A Feeble Apocalypse: Samuel Beckett and The Sense of an Ending
Richard Banks, April 2001
Part 1 — Kermode’s ‘feeble apocalypse’
Part 2 — Ending and Re-beginning: connecting the womb with the tomb inBreath
Part 3 — Waiting For Godot: The Great Cold
Part 4 — Endgame: The Great Flood (below)
Part 5 — Lessness and the Endless ‘On’
4: Endgame: The Great Flood
“Godot is grounded in the promise of an arrival that never occurs,
Endgame is the promise of a departure that never happens.”
After Waiting For Godot came Endgame, published around two years later. In many ways, the latter can be seen to continue where Godot left off: it presents four characters exasperatingly reduced to a monotonous, meagre existence, dependent on each other for survival and unable to leave their immediate surroundings. In fact, these characters are tantalisingly reminiscent of Lucky, Pozzo, Vladimir and Estragon. Intriguingly, even though he always refuted categorical and reductive interpretations of his plays, Beckett once explained to Deirdre Bair that “Hamm and Clov are Didi and Gogo at a later date, at the end of their lives”, before immediately altering his explanation and deciding, “actually they are Suzanne and me”, referring to his relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil.
It would perhaps be more convincing to equate Hamm and Clov to Pozzo and Lucky respectively; Hamm’s blindness and dependency on his ‘slave’ are too reminiscent of Pozzo to be coincidental. Yet these comparisons are, of course, rather fruitless in this debate; it suffices to say here that the central couples in Beckett’s first plays may both be representations of the painful but symbiotic relationship Beckett and his wife shared at that time. More importantly, definitive readings of Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell are largely unsupportable chiefly because Beckett offers the reader very few reliable facts regarding their identities in Endgame. Consequently, as Gabriele Schwab has argued, “neither the identity of the characters nor the meaning of the play can be discovered by assembling fragments of identity or meaning.”
Beckett’s indecisive appraisal of the play’s central duo is therefore indicative of their enigmatic identity overall. Indeed, what Beckett and Schwab both expose here is the way in which interpretation is made problematic within the play. As Schwab asserts, “interpretation functions as closure.” In other words, a coherent reading of a play is essentially a conclusion, an answer that carries with it the end of any dialectical ambiguity. As I have shown, closure is frequently undermined in Beckett’s plays by continuation or recommencement. It follows, therefore, that definitive interpretation should be equally impossible in Endgame.
As with many of Beckett’s plays, the play’s title has great significance. Critics have often identified the chess reference as a metaphor for the last days of life, when death is approaching and ‘moves’ are becoming increasingly “senseless.” Endgame is a play in which Beckett toys with the notion of endings, frustrating and denying various forms of closure. In ‘On the Dialectic of Closing and Opening in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame’, Schwab identifies the manner in which Beckett prohibits closure by stifling his audience’s ability to interpret the play. The most obvious of these, she argues, is the way in which dialogue becomes a “decentering language-game” that refuses coherence:
The play’s language-game with the audience is reflected and mediated by the equally unfamiliar language game of the characters. The latter contradicts not only all the expectations of dramatic dialogue, but also the very conditions for the functioning of dialogue. Neither is the dialogue situated in any intelligible context, nor does it derive from any representative function of speech or even a minimal amount of coherence… Most striking is the constant introduction of new topics, accompanied by the recurrence of nearly identical sequences of dialogue, though sometimes with the roles of the speakers reversed.
‘Language-games’ are, of course, not exclusive to Endgame; similar games occupy Didi and Gogo’s time in Waiting For Godot, and this form of dialogue is one of Beckett’s most recognisable stylistic traits. Hamm and Clov rarely finish conversations. Their exchanges are unproductive on the whole, generally ending with unbearable pauses before Hamm restarts the banter with a new question or instruction to Clov. Consequently, the play’s dialogue takes the form of multiple miniature narratives that remain unanswered, fragmentary and inconclusive, like the stories Nagg and Hamm insist on retelling. Nagg’s tailor will never finish making the pair of trousers, and whilst Hamm is aware that his narrative might have run out of scope, he resolves to “bring in new characters” (E, 118), before later realising he could “end it and begin another”(E, 126). Lack of closure problematises the act of interpretation for an audience: since conclusions are rarely reached, truths about the play’s situation and its characters’ identity are difficult to establish. The concrete details supplied by Beckett are kept to a bare minimum.
