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The Exhausted in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957)

L’épuisé dans Endgame, de Samuel Beckett (1957)
Adel Bahroun


Cet article explore les implications philosophiques de l’œuvre dramatique de Samuel Beckett et de sa rencontre avec Gilles Deleuze au niveau des sensations et des pensées. Dans Endgame, la vision tragique de l’existence humaine de Beckett entre en résonance avec la perception deleuzienne de l’épuisement du sujet situé en relation avec un état clinique. Le sujet souffre d’un épuisement physiologique et logique. Beckett épuise l’espace pour mettre en scène la lutte existentielle du sujet et les limites de sa volonté dans les confins absurdes de la (post)modernité. Ainsi, la personne assise et épuisée n’aucune possibilité de construire d’autres possibilités d’un monde vivable.

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The tired person can no longer realize, but the exhausted person can no longer possibilize.
Deleuze 1998, 152)

1Beckett’s drama and fiction are consistent points of reference for Deleuze both in his own writing and in his collaborations with Félix Guattari. The most extended encounter between the philosopher and the writer is in the former’s long essay, ‘The Exhausted.’ By looking closely at that essay, a possible reading of Beckett’s Endgame emerges in light of the various philosophies of existence to which it is usually related. In this context, P. J. Murphy has asserted that Beckett’s relationship to philosophers necessitates a major critical reassessment (222). Indeed, ‘it was preferable to read Beckett as addressing man’s alienation and the human condition rather than anything as specific as everyday life in the years of Resistance’ (Perloff 3).

2Audrey Wasser has suggested that the ‘encounter’ between Beckett and Deleuze should be thought of as precisely that: an encounter. As such, she suggests that an encounter has two dimensions: one in the register of sensation, the other in the register of thought. The two dimensions are bound to one another, since the one is the occasion for or the condition of the other. Thus, the very notion of ‘the exhausted’ or of exhaustion implies a state both physiological and logical: an exhaustion of feeling, of power or energy, as well as an exhaustion of alternatives or possibilities. The title Endgame alludes to the game of chess. It implies both the exhaustion of the game’s participants, the players in Beckett’s play, as well as the exhaustion of the possible moves available at any point within the course of play, or of, in this case, the play. In what follows, I examine exhaustion as both physiological and logical, within absurd confines, having to do with both sensation and with language. I then conclude with a reassessment of the place of existential thought in Beckett’s Endgame after the encounter with Deleuze.

3In Endgame, the lines of thoughts on absurdity and exhaustion are intersected. The absurd thinking within confined space exhausts the subject. Beckett draws the dramatic trajectories of entrances and exits, beginnings and ends, and he figures the chaotic function of the subject in an alien milieu. He dramatises existential anxieties that deepen the subject’s futility of thinking, and makes his salvation impossible in a world devoid of meaning. His tragic vision of the human condition refers the audience to controversial views on the complexities of existence. As David Pattie argues, the power of Endgame ‘resides, at least partly, on the infinitely allusive nature of the setting and the text’ (77). The shifts in discourse on hope and despair, love and impotence, and life and death are indices of the subjects’ consciousness of the absurd confines that have led to misery and exhaustion.

4Beckett’s theatre foregrounds the stage which enacts desperations and absurd quests in an exhaustive world. Endgame as a literary work was written in a style associated with the theatre of the absurd, full of intricate structures and complex questions. To quote Martin Esslin, ‘[t]he Theatre of the Absurd shows the world as an incomprehensible place” (4), which makes spectators exhausted too; they cannot comprehend the happenings and the thoughts that have imbued their minds. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus states that ‘[t]he Theatre of the Absurd expresses anxiety and despair that spring from the recognition that man is surrounded by areas of impenetrable darkness, that he can never conduct’ (311). Beckett’s tragedy finds its substance in the kernel of mystery and nothingness. In fact, the impossibility to alter the course of life which resumes the long strife for well-being casts the audience into an absurd theatrical world.

