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Decay and Rebirth in Beckett's "Endgame"

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Endgame, as the very title suggests, is about ends or an end. Its opening words, ‘Finished, it’s finished…’ pervade the action, or perhaps rather inaction, that follows, and throughout the play Beckett, like Shakespeare in King Lear, employs a lexicon of decay and nothingness that implies an apocalypse. Clov sees ‘zero’ when he examines the beyond with his telescope, the anonymous painter and engraver views only ashes from the window to which he is dragged, while Hamm estimates that, ‘Outside of here it’s death’. The dialogue is crammed with references to the dead and the dying, sych as the rat, the flea, Mother Pegg and Nell, and time and again we are told that ‘There is no more…’ (painkiller, bicycle wheels, sugar plums, pap ­ to mention but a few) Yet language itself seems to be falling apart, to be running out:

CLOV: I’m back again, with the glass. [He goes to window right, looks up at it.] I need the steps.

HAMM: Why? Have you shrunk? [Exit CLOV with telescope.] I don’t like that, I don’t like that.

[Enter CLOV with ladder, but without telescope.]

CLOV: I’m back again, with the steps. [He sets down the ladder under the window right, gets up on it, realises he has not the telescope, gets down.] I need the glass.

[He goes towards the door.]

HAMM: [Violently.] But you have the glass!

CLOV: [Halting, violently.] No I haven’t the glass!

[Exit CLOV.]

HAMM: This is deadly. (pp.24/25)

This interaction is both comic and tragic in that it is entirely unsuccessful and the play seems to repeat this same tableau of misunderstanding over and over. Word and meaning are dislocated and the result is ‘deadly’ ­ a complete breakdown in communication. The language of the play embodies the idea of an end of a world in content, but also in its blatant failure to perform its function. Thus, as much as Clov and Hamm need each other, they appear to us, the audience, as utterly alone on stage since what they say goes either unheard or unheeded. The prolonged nature of the pauses that constantly interpolate their speeches are precisely demonstrative of a language that is as handicapped as the characters who speak it, and it is the silence, not the words, that conveys the tragedy.

However, even before Hamm speaks the audience is presented with an image of irreparable decay in the set and scenery. Grey light illuminates a ‘bare interior’ that somewhat resembles a skull and in the centre a blind old tyrant sits in his dressing gown with his face covered by a blood stained handkerchief. At the front of the stage stand two ashbins side by side that contain Hamm’s legless, toothless parents, and all three are waited on by a limping servant. The spectator is bombarded with literal images of degeneration; the human race become waste material. Yet, for all that the visual and linguistic decay prophesies an apocalypse, the small boy that Clov spots in the zero and death that lie beyond the window may be seen to provide a beacon of hope and life that counters this desolation. The English text offers little in the way of an illustration of this figure, but the original French is more forthcoming. In lines that Beckett did not translate, Clov describes the boy as immobile, leaning against a rock and contemplating his naval. This foetal position is suggestive of birth, an idea reinforced by the image of the stone which draws associations to Christ’s tomb and thus a possible resurrection. Perhaps this small boy is a symbol of redemption, of possible continuance and of renewal.

But the sense of renewal in Endgame is inversive, and its tragedy lies not in the fact that the characters are condemned to die, but that they are condemned to live ­ to go on repeating the same tableau again and again. Hamm’s final word, ‘remain’, has, in the first instance, associations with decay and ruin. He and Clov are essentially ‘remains’: the final ‘smithereens’ of a shattered humanity, the ‘undead’ of Eliot’s The Waste Land. And yet the word is also suggestive of continuity and survival, things that in the solipsistic world on stage become horrific negations. Lifting the lid on Nagg’s bin, Clov peers in and says to his master ‘He’s crying.’; ‘Then he’s living’ concludes Hamm (p.42). The premise on which the universe of the play sits is not ‘Cogito ergo sum’ , it is a perversion of this Cartesian assertion: ‘I suffer therefore I am’. Thus, the son damns his father as an ‘Accursed progenitor’ and throughout the play ‘potential procreators’, such as the rat and the flea, are quickly eliminated:

HAMM: A flea! Are there still fleas?

CLOV: On me there’s one. [Scratching.] Unless it’s a crablouse.

HAMM: [Very perturbed.] But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God! (p.27)

Beckett inverts the tragic since to kill is an act of ‘love’ and to die is the desired end, but it is an end that is never reached because, after all, things are only ‘nearly finished’. In Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author the characters that invade the stage have no destiny other than the script. Their fate is inescapable and their actions can have no contingency. Equally Clov and Hamm act in the only way that the playwright allows. In a particularly metatheatrical moment Clov asks, ‘What is there to keep me here?’, and his master responds laconically, ‘The dialogue’ (p.40). When the curtain falls both are positioned exactly as they were when the curtain was lifted: Clov stands by the door and Hamm slouches in his armchair, his face veiled by a handkerchief. They understanding that they are simply ‘playing’ and must go on doing so perpetually, trapped within the drama. Hamm and Clov are very much aware of the roles in which they have been imprisoned; they are self-conscious fictions that recognise their own inability to free themselves from the necessity not only of living, but also of acting. Renewal becomes a vicious circle that reinforces, rather than defies, the suffering and it is in this sickening irony that the essential tragedy of Endgame may be found.

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Decay and Rebirth in Beckett’s “Endgame”. (2018, May 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from
“Decay and Rebirth in Beckett’s “Endgame”.” GradesFixer, 18 May 2018,
Decay and Rebirth in Beckett’s “Endgame”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 May 2022].
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