In A Nutshell
Endgame was Samuel Beckett's first full-length play after his famous Waiting for Godot. When it first came out in 1958 it received somewhat mixed reviews (as had Godot a few years earlier), with some critics charging that Beckett was just doing the same thing over again. With time, however, people began to agree on the play's immense significance. Endgame helped to cement Beckett's role as one of the (if not the) most important playwrights of the 20th century. Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that Endgame "remains a larger play than any other dramatist has given us in this century."
So what's all the fuss about? For one thing, Endgame is an example of theatrical "minimalism" that would become enormously influential later in the 20th century. Minimalism is a style based on the simple premise that the less you put on stage, the more significant what is on stage becomes. Beckett was obviously fully aware of this increased significance because, not only did he revise the play repeatedly, but he also wrote Endgame in French (not his native language) and then translated it into English (which he did with all of his work after his 1945 novel, Watt). Beckett used French, which he was less familiar than with English, to ensure that he struggled with every word – to ensure that nothing came too easily.
A last point: for those not well acquainted with black humor, Endgame is a bizarre and cruel play. At the time it was written, not too long after World War II, apocalyptic visions were much in vogue, and readers were preoccupied with the problem of finding meaning in a world full of suffering. Beckett can squeeze comedy from these visions of human pain; nonetheless, he never ceases to sympathize with his characters. Over and over again, in all of his work, he depicted people who had suffered so much that they were long past hope. And yet, even in the absence of hope, his characters still continue on for reasons that they cannot understand.
Why Should I Care?
So, yeah, you could care about Beckett because he almost single-handedly invented the kind of minimalist abstract theater that defines modern staging and is so easy to make fun of… if you're so inclined and are feelin' fancy.
But really, the main reason to check this play out is that the strange mixture of despair and then indifference to that despair that is the basic building block of Beckett's whole deal, is pretty much what the human condition is now assumed to be. Yikes.
Oh yeah, baby, we're talking the whole what's-the-meaning-of-life-oh-we-guess-there-isn't-one brouhaha that's all the philosophical rage.
It's true that in Beckett's case, the driver for his dystopian vision was the devastation of World War II and the seeming destruction of the world. But his strange fixation with obviously hopeless characters who still manage to survive by hanging on to a shred or two of some kind of hope gets at a pretty universal experience.
What are we talking about? Well, there's a pretty great moment in a recent episode of The Simpsons in which two teenagers are talking to each other about Homer becoming a famous human cannonball.
"That's so cool," one of them says in a mocking tone.
"Are you being sarcastic?" the other one asks.
"Dude, I don't even know any more," the first one replies ruefully.
And just like that we have a nice little portrait of our modern selves, whose too cool for school attitude is in constant conflict with deeply felt angst. Should we care about the things we care about? And if we don't, are we awesome for being above it all or are we hopelessly robotic and inhuman? And if we do, are we trapped in base emotion and unable to access our reason?
Heavy stuff, dudes.