Tragedy, it's tragedy, nearly tragedy, it must be nearly tragedy. Generically speaking, I mean. What is Endgame about, after all? It is about meaninglessness, absurdity, yes yes, no question. But it is about play, a play about play, about the end of the play. Chess pieces are stylised figures that are moved according to limited rules about a simplified board. Endgame suggests that our reactions (for we always react and we never proact) to suffering are as ritualised and constrained, which they probably are. Theatrical performance entails learning lines and repeating them, on cue, whether or not you want to, whether or not you understand them, just to fill up the time allotted; and life, says Beckett, is the same. ‘Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there's nothing like them!’ enthuses Hamm. And although Hamm's first words gesture towards some mode of game (‘Me—[he yawns]—to play’), it is Hamm's second comment that turns out to be the more relevant, actually:
[He holds the handkerchief spread out before him.] Old stancher! [He takes off his glasses, wipes his eyes, his face, the glasses, puts them on again, folds the handkerchief and puts it neatly in the breast-pocket of his dressing gown]That is also how the play ends, of course: ‘[he holds the handkerchief spread out before him.] Old stancher! [Pause.] You ... remain. [Pause. He covers his face with handkerchief, lowers his arms to armrest, remains motionless.]’ We can believe he's dead at last, or perhaps that he's been dead the whole time and has now moved into a different, stiller phase of death. Death is the end of all things and the game of things. Fin. A handkerchief is a stancher in the sense that it stanches the flow of tears, snot, blood. The word is from the Latin, stāns, stāntis: standing, staying, remaining, from stō (“stand”) Archimedes very place from which the whole world could be leveraged—if only you could reach it. What stands, in the flow of life? Death. What can be leveraged from death? Nothing very much but, maybe, something after all; and that something we bracket as tragedy.
Why a handkerchief? Because Othello. Why is Hamm blind? Because Oedipus Coloneus. Why are the two main characters called ‘Hamm’ and ‘Clov’? Because Beckett is playing name-games with theatre's most celebrated graveyard. Hamm is a half-Hamlet, mouthed at the point where the name is cut in two so to draw out the mm; Clov is the Gravedigger, and here the severance is more pedantically precise, taking the character's moniker as used in the First Folio, ‘CLOWN’ and bringing the cleaver down to isolate the middle of the middle of its Renaissance orthography, ‘CLOVVNE’. Hamm gets his medial ‘M’ doubled, because to those that have (even when those that have have very little) shall be given; Clov gets his upturned medial ‘W’ sliced rudely in half because from those that have not shall be taken away, even when there's nothing to be taken away. Very Beckettian that. Endgame is located in the ruins of civilisation (‘the setting must be after a nuclear war’ the critics speculate), in the ruins of life itself, but above all it is located in the ruins of canonical literary greatness. We're in the bone orchard with Hamm and Clov and Beckett is cutting his Shakespeare-in-modern-clothes dialogue directly from the original fabric:
HAMLET. I will speake to this fellow: whose Graue's this Sir?All this sort of laugh-thin, pointless, time-filling roundabout of chatter and jokes is, entirely, Beckett's play. That potentially endless roundel of talk circling the big hole in the ground into which we are pitched at the last, unhoused, uncoffined (‘put me in my coffin’, Hamm orders, near the end; to which Clov replies ‘there are no more coffins’), unfleshed, just our bones like Yorick's naked skull, your-Beckett's naked skull. It's about tragedy and that means it's about death, because tragedy is about death. Momento mori, hammenti clovi. All these little self-referential in-jokes: ‘let's stop playing!’ shrieks Clov (‘imploringly’, says the stage direction), immediately before Hamm requests his coffin. ‘this is slow work’; ‘this is not much fun’; ‘why this farce, day after day?’ ‘“What’s happening, what’s happening?”—“Something is taking its course”’. A play about playing, about players, and the play of the play is a tragedy. It's about tragedy in the sense that it is about specific tragedies. It returns us to the origins of the mode: back to Aeschylus himself and the earliest of all plays, when a play was a chorus and two actors, before Sophocles came along and contaminated it with a third actor. Two actors and a chorus, and that chorus as limited as possible: just two people (do two grains together count as a heap? do two individuals add-up to a chorus?), Nagg and Nell, father and mother, alternately provoking and grieving, hectoring the actors and uttering a lament for them, alternately (that is) nagging and sounding the knell. It's a father's job to nag, and a mother's to grieve. When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.
CLOVVNE. Mine Sir:
O a Pit of Clay for to be made,
for such a Guest is meete.
HAM. I thinke it be thine indeed: for thou liest in't.
CLOV. You lye out on't Sir, and therefore it is not yours: for my part, I doe not lye in't; and yet it is mine.
