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Editor: David A. Galens
Date: 2003
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 18. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 25
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Endgame is Samuel Beckett's second published play. The plot is continuous, unbroken by separate scenes or acts. Roger Blin first produced this play in France at the Royal Court, in 1957, and later Blin and Georges Devine produced it again in an English production. Both were badly received by almost all London critics. Only after the now famous Paris production of 1964, starring Patrick Magee and Jack Macgowran in the roles of Hamm and Clov, was Endgame recognized as a masterpiece.

As the play opens, Hamm is dying in a world that seems to be coming to an end. Hamm takes satisfaction in knowing that all of existence may fade to nothing. Hamm is confined to a chair, and throughout the play he discards, reluctantly, the continuing prospects of life: food; painkillers; his servant Clov, on whom he is totally dependent; the pole that enables him to move his wheelchair; and holding the dog, on which he lavishes his affection.

Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, having lost their legs many years ago in a bicycle accident, live in ashbins from which they occasionally emerge only to be cursed by their son. His mother dies and Hamm, knowing that Clov is leaving him, prepares for his last battle, first to outlive his father and then to face inevitable death without the help of the few objects that have given him comfort in his final days. Hamm soliloquizes in terms of the last moves in chess, a king evading checkmate as long as possible with stern asides on religion, "Get out of here and love one another! Lick your neighbor asPage 64  |  Top of Article yourself!" He echoes Pozzo's gravedigger aphorism in Waiting for Godot when he says, "The end is in the beginning and yet you go on." Clov prepares to leave, hating Hamm for past wrongs, yet now without pity for Hamm.


Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock County, Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906. He was the second of two sons of a Protestant Anglo-Irish couple. As a young boy, he was quite energetic and excelled at sports such as cricket, tennis, and boxing. He studied at Earlsfort House in Dublin and then at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, the same school Oscar Wilde had attended. It was here that he first began to learn French, one of the two languages in which he would write.

He received a degree in romance languages from Trinity College, Dublin. He taught in Belfast before going to Paris as lecteur d'anglais at the École Normale Supérieure; there, in 1928, he met fellow Dubliner James Joyce, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Beckett was one of Joyce's assistants in the construction of Work in Progress, later titled Finnegan's Wake. Inspired by the Parisian literary scene, Beckett began writing. His first published writing was an essay on Joyce (1929). His first story, "Assumption," appeared in Transition in 1929, and in 1930 he returned as lecturer to Trinity College, Dublin.

In 1930, Beckett published his first poem, "Whoroscope." Shortly thereafter, he published a study of the recently deceased Proust, an author Beckett admired tremendously. Beckett quickly realized the academic life was not for him and left Trinity College to become a full-time writer. He then embarked on five unsettled, solitary years in Germany, France, Ireland, and London before settling permanently in France in 1937. A collection of stories, More Pricks than Kicks (1934) was followed by a number of full-length novels, including the comic novel Murphy (1938) and Watt (1953), both written in English.

Walking home late one night with friends, Beckett was stabbed and nearly killed. Recuperating, Beckett received attention from a French acquaintance, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil, who would become his life companion and wife, though they would not marry until 1961. Beckett and Suzanne worked for the French Resistance, narrowly escaped the Gestapo, and then moved to unoccupied France, where Beckett worked on a farm in exchange for room and board and wrote his novel Watt.

Many consider the beginning of his writing in French (1947–1950) his most prolific creative period. Beckett's trilogy—Molloy (1951), Mallone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953)—were all originally written in French and all three are interior monologues or soliloquies. His first French novel, Mercier et Camier, predicts the form of Waiting for Godot, with its wandering duo, minimalist style and repetition, but was not published until years later. Also in 1947, he wrote his first play, Eleutheria, which he would not allow to be published during his lifetime and which, after his death, became a cause of great controversy when Beckett's American publisher, Barney Rosset, released an English translation against the wishes of the Beckett estate. In 1948–1949, Beckett wrote En attendant Godot or Waiting for Godot. Beckett's highly distinctive, despairing, yet curiously exhilarating voice reached a wide audience and won public acclaim with the Paris performance in 1953 of En attendant Godot. Beckett became widely known as a playwright associated with the theater of the absurd, whose use of the stage and of dramatic narrative and symbolism revolutionized drama in England and deeply influenced later playwrights.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Beckett's playwriting continued with a series of masterworks including Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Days. He wrote his first radio plays and created innovative prose fiction, including How It Is (1961) and The Lost Ones (1970).

In the 1970s, Beckett continued to interest himself in the productions of his plays, wrote television plays for the BBC, and began the autobiographical novel Company. In the 1980s, he crafted more prose works (Ill Seen Ill Said and Westward Ho) and more plays (including Rockaby and Ohio Impromptu). His last major work was Stirrings Still (1986).

In 1986, Beckett began to suffer from emphysema. After his first hospitalization, he wrote in bed, producing his final work, the poem "What is the Word." After moving into the nursing home Le Tiers Temps, Beckett's deteriorating health prevented him from new writing, but he continued to translate previous works. Suzanne died on July 17, 1989, and Beckett died on December 22 of the same year. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

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Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969 but did not attend the presentation ceremony.


