How did the great absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) develop his bleak, bemused take on the universe?
Beckett’s life contains clues. He grew up in impoverished Ireland under British colonial rule and saw the Catholic/Protestant partition of the island. He then traveled in Germany during Hitler’s rise, settled in Paris and fled when the Nazis came. He ultimately found artistic freedom through writing in French, distancing himself from the weighty English literary tradition.
Waiting for Godot, first staged in 1953, is the classic on which Beckett’s reputation rests. But—as any college drama student knows—Beckett wrote another famous play, Endgame (Fin de partie, if you prefer French), soon afterward, in 1957.
Endgame is staged far less often than the play’s rather awesome reputation might suggest. Chances are most readers of this article have never seen it.
But Ed Claudio is out to change that. Claudio and the Actor’s Theatre were the only ones in town to honor the 50th anniversary of Godot by staging it. The current production of Endgame is basically a matching set piece.
The play’s title recalls the closing phase of a chess game, in which both sides have been reduced to a few pieces. Beckett’s script features four characters, each of whom is stuck. The imperious, manipulative Hamm (Ed Claudio, in a marvelous performance) can’t see or stand. Clov (son Michael Claudio, also good) limps around, glumly following Hamm’s orders—Clov can’t sit. Nearby are a pair of ash cans containing Nagg (Mark Heckman) and Nell (Beth Edwards), who can’t get out. Hamm periodically wearies of their interjections and darkly orders Clov to “bottle them,” or slam down the ash-can lids.
The setting is some remote, gray, catastrophic world. Clov periodically peers out the windows, but nothing’s happening—outside or in. Yet, from this stalemate, Beckett conjures up remarkable exchanges, some wickedly funny, some playing off lines by Shakespeare and others opening into powerful monologues.
It’s a very difficult play to bring off, more so than Godot. Co-directors Anthony D’Juan and Michael Garbarini give this challenging script a good ride, using Ed Claudio’s powerful presence (alternately pleading and dictatorial) to powerful effect. I wanted to see a little more of Clov’s side of this dependent, dead-end relationship—but that’s a quibble. This is a well-executed little production of a famous yet often underappreciated play—and that’s a rare and rather valuable thing, something you probably ought to experience and appreciate yourself.