2013 Brennan Prize Winning Essay

Michelle Werner, "Drama Under the Dome: The Madness of Endgame"


My dear actors,

            I know there has been some confusion over Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece “Endgame,” and I want to thank you for bearing with me through all this madness.  In fact, I want to ask you to embrace the madness.  After extensive consideration, I’ve determined that our rendition of Endgame would gain a lot by staging the action in a mental institution in which Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell are all patients.  I argue that Endgame presents the theory that rationality and compassion are the two forces that give life purpose and life reduced to its essentials without these two forces is madness.  Hamm represents a life without compassion and Clov represents a life lacking direction.  I’ve researched other productions of Endgame, Beckett’s special brand of humor, and the relationship of charity to the theater of the absurd and I think we can soon put this whole issue behind us. 

         It’s difficult to break Endgame into scenes, but I think rehearsal really fell apart right after when Hamm is disappointed in his hopes for painkillers on p.80.  I’ll focus on explaining that scene until the end.  This final scene deals with a lot of the crucial questions within the play: What is the nature of Hamm and Clov’s relationship? What is the nature of their relationship to the outside world? Is there compassion or rationality present in life?  What lies in store for Hamm and Clov in the future?  There are specific decisions we can make to ensure that Notre Dame students get the most out of our production.  Trust me, I know what I’m doing.  I’m an English major.

            Faced with the stark minimalism of Beckett, directors have previously made alterations to the play to make it more accessible to audiences.  Samuel Beckett, however, showed his displeasure with these renditions by threatening to sue.  SF Weekly columnist Chloe Veltman reports, “When director Andre Gregory made alterations to the stage directions in Endgame, Beckett threatened a lawsuit” (Veltman).  Beckett was similarly angered by JoAnne Akalaitis’ presentation of Endgame, which set the play in a subway and included minimal music.  Beckett’s sensitivity about preserving the sanctity of his work has made Endgame a difficult play for directors to tackle if they want to preserve his memory.  Nonetheless, the Drama Under the Dome production of Endgame will rise to the challenge.  The presentation of Hamm and Clov’s home as a mental institution underscores the absence of rational action within the play.  Madness is found in doing that which is not rational.  Therefore, this setting is an appropriate choice that will add to the meaning of the play. 

            To create the appropriate environment for Endgame, we will need to represent a mental hospital without transgressing too far upon Beckett’s original intentions.  The set should be kept minimalistic to illustrate the bleak nature of life without compassion and direction.  Grey lighting, no wall fixtures, and perhaps some wind whistling quietly in the background should make the audience feel isolated and hopeless, like our two key characters.  Although music could heighten the emotional impact of this emptiness, Beckett’s previous objections and the importance of barrenness both visually and audibly preclude it.  This austere setting need only be changed slightly to produce the image of a mental hospital.  The windows through which Clov is constantly peering should be the one-way windows used for observation.  This choice means that Clov can never actually see what is outside and so lends more futility to his actions.  Hamm and Clov should be dressed in white hospital gowns to indicate their status as patients, but neither should generally seem to notice that they’re in a mental hospital.  As another hint to the audience, the sound of neighboring rooms should occasionally waft across the scene. These sounds would never be loud enough to distract from the action, but they clearly indicate that these are not the only people left on Earth, as some interpretations would have you believe.

            The fact that Hamm, Clov, Nag, and Nell are not lone survivors, but rather cut off from regular society, has enormous implications for the play.  If they are the survivors, it means that their failings are the rule of the world.  However, their relegation into a mental hospital presents them as an aberration, offering a much more hopeful outlook on the promise of mankind.  Hamm and Clov should represent a situation in which the regular failings of people to others and to themselves are exaggerated to the point of madness.  Clov has a few key lines with which he can showcase his insanity.  While he is looking for the ladder to reach the window, Clov remarks, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m in my right mind. Then it passes over and I’m as lucid as before” (Beckett 81).  Here Clov almost realizes that he’s in a mental institution. The actor playing Clov would realize that he’s wearing the plain white robe of a mental patient, but quickly revert to his delusions.  Shortly after this realization he remarks that he sees a woman outside underwater.  Correcting himself, he only finds this foolish because he looked out the wrong window. Juxtaposed with the assertion that he’s generally lucid, this serves to emphasize his madness.  Another key point for Clov’s madness is his final soliloquy in which he tells of all the promises “they” made to him about true friendship and order.  This “they” is ambiguous and could be construed as the voices within Clov’s head.

