Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Funny Unhappiness

Endgame & Act Without WordsEndgame
by Samuel Beckett

“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.”  ― Samuel Beckett, Endgame

I remember reading this in anticipation of a lecture at the University of Chicago "First Friday' series. The lecturer certainly saw more references in the play to Dante, Descartes and others than I did. I have seen and read the play again since then and I am still trying to decipher a lot of what happens during the action. That is part of what makes Beckett interesting as a playwright for me. It is a play in one act with four characters, written in a style associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. It was originally written in French (entitled Fin de partie); as was his custom, Beckett himself translated it into English. The English title is taken from the last part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left (the French title applies to games besides chess and Beckett lamented the fact that there was no precise English equivalent); Beckett himself was an avid chess player.
In the case of Endgame "Comedy" may be too cheerful a word to use for some of the lighter moments like the episodes in the ashcans. They are part of Mr. Beckett's grim joke on the futility of life. On the whole what Beckett has to say is contrary and nihilistic. But as a writer he can create a mood by using words as incantations. In the Paris Review article "Exorcising Beckett", Lawrence Shainberg claims that according to Beckett the characters' names signify the following: Hamm for Hammer, Clov for clou (the French for nail), Nagg for nagel (the German for nail), and Nell because of its resemblance to the English word nail.  Although the dialogue is often baffling, there is no doubt about the total impression.

Ruby Cohn, in her book Back to Beckett, writes that "Beckett's favorite line in the play is Hamm's deduction from Clov's observation that Nagg is crying: Then he's living." But in Berlin he felt that the most important sentence is Nell's: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." and he directed his play to show the fun of unhappiness. This is a thinking persons drama and in spite of its bleakness we are still here in the twenty-first century reading and puzzling over this brilliant work.

“Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. I can't be punished any more. I'll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. Nice dimensions, nice proportions, I'll lean on the table, and look at the wall, and wait for him to whistle me.” 

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