Curious Theatre Branch

When I was in college Beckett was one of my favorite playwrights and Endgame my favorite of his plays. Something about his cold, bitter wit and his bleak worldview appealed to my late-adolescent melancholia. So it was strange to finally see Endgame faithfully performed by an accomplished, intelligent company–the Curious Theatre Branch, a group known for its often successful forays into the avant-garde–and find myself disappointed, impatient with Beckett’s glib pessimism and bored by the dialogue that had seemed so darkly comic on the page.

Was it that the Nobel Prize-winning playwright’s work has aged badly? That the questions of the post-World War II writers–Does our existence have meaning? Why does the world seem so absurd? Is God dead, or merely on vacation?–no longer seem important as the memory of that terrible war is buried beneath the memories of more recent wars? I’m sure that’s part of it.

However, it’s hard to shake the idea that Endgame was probably never a particularly easy play to sit through. As an avant-garde novelist who turned to play writing fairly late in his career (Waiting for Godot, his first play produced, wasn’t written until he was in his 40s), Beckett was much more adept at writing plays that provoke interesting literary discussions (and countless academic papers) than he was at creating works that please an audience in performance. And Endgame’s dark, relentlessly bleak themes–death, decay, aging, the complete extinction of life as we know it–would unnerve almost any audience.

Like Waiting for Godot, Endgame concerns a pair of outcasts: the blind, wheelchair-bound Hamm and his poor, put-upon servant, Clov. Like Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, they spend the whole play killing time with conversation–some of which is rich in philosophical insight, much of which seems maddeningly vague–and pointless activity. However, while Vladimir and Estragon’s patter can be quite funny, Hamm and Clov’s conversations are often far too mean-spirited (“Forgive me. I said, forgive me.” “I heard you.”) and their situation far too desperate (they seem to be the only survivors of some sort of holocaust) to be funny. Without comedy to sweeten the message, Beckett’s comments about the hopelessness of life (“You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.”) only fill us with dread.

This would not have bothered Beckett, who, according to biographer Deirdre Blair, “was absolutely certain there was to be no intimation of comedy [in Endgame] . . . no aura of laughter, no possibility of humor. It was to be stark, grim, deadening, hopeless.” But 60 minutes is about my upper limit for dread, as it seemed to be for many of the people shifting in their seats around me.

I don’t want to pile all the blame for this production on Beckett’s shoulders. Beckett once admitted to Alan Schneider, the man who directed the American premieres of many of Beckett’s plays, that Endgame “is very difficult to get right.” And something is definitely not quite right in this production starring three sons and a daughter of the late James O’Reilly, and directed by their mother Winifred. Chris O’Reilly (Hamm) kept stepping on the lines of Beau O’Reilly (Clov), throwing off the rhythm of Beckett’s carefully wrought dialogue. Everyone’s timing also seemed a little off opening night, with many lines being delivered so quickly that it was hard to catch the layers of meaning behind them.

Yet Beau O’Reilly still managed to shine, making Clov every bit as resentful, manipulative, childish, playful, vicious, cruel, submissive, and passive-aggressive as the play calls on him to be. Chris O’Reilly, unable to keep up with his brother, turned Hamm into a mere cartoon authority figure. His problem was shared by Ned and Trina O’Reilly, who delivered lackluster performances in the secondary roles of Hamm’s decrepit parents, Nagg and Nell. Beckett, whatever one thinks of his nihilistic philosophy, deserves a tighter, less sloppy effort.