It's hard to attribute any specific tone to the play since there is no narrator, but there are a few things to note. Much of the humor of the play derives from irony, when the characters have attitudes that seem out of place with their situations. For example, there's that moment when Hamm and Clov discuss so calmly how Hamm will know if Clov has abandoned him or if Clov is simply dead in the kitchen. Their reasoned arguments just don't match the seriousness of what they are discussing.
That said, the characters are always aware of the absurdity of their situations. We think that this might make it a more sympathetic ironic tone. An unsympathetic ironic tone would be one in which the author and the audience are aware of the irony but the characters are not; the characters aren't as bright as everyone watching them. In this play, though, they are pretty on top of things.
First, let us just note that the entire genre of tragicomedy might best be summed up by Nell's line early in the play: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness… Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world" (1.194-196). The line contains the exact mixture of the morose and the comic that makes up the genre without quite explaining why unhappiness can be funny.
Now, the play is undoubtedly and undeniably a tragedy. There's no getting around it. It takes place after the end of the world. Everyone is dead except for four characters that are incredibly cruel to each other. There is, in fact, very little hope in the play. Beckett has imagined a situation in which things are already as bad as they can possibly get. What is more, the play ends on an ambiguous note. It's not even a decided tragedy. If Clov leaves Hamm, then Hamm and Nagg will die. And Clov will, too, out on his own. If Clov stays, then he simply continues to give in to the master who treats him so poorly. He simply prolongs their deaths a little longer.
And yet… Like Waiting for Godot before it, the play is tremendously funny. The characters never cease to search for ways to infuse their situations with humor. The comedy keeps the play from being so depressing as to be unwatchable. What's more, though, when we laugh with the characters, we are also relating to them, even in their extreme, exaggerated circumstances. Laughter is a way of drawing us, the audience, into the tragedy, forcing us to sympathize with these characters rather than just pitying them from a distance.
Endgame refers to the final part of a chess game, when very few pieces remain on the board. The play was originally written in French, before Beckett translated it back into English himself. The French title, Fin de Partie, can refer to the last segment of a number of different games and not just chess; however, because there's no exact equivalent to the term in English, Beckett went with Endgame.
The point of the title is that, when a chess game reaches the final stages, an advanced player who's going to lose sees that he has been defeated, accepts it, and lets the game play itself out. A novice (beginner), however, will often persist, as if he could get himself out of his situation by stubbornness alone. His moves are trivial, but they still drag out the game. The situation that Clov and Hamm find themselves in at the beginning of the play closely resembles this part of the novice's chess game, and it is only their refusal to accept defeat that prolongs the action of the play.
All right, let's recap. The play ends with Nell dead in her trash bin, Nagg trapped in his trash bin with the alarm clock sitting on top of it, Clov in the doorway dressed to make an exit, and Hamm pushing his way through his final soliloquy before covering his face with his handkerchief.
A warning: the play is very funny, but the end is, without a doubt, somber. So just know that there's a lot of depressing discussion ahead.
First, let's consider Hamm's soliloquy. Point one: Hamm is blind and wheelchair-bound. This means that, if Clov were to leave him and Nagg were to cease responding to him, he really would be totally alone in the dark, waiting to starve to death. The physical world would barely exist for him. This is a nightmare that Hamm conjures up from time to time during the play, and it is clearly one of his greatest fears. We might think that Hamm would be getting his just desserts – he is a tyrant after all – but the situation is so awful that we wouldn't wish it on anyone.
Point two: remember how we said Hamm's a tyrant? Well, we meant it. He is so self-centered that it borders on solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical idea that nothing in the world exists outside of your own mind – which may sound kind of crazy, but is really, really hard to disprove. Hamm has been playing God throughout the play, and here he is unmaking his world – taking it apart piece by piece. It's the opposite of the creation story.
There is one key line we'll focus on in Hamm's soliloquy: "Old endgame, lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing" (1.799). This line recalls the title of the play, which we discuss in "What's With the Title?" – and that key point in a game of chess when the game has been lost and the loser just has to sit and let the match play itself out.
