Endgame is an enduring play that's been turned on end in a new production by EgoPo, the theater company dedicated to "modernist classics and contemporary epics with innovative approaches that re-enliven them." (That's the motto posted on the company's website.)
Samuel Beckett disturbed theater-goers in 1957 by playing up Cold War fears about nuclear annihilation. His characters Hamm and Clov live in an austere shelter— an air-raid shelter, perhaps. When Clov looks out the window to see the outside world, he reports what he sees: "Zero … zero … and zero." The play's original title— Fin de Partie, or the end of the party, or of the game— also hints at the destruction of civilization. References to life that has ceased to exist reinforce the post-nuclear impression.
Endgame is also characterized by its allusions to chess and to history (especially the deadly battles during World War I) and to literary works by T. S. Eliot (The Wasteland), Dante (The Inferno) and Shakespeare (The Tempest, Hamlet, Richard II). It invokes a sense of eternal torment for characters ordained to endlessly restage their lives. Beckett took this topic of repetition and turned it into a feature of his dialogue.
"Endgame" is the term used to describe an ending in chess where the outcome has become known. Beckett was a chess fan who saw the parallel between the chess endgame and the final stages of life. Hamm can be seen as the Black side that can't win. He delays and frustrates but is doomed. Hamm is blind, hence unaware; in a wheelchair, hence restricted; wearing sunglasses, hence black. Hamm is desperate for the end of the game. "Enough," he says. "It's time it ended."
Beckett's writing displays multiple allusions, with humor, when he has Hamm exclaim: "My kingdom for a nightman." This is Richard II about to die, and it's also is a chess player wishing for the return of his knight. Not just any chess player, but one who is Black, because he needs a piece that is the color of night.
The literary critic Harold Bloom considered Hamm to be an allusion to Hamlet, as in his line: "Yet I hesitate, I hesitate to... to end."
EgoPo's version, directed by Lane Savadove, accentuates two other aspects. One is the idea of Hamm as a ham actor. This interpretation gives a new meaning to a line that Hamm utters near the start and at the end of Endgame: "Me, to play." This is commonly an allusion to chess, but here it's Hamm introducing his own highly-theatrical performance.
Savadove also embraces the suggestion that the play is about love, and how some people are so afraid to show that emotion that they turn, instead, to criticizing each other.
Savadove renders Endgame relevant to contemporary Americans by setting it in a 1970s-type basement recreation room that has gone to seed. Old TVs, lamps, encyclopedias, a clothes washer and dryer clutter the space. "When I think of what desolation is to Americans," Savadove explains, "I think of faded plastic and vinyl, I think of years of pointless hoarding."
These innovations add new dimensions to a classic work. They also subtract. Now we are less aware of an impending destruction of our society, or of the world.
The two main characters, mutually dependent, have been fighting for years and continue to do so as the play progresses. Hamm is blind and confined to a chair, unable to walk; Clov has a strange malady that renders him unable to sit down. Clov repeatedly wants to leave but never seems able to do so. Theatergoers may be reminded of the musical Grey Gardens, about two real-life women in a similar situation.
Humor is expressed in the outrageous insults hurled by Hamm and Clov to each other, and also with more intellectual wordplay, as when one character says, "Look at my eyes," and the other replies: "Pulling back the lids?" This joke works best when staged as Beckett wrote it, with two people living inside lidded trash cans.
Ed Swidey portrays Hamm with panache but not enough fragility. We don't sufficiently feel his infirmity or his imminent death. Doug Greene as Clov creates a characterization totally different from his previous personae: He's awkward and quite appealing. Ann Gundersheimer and J. Center are fine as Hamm's legless parents, who live in a washer and a dryer. The impressive set, designed by Dan Soule, is a major player in the drama.
In the end, this version of Endgame is provocative, but of course it's not the last word.♦
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by by Julius Ferraro, click here.