The play opens by establishing the only mise-enscéne of the play. Clov begins his daily ritual of drawing back the curtains of two windows (first the sea window and then the earth window). He uncovers two ashbins and then Hamm, who is still asleep. Clov delivers the play's opening soliloquy, setting up the thematic tension between characters that seek an ending, either to life or their habitual lifestyles, and their impotency in activating the means to that end. Clov states, "I can't be punished anymore," which reinforces his discontent as Hamm's servant and expresses his desire to leave Hamm altogether.

Hamm delivers his first soliloquy and we are introduced to the master-servant relationship between Hamm and Clov. Hamm addresses his bloodstained handkerchief as "Old Stancher" and is convinced that his suffering is greater than all others and establishes the dual metaphor throughout the play: the rhetoric of chess strategy and drama as game and competition. The play's dialogue begins with the word "finished" and Hamm expresses his wish to begin the day by going to bed. Hamm is terrified of being left alone and will do anything to keep Clov with him. Hamm asks Clov for his painkiller and Clov denies him. This is the first of six times that Hamm will ask Clov for his painkiller throughout the play. Later, when Hamm asks Clov why he does not kill him, Clov tells him that it is because he does not know the combination of the cupboard where the food supply is stored. Hamm dismisses Clov to the kitchen and then chastises his father, Nagg, who has emerged from one of the ashbins, demanding food. Hamm whistles Clov in to feed Nagg, and then Hamm orders Clov to push Nagg back into the bin and close the lid. Hamm continues to try to draw Clov into conversation but fails.

Nell, Hamm's mother, is now introduced. Both she and Nagg, the two elderly characters of the play, are in ashbins, and although they are confined to these ashbins, they still strive for love and romance:

NELL: What is it, my pet? (Pause.) Time for love?

NAGG: Were you asleep?

NELL: Oh, no!

NAGG: Kiss me!

Samuel Beckett Samuel Beckett

NELL: We can't.

NAGG: Try. (Their heads strain towards each other, fail to meet, fall apart again.)

NELL: Why this farce, day after day?

Nagg and Nell discuss their loss of sight, hearing, and teeth, raging against Hamm for not providing them with adequate food and a regular change of sawdust in their ashbins. They tell each other jokes and reminisce over their romantic youth. One of the jokes Nagg tells is of an old Jewish tailor who took more than three months to make a decent pair of trousers, the results of which were more satisfactory than God's six-day effort to create the world.

Hamm, annoyed by their nostalgia, interrupts his parents to tell them that he is experiencing physical distress. Nagg chuckles at Hamm's pain. Nell concedes that "nothing is truly funnier than unhappiness." Hamm demands silence and pleads for an end to his torment: "Will this never finish?" Nagg disappears into the ashbin, but Nell remains. Hamm shouts, "My kingdom for a nightman!" (a play on Shakepeare's Richard III's "My kingdom for a horse!" speech) and beckons Clov to rid him of Nagg and Nell.

Next is extended dialogue between Hamm and Clov. Hamm demonstrates that he is the center of attention. Clov again refuses Hamm his painkillerPage 66  |  Top of Article (for the third time), and Hamm demands that Clov take him for a spin around the room in his armchair, after which he ends up in the exact center of the room. While on the tour, Hamm lays his hand against the wall and says, "Beyond is the … other hell."

Hamm tells Clov to observe the weather conditions outside through the earth window and the sea widow via the telescope. What follows could be out of a Charlie Chaplin movie for Beckett inserts slapstick antics in Clov's confusion about getting the ladder or the telescope first. Hamm demands the weather report, and Clov, moving about with the ladder and telescope at Hamm's command, is eventually able to inform him that both the earth and sea windows are "corpsed." This insight confirms Hamm's worst fears that nothing exists outside their shelter. For Hamm, there is nothing in the world, and the only conclusion is death and extinction.

Hamm continues to interrogate Clov, who tries to change the discussion by announcing that he has found a flea in his trousers. This sign of life upsets Hamm, who directs Clov, "But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!" Clov continues in a Chaplin-like scenario, trying to rid himself of the flea before they continue:

HAMM: Did you get him?

CLOV: Looks like it. (He drops the tin and adjusts his trousers.) Unless he's laying doggo.

HAMM: Laying! Lying you mean. Unless he's lying doggo…. Use your head, can't you. If he was laying we'd be [b——]ed.

While bleak, Beckett combines the elements of tragedy and comedy flawlessly. Hamm and Clov discuss their possibilities of escape from their situation. They discuss the possibility of using a raft to go south through what may be shark-infested waters. Hamm asks Clov for his painkiller for the fourth time, and Clov refuses once again. Hamm tells Clov, "One day you'll be blind, like me. You'll be sitting there, a speck in the void, forever, like me…. Yes, one day you'll know what it is, you'll be like me, except that you won't have had pity on anyone and because there won't be anyone left to pity you." Hamm hopes to discourage Clov's leaving and reminds him that he took him in when he was a child and took care of him as a father would take care of his own child. While that may be true, Clov again threatens to leave. Hamm asks Clov to fetch him the toy dog that Clov has been making.

Clov brings out the toy dog, which has only three legs. Like the characters of the play, the toy dog is also crippled. Hamm happily takes the dog. This portion is dominated by discussion of what "goes on in the end."

The next section develops Clov's rebellion against Hamm. Hamm demands his gaff but is unable to move without Clov's assistance. Hamm tells a story of a mad painter who, believing the end of the world had come, was assigned to an insane asylum. Hamm would visit him and lead him to the window to show him the bountiful world outside, but the painter would retreat to his corner because "all he had seen was ashes."

Questioned by Hamm whether or not "this thing has gone on long enough," Clov agrees that it has, and while Hamm is stuck, Clov can leave Hamm. Hamm asks for a good-bye kiss, but Clov refuses. Hamm asks how he will know whether or not Clov has left or died in his kitchen, since the stench of rotting corpses is throughout the place. Clov's answer is to set the alarm clock: if it rings he has gone, if it does not he is dead. Clov sets the alarm clock up and it rings:

CLOV: The end is terrific!

HAMM: I prefer the middle.

Hamm, for the fifth time, requests his painkiller and again Clov denies him. Hamm asks Clov to wake up Nagg. Hamm promises Nagg a sugarplum if he will listen to a story Hamm would like to tell. Nagg agrees. Next is a long monologue by Hamm. Hamm recalls a poor man and his baby who on Christmas Eve had once sought Hamm's kindness. Hamm tells the story with zeal, remembering his eventual agreement to take the man into his service and provide for his son. It becomes clear that the story Hamm is telling is that of Clov's father and how Clov came to be with Hamm. Hamm relishes his power over the others.

Hamm prays to God for salvation. Hamm orders both Clov and Nagg to pray to God, but Hamm cries in agony, "The bastard! He doesn't exist!" Nagg curses Hamm: "Yes, I hope I'll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark, and I was your only hope." Nagg, unable to get Nell to respond to his knocks on her ashbin lid, goes back into his ashbin and closes the lid.

Hamm continues to tell his story. Hamm sends Clov to see if Nell is dead. Clov replies, "Looks like it." Hamm asks Clov to check and see if Nagg isPage 67  |  Top of Article dead. Clov raises Nagg's ashbin lid and says, "Doesn't look like it." Hamm asks what he is doing, and Clov replies, "He's crying," to which Hamm says, "Then he's living."

Hamm goes again for a spin around the room. Again, there is no light from the earth, and the sea is calm. Hamm accepts the world's condition and asks for his father but receives no response. Clov is sent to see if Nagg has heard either of Hamm's two calls. Clov reports that Nagg has heard only one call but is not certain if it was Hamm's first or second call.

Hamm asks for a lap rug, which Clov does not provide. Clov refuses to show Hamm any affection when Hamm asks for a kiss. Hamm asks for his toy dog but then changes his mind. Clov goes to the kitchen to kill the rat he has discovered there before it dies.

Hamm's next monologue begins calmly and nostalgically and builds feelings of guilt as well as curiosity about what happens after the end of the play.

HAMM: There I'll be, in the old shelter, alone against my silence and … (he hesitates) … the stillness. If I can hold my peace, and sit quiet, it will be all over with sound, motion, all over and done with.

Clov was unable to kill the rat in the kitchen and the time for Hamm's painkiller has finally arrived. Clov now tells Hamm, after all of his requests, that the supply has been depleted. Clov seriously considers leaving Hamm. Hamm tells Clov to look at the world outside "Since it's calling you."

Clov delivers his final monologue and realizes that he must learn to suffer. He and Hamm debate the state of the outside world and Hamm protests that he does not care what has happened. Clov reminds Hamm that he refused to provide Mother Pegg oil for her lamp and continues to tell Hamm harshly that Mother Pegg died of darkness. And so we believe that Mother Pegg's death was in part due to Hamm.

Hamm asks for the toy dog and Clov hits him on the head with it. Hamm pleads that Clov use an axe or gaff. When Clov announces that there are no more coffins, Hamm says, "Then let it end!" Hamm and Clov end their relationship and agree to go their separate ways.

Hamm's final monologue begins, "Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing." Clov, dressed for his departure, enters and watches Hamm. After his monologue, Hamm calls twice for his father. There is no answer. Hamm then throws away the toy dog and his whistle and calls for Clov, who does not respond. Hamm covers his face with "Old Stancher," the bloodstained handkerchief. Hamm, blind and paralyzed, seems to have chosen against life. Clov, standing in his travel clothes, is confronted with the choice to remain or walk out and live in an unknown world. Whether this will work out or not, Clov does not know nor does the audience.



Clov is Hamm's servant, and he follows his master's wishes, despite being treated horribly. Crippled but not incapacitated, Clov is capable of leaving the shelter he has known his entire life and of taking his chances in the "other hell" beyond the walls. Clov shows that he is capable of handling tasks and life, and at the end of the play he prepares to leave Hamm and take his chances in the outside world.


Hamm is dying in a world that seems to be ending. Hamm is blind and confined to a wheelchair. He is selfish and wants always to be the center of attention and considers himself something of a god-like character. He berates his servant Clov, upon whom he is completely dependent. His parents, Nagg and Nell, live in ashbins and occasionally emerge only to be berated by their son. Though the world may be coming to an end, Hamm takes satisfaction in knowing that perhaps all existence may fade to extinction. He hopes to exist long enough only to outlive his father.


