Black Humor in Beckettian Tragedy: Representing Postwar Absurdity in Endgame

Black Humor in Beckettian Tragedy: Representing Postwar Absurdity in Endgame

This paper explores how Samuel Beckett in his one-act tragedy Endgame, first premiered in 1957 employs Black Humor or Black Comedy to represent post world war absurdities among survivors. The play is close to genre of tragedy as it ends with Clov leaving Hamm and Hamm motionless, probably dying. But despite being a tragedy, Beckett deliberately uses comical jokes and makes it more like a farce. As Rush puts it, the mood of “classical tragedy is serious, and our attitude towards the people and events is dignified and respectful” (99). But in Endgame, we see all the four characters are non-serious and inferior to us, and instead of tears rolling from our eyes, laughter burst out. The play is set after the apocalyptic second word war, which took millions of lives and jeopardized the faith of people. To represent this nihilistic human condition, the playwright utilizes black comedy. With humans slaughtering humans and mass displacement of people, there remained no humanity at all which could identify what is evil, and what is ethical thing to do. After participating and witnessing in such a catastrophic inhuman act of war, the survivors lost the purpose of life and became immobile and paralyzed like Hamm, Clov, Nell and Nagg. Devoid of morality, the characters are just waiting for death. Though their life is full of suffering and tragedy, they lack hues in life to make it meaningful and serious.
            The play begins in a pessimistic setting with “bare interior” and “grey light” (1), which reflects the post-apocalyptic scenario. The minimalistic play has a circular plot and begins with Clov uttering “finished” and ends in the same situation as it began. Hamm is unable to move and is blind, his parents Nagg and Nelly have no legs and live in ashbins. Like a dead body covered with shroud, they are covered by an old sheet. With a handkerchief over his face and a whistle hanging in his neck, Hamm looks very comical whereas inside ashbins his parents appear funny. Hamm’s dog has only three legs. Only locomotive character Clov also has problem with walking and he walks reluctantly. These physical deformities in characters portray the condition of people after the nuclear war which brought irreparable damages to their physiology and psychology. Moreover, Clov describes the outside atmosphere of the room to be “zero” (4) and dry as “it won’t rain” (4). Clov also comments that “outside of here its death” (9) signaling the remnants of war. The nature and ecosystem is also all barren and destroyed due to atom bombs. “Hamm: Nature has forgotten us. Clov: There is no more nature” (11). Amid such a gruesome and horrible atmosphere, the playwright surprisingly twists the characters and their inactions and makes it more humorous. Hamm repeatedly asks Clov if it is time for his painkiller six times in the play to which Clove always replies no. When Hamm, suffocating too much from his mundane life asks Clov, "Why don't you kill me?", Clov comically replies, “I don't have the combination for the cupboard" (8). Later in the play, Clov makes a paradoxical statement, “If I don’t kill that rat he’ll die” (68). Whether he kills or lets it go, both the way rat dies. Such is the comical situation of the characters too, destined to die. The rescue attempt is all futile and useless. When Nell and Nagg try to kiss they cannot as their heads fail to meet in the separate dustbins. Such kind of stupid and funny situations make the audience burst into laughter throughout the play.
            The sarcasm in the play exceeds beyond comic reliefs that we even witness in Shakespeare’ plays. In Hamlet, we witness comic relief in the gravedigger scene but such comic reliefs are only used to relieve tensions in the play and intensify overall tragedy in the play. Whereas in Beckettian play, humor is almost everywhere that audiences get confused whether it is tragedy or not they are watching. As Bishop observes, “the term "black humor" could have been invented to describe Samuel Beckett's mid-century play, Endgame. Its humor is grotesque, absurd, sometimes cruel. But humor nevertheless” (par 1). The whole play from characters to the dialogues they cast are bombarded with endless humor. Black comedy prevails almost everywhere in the play.
            The post-war human condition is so severe and full of sufferings that life does not make any sense at all. Locked in a gray room, the characters are living routine life. They have no free will and have no control over themselves or their surroundings. Hamm tries to control and silence his parents and Clov but he ultimately fails to do so. He wants his minion Clov to keep staying with him, or he wants to go away with him to the south but he becomes a left-out isolated character at the end of the play. The play satirizes how human beings are pathetic creatures and are living a meaningless life full of absurdities. As Muckian suggests, “The play’s title comes from “endgame,” a chess term that describes the point of the game in which few pieces are left on the board and their relative relationship to each other defines the game’s outcome” (par 4). Like the king in Chess, Hamm tries to play king but at the same time he is vulnerable and fails at the end. He has an urge to stay at the center of the room but he never succeeds. When he tries to adjust his chair, he complains, “I feel a little too far to the right…I feel a little too far forward…Now I feel a little too far back” (27). The endgame does not turn out to be pleasant for the characters. Nell dies, Clov lefts, Hamm dies and Nagg is discarded in his dustbin. Though Clov lefts to free himself from the absurd situation, we can only guess that he will have hard time adjusting to the outside world. The play is so bleak that there is no hope at all. Beckett leaves not an infinitesimal possibility for the improvement in the life of the characters. The situation remains the same throughout the play, there is not a single development at all.
