When I started reading Endgame, I was immediately turned off by its oddness (your parents live in ashcans?) and seeming irrelevance to anything. By the end, I was sure that I had just wasted an hour or so on an endless cycle of repetitive conversation between two uninteresting men. While High Modernism was intended to be difficult, it seems Post-Modernism has jumped off a cliff, leaving nothing but a play smashed into meaningless pieces – no plot, no character development, no climax, and non-sensical dialogue. Not even a good, fragmented stream of consciousness! But thank goodness it kept the notion that it should be as brief as possible!
I went back to the textbook and read some more about the age and Beckett and did get some insight. After WWII, the British novel took second seat to British drama whereby “the dramatic form seemed to lend itself to the staging of new social and aesthetic experiments” with Beckett leading the way. Beckett “sculpted his plays out of silence” and “his characters…occupy an abstract space of human existence, where the human predicaments of longing and desire for redemption, the failures of understanding, and the bafflement of death are experienced in their purest form” (text 1942). The quote explains why Beckett wrote such a play that has no significant beginning or end in the plot or characters, who lack meaningfulness.
To answer the question about how Beckett uses a setting outside history to critique the history of Western Civilization, he sets the play in a room with a “bare interior” save some windows to observe the outside world which the audience never sees (text 2579). All of the action takes place in the room between four characters with little reference to place or time (except to reference the use of a telescope and hygrometer). They talk in circles and end up where they started. For instance, a glimmer of hope is revealed:
HAMM: We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?
CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that’s a good one!
HAMM: I wonder. [Pause.] Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough. [Voice of rational being.] Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they’re at!
[Clov starts, drops the telescope and begins to scratch his belly with both hands. Normal voice.]
And without going so far as that, we ourselves…[with emotion]…we ourselves…at certain moments…[Vehemently.] To think perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing! (text 2593)
But, alas, this thread is lost and all is for nothing when Clov is distracted by a flea. What does this mean? I believe that Beckett sees England downsized, wounded from the war and is no longer the hub of Western Civilization. As such, these characters and “action” leave no impact on the world just as England no longer impacts civilization as it once did. Nothingness and irrelevance is all that exists now.
In contrast, Eliot’s The Wasteland engages with history. Like Beckett, Eliot expresses little hope for the future. However, Eliot uses allusions to demonstrate the richness of past civilizations that have come before. A solid foundation of religion, literature and tradition are woven into his poem that captures the history of Western civilization and more. Even if Western Civilization wanes, this huge body of works of art and culture will prevent it from reducing to oblivion.