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Endgame | Context

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Aftermath of World War II

Samuel Beckett's major plays were written in the years after World War II. He had lived in German-occupied Paris and worked with the French Resistance to undermine Nazi control until 1942, when he fled France to avoid arrest. After the Allied victory in Europe, Beckett volunteered for the Red Cross at a military hospital in Normandy in 1945. Beckett's draft manuscripts of Endgame suggest the inspiration for the play's setting was a war hospital.

The destruction of life Beckett witnessed during the war mingles with postwar anxiety about nuclear destruction to form a backdrop for Endgame. The character Clov describes a barren landscape just outside the windows, which recalls the devastation wrought by the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the war's end. As the sole survivors of humanity, Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell exist in a bunker-like setting. The sense of living minute to minute in uncertainty, common in wartime, is prevalent in Endgame.

Theater of the Absurd

One of the most important literary trends of postwar Europe, so-called absurdist drama, was not a conscious, clearly defined movement. Theater scholar Martin Esslin popularized the term "Theater of the Absurd" in his 1961 book of the same name, and Beckett's plays are among those most closely associated with absurdist characteristics. Absurdist plays break with traditional structures and use language to convey images and ideas that appear to have no clear meaning or resolution. Beckett's dramas, along with the plays of Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov, present action and characters in which a lack of purpose and self-determination create uncertainty, hopelessness, anxiety, and humor.

Beckett's 1953 play Waiting for Godot was the first absurdist play to become internationally famous. Endgame, written a few years later, shares an equally bleak view of human existence. Both plays present pairs of characters struggling to find meaning in an absurd world. Yet the tone of Endgame is harsher and more desperate. Beckett describes Endgame as "rather difficult and ellipitic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than Godot." Trapped in a claustrophobic setting, the characters struggle to find words that "mean something" in order to escape the absurd condition of their existence.

The lives of the characters—Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell—seem to have been reduced to the present moment. The characters have only vague memories of the past and no hope for a future. Staging the emptiness of his characters' lives, Beckett creates a deep level of discomfort for his audience, who wonders whether the game will end or merely repeat. In this way the audience becomes a part of the same game.

Postmodernism

Postmodernism, a literary genre that arose after World War II, followed the modernist period, a reaction to the new social order that followed the end of the Industrial Age and the Victorian Age. Modernist writers used new storytelling topics and techniques—including stream of consciousness, an attempt to mimic the way in which characters think.

Postmodern writers pushed beyond modernist techniques, often reflecting varied storytelling styles in a single work, a technique known as pastiche. The character Hamm in Endgame is a postmodern hero, a character whose dialogue recalls other plays, other people, and other genres. He makes reference to plays by Shakespeare, such as Richard III and The Tempest, and his name and actions (or lack of action) recall the ultimate, indecisive Shakespearean character, Hamlet. As a blind, dying man, once a tyrant but now facing his end, he is like King Lear. Hamm's name also invokes the biblical Ham, the son of Noah from the Old Testament. Silent movies and pantomime, classical tragedy (Hamm proclaims toward the play's end, "I'm warming up for my last soliloquy"), and comedies all compose a shifting dramatic landscape in which Hamm plays many parts with little connection to their historical origins. He is more a mash-up of dramatic roles than an integrated dramatic character.

Characteristics of postmodernism that most inform Endgame are

  • parody and pastiche or varied styles of storytelling;
  • fragmentation of the story line;
  • the hollowing out of emotion;
  • and the chaotic repetition of elements, often to show the failure of history and time to generate meaning.

Endgame on the Stage

Beckett himself translated Endgame into English from the French in which he wrote it. His control over the text extended to productions of the play onstage. In spite of the huge success of his play Waiting for Godot in 1953, theaters in France were reluctant to stage the even more raw, spare, and bewildering story of Endgame. Thus, the play was performed in England at the Royal Court Theatre in its original French in 1957. The English language debut of the play came in 1958 in New York City. Beckett approved of the production, which garnered critical acclaim.

Unlike some dramatists who are willing to relinquish their plays to the creative interpretations of others, Beckett was a fierce protector of his texts. One of the most public conflicts between any playwright and a production came in 1984 when Beckett challenged a stage interpretation of Endgame in New York. The now infamous "subway station set" of a production directed by JoAnne Akalaitis pushed to the foreground the issue of just how much a playwright can or should control a play's production. The answer for Beckett was "completely." In the Akalaitis production, the action of Endgame is set in an abandoned subway station and minimal music is introduced before the play begins and occasionally, briefly throughout. The characters' action, for the most part, follows Beckett's text.

Although some argued that the spirit of the production reflected the original play, Beckett was furious and attempted legal action to shutter the production. Eventually the subway Endgame was allowed to open. The compromise was a disclaimer by the author inserted in the programs. Beckett wrote, in part,

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this.

The production staff offered a counterargument for artistic freedom, and the show went on.

Beckett died in 1989, but his estate still enforces Beckett's wishes that his plays be performed in exact adherence to the stage directions he wrote. Although there have been, and surely will continue to be, engaging and successful performances of his plays under those rules, his directive might also limit the effect his plays might have on audiences if staged through a contemporary lens.

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