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ENDGAME: Pessimism Becketts Optimism

Jason Burton

 

Jason Burton

The University of Georgia

 

Pessimism Becketts Optimism: Audience and Optimism in Endgame

 

Is Endgame a nihilist play? The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the play’s pessimistic tone, its dark humor and a persistently explicit connection between the characters and the reader/audience reveal a much more optimistic outlook. Through the utter despair that makes up Endgame, Beckett paradoxically promotes an acceptance of our fate and teaches us to value life in all its imperfections.

 

 

Many speculate about the meaning behind Samuel Beckett’s one act play Endgame. Though this meaning might not be clearly stated by any of the characters, one thing is pretty obvious: pessimism underlines every word; the characters do not cease to stress the fact that man’s road of decay and suffering inevitably ends in death. And yet, as I will attempt to show, rather than encouraging one to accept a nihilistic attitude, the elements previously stated encourage an acceptance of one’s fate so that fear of death can be replaced with a greater appreciation and even reverence for life.

            All of the action takes place in a room with two windows, a door, and two garbage bins in which Nagg and Nell reside. The characters never leave this dismal set; the closest they come to the outside world is describing the view of the nothingness outside the window. The depressing atmosphere may cause the audience to question whether or not such a brief and miserable existence is better than no existence at all. At the same time, the misery is so intense that it becomes comical, because the conditions of the characters are exaggerated to the point of being absurd. They have no purpose, there is nothing outside their one room, and their conversations seem to only convey their inability to better the situation. This dark humor makes us laugh while also inviting us to reflect on the sobering, harsh realities of our own life, and ultimately, it releases us from an anxiety fueled by fear of suffering and death.

Life is unfair and then you die. Clov says something to this effect in the opening of the play. “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished...one by one, and one day suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap...I can’t be punished any more” (77). This “impossible heap” could be the hardships we face leading up to death. It could also represent a symbolic mountain leading to heaven that one begins sliding down towards hell despite efforts to climb it. Simply put, man’s efforts to find meaning are futile.

            Clov again makes an absurdly and comically dark statement later in the play when he says, “If I don’t kill that rat he’ll die” (83).  Obviously, either way, the rat will die. This implies that killing the rat might be better than making it wait around for death. Another example of Beckett’s dark humor, this phrase can also be taken lightly. The audience may laugh at the rat’s lack of options while also understanding the truth of Clov’s statement—that death is inevitable. Recognizing the humor in the situation may be a way to help the audience cope with the sobering truth presented and its implications. Instead of dwelling on the inevitability of death, the audience can laugh at the way the reality of it is presented here and then move on to think about other things. The powerful fear of death can thus be laughed away.

            The characters discover that there is no use praying to God. When Nagg, Hamm, and Clov pause for a few moments of silent prayer, no one seems to finish his prayer with any answer of salvation or hope. Hamm then says, “The Bastard! He doesn’t exist.” In the short time they were praying, nothing changed: they are still in the same room and nothing has changed. Again, Beckett is presenting the audience with a dark truth in a humorous way. Hamm quickly decides there is no God because they didn’t hear God’s voice calling down from Heaven, because there was no miraculous change. Of course, there is another layer of humor in the realization that, if God is a bastard as Hamm says he is, Hamm in some way acknowledges his existence. This may make him feel better—to insult God both by refuting his existence and calling him a bastard might give him some kind of immediate release. The audience may be able to relate to this as well: one might experience a release in saying aloud that man’s suffering and mortality is completely the fault of a bastard God who is unable to fix these problems. Even if the audience does not react on this deep level, the line is, at the very least, humorous. It is difficult to be afraid while one is preoccupied with laughter, and this preoccupation is more than a simple distraction: it is an exercise in release which diminishes the fear of death.

            About half way through the play, Clov and Hamm have this exchange:

 

Clov: Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why?

Hamm: You’re not able to.

Clov: Soon I won’t do it any more.

Hamm: You won’t be able to anymore. [Exit Clov.] Ah the creatures, the creatures, everything has to be explained to them (51).

