Through the detachment from history and absence of time Beckett establishes in his play Endgame, Beckett is able to illustrate the meaninglessness found across Western Civilization post World War II. Just as Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land” emphasizes meaninglessness and numbness, Beckett’s play profoundly demonstrates that life post-world war no longer holds meaning. Both Beckett and Eliot’s works demonstrate that society found their means of coping with the emptiness left by the war through the mechanical routine of day to day life. Beckett’s characters’ actions and dialogue are almost painfully mechanical and minimalistic; yet it is so to exemplify the mechanical, numb routine society had fallen into. The play begins and ends with Hamm in the exact same position, “motionless,” demonstrating the play’s theme of stagnation and meaninglessness.
Beckett’s use of time or rather, his purposeful lack of time and place in history is a different approach than Eliot took in “The Waste Land;” yet both works equally communicate the futile sense of existence that hung over society due to the world wars. Beckett’s characters lack purpose and meaning in their lives to the extent they are looking forward to death, “finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” but the future as well as the past is illusory (2579). The past, present, and future is illusive because of the absence of time, making it impossible for the characters to find hope in their present state or in the future because death is taking so long to come.
I found it rather entertaining that Endgame is the last work we’ll blog about in this class, though I wish we could have ended on a happier note. It’s rather depressing and hard to grasp at times, though it certainly follows in step with Eliot’s The Waste Land. Both examine the Western World after the devastation of WWI, and both find a bleak, uninviting, and meaningless place.
The Waste Land was about the degradation of Western society, where people were more machines than humans, where traditional actions have no meaning. People act out their lives because that’s how they are supposed to go; they eat their canned food, and one is “glad” for things to be “over” (line 252). Endgame makes use of the same premises (I question the use of the first, however), though it is more concerned with the after-effects of The Waste Land; for example, while in Eliot’s poem people still perform these “traditional actions” that no longer have meaning, Beckett does away with them all together, to bring light into a world without any meaning. Nothing means anything in Endgame.
While Beckett’s world seems to be after Eliot’s, there is no indication of a time-line. The past is simply “yesterday” (p. 2586), though “yesterday” is confused with all the other “yesterdays” that exist. As Clov says, “[yesterday] means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day” (p. 2597). There is no real past in Endgame, there’s only what “was before,” but what “was before” is never expressed. There is no time, there is no past, there is no future, and thus we realize that the world (the Western world, anyway) is devoid of all of these things, and everything is devoid of meaning.
Endgame exists in a world devoid of meaning, in a world devoid of fertility (the death of Nell, the only female in the play), in a world that exists but yet does not exist, an eternal place that was once something else, but will never be something else. The Waste Land gave us an understanding of why, and a suggestion that we may be able to fix it; Endgame leaves us hopeless.
Beckett’s Endgame gives a dismal view of Western Civilization. One of the critiques he makes is the futility of any individuals to have meaningful connections. He demonstrates this through the uselessness of words to depict anything meaningful.
The characters in Beckett’s Endgame speak past each other. There is a futility attached to words and the use of words. This is part of Beckett’s critique of Western Civilization: there is no connection and no meaning in anything that anyone says to anyone else. When Nagg begins to pray aloud, Hamm interrupts him, yelling “Silence! In Silence!” (2602). Hamm, who has lost the use of his eyes and his legs, has only his speech and his hearing as a means of communicating with anyone. Yet, he cannot even share his story. He has to lie to his own father, promising sugar plums that don’t exist, in order to get anyone to listen. Clov says that his story is: “The one you’ve been telling yourself all your days” (2603), implying that all he has ever said in an attempt to tell a story is meaningless because it has touched no one.
In addition to the lack of meaning and connection, Beckett examines the fragmentation that words cause in the isolated individual. During one of his monologues, Hamm says: “Then babble, babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark” (2607). Because words can give no meaningful connection between individuals, they act within the individual, fragmenting him so that he does not feel alone. Denied a true dialogue with others, he begins a destructive dialogue with himself that leaves him “in the dark,” incapable of finding anything outside of himself. This is very reminiscent of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Throughout the poem, Eliot uses different voices and different languages to depict the confusion and lack of cohesion in individuals coming from the tradition of Western Civilization. Both authors are aware of the harm that words can bring through meaninglessness, isolation, and fragmentation, for the individual.
A major theme in Endgame is death. Or rather, the living dead. Much like Eliot in The Waste Land, Beckett uses the dead with an entirely different meaning. Endgame is a story without time, without a story really, so the characters could be anyone or anything. Clov and Hamm seem to be alive, but Nagg and Nell are questionably so. They have “very white face[s]” (Beckett 2582). It also seems that Nagg is Hamm’s father, and since Hamm is on the brink of death, the two ashcan occupants must be some kind of ghostly creatures who do not seem to be aware of their absence from the world of the living. This parallels Eliot in the very beginning of The Waste Land. The first stanza (at the least) is narrated by the dead, who calmly discuss the circumstances of their decomposition. Although they differ in knowing they are dead, they share a distinctive indifference to the fact.
The Waste Land and Endgame also both take place in undefined historical periods. They both have great meaning and serve as critiques for their (and all) times, but remain ambiguous. Endgame’s setting in a gray room in a gray world is certainly not confined to one civilization, but Western seems appropriate, being the one with which Beckett is most acquainted. By not using a specific time period, he also takes no prisoners in accusing the world of repeating the same mistakes over and over. “Ah yesterday!” Nell repeatedly moans, and she is joined in the sentiment by the rest of the characters as they repeat phrases and conversations over and over, until Hamm finally says, “Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!” (Beckett 2586, 2595). Repetition demonstrates the brick wall in the way of progress created by nostalgia. The quick pace of the discourse also demonstrates the churning repetition of human misery and folly, just like the wild, scattered, tumbling nature of The Waste Land.
"I can't go on, I'll go on."
In light of our recent reading of Endgame, I thought you’d like to see this page with pictures of animals captioned by quotes from existentialist authors. The seal saying “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” is quoting Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.
If you liked Endgame, you’ll love the Waiting for Godot video game.