I read the play, Endgame, by Samuel Beckett. I read it again. I rented the video thinking perhaps I missed something, but I hadn’t. I hit the internet feeling like an idiot and cursing Mr. Beckett for pulling off one of the biggest “Emperor’s New Clothes” scams ever. Needless to say, I was wrong. To the novice ‘Theater of the Absurd’ reader, Beckett’s Endgame reads like a long, drawn-out nightmare. To the untrained mind it is gibberish. However, much like dream analysis, Beckett’s themes, motifs and symbols can be deciphered. After reading several articles analyzing Endgame, I have decided that there is meaning to Beckett’s madness. Endgame explores the ideas of beginnings and endings, and the concept that existence, whether pleasant or not, is cyclical.
First, let me address the opening stage directions (Beckett p.1239). It describes a bare interior, gray light, two small windows at ceiling level with curtains drawn, suggesting the eyes of a skeleton, with the gray aura of death overshadowing everything. Like a good little researcher I turn to SparkNotes (ha!) who suggests that “the characters represent the brain and memory. Thus the entire stage serves as a metaphor for an aging mind.” Hamm’s parents “live” in ashbins. The parents are a metaphor for family heritage and the thinking and living patterns that they pass down; the trashcans for the idea that this is something no longer useful, ready to be thrown out, but still ever-present. There is a picture hanging near the front door, its face to the wall. Center, in an armchair on casters and covered in an old sheet is the main character, Hamm. The ashbins are also covered with a sheet. These images suggest mourning: curtains drawn, sheets covering both Hamm and the cans, and picture turned to the wall. Standing motionless near the door, eyes fixed on Hamm, is Clov, perhaps a mourner, very red-faced. This entire picture is held in a brief tableau to set the scene for endings, represented in death and mourning.
Next, the proof is in the title itself: Endgames. The “endgame” of chess is the series of moves at the end of the game, one whose outcome is usually decided before the formality of the endgame occurs” (Wayne). Paul Davies says, “Based on the metaphor of chess, the title and the play’s content point towards the process of ending, a process undergone in the knowledge that the predicament is issueless, with the likelihood not of winning or losing, but of stalemate.” He goes on to say that in a 1967 interview, Beckett stated that the main character Hamm “is a king in a chess-game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves.” This is supported by the fact that Hamm is sitting on his throne during the entire play. Being the king, he is the most important and ironically the least powerful and most ineffectual player in the game. Hamm’s existence is completely dependent on the actions and movements of others. Clov has been described as the Knight and Nagg and Nell as ineffectual and restricted Pawns. As in chess, the game is over when checkmate occurs. Checkmate is a phrase derived from the Arabic language meaning “the king is dead”. Again, we are left with the theme of endings.
In keeping with the concept that existence is cyclical, it is interesting to observe that Beckett intertwines images of new life or beginnings throughout the play. First, there is a time when Hamm tells Clov to “Look at the ocean” (Beckett p.1247). The ocean is the symbol for the birthplace of all life, or beginnings. When Clov looks at the ocean he sees that “The light has sunk… all gone… nothing on the horizon.” Again, the idea of endings. Shortly after this there is an exchange where Clov exclaims, “I have a flea!” Hamm replies, “A flea! Are there still fleas?” Clov: “On me there’s one.” Hamm: “But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!” (1249). The flea represents renewed life and Clov immediately gets insecticide to kill or “end” it. Then Hamm has a sudden urge, “Let’s go from here, the two of us! South! You can make a raft and the currents will carry us away, far away, to other … mammals!” (1250). The implication is clear, with other mammals new life can begin again. Immediately following is an exchange which emphasizes the desperation Hamm feels in his last days, “Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fill it, and there you’ll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe… Why don’t you finish us?” With the hope of new life is the immediate longing for the end. The most jarring image of renewal and death comes in Hamm’s monologue “I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. 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. Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.” (1252) A painter (creator) thinks the end of the world has come. In the asylum (sickness and death) Hamm drag’s him to the window (outside world where life is constantly renewing itself), but all the painter sees is ashes (endings). A constant cycle; a beginning followed by an ending, followed by a beginning, and so on. Later there is a living rat, again a symbol for new life or beginnings, and Hamm exclaims, “And you haven’t exterminated him?” (1257) symbolizing the desire for death or endings. Lastly is the image of the boy. Clov exclaims, “Looks like a small boy!… A potential procreator?” Hamm replies, “If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here…. It’s the end.” (1263). The boy, or creation, will eventually end, and we know that the implication is that the cycle will continue to repeat.
My final proof of the theme of beginnings, endings and the concept that existence is cyclical lies in the final tableau of the play. Hamm is center in his chair with the handkerchief over his face and Clov stands by the door with his eyes fixed on Hamm. This is almost exactly the same tableau we are introduced to at the opening of the play. However the play begins with the lines, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (1239) and the play ends with the line, “You … remain.” (1266). All of this implies a continuation. We are left with the expectation that the cycle will pick up again at the beginning and work through to the end, which become, yet again, a new beginning.
Endgame is a play that “portrays a universe which is nearing its end but which could continue repeating itself” (Fajardo p. 2). The story is told through a string of seemingly nonsensical exchanges, rich with symbolic meaning and eliciting powerful images. Do I understand this play? No. But, very much like a dream I try to understand, I know that I have begun to grasp some of the ideas that Endgame has to offer. So, I will continue to explore the ideas of beginnings and endings and the concept that existence, whether pleasant or not, is cyclical.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. 24 Nov. 2005 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/checkmate
Davies, Paul, University of Ulster at Coleraine. “Endgame.” The Literary Encyclopedia.
8 Jan. 2001. The Literary Dictionary Company. 23 November 2005. http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=5366
Dr. Fajardo-Acosta, Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta’s World Literature Website,
© 2001, 2002 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, all rights reserved
Jacobus, Lee A., Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, The Bedford Intro to Drama 4th Edition, Boston, Ma: Bedford/ST. Martin’s
Wayne, Derek. SparkNotes on Endgame. 24 Nov. 2005 http://www.sparknotes.com/drama/endgame/