By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / April 20, 2010
Endgame — that’s us. At every level, checkmate threatens — political, environmental, cultural. Samuel Beckett’s 104th birthday last week brought to mind a chapter I had written in The Education of Arnold Hitler. Arnold, new at Harvard, lands the part of Hamm in a university production of Beckett’s masterpiece, and along with it takes a Beckett class with Stanley Cavell. If you don’t know the play, here’s a good introduction — or a reminder if you do.
Arnold’s spring ‘70 semester consisted primarily of Endgame. His other courses — French, Biology, the History of American Fascism — faded into the background in the intensity of its dark light. Odd as Hamm was, it was easy to “get into” him, so many were the nodes of correspondence. That there was to be “no more pain-killer” was frightening, yet somehow bracing. It meshed with Nell’s observation that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” And unhappiness seemed to be the name of the human game, as it was of Arnold’s. Hamm asks Clov if his father is dead.
(Clov raises the lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, looks into it. Pause.)
Clov: Doesn’t look like it.
(He closes the lid, straightens up.)
Hamm: What’s he doing?
(Clov raises the lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, looks into it. Pause.)
Clov: He’s crying.
(He closes the lid, straightens up.)
Hamm: Then he’s living.
Then he’s living. If he’s crying, he’s living. What a definition, Arnold thought. For all its weirdness, this may be the most realistic play ever written. “The end is in the beginning.” Surely that must be true. But what would that mean for him? A successful career as some kind of a star? Or the end as in the very beginning, when George né Hitler, accursed progenitor, fornicated between the one and a half legs of Anna Giardini, and created another neighing of the H-name. “Scoundrel!” Hamm cries, “Why did you engender me?”
Nagg: I didn’t know.
Hamm: What? What didn’t you know?
Nagg: That it’d be you.
But he did. George did know. He just didn’t think. And what is he thinking now, my once-father? Two short letters since I’ve been here. Four unanswered. Has he forgotten me?
“We let you cry. Then we moved out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace…
Arnold shuddered in recognition.
For all the joy and labor of nightly work, the highlight of the six weeks was a visit, late in the rehearsal schedule, by Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Professor of Philosophy, literary and film critic, and Ruby’s faculty advisor on the Endgame project — her senior thesis. Ruby, along with Ed Gould, her stage manager, took the night “off” to sit around at Cavell’s house with the cast — Arnold S. Held, Hugh Laffler, the physicist dwarf, and Ted Bair, Clov, a slight and wrinkled graduate student at the Divinity School, to discuss the play.
The initial discussion was somewhat diffuse. Cavell, served up some mean hot chocolate on the cold, late February night, and asked the students what they thought about the play. Ruby held back. She and her teacher had already been over her feelings — how Hamm’s highhanded cruelty, Clov’s inability to escape, and Nell and Nagg’s garbage cans reflect a world darkened by the shadow of Auschwitz. Arnold began to speak of the chess aspects, how Hamm’s tour of the stage and return to center is like a king imagining the boundaries of the pathetic nine-square territory he commands. Hugh observed that it was not only the chess pieces against each other, or against God, but Beckett forcing us to play the very game we play against the world all our lives — trying to understand — a game we are invariably fated to lose.
The group talked about the language of the play, the verbal surface of universal disrespect, the dialogue among people barely still human. Were the characters human? Cavell wanted to know. Ed, a biology major, remarked that of the genus Homo, all its species, with one exception, were extinct. If we had the others for comparison, he thought we might see what difference sapiens makes — whether these four qualified. If they did make it, they only barely did so, so mutilated were they by whatever catastrophe they had been through. Ruby felt that the characters were not recently destroyed, but were playing out, in especially visible ways, the eternal limitations of the race.
“All right,” Cavell said, but what does it all mean? What does it show? Where are we? None of this should affect your acting, but where are we?”
“In some kind of shelter,” said Hugh. “A bunker.”
“Maybe after an atomic war,” added Ed. “I’m sure Beckett still remembered those blackout nights during the bombings.”
“And — 1957? — what about duck and cover?” All the students laughed at the atomic attack drills they had done in elementary school.
“It’s possible,” said Cavell. Anything’s possible. That’s the maddening, wonderful thing about the play. No metaphor plays out; there are no neat interpretations that entirely fit. Beckett is a tease and a torturer, negating and contradicting any line you can seize upon. His denial of closure produces some very complex effects.”
“If you frustrate closure, you keep everything open,” Ted insisted. “That’s why I think it’s a fundamentally optimistic piece. Dr. Cavell, do you have Beckett’s Nobel Prize citation from last year? There’s something in there…”
Cavell pulled it from the shelf, and handed it to the young theologian.
“Here,” Ted said. “The Committee gave him the prize for his quote ‘combination of paradox and mystery, containing a love of mankind that grows in understanding as it plumbs farther into the depths of abhorrence, a courage of despair, a compassion that has to reach the utmost of suffering to discover that there are no bounds of charity.’”
“I think that’s the only way his sponsors could push it through,” said the dwarf. “You think they would offer a Nobel Prize in despair?”
Arnold listened wide-eyed and vulnerable.
“Wait,” said Cavell. “Let’s go back to the question of where the play takes place.”
“Professor Gilman thinks the shelter is the interior of Hamm’s — or someone’s skull — the two little windows, the greyishness, the id being served by the ego, the repression of memory.” Ruby had taken French lit from Gilman.
“What do you think?” asked Cavell.
“I don’t want to come down in any one place. Trish designed the set exactly as Beckett demanded — no more, no less. A bare interior, two small windows, etc. Non-committal.”