5Beckett rejects the conventions of drama and theatre, producing a one-act play, Endgame, with no plot, no climax, and no resolution. In fact, ‘in any case, it posits tragedy as a potentially exhaustible resource’ (Halpern 747). The characters are dealing with the same old questions and answers, rambling from one controversial issue to another, from one affect to another, following no clear lines of thoughts. They take pauses, interrupt each other, and cannot realise the difference between reason and madness. Subsequently, Endgame can be evaluated as a thoroughly tragic work, the theatrical images exhausting the audiences. This is what ultimately makes the play a perfect depiction of contemporary society plagued with nonsense and nothingness:

‘Exhaustion’ names the precariousness of a present that is always a lived present, the finitude of ideas that must be inscribed in bodies, and the contingency of sense encounters that mark the limits of intelligibility and yet serve as the necessary conditions of thought. (Wasser 133)

6Indeed, the Beckettian subjects have exhausted all logical investments of the space they occupy, running out of potentialities. They are essentially reduced to nothingness.

7The stage directions and the dramatic language inscribe the flaws that reveal the absolute power of the absurd fate hanging over the subject’s efforts. The stage is ‘a claustrophobic interior’ (Beckett 47). The speech acts take place in a ‘bare interior’ under ‘grey light’ that is allowed to dim to make the space gloomy: ‘an armchair on castors, covered with an old sheet,’ ‘two ashbins,’ and ‘small step-ladder’ (11) stand for impotence and paralysis. ‘Brief laugh’ (11) with deep sigh translates existential delirium. There seems to be no barrier with the physical world, although the setting is an enclosed room, all actions can be explored by the audience in an open public sphere. In fact, the boundaries of space and time are two basic determinants of the characters’ outlooks while struggling to unload the burden of the deadly routine and nostalgia, seeking, paradoxically, cathartic transformation and resolution in ‘infinite emptiness’ (Beckett 28).

Hamm. What time is it?
Clov. The same as usual.
Hamm. [Gestures towards the window right.] Have you looked?
Clov. Yes.
Hamm. Well?
Clov. Zero. (13)
Clov. Let’s see. [He looks, moving the telescope.] Zero . . . [he looks]  . . . Zero . . .
[he looks] . . . and zero. (Beckett 25)

8Beckett uses short utterances, raising controversial existential questions on the tyranny of time and vicissitude of human existence on the one hand, and inexistence on the other. Throughout the play, the raised questions remain a tragic dilemma in the mind of the playwright as well as the audience. This is the vanity of human existence when the modes of mutation are impossible to be realised for ‘all life long the same inanities,’ says Clov (Beckett 33). This implements the nihilistic perception of existence in the play. Thus, existential thoughts and queries have exhausted the body. Logical exhaustion intensifies physiological exhaustion.

9Endgame portrays four characters ‘set indoors—locked is probably the more appropriate verb—the limits of this world and the roles the characters pursue within its bounds are now more clearly the limits of the proscenium’ (Brater 384). They are physiologically exhausted. As Deleuze contends in Essays Critical and Clinical, ‘Beckett’s great contribution to logic is to have shown that exhaustion (exhaustivity) does not occur without a certain physiological exhaustion’ (1998, 154). In a subjective world, Hamm, Clov, Nell and Nag are condemned to suffer from multiple tyrannies which result in psychic disintegration and physical disabilities.

Hamm. How are your eyes?
Clov. Bad.
Hamm. How are your eyes?
Clov. Bad.
Hamm. But you can move.
Clov. Yes. (Beckett 14)

10The four characters act like exiles in a drift. Hamm resumes their struggle to avoid the predicament and malaise which have traversed their sensations, heightening their misery:

Can there be misery—[He yawns]—loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now? [pause.] My father? My mother? [pause.] My. . . . dog? [pause.] Oh I am willing to believe they suffer as much as creatures can suffer. But, does that mean their sufferings equal mine? No doubt. (Beckett 12)

11Indeed, Hamm’s rhetorical question underlies sadness, torment, and sorrow, which draws the sympathy of the audience and tires them. In their gaze, acting mechanically in high tension, Hamm and Clov express the density of fussing pessimistic thoughts, and their inability to seize things, and realise the truth about their daily actions. This is the riddle of human existence that Beckett draws in absurd diction, leading his protagonists to no catharsis. Subsequently, they take refuge in repeating themselves derisively, preferring, sometimes, silence as the deep expression of existential vacuity for ‘outside of here it’s death’ (Beckett 15).