            There is a great moment within this final scene in which Hamm attempts to answer Clov’s oft-repeated question of obedience.  Clov comments, “There’s one thing I’ll never understand.  Why I always obey you.  Can you explain that to me?” Hamm replies, “No…Perhaps it’s compassion.  A kind of great compassion. Oh you won’t find it easy, you won’t find it easy” (84).  Evidence throughout the rest of the play suggests that there is no compassion in the world of Hamm and Clov.  Hamm’s last line here could be in reference to Clov’s search for the looking glass, but the actor should make it apparent that Hamm is talking more about the difficulties in the search for compassion.  It is much more likely that the reason Clov stays with Hamm is that he lacks any personal direction.  This lack of life direction and can be visually highlighted by Clov’s movements.  As he goes between the two windows and fumbles with the ladder he is constantly turning back.  His actions are not motivated by strongly held convictions and purpose and so he finds himself unable to account for any of his choices—from beginning to cross a room to staying with Hamm.

            In fact, all choices begin to seem meaningless so that the very nature of existence is called into question.  On page 85, Clov hits Hamm with the dog, after which the following exchange ensues:

Hamm: “He hit me!”

Clov: “You drive me mad, I’m mad!”

Hamm: “If you must hit me, hit me with the axe” (85).

Here we have an instance of violence, a reassertion of Clov’s madness, and a wish for death.  When one is mad, the incredibly high value normally placed upon life disappears and one’s physical existence is worthless.  In her article, “Beckett's Humour, from an Ethics of Finitude to an Ethics of the Real,” Suzanne Dow begins to cover this larger topic by introducing an unexpected interloper among all the negatives: comedy.  She writes, “When body parts become sources of comedy in Beckett, it is thus not because, in their decrepitude, they serve as a reminder of how we cannot go on indefinitely.  On the contrary, they become comic objects insofar as they function as material manifestations of a futile excess, as an appendage absurdly tacked onto embodied finitude” (Dow 132).  This is a rather dark brand of comedy.  Hamm’s willingness to be killed means that his entire body is a “material manifestation of futile excess.”  He goes on living, taking up extra space, simply because nothing has killed him yet, not because he feels called to any particular purpose.

            Within the final scene, there is a perfect example of Clov’s apathy towards purpose and Hamm’s lack of compassion for his fellow man.  Hamm desperately pleads with Clov for explanation, while Clov exposes Hamm’s heartlessness:

Hamm: When! What’s happened? Use your head, can’t you? What has happened?

Clov: What for Christ’s sake does it matter?

Hamm: I don’t know.

Clov: When old Mother Pegg asked you for oil for her lamp and you told her to get out to hell, you knew what was happening then, no?  You know what she dies of, Mother Pegg?  Of darkness.

Hamm: I hadn’t any.

Clov: Yes, you had. (Beckett 83)

Clov here reveals that he doesn’t see any purpose in attempting to discover a purpose to life.  Ironically, he misses his own unintentional wisdom because it is precisely for “Christ’s sake” that life matters.  Despite having no aim in life himself, Clov acts as Hamm’s conscience figure in reminding him about his failure to help Mother Pegg.  Clov failed in his duty to himself to have a purpose and Hamm failed to serve his purpose to others.  Dow speaks of the restrictions placed on people by their bodies, but Hamm does not even live up to these restrictions.  Dow states, “Embodiment means that I can neither go on forever nor be anywhere but one place at any one time.  This for Connor, is the kind of ‘radical finitude’ that Beckett’s comically moribund, bogged-down, bed- or bin-bound characters help us to know something about” (Dow 122).  Although people can never be “anywhere but one place at one time,” Hamm remarks, “I was never there” and “Absent, always.  It all happened without me” (83).  Instead of being restricted to a single place, Hamm was nowhere.  Hamm’s inability to perform compassionately towards his fellow man caused him to break one of the rules of finitude.  It makes sense, then, that his existence would seem to continue on well past his wants or expectations.  The line, “I was never there” should be delivered as the realization of a crucial lack of humanity in himself.  Perhaps we could place Hamm under a spotlight to entrench the image of his isolation from the rest of humanity because of his moral failings. 

            Hamm further demonstrates his lack of sympathy by ignoring the possibility of the small boy outside the window as a “potential procreator.”  Of course, the window can only be seen through in one direction in this scenario so Clov’s vision would have to be made up.  The dialogue suggests this when Hamm replies, “If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here.  And if he doesn’t…It’s the end Clov. I don’t need you anymore” (87).  At least, that’s what Hamm thinks.  Clov never makes a final exit in Beckett’s play, leaving it ambiguous whether he’ll ultimately stay or leave.  As both he and Hamm are mad, damaged human beings, it’s necessary that they stay in the mental institution.  I feel comfortable adding in some screen direction that is in keeping with the interpretation of the play.  After Hamm delivers his final lines, the scrim curtain covering the room behind the stairs switches from being opaque to being lit from behind.  The audience watches as Clov struggles down the stairs a final time and curls up into bed in what turns out to be just another room in the ward.  Clov stays, suggesting a repeat cycle of the previous events.  He and Hamm didn’t truly live in the outside world and now are doomed to cycle through their madness until their eventual death.


