Beckett, Samuel. “Endgame: A Play in One Act, and Act Without Words.” Translated from the French by the Author. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
Summary of Play
In a dimly lit room with two high windows, curtains drawn, there are two ashbins next to each other covered by a sheet. In the center of the room Hamm, the main character, is in an armchair on castors, a sort of wheelchair, also covered by a sheet. By the door stands Clov who watches Hamm.
Clov is the only character in the room who is able to move on his own. He walks stiffly to the windows and putting a stepladder against the wall, climbs up to look out. First he looks out one window and then moves the ladder to look out the other. He does this over and over, as the audience laughs at his repetitious behavior. He removes the sheet over the ashbins, lifts the lids to look in, and then puts them down again. He removes the sheet covering Hamm. Hamm is in a dressing gown with a blood stained handkerchief over his face. He has a whistle around his neck, a rug over his knees, socks on his feet and seems asleep.
Clov turns to the audience and concludes that “it must be nearly finished” (p. 1) because everything has been piling up, grain by grain. He will go to the kitchen to wait for Hamm to whistle for him. Hamm wakes up and says “Me—to play” (p. 2). He takes the handkerchief off his face, puts on his glasses and announces, “Can there be misery—loftier than mine?” (p. 2). The suffering of others does not equal his own, he insists. He calls Clov saying it is time the whole thing ended, but at the same time he hesitates to end it. Hamm asks Clov what time it is and Clov says, “The same as usual” (p. 4). Clov says he has looked out the windows and it is still “Zero” outside (p. 4).
Hamm asks Clov if he has had enough, and Clov says he has always had enough, so Hamm says then there is no reason to change. Hamm wants Clov to get him ready to “play.” He will give Clov just enough food to keep him from dying. They stay with each other because there is no one else, yet Clov admits he is trying to leave. Hamm is glad he has made Clov suffer and then asks forgiveness. Hamm wants his painkiller, but Clov says it is not time yet. Clov can move and Hamm cannot, so Clov must wait on Hamm, who is also blind. Hamm asks why Clov has not killed him. Clov says Hamm has the combination to the cupboard. Hamm seems to have been the lord or ruler of the land outside, for he talks of having sent Clov on the rounds to visit his paupers. Now they do not go outside, for as Hamm comments, “Outside of here is death” (p. 9).
Clov goes to the kitchen, and Nagg, one of the characters in the dustbins, lifts his lid and grips the side of the can, asking for food. Hamm is disgusted by this spectacle though Nagg is his old father, and in the other dustbin is his old mother, Nell. Hamm tells Clov to give Nagg a biscuit. Nagg does not want a hard biscuit, so Hamm tells Clov to “bottle him.”” (p. 10). Clov shoves him in the can and puts on the lid.
Clov admits he cannot sit, and Hamm says he cannot stand. Clov says that on the kitchen wall he sees the light dying. Something terrible has happened outside which is killing off the people. They seem to be the last ones alive. Hamm wants Clov to go to the window and keep checking on things. He wants to know what is happening. Clov replies, “Something is taking its course” (p. 13). They seem to be waiting for death, for the end.
Nell and Nagg carry on a dialogue in their trash bins, trying to be romantic and make love the best way they can, though they were in an accident and have no legs, nothing beyond their torsos. There is not much left of them. Their senses are failing, but still they remember their courting days. Nagg shares his biscuit with Nell. He tries to make her laugh with a funny story about an Englishman who ordered a pair of trousers from a French tailor. The incompetent tailor could not do it. The Englishman remarks God made the world in six days, but the tailor cannot make trousers in three months. The tailor answers, has he looked at the world lately? implying God did not do such a good job either. Hamm is disgusted with his parents’ dialogue and berates them for begetting him. He orders their lids to be screwed down.
Clov pushes Hamm’s chair around the room. They go close to the wall and Hamm mentions that outside is “the other hell” (p.26). Clov pushes him back to center where Hamm insists he must be. He tells Clov to look out the window again, and Clov says he sees “Zero.” Nothing is moving. He claims the light is all gone. Hamm wants to find some meaning in all this but is afraid it has all been for nothing. Clov catches a flea, something alive. Hamm is excited: “Humanity might start from there all over again” (p. 33). Hamm begins fantasizing about leaving the shelter with Clov. Clov could make a raft, and they could go south on the ocean and find other mammals. Then he worries about sharks.
It comes out that Clov is Hamm’s adopted son and the only one who can move and care for the others. Clov says he is not going to kill off the family as Hamm keeps asking him to do. Hamm is a storyteller and makes up scenes showing Clov how will be the last to die alone: “there won’t be anyone left to have pity on you” (p.36). Clov insists he will not wait for death with the rest of them. He is going to leave them sometime. He gives Hamm a toy dog to play with. Clov tells Hamm he will know when he has left the shelter because he won’t come when Hamm whistles. If, on the other hand, Clov dies, Hamm will know because the alarm will go off and not stop because no one will be there to stop it.
