Beckett’s bleak black comedy ‘Endgame’ is a study of nihilism

Nihilism argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose or intrinsic value. That philosophy often is linked with anomie — the despair and breakdown of social bonds among individuals and their communities.

Nihilism and anomie are on full display in Endgame, perhaps the bleakest of Samuel Beckett’s black comedies, which premiered this month at Touchstone, the little black box theater on American Players Theatre’s Spring Green campus.

Endgame, the 90-minute one-act opus that debuted in 1957, followed on the heels of Beckett’s better-known Waiting for Godot and treads the same murky philosophical waters. It is a play about nothing, with characters who clearly lack significant forward motion.

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. (Beckett was an avid chess player.) The point at which the play opens is indeed an emotional endgame.

Hamm (Brian Mani at his thunderous best) commands a basement room in a post-apocalyptic world from a tattered recliner mounted on a furniture dolly. He rails and roars at his attending son Clov (David Daniel). Hamm is blind and cannot stand or walk. Clov, by contrast, has a leg trussed up in a restrictive brace and cannot sit down.

In the same room live Hamm’s parents Nagg (John Pribyl) and Nell (Sarah Day), described as having no legs and residing in matching dustbins. They pop up periodically like Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch to interact with Hamm and act as a sort of Greek chorus echoing the play’s desolate themes. Hamm’s dog is a poorly sewn, black stuffed animal with mismatched eyes and only three legs. As such, it fits right in with the other tattered characters while acting as an emotional surrogate for the affection Hamm can’t show to and doesn’t receive from the rest of his family.

The family’s conversations, always one-sided in Hamm’s favor, are brutal, repetitive and trivial in topic.

Revealing names

A fall 1987 Paris Review article, “Exorcizing Beckett” by Lawrence Shainberg, claimed that, according to Becket, Endgame’s characters’ names were matched to their roles. Hamm, he said, stands for “hammer,” while Clov is derived from clou, French for “nail.” Beckett, who spent most his adult life in Paris, wrote the play in French.

The article further claims that the character Nagg’s name is derived from nagel, German for “nail,” and Nell is representative of a “death knell,” a name appropriate for the fate of this particular character.

In director Aaron Posner’s take, Mani’s Hamm is loud, aggressive and vindictive, a man who not only drives, but seems to thrive on, the conflict he creates. Daniel’s Clov, conversely, is submissive, frustrated and the very picture of domestic abuse. That last impression often emerges in the characters’ repetitive banter.

As Nagg and Nell, Pribyl and Day have precious little to do, but execute well in helping embody Posner’s bleak vision. Perhaps Beckett had the assumption that modern society treated the elderly as castoffs, which they certainly are in this play.

But it’s Nathan Stuber’s scenic design and, especially, Rachel Laritz’s imaginative and depressing costumes that steal the show. A constant electronic hum and echo effect by sound designer Andre Pluess creates tension and alerts the audience that the characters are very much alone in their nightmare world.

The exact location and time period of the play is never fully defined, but Hamm and his fellow characters appear to have a sense of their own fates.

“Use our head, can’t you?” Hamm admonishes Clov. “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!”

On stage

Endgame continues through Oct. 16 at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green. Call 608-588-2361.

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