Beckett and the Apocalypse – Literature Informal Essay
The play Endgame opens up bleak and bare, a glaring introduction to its final impression on the reader or audience. We see the two windows and are almost reminded of a bare human skull. The characters are static; they do not change or progress and their general manner reflects their attitude of hopelessness and their question of meaning. Throughout its single act,
the play demonstrates a dominant worldview of inevitable death and absence of meaning through absurd references to the Bible and the general meaninglessness of the characters’ lives.
The term “endgame” is a word used by chess players—it signifies the last part of a chess game, wherein, although the game is not over and there are technically moves remaining, the winner has already been determined. The winner and determined end here in the play is death. In essence, the play is about four characters waiting to die. In fact, one, Nell, does die. Hamm, the owner of the setting and central character in the play, is much like the loser king in a chess match that has moved to the “endgame” sequence. He has Clov move him around meticulously, positioning him and adjusting his chair. In the end, however, this means nothing—he will die no matter what he does.
Death as the inevitable end can be interpreted in two ways. We all will die, individually; upon our birth we inherit the fate of death—we are born into an endgame. However, Beckett creates a bare stage and has his characters describe the seemingly post apocalyptic state of the outside world—the lack of any people, the calm waters, the wasteland desert, etc. Here is a sweeping biblical allusion—referring not to any point in the play specifically, but a general setting and feeling that echoes the book of Revelation. This final book of the New Testament describes the end of the world similarly—at least the audience is meant to envision the state of the Earth following the Apocalypse. Here is another endgame—the end of humanity as a whole.
This more universal endgame reflects Beckett’s general nihilistic worldview—that human life is meaningless and absurd. One is reminded of MacBeth’s lament in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “Life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For all the “sound” and the “fury”—i.e., all the conversation and the walking and the fetching three-legged dogs in the play, the end is the same: death. In actuality, death is accelerated when Clov is assumed to leave Hamm because they both prolong life for each other, but regardless of this final action, they will die. The inevitability of death is completely independent on any action in itself; this unavoidability compounds the absurdity of life and all of its moves.
Beckett also uses the Bible to compound life’s absurdity. The general worldview of the Bible is one of hope—specifically the Gospels of the New Testament. However, when Beckett uses biblical allusions throughout a play with such a nihilistic worldview as Endgame, the hopefulness of the Bible sounds almost silly. The characters in the play do not understand the biblical allusions and thus do not understand the hopeful message of the Bible. For example, Nell’s final word is “desert!” The exclamation was directed to Clov, who explained to Hamm that, “She told me to go away, into the desert” (23). This could be an allusion to Christ’s journey into the desert to fast and get closer to God. Clov “didn’t understand” (24) Nell’s cry, just as no other characters understood any message of hope throughout the play. Although the Bible as a whole contains a hopeful message for mankind, Beckett uses the empirical evidence of the characters’ lack of purpose and seemingly invalidates the hopefulness of the Bible.
The biblical worldview mentions salvation and hope for a new life as part of its basic tenets. However, it also accounts for death, such as in the apocalyptic account of Revelation. The play Endgame uses simply the message of inevitable death found in the Bible and creates a meaningless, pathetic universe. We are treated to a barrage of senseless acts and general words that have no purpose and contribute nothing to the characters’ lives—we leave gaping, asking for more but wondering about the general meaning of our own actions.