The Play of Light and Set in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame

The Play of Light and Set in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame

A. Introduction

Samuel Beckett’s work has been as influential as it has been puzzling and constantly under the microscope of one scholar or another. His questions on existence, human relations and self-awareness have been passed to his audience through the most simply complicated plays, resulting to the even bigger question of ‘what is Beckett trying to tell us?’ The reason for his considerable impact in the literary and psychoanalytical world is merely the object of his work. Beckett touches issues, untouched by most, due to their fragility, yet he manipulates, outlines and performs these delicate matters to the vulnerable eye and ear of his audience.

In order to bring forth his notions, he uses a language completely new to the ear, yet familiar to the complicated mind, and also employs the unconsciousness of a viewer by creating a visual situation that cannot be there, even though it is absolutely natural that it is. One could assume that Beckett shaped Endgame and several other plays, on the very image of an actual game-play. He uses methods that arouse the most sensitive emotions of a man, integrating happiness with sadness, laughter with cry, light with darkness; he illustrates life through its biggest conflicts. In order to do so, he creates an atmosphere that is so detached from this world, it cannot be realistic, yet the sense created by the entire play, is something absolutely natural, for the unconscious.

This research is based upon the very issue of Beckett’s visual adaptation of his play Endgame, largely concerned with the existence of man within himself and the co-existence of humans in a world as a whole. In addition to the caustic dialogues and monologues, the stage and its lighting, create an effect of placing the character and the audience in another world – an elusive and enclosed world. The time/space given to this play, by its very writer, has created many questions and debates as to what it represents and reflects, within the entire performance. After all, in Beckett’s theatrical technique “the meaning lies in, rather than hovering above or beyond the components” (Levy, 2002, p. 25); accordingly the meaning of Endgame varies amongst the many interpretations the language has in association with the setting.

The play begins with a description of the set,

Bare interior.

Grey Light.

Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn.

Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins.

Centre, in an armchair on castors, covered with an old sheet, Hamm. (Beckett, 1957).

Within this set the ‘play’ of Hamm and Clov, Nagg and Nell will take place; in here they will be troubled about the past, future and present. The feeling that Hamm rules this habitat prevails, Clov is his servant and helper, as Hamm is blind and confined to a chair. Nagg and Nell are Hamm’s parents; we only see their torsos, peering out of the ashbins on the front left of the stage. Restricted in these positions they talk of a world outside that once was and gradually, no longer is. Their only contact with it, are the two windows from which earth and water was once seen, but finally, not even that. Their only lighting is one ray of grey light peering through one of the windows. The play begins with Hamm’s removal of the sheet covering him and ends with the sheet covering him back up. In short, all of these components of space and of action contribute to an overall suggestion to certain major issues imposed on man, mostly regarding the circular movements in life.

B. An Ambiguous set

a. A Reflection of the Genesis

Primarily, an interpretation given to the environment of the play is the link it carries with the story of the Genesis. Though the Genesis is the biblical interpretation of the creation of the world, the Endgame is thought to be the story in reversed sequence. The time is “Zero” (Beckett, 1957) and looking out the windows at first Clov would see the earth and the water and further on the course of the play he would see nothing. As Lyons explains Beckett “begins with a world which divides light and darkness and separates land and water and moves towards obscure greyness and void.” (1983, p. 62-3).

With this in mind, the play takes on a course towards nothingness. Nothing will be produced outside, no seasons will change, no one will come, and so nothing changes inside as well. Even though attempts have been made on parts of outsiders to insinuate that life still exists, they were all extinguished as to be sure that nothing would come, that this would be the end of this game. For instance a flea intrudes, this is taken as a very uncommon phenomenon, and action for its elimination is immediately taken. This takes on the entire unfolding of the play, until there are even less breathing than there were on the opening of the curtain.

The world of the play is as described by Hale “a world coming to its end” (1992, p. 72) . Everything is in a constant decline, this is the only recurring action of the play, and this reversed evolution of life can be the very issue raised in the entire play in terms of dialogue as well as setting.

b. The interior of a mind

Another reading of the play within this space, is that of the reflection of a human mind placed onstage and acted out by the elements of a man’s psych. According to Kozdon this was an interpretation confirmed by Beckett in his own productions of the play: “At the world premiere, the stage set by Jacque Noel was similar to a huge empty skull and the two windows reminiscent of empty eye sockets.”(2005, p. 111) .