Schwab has also noted the amount of repetition taking place within this stilted and incoherent dialogue, and has subsequently associated the interchangeable nature of dialogue fragments with the play’s fluid and unclear identity roles. She sees Endgame’s dialogue as “a decentering language-game of endless substitutions, that is, a game in which fragmented units of speech appear to be randomly substituted for each other.” These recurring conversational motifs are noticeable primarily for their heightened poignancy, but also because they are repetitions contained within a very claustrophobic, singular play with one act, and one room in which to perform. Clov commences the play with “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (E, 93), which Hamm echoes later on as “It’s finished, we’re finished. [Pause] Nearly finished” (E, 116) even though he was seemingly asleep and could not have heard Clov’s initial phrase.
The play’s most significant repetition comes in the form of an allusion to a Greek paradox that seems to pervade the play:
Clov: …Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. (E, 93)
Hamm: …Moment upon 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. (E, 126)
Here, Beckett is essentially reworking Zeno’s philosophical problem to question whether a pile of millet grains can ever become a heap, just as Achilles might never catch the tortoise in the infamous paradox. What is important here, however, is that both Hamm and Clov refer directly to the paradox, and that they do so outside of each other’s company. Since both characters allude to this myth independently, we can assume Hamm is not simply reacting to something his companion said earlier, but is instead making the allusion as if for the first time, just as Didi and Gogo twice consider suicide for the first time. It appears as if both characters are taking their lines from a universal script, from which Nagg and Nell can also borrow — hence Clov’s repetition of Nell’s “Why this farce, day after day?” (E, 106). As a result of this ‘endless substitution’, lines of dialogue become detached from any one role and are instead phantom fragments available to any of the play’s identity characters. “In Hamm and Clov’s playing with such roles”, Schwab argues, “the closure inherent in representation of identity is opened through never ending and continually variable substitutions.” Since, in theatre, identity is established primarily through dialogue subjectivities that inscribe onto each role an exclusive character, an interchangeable dialogue denies these characters that “centered subjectivity”, thereby impeding the process of identity interpretation.
It is ironic, then, that each of these recursive moments touches on the notion of achieving completion and obtaining closure. Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell are “tired of [their] goings on” (E, 129) and yearn for an end to their miserable daily existence, as Didi and Gogo did before them. As I have previously illustrated, mathematical theory states that in its movement from 1 to 2, the act of repetition implies infinity. Thus, the desires of Endgame’s characters are frustrated even in the act of expression: as long as they go on repeating each other’s words, such an ending will remain an ‘impossible heap’.
The closure inherent in interpretation is not only denied by Endgame’s dialogue, however, but also by various other features of the play. One might argue, for example, that the painting with its face to the wall cannot be ‘interpreted’ by the audience. Likewise, the room in which the play takes place is bare — it lacks visual signifiers that might help an audience to establish time and location. Moreover, the only windows in the room are too high up to be seen through, meaning the world outside is barely visible. These aspects effectively obscure meaning, leaving the play doubly open-ended, with regard to its actual ending as well as its implications. Yet there are certain fundamental truths that can be established in Endgame, and these are particularly valuable in this context because of their explicitly apocalyptic resonances.
In ‘Twentieth-Century Apocalypse: Forecasts and Aftermaths’, James Berger spoke of “a kind of apocalyptic fatigue, or indeed, a widespread sense that apocalypse has, in some sense, already happened.” Arguably, Endgame can be seen as a product of this fatigue. The world outside of Hamm’s room has clearly been wholly destroyed, yet this destruction is never explained; when Clov looks out of the windows, he sees simply “Zero” (E, 106). “Outside of here it’s death!” (E, 96) repeats Hamm, and yet he still he demands that Clov use the telescope to check for signs of life:
Hamm: The waves, how are the waves?
