In Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play entitled “Endgame” four characters are placed within a triple-walled, minimalist stage. Although the characters seem to be the last remaining people on earth (with the exception of the young boy who briefly appears outside of the walled interior), they each seem to resist any and all physical, human contact with each other. Each potential touch and interaction between the characters is mediated by a prop, so that each point of contact only takes place when two characters touch the same object (barrier) that lies between them. It is my contention that Beckett deliberately eliminates any bodily contact in order to further emphasize and solidify the sterility present within this environment.

The space in which the characters reside does not seem much different than the outside in which all nature appears to be dead. Hamm remarks that Clov “stink[s] already. The whole place stinks of corpses,” implying that the inhabitants of this realm are no more alive or fertile than the Clov’s seeds which refuse to sprout. The distinction between inside and outside is thus blurred when Hamm states that, “Beyond [the wall] is the…other hell.” To live within the walls is just as horrifying as venturing out beyond the walls. The nothingness that prevails on the outside has infiltrated this home and perpetuates an empty “claustrophobic interior,” as termed by Martin Esslin in his seminal work The Theatre of the Absurd. The walls that confine the characters to a given space simultaneously separate them from the outside world so that when the young boy is seen outside, the possibility of connecting with him would mean that Clov would have to venture out from his walled arena – something he will not do.

Despite the somewhat disconcerting element of the walls, Hamm still feels the need to touch them in order to orient himself within the space and further define the limits of his interior. Once Hamm can no longer see the walls, he must affirm that they still exist through their tangibility. Hamm asks Clov to take him “for a little turn” by the walls and after putting his ear up against the walls, he notes that there are only “Hollow bricks! […] All that’s hollow!”

Just as the walls which house the set space are hollow, so are the bodies that house the characters’ non-existent souls. All is “corpsed.” Bodies are composed of hollow frames just as the walls are made with hollow bricks. Apart from the walls, the presence of Nagg and Nell in their respective trashcans stands for yet another level of barriers that separate characters from each other. When Nagg asks Nell to kiss him, Beckett writes in the stage directions that, “Their heads strain towards each other, fail to meet, fall apart again.” Neither of the characters can crawl out of their bins and walk towards each other, since they are both missing their legs, and in addition to their dysfunctional bodies, the trashcans which contain them further prevent them from making contact with one another.

The structural minimalism inherent in the set (trashcans, flour, Hamm’s painkillers, etc.) is on its way to being reduced even further. The props that are used on stage seem to take the place of humans in that they are the only things that can make direct contact with multiple characters. The black toy dog is a stand-in for Hamm’s surrogate child. Hamm comes to depend on the comfort that a three-legged plush dog brings to him in moments of panic. When Clov hits Hamm over the head with the toy dog, Hamm angrily protests by yelling, “If you must hit me, hit me with the axe. [Pause] Or with the gaff, hit me with the gaff. Not with the dog. With the gaff. Or with the axe.” To hit Hamm with the toy dog signifies a deeper type of abuse than if Clov were to use a sharp, harmful, threatening object. Hamm and Clov cannot reproduce and the idea of procreating with Nell seems like a long-shot for any of the characters to even imagine. Thus, Clov hitting Hamm over the head with the toy dog can then be read as Clov cruelly beating the idea of sterility and the impossibility of reproduction into Hamm’s head. Likewise, the possibility that Hamm may have had an adopted child is gone: “In the end he asked me would I consent to take in the child as well – if he were still alive.” Hamm’s only “son,” besides his stand-in son, Clov, who ultimately rejects him, is the three-legged, complacent dog, which is just as structurally incomplete as the characters themselves.

The characters of Beckett’s play are not complete characters and thus their need to feel another person is anything but apparent to them. It seems that since they are each missing some essential part of their body, the idea that they might be missing something else is ultimately ignored. The characters in “Endgame” are all trapped in patterns of frustration and decay and although they mourn for the days of the past, they do nothing to restore the emptiness that now exists except talk. Language becomes the only proof of reality and existence in “Endgame.”

If, as Beckett once said, “Nothing is more real than nothing,” then we, as an audience, can clearly see that these relationships have deteriorated into something akin to “nothing.” The characters in the play have become nothing more than pests to one another and appear to lack any sense of genuine concern for their companions. The emphasis that Beckett places on the presence of pests seems to hearken back to the well-established fact that pests, such as cockroaches, seem to be able to outlast even the deadliest catastrophes. Both a rat and a flea are sighted as Beckett mocks the theory of evolution. When Clov mentions the possibility that the “flea” may be a crablouse, Hamm exclaims, “But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!” The idea that Beckett is parodying here is the notion that the human race could completely regenerate from either rodents or insects. Similarly, Beckett marks each of his characters as pests in relation to the others. For example, Nagg and Nell have become pests to their son, Hamm, and Hamm has become an annoying pest for Clov to handle. Hamm would like to ignore and escape his parents as much as Clov would like to escape Hamm. In order for the characters to feel as if their respective “pests” are out of their lives, Hamm has Clov “bottle” his parents in their trashcans and Clov repeatedly threatens to leave Hamm. Just like the handkerchief, which appears at the end of the play, these actions merely “staunch,” or cover-up, the grim reality at hand.

In the world that Beckett has created, there is no possibility, or desire, for direct, physical, human contact. The single female character (Nell) that could promise the regeneration of the human population is aged, decrepit, and dead by the end of the play. Beckett chooses to end his play in a stalemate as the three existing chess pieces, or characters, continue to dance around each other while simultaneously avoiding any physical touch. When Clov finally decides to leave Hamm, he instead remains within the confines of the stage room. Hamm, blind and covered with a handkerchief, which he identifies as an “old stancher,” sits unaware of the fact that Clov remains. The lack of human touch has progressed into the absence of even being able to acknowledge the other person’s presence. Beckett implies that the two will remain frozen in time in this position: removed both from the reality of the situation and simultaneously removed both physically and emotionally from each other. The absence of human touch, and finally human recognition for one another, comes to signify that no more progress can be made in this world. The continuity of the play lies in its stasis and by the end of the play, Beckett makes it clear that the characters are no longer “getting on.”

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CLARISSA OLIVAREZ holds a Master's degree in Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master's degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives with her husband and two dogs in the Washington, DC area. Her writing has been published in Haggard & Halloo, Blood Lotus, Fogged Clarity, Midwest Literary Magazine, and an anthology entitled Winter Canons. She has taught at American University and Northern Virginia Community College.

2 responses to “Barriers and Sterility in 
Beckett’s “Endgame””

  1. Wow, you just described the isolation of a deaf person like myself in a hearing world. Guess I will have to check that play out!

  2. Clarissa Olivarez says:

    It’s a great play. I’m so glad the piece reached you on some deeper level. Take care!

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