Similarly, Kozdon explains how each character is a mirroring of an element in the unconscious: “Clov corresponds mainly to the ego, […] Hamm can be largely interpreted as the id. […] Nagg and Nell personify the superego representing the conscience.” (2005, p. 111) . All in all this is a very clear apprehension of the play, yet an even more precise assumption would be the placing of this entire universe of mind within Hamm’s head.

Hamm is clearly placed as the authoritarian image of the group; being the one seated in the middle of the room, having a core-like position, on a wheelchair described similarly to a throne, he dictates, orders and decides on the groups movements and decisions. Much like Kozdon explains, Hamm interacts with Clov as though he is his ego, never letting him sit, as he is clearly too proud of himself, allowing him to control his area by circulating him in the room, Clov behaves as Hamm’s extension of the legs and eyes he doesn’t have. Furthermore, Nagg and Nell seem to respond to Hamm’s past and memories, a situation he sometimes craves and on other occasions suppresses and lids.

Consequently, the entire notion of the stage being the depiction of Hamm’s psych becomes even clearer by the situation of hiding and exposing a self. If the play is based upon the exposure of a dying consciousness within a disintegrating universe, as Hale explains in the New Casebook on Waiting for Godot and Endgame, (1992, p. 75) then one can find a scaling of this exposure in the individual elements of the mind; “The characters are provided with various ‘lids’ which reveal or unveil […] opening lids suggest a person looking inside himself, and a stage being opened and exposed to the audience” (Levy, 2002, p.32) .

Finally, as Cohn illustrates, Beckett’s work insists upon the definition of a man as ‘a thing that thinks’, a man is described as a person ‘contaminated’ with the knowledge within consciousness; in Endgame this ‘thing that thinks’ is the stage and the consciousness of it, found within the characters.

c. The underground shelter

Moreover, another common version of Beckett’s meaning in the set is that of it being a shelter. This approach comes from the fact that the room is buried almost completely underground, giving the sense that the characters are hiding from something or someone. No one ever comes near the ‘shelter’ and anything living is considered to be a threat. The only views to the outside world are the two small windows, very high up. All these elements provide the illusion of a camouflage. The characters within this set give the impression, through their dialogues, of being the only survivors of a holocaust – even their comments imply that they are the only remaining, living organisms on this planet; “Hamm (very perturbed): But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God! […] Hamm: Outside of here it’s death.” (Beckett, 1957) .

Aside from the fact that the set and the four characters actions connote a state of hiding, Beckett wrote Endgame at a time when the shelters of WWII were still very vivid memories. (Hale, 1992, p. 72) . Furthermore as illustrated by Culìk when studying the birth of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ – which many consider Beckett to have written within its context– the trauma left by living under the threat of nuclear annihilation after 1945, can not be less than an important factor for the uprising of new ideas in the arts (2000) .

d. A game of chess

Endgame is considered to have taken its title from the last part of the game of chess (Davies, 2001), where there comes a point towards the ending when the process is useless, as the result is clear, and the player who lost is in the state of stalemate. Hamm “is a king in a chess-game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves.” (Beckett in interview, 1967)

Much like the pieces on a chessboard, the characters of the play have very precise and limited movements. Also the structure of the entire play is set on a chessboard from the beginning, due to the connotations from the title and because of the constant definition of boundaries from Hamm’s obsession to move around and touch the walls. This choice in canvas, is suggested by Hale to bring to mind a “painting in linear perspective” (1992, p. 84), in this case the entire set would have a point of perspective unseen to the eye, and would dramatize their effect of loss and limit their circulation within these four walls, endlessly.

C. A specific light

a. Beckett’s directions on light

From the beginning of the play and throughout its course, the light takes on an expressionistic part. The lighting of the room is always the same; as described by Beckett “Grey Light.” (1957) is the initial stage direction, and the source of it illustrated by Clov.