Clov: The waves? [He turns telescope on the waves.] Lead.
Hamm: And the sun?
Clov: [Looking.] Zero.
Hamm: But it should be sinking. Look again.
Clov: [Looking.] Damn the sun.
Hamm: Is it night already then?
Clov: [Looking.] No.
Hamm: Then what is it?
Clov: [Looking.] Grey. (E, 107)
That the world outside is grey, neither white nor black, but “light black. From pole to pole” (E, 107) is crucial here: as in Breath, the End that pre-exists Endgame was not absolute; the light never reached ‘zero’ (total darkness), and now it cannot reach its full brightness either. What results from this unconvincing destruction is a demoralising purgatory, a grey and incomplete post-apocalyptic scene. Beckett creates a very similar landscape in Lessness (1970):
Grey sky no cloud no sound no stir
earth ash grey sand. Little body
same grey as the earth sky ruins
only upright. Ash grey all sides
earth sky as one all sides endlessness.
Once again emphasising the impossibility of unconditional finitude and denying any degree of certainty, Beckett surrounds his characters with nearly nothing — to reach the extreme of a scale would, after all, be tantamount to reaching an end. Evidently, Hamm and Clov came agonisingly close to knowing the End; indeed, it initially seems they are effectively the only human survivors of whatever catastrophe occurred. Crucially, though, there are still signs of life, indications that life might recommence:
Clov: [Anguished, scratching himself.] I have a flea!
Hamm: A flea! Are there still fleas?
Clov: On me there’s one. [Scratching.] Unless it’s a crablouse.
Hamm: [Very perturbed.] But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God! (E, 108)
Further on, Hamm is also surprised to hear that there are also still rats when Clov finds one in his kitchen. Throughout the play, Hamm condemns the act of reproduction and curses any creature capable of creating new life. In fact, his denunciation of Nagg as an “Accursed progenitor!” (E, 96) is perhaps a direct allusion to Faustus’ “Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!” in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Embittered by the inconclusiveness of the End which has passed, as well as his own immobility and blindness, Hamm would rather see the world fully extinguished than let it recover; “The whole place stinks of corpses”, he complains, “To hell with the universe.” (E, 114).
Most significant of these possible sources of life, however, is the sighting of a young boy outside at the end of the play, “a potential procreator” (E, 131). In his seminal text The Theatre of The Absurd, Martin Esslin compares the different treatment of this moment in the French and English versions of the play. Hamm is far more interested in the boy in Beckett’s French text, he reveals, where the episode exudes a “quasi-religious symbolism” that is absent from the shorter English translation. In the longer version, Clov sees the boy leaning against “the lifted stone” and “looking at the house with the eyes of Moses dying.” Esslin explains the significance of these allusions thus:
The references to Moses and the lifted stone seem to hint that the first human being, the first sign of life discovered in the outside world since the great calamity when the earth went dead, is not, like Moses, dying within sight of the promised land, but, like Christ the moment after the resurrection, has been born into a new life, leaning, a babe, against the lifted stone.
The arrival of the boy unequivocally represents new life, therefore, and signifies both religious rebirth and post-apocalyptic hope. Hence, the end of the play is, in a sense, more a beginning than an ending. That this religious symbolism was cut from the English version of Endgame is intriguing, especially when one considers the religious allusions elsewhere in the play and throughout the Beckettian canon. For instance, the boy(s) that arrive at the end of each act in Godot are extremely evocative of Cain and Abel. Yet whereas Didi and Gogo greet the entrance of these timid brothers with a knowing disapproval and disappointment — “Off we go again” (WFG, 47) — since it signals the prolongation of their wait for another day, the appearance of the boy in Endgame is an unexpected sign of new life.
Further ‘quasi-religious’ symbolism becomes apparent in the light of John Calder’s examination of a prototype version of the play; it is not out of the question that Hamm and Clov’s room could, in fact, be an ark:
The earliest version of this play made it clear that what Beckett had in mind when he was writing it was an earlier destruction of the world, the great flood, survived only by Noah (Hamm is, of course, a biblical name, one of Noah’s sons), and Hamm’s fear is that the growth of the human species will start all over again, which in Genesis, it does.
