With a very simplistic plot and no apparent character depth, we may struggle to grasp how the effect of absurdism is created in Endgame. Absurdism is a philosophy which holds that human existence is meaningless and irrational and that any attempt to understand the universe will ultimately fail. Therefore we can expect that the play will contain some things that we will not understand and will think are down-right weird but still Becket wrote them for a reason and the weirdness of the play does not detract from it but adds to the ambiance of failure and meaningless existence that resonates through not only the characters and their speech, but the setting and the many worlds of the characters; visible and invisible. It is the setting in particular that frames the aspects of absurdism because Beckett has given us very little in the way of props or plot to go on. Therefore the depth he creates in not only the visual setting but the settings described by the characters in important in our fundamental understanding of the play.
The very first words of the play are ‘bare interior’ which give us very little indication of how the setting looks and therefore gives us little indication on how the setting will effect the characters; because there is nothing there. Here is our first suggestion of the concept of zero, it is a blank room with nothing in it and therefore it is a constant nothing.
Beckett keeps the props at a bare minimum but the ones he does use have many meanings to them. For example, his use of the two windows, starting with the curtains drawn, is indicative of isolation as if the characters are trying to shut out any life. The windows themselves are rather pointless objects; they are too high up to see out of. They reflect the principles of absurdism; they are meaningless and irrational but any attempt to understand why they are there is pointless so we may as well accept that they are.
Another prop is the picture on the wall. Again it reflects the principles of absurdism in the way the windows but while we also ask ourselves why it is there, we find ourselves asking why ‘its face [its] to wall’? Perhaps it indicates Beckett’s intention to make the characters seem like they have turned their back on humanity and society like they no longer even want to acknowledge another human existence other than their own, or perhaps it is the opposite; Beckett wants to suggest that the human race has forgotten them and no longer cares about them. This then makes us question why any human would do that and that if they have, what could have possibly happened to trigger it?
This in turn brings us to Beckett’s description of the outside world through the character Clov. If we are to believe the suggestion that the human race has forgotten them, we are lead to wonder what has happened to them. Even before we are given a description of the outside, we already have some ideas that maybe a disaster similar to that of a nuclear war has occurred and has wiped out the rest of civilisation. Therefore when Clov tells us that outside is ‘zero’ we cannot be totally and utterly surprised.
The repetition of ‘zero’ continues throughout the play, highlighting the absurdist view that life is irrational and pointless because there is nothing in it. It also highlights how different their world is compared to the world that we know. This isolates the characters from us because we don’t understand their situation, cannot relate to it therefore cannot relate to the characters on an emotional level either.
The worlds of the characters are very different and also mean different things. For Hamm his entire world is the room and his mind. We know this because when he is being pushed around the room he says to Clov ‘Right around the world’. But the room doesn’t mean a lot to him because he stops half way around with ‘That is enough’. Hamm has grown so accustomed to the room that it no longer means anything to him on an emotional level. However Beckett suggests that Hamm still feels that he should be the centre of the room and the centre of attention with his placing of the chair that Hamm sits in. Hamm is ‘centre, in an armchair on castors’. This suggests that even though the room does not mean very much to Hamm, he still wishes to be the centre of it, indicating that Hamm is self-absorbed and attention seeking.
The outside world is a constant topic of discussion for Hamm and Clov. Hamm seems to always want to know what is happening outside, even though Clov has told him many times that there is nothing:
‘Hamm: What’s the weather like?
Clov: The same as usual.
Hamm: Look at the earth.
Clov: … [He looks, moving the telescope] Zero… [he looks] … zero … [he looks] … and zero.
… Hamm: Look at the sea
Clov: It’s the same.
Hamm: Look at the ocean!’
Hamm seems so determined to find a change in the outside world and to know everything about everything. Clov is his eyes and his only way to see the outside world. Therefore we feel that Hamm has a right to be persistent in his questions. It almost seems like Hamm feels that the outside world is also part of his ‘kingdom’ and therefore should know everything about this. We sense this when at the start of the book Hamm says ‘It’d need to rain’ as if it will rain just because he says it should.
