What defines a piece of literature as a tragedy? How subjective is the categorization of a text – is it open to individual interpretation or must it conform to a set of pre-existing rules? In the 4th century BC Greek philosopher Aristotle set out that very thing, a set of rules that, as he saw it, defined what a tragedy was. But looking to a 20th century play such as Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, do these rules still apply? Through analysis of the various elements of Beckett’s play and the various dramatic and linguistic techniques he employs, we can begin to understand to what degree the play can be said to conform to Aristotle’s description, or equally, to what degree it departs from said definition, and what effect this achieves.
Endgame is a play steeped in negativity from the outset. Dissecting Beckett’s opening stage directions we are given the impression of a stage that is shaped like a skull, with the two windows as eyes and Hamm as lead protagonist acting as the mouthpiece. The skull, as a universal symbol of death, thus foreshadows all events that take place upon the stage. As do the opening lines, Clov stating ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.’ The grim finality of these words is undeniable, they hint towards an ending, just as the very title of the play does too. Thus, from the play’s outset, so many aspects already point towards tragedy, helping to create, as Aristotle outlines, a sense of magnitude. It is significant also, that this sense is created through means other than narrative – the tragedy is something beyond the simple story of the play, instead becoming a far more overarching and powerful theme.
At the core of the play lies the relationship between Hamm and Clov. Clov’s position is highly submissive; he is the servant to Hamm’s whim, fulfilling his every wish. Yet despite this, there is an odd symbiosis to them, they are dependent on each-other and seemingly can’t function independently. This is highlighted in the final parts of the play where Clov tries to leave, but ultimately can’t, Hamm stating ‘It’s we are obliged to each other’. It is a relationship steeped in tragedy; looking to Aristotle’s definition we can find both pity and fear in copious measures.
We pity both characters, Clov most obviously for his thankless servitude to Hamm. Hamm is also a subject for pity though. On a base level, he is the most powerful character, but as the play progresses, we realise he is also highly vulnerable and with his inability to stand, is limited in his movement. This depiction of him draws allusions to the play’s title and its reference to chess terminology, Hamm becoming the king. He is a character of constant contradictions, nothing about him is whole or ordered, and thus we pity him and his fractured nature – the tragedy being that he in so many ways is incomplete, so much so that he almost becomes inhuman.
One of the most significant elements of tragedy is its way to affect us – the audience – to make us feel the same feelings of despair and loss that are affecting the characters. One of the key elements of this sense of despair is the sheer pity we feel for the individuals of the play, most specifically, the trash can-bound Nagg and Nell. With no legs, they are at the mercy of Hamm and Clov, depending on them completely. And when Nell dies, she is dismissed with a simple ‘Go and see is she dead… Looks like it.’ The almost casual way at which her death is brushed aside is horrendously brutal and opposes Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. There is nothing admirable here, nothing pleasurable, no catharsis, only misery and death.
Many critics of Endgame have stated that its setting is reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic scenario – survivors living out their existence in a bunker in the middle of a desolate wasteland. This is a picture of the ultimate tragedy; death and loss of the highest scale imaginable. In a means unimaginable to Aristotle, tragedy is now elevated to something far beyond individual people, becoming something immense, much like the overriding sense of misery that Beckett has constructed in the play.
The concept of a post-apocalyptic scenario is also important in terms of relation to Hamm’s name. In the Bible, ‘Ham’ was the son of Noah. Noah led the world to new beginnings after the apocalyptic power of the flood God unleashed on the world. The tragedy here is that after the whole-scale destruction, the ‘Hamm’ of Endgame fails completely to leave the shelter of his ‘ark’ and make new beginnings, instead choosing to continue his squalid existence in limbo.
In his definition of tragedy Aristotle stresses the importance of a tragedy employing pleasurable language. On first glance, it would appear there is little opportunity for language of this sort, Hamm and Clov’s abrupt, snappy interchanges sometimes amounting to no more than one word per sentence. But looking at a selection of key quotes from the play, we can see evidence of eloquence and the potential for pleasure in the use of language. There is the repetition of ‘finished’ found in Clov’s opening line; a simple technique but one that drums into us the degree to which ‘finishing’ encapsulates this play. Thus, in a way, the tragedy of things coming to an end is made pleasurable and cathartic through the skill of wordplay.
The play is bound up in many examples of this repetition, the play’s title hinting at an end that constantly seems close, but which never comes. Hamm and Clov’s lives become almost meaningless, as they theorise ‘Gone from me you’d be dead… And vice versa’. They cannot live independently and thus a vicious cycle of co-dependence is created. Trivial tasks such as the administering of painkillers and looking out of the window become the highlights of their existence.
The overall sense within the play’s setting is one of chaos and disorder, of imperfect lives. Clov longs for ‘A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place’, thus, he longs for order. But the irony is that the world where all is silent and still lies right outside the windows in the desolate wasteland. Perhaps this then is why the thought of leaving appeals so much to Clov. Of course though, in the end, he doesn’t, and the repetition of the norm is continued. In this, the overriding misery of the play is continued and we are made to question that despite whatever skill and ingenuity Beckett puts into his writing, because of the subject matter, can it truly be considered pleasurable? In so much of Endgame, the characters’ dialogue is unsettling and disconcerting, thus going against Aristotle’s traditional definition of tragedy.
What catharsis can be found amongst the tragedy though? In our own lives we suffer from our own fears and moments of sadness, but when compared to the scale on offer in Endgame; the utter bizarreness of proceedings and the sense of overriding misery, our own troubles seems insignificant. The environment of the play is a constructed one, the characters are tools in Beckett’s hands and he manipulates them to create emotions that are heightened far above normal reality. Thus, while the characters suffer, the audience can sit back and be thankful their lives are not as bad as what they are witnessing. In a way this sense of aloofness mirrors the relationship between Hamm & Clov who spectate on the bins of the unimportant Nagg and Nell.
As a whole, it is undeniable that Endgame contains elements of tragedy. The play is saturated in the fear, pity and misery that Aristotle speaks of in his definition. But does containing elements of tragedy make it a tragedy in itself? While the play conforms to many elements of Aristotle’s description, it also departs from aspects of it too. The language is not always pleasurable and while the sense of tragedy is great, the means by which it is constructed are not. No great hero is slain, no immense war lost; instead there is only the festering existence of two damaged individuals locked into a pitiful life of repetition.
Aristotle wrote his definition of tragedy in the 4th century BC, a world far removed from contemporary times. Has the meaning of tragedy changed with the times? Has it had to change because of the times? Endgame presents us with an intensely personal window into the lives of four individuals, who in extreme confinement, allow us to see the extremities of human emotions and personality laid bare. Beckett, in his construction of the play, turns tragedy to his own ends, picking the elements he sees important, adapting from Aristotle’s original description to fit his own purposes. So while we may not see tragedy in its purest traditional form evidenced in Endgame, its presence to some degree is without doubt.
Adorno, Theodor, ‘Trying to understand Endgame’, The New German Critique, no. 26: 1982
Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, Faber and Faber: 2009
Cohn, Norman, Noah’s Flood: Genesis Story in Western Thought, Yale University Press: 1996
Cohn, Ruby, Back to Beckett, Princeton University Press: 1974