12Moreover, Beckett theatricalises the condition of confined bodies—fragmented and exhausted subjectivities. Thus, ‘Beckett’s use of incapacitation underscores the play’s theme of repetitious misery wherein the characters remain utterly stuck’ (Swanson 6). The sole moving, yet vexed, character is Clov. Hamm is seated, blind and paralysed, ‘seems to be asleep,’ ‘very red face,’ with ‘black glasses’ (12). Hamm’s parents Nag and Nell are legless, living in two separate ashbins. From time to time, they raise their covers and speak nonsense. In an oblivious state, Hamm uses a whistle to call his servant Clov. The latter, with his crippled walk and restlessness, feels tired as he is dependent, waiting for his master to whistle him from time to time. Hamm clings bitterly to his servant Clov who tries to leave the room towards a deadly sphere. Actually, Hamm seems to swing between the roles of father and mother to Clov. He prevents Clov from leaving, keeping him worn out. The will to life prevents Hamm from breaking away with Clov, and the contingency of space bounds Clov to Hamm. Both exhaust each other physiologically:

Hamm. Enough, it’s time it ended in the refuge too . . . God I’m tired, I’d be better off in bed. (12)

Clov. I can’t be getting you up and putting you to bed every five minutes, I have things to do. (Beckett 13)

13However, Clov resists his master’s games and shatters his struggle without a final farewell. He unveils the curtains of both windows, and removes the white sheets covering the paralysed Hamm. Then, he constantly uses the ladder to look out onto the sea and the earth from the upper windows and reports the scenery outside, where there is no possibility of survival. He has kept hesitating to leave his master very soon, which, unconsciously, reflects his longing for flight from the exhaustive confined space.

14Beckett dramatises his existential thought and pessimistic attitude that life is a farce, full of routine and anguish: ‘It’s the end of the day like any other day, isn’t it, Clov?’ says Hamm (Beckett 17). Added to that, Clov wonders: ‘why this farce, day after day?’ (Beckett 26). Hamm responds with deep anguish: ‘Routine. One never knows. [pause.] Last night, I saw inside my breast. There was a big sore’ (26). Life is a fictitious game where the will cannot possibilise an alternative, but, rather, maximise the subject’s plunging in the void and sore. In this context, Deleuze argues that ‘Beckett’s characters play with the possible without realizing it’ (Essays Critical and Clinical 153). They have never felt an instant of happiness or a moment of a different life. Only tiredness and emptiness dominate their psychical life. Thus, ‘as such, the possible is supposed to be greater than the real’ (Wasser 126).

15The real world is like hell which, in Beckett’s words, ‘stinks of corpses’ (Endgame 33), where the subject becomes desperate for the loss of the potential of realisation, certainty and stability. Thus, ‘while postmodernists get excited about the loss of stability and certainty, many disempowered people are desperate for those very things’ (Ward 200). Actually, the incessant attempts to find meaning make the postmodern subject, like Hamm, the most exhausted seated person, and thus ‘the body continues to be without organs and does not become an organism in the ordinary sense of the word. It remains fluid and slippery’ (Deleuze 1994, 15). Hamm is a fragmented being who is dissolved in illogical visions.

Hamm. [wearily.] Quite, quiet, you’re keeping me awake. [pause.] Talk softer. [pause.] Talk later. [pause.] If I could sleep I might make love. I’d go into the woods. My eyes would see . . . the sky, the earth. I’d run, run, they wouldn’t catch me. [pause.] Nature! There is something dripping in my head. [pause.] A heart in my head. (Beckett 19)

16Despite their consciousness, the subjects’ attempts to identify themselves result in defeat; and thus the essence of the natural senses escapes the grip of their will. In this context, from the Deleuzian philosophical perspective, Beckett’s subjects are in a clinical state and their spiritual quests are beyond reach. In fact, life experiments fail to bestow them with new modes to start anew in a veritable territory for refreshment of the bodily investments.

