Tony Roberts and Adam Heller in Endgame.
Death rattle of the world with laughs
Talking with the actors tackling Beckett
By Jerry Tallmer
When Alan Schneider directed the American premiere of Samuel Becketts Endgame at the Cherry Lane Theater in the 1957-58 season, he wore a baseball cap and did a lot of whispering to his actors. They were Lester Rawlins as the blind, chairbound Hamm, who cannot stand; Alvin Epstein as clumping Clov, who cannot sit; P.J. Kelly and lovable Nydia Westman as Nagg and Nell, the old ones, the parents, bottled up in garbage pails at the footlights.
Nagg raps on the lid of Nells garbage pail. The lid lifts. Her hands emerge, followed by her head in an old-fashioned lace nightcap. What is it, my pet? Time for love? Nell quavers to Nagg in what a critic and journalist of that day (and this) called a thousand-year-old voice. You dont forget moments in the theater like that.
It is to be doubted that Charlotte Moore, director of the Endgame that 48 years later is at the Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street through April 10, wears a baseball cap or whispers to her actors, but Nell is still asking if its time for love.
The actors, in this instance, are Tony Roberts as Hamm, Adam Heller as Clov, Kathryn Grody as Nell, and Alvin Epstein yes, the very same Alvin Epstein of the first U.S. Endgame and, before that, of the first New York production of Waiting for Godot not now as Clov but as ancient ashcanned Nagg.
Endgame to me, the same critic wrote in 1957, is Godot inexorably pushed one step farther
It is like the terrible second movement of some great symphony; we can only wait patiently to see if there will be a third, and a return of warmth.
There wont be. Endgame etches, like an Albrecht Durer, the death rattle of the world with laughs.
Charlotte Moore, who is also co-founding artistic director of the superb little Irish Rep playhouse and company, has assembled her Endgame actors in the empty pre-performance theater for a chat with the press this press. That journalist.
It is the first time Irish Rep has ever done Endgame, and only the second time it has ever done Beckett.
Why this play, why now? she is asked.
Because, Charlotte Moore says, people have asked me a thousand times: When are you going to do a Beckett? When are you going to do a Beckett? And this is my favorite of all his plays.
Godot or God-oh, as the Irish say, is far more obvious.
From two rows back, Tony Roberts throws in: Godot is Becketts Neil Simon play.
Endgame was also Becketts own favorite of all his plays. Has Tony Roberts ever done a Beckett?
No, but I had to write a paper about Godot when I was a freshman at Northwestern.
That was about 10 years ago? pipes up Kathryn Grody, for whom this also is a Beckett first.
Twenty years ago, says the Tony Roberts who has been among us on stage and screen for approximately twice that.
You, says the journalist, indicating Alvin Epstein, whose Lucky the slave at the end of the rope in that first New York Godot is also never to be forgotten I know about you.
We all know about him, Charlotte Moore says dryly.
In point of fact, Epstein played Lucky on Broadway for Herbert Berghof, and then again for Alan Schneider in the first Godot on TV. He has played Clov at the Cherry Lane; has played Estragon of Waiting for Godot in an American Repertory Theater production in Boston; has played Hamm in an Endgame that he, Epstein, was also directing at the Harold Clurman Theater on 42nd Street.
Has thus (counting now) played every character in Endgame except Nell.
And he probably could do that, says the Irish Reps Nell.
It was when he was directing the Clurman Endgame that Alvin Epstein had his phone talk with Samuel Beckett.
It was more his asking me what I planned to do. Whos going to play Clov? Whos going to play Hamm? Nagg and Nell? He was very pleasant, says Epstein. Couldnt have been sweeter.
Excerpt from a December 1957 letter from Samuel Beckett to Alan Schneider, whod been asking Beckett, by mail, some fine points about Endgame:
My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin. Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, nec tecum nec sine te, in such a place, and in such a world, thats all I can manage, more than I could.
Kathryn Grody grabs the piece of paper on which the above has been excerpted.Im going to use that, she says. She means about the fundamental sounds. The journalist wonders whether these actors and their director have thought about the names of their characters: Hamm, Clov, Nagg, Nell.
Well, says Charlotte Moore, theres nothing in this play we havent thought about, and that process could go on forever. It depends, really, on what books youve been reading. Theyre all contradictory of one another.
She goes off and returns with a copy of On Beckett: Essays and Criticism, by S.E. Gontarski, open to a page on which can be found:
Both Hamm and Clov utter the words of Christ on the cross: It is finished.
Biblical echoes abound. The names Nagg and Hamm pun on Noah and Ham of Genesis, who are also survivors of a world catastrophe, safe in their shelter. Hamm and Clov use the apocalyptic imagery of the biblical book of Revelation light and dark, earth and sea, life and death, beginning and end
However, Beckett does not place an actual Bible on stage, as in an earlier version of the play.
Could Hamm not also connect to Hamlet?
Well, says a more serious Tony Roberts, it has been said that Hamms first speech is sort of a negation of To be or not to be. Also Ham as in ham actor.
From Hamms first speech, which in the Grove Press text is well salted with pauses:
Me to play. Can there be misery loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now?
[T]he bigger a man is the fuller he is. And the emptier
What dreams! Those forests! Enough, its time it ended, in the shelter too. And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to
to end. Yes, there it is, its time it ended and yet I hesitate to to end.
Kathryn Grody suddenly interjects: The more I read this play the more it seems an incredible distillation of a long relationship, with love, loss, and the inability to change things.
And the garbage pails?
I hate to answer questions for Samuel Beckett, says Epstein, but people do put their parents away, discarding them.
Trashing them, the productions Nell puts it somewhat more strongly.
Isnt it also a symbol of powerlessness? says Tony Roberts. No authority.
Also we have no legs, the productions Nagg observes. But what I also think, Alvin Epstein adds, is that the longer Beckett lived, the more he became a visionary.
Okay, but why cant Clove sit down?
The productions Clov, Adam Heller, who has been silent, now pipes up:
Beckett speaks of Cloves staggering walk. Its possible hes broken a leg and it didnt set properly. But also how to say this? maybe he has sores on his posterior that keep him from sitting. Alvin has another theory: Clov cant sit because Hamm cant stand up. Covers the whole human race, in a way.
The journalist felt it was time to say: I imagine that you fellows try to put all this stuff out of your minds and just do the play.
I think were about to arrive at that point, the shows director declared. Were striving and almost there. With a nice Irish poker face: I might say I got exactly the cast I wanted and theyre all Jewish.
Charlotte, the journalist said, Im impressed by anyone who tackles this play.
So am I, said Charlotte Moore. Checkmate.