by Samuel Beckett
The Keeper of the Apocalypse (Or the Lone Actor)
All right, to start with the obvious: Clov is the only moving character on the whole stage. Hamm is stuck in a wheelchair, and Nagg and Nell are cooped up in trash bins. Clov is the only one that is free to move about as he pleases, the only one capable of sustained physical action. He is the lone actor. For basic business like getting food or picking up Hamm's toys, Clov is the one in control.
But as for actually acting – playing his role – Clov is probably the most reluctant character on stage. Aside from Nell (who is dead), Clov seems to be the closest to giving up. He longs for the end: the peace of nothingness. When Hamm suggests that the start he has made on his story is better than nothing, Clov (only half sarcastically) cries out, "Better than nothing! Is it possible?" (1.593)
Now here's an interesting task: let's look at repetition. In the beginning, Clov says, "Finished, it's nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap" (1.1.). Hamm, when he begins his story, says, "It's finished, we're finished. Nearly finished" (1.537). Later, he says, "Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of…that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life" (1.688).
This is only one instance of the characters echoing and repeating each other. There are many. The question is: who is repeating whom? Who is the real poet in the play? In Clov's dramatic monologues, is he simply imitating his master, or is Hamm, who seems to be the dramatic center of the play, stealing poetry from his servant? Is Clov the hidden poet of the play?
A last point: How do we know that the world has ended and that there is nothing there? After all, we can't see out of the windows. Only Clov can. In this way, we are in the same position as the paralyzed Hamm. We depend on Clov to tell us what is happening. This gives Clov tremendous power, though he does not appear to realize it. The fact that the world has ended, that they are trapped in Hamm's shelter, comes to us mainly through Clov's words. One way we might think of Clov is as "the keeper of the apocalypse."
Move Over, Charlie Chaplin…
Reading the opening stage directions can, we know, get a little old. Clov goes back and forth back and forth between the windows. He forgets the ladder, then remembers, forgets the ladder, then remembers. Try looking up a filmed version of the play on YouTube, and just watch that opening scene. We think you'll find that it is actually pretty darn funny on stage.
Beckett was a big fan of slapstick comedians like Buster Keaton (who acted in Beckett's only film, called Film) and Charlie Chaplin. Clov is the clown of the play. His physical movements are often ridiculous, and they make for a good laugh.
But there's a bit more to Clov's physical comedy. Hamm, it seems, is always acting. His language is theatrical. It very rarely feels as if he is just being natural, as if he is not, in some way, calculating how he acts. By contrast, Clov, during these comedy sketches, is so forgetful that he can't possibly be calculating his actions. These slapstick moments are, for him, unscripted. This is natural humor. While Hamm always has to ask if they are going to laugh after he tells a joke, Clov laughs naturally. Laughter keeps him from completely giving in to despair.
And The Question We've All Been Waiting For… Why Doesn't Clov Just Leave?
We're not sure about you, but a lot of us remember arguing with our parents when we were growing up. A few of us remember a point in the argument when we got so mad, we told our parents, "Fine! I'll just move out on my own." This is the part our parents always loved so that they could say, "Oh yeah? Just wait and see if you can handle the real world on your own."
This practical challenge is a big part of why Clov doesn't leave. There is, quite simply, no place to go. The world has ended, and Hamm's house is the only stronghold. If Clov leaves, he'll die. Hamm points this out when Clov threatens him: "Gone from me you'd be dead" (1.692). Clov is foiled again ...
So what does Clov do instead of actually leaving? Same thing a lot of us used to do with our parents: he acts like a punk. He crosses Hamm in all sorts of little ways, and disobeys his commands when they are small, only to give in to the large ones.
One of Clov's minor triumph is when he finally tells Hamm that it is time for his painkiller. Hamm has been asking for it the whole play, and he is excited. Then Clov drops the bomb, "There's no more painkiller" (1.701). Clov has known this the whole time, and he could have told Hamm right from the beginning, but instead he waited so that he could revel in this moment. That's not to say that Hamm doesn't deserve it (Hamm did the same thing to Nagg with his sugarplum), but it is a little passive aggressive. Don't you think?
Try count the number of times Clov says that he will leave Hamm in the play. It's a lot. But usually what Clov means when he says "I'll leave you" is that he will leave Hamm and go to his kitchen. The kitchen is Clov's sanctuary. He describes it for us in the beginning, "I'll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. Nice dimensions, nice proportions" (1.1). Going to the kitchen is how Clov acts out leaving, Hamm without working up the courage to actually do it.
All this is starting to make Clov look pretty weak. And he is. Clov is completely dependent on Hamm. He is, in this way, defeated. If Hamm's story is to be believed, then he acquired Clov from Clov's father when Clov was still small. That means Hamm has had Clov ever since he was a child, and has probably treated him like a dog throughout.
But here's the key point: Clov is the only character with the power to end things, and he can't even do that. It is this tension between one defeat (continuing to serve Hamm) and another (leaving and accepting death) that concludes the play. Clov finally takes the initiative to get dressed to go. But will he leave? And does it matter?