Thus, whilst Lucky prophesises an apocalypse in Waiting For Godot that will take the form of a great cooling of the earth, Endgame perhaps depicts an apocalyptic flood that has already taken place. Indeed, several fragments of evidence within the text appear to support this argument. Firstly, there is a great deal of water outside of the windows — even “the light is sunk” (E, 106) — and Clov’s description of the waves as “lead” (E, 107) imbues the water with an eerie, oppressive power. Second, Beckett inserts the following exchange, arguably a parody of the biblical story of Noah’s ark:
Hamm: 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!
Clov: God forbid!
Hamm: Alone, I’ll embark alone! Get working on that raft immediately. Tomorrow I’ll be gone for ever. (E, 109)
This interpretation would imply, therefore, that the evident destruction of the world was God’s doing, and that He expects Noah to rebuild humanity. Beckett subverts the biblical paradigm, however, replacing hope and obedience with dejection and defiance. Thus, Nagg can be seen as a pathetic depiction of Noah, decrepit and senile in his old age. It follows, then, that Hamm has clearly lost faith in God and has refused his father’s duty; instead, he resigns himself to the extinction of the human race.
Nonetheless, as much as Hamm desires this human extermination, Beckett makes it wholly improbable. By the end of the play, Clov’s departure is evidently as implausible as Godot’s arrival, even though Hamm seems keen to exchange him for the newly arrived boy. While the leitmotif of Waiting For Godot is “Let’s go” (WFG, 15), Endgame’s is “I’ll leave you” (E, 120); in both cases, departure is merely an empty threat. Just as Vladimir and Estragon are tied to Godot, and Lucky is tied to Pozzo, Clov’s ties to Hamm are too strong to break. He cannot leave. The impossibility of departure — essentially another form of closure — is one of the strongest parallels between the two plays. Two lines of dialogue in particular are markedly similar, even down to their lethargic, hesitant syntax. In Waiting For Godot:
Pozzo: I don’t seem to be able…[Long hesitation]…to depart. (WFG, 46)
And in Endgame:
Hamm: …Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to — [he yawns] — to end. (E, 93)
Closure is clearly as unattainable in Beckett’s second drama as it was in his debut. Interchangeable lines of dialogue prove identity roles to be unstable and elusive, preventing the closure intrinsic to the formation and interpretation of a play’s meaning. The extinction of the human race is itself another form of closure, but this is also denied in the play by the appearance of new life. As Schwab argues, “each invitation to closure is followed by new openings which prove that closure to be reductive.” In short, the disaster that takes place before Endgame is ultimately no End at all, and although the title gives the suggestion of events drawing to a close, this is far from true of the play’s content. Beckett’s titles are playfully misleading in general: Waiting For Godot teases the reader with expectations of an arrival it does not provide, Krapp’s Last Tape is, in truth, unlikely to be his last tape, and Winnie’s Happy Days are actually dismal and purgatorial.
Once again a process of re-beginning undermines any conclusions at which Endgame might hint. It is intriguing to observe, then, that the forever-deferred apocalypse that Didi and Gogo desire in their allusion to Proverbs 13:12 does indeed turn out, in Endgame, to be a ‘tree of life’. The play’s great flood is wholly anticlimactic; to use Frank Kermode’s words, it is not only ‘a feeble apocalypse’, but also ‘a humble genesis’ in which new life begins to sprout like the leaves on Godot’s tree.
Read in this way, the religious apocalyptic paradigm advocates that we continue to be faced with the continuation of life, even when some form of long-deferred End does eventually come. The same is true of twentieth century history and literature, perhaps, where two World Wars have failed to annihilate us and we continue to look onwards for something more conclusive, all the while attempting to represent our post-apocalyptic ‘aftermath.’ James Berger’s theories are again applicable here; he argues that “the modernist apocalyptic vision, marked and wounded by the past, nevertheless extended forward, if only toward some even greater catastrophe.”
Read part 5 — Lessness and the Endless ‘On’