Tragedy and Silence in Beckett’s Endgame and Bond’s Lear
Neither Samuel Beckett’s Endgame nor Edward Bond’s Lear are described by their authors as tragedies, and it seems unlikely that Aristotle would recognise them as such. Nevertheless, both writers draw self-consciously on elements of classical tragedy – though with different aesthetic and moral intentions, and with strikingly different results. In this essay, I will discuss the ways in which Beckett and Bond have adapted the model of classical tragedy, as outlined by Aristotle, to reinvent the genre for the modern era. At the same time, I want to explore the theme of silence. This is a key idea in both plays, but it is interpreted very differently by the two writers in their diverse tragic schemes.
Thanks in no small part to Beckett and Bond, tragicomedy has been the dominant theatrical genre of the last half-century – so much so that it has become an almost meaningless catch-all term to describe any play which combines sad and funny elements. However, both Lear and Endgame can properly be described as tragicomedies, as recent productions make clear. A review of the revival of Lear at the Sheffield Crucible states: ‘If Shakespeare’s Lear blurred the line between high tragedy and black comedy then Edward Bond removes that line completely’ (Highfield, 2005). Meanwhile, the programme notes for the Oslo Shakespeare Company’s Endgame advise: ‘The danger any production of Beckett faces is trying to steer the correct course between the Scylla of taking him too seriously and the Charybdis of not taking him seriously enough’ (Oslo Shakespeare Company, 2004).
This ambiguity is succinctly summed up by Nell in Endgame: ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ (p.101). In fact, the characters in Endgame comment on the farcical nature of their unhappy existence: ‘Why this farce, day after day?’ asks Nell (p.99) after the pitiful pantomime of her and Nagg’s attempt to kiss, and her words are echoed a few minutes later by Clov (p.107). To underline the point, Beckett introduces many moments of farcical action (which are much more apparent in a stage production than on the page). Clov’s attempts to kill a flea by pouring insecticide powder down his trousers (p.108) is a particularly gleeful example.
For Aristotle, this would be the lowest form of comedy. According to his definitions: ‘Comedy aims at representing men as worse.than in actual life’ (Cooper ed., 1997). Beckett emphatically does this: it is hard to imagine characters depicted in a worse state than Nagg and Nell, human waste confined to a dustbin. Hamm himself is almost as grotesque, a sick, blind and unpleasant man confined to a wheelchair. Yet he is well aware of his role as a tragic hero: ‘Can there be misery loftier than mine?’ he asks in almost his first words (p.93). ‘No doubt. Formerly. But now?’ The elevated tragic heroes of Aristotle’s age are no more: Beckett makes us consider the tragedy of man in his most degenerate state. He later mocks the conventions of classical tragedy: ‘Did you never hear an aside?’; ‘I’m warming up for my final soliloquy.’; ‘More complications! Not an underplot, I trust.’ (p.130). Such conventions provide a meaning and an order which is conspicuously lacking in Beckett’s absurd universe.
Hamm’s blindness evokes the greatest of classical tragic heroes, Oedipus (while simultaneously creating comedy through this juxtaposition). This is a quality which Bond’s Lear also shares. In Shakespeare’s version, it is Gloucester who is blinded. Bond changes this in order to focus the tragedy on Lear himself. Lear’s stature as a tragic hero in the classical mould is more straightforward than Hamm’s: he is a king, and the sufferings he undergoes are of a magnitude which Aristotle would recognise. Indeed, the character of King Lear is already firmly established as a tragic hero from Shakespeare’s version, however much Bond may depart from this.
Bond’s play depends upon many of the essential elements of tragedy as outlined by Aristotle: the ‘Reversal of Fortune’ (at the beginning of the play Lear is a king ordering the building of the wall; at the end he is with the peasants trying to tear it down), ‘Recognition. a change from ignorance to knowledge’ (‘I knew nothing, saw nothing, learnt nothing’ (p.74) Lear realises, while his blindness, like Oedipus’, gives him insight), the ‘Scene of Suffering’ (too numerous to mention in what remains one of the most violent plays ever written).
Yet Bond undercuts these tragic moments as explicitly as Beckett does. The greatest ‘Scene of Suffering’ – the blinding of Lear – is also played as a grotesque piece of comedy. The Fourth Prisoner, with his scientific device for removing human eyeballs ‘based on a scouting toy I had as a boy’ (p.77), recalls the popular literary type of the mad professor, or the quack doctor common in commedia del arte. Bond’s method here, however, is derived not from Beckett but from Bertholt Brecht. It is an alienation device, designed to prevent our emotional identification with the character and instead make us consider and evaluate the situation from a detached perspective.
The cathartic emotions of pity and fear which, according to Aristotle, tragedy should provoke is antithetical to Bond’s purpose. He does not want us to empathise with his characters’ suffering on a personal level (although, as with Brecht, the power of his writing often makes this unavoidable) but to understand and respond to the social and political structures which have caused them. Paradoxically, pity is the emotion which Lear claims is vital: ‘You take too much pity out of me, if there’s no pity I shall die of this grief,’ (p.80), ‘Our lives are awkward and fragile and we have only one thing to keep us sane: pity, and the man without pity is mad’ (p.98). (‘You only understand self-pity,’ Cordelia immediately counters, forcing us to re-evaluate what Lear has just said.)
Beckett, by contrast, does invite us to feel tragic pity for his characters. ‘Did anyone ever have pity on me?’ (p.130), Hamm asks. On one level, this is asked petulantly and self-pityingly. Yet it is also an appeal to the audience, not to look down on and laugh at him and his sufferings, but to identify with him as we would with the hero of a classical tragedy. After all, Beckett sees Hamm and his fellow characters’ situation as a representation of the essence of all human existence: as Aristotle explains, ‘pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves’ (Cooper ed., 1997)
However, Endgame offers none of the consolations which classical tragedy provides. For Aristotle, tragedy consists of action which must have a beginning, a middle and an end. If nothing else, therefore, the end of the play brings us a sense of relief because the characters’ tribulations are finally over (or, in the case of Bond’s epic theatre, because we have learnt something). Edward Bond, who is a vociferous critic of Beckett, complains: ‘This is not the case with the theatre of the absurd. Here, life has been deprived of meaning: there is a beginning and an end, but no middle’ (Bond, 2000). In fact Endgame, like much of Beckett’s work, is one long ending which never quite comes. Its title, taken from chess, describes the final stages of a game which are entirely predictable, and therefore meaningless.
In this case, the game continues in an interminable stalemate. Beckett denies his characters, and the audience, the comfort of a conclusion. ‘Have you not had enough?'(p.94), ‘Do you not think this has gone on long enough?’ (p.114) Hamm asks Clov. Each time Clov instinctively replies ‘Yes!’. For Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell, even death would be preferable to a continuation of their current situation. When Hamm threatens to give him nothing more to eat, Clov seems happy with the prospect of starving to death. Hamm quickly comes up with a crueller threat: ‘I’ll give you just enough to keep you from dying’ (p.95). Although Nell appears to be dead by the end of the play, this cannot be seen as any sort of closure. Chances are they thought she was dead yesterday as well – it would be hard to tell anyway.