by Samuel Beckett
Lorenzo Society, Nasty Shadows Theatre Co., Memorial Hall
Samuel Beckett's great plays -- Waiting for Godot and Endgame are the ones I think of first -- are deceptively simple, and look on the page as though there wouldn't be much to putting them on. Few characters, rudimentary sets, pretty simple props, no big complicated scenes, no passionate declamation. They seem almost as if they'd play themselves. But of course that's a suicidal error: they're as challenging as anything in the repertoire, and every time I see a production I'm afraid it'll be one where nobody noticed how hard they are, how much attention they take, how crucial timing and intonation and physical acting are.
That's why I was so relieved when, about five minutes into the UNBSJ-based production of Endgame which did a one-night stand at Memorial Hall last week, I realized that this company had taken the play as seriously, and had spent as much imagination and energy on it, as in any Beckett production I'd ever seen. As the lights went down at the end to no curtain call, leaving us abandoned in the hall, applauding to the silent, empty stage, I realized that not only had I had this marvelous script brought to life for me, I'd been enabled to see it in a way I'd never thought about before.
Endgame is, of course, a play about the end of everything, the paring away of the world, leaving its characters, and us, with nothing but our sour souls and the knowledge that this is the whimper the world ends with. Hamm, the focus of the play, is confined to his chair, unable to stand, unable to see, and completely dependent on Clov, over whom he is totally dominant, ordering him back and forth with an empty imperiousness that only someone dealing with a decrepit and dying parent could ever understand. Clov understands: barely able to walk, and completely unable to defy or leave his father, he follows orders, endlessly and without hope. This excoriatingly cruel and excruciatingly funny relationship is punctuated, occasionally, by Nagg and Nell, Hamm's even more aged and decrepit parents, ensconced in rubbish bins, whose tops occasionally rise so that they can show us how things might be even worse.
Robert Moore, who directed and who also plays Hamm, has taken the bare bones of Beckett's script and, rather than putting flesh on them, has polished them to a high sheen. His characterization of Hamm is restrained and at the same time passionate. His black spectacles -- rather like welder's goggles -- make him a sort of malignant insect, waving his hands about eloquently in their open-fingered gloves. Mostly, what we get of Hamm is his wonderfully modulated voice, from a barely-audible clenched-teeth whisper to a violent, sudden shout of rage. Moore makes Hamm into a completely magnetic figure: his self-regarding suffering ("Can there be misery . . . loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now?") somehow becomes like some awful accident you can't help looking at, in his chair the still center of the world. Scott Shannon, on the other hand, makes Clov almost as riveting by moving about, with his halting, stiff-legged, painful walk, and the equally stiff mental processes, as he moves back and forth across the stage, mechanically, forgetting, each time he fruitlessly looks "out" the too-high windows, that he needs the stepladder to do it, one is reminded of a particularly painful clown act: Emmett Kelly in some purgatory at the end of all things.
For this production the rubbish bins containing Nagg and Nell were set down just in front of the stage, where in order to raise or lower the lids Clov has to bend painfully and precariously forward, making this perhaps the only time I've ever seen the height of the stage in Memorial Hall as an advantage. Chris Stacey's Nagg is powerful in exactly the way I think Beckett would have wanted: stark white, with a white headscarf, chewing absently, and delivering what must be the most famous joke in Beckett with genuine power -- the story of the tailor, which ends, as everyone remembers:
"God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it's indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months!"Alicia McLaughlin's Nell, similarly, strikes the Beckett chord: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. . . . Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more."
(Tailor's voice, scandalized.)
"But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look--- (disdainful gesture, disgustedly) ---at the world--- (Pause.) and look--- (loving gesture, proudly) ---at my TROUSERS!"
But, of course, we do, out there in the audience that Clov surveys with his telescope, muttering "I see . . . a multitude . . . in transports . . . of joy," then looks at the instrument: "That's what I call a magnifier."
What struck me most strongly about this performance of the script was that it is not only a play set in some unimaginable future when the world itself is expiring (out the windows there's nothing but grey; "zero," reports Clov (except, of course, for the ambiguous report near the end that there may be a small boy out there, "a potential procreator" to maintain the hopeless procession of suffering and continuing). At the same time Endgame is a play about the end of one person: about the unavoidable self-created loneliness of the old and dying, the way someone's world contracts inexorably until there's nothing left but one person's suffering, and the others in the world around are seen only as extensions of one's own existence. Clov's utter subjection, his inability even to leave, are instantly recognizable to anyone tied to a dying parent. "There's one thing I'll never understand," he says, "Why I always obey you. Can you explain that to me?" Hamm's implausible explanation -- "No . . . Perhaps it's compassion. . . . A kind of great compassion," gets the ironic laugh, of course, and yet at the same time the shock of recognition.
As always in Beckett, in the teeth of this clear-sighted, cold acceptance of the falsity of hope and optimism and love, hope and optimism and, yes, love somehow survive in the silences and the jokes. The Lorenzo Society and the Nasty Shadows Theatre Co. should be thanked for giving us all the opportunity to live through Endgame, to experience what Richard Ellman is quoted as describing in the program notes: ". . . his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences [which] cannot help but stave off the void."