“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” Consider how Beckett explores the meaning of life and existence through the use of humour in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.
Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, like most of his works contain many comedic features, but they are not traditional comedies. In a sense, they can be called black comedy—they feature tough and distressing subjects and use characters in depressing situations that are dealt in a humorous way. Beckett’s major plays were written during the years after World War II. He lived and worked alongside the French Resistance until 1942 to undermine the Nazi control in Paris that was occupied by Germany (Berlin 2009). Post-war Europe brought to trend what was called absurdist drama, which was then popularised by Martin Esslin (1961), a theatre scholar, the term “Theatre of the Absurd”, in which he dissected plays and dramas that most closely associated with ‘absurdist characteristics’. Such plays present actions and characters in which a lack of purpose and self-determination create uncertainty, anxiety, hopelessness and humour. Endgame commentates on the unsettling human conditions, as well as the nature of existence; that life and our existence in it is meaningless (Beckett 1979; 1981). It also explores that it is absurd to try to find or shape some kind of meaning, which will be explored through the characters of Hamm, Clov, Nell and Nagg.
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Particular events in the play are dark and comical, to the point that seem quite absurd and unnatural. Like Nell states, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”. One of these events is Nagg and Nell’s kissing routine, where Nell seems to get tired of it and asks to no one in particular, “Why this farce day after day?”. Yet as the only sense of reality, Beckett elevates the tension by pointing out Nagg’s missing tooth. His character is the oldest, yet the most childlike. He is trying to maintain a sense of humour, to keep his spirits up. But he has his rare moments of vulnerabilities. One of them is when his wife asks why he keeps telling his joke, and he replies with “to cheer you up”. The other is when he knocks on Nell’s bin and she does not reply, leading to him sinking back into his bin to cry. The other routine is where Hamm carries around a stuffed three-legged dog—a tragically routine that occurs daily, yet humorous as it means no harm. There is also Clovv who despite knowing what he says is untrue, but just to appease the Blind Ham, he tells him exactly what he wants to hear about the dog’s appearance (Menon 2014, p. 168). This scene is also quite ridiculous. The absurd requests that Hamm makes towards the dog, telling Clov to decorate it with ribbons, asking him (Clov) to speak when the dog looks at him making the dog stand upright on his three legs. Eventually, he throws away the dog because he is angry at it and calls it a “dirty brute” (Menon 2014, p. 169). Dark humour is a representative of the philosophy of the theatre of the absurd (Hristić 1972) and throughout the play, Beckett uses displays through the actions of the characters, even if they are a daily occurrence and consecutively enables the reader to know that actions of these characters are ridiculous and irrational.
In one of the scenes, Hamm says, “Can there be misery loftier than mine? No doubt. Formally. But now? My father, my mother, my dog? I am willing to believe; they suffer as much as creatures can suffer.” (2) Schopenhauer is introduced by Beckett in these lines—their view of life as suffering and pain aligned with each other (Camus 1975). Dow (2011) remarks that there is an infinite will to live, yet fulfilment is limited. Human satisfaction, happiness and peace are never reachable, they are tossed about in restless torrent of instinct and desire.
Beckett’s characters have an awareness of their fate, their misery. Clov confesses that he has never been happy, while Hamm hates and blames his parents for giving birth to him and throwing him in such a dreadful life (Menon 2014, p. 169). While some people choose to indulge in their suffering and pain, others take it out on those that surround them. Nell is the nicest character in the play, yet she is in visible despair. When she hears Hamm complain about something dripping in his head and wondering whether it is his heart, he laughs. Nell tells him off by saying, "One mustn't laugh at those things, Nagg. Why must you always laugh at them?" (1) She still seems to have some sympathy for her son, and she tries to indulge him as much as she can. This might suggest that her inability to be cruel is linked to her despair. Whereas, the other characters are able to keep themselves from giving up hope by dispelling their thoughts and being cruel to each other.
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Hamm’s parents, pop in and out form their garbage can from time to time. They are bound in that place and Nell seems to know it. She is the only character who isn’t as delusional or absurd as the others. Nell makes this statement, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that” (Beckett 1958) in part two of the play where she criticises Nagg for laughing at Hamm’s misery. Esslin (2001) states that just as a character slips on a banana skin can make the audience laugh because objectively, it is funny to watch someone else feel pain and unhappiness—this is called comic suffering. Comic suffering is "cancelled" because apprehension of the comic situation through both irony and humour allows the spectator to "experience, express, but immediately revoke the contradictions wherein the comic consists.” (Mackey 1971).
Beckett’s Endgame suggests that not only is human condition fragile, but unsettlingly commentates through his characters the nature of existence. That life and out existence in life is meaningless, and it is useless find meaning to life or shape meaning to our existence (Menon 2014, 169). The phenomenon called “the theatre of the absurd” expresses the attempts of modern man to come to terms with the world around them. Beckett’s characters, just like the modern man, “are not simply immobile; they are entrapped in endless boredom” in a bare room with two small windows, leading them to entertain themselves through whatever means they can find. They are powerless to change their situation (Menon 2014, 169).
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