Beckett finds great essence in the remaining of the lighting in that way. It cannot change, it has not been changed so far and nor will it in the future. The inability for a natural phenomenon such as light to change is the reflection of the inability of everything else to change. Hamm is inquiring Clov on any changes that might be taking place in the outside world; he asks for any change in the landscape and in the sun, but the sun is “Zero”, which doesn’t mean night apparently, yet it just means that all is “Gray.” All is gray and suffocating, to Hamm this is exaggerating, yet the cruelness of such a neutral light is pointed out through Clov’s repetition: “Gray. (Lowering the telescope, turning towards Hamm, louder) Gray! (Pause still louder.) GRRAY! (Pause. He gets down, approaches Hamm from behind, whispers in his ear.)” (Beckett, 1957) . As described by Levy, the attention drawn on such a light is the very unnaturalness of it (2002, p. 40) .

b. The dramatic effect of light

The intensity of such a light, which wraps the entire set, can do no more than underline the stillness of things and add to the dramatic effect, the cemented walls already carry. Light can represent life, existence and being, as the loss of light immediately connotes loss of life. In addition to this common use of symbolism in literature, Beckett adds the comment by Clov: “I see my light dying.” (1957); Clov waits for his light to die, to go out, as at the same time waits for his own death and ending.

The emission of light adds to the desperation of the four characters. Hamm searches for a ray of light to touch his face, and Clov extinguishes that aspiration by confirming that there is no light touching his face, in an almost revengeful way, one might think. Light, which represents sight and insight, according to Levy (2002, p. 40) is as neutral and dark as Hamm’s sight.

D. Conclusion

Finally, the conclusions drawn by the by the studies around Beckett’s work, is primarily the lack of a clear cut resolution from his plays, in the aspect of language, set or acting. Even though one can identify with the fact that this play, Endgame, is a representation of a life caught in a loop, or of the nothingness and vanity that surrounds life in general, nonetheless, each results in his own conclusion for the depiction of the play within such a set.

Whether the set is a reflection of the interior of a human psych, entrapped in the cycle of ending, or the carefully arranged construction of a game of chess, or even a shelter of protection from any outside threats; the play uses up the audience’s anxiety and eagerness without even resulting to an ending. Therefore creating a reproduction of such questions within the viewer’s psych.

Beckett brings forth the vanity and loneliness of one, through the use of simple and straightforward language as well as with the adaptation of it in a setting of absolute decay and misery. By using the components of an entire play, each of them having a specifically constructed role, he visually depicts an oeuvre that is burdened with so much, yet performed in the most minimalistic manner. By creating the fragments within both dialogues and visual imagery, he raises questions that remain unanswered. He prolongs the outcome of the play, by passing it to his audience, therefore creating an even bigger cycle, which of course has no beginning and no end, no precise question and no precise answer.

E. Works Cited

Beckett, S. (1957). Endgame. Retrieved June 9, 2007, from <;

Beer, A. (1980). Beckett in Oxford the San Quentin drama workshop Krapp’s last tape and Endgame, directed by Samuel Beckett. Journal of Beckett studies. Retrieved January 28, 2008, from <;

Cohn, R. (1965). Philosophical fragments in the works of Samuel Beckett. Samuel Beckett: a collection of critical essays. New Jersey: Spectrum Books

Culìk, J. (2000). The West and the East. The theatre of the absurd. Retrieved January 24, 2008, from <;

Davies, P. (2001). Endgame. The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 24, 2008, from <;

Hale, A. J. (1992).  Endgame: ‘How are your eyes?  New casebook on Waiting for Godot and Endgame. London: Macmillan.

Hugill, A. (1992). Beckett, Duchamp and chess in the 1930’s. Retrieved January 19, 2008, from <;

Kozdon, S. (2005). Memory in Samuel Beckett’s plays: a psychological approach. Berlin: LIT Verlag

Levy, S. (2002). Samuel Beckett’s self-referential drama: the sensitive chaos. Sussex: Sussex Academic Press

Lyons, R. C. (1983). Endgame. Samuel Beckett. London: Macmillan

Noguchi, R. (1983). Style and strategy in ‘Endgame’. Journal of Beckett Studies. Retrieved January 21, 2008, from <;

Published in Alexandros Stamatelatos book: It’s not an Imitation It’s a Rubbing