It may seem a bit harsh to relegate these characters to madness for failing to act positively.  After all, the amount of need in the world is overwhelming and one person’s power to attenuate that need seems infinitesimal in comparison. Dow says that Beckett deals with this inability to help everyone using humor.  She writes, ““Critchley…consider(s) humor the solution to the most fundamental ethical question as he sees it—namely that of how the subject is to respond to the ‘infinite ethical demand’ of the other, without inadequation to that demand being the cause of inordinate suffering to the subject herself” (Dow 123).  However, although Beckett’s dark humor has mixed success with audiences, it certainly doesn’t work for the characters.  When Hamm suggests a good guffaw after the story of the man begging for bread, Clove replies, “I couldn’t guffaw again today,” to which Hamm agrees, “Nor I” (Beckett 69).  Perhaps it would be helpful here to clarify the meaning of humor.  Immanuel Kant defines laughter as, “an affect resulting from the sudden transformation of a heightened expectation into nothing” (Kant 209).  Nell echoes this sentiment when she comments, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that” (Beckett 26).  The upset of expectations—having too little or too much—can be mitigated using laughter.  For Hamm and Clov, they had too little of a quality life, and too much of an unmeaningful existence.  

Human beings everywhere identify with the struggles of Hamm and Clov.  Everyone is looking for the direction of a meaningful life.  No one can say clearly how far their obligation to their fellow man extends.  Dow proposes that world poverty is “omnipresent and yet all but unspeakable, and apt to engender paralysis whenever its grim prospect is brought into view” (Dow 122).  This “paralysis” is not only in their attitudes toward achievement and helping others, but also echoed in their physiognomy.  Hamm and Clov are miserable and physically incapacitated.  Hamm, who has never appeared to lift a finger for anyone can no longer lift himself from his chair.  Clov can only move around just enough to show the futility of all his motion.  And of course Nagg and Nell are reduced to stumps unable to leave their trashcans.  We want to pity them for their inability to effect any change in their lives.  Dow argues, “Beckett’s comic ironist is ugly, small, poor, cruel, ignorant, miserable, and infinitely vulnerable.  It is above all in that vulnerability that we recognize ourselves” (Dow 122).  Their paralysis makes them unable to take care of themselves, let alone others and coerces us into pitying them. 

            However effective Beckett’s tug at our sympathies, this cannot be the final effect of Endgame.  Yes, it is difficult to find purpose and effect compassionate change, but responding with paralysis is unacceptable.  In an article relating Beckett to troubles with humanitarians, scholar Jeff Everett posits:

“The authors of the grotesque aim to highlight our fascination with the shocking and the horrific, and the speed by which we move from a state of shock or horror back to a disimpassioned state. That humanitarian crises are themselves shocking, that so many view the victims of crisis with a macabre fascination, and that so many can readily return to a disimpassioned state suggests that humanitarians themselves perform in a Théâtre de l’Absurde” (Everett).

The shock value of world trauma should not exempt us from action allow us to recede back into a disimpassioned state.  We want our presentation of Endgame to impel Notre Dame students to action.  Identification with the inadequacies of Hamm and Clov is natural, but we want to present these inadequacies as something that can be fought.  An effective way to present this would be to portray Hamm and Clov’s paralysis as primarily mental.  They are in an institution for mental health, which indicates that something is wrong with the way that they operate.  If Clov sometimes forgot that he had a limp or Hamm seemed more aware of his surroundings than usual, the paralysis would seem like a surmountable goal.  Global issues are much too large to tackle by oneself, but that doesn’t necessitate a life free from direction and compassion.  That kind of life without agency leaves only madness, because without direction and compassion there is no reason to live.  As the characters continue to live without having any desire to, they are acting irrationally and so belong in a mental facility.  A worthwhile life requires compassionate actions toward a larger goal, done for the intrinsic good of oneself and others lest the weight of the world’s problems crush one’s spirit into paralysis.  I believe that we can present Endgame as a relatable cautionary tale with serious consequences for not trying to live a meaningful life.


Michelle Werner

Works Cited


Beckett, Samuel, and Samuel Beckett. Endgame, a Play in One Act, Followed by Act without Words, a Mime for One Player. New York: Grove, 1958. Print.

Critchley, Simon. Very Little…Almost Nothing: Literature, Philosophy, Death, 2nd Edn. London: Routledge, 2004.

Dow, Suzanne. Beckett's Humour, from an Ethics of Finitude to an Ethics of the Real, Vol.34(1), p.121-136 [Peer Reviewed Journal] Edinburgh University Press Journals. 2011.

Everett, Jeff and Friesen, Constance. Critical Perspectives on Accounting Volume 21, Issue 6, August 2010, Pages 468–485. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Mathews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Veltman, Chloe. "What in Godot's Name?" SF Weekly. 09 May 2007. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.