            The degradation in faith of the people has also played an important role in absurdities of the post war period. As Shobeiri alludes, “World war had threatened people‘s lives, so they lost their human qualities. When they faced such destruction and annihilation, their faith in God, as a superpower, was crushed. In this context, life was meaningless, and there was a belief that either God did not care about people, or that He did not exist at all” (290). In the play also when Hamm and Clov are trying to pray there is always disturbance, Nagg cannot complete the hymn “Our Father which art---” and then Ham angrily says “The bastard! He does not exist!” (55). In war, people were busy slaughtering people and no God descended from heaven to save the innocent lives and maintain peace. Furthermore, People of modern world had sinned so much that the sense of religiosity and morality vanished from them. So, when Nagg tries to complete the prayer he stammers and fails. If the people had God and religion as their shelter of faith, like in classical times they would have found purpose and meaning of life. Devoid of faith, morality, and spirituality, people become incapable to draw meaning out of life. Due to exhaustion of humanity and faith, life of the characters became so paralyzed and futile that Hamm casts his most terrible dialogue, “Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!” (68). In the desert of faith, humanity and spirituality, life is already doomed for tragedy and absurdity.
            The Juxtaposition of Dark humor in tragedy makes the play much broader in its meaning. Through sarcasms and comic situations, we come to comprehend the dire reality of modern life. Our life is hopeless, there is no cure for the absurdity of life and we are doomed for suffering and pain. We are isolated creatures devoid of free will and purpose of life. Each and every day, we keep doing the same thing in routine manner, and there is nothing new and exciting at all. There is no progress and salvation in our life. As Burton remarks, dark humor in Endgame, “makes us laugh while also inviting us to reflect on the sobering, harsh realities of our own life, and ultimately, it releases us from an anxiety fueled by fear of suffering and death” (par 2). Black Comedy is not a mismatch in the tragic scenario of the play but a powerful tool to reflect the absurdity of our existence in more effective way. Black humor does all the magic in contribution to the thematic aspects of the play. Though the audiences burst out into unstoppable laughter, deep in their heart they feel a heavy weight of the reality of the mundane life they have been living. First, we think the characters of the play are inferior to us and mock at their situation, but later on we begin to identify ourselves with them and realize that we are Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell. We are all waiting for painkiller to ease our pain, but there is no such thing as painkiller in the world. There is no medicine for the relief of our forlornness and human sufferings. The war has left the survivors with the contagious disease strongly incurable in nature.
            Beckett is an extraordinary playwright who transforms the postwar human condition to next level in his representation. Instead of presenting it in serious and traditional way, his theatre of absurd frames it loaded with black humor which best reflects the ethos of time. In his other plays like Waiting for Godot (1953), dark humor is his prominent tool. As the contemporary humanity lacked morality and seriousness, the playwright presented them in their tattered and comical form. Nell and Clov repeat the rhetorical question, “Why this farce, day after day?” (14, 32) symbolizing the recurrence of their plight to eternity. In the theatre of absurd, the plight and suffering of characters are comical like farce. Similar to Sisyphus, the characters of Endgame are accursed to suffer forever. At the end of the play, we are hinted of Clov leaving and Hamm dying but there is still considerable amount of doubt regarding this. Its hard to believe Clov can leave the place as in the first place, there is no outer world and moreover, he does not seem compatible to the outer world. As he says earlier, he lives as a servant to Hamm because he has nowhere to go and no one else to live with. Furthermore, Hamm is so much rooted in suffering that it is tough to believe that he will get salvation by death. Absurdity and futility along with suffering and pain are transcribed in the gene of the characters to which there is no escape at all. Black Humor becomes most appropriate tool for Beckettian tragedy to represent this human condition of postwar period.

                                                                        Works Cited
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame and Act Without Words I. Grove Press, 1958.
Bishop, Nancy. “Hypocrites Build on Beckett's Apocalyptic Humor in Endgame”. Gapers
Block, 4th March, 2015,
Burton, Jason. “Pessimism Becketts Optimism: Audience and Optimism in Endgame”.
University of Georgia,
Muckian, Michael. “Beckett’s bleak black comedy ‘Endgame’ is a study of nihilism”.
Wisconsin Gazette, 25 Aug, 2016,
Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
Shobeiri, Ashkan. “Beckett’s Atheism in Waiting for Godot and Endgame: A Proof for
Absurdism” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol.1 no 21, Dec. 2011, pp. 289-294
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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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