitor role in conversation. Clov’s counters are carefully designed to imply that in view of his frailties Hamm would do well either to make fewer solicitations or to relinquish the solicitor role altogether, either of which outcomes Clov would naturally welcome and even relish, given the conditions under which he lives and labours.


Because of the indirection involved, the subtler and less complimentary meaning of Clov’s counters could easily pass unnoticed by Hamm, who is of a markedly self-absorbed disposition. Yet Hamm’s loss is Clov’s gain, inevitably so given the fulcrum of forces upon which the play depends. It is of particular strategic importance to Clov that he should manage not only to challenge Hamm’s solicitations but also to win for himself a measure of satisfaction by diverting Hamm into logical dead ends - both of these aims to be achieved under the cover of accom­modation. In this sense the situation is one in which Clov, while seemingly doomed to lose, cannot lose. For if his counters should be taken as uncomplimentary and aggressive, Clov can always dismiss this as merely a misunderstanding on Hamm’s part. Not even Hamm can hold him directly accountable for what he has never directly uttered.


The foregoing analysis is not intended to be in any way exhaustive. My purpose has been merely to explore some of the complex and purposeful uses characters make of speech in dialogue by applying a rudimentary methodology. I have made no attempt to address the ‘overtones’ which Beckett himself tends to regard with suspicion. And valuable as such attempts have been, there may be something to be gained from treating this play in the ‘real life’ terms that are currently deemed to be outmoded and inappropriate. But it is easy to forget that, like people in real life, characters in drama devise and utilize various strategies because they want their utterance to accomplish certain things. The literary critic may have something to learn from his colleague, the socio-linguist. The latter can tell us at least as much as the former about what seems to be happening in dramatic dialogue. From such a perspective we may gain if not a clearer then at least a more detailed picture of what we mean when we say two characters interact.






1 ‘The language of Endgame’, Tulane drama review, 6, 1962, 110. Citations from Endgame are from the Grove Press edition of 1958.


2 ‘Ending the waiting game: a reading of Beckett’s Endgame’, in Stanley Cavell, Must we mean what we say? New York: Scribner’s, 1969, p. 127.


3 Ann Weiser, ‘How to not answer a question: purposive devices in conversational strategy’, in Papers from the eleventh regional meeting, Chicago linguistic society, ed. Robin E. Grossman et al. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 1975, p. 650.


4 The plays of Samuel Beckett, Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1972, p. 65.


5 Speaking order, or ‘turn-taking’, in conversation is not the same across different cultures. For example, among the people of Burundi, relative status governs the order of speakers in a group, the one highest in status speaking first and so on down the line. See Ethel M. Albert, ‘Culture patterning of speech behavior in Burundi’, in Directions in sociolinguistics, ed. John J. Gumperz and Deli Hymes New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972, pp. 72-105. Those interested in a detailed account of the mechanics of turn-taking in American and other cultures are referred to Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A. Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson, ‘A simple systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation’, Language, 50 (1974), 696-735.


6 This observation comes originally from Harvey Sacks, a conversational analyst of the ethnomethodological school of sociology; cited in Matthew Speier, How to observe face-to-face communication, Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear, 1973, p. 97. A clear and cogent summary of the scope and methods of conversational analysis appears in Malcolm Coulthard, An introduction to discourse analysis London: Longman, 1977, pp. 52-92. A collection of studies by conversational analysts can be found in Studies in social interaction, ed. David Sudnow, New York: Free Press, 1972. More recent collections include Studies in the organization of conversational interaction, ed. Jim Schenkein, New York: Academic Press, 1978 and Conversational routine, ed. Florian Coulmas, The Hague: Mouton, 1981. A series of articles devoted to language and social interaction appears in a special issue of Sociological inquiry, 50, nos. 3-4, 1980.


7 The negotiated aspect of conversation constitutes one of the prime areas of study among the conversational analysts. For a study of the negotiated nature of conversational closings, see Emanuel A. Schegloff and Harvey Sacks, ‘Opening up closings’, Semiotica, 8, 1973, 289-327; for analyses of the negotiated nature of repairs in conversation, see Gail Jefferson, ‘Error Correction as an Interactional Resource’, Language in society, 2 1974, 181-99, and Emanuel A. Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, and Harvey Sacks, ‘The preference for self-correction in the organization of repair in conversation,’ Language, 53, 1977, 361-82.


8 I borrow the notion of countering speech, or what I call a counter, from Thomas P. Klammer, ‘Foundations for a theory of dialogue structure’, Poetics, 9, 1973, 33.


9 At one point in the play where Clov is threatening to leave Hamm, this well-known exchange sequence occurs:


CLOV: I’ll leave you.




CLOV: What is there to keep me here?


HAMM: The dialogue. (p. 58)


Without prejudice to those commentators who treat Endgame as a largely autotelic construct, there may be some benefit to be derived from noting that it is Hamm rather than Clov who utters the celebrated last line of this exchange.