17The sense of the tragic stasis and exhaustion intensifies when the subjects become more aware of their condemnation by the absurd confines of the farcical pattern of life, and that sensations cannot raise potentialities, but rather put them down and let the subject in the abyss. They become more than tired, exhausted. In this context, Zukauskaité argues that ‘Deleuze describes the Beckettian character as someone who is exhausted in relation to potentiality. This is explained through the distinction between the tired person and the exhausted’ (71). There is no love, no pleasure, no purgation, no relief, and no possible recreation. The four protagonists appear like dead persons staring tonelessly, repeating cynical expressions when they reach the peak of sensual collapse: ‘It’s finished, we’re finished. [pause.] Nearly finished’ (Beckett 35). Then, Hamm surrenders admitting that ‘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 anymore’ (Beckett 12). The tragic impasse is that Clov and Hamm do not start their struggle for well-being with the will to live as an organism full of energy. Rather, they appear powerless and unproductive, like dead bodies, endeavouring to engulf the audience in their physical frustration and fatigue. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze explains the phenomenological basis of exhaustion in terms of fatigue:

It is correctly said that those who do nothing tire themselves most. Fatigue marks the point at which the soul can no longer contract what it contemplates, the moment at which contemplation and contraction come apart. We are made up of fatigues as much as of contemplations. (77)

18Thus, exhaustion emerges from the void emanating from the repetition of the same life patterns, without difference.

19Beckett’s tragic schema seems to confirm that life is a series of affects and subsequent attempts of contemplation, where the search for the self and identity entangles the postmodern subject in a vicious circle. Thus, ‘Hamm’s blindness seems to induce the vertigo of placelessness, for he feels surrounded by “infinite emptiness”’ (Connor 10). Hamm cannot realise any possible form to heal his sensations. He wonders if it is time for his ‘pain-killer’ (Beckett 23) many times. ‘Pain-killer’ refers to a mode of endurance, to bear anxiety and exhaustion. His discourse reflects melancholia, disorder and illogical apprehension of the modes of existence. Death may be thought of as the best alternative to put an end to exhaustion and torment.

20Beckett’s vision of death is a pertinent issue in Endgame. Since the natural order is destroyed by the deplorable absurd circuits of life, Clov expresses his desire for death. He believes that order is in the world of death: ‘A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust’ (39). Beckett’s protagonists are obsessed with death, and they have much fuss over it in a tragic mood. The verb ‘die’ is repeatedly mentioned:

Hamm. I’ll give you nothing more to eat.
Clov. Then we’ll die . . . (13)
Clov. Then we shan’t die. (14)
Nagg. I always made you laugh. [pause.] The first time I thought you’d die. (20)

21The ambiguous question which revolves around the prelude of death exhausts both the characters and the audiences. The process of decay starts in the moment of birth: ‘the end is in the beginning and yet you can go on,’ states Hamm (45). Indeed, Endgame is an exhaustive drama. The title implicates the coincidence of the beginning with the end. This echoes Eugene O’Neill’s tragic vision in Mourning Becomes Electra: ‘Life was dying. Being born was starting to die. Death was being born’ (92). Then, Clov raises a crucial question: Do you believe in the life to come? This existential question exhausts Beckett, his protagonists and, maybe, his audiences. In fact, the tragic indistinctness in Beckett’s Endgame manifests in the characters’ failure to possibilise new existential realms and, therefore, to assert their autonomy in a confined world.

