Deleuze and Beckett: Disguising Repetitions in Endgame

Thomas Cousineau

Issue Two // Summer 2011



To cite this article (MLA style):
Cousineau, Thomas. "Deleuze and Beckett: Disguising Repetitions in Endgame" Limit(e) Beckett 2 (2011): 26-36. Web. [Date of access].

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud maintained that we repeat because we have repressed a traumatic experience which then returns in symptomatic form. Gilles Deleuze, on the contrary, insisted in Différence et répétition that we do not repeat because we repress; rather, we repress in order to repeat. In a reformulation of this same point, he contended that we do not disguise because we have repressed; rather, we repress so that we may disguise. Along with arguing for the primacy of repetition over an earlier traumatic event that has been repressed, Deleuze further suggested that the highest function of art is to put into play all the various forms of repetition, ranging from the most clichéd to the most creative.

   Différence et répétition was followed several years later by the publication of a volume entitled Création et répétition which offered a collection of essays exploring the applications of Deleuze’s central idea to a great variety of artistic domains, including painting, sculpture, music, theater, and film. Among these early explorations of the paradoxical relationship between repetition and creativity, Pierre Chabert’s contribution, entitled “Problématique de la répétition dans le théâtre contemporain,” is especially intriguing. After pointing out that, in Beckett’s plays, repetition is a dynamic principle and that, as such, it replaces plot and story as the source of forward movement, Chabert reiterated Deleuze’s basic contention:

We must take into account two opposing forms of repetition. . . .On the one hand, we find a pure, geometrical form in which repetition occurs without any accompanying differences; this is its most visible manifestation and, for this reason, the one that we generally notice. It involves a static situation which is repeated mechanically and incessantly. This pure form of repetition occurs mainly on the level of the larger theatrical units (the strict repetition from one act to another in Waiting for Godot and Happy Days, for example) or elements of the stage action (the repetition of entrances and exits and of presence and absence of characters, as in Godot). In contrast, the differences produced by the play of repetition are found in the myriad actions or theatrical elements played out within smaller units that subvert the ostensible situation or theme; these elements, which incorporate difference, are repeated to virtual infinity. (167-8)

Deleuze’s revision of Freud helps us to see more clearly the two divergent forms of repetition that occur in Endgame: in the “Freudian” case of Hamm, it is a psychological compulsion aimed at both repeating and reversing (unsuccessfully, to be sure) an involuntarily repressed trauma from his personal past; for Beckett on the other hand, it involves a “Deleuzian” form of artistic activity that voluntarily “represses” the cultural past, which he then subjects to repetitions whose effect depends upon our hearing – or seeing – in them the traces of their origin.  In other words, Hamm needs to forget the originary demonstration of his helplessness that he struggles to replace – via a dialectical reversal – with a commanding stage presence. Beckett, as well as his audience, on the other hand, need to at least partially remember the remnants of our collective cultural past – especially those biblical and literary references that he called “bits of pipe” – which he constantly repeats, neither routinely nor dialectically, but, rather, in innovative and always surprising ways in Endgame.

   That Hamm’s words and gestures are intended to serve as a dialectical reversal of a past trauma is made especially clear when his father brings to the surface the repressed infantile memory that Beckett called “Nagg’s admonition”:

   Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark?  Your mother?  No.  Me.  We let you cry.  Then we moved you out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace.
   I was asleep, and happy as a king, and you woke me up to have me listen to you.  It wasn’t indispensable, you didn’t really need to have me listen to you.
   I hope the day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice.
   Yes, I hope I’ll live to then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened , in the dark, and I was your only hope. (56)

The situation that Nagg evokes here closely resembles the discovery of dependency and helplessness that Freud analyzed in the celebrated “fort/da” section of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. As you will remember, Freud’s godson was able to transform real helplessness into imaginary mastery by displacing his mother’s comings and goings (over which he had no actual control) onto a spool, which, unlike his mother, was unfailingly responsive to his commands. The godson, in effect, returns in Endgame as Hamm, who gives orders to a substitute mother figure played by Clov with the intended aim of reversing the roles of the powerful and the helpless in a way that would make Hamm the “happy king” that his father remembers himself as having been. The narrator of Beckett’s novel Murphy memorably expressed the principle of dialectical reversal which is at work here when, in explaining the distinction between the kick in res and the kick in intellectu, he noted that “the kick that the physical Murphy received, the mental Murphy gave. It was the same kick, but corrected as to direction” (111).

   In contrast to this, Beckett’s voluntary repressions, which produce disguised repetitions are generated, as Stan Gontarski points out in The Intent of Undoing, by three principles, in contrast to the single principle of dialectical reversal that governs Hamm’s repetitions. They include: creating absences by deleting details, explanations, and connections; consciously (we could say “voluntarily”) destroying the systems of chronology and causality; and creating internal relationships that emphasