(Terence Killeen’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 6/15.; Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, directed by Conor McPherson (left) and Michael Gambon at the Beckett Film Project. Photograph: Pat Redmond.)
In all great plays, a calamity can be adapted to any circumstance – pandemic, for example
“Outside of here it’s death.” No play better captures the experience and the meaning of lockdown than Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In it, four people – the blind and immobile Hamm, his elderly parents Nagg and Nell, who are confined to dustbins, and his relatively able-bodied servant Clov – are stuck together in a dwelling, frequently referred to as a refuge, which is very evidently the last place where humanity can survive.
Some kind of catastrophe has apparently rendered Earth uninhabitable. In 1957, when the play was first staged, the catastrophe was of course interpreted as nuclear destruction. But like all great plays, the nature of the catastrophe can be adapted to any circumstances – a pandemic is just as possible. That the disaster may be ecological is also quite evident: the likelihood that the world outside is dead and cannot support life is frequently indicated. (HAMM: Nature has forgotten us. CLOV: There’s no more nature.)
So the four characters are isolated (self-isolated?) in this very restricted space, with only Clov’s small kitchen, off-stage, to which he sometimes retreats, as an alternative area. The play simply “takes its course”, with no indication that the day has moved on in any way, or that there is any day and night alternation, unlike in Beckett’s previous play, Waiting for Godot.
A sense of timelessness, very like what the more senior citizens especially have experiencing during lockdown, is a crucial part of the work. What happens onstage happens in a state which bears no relation to normal conceptions of time’s progression. For its full effect, it needs to be played very slowly, with a sense of even theatre time only barely passing – hard for a director and actors to get right, but crucial if the play is to work.
How do the characters fill up this strange interregnum, this permanent stasis? By acting, since actors are what they are and this is a theatre. Endgame is what would now be called a “spin-off” from Godot; it represents a development of two marginal figures in that play, Pozzo and Lucky, into the protagonists. (The two marginal figures in this play, Nagg and Nell, will give rise to further developments in later Beckett work.)
Hamm is a more reduced Pozzo: by the second act of Godot, Pozzo is already blind and barely able to walk; here in Endgame he is confined irrevocably to a chair. Lucky, conversely, has come on somewhat since Godot; as Clov, he is now more independent and can talk and act independently. The correspondences are not exact, but close enough to warrant the inference of a basic continuity.
In Godot, Pozzo, on his first appearance, is a ham, a grandiose, strutting figure very inclined to magnify himself and his non-achievements. He expects Didi and Gogo to know his name and is most put out when they don’t. So it is appropriate that he should be renamed Hamm (with its connotation of ham actor) in the later work. Hamm still keeps up the great tradition: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he asks in his very opening words: as a good old theatrical prima donna, he expects to outshine all the others, even if only in terms of the degree of his misery.