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19 october 2016

Samuel Beckett's Endgame should be a frustrating, depressing experience. Many times, I imagine it is; a lot of things can go wrong when producing the play, and even in reading it, you may just begin in the entirely wrong mood. But approached in certain frames of mind – or perhaps without any frame of mind, ready for anything – the play can be a strangely uplifting experience.

A summary doesn't sound promising. Hamm, an aging, blind, demanding invalid, lives in a squalid room, begging for painkillers. His servant (lover? best friend? partner in crime? accidental companion?) Clov, unaccountably devoted to Hamm, spends the play's single act caring for Hamm, threatening to leave him, bickering with him, being at his beck and call, disappointing him. Hamm keeps his (apparent) parents, Nagg and Nell, in trashcans in a corner of the room: the play's most enduring image. Nagg and Nell, who appear relatively briefly, bicker too, while remembering (and complaining about) the good old days. Hamm seems to hate them.

All the characters wish that they were dead, a fate that's coming soon enough. Meanwhile life goes on, Beckett's perpetual theme: I can't go on, I'll go on; let's go, we can't, why not. Four characters in suspended animation recall Beckett's larger-scale and more famous play Waiting for Godot. But Godot takes place outdoors and has more movement, even as everybody's standing still. Endgame is famously claustrophobic.

All the characters are in pain. It's paradoxically a good play to read when you're in pain. Partly because it's always salutary to read about people having a worse time than you are. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," Nell remarks (26). But partly because, while its characters seem to do nothing, enjoy nothing, and feed on their own suffering, Endgame is a play of going on: getting forward, moving ahead, putting one foot in front of the other, eating another biscuit … putting in the mileage, as an American might say.

It's tempting to make the single room of Endgame into a microcosm of a world lost beyond hope: pre-war Europe, the pre-nuclear world. It can be that. It can be a more general, "existential" commentary on how trivial even our grandest pursuits can seem: nothing more in the end than sucking on biscuits, moving a chair a few inches this way and that, peering out a grimy window. But it's also a play of old age (first performed when Beckett was six years younger than I am now). And old age has its memories, good even if somewhat fabulated: as Clov says, "it's a rare thing not to have been bonny—once" (50). Love may have dwindled, as with Hamm and Clov, into an inexplicable and corroded bond, but it persists. People help each other, are drawn to each other, despite their fundamentally solitary condition.

Of course, by the end of the play, Clov is ready to leave, for one reason or another (flight? death? shopping?). The parents are in their bins, Clov stands and listens, and Hamm agonizes through a final speech, at the end of which the curtain falls. But there's a sense that the same thing is in store tomorrow. And as long as people can rehearse their lives and loves, the curtain never really falls.

Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. [Fin de partie, 1957.] In Endgame and Act without Words I. New York: Grove, n.d. [1958]