Nagg is Hamm's father. He and his wife now live in ashbins, having lost their legs in a bicycling accident years ago. Although their current situation is bleak, there are moments in the play where we understand that in their youth, Nagg and Nell had a great and wondrous love. They still reach for that love, despite the horrid conditions and their ungrateful son.

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Nell is Hamm's mother. She, like Nagg, lives in an ashbin, also having lost her legs in the bicycling accident years ago. She dies in the play to the great distress of Nagg.


Live or Die?

The characters, trapped in their single room occupy themselves with routines and tasks. Hamm is paralyzed and blind, Nagg and Nell cannot leave their ashbins, and the action of the play occurs in a single room, outside of which life evidently cannot survive. These characters struggle to move on or take action, and the actions they do take are often stagnant and nondescript. Each is dependent upon another for his or her very survival and Hamm questions the benefit of continuing life at all, often pestering nag for the ultimate painkiller—death.

The existence of God is also questioned and indirectly denied, painting a bleak picture of life as hard and without redemption, directed by the needs of handicapped tyrants like Hamm. When Hamm orders both Clov and Nagg to pray to God, Hamm cries in agony, "The bastard! He doesn't exist!" Hamm and the other characters, in their stagnant misery and frustrations, lack faith in a benevolent promise of God to reprieve or redeem their anguish. Life seems a merciless cycle of desire and grief, of handicaps and ashbins, and, to these characters, death is no reward for enduring that cycle. The characters of Endgame maneuver through lives of emotional strife that anticipate death, though they lack the means to achieve it on their own.


One of the most obvious themes of Endgame is the necessity of interdependence, even if the relationship is one of hate. Clov, for example, depends on Hamm for food since Hamm is the only one who knows the combination to the cupboard. Hamm relies completely on Clov for movement and vision. Critics often compare Endgame to Beckett's previous drama Waiting for Godot, noting that characters in both plays are grouped in pairs. Endgame is bleaker and more perplexing because it lacks the hope for redemption that Waiting for Godot contains.

Generational Conflict

Generational conflict, particularly between father and son, also emerges as a prominent theme. Hamm twice tells a story about a father and son and seems to view parent-child relationships only in terms of power and resentment. Critics have argued that Hamm resents Nagg, his father, for not being kind to him when he was young, whereas Hamm resents Clov, his son, for being young at a time when his own life is in decline. Endgame has also been interpreted as a depiction of humanity's denial of such life processes as death and procreation.

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  • Released by Ambrose Video on DVD in 2002, the Beckett on Film DVD set is the first ever cinematic screening of all nineteen of Samuel Beckett's plays. The acclaimed Beckett on Film project brings together some of the most distinguished directors and actors working today. Directors include Atom Egoyan, Damien Hirst, Neil Jordan, Conor McPherson, Damien O'Donnell, David Mamet, Anthony Minghella, Karel Reisz, and Patricia Rozema. The exceptional acting talent involved includes Michael Gambon, the late Sir John Gielgud, John Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Julianne Moore, Harold Pinter, Alan Rickman, and Kristen Scott-Thomas. Several of the films from the Beckett on Film project have been exhibited at international film festivals around the world including New York, Toronto, and Venice.


Endgame is a self-reflexive work in which the hand of Beckett can often be seen. For example, Hamm's narration is at once taking its own course in developing his personality while it also comments on the idea of creation, alluding to the creative process of an author. At the end of the story Hamm talks about the difficulty of creation:

CLOV: Will it end soon?

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HAMM: I'm afraid it will.

CLOV: Pah! You'll make up another.

HAMM: I don't know. (Pause.) I feel rather drained. The prolonged creative effort.

The characters make numerous, explicit references throughout Endgame to their roles as characters in a play. Hamm at one-point states: "I'm warming up for my last soliloquy." Clov, at another instance, announces: "This is what we call making an exit." Such self-reflexive references to the action of the play are representative of modernism and also suggest humankind's inclination for dramatization to assign meaning in life and help understand the world.


"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." Though Endgame is dark, there is humor in the play. Clov's confusion over which items to fetch first and his antics with the ladder could be directly out of a film starring Charlie Chaplin, whom Beckett admired. Commenting on Endgame himself, Beckett identified the phrase "nothing is funnier than unhappiness" as key to the play's interpretation and performance.


Words and Stage Directions

Endgame's visual performance and self-reflexive dialogue constantly remind the audience that they are watching a performance by actors. Hamm broods: "All kinds of fantasies! That I'm being watched!" This tells the audience that they are part of the structure of the play, just as words, physical movement, lighting, whistles, dogs, ladders, windows, and silence play their roles. Beckett uses stage directions to create dynamic relationships between characters and the things they require to live: Hamm needs his armchair, and Nagg and Nell require their ashbins. Beckett creates a vivid physical world to complement the powerful and stripped-down dialogue.

Beckett presents the characters' inability to understand through abstract language and stagnant dramatic structure. Beckett has stripped down and broken apart his words and sentences. Words are able to contradict each other and are often elliptic. Clov utters the first line of the play: "Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished." By beginning the play with the word "Finished," Beckett directs our attention toward endings. As Beckett's characters search themselves and the world around them, language reflects the precarious balance between understanding and confusion.

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  • Beckett is often considered a forerunner to the absurdist movement in theater. Read Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and David Mamet's Glengarry, Glen Ross, and write an essay on how you think their writing has been influenced by Samuel Beckett.
  • Nagg and Nell, Hamm's parents, are in ashbins throughout the play. What comment does this make on society and our ideas and treatment of the elderly?
  • Beckett's plays are filled with rituals. What rituals does Clov perform for Hamm, and what does this say about the master-servant relationship they are in?
  • Endgame contains several elements of comedy. How do you feel these elements work in regard to the overall tone of the play? Why does Beckett make use of comedy in this manner? What is Beckett saying about life and the nature of comedy?

Beckett's Minor Plot

Samuel Beckett's plots are notable for their lack of the classical dramatic structure. The minor plot line of Endgame is that of Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell. It is clear that they had a romantic love in their youth, but they now live in ashbins and are not well-taken-care-of by their son. The end of the play finds both Nagg and Nell dead, without having experienced much satisfaction throughoutPage 70  |  Top of Article the play. Indeed, most of their interactions are attempts to recall their past happiness or to endure their current helpless situation.

Theater of the Absurd

Drama known as the theater of the absurd begins in the 1950s. Endgame, Beckett's first play after Waiting for Godot, continues in the tradition that Waiting for Godot established.


Nuclear Capability

Although Beckett does not place the characters and actions of Endgame in a specific time and place, the play's only set can be viewed as a bomb shelter after a nuclear bomb has detonated and destroyed much, if not all, life outside the shelter. This was certainly a looming fear when Beckett wrote the play and when it was performed in 1957. Although today this fear is still present, in 1957 the fear was at an all-time high, and the likelihood of such an event seemed all too possible and near.

The Cold War

The late 1950s and the 1960s were dominated by the cold war, an intense rivalry between the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union. After World War II, Europe was divided into two zones of power, a capitalist west and a socialist east. The rivalry soon became worldwide, and there was always a threat that it could have developed into full-scale nuclear war. The struggle did become violent in 1950 when communist North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War, which ended with the country divided.

The Eisenhower Doctrine

The Eisenhower Doctrine, announced by United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 5, 1957, pledged military and economic support to any Middle Eastern country needing help in resisting communist aggression. Marking another escalation in the cold war, the doctrine was intended to check the increase of Soviet influence in the Middle East and the increasingly strong Soviet support given the Arab states.

The Absurdists

Of the French writers known as the absurdists, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett were the most significant. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, writers were trying to overthrow dramatic conventions and wanted to challenge audiences with something new. Antonin Artaud wrote The Theatre and Its Double (1938), which advocated a "theatre of cruelty," and in 1943 Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness and No Exit, which dramatize Sartre's existentialist viewpoint. Sartre's viewpoint, combined with Albert Camus's writings, provided the building blocks for the absurdist movement, which began to take shape in the early 1950s.

In 1952, Ionesco premiered his play The Chairs, which is an excellent example of the theater of the absurd. However, it was not until 1953 and the premiere of En Attendant Godot, or Waiting for Godot, that absurdism reached a popular and international audience.

Waiting for Godot is perhaps the best-known work from the absurdist movement. The two-act tragicomedy tells the story of two old men, Vladimir and Estragon, who cannot decide if they should leave or stay and wait for Godot, who may or may not arrive and rescue them from their desperate situation. Endgame takes this struggle to the next level as Hamm and Clov struggle with the meaning, if there is any, of living at all. Beckett's importance to the absurdist movement is obvious, but saying that he is an absurdist writer is not giving full credit to his wide range of work. Beckett's writing stands out above the other absurdist works in its ingenuity, universality, and humanity.


When Endgame opened in 1957, Beckett described the event as "rather grim, like playing to mahogany, or rather teak." Indeed, most critics found the play bewildering or they disliked it. Kenneth Tynan in the Observer said that Beckett's new play made it "clear that his purpose is neither to move nor to help us. For him, man is a pygmy who connives at his own inevitable degradation." Marc Bernard in Nouvelles litteraires said that he constantly had the impression that he was listening to a medieval fantasy or comic poem in which allegorical characters, fake scholasticism, and Aristotelian reasoningPage 71  |  Top of Article were made into a mixture in which metaphysics suddenly took on a farcical tone. He considered Hamm "the intellectual, paralysed, blind as talkative as a fourteenth century doctor. He is waited upon by the Common Man, half way between man and beast" who "has been given a simian appearance: long, dangling arms, curved spine. The intellectual's father and mother are stuffed into two dustbins; from time to time a lid is lifted and one of the parents begins to talk." T. C. Worsley in the Listener said of Waiting for Godot, "Mr. Beckett's neurosis and mine were for quite long stretches on the same theme; in Endgame they never tangled. He has, in Endgame, … expanded not the public but the private images. He has concentrated not on what is common between his audiences and him but on what is private in himself."

When Endgame was produced on Broadway in 1980, directed by Jopseh Chaikin and starring Daniel Setzer as Hamm and Michael Gross as Clov, it had become considered a classic. Mel Gussow, wrote in the New York Times that "Mr. Chaikin and Mr. Setzer never forget the play's portent, but neither do they shortchange its mordant humor. The director approaches Endgame as a gem to be played, as a piece to be performed. Mr. Chaikin is an experimental artist who is scrupulous when dealing with classics." He concludes, "the play is profound. The acting is prodigious."


Daryl McDaniel

McDaniel is a writer with a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. In the following essay, McDaniel discusses Beckett's Endgame.

Samuel Beckett's writing can be something of a puzzle. There are no final positions or absolute interpretations. Endgame is, however, a unique masterpiece with an intricate dramatic structure that runs contrary to traditional theatrical structure.

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  • 1950s: The United States and the Soviet Union are split over Middle East loyalties and support. Fear of a nuclear war increases.
    Today: The United States and England engage in war with Iraq. The United States wages war on terrorism throughout the world. North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, and the potential for nuclear war again seems all too possible.
  • 1950s: Russian scientists launch Sputnik into orbit, initiating the space race between the United States and Russia.
    Today: Beginning in the 1990s, Russian cosmonauts worked together with American astronauts on the space station Mir. The United States and Russia continue to have cooperative working efforts in space exploration and research.
  • 1950s: Eugene O'Neill is posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama for Long Day's Journey into Night.
    Today: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
  • 1950s: Albert Camus receives the Nobel Prize for literature "for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."
    Today: Imre Kertsz (Hungary) receives the Nobel Prize for literature "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history."

Endgame was groundbreaking because it dared not to adhere to accepted dramatic rules. Beckett

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Steven Bard, as Nagg, and Darlene Johnson, as Nell, in a scene from a 1999 theatrical production of Endgame, written by Samuel Beckett Steven Bard, as Nagg, and Darlene Johnson, as Nell, in a scene from a 1999 theatrical production of Endgame, written by Samuel Beckett

uses circular dialogue, refuses to accessorize the play or its characters with anything but the bare minimum, yet he creates a complex fictional and highly theatrical world for his characters to inhabit. Beckett chooses his words carefully, and the nature of the dialogue is circular, for example in Hamm's opening soliloquy: "And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to … to end. Yes, there it is, it's time it ended and yet I hesitate to—(he yawns)—to end." The language Beckett uses demonstrates the precarious balance between cognition and bewilderment. The breakdown of language reflects the breakdown of the characters' ability to perceive the world around them. His use of self-reflexive dialogue informs the audience that they are sitting in a theater watching a play, alluding to the play as a "game." Just as the words Beckett uses are few, he removes all extraneous material from his play. Endgame's structure breaks from the theory that shaped centuries of dramas and tragedies. Aristotle wrote that tragedy is "an imitation of an action." Beckett is not concerned with trying to create and maintain an imitation or illusion of reality. Beckett strips bare all detail except the necessary minimum, and the detail he does provide is often vague. Beckett's use of dramatic motivation is also minimal. In traditional drama, a character's motivations are made clear to the audience, but the character's actions in Endgame are peculiar. One may wish to go to the theater to come away with conclusions and answers, but Beckett presents a fictional world as complex as the real world, where conclusions are uncertain and answers not easily defined. Endgame can be seen as the highest sort of theater, where events take place in the midst of the life of the audience, and it is the audience's responsibility to take what it can from what is presented rather than being force fed easily discernible plots. Despite flying in the face of recognized theatrical devices, there is an innovative dramatist at work, who decides to use chess as a way to play out this human predicament.

Beckett uses chess as the play's controlling metaphor, and he explores the human dilemma, mortality, and God's existence, without providing simple answers, as his characters, and the audience, move through an uncertain existence. The game of chess becomes the metaphor that gives a seemingly structureless play a dramatic scheme. The characters in Endgame resemble chess pieces. The metaphorical king of Endgame is the center of attention, and the rules of chess apply to the characters, their setting, and their situation. In Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, Anthony Cronin writes:

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When it was produced in Berlin in 1967 Beckett told one of the actors, 'Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start … Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would … He is only trying to delay the inevitable end … He's a bad player.'

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  • Waiting for Godot (1953) is Samuel Beckett's best-known play about two tramps waiting for the elusive Godot.
  • The Unnamable (1953) is the third novel of Beckett's trilogy, including Molloy (1951) and Malone Dies (1951). All three novels, which were originally written in French, are interior monologues containing flashes of dark humor.
  • Krapp's Last Tape (1958) is another of Beckett's stage plays. It consists of a monologue in which the aged Krapp attempts to recapture the intensity of days long passed by listening to recordings of his younger self.
  • Eugène Ionseco's play The Chairs (1958) is about a man who had opportunities to lead a great life but led a simple life with his wife instead. After many years, he decides to tell society his secret. The only characters in the play are the old man, the woman, and the person the old man hires to tell the world his secret. This play is a staple work of the theater of the absurd.
  • David Mamet's Glengarry Glenn Ross (1983) is an excellent example of the influence Beckett has had on the craft of writing plays. Mamet was highly influenced by Harold Pinter, to whom Glengarry Glenn Ross is dedicated, and Pinter was highly influenced by Beckett.
  • Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (1958) follows Stanley, an out-of-work pianist in a seaside boarding house. Stanley is mysteriously threatened and taken over by two intruders, who present him with a bizarre indictment of unexplained crimes.
  • Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (1997) is an ambitious and well-written biography of Samuel Beckett the writer, artist, and person.

And the audience can see the moves of the king once the game has been set up. Hamm and Clov can be viewed as king and knight, and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, function as pawns. Beckett further emphasizes this by using two different colors to describe his characters. When introduced, Hamm and Clov both have a "very red face." Nagg and Nell both have a "very white face." Though his characters have two differing colors, they do not perform as contrasting pieces would in a standard game of chess played between two opponents. In chess, each piece is moved according to specific rules and is removed from the board when it is captured by the move of one of the opposing pieces into its square. The king is the focus of the game as each player tries to checkmate the other player's king. The king can move one square in any direction but only one square at a time and cannot move into check. Hamm, Endgame's crippled king, can only move with the aid of Clov, the play's knight, which ultimately leads to Hamm's demise. The move of the knight in chess resembles a capital L (two squares vertically followed by one to the side, or two to the side and one up or down). In literary lore, the knight is often the king's most ardent protector—or deceiver. Beckett uses both of these ideas with Clov, who exists in a master-servant relationship with Hamm. Clov eventually leaves Hamm (if the audience believes Clov does leave at the play's end), which brings about Hamm's death. The least valuable of all the chess pieces is the pawn. Pawns can move only one square, straight ahead, except for its first move, which can be two squares straight ahead. It is the only chess piece that may never move backwards. Pawns have special privileges; other pieces do not. Beckett's pawns are of the sortPage 74  |  Top of Article that is unable to progress in the battlefield that is their shelter. Contained in ashbins, they are powerless to promote their own agenda and are trapped and dependent upon their son, Hamm.

Hamm, the king, for the purpose of the drama, is the center of all activity. Hamm is all too aware of his limited mortal power and abilities, and he struggles to survive the chess game by trying to dominate the other characters on stage. Afraid of losing what little control he does have, Hamm tells Clov to take him for a spin around the room in his wheelchair. As Clov, the obedient knight in service of his king, moves him, Hamm complains about the slightest inaccuracy of his desired position and yells to Clov that he has moved him a "little too far to the left" or a "little too far to the right." Hamm tries to assert his dominance whenever he can. Beckett's purposeful use of chess as the play's central metaphor augments the dramatic maneuvers both Hamm and Clov contrive in their daily games with each other as they struggle with the purpose of going on at all. In his desperate requests for painkillers, Hamm creates devices that enable him to continue on for another day. Clov, on the other hand, exercises his love-hate relationship with Hamm by his committed performance of daily routines. Much of their dialogue implies an inner debate of each character vying for control of the other, such as when Clov asks, "Why do you keep me?" and Hamm answers, "There's no one else." Clov responds, "There's nowhere else." Hamm asserts, "You're leaving me all the same." Clov, answers honestly, "I'm trying." The king, knight, pawn scenario can also be seen at work when Hamm chastises his father, Nagg, when he comes out from his ashbin demanding food. Hamm whistles Clov in to feed Nagg, and then Hamm orders Clov to push Nagg back into the bin and close the lid. In the game of chess, pawns are typically the first to lose their lives, and so it is in Endgame. Both Nagg and Nell expire before the king; only the knight survives.

The setting of Endgame has similar restrictions in time and space, as does chess. Endgame is set in a single room that may or may not be a bomb shelter after a nuclear war has devastated the earth. Beckett's characters exist in a world that seems to be coming to an end, and here the audience can see Beckett's characters' actions and ideas in comparison to an endgame in chess. P. H. Clarke notes in the translator's forward to Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge, by Y. Averbakh:

Any deficiencies in positional judgment and technique which may have remained unnoticed amidst the complexities of the openings and middlegame are here ruthlessly revealed; errors stand out in greater relief and, what is worse, generally have more serious consequences.

Beckett's characters know that the world and all of life outside their known shelter may have been destroyed—they are aware of the serious consequences facing them, yet they feel somewhat safe in the small room they inhabit (the game space or game board). Hamm describes the world that exists outside the known shelter as an "outer hell." Like the king in a chess game, Hamm does not want to be taken off the game board, for if he is, he knows he has lost the battle. Thought and choice are the determining factors in any chess game. For the master player of chess, moves are planned in advance, and it takes time to set up strategy and position. The master player moves beyond tactics to strategy—long-term planning in preparation for later action. None of Beckett's characters, like most people in real life, are master players. The chess metaphor is not simply an exercise but a way of coherently presenting the incoherent ideas of how humanity reconciles itself to itself. Just as the chess player is plagued by limitations, so are the characters in Endgame.

Beckett's characters search for an understanding of themselves as Beckett explores human limitations and mortality—all the while continuing to move towards the question of a person's significance in what may be a Godless world. Just as the king in chess can only move one space at a time, Hamm wonders why he is so limited. Through this game of chess Beckett examines the personal strugglePage 75  |  Top of Article and often the inability to understand one's own self. In looking to the future, the characters encounter a complexity of strategy and movement as real in life as it is in chess. Transformation can be difficult to pinpoint. Beckett does not provide easily defined dramatic moments when change does happen, and discernment is slippery at best. Clov describes a change that has occurred without completely understanding what precisely has transpired:

Then one day, suddenly, it ends, it changes. I don't understand, it dies, or it's me. I don't understand, that either. I ask the words that remain—sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say.

