The "endgame" could go on for years. Every day is a bit of the endgame. But then, one day, it might actually be the end of the endgame. This is Samuel Beckett's insight, his truth, played out in his works, whether the play is Happy Days or Waiting for Godot, or the actual Endgame.
In chess the endgame is the period when the game is dwindling down, most of the power pieces have been lost on both sides, leaving the two kings, perhaps a few pawns, and mostly self-protective moves. It's likely to end in stalemate unless one opponent grows bored or distracted so that the other can actually move to checkmate.
The serious reduction of viable forces make it an "endgame." For Beckett this game is a tragicomedy and also a metaphor for that horribly sad and ironic and often painfully repetitive and boring little farce we call life.
In the latest New York production of his 1957 masterwork at BAM, Hamm and Clov run through their daily moves and moods with a certain manic energy. They are playing the game of life, and as Hamm regularly announces with something like gusto, "We're getting on," even if they are among the last survivors in their region of nameless devastations, confined to a single large stone-walled room. Hamm is also blind and crippled, whereas his servant of sorts, Clov, manages to limp about quite steadily at his tasks.
Scholar Steven Rosen has described Beckett's characters as "infantile, narcissistic, nonproductive, spiteful, futile," and the tyrannical Hamm would certainly fall into this category. But not Clov, who scuttles willingly back and forth into the big room and only when not needed returns to his unseen kitchen space. Clov is both sulky and helpful, providing the necessary physical assistance for the various cripples on stage: Hamm in his wheelchair and his aging stumps of parents kept alive in matching ash bins. The theatrical image of one's aging progenitors kept in trash cans in one's vicinity is one of Beckett's master strokes of human understanding. The depth of ambivalence many feel towards their parents is rarely portrayed head on. But that's the case with Beckett, his genius in fact, that he both sees the horror our existence and manages to laugh at it.
Consciousness is such a blessing and such a curse. We are not animals, exactly, or rather we are animals with a sense of before and after. We know the curse of time, a theme in play after play, where issues of time are a regular topic of conversation. In Endgame Hamm asks, "Is it not time for my pain-killer?" repeatedly. Each time Clov replies no, until finally it is time, but alas, as Clov says, "There's no more pain-killer." Things are running out in this play. A real end seems to be approaching. When Nagg, the father in the ash can, cries out, "me pap!" he is informed after several bleating requests, "There's no more pap." He has to settle for a dry biscuit, and when he complains that it's hard, Hamm orders Clov to "Bottle him!" So the lid is shoved down over the frustrated parent. What a marvelous mechanism.
In this production, directed by Andrei Belgrader, the acting is effective, if not brilliant. John Turturro as Hamm is a little histrionic for my taste. Yes, the character is supposed to be self-loving, selfish, overly fond of his own story-telling, bossy, and belligerent, yet we need a sense of real human suffering underneath, and that is what is not clear in Tuturro's portrayal. But Max Casella as Clov is quite marvelous, a very believable man stuck in a strangely limited world, committed to his duties, and yet at the same time tiring of their master/servant routines, eager to get away, somewhere, anywhere, just not in that stifling room with the needy boss and his decaying parents.
Most of the time Clov does exactly what is asked of him; he pushes the wheelchair around, he fetches what Hamm requests, feeds the parents, laughs at the jokes, and simply carries on. But occasionally he resists, as when Hamm asks him to oil the wheels of his wheelchair:
CLOV: I oiled them yesterday.
HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!
CLOV: That means that bloody awful day long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me.
And it is in moments like these that we realize just how painful a long-term relationship of intimacy can be: the simmering resentments, the unexpressed hurts, the tiresome repetitions, and, of course, the ludicrous dependency on both sides. It is the banal and paradoxical world of human existence that Beckett shines his harsh light upon again and again. Those who are alone (like the monologist in Krapp's Last Tape) long to be with someone, and those who are together (like Hamm and Clov or Winnie and Willie in Happy Days) long to escape.
Beckett is a master of the extreme situation, whether it is Winnie buried up to her waist in sand (and then later to her neck), or Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, a couple of vagrants in the middle of nowhere waiting for the arrival of someone or something about which they seem to know nothing. The attempt to live, to pass the time, to do the necessary daily tasks -- these are revealed in his work as both risky and boring. The world is inhospitable. And as Nell, the mother in Endgame, says, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," a line at which the audience laughs. But are we thinking of our own unhappiness? It takes a sage to laugh at that.
This production has both its comic and its tragic moments, one of my favorites being the introduction of Hamm's dog into the scene by Clov, who, upon request, carries on stage a three-legged black toy dog. When Hamm asks if it's white, Clove responds "Nearly," which sets Hamm off: "What do you mean, nearly? Is he white or isn't he?" What plays out in this little interchange is the reality of Hamm's blindness and the power it gives to Clov. When it comes to visual experiences, he can tell Hamm anything. Hamm comments of the dog, "You've forgotten the sex." Vexed, Clov answers, "But he isn't finished. The sex goes on at the end," a remark suggesting that being a dog is more essential than gender, that sexual identity is a kind of afterthought. Hamm wants the dog to stand, which proves difficult to execute for Clov with only three legs to work with. But after some bickering, Clov maintains that the dog is standing, and not only standing but gazing at Hamm; which Hamm very much appreciates because it creates the possibility of begging or imploring. Meanwhile, we in the audience see a lifeless toy dog lying down on the floor.
So what is reality? We can enjoy the turning of the tables by Clov, but also fear what Shakespeare has described as the "last scene of all," in which we exist "sans teeth, sans taste, sans eyes, sans everything." Beckett and Shakespeare share a fierce sense of human reality and our natural progression towards entropy. For anyone with a strong sentimental streak, the greatest playwrights may prove unpalatable. But for those seeking moments of compelling truth, Beckett's Endgame will take you there. - Victoria Sullivan
Endgame runs through May 18 at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre 651 Fulton Street between Ashland Place and Rockwell Place, Brooklyn Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.