HAM. Thou dost lye in't, to be in't and say 'tis thine: 'tis for the dead, not for the quicke, therefore thou lyest.
CLOV. 'Tis a quicke lye Sir, 'twill away againe from me to you.
HAM. What man dost thou digge it for?
CLOV. For no man Sir.
HAM. What woman then?
CLOV. For none neither.
HAM. Who is to be buried in't?
CLOV. One that was a woman Sir; but rest her Soule, shee's dead.
HAM. How absolute the knaue is?
Freud noted how alike are laughing and weeping, physiologically: the bared teeth, the involuntary gasping sounds, tears in the eye. If you don't have the whole context can you even be certain whether somebody is laughing or crying? ‘When I fall,’ says Clov, ‘I'll weep for happiness.’ Conversely, tragedy is hilarious. ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,’ says Nell, from her bin. ‘Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will.’ With a Will whom? There's only one Will that matters, really, in this play's DNA: the Shakespearian one. (Watson and Crick had made their widely celebrated discovery five years before this play was first staged: eDNAgme). The play is called Absurd and though there's a tendency to bracket Absurdism with Existentialism the movements' key players didn't see it like that. Camus, for example, resisted the tag Existentialist, and expressed surprised that people always linked his name with Sartre's (‘je ne suis pas existentialiste’ [Les Nouvelles littéraires, 15 November 1945]). You can see where the confusion creeps in. Camus, like Sartre, believed that there was no external power or deity that could guarantee meaning and purpose for our lives. He thought we have to generate that in ourselves. Le Mythe de Sisyphus (1942) famously argues that there's only one serious philosophical problem nowadays: ‘le seul problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: est-ce que la réalisation de l'existence du non-sens et de l'absurdité de la vie entraîne nécessairement le suicide?’ Does understanding that our lives are meaningless and absurd mean that we should commit suicide?
Camus answers his own question with an heroic no, in thunder: Est-ce que la réalisation de l'absurde nécessite le suicide? Non, elle nécessite la révolte. We must revolt, not commit self-slaughter with a bare bodkin. We're all Sisyphuses, rolling our great bolder up the hill. None of us will ever reach the top. But we can claim this labour as the basis of our liberation. Sisyphus, says Camus, at least has his task. Even considering all his misery, which is also our misery (trapped as we are in ‘cet univers désormais sans maître, ni stérile, ni fertile’) we must believe that Sisyphus is happy: ‘il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.’ I've always assumed that this is the Camusian rewiring of Voltaire's recipe for happiness: il faut cultiver notre jardin, with the twist that we don't get to choose our garden. We don't roll plymouth rock up the land; plymouth rock lands on us. Actors and patients. Beckett's characters are always patients, not just in their passivity (though obviously that) but in the fact that there's always something medically wrong with them. And though these patients had to be played by agents, by actors, Beckett liked to constrain the way his play is performed: all those endless pettifogging stage directions, all that fuss and refusal of permission when directors try anything new.
There's something austere and rather forbidding about Camus, I'd say; or maybe it's just me. Is it just me? Beckett used to drink in the same Parisian bars as Camus, but that doesn't mean they were friends. And whatever else it is, Endgame has never seemed to me a very Camusian play. It is, for one thing, and above all things, just funny. Those bickering men. Clov rolling Hamm around the walls of his room and then setting him in the middle, for Hamm to complain that he's not in the middle enough, and when Clov moves him just a nudge in this or that direction to start complaining again.
Take Sisyphus, Camus's tragic hero-figure. Which is the greatest, and far and away the greatest, twentieth-century adaptation of that myth? The answer's clear: this one, of course:
If, by some appalling and malign chance, you've never seen Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box (1932), then follow the link and watch it now: twenty of the funniest minutes ever put on screen. And that's the point: Sisyphus's predicament is hilarious not despite but because it is so painful and frustrating. Beckett loved Laurel and Hardy, and Chaplin too, and stole bits and pieces from various film comedy for his plays (think of the bowler-hat-swapping sequence in Waiting for Godot: a direct lift from L&H). And that's Beckett's Myth of Sisyphus: two mismatched individuals, one (Hamm) stouter, bossier, mock-pompous, the other (Clov) his inferior, skinny, picked upon, sometimes complaining. Claurel and Harmmdy. And here they are, as-it-were pushing this Sisyphean burden up the slope only for it repeatedly to slip from their hands. Only they're not pushing up a Music Box so much as a Silence Box: a coffin full of soil (‘put me in my coffin’, ‘there are no more coffins’), death itself being hauled contrariwise up the entropy hill. If only we could heave this monstrously heavy bolder, death, to the top of Entropy Hill we'd be free of it! And death is so fearful: so we struggle and push and try. We'll never do it, of course. But that doesn't stop us. It doesn't because we're not really doing it to get to the top. We're doing it because it makes us laugh.