 

The scene suggests that the “creatures” refer both to Clov and the audience. Since the audience is present to witness Hamm’s explanation to Clov, the implication is that Clov and the audience are linked in some way. After all, Hamm uses the plural: not creature, but creatures. A stronger bond between Clov and the audience is forged about a third-way through the play: After Clov looks out the window he takes up his telescope and directs it on the audience. This creates a symbolic, metatheatrical connection between spectator and spectacle, audience and Clov. Beckett thus encourages us to identify with the characters in Endgame, to drag us into the play’s fictive reality, a play which constantly emphasizes the fact that human relationships inevitably decay along with one’s physical body. Beckett highlights this through Nagg and Nell’s failed attempt at sharing physical affection, and this only reminds the viewers that one day they too will no longer be able to embrace their loved ones.

            Although the telescope does link Clov and the audience, it also suggests a distance between them. The distance signifies that the audience may hold themselves as being separate and distant from Clov’s situation, despite the fact that the fourth wall is breached and the space is now shared between characters and viewers. This distance reinforces the invitation for the audience to identify themselves with Clov and the other characters. It points to the fact that many people try to distract themselves from the shadow of their looming end. These distractions might involve material things, substance abuse, or even a form of denial. The play itself can be seen as a remedy for such denial. The pains of life must be acknowledged. Grief is a process you must allow yourself to work through. The final stage of grief, according to the Kübler-Ross model, is acceptance (Ross). If we are using this model to discuss overcoming the fear of death through Beckett’s play, denial is a step in that process. You must realize that you have tried to distance yourself from it and are therefore in denial before you can move past it. And so, even though one could argue the telescope scene represents a distance, it also creates a connection that invites the viewer to overcome his or her refusal to confront death.

            What Clov says while looking through the telescope can be taken as a horrible joke. “I see…a multitude…in transports…of joy” (36). The multitude on the other side of the telescope is, obviously, the audience. The next words “in transports” makes one think of the cattle cars that transported the Jewish people to Auschwitz. But to complicate this Clov adds that these are transports “of joy.” Not funny. Why does Beckett use the word “joy” here? Is it Hitler’s joy at the destruction of European Jewery? Or is it that since life is horrible, the quick extermination awaiting these transports—an end to life’s miseries—is a blessing in disguise? Whatever the case, this is a perverted and terrible joy—not really joy at all. The audience, however, can reflect on the fact that the pains of everyday life are nothing compared to the horrors experienced by Jews under Hitler.

            Beckett makes an effort to have his audience think about all the suffering in their own lives, their parents’ lives, and their grandparents’ lives. The play enacts the suffering of three generations. As Clov and the audience themselves are decaying, Hamm is more so decayed, and Nagg and Nell are the most decayed. Clov has lived long enough to witness the loss of his own ability to sit. The audience, of course, can relate: each member of the audience has lost something, even if only the comfort of his or her mother’s womb.

            This constant bombardment of miserable images and terrible truths is enough to make the audience angry. Do we truly need Beckett to explain to us that death is looming in every shadow? Do we need to vicariously experience this immersion in suffering and death that will undoubtedly plague us and our parents if it hasn’t done so in some way already? The tone created in the play and the heavily drawn connection between characters and viewers is so relentless that there may be a sort of reverse psychology at play. It would seem that Beckett wanted people to arrive at a position of nihilism and despair, but as we have seen, the effect of Beckett’s outrageous dark humor is a release from the fear of death; it has a cathartic effect which enables the audience to cope with a difficult existential situation and even laugh at it, and thus, paradoxically, to find a renewed optimism and meaning in our lives.

If one accepts the worst, the only direction they can go from there is up. Risks may be taken more often and more enthusiastically, with fear’s power now evaporated through a psychological acceptance of how common it is to experience suffering and death. Psychologists have taken steps to support this claim. In an article published in The International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, Paul Wong presents a potential for meaning discovered through a positive acceptance of one’s inevitable end. Wong says:

 

“The discovery of the coexistence of death anxiety and death acceptance is important because it reveals a basic ambivalent and conflicted attitude towards death: It is never easy to resolve the issue of death anxiety regarding our personal demise. No matter how remote and vague, the prospect of death of self or a loved one will always be unsettling because it disrupts the flow of life as we know it. However, a well developed system of death acceptance can keep death anxiety at bay and prevent it from interfering with our daily functioning...The same cognitive capacity that terrorizes us about the prospect of death can also rescue us from this terror...When we learn to focus on the positives, and accept the inevitable negatives, we are free to take risks and live vitally” (“Wong 79).

