The Endgame of Endgame
Samuel Beckett on stage at New York City's Irish Rep
Through March, the Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea is showing Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Endgame, with a 72-year-old Bill Irwin playing the role of Clov, the abused manservant of Ham, who owns the house they are all trapped in at the end of the world. That this is Beckett’s masterpiece is not The Middlebrow’s judgment but the playwright’s. He refers to it as his greatest work in Krapp’s Last Tape. A one act running just 80 minutes, it is a high piece of theater that hits all of the notes in Waiting for Godot in fewer moments. Irwin, still a master of physical comedy, does not disappoint and the Irish Rep’s cast is masterful.
The set-up for those not familiar is that Ham is the patriarch of a coastal household and that the world has ended. His parents, Nag and Nell, lost their legs in a tandem bicycle accident, and live in trash cans. Clov, the servant, is lame in one leg but the only character in the play who can move. Ham is confined to a chair attached to a wheeled palette. For unknown and irrelevant causes, the world has ended. The sea is gray and the land is barren. The house, far as we know, shelters the world’s last humans (and one rat who, Clov insists, will die if he is not allowed sufficient time to kill it). The food left is the last food. The last medicine, we learn, is long gone.
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The Scholar Wife and I took The Renaissance Son to this production after the Son reacted enthusiastically to a description of Beckett’s Happy Days, wherein a woman delivers a prattling monologue while being buried up to her neck in dirt. He enjoyed the production and saw the humor in its absurdity, but then asked a natural question that I probably answered insufficiently: “Why does Clov stay with these horrible people who treat him badly?”
There is an answer in the play, but it is most assuredly false. Ham says that Clov must obey him because only Ham can open the cupboard where the food is stored. That may have been true once, but at this point, Ham cannot even get out of his chair, much less go to the kitchen. Only Clov can open the cupboard because only Clov can move.
Clov stays because he chooses to stay, is the only answer. But why? What I suggested to my son is that he stays because there is no place else to go. There are no other people, there is no other food, there is no other shelter. The house is all there is. This is probably a “right” answer, though it doesn’t go far enough. In the existentialist worldview, the house is a symbol for life itself and there is nothing outside of life but death. The choice to not commit suicide is to live out each day as it comes. By staying, Clov chooses life (however miserable) and is responsible for that choice. In that, he is not a victim but a maker of his own destiny within the confines of what is possible.
But there’s another element to this that’s less philosophical and more social. During the course of the play, Ham tells a story about a beggar who crawls to him, presumably in the early days of the apocalypse, and begs him for for to feed his child, who the supplicant has left behind in the forest. In this story, Ham is clearly wealthy, maybe even a king. It sounds Biblical.
Ham is no benevolent ruler. He doubts the existence of the child. He questions the beggar’s wisdom in leaving the child defenseless in the forest. Ultimately, he concludes that giving the child some food now would do nothing but forestall the inevitable as the guardian and charge will starve to death one day, if not today.
Naturally, he does not apply this logic to himself. He will eat today without concern for tomorrow. In all the essays I read about the play (I cracked my old theater textbooks to prep our son for what he was about to see) the story is just presented as something like a play-within-a-play, a monologue that Ham delivers that roughly coincides with the main action.
But maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s a remembrance. We see Ham, chair-bound and blind, reliant on his assistant for everything. But what if he was once a very powerful man, like a Biblical king? This would explain how his household survived when all others perished. This would explain his parents losing their legs in a tandem bicycle accident, which seems a rich person’s recreation. It would explain the servant and why they have the last of the world’s food and, for a time, medicine.
This also might explain Clov’s continued decision to stay — Beckett may be telling us that even at the end of the world, with all rules broken and all precedent rendered inert, that we might still choose our social stations. Ham might have gone from king of grain to king of dead soil, but he’s still a king and Clov is still a servant.
That might be more jarring than the existential interpretation. In any event, if you are in New York City and looking for professional, off-broadway theatre, this is a great choice, through March 12th.