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Endgame – Footnotes

Apr 30, 2020 | Footnotes | 0 comments

More on Samuel Beckett’s love of chess, his friendship with James Joyce, and what he really thought of the Lord Chamberlain in our Endgame Footnotes. Listen to our podcast Addendum, where we talk more about Beckett’s life and the premiere of Waiting for Godot.

Some additional audio

When we recorded episode three on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Matt and I talked for longer than our allotted hour. On listening back to our conversation, I thought that it was shame that we had to edit out a section of our conversation that talked about Beckett’s early life, as well as where his first plays came from, including of course his breakthrough play Waiting for Godot, which had a controversial reception when it premiered in 1953, but also established Beckett as a dramatist of world renown. So here is that extra bit of our recording.

Episode 003 - Addendum

by The Play Podcast

The Premiere of Endgame in London

Here are two facts which I think in their small but enjoyable way constitute perfect footnotes:

When Endgame was in rehearsal at the Royal Court in London in April 1957, rehearsals were also taking place in the theatre of John Osborne’s The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier. Two landmark plays happening at the same time in the same theatre.

The English language version of Endgame which Beckett translated was promised to the Royal Court for summer 1957, but as we noted in our podcast the Lord Chamberlain objected to God being called “a bastard”. Beckett hereafter referred to the British Censor as Lord Chamberpot.

The Entertainer script cover,
with Olivier, in 1957.

Samuel Beckett and Chess

Matt’s reference to the game in Endgame being suggestive of a game of chess was especially illuminating. Beckett was a life-long chess player, building a library of books on the game in which he annotated his learnings. In chess the “endgame” refers to the closing moves from which the end is inevitable, but the moves need to be played out. Hamm says “me to play”, indicating the alternate nature of the game. He stands for the figure of the King, who is hierarchically powerful but also the most limited in his movement, as Hamm is. As Hamm’s servant Clov is but a pawn, although pawns also have the potential to turn themselves into a Queen and gain much more freedom, albeit this is usually a very distant hope. The specifics of the analogy may be less important than the philosophical resonances. We are confined to the board and the rules of the game, as well as dependent on the other player’s actions. Most of us are poor players, with little understanding of the almost infinite possible ways that the game will unfold and end.

Samuel Beckett and James Joyce

After Beckett moved to Paris in 1928, he was introduced to James Joyce. Beckett had greatly admired Joyce’s work and the two Irishmen had many shared interests, including languages, a scepticism about religion, and a love of Dante to name a few. Beckett became Joyce’s literary assistant, helping with research and even taking dictation from Joyce as he wrote Finnegan’s Wake. It is a stirring literary image to imagine the two men working together in Joyce’s Paris apartment.

Inevitably Beckett was strongly influenced by Joyce, including in particular his method of assembling extensive research to underpin and fuel his creative writing. However in 1945 Beckett had a revelation in which he says that he realised that he needed to turn away from Joyce’s model of filling the work with his knowledge, in favour of stripping back to the emptiness and darkness inside himself that he had struggled to resist in his own mental life. The unique vision of Waiting for Godot and Endgame would follow with this new approach.

The Theatre of the Absurd

Beckett’s plays have been labelled as part of the so-called “Theatre of the Absurd”, works which deal with themes similar to those of the roughly contemporary existentialist thinkers. The term “Theatre of the Absurd” was coined by Martin Esslin in a book of the same name in which Beckett is included. Esslin argued these plays were the fulfilment of Albert Camus’ concept of the absurd as defined in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus – highlighting man’s repetitive and vain responses to a world without meaning. Esslin did argue that the result was not simply despair:

It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

Beckett’s endgame

Beckett died in December 1989, age 83. He is buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, with a simple granite gravestone that follows Beckett’s directive that it should be “any colour, so long as it’s grey”. A remark that minutely suggests both the bleakness and humour that infuse his work.

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