Seminar Paper, 2003
11 Pages, Grade: A
1. Life at its final stage
2. Human relationships
3. A play signifying nothing?
...you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that! (Beckett 53)
Endgame (Fin de Partie) and Exit the King (Le Roi se Meurt) - two plays about fallen kings trapped at the end of time and unable to give meaning to existence. While Hamm and Clov are desperately waiting for death as the only way out of an eternal cycle of routine, King Bérenger has ‘an hour and a half’ left to let go of life and learn to accept mortality. Confronted with a world that is slowly fading into silence and ‘immateriality’, both Hamm, Clov and Bérenger become aware of the absurdity of life and have to face the impossibility to give meaning to existence. Both Beckett and Ionesco make use of similar devices to describe this dilemma, yet the two plays raise different questions about being and offer different solutions - if at all.
One of the main metaphors of the two one act plays is that of life coming to an end and the material world vanishing. The setting of Endgame reminds us more of a dungeon in a nightmare than of a human home. It is an empty room, lit by ‘Grey light’ (Beckett 1) from two windows to the outside world, where life does no longer exist. The only visible door leads to Clov’s kitchen - ‘ten feet by ten feet by ten feet’ (ibid. 2) - where he waits for Hamm’s whistle and stares at the wall. In the opening scene the characters are still covered by old sheets, reminding us of furniture protected from dust. The only non-functional item of the setting is a picture hanging with its face to the wall - a symbol of meaninglessness and the end of human culture.
As meager as the room is furnished, as limited is the characters’ mobility. All of them suffer from the typical Beckettian diseases. Hamm, the central figure of the play is blind and unable to move. Clov cannot sit and moves only with pain and Hamm’s parents, who have lost their legs in a bicycle accident are kept in two old dustbins. The state of the outside world is not less hopeless: ‘Outside of here it’s death’ (ibid. 9), Hamm believes. And indeed, what Clov sees through his window seems to be the consequence of a final devastation: time is zero, the ‘light is sunk’ (ibid. 30) and the earth is gray ‘from pole to pole’ (ib, 32). This notion of a ruined world reflects the postmodern hopelessness after the catastrophe of the Holocaust:
After the Second World War, everything, including a resurrected culture, was destroyed, although without its knowledge. In the wake of events which even the survivors cannot survive, mankind vegetates, crawling forward on a pile of rubble, denied even the awareness of its ruin. (Adorno 85)
Thus locked in their ‘shelter’ as the last survivors of humanity, Hamm and Clov are trapped in a cycle of daily routine. Right from the beginning, when Clov performs his ritual of opening the house, the audience gets to understand that these actions are repeated day after day. And there is no hope that any change will ever be possible:
HAMM: Have you not had enough?
CLOV: Yes! (Pause.) Of what?
HAMM: Of this ... this ... thing.
CLOV: I always had. (Pause.) Not you?
HAMM (gloomily) Then there’s no reason for it to change.
CLOV: It may end. (Pause.) All life long the same questions, the same answers. (ibid. 5)
Death seems to be the only way out of this hopelessness. But paradoxically even this option is denied to Hamm and Clov, as both their lives depend on one another. Due to his immobility Hamm cannot feed himself and Clov does not ‘know the combination of the cupboard.’ (Beckett 8) This absurd state of existence somewhere between life and death reminds us of the eternal struggle of Sisyphos’ or the purgatory that the characters in Sartre’s Huis Clos are facing. The metaphor of life that Beckett creates is one of ultimate cruelty, of human beings deprived of meaning and confined to the mere nature of existence:
HAMM: Nature has forgotten us.
CLOV: There’s no more nature.
HAMM: No more nature! You exaggerate.
CLOV: In the vicinity.
HAMM: But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals! (ibid. 11)
In contrast to this idea of life as an eternal deprivation, Exit the King offers a different description of human existence. While Clov’s first sentence - ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.’ (ibid. 1) - is a cynical comment on infinity, King Bérenger is confronted with his own mortality at the beginning of the play:
MARGUERITE: You’re going to die in an hour and a half, you’re going to die at the end of the show. (Ionesco 24)
Indeed the whole play evolves around the fact that life in its nature is limited to a few moments as opposed to eternity. This concept of ‘memento mori’ is reflected in Bérenger’s inside as well as in the state of his outside world.
Quite similarly to Endgame the setting of Exit the King does not really seem to fit into the world of reality. The outdated Gothic throne room, which is comically described as ‘living room’ by Juliette, is ‘vaguely dilapidated’ (ibid. 6) and is more and more falling apart in the process of the play. The king’s crimson cloak, his scepter and his crown are mere status symbols of a realm that is doomed. Already at the beginning of the action the condition of Bérenger’s state is catastrophic.
MARGUERITE: [...] (Bérengers) palace is crumbling. His fields lie fallow. His mountains are sinking. The sea has broken the dikes and flooded the country. He’s let it all go to rack and ruin. (ibid. 14)
‘The clouds are raining frogs’ (ibid. 18), a biblical symbol of apocalypse, ‘Mars and Saturn have collided’ (ibid. 17) and piece by piece the whole country is vanishing in mysterious black holes, as in Michael Ende’s Neverending Story. This description of Bérenger’s realm comes quite close to the shape of Hamm’s and Clov’s post doomsday world.
As Gaensbauer suggests Exit the King can also be read as a satire on the postmodern western world:
Some of Bérenger’s exploits are blunt reminders of of the continuing legacy of cold war brutality. When Marguerite says: ‘you had my parents butchered, your own brothers, your rivals, our cousins and great-grandcousins, and all their families, friends and cattle. You massacred the lot and scorched all their lands,’ Bérenger, insisting on the term ‘executions’, not ‘assassinations,’ invokes ‘reasons of State.’ (Gaensbauer 112)
King Bérenger, who ‘stole fire from the gods’, ‘built Rome, New York, Moscow and Geneva’ and ‘wrote tragedies and comedies under the name of Shakespeare’ (Ionesco 73f) believes that he himself can choose the moment of his death. On this level the play represents the hubris of human existence and reminds us that the cultural and scientific achievements of humanity will sooner or later be bound to decline just like the king’s realm.
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