When directing Endgame at the Schiller-Theater in Berlin in 1967, Samuel Beckett described the relationship between Hamm and Clov as a “war”. This is an apt way of summing up the relationship between the two men who are confined together in what seems to be a post-famine or post-apocalyptic shelter. Throughout the play, much of their time is spent bickering and insulting one another, yet the audience senses their shared mutual dependency. At the end of the play, Clov attempts to depart: “He halts by the door and stands there, impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on Hamm, till the end.” He wants to leave his quarantine, to go outside, into the “without” (a word chosen in lieu of “outside” because of its implicit connotations of “lessness” and poverty.) But outside of the shelter there is nothing; no sun, no nature. All is grey and spectators have the chilling feeling that the exact same scenario will unfold the next day and the next for an indeterminable period of time.
It was for these very reasons that, during this seemingly endless pandemic, Endgame was the play I most dreaded returning to: not because it is a bad play – the opposite in fact – but because the play’s depiction of claustrophobic and cabin feverish characters trapped within a confined space seems too real to the actual situation many of us are living in.
Although Beckett himself did not live through an extended lockdown, he would have very much understood the situation at hand: before writing his more canonical works, Beckett, who had played a role in the French Resistance movement, fled the Nazi-occupied city of Paris and spent years lying low in Roussillon, a small town in the South of France. Despite his friendships with the artists Henri and Josette Hayden and his acquaintance with an Irish woman “Miss Beamish” (James Knowlson, Beckett’s biographer notes that her real name was the more “impressive” Anna O’Meara de Vic Beamish), he and his partner Suzanne remained essentially locked-down and isolated from civilisation. During this period, Beckett wrote his fiercely repetitive, and hilariously funny novel Watt, in an attempt to maintain his sanity. Although Beckett’s experiences differed from those that we are currently enduring – few of us live in direct fear of being transported to concentration camps – there are nonetheless similarities between the situation we are living through and Beckett’s: the repetitiveness of the days, the sense of “waiting” for a catastrophic global event to come to an end, the pervading sense of unease and the physical separation from family members and friends.
Throughout the rest of his career Beckett would experiment with creating closed worlds and confined places in both his drama and prose: the characters of The Lost Ones are confined to a large cylindrical abode, the eponymous protagonist of Eh Joe attempts to “quash” the torturing voice inside his head and in Play, the three characters are trapped in urns in a cyclical, purgatorial hellscape from which there seems no escape. In the time of pandemic, Beckett’s texts have taken on a new sense of immediacy and urgency and I would urge readers to embrace and revisit these texts, despite any hesitancy one might feel doing so. The “war” that wages between Hamm and Clov in their shared space has never been so relatable. Yet even Beckett’s most bleak texts are punctuated by his dark sense of humour and serve as a constant reminder that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” At the end of the play, Hamm, yawning, asks himself if there can be misery “loftier than mine?” His answer is poignant: “No doubt.”
Author: Shane O’Neill