22Further still, the ‘pauses,’ which are silent flows, translate metaphorically submergence into the endless void of (in)existence: ‘The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world’ (Camus 20). The protagonists have exhausted their sensations and intensities. Incomplete speeches transcribe the incompleteness of ‘the will to live.’ Trying to look, recurrently, ‘outside the window’ is, in fact, an unconscious quest for self-transformation in a world that is yet to be established. However, the tragic paradox is that rest seems to be only inside, in alienated space. Hamm addresses Clov:

One day you’ll be blind, like me. You’ll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, forever, like me. [pause.] One day you will say to yourself, I’m tired, I’ll sit down, and you’ll go and sit down . . . Infinite emptiness will be around you, all the resurrected dead of all ages wouldn’t fill it. (28)

23The deviation from serious discourses on life intensities to trivial discontinuous phrases, ‘Run . . . Run wouldn’t catch me,’ ‘we laugh, with a will, in the beginning’ (20) as if they would laugh with despair at the end, Beckett dramatises the chains of life that obliterate man’s freedom and sense of belonging, for ‘the absurd man realises that he was not really free’ (Camus 3). Beckett’s characters express their lack of rational communication and absurd experiments with free will. Perhaps, the tragedy of the postmodern subject is that freedom will not avoid the sense of existential malaise and anguish. It is an energy that gives birth to the seeds of a crushing fate in a dystopian world. Love which originates in psychical/physical reciprocity between subjects is no longer productive. It becomes a lacked potential. Love is an impossible thought rather than a feeling, because it is detached from its field of creation and investment. This exhaustible reality drives the subject into acting against nature.

Nell. What is it, my pet? [pause.] Time for love?
Nagg. Were you asleep?
Nell. Oh no!
Nagg. Kiss me.
Nell. We can’t
Nagg. Try. [Their heads strain towards each other, fail to meet, fall apart again.] (Beckett 18)

24Beckett’s protagonists are displaying the side effects of consciousness, denouncing prostration. They cannot realise the flows of coupled desires that can trigger intensities and becoming.

25The relation between the subjects becomes machinic. They do not share, at least, a minimal sense of mutual respect. Hamm, for instance, abhors the presence of his father with him on the same plane of consistency calling him ‘accursed progenitor!,’ ‘accursed fornicator,’ (15) and he is never moved by Nagg who is suffering and incessantly demanding sugar plums. Indeed, Nagg expresses his desire for vengefulness, protesting against being ill-treated by his son. Nagg curses that one day Hamm will be alone, frightened in the dark, and will call Nagg as his only hope:

Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark? Your mother? No. Me. We let you cry. Then we moved you out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace . . . [pause.] I hope the day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice. (Beckett 38)

26There is no harmony at the level of sensations and thoughts between family members. There is indeed tension between the son and his father, and sterility between husband and wife. Nonetheless, Hamm and Nagg need each other. Nagg needs Hamm for nourishment and Hamm needs Nagg to listen to his stories. To quote Deleuze, ‘Beckett’s text is perfectly clear: it is a question of exhausting space’ (1998, 163). The confined space exhausts their logical thinking and entraps them in a mechanical dependence to each other. Thus, ‘logic is reductionist not accidentally but essentially and necessarily’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 135).

27Beckett’s protagonists remain physically powerless and existentially weary till the end. Their bodily imperfections make them seated in a critical clinical condition; they perish due time, realising that nothing has changed except their appearances.

Hamm. Nature has forgotten us.
Clov. There’s no more nature.
Hamm. But we breathe, we change, we lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!
Clov. Then she hasn’t forgotten us. (Beckett 16)

28Beckett loses faith in nature for it cannot bless the human subject with new sensations. Nature is an existential force that shapes the living process and determines the fate of bodies when organs lose their natural functions and senses disappear. The Beckettian tragic paradox is that the subject can see light through his skin and the world with his heart; Hamm admits he has a heart in his head (Beckett 19). Although he is blind, Hamm displays a certain degree of insights as he shows his ability to determine his position within the room, whether it is biased to the left or the right, or it is accurately at the center. He wonders: ‘I was right in the centre, wasn’t I?’ Clov responds: ‘Yes.’ Then, Hamm instructs Clov to round him inside the room by saying ‘Right round the world!’ (Beckett 25) Hamm insists on returning to his initial position despite the incomplete journey as Clov objects: ‘We haven’t done the round’ (26). Hamm tries to change the setting, reconfiguring it in accordance with new potentialities. This confirms the encounter between Beckett and Deleuze at the level of the philosophical thought in Essays Critical and Clinical: ‘One seated, one cannot recover, one can no longer stir even a single memory’ (1998, 155). The exhausted remains seated with bowed shoulders and head, waiting for death as the only alternative/possibility for rest and peace. Indeed,