Hamm bribes Nagg with some food to make him listen to his story. He tells how some time ago a dying peasant man crawled to him begging him for food to take to his little boy back home. They were the only two alive. Hamm recounts his response to the man as if he were crazy. What would be the point of feeding the child? “Use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” (p. 53). Instead Hamm said he would take the man into his service so he could die a nice peaceful death. The man insisted on bringing his child too. Hamm breaks off his story there, trying to decide if he wants to bring in other characters. Nagg wants his treat for listening. He points out that Hamm used to run to him as a little boy when he was frightened of the dark. Meanwhile, Nagg knocks on Nell’s ashbin and sees she is gone. She has died. He closes his own lid.
Hamm continues the story he was telling and Clov laughs, thinking it is funny. Clov checks the ashbins and sees Nell is dead, and Nagg is crying. Hamm asks to be wheeled to the windows and tries to see the light. He can’t see anything. He wants the window open to hear the sea, but he can’t hear it. He asks to be wheeled back to the center and wants Clov to kiss him or shake his hand, which Clov refuses to do. Hamm remembers all the people who came to him whom he might have helped. He imagines going through the end alone. He wants it to be over. Clov reminds him of the old woman who came to him for a lamp, and he refused to give it to her. Clov looks out the windows one more time and this time he sees a small boy. Hamm says they have come to the end and says he does not need Clov anymore. He asks Clov to make a last speech, and he does, about how the end comes suddenly, and how he can now make an exit. Hamm asks one last favor in the endgame: for Clov to cover him with a sheet. Hamm says a few last words then covers his face with his handkerchief.
Commentary on the Play
Theater of the Absurd tries to show the human condition in its most naked form. The scene takes place in a room where the characters are huddled together for safety from the death that is going on outside. One can imagine perhaps an atomic bomb has wiped out the rest of humanity and these are the survivors, but it is only suggested, never specified. The humans have made their routine in their space for coping with the death that is all around. They keep checking out the window to see the conditions, and Hamm calls the outside the other hell, for the refuge he has made inside is not much better. Outside is “Zero,” death or nothing. There is nothing to relieve Hamm’s sense of loneliness and doom. Death seems to be taking them all, one by one. It is an “endgame,” a game of avoiding the end, or perhaps trying to get to the end of the meaningless suffering they are going through. Clov announces at the beginning that the end is near because even if life seems endless and meaningless, the grains of sand pile up until there is change.
The actions and dialogue of the characters are their way of coping with this meaningless or absurd game of life. Though blind and in a wheelchair, Hamm is ironically the ruler of some sort, a king, who does no good for the people he is supposed to care for. He appears to have once been powerful and rich and continues to act that way, even though he has no resources. Clov himself does not understand why he does what Hamm says. Hamm has the power, and he treats all those beneath him cruelly, including his own parents. Clov is somehow coerced into serving Hamm who seems to be a foster father to him. He wonders why he continues to obey this manipulative madman.
Hamm is also the imaginative poetic character. He describes their miserable condition in detail to Clov, and keeps him in check with his projected picture of loneliness should he fail in his duty: “Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of the ages wouldn’t fill it” (p. 36). Hamm fears Clov leaving him and bullies him. Clov is not stupid. He is the perfect straight man and astute commentator on Hamm’s hammy performance. Hamm’s name suggests Hamlet or a ham-actor. It is also the son of Noah in the Bible who survived the flood. Hamm’s only joy is to tell his version of the end of the world, especially about the man who came begging to him, crawling on his belly for food for his child. It is implied that child was Clov, adopted by Hamm. Many people begged Hamm for help, such as Old Mother Pegg, a neighbor, but Hamm is ruthless and lets them all die. He feels guilt for his actions since he is now alone. Hamm hates his parents for their animal-like behavior. The image of a crippled Adam and Eve in ashbins as the procreators of the race is a damning symbol of the essential helplessness of human beings. They still have sexual instincts though they are powerless to do much about it. Hamm hates them for begetting him. His mother Nell dies during the action, but only Nagg cries and puts down his lid.
Hamm seems to despise life yet is reluctant to die. He finally gives up after Clov sees a boy out the window. This implies that there is life after all, so Clov gets his hat and coat, ready to leave, to find what is outside. Hamm tells him to go ahead and leave and puts the handkerchief on his face, indicating he is through “playing.” Yet Clov remains in the doorway, an ambiguous ending showing perhaps that they will go through the whole endgame again.