Beckett’s Endgame Is Spinach for the Mind

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Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Any serious student of theater acknowledges that Samuel Beckett is a major playwright of the 20th century. The Irish born Beckett lived for many years in France and wrote many of his plays originally in French only later translating them into English.

Yet, it is sometimes hard to anticipate with pleasure seeing a Beckett play. It is rather like eating spinach or kale – good for you but not necessarily enjoyable. His works express a view of the world that can be disheartening and can force you to think about ideas that you would rather avoid. So, like spinach, Beckett is good for the intellect even if we would prefer to avoid it.

Endgame, which is now at Long Wharf Theater through Sunday, Feb. 5, is one of his greatest works. This production, directed by Gordon Edelstein delivers the goods. He manages to find both the humor and the humanity in the work while not subverting Beckett’s point of view. Beckett, by the way was very insistent that his works be presented as written (including stage directions and casting) often causing productions that attempted liberties to receive “cease and desist orders.” The Beckett estate continues the practice.

The first character we meet is Clov, an elderly servant who enters what appears to be basement filled with the detritus of life – broken furniture, books and other things scattered on the floor. He proceeds through a ritual of opening the curtains on the two high, small windows, then returning to look out each clouded window.  He reappears pushing a large object covered in a sheet, on a wheeled base.

After finally removing the sheet, we meet Hamm – an elderly blind man seated on a dilapidated arm chair. Hamm is obviously the master; he cannot move and is therefore dependent on Clov, who he summons with a shrill, loud whistle. These two have been together a long time. We learn that the two large boxes on the side of the stage are where Hamm’s elderly parents reside – Nell, his mother and Nagg, his father. By the way, Clov and Nagg are all words for nails in different languages.

The action that occurs is much less important than the conversations. In reality not much occurs. Hamm orders Clov about, and Clov sometimes retreats to “the kitchen;” Nagg and Nell reminisce and Nell dies and Clov finally leaves for good.

What causes some literary experts to consider Endgame the greatest play of the 20th century is the dialogue. It includes humor, elements of poetry, literary and biblical references and philosophy.

It forces us to confront a myriad of questions we would prefer to avoid – is life simply a replication of meaningless activities? What is life? What is death? What is the relationship between people? Is the world ending?  The title, which is only an approximate of the original French title refers to the term used for the strategies and moves made at the end of a chess game. So are we all just part of a chess game played by God?

Lynn Cohen and Joe Grifasi. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Each audience member will find his or her own meaning in this work. Certainly it was influenced by the events of the 1940s and 50s; the atrocities of WWII, the development of the atomic bomb and weapons of mass destruction, existential philosophy, and even the “God is dead” idea. (Beckett only began writing plays after WWII which he spent in France working as an ambulance driver in in Saint-Lȏ, near Omaha beach. It was one of the hardest hit cities during the war; few buildings survived.)

The set by Eugene Lee is brilliant, but we can argue what it is: simply a basement in a home, a prison, a morgue, a bomb shelter, or even purgatory. It seems no one populates the outside world – we know that from one window Clov can see water and from the other land. But there is no mention of other living things except a possible flea and a rat.

What is the meaning of the various disabilities the characters have. Hamm is blind and cannot rise from the chair; he depends on Clov to move the chair around. Clov can stand but apparently cannot sit. Nagg and Nell seem almost disembodied – they do not have legs?  Even though their crates are side by side, it is almost impossible for them to reach or touch each other.

Each is dependent on the other – Hamm needs Clov for food, water and movement; Clov needs Hamm for food, and Nell and Nagg need each other from scratching as well as need Clov and Hamm for food.

The plot is simply will Clov leave Hamm?

Any production needs excellent performances and direction to hold the audience’s interest. In addition to Edelstein’s fine direction we also have excellent performances. Lynn Cohen gives us a flirtatious and optimistic Nell while Joe Grifasi gives us a sometimes exasperated Nagg with an occasional touch of an Irish accent. While Cohen only appears in one short part of the play, Grifasi is in several scenes; each time you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Brian Dennehy. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.


But the majority of the play rests of Reg E. Cathey as Clov and Brian Dennehy as Hamm. Again, it is hard to fault either’s characterization.  Cathey shows us Clov as resigned and subservient but with a spark of rebellion within.  Dennehy who has the most dialogue is imperial and impervious to those around him.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design gives us clues to the outside world – is it sunny, cloudy, day or night.  Kaye Voyce designed costumes that look well worn. I was surprised to see no credit for sound design because sound plays an important role in the production. From the piercing opening sound to the shrill whistles to the slamming doors, sound is an essential part of this universe.

Endgame is fascinating because it is open to so many interpretations. Just check the internet and you will find a wide variety of interpretations, but it is more fun to discuss it with someone and develop your own meanings.

Endgame is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Sunday, Feb. 5. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-7282 or 800-782-8497.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publicatons and


  1. Thank you for all this backstory! Have tics for Saturday & very excited! Stay well busy woman, comrade Susan


  2. Beautiful and meaningful review. Thanks Genevieve

    On Thu, Feb 2, 2017 at 11:15 AM, Two on the Aisle wrote:

    > Two on the Aisle posted: ” By Karen Isaacs Any serious student of theater > acknowledges that Samuel Beckett is a major playwright of the 20th century. > The Irish born Beckett lived for many years in France and wrote many of his > plays originally in French only later translating th” >

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