 

            Endgame may be a window into the lives of four individuals who are encountering the fate of their impermanence on a scale that has never really hit home for them on this level before. The reality of their lives is so dominated by this experience that their environment is now void of all color, details, time or any other indicators of life. This is the sort of fear and anxiety that Wong argues can be prevented if one comes to accept the reality of death, transforming this fear into vitality and a reverence for the little time we have.

There is support for this in the play. After reminiscing together, Nagg and Nell try to kiss one another. Sadly, they can’t reach each other, and Nell asks, “Why this farce, day after day?” Nagg and Nell have reached such an old age that they can no longer share affection. Despite how sad this is, there is some joy in the fact that their desire to love is not gone. Later, Nagg and Nell again laugh and reminisce about a time that they crashed their tandem bike. This happy memory is immediately followed by Nagg asking Nell if she is cold and she replies, “Yes, perished...” Even though she is cold and perished, the silver lining exists in the fact that she is able to express this to someone who loves her. She suffers alongside the same person for a whole lifetime. That alone is a comfort to be had.

            Shortly after Hamm finished his “chronicle,” Nagg says, “I hope a day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice...Yes, I hope I’ll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark, and I was your only hope” (65). Nagg’s spite can be seen as an effect of the suffering the characters have experienced. The potential cruelty people can project is another aspect that one must accept. But if one accepts this, the cruelty also loses power. When cruelty is returned, more problems arise. If the cruelty is accepted as merely a reflection of the pains one has experienced, the victim of this cruelty arrives at a state of forgiveness.

            William Wordsworth wrote: “My heart leaps up when I behold/ A rainbow in the sky...” Does Hamm sense something beautiful underneath the gloom that causes his heart to beat more prominently in his chest? It may be that he senses the conclusion at which he will arrive in the final exchange of the play. In the closing scene, Hamm tells Clov, “It’s we are obliged to each other” (90). They need each other. People need each other. Perhaps within this obligation we have to support each other through our suffering, a purpose and a meaning can be found.

Shortly after Nell’s death, Hamm asks Clov to check and see if Nagg is alive. Clov discovers that Nagg is alive and he tells Hamm that he is crying. Hamm says, “Then he is living” (71). This suggests that Beckett believes suffering is not only a part of living, but a part of what makes one feel alive. Without pain, without suffering, there would be no joy or laughter to compare it to. Nell says that there is nothing funnier than unhappiness. Rather than fear it, one can learn from it, or laugh because of how incredibly common, and therefore powerless, unhappiness actually is. The more one experiences unhappiness, the more one is able to cope with it, and the stronger the person becomes. Clov says at the beginning, “I can’t be punished any more” (8). The only place to go from there is up.

            Samuel Beckett has presented the audience with a play filled with gloom and pessimism. He seems to suggest that there is no meaning in life at all, only suffering which carries us to death. You must live your life watching your body decay while your parents and their parents are just a little closer to death than you are. This essay has attempted to demonstrate that, despite the persistent pessimism evident in Endgame, the fact that the audience is linked to the characters themselves, as well as the dark humor with which Samuel Beckett presents the harsh realities of life, actually point to a meditation for accepting one’s fate in order to have a deeper reverence for life. Life is full of death and decay. It is a heap that one must face, and after hardly facing it, one must die. But if we accept our fate, that this life is all we have, we may realize that we are lucky enough to suffer through it with each other. Whether Beckett intended it or not, we can leave our encounter with Endgame with a new and positive attitude toward life.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Beckett, Samuel, and Rónán McDonald. Endgame. London: Faber and Faber, 2009. Print.

 

Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying. ekrfoundation.org. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation. 1 January 2012. Web 4 April 2013. <http://www.ekrfoundation.org/>.

 

Wong, Paul. Meaning Making and The Positive Psychology of Death Acceptance. existentialpsychology.org. International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, Vol 3, No 2 (2010) Web. 4 April 2013.  ‹http://journal.existentialpsychology.org/›.

 

 

 
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