“Well, non-committal is appropriate, given Beckett’s infinite intentions. But I do want to share with you where I think it is and what I think is going on.”
Arnold took out a pad for notes — things that might help his characterization.
“Put that pad away. Nothing I say should affect the acting dynamic you’ve all already discovered. That’s why we had this session so late in the game.”
Cavell paused to refresh the hot chocolates.
“Beckett may want to be inscrutable, but the fact is that his explosion reverberates within the medium of Western culture. So whatever his intention, his work makes all sorts of things jiggle in the soup — and the thing that jiggles most for me is the tale of Noah in Genesis. What do tiny windows, telescopes, ladders and gaffs have in common?”
“They’re all ship-type objects.”
“Exactly. What ship is this? All right. I’ve already said. The Ark. What disaster has just happened?”
“Where are we now in the world?”
“In the Ark.”
“No. Where is the Ark?”
“One window looks out on land, and the other on water.”
“So we’re at some shore. Beached.”
“Who is beached? Who is Ham? One M.”
“One of Noah’s sons.”
“The one who saw him drunk and naked,” added the Divinity Schooler.
“Why did God make the flood?”
“To punish sinful humanity.”
“But what about Noah and his family?”
“They were the remnant — and the animals, too — from which all life was to spring again.”
“Where is Noah? Where is his wife?”
“In the cans?”
“Maybe. What was Noah’s curse on Ham after he saw his father naked?”
“He would have to be a servant to men.”
“No,” said Ted. “That’s what everybody thinks. But if you check, you’ll see that his curse was that Canaan — Ham’s son — would serve.”
“And who is Hamm’s son? Two Ms.”
“And what does Clov do?”
“OK then. A little loose, but a plausible set of reverberations. We’re in the Ark, beached, after the flood — with the destruction of the the entire world outside. Will you grant me this much, so far?”
“Sure,” said Arnold. The rest muttered in agreement.
“Now we get to the interesting part. In Genesis the Lord commanded Noah, father of Ham, to build an ark for pairs of all species to insure the continuance of creation. But here Hamm makes every effort to guarantee that his refuge will support no further life, not even fleas or rats. The play is about an effort to undo, to end something, and in particular to end a curse, the most ordinary curse of man — not so much that he was born and must die, but that he has to justify what comes between — that he is not a beast and not a god: in a word, that he is a man, and alone.
“‘Something is taking its course,’ Clov says.” Arnold didn’t quite know why he offered that. Cavell nodded.
“Something is taking its course. Hamm’s contribution — imitating God — is to see the end of all flesh. But God, unlike Hamm wanted to leave a remnant. Why?”
“Because he couldn’t bear not to be God!” asserted Ruby, the Jewish feminist.
“The answer is unclear,” said Cavell. “To Hamm, as well as to us. What does our Hamm think?”
“He can’t understand why he was chosen,” Arnold responded. “I can’t understand why I was chosen.”
The students took this as a simple donning of character, but Cavell seemed to sense otherwise. “God has reneged on his responsibility,” Arnold continued. “That’s what Hamm thinks.”
“Is that what you think?” asked Ted. The group waited. Arnold was silent.
“My feeling,” said the professor, “is that for Beckett what must end is the mutual dependence of God and the world: this world, animated by its God, must be brought to a conclusion. Hamm’s strategy is to paint the rainbow gray, to undo all covenants and to secure — once and for all — fruitlessness.”
“To perform man’s last disobedience,” Hugh the dwarf injected, taking off on Milton. “What a radical move!”
“To uncreate the world,” Arnold thought, “we’d have to become as gods. If we just stay human, we’ll go on hoping, go on waiting for redemption. What was pictured in Godot. This is really a step beyond.”
“Are you ready for such disobedience?” asked Cavell.
“Why not?” the production’s Clov asked. “It’s what my character says: ‘I can’t be punished any more.’”
Arnold wondered whether he had reached his own limit of punishment. As if in response, Ted, the theologian said,
“The main audience member is God. Beckett’s object is to show God not that he must intervene, or even bear witness to our pain, but that he owes it to us, to our suffering and our perfect faithfulness, to leave forever, to witness nothing more. Not to fulfill, but to dismantle all promises for which we await fulfillment. “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” now means Help me not to believe.” Even Cavell was impressed with Ted’s courageous leap of thought.
“Solitude, emptiness, nothingness, meaninglessness, silence,” Ted continued, “ — these are not the givens of Beckett’s characters but their goal, Hamm’s heroic undertaking.”
“Hamm’s problem — my problem — is that where there’s life, there’s hope. I have to be able to kill hope. It’s only middle game.” Arnold seemed determined.
“You get the prize for suffering in this play,” said Ruby, oblivious to Arnold’s track. “What a curse to be singled out like that.”
Arnold: “The end of the world is threatened, redemption is promised — neither is carried through — and we’re left holding the bag. The real earth is blotted out, sealed away by this universal flood of meaning and hope — Splash, splash, splash, always in the same spot in my head. But only a life without hope, a life without meaning, without justification, without waiting…” Here he paused.
“Is free from the curse of God,” Hugh added softly.
Cavell got up and came back with more chocolate as the students stewed in this toxic brew. “How about a life without hot chocolate?” he asked, and quickly realized the inappropriateness of his levity. In self-castigation he sat down.
“Pascal said that all the evil in the world comes from our inability to sit quietly in a room.”
The remark floated in the silence like a pearl onion in hot chocolate — it didn’t quite fit, but it was the last thing everyone sucked on.
[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]
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