exhaustion, unlike tiredness or waiting, is an affect that marks the finitude of the corporeal present, the point at which the self ‘can no longer contract what it contemplates.’ It is obtained when the forces that constitute the passive self exceed the self’s ability to capture them. (Wasser 132)

29Moreover, Beckett meets Deleuze in the philosophical view of de-situatedness. The strife for de-situatedness, which coincides with logical exhaustion, is a threshold for becoming. The self loses an appropriate position in the world. The exhausted, like Hamm, is seeking a de-situated position in order to attain self-realization. Hamm refuses imposed situatedness. Indeed, situatedness constitutes ‘the form and syntactical link in which and through which the subject finds itself in a determined and determining relation with the world’ (Ma 303). The self no longer defines itself according to a predetermined spatial frame. The self exhausts its setting to the point of losing any sense of logical identity. In an exhausting space and predetermined frames, the self has two directions: either to transcend to a new plane of consistency and open up to new possibilities, that is to look for new horizons beyond the existent ones, or to follow destructive paths of the self and no longer be able to possibilise a new position in a livable world. The subjects’ physiological and logical exhaustion marks a de-situated condition at which they renounce all claims on order, organisation, pre-programmed schemes of action and authorized possibilities. Deleuze further clarifies his perception of physiological and logical exhaustion, referring to it as ‘the combinatorial’:

The combinatorial is the art or science of exhausting the possible through inclusive disjunctions. But only an exhausted person can exhaust the possible, because he has renounced all need, preference, goal, or signification. Only the exhausted person is sufficiently disinterested, sufficiently scrupulous. Indeed, he is obliged to replace his plans with tables and programs that are devoid of all meaning. (1998, 154)

30I have exhausted myself to participate in Beckett’s theatrical endgame to decipher the exhaustive dramatic discourses. My attempt to explore Endgame dissolves me as audience in the illogical apprehension of the modes of existence, dwindling on the track between Deleuze’s exhaustive philosophical flows and Beckett’s theatrical delirium, without resolution. The encounter between Deleuze and Beckett seems to be a medication for the discourse analyst to possibilise therapeutic transformation. In fact, Beckett’s tragic paradigm is a mapping of the subject’s sensations and thoughts which find their theoretical counterpart in Deleuze’s philosophical theories. Thus, the four protagonists, in Endgame, are unable to reset the game, restore faith in their will, and possibilise new sites of hope and exits beyond spatial boundaries. To possibilise is not to realise the possible, but to invest the potential of the possible and make the world worth living. Possibilisation is an invention of a new process of life after exhausting all realisable possibilities. Beckett’s theatre, although definitely absurd, aims at freeing subjectivity from illogical reflection. It is a critique of the clinical condition of the postmodern subject who cannot bear the multiple tyrannies of space and time, and avoid, therefore, the terrific ends. Beckett’s theatrical formula, then, is to question the possible remedies, in a possible world of new human agencies, for the subject’s physiological and psychical ills beyond the confined setting.

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Adel Bahroun, « The Exhausted in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 26 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Adel Bahroun

Adel Bahroun, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English, Habilitated, Former Head of the Department of English at the University of Kairouan, Tunisia. He is a member of the Eugene O’Neill Society. He researches and teaches modern drama, with a specialty in Eugene O’Neill. His research considers O’Neill’s plays from the ‘schizoanalytic’ perspectives established in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. He has published in Laconics, The Eugene O’Neill Review, and in several journals and essay collections in his native Tunisia. He is editor of the volumes, Proceedings of Celebration (2017) and Proceedings of Flight (2020).

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