Hamm also acknowledges this phenomenon: "Absent always. It all happened without me. I don't know what's happened." Just as a bad player in chess suddenly finds the endgame and potential victory slipping from his grasp, so do Beckett's characters. As the endgame begins to slip from grasp, the characters' thoughts fall to mortality.

The characters in Endgame realize that they are mortal. The repetitions and routines throughout the play represent the habitual nature of man and imply that these habits are palliative to our awareness that death is certain and life mysterious. The characters discuss what may give life meaning and make it worth living. Experience in life should add up to a meaningful existence. Clov, in the second line of the play, describes what should be the accumulation of experiences that produce meaning: "Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap." This idea is again articulated by Hamm near the end of the play: "Moment by moment, pattering down like the millet grains of … (He hesitates) … that Old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life." In examining their lives thus far, the characters, and the audience, must determine their futures. For Clov, the decision is to take his chances in the "outer hell," leaving the safety of the only playing field he has known. As Clov prepares to leave Hamm, Hamm admits defeat. Hamm throws his worldly possessions towards the audience and places his handkerchief over his face, an act of the king giving up the game.

Despite his eventual loss, throughout the play Hamm desires personal significance. Beckett's play culminates in the most universal question of all: is there a God and do we matter to Him? Beckett asks the audience to consider if God does exist or if he is a myth made up by man to allow man to ease his fear of death and his fear of insignificance. In one scene, Hamm orders both Clov and Nagg to pray to God, but Hamm cries in agony, "The bastard! He doesn't exist!" Hamm and the other characters solemnly question the existence of God. One of the comedic moments of the play is when Nagg and Nell discuss the joke about an Old Jewish tailor who took more than three months to make a decent pair of trousers, the results of which were more satisfactory than God's six-day effort to create the world. Beckett raises these questions, but he does not provide easy answers. For the believer, perhaps Beckett is saying that only God has complete knowledge of the world and that human ideas are limited. Such is not the case for Hamm, who seriously doubts the existence of God. Hamm says that it would seem impossible for the millions of moments in a lifetime to amount to anything significant. Do any actions or relationships in life bring anything but pain, suffering, and insignificance? In Beckett's work, one cannot take things at face value. Each person must rise to Beckett's challenge and search himself or herself for the answers and solutions to these universal and timeless questions.

The fact that Beckett finds an unconventional yet successful way to address these weighty questions of life in an hour-and-a-half play is what distinguishes it as great drama. Beckett succeeds by exploding the paradigms of traditional drama. He uses allusions to, and forms resembling, chess in order to create structure where there initially seems to be none. Beckett treats his audience with the utmost respect by investigating the human condition without allowing for the hope of an absolute answer to life's biggest puzzles. Beckett's Endgame, though a labyrinth in its complex construction, is an extraordinary work of twentieth-century art.

Source: Daryl McDaniel, Critical Essay on Endgame, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.

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Aristotle, "VI," in Aristotle's Poetics, translated by S. H. Butcher, Hill and Wang, 1989, p. 61.

Bernard, Marc, Review of Endgame, in Nouvelles litteraires, May 5, 1957.

Clarke, P. H., "Translator's Foreword," in Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge, by Y. Averbakh, Pergamon Press, 1966, p. vii.

Cronin, Anthony, "Chapter Twenty-Nine," in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 459–60.

Gussow, Mel, "The Stage: Chaikin Directs Beckett's Endgame," in the New York Times, January 14, 1980.

Tynan, Kenneth, Review of Endgame, in the Observer, April 7, 1957.

Worsley, T. C., Review of Endgame, in the Listener, November 4, 1957.


Abbott, H. Porter, The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect, University of California Press, 1973.

This book contains chapters on Beckett's early short fiction and the relationship between his stories and novels.

Bair, Deidre, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

This biography about the reclusive Samuel Beckett is broad in scope and understandably flawed.

Ben-Zvi, Linda, Samuel Beckett, Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Because of the large scope of Beckett's writings, this study of Beckett's complete works has necessitated a brief coverage of each work.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," Modern Critical Interpretations series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Bloom brings together a representative selection of what many consider to be the best eight critical interpretations of the play.

Coe, Richard, Samuel Beckett, Grove Press, 1964.

Coe's study of Beckett focuses on his philosophical background.

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Cohn, Ruby, Back to Beckett, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Cohn presents a detailed study of Beckett's fiction and drama.

Zurbrugg, Nicholas, "Ill Seen Ill Said and the Sense of an Ending," in Beckett's Later Fiction and Drama: Texts for Company, edited by James Acheson and Kateryna Arthur, Macmillan Press, 1987.

Zurbrugg asserts that Ill Seen Ill Said is not so much a story as a poetic evocation of those rituals by which the living and the dead within Beckett's fiction endlessly, and quite ineffectively, strive to attain a definitive "sense of an ending."

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420200015