Clov is a huge part of Hamms’ worlds because he is the one that moves Hamm, sees for Hamm and generally does Hamm’s bidding. Their lives are inexplicably interrelated so the world of one, generally involves the other. Hamm’s inside world, the room and his memories, involves Clov both physically and mentally. Because Hamm is such a complicated, unpredictable character, it makes it hard for Clov to follow and please him. Hamm sometimes lives in his memories, for instance when he is telling his story, ‘[Pause. Narrative tone.] The man came crawling towards me, on his belly…’ He seems absorbed by his story as we can tell by the fact that he continues to speak, without interruption, for the next two pages. We can understand why Clov would get irritated by Hamm. Hamm is too self-involved to see that Clov is unhappy. Instead he has to guess ‘You don’t love me’ to which Clov replies ‘No’.
The other two characters in the play, Nagg and Nell also have different worlds which they are in or are aware of. They differ somewhat because the characters are very different. A multitude of factors build up a picture of what Nagg and Nell’s various worlds are. Most of this evidence comes from the characters speech. The one thing the two have in common appears to be that their inside worlds are both their memories. The first example of this comes when Nagg tells Nell, in respect to his lost tooth, that he ‘had it yesterday’ to which Nell replies ‘ah yesterday!’
This suggests that Nell prefers to think about the past than the present and suggests that Nell lives for her memories. Later on, it is suggested that she also lives in them as well. She gets distracted when she and Nagg are discussing the memories of their engagement, and tells us ‘it was deep, deep. And you could see down to the bottom. So white. So clean’. What she says is completely unrelated to the conversation, suggesting that Nell sees her memories as a world that she would rather live in.
The other factors that help to build up the image of Nagg and Nell’s inside and outside world are the stage directions and the setting that Beckett puts them in. We know from the stage directions that the two live in bins: ‘[the lid of one of the bins lifts and the hands of NAGG appear, gripping the rim]’. Even before this the bins are described to us: ‘covered with an old sheet, two ashbins’. From just the stage directions, Beckett gives us the impression that these two have been pretty much been forgotten and left to die through the way that he calls the bins ‘ashbins’. We associate ash with cremation and death and this suggestion is backed up by the two bins being covered with a white sheet, as you would do with a body. This makes us think that Nagg and Nell are nearing the end of their lives and also suggests that maybe Hamm wants them dead so he gets Clov to cover them with a sheet.
Beckett’s uses of short, quite simple sentences that are continually broken up with stage directions suggest to us how Nagg and Nell’s life is lacking somewhat in both variety and abundance. Nell in particular seems to use the short, broken up sentences: ‘It was on Lake Como. [Pause] One April afternoon. [Pause] Can you believe it?’ This not only suggests that she has a lack of things to talk about but also that she may prefer to remember in silence and in privacy than out loud so she makes it sound like she is disinterested, a suggestion that is strengthened when she goes off on her own tangent.
Nagg, in comparison to Nell appears to look on the whole situation with a more positive attitude, but we get the feeling that Nell drags him down a bit. Nell is perhaps more frank and honest about the memories and her emotions and words also have the strongest effect on the audience in the way that they cut across Nagg when he is trying to be cheerful.
She is very blunt and direct as is suggested when she interrupts Nagg when he is trying to strike up conversation, ‘Nagg: Do you remember- Nell: No’. She does not even let him finish his question! She never apologies for the way she does this and even though we know that Nagg loves her (‘Nagg: Kiss me’) Nell is either too consumed by her memories, she does not love him back and is sick of the situation or that she is so sick of the situation that they are in that she is too tired to show the affection that she has for him. The suggestion that she is tired of their situation comes when she says ‘Why this farce, day after day?’.
For Nagg, his inside world appears to be his stories as suggested when he tries to tell the story of the tailor: ‘Nagg: Will I tell you the story of the tailor?- Nell: No [Pause] What for?’. He tries to make Nell feel happier through his stories but in fact he succeeds in doing the exact opposite. In fact she often ignores him, as the quotes in the previous paragraph suggest. Even though his wife in obviously unhappy, Nagg is not brought down because he appear to be content with the way his worlds are.
The inside world’s of Nagg and Nell mean a lot more to them than the room and any material setting that surrounds them. This is suggested by the fact that they talk of little else other than their memories of the memories of someone else.
In conclusion, I think that Beckett’s main aim in this play was to use the setting to help us to get to know the characters on a deeper level and to understand some of their mannerisms and actions throughout the play. Due to the lack of plot and character depth shown through speech, Beckett must use the setting and the characters worlds to show the audience or reader an alternative side to the characters that we may not have seen otherwise. This in turn adds depth to the play itself because it is solely the characters and their speech that make the play what it is and if we can understand more about the characters then we can understand more about the play and why Beckett wrote it.