Trapped in their bunker in Endgame's post-apocalyptic world, Hamm and Clov frequently curse their situation and talk about how miserable life is, but there is something that keeps them clinging to it. The world Beckett has imagined is so awful that love of life just amounts to self-torture.
Which brings us to Clov. Throughout the play, Clov has threatened to leave Hamm. Clov's departure now seems imminent: he is dressed with his Panama hat, his umbrella, and his bag. Still, Hamm and Clov have made a plan that, if Clov were ever to leave, he would set the alarm clock to go off as a signal of his departure – and the alarm clock, sitting on Nagg's trash bin, has not been set. Even though Clov has dressed to go, it seems very likely that he will not be able to bring himself to do it.
The thing is, this scene quite possibly has happened many times before, and perhaps will happen many times again. The inconclusiveness may be even worse than if we knew for certain that Clov has left Hamm alone to die. The two choose to prolong their torment day after day.
During a play – any play, not just Endgame – the characters are trapped on stage and forced to perform for an audience. Their space is confined. They are not free to move anywhere they please, and the result is that there are only so many things they can do. Sometimes, this limitation of action is underlined by putting a stage within a stage or a play within a play (see, for example, Shakespeare's Hamlet). Otherwise, we generally don't think of just how claustrophobic a place the stage can be.
In Endgame, Hamm's room is the stage within a stage. In their post-apocalyptic situation, the characters are stuck in this room with just a handful of props (the gaff, the stuffed dog, the picture, the alarm clock) and they make use of each of them. Hamm constantly insists that they keep a dialogue going, if only to keep his spirits up. If the room is onstage, the kitchen corresponds to offstage, and it is the place that Clov can go to take a break and get away from Hamm. Like an actor, since he can't actually leave, he goes there.
Critic Harold Bloom has raised an interesting question. If Endgame is a play within a play, what is the larger play that contains it? We'd like to turn that question around a little: if Hamm's room is a stage within a stage, what's the larger stage? What frames Hamm's room? The obvious answer is the theater itself – audience members included. It is an eerie feeling that Beckett has produced, an uneasy feeling by which he gets his audience implicated in the action of the play.
Beckett is known for bringing in a movement known as "minimalism" to both theater and prose. As we discuss in the "In a Nutshell," minimalism means that an author keeps word use to, well, a minimum, while trying to get the maximum significance out of what little dialogue there is. Beckett's dialogue, his short, clipped banter, is carefully crafted – drafted over many times, each word chosen with care – to say a lot in a little.
Most people (us included) find Beckett to be a challenging writer. There is a big temptation to read his work as a metaphor and to ignore the physical realities that are a part of it. It's easier to just take away the gist of a Beckett play rather than focusing in on all those gritty particular details (of which there are a surprising number considering that Beckett is a minimalist).
To take but one example from the play: Hamm keeps his parents in trash bins. Symbol! Hamm treats his parents like trash. But notice, also, how Hamm's parents were in a bicycle accident where they both lost their legs. Now they have nothing but stumps. The trash bins are filled with sand for these stumps, and Hamm assigns Clov to change it from time to time. This is not just a symbol; it's meant to be real. The play is vivid and it is continuous, and it is chock-full of little details.
This is not to say that there are no symbols in Beckett's work, but notice that every symbol ultimately comes back and ties us into the reality of the situation. Anyway, enough of that; let's talk about a few symbols.
We get into the idea of Endgame as a game of chess in "What's With the Title?" Here, we are going to consider another way to think of the play as a whole. Think of it as the un-creation, as the opposite of the book of Genesis in the Bible. Hamm is playing God and is trying to bring the world back out of existence. Think we're full of hot air? Check out a few details:
A great deal of the suspense in Endgame comes from Hamm and Clov's constant arguing. Clov repeatedly says that he will leave Hamm, but proves unable to do so. Hamm mistreats him, and in the middle of the play, we learn that Clov has probably been Hamm's servant since childhood. At two different points, Clov questions Hamm's authority.
The first time:
Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why?
You're not able to. (1.454-455)
And the second:
There's one thing I'll never understand. (He gets down.) Why I always obey you. Can you explain that to me?
No…Perhaps it's compassion.
(Pause.) A kind of great compassion. (1.745-746)
In Endgame, the master-servant relationship is given center stage. The play, which is always on the brink of ending, is prolonged by the different ways that Hamm manipulates Clov and gets him to obey him. Without this master-servant relationship, the play would come to a halt (because Clov would bolt).
A lot of people like to talk about how Beckett put a "state of mind" on the stage with his breakthrough play Waiting for Godot. No one had ever depicted "waiting" before. Now, if Beckett is putting a state of mind on the stage in Endgame, then what does that state of mind look like? We're going to pull in a bit of terminology from the good doctor Sigmund Freud to explain it.
One of the ways that Freud modeled the mind was with the concept of the superego, the ego, and the id. Beckett was very familiar with this concept. The id consists of our base animal desires, and the superego is a bit like our conscience. Our superego is what tells us to act one way or another, to restrict our behavior in a certain way, but it is also the thing that always tells us that we are not good enough. The superego is the "boss." That leaves the ego, which is basically what we think of as ourselves. The ego is caught between the base desires of the id, and the bossiness of the superego. It is like a servant with two masters.
Enter Endgame. It's not too difficult to read Hamm as the superego. Hamm is, for example, the most complex thinker and the one that asks that they all pray to God. Then we can read Nagg as the id. In his very first line, Nagg cries, "Me pap!" (1.76) Throughout most of the play, he doesn't want much more than candy, attention, scratches, and kisses. That leaves Clov as the ego, the exhausted servant caught in between two masters: the ego and the id, instinct and idealism. He thinks to himself, "When I fall I'll weep for happiness" (1.794).
Read this way, Endgame captures the interplay between the different parts of our minds, our cravings and our self-demands. Clov is our desperate attempt to keep everyone happy, to maintain balance and order. As he says, "I love order. It's my dream. A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust" (1.569).
We've read pretty much everything that Beckett has ever written, and his characters' different physical handicaps still have us pretty confused. Consider what we have in Endgame. Hamm is blind and in a wheelchair. He gets headaches. Nagg and Nell have no legs, and they are unable to see each other. Nagg is hard of hearing. Nell is unable to cry. Clov has stiff legs and is unable to sit down. Why is everyone so physically impaired?
There are plenty of explanations, but here's just one. When Clov says that there is no more nature, Hamm says, "But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals" (1.107). In the play, growth seems to be measured in terms of decay. Having a body seems to be a very undignified thing, and it brings all sorts of disgrace upon us.
Now, consider the fact that, before James Joyce's Ulysses, the body was something that wasn't exactly celebrated in English 19th century literature. A writer like Jane Austen could appreciate beauty and good dress, but no one ever burps or passes gas or pees in one of her books. James Joyce violently broke this tradition in the English novel by introducing his hero, Leopold Bloom, as someone who poops and masturbates. The body is no longer something to be hidden: it's something to be celebrated.
Now, Beckett, who was friendly with Joyce, takes this innovation and points out that it's not exactly a celebration. Our bodies fall apart. We get old, our skin wrinkles, and our hair falls out. In our minds, we imagine ourselves as being extremely dignified, but the body is something that can constantly undermine this feeling of dignity. By exaggerating this so strongly, Beckett draws special attention to the broken bodies of his characters. It is yet another aspect of their misfortune, something that they have to struggle against.
Though all works of literature present the author's point of view, they don't all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
The general situation of the play is established almost from the very first scene. It is in Clov's slow, almost ritualistic actions, though, that the scene is revealed to us. He looks out each window and laughs, though we are not yet sure at what. He then comes over to the center of the room and, in a literal unveiling, pulls back sheets to reveal Hamm and Nagg and Nell's trash bins. After this point, very little changes. We quickly learn that the situation is set, and that the character's fates were determined long ago. As with the ending, the tragedy has already taken place. The characters are simply drawing it out.
The dream stages are when various characters reach back to the past in an attempt to free themselves from the present. In almost all cases, however, these moments of recollection either fail to take hold or they simply cast their characters back into their present torment. For example, Nagg and Nell remember falling off their tandem together and losing their shanks (which brings them to the present, where they are legless and stored in trash bins). They then remember a time that Nagg told a joke on Lake Como, though Nell cannot appreciate it. She becomes wrapped up in the details of the scene and dies shortly after.
Clov often thinks longingly of yesterday or of times when he was young, though pretty much his entire life has consisted of serving his master Hamm. Hamm, for his part, looks back on the time when he first obtained Clov, but finds no great revelation in the memory. Instead, it brings him right back to his current situation, and he is left wondering when things are going to end. Still, even though these moments of recollection don't change anything, they are among the happiest in the play.
The dialogue between Hamm and Clov revolves around the problem of ending, and whether or not they will be able to achieve the task. They often become frustrated with one another. They imagine that their situation cannot actually get any worse, and are absolutely frank about their own inability to do anything about it. They sometimes try to crack jokes with one another or to be spontaneous, but their exchanges have a repetitive quality that suggests that they've had these conversations many times before and they feel very stale to them.
Though the characters often imagine that they cannot be worse off, Hamm threatens Clov with a vision that is even worse than his current state, a threat that Nagg uses against Hamm later on. Hamm predicts that Clov will at one point be nothing but a speck in the dark with no one to care for him or pity him. Nagg, for his part, actively wishes that Hamm were alone in the dark, crying for his father as if his father were Hamm's only hope.
Both of these visions hit on the theme of complete isolation and total abandonment: the individual is alone and the world has disappeared into darkness. This is not a vision of death but of another form of life, before the End, that would be even worse than their present, sorry existences.
On the one hand, the ultimate tragedy never comes. There is no final destruction or death (except for Nell). On the other hand, the ultimate tragedy has already taken place before the play began.
The end of the play, when it is unclear whether or not Clov will actually leave Hamm, brings us back to the beginning. It draws attention to how little Clov's choice matters and to the possibility of the following day looking a lot like the one we just witnessed. The horror of the character's situation is especially apparent at this moment because nothing has changed. In contrast to what they are going through day by day, real death might just be a welcome release.
Before we begin, let's just say if there is one playwright who is going to break the "Classic Plot Analysis," it's probably Samuel Beckett. Still, we've made a crack at fitting Endgame into the mold. Now, the initial situation is that the apocalypse has already happened. Hamm's parents are in their trash bins, where he has put them, Hamm is blind in his wheelchair, and Clov is stuck tending to everyone, not confident enough to leave.
Much of the point of the play is that the initial situation is the end. The end has already happened. The characters have just failed to come to terms with it. So, in that very first scene where Clov draws back the curtains and takes the sheets off of Hamm and the trash bins, the end has already taken place. As Hamm says, "The end is in the beginning and yet you go on" (1.688).
Here's one way of seeing the conflict of the play: will Clov leave Hamm so that the two of them will die separately or will he stay and continue to prolong their mutual suffering? This is a question that is asked repeatedly in the play, and comes to a head every time that Clov threatens to leave and Hamm explains to him Clov can't.
The dialogue between Hamm and Clov determines the main conflict of the play, and also postpones the conclusion. At one point, Hamm tells Clov that what keeps Clov there is the dialogue. Both Hamm and Clov understand that their constant bickering is as much a way of avoiding the underlying conflict as of dealing with it. Neither of them really wants to address their problems head on because there is no possibility of positive resolution. They either die alone or together.
In a way, the revelation of the existence of Hamm's parents in their trash bins is one mechanism to make him a more rounded character, of humanizing him and showing where he came from. Yet, when we see how Hamm treats his parents, he also starts to seem even more of a tyrant than he does with Clov.
In Nagg, we have a vision of what Hamm might be like if he were not in control of the entire situation (i.e., pretty pathetic). Yet, Nagg is also the first character to challenge Hamm's authority, when he wishes that Hamm would be put in a situation where Hamm really needs his father, as he did when he was a small boy. This is a key turning point in the play, and may help clear the way for Clov's later defiance of Hamm.
Now, you probably noticed that this play isn't exactly boiling over with action. If we were going to talk about the climax of action in the play, then we'd probably have to go with Clov dumping a tin of insecticide down his trousers to kill a flea. If we're talking about a thematic climax (which we are), then the exact point is much harder to define. Notice that this is only one of several possible candidates.
We have chosen Hamm's story, however, because this is one of Hamm's most honest moments in the entire play. It is where he comes closest to defining his relationship with Clov, and attempts to trace back the origins of their current situation. It is an unusual moment of vulnerability for Hamm, and it just precedes the point where his father curses him, which makes him even more vulnerable. If the end had already come by the beginning of the play, then this story is the point where Hamm tries to figure out when the beginning was (and therefore, where the end was, too).
Ah, suspense. Another element that is particularly lacking in this play. Tension does arise, however, when characters seem to foreshadow what will or might happen later on in the play. By sheer coincidence (or due to the fact that they all seem to despise each other), this often happens when one character is cursing another. When Hamm curses Clov and imagines him being alone with no one to pity him, he is predicting what will happen to Clov when or if Clov leaves him.
When Nagg curses Hamm, he echoes Hamm's threat to Clov and presents him with the same scenario. He imagines Hamm being alone in the dark and calling out for his father because he really needs him. This is what might happen if Clov actually abandons Hamm, and it is what we get a glimpse of at the end of the play, when Hamm calls for his father. Clov, for his part, threatens to leave Hamm countless times. After a while, the tension of these moments begins to wear off, but it does come back in full force at the end, when Clov actually prepares to leave the house.
Things begin to wind down as Clov and Hamm make their final speeches to one another. Clov, like Hamm with his earlier storytelling, tries to fathom how things began. He thinks back to a time when people made him all sorts of promises about happiness and the possibility of understanding the world. He concludes that he is looking forward to that point when he falls, and it seems that he is imagining that point on his journey where he is all alone and collapses from hunger and exhaustion.
After Clov leaves, Hamm makes a long speech about the nature of ending. He again reaches back to that moment when he obtained Clov from Clov's father, but then, in frustration, casts his possessions away from himself and covers his face with his handkerchief. These are Hamm and Clov's formal preparations for "the end."
Remember how we defined the conflict? Well that's also how we define the conclusion. Will Clov stay or will he go? The conclusion is that brief moment at the end, when Clov stands in the doorway in his Panama hat and just stares at Hamm, unmoving. We do not know if Clov will change his mind or if he will actually leave (for one thing, note that he never set the alarm clock like he said he would).
It is quite possible that every day for the last five years, Clov has dressed and prepared to go, but remained in the house with Hamm. Or perhaps today is the day, and he will actually leave him. The conclusion is ambiguous, but what is especially apparent in this closing scene is how little it matters if Clov stays or leaves. The end happened long ago, and Hamm and Clov are defeated either way.
This play doesn't lend itself particularly well to a three act analysis. For starters, the point of no return has already happened before the play begins (that's the point; hence the title Endgame). You might call whatever the disaster was that ended the world and trapped them in Hamm's house the point of no return, but the disaster itself is not part of the play.
Here, we again appeal to the point of the play. Resolution is imminent – the play ends as soon as Hamm and Clov give in to despair and stop talking. Yet, the characters often act as if resolution is far out of sight. One point where this is especially apparent is when Nagg and Nell are talking in their trash bins, and Nagg repeats his joke about the Englishman and the trousers. They appeal to the past instead of facing the present.
The end of the play comes as Clov gradually begins to resolve that he will, in fact, leave Hamm (though we don't actually know if he leaves him or not). We would suggest that one key point is when Hamm narrates the story, which seems to be the story of how he obtained Clov as his servant (i.e., taking Clov from his father). Shortly after, Clov becomes very quiet and then gains some power over Hamm when he tells him that there are no more painkillers. It's impossible to know exactly when Clov's real conviction to leave begins, but this is one possible place.