First Nothing, Then Death

Wilde Irish does a spirited rendition of Beckett's difficult Endgame.

It’s fitting that Samuel Beckett’s second play, Endgame, raises as much controversy among critics and theorists as it does. Nobody agrees on what it means, what’s really going on in the play, or indeed what kind of man he had to be to have written it. Is chess really the play’s controlling metaphor? Some critics say no; Beckett’s biographer says yes. Does Nell really die? Beckett himself said that it appears she does, then slyly added that nobody knows for sure. And as for what the play says about Beckett’s character, well, either he’s compassionate and optimistic in a clear-eyed, no-bullshit sort of way (argues playwright Harold Pinter) or he’s cold-heartedly stepping on the face of humanity, whom he believes doomed (says critic Kenneth Tynan).

All of which is perfectly appropriate for one of the four playwrights credited with developing France’s Theater of the Absurd, one of the most influential theater movements of the 20th century. Related in intent and subject matter to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and Brecht’s Epic Theater, drawing inspiration from such writers as Camus and Sartre, Theater of the Absurd neatly interwove with the literature and philosophy of postwar Europe to cast an often grim and unsparing light on human behavior and society.

Intriguingly, while all four of Absurdism’s pioneers claimed French citizenship, only one was native to that country. All the rest were transplants, including the Irish-born Beckett. Beckett was 31 years old when he moved to Paris for good; after that he would visit Ireland only rarely. So it’s almost surprising that Wilde Irish, the new theater company specializing in Irish playwrights, has chosen to produce Endgame; for a moment it’s possible to forget that Beckett was in fact Irish, although the musicality of his writing (in English or in French) should be a clear giveaway.

While Beckett’s first play, Waiting for Godot, clearly is his best-known, Endgame (Fin de partie) was Beckett’s personal favorite. With its precise sixteen-part structure and painstaking use of repetition and analogy, it pulled together and amplified themes he began exploring in Godot. Beckett had been inspired to write Endgame by the French actor and director Roger Blin, and it’s a mark of his regard that the copy he sent to Blin included a note that read, “For you, if you really want it, but only if you really want it. Because it really has meaning, the others are only everyday.”

As Beckett’s career progressed, he became more likely to direct the plays he wrote, given that he did not trust other directors to have a sense of form “such as that of music.” When other directors did stage his plays, he stayed in very close contact to make sure they were being true to his intent. One actress recounts that Beckett drove her to tears by setting up a metronome during rehearsals to measure the cadence he wanted her to use, and his correspondence with his American director Alan Schneider is packed with production minutiae, from voice levels to the tilt of a chin.

So Beckett would doubtless be horrified by some of the liberties directors have taken with Endgame since its first production. It has been played in sets evoking a baby’s playpen, a New York subway station, even the inside of a giant human skull. It has been performed as a dance and rewritten as an opera. It has even been done as a farce, heavily draped with American slang. While Beckett’s fierce insistence on having his work performed a certain way might seem like micromanaging, it also can be argued that following his strictures forces actors and directors to work more intimately with the text and possibly achieve a deeper result. Which is exactly what director Gemma Whelan and Wilde Irish do with a respectful, focused production of Endgame that manages to stick to Beckett’s plan while still allowing the actors to show off their tremendous resourcefulness. Whelan is absolutely true to Beckett’s text, even to the point of not making a change the playwright allowed for American audiences who might not be familiar with British brand names. (In case you go and need to know, Spratt’s Medium was a kind of dog biscuit.) The only deviation I noted was an eerie bit at the end where a prop suggests the Shroud of Turin.

The actors do an exemplary job with hard material. After all, one is confined to a chair for the entire ninety minutes, and two others are curled up in largely covered trashcans. Beckett specified every emotion, every bark of a laugh, and every movement in his text, every turn and dropped prop. It’s not up to the actors to create anything new here, but rather to deliver with as much conviction as possible. Robert Hamm as Hamm (no relation) must rely on his hands, face, and voice — the last of which encompasses every chocolate in the box — to depict a man Beckett himself referred to as an “absolute monster” who still wins the audience’s sympathy. Meanwhile Steve Nye as Clov is the one actor allowed to move around, and he nails a really surprising and moving soliloquy near the end. Breda Courtney and Martin Waldron are sweet and sad as Hamm’s neglected parents, Nell and Nagg (although we get a clue about that neglect when Nagg talks about ignoring Hamm’s childhood cries). We may not ever really understand who these characters are — was Hamm a king, before the world began to die? Is Hamm’s story about the man who came to beg a little bread for his son actually a story about Clov? But the actors clearly know who their characters are, and rise to Beckett’s challenge admirably.

And it’s some challenge. The play itself is very spare, centering on the conflict between the blind, paralyzed Hamm and his servant Clov. The world outside their shelter is dying; the skies and sea are uniformly gray and still. Nothing moves and, day by day, familiar things disappear, never to be seen again. “There are no more bicycle wheels,” Clov informs Hamm early on; nor, apparently, are there any more rugs, sugarplums, coffins, or any sort of living thing higher on the evolutionary scale than a flea. In addition to the hapless, stiff-legged Clov, Hamm’s household includes the trashcans with his parents stuck inside them, wishing their sawdust got changed more frequently.

In this toxic atmosphere, Hamm and Clov are locked in a bitter war, both with themselves and with each other. Both men long for the last great silence, but it is deliberately ambiguous whether either has achieved his goal by the end of the play. The playwright himself was cagey about who the characters were and what they were up to. Beckett didn’t like to say much about his work (especially to critics), but at one point he told his actors that Hamm and Clov were actually Vladimir and Estragon, the heroes of Waiting for Godot, revisited at the ends of their lives. On another occasion, he said that Hamm and Clov represented Beckett and his wife during the 1950s, unhappily stuck together without the will to separate. Others have suggested that the characters represent Beckett and James Joyce, or Beckett and his father. But the playwright could be as mysterious with actors as he was with the press; in a letter to Schneider, he laid out the play’s philosophical theme, and then wrote, “Don’t mention any of this to your actors!”

If it sounds intense, it is. Beckett was a poet to his core, and his dialogue — laced as it is with subtle allusions to 4th-century Greek philosophers, chess principles, and the Book of Matthew — demands an audience’s complete attention. Beckett also was a great fan of Keaton and Chaplin (in a letter to Schneider, he envisions a film version of Endgame with Chaplin playing all four roles), and the fascination is most evident in Clov’s slapsticks with the ladder and the flea powder. Beckett also took care to alternate intensity with levity as he intended Endgame as a “playful” work and wanted the audience to believe Hamm when he says “we had such good times.” The result here is intriguing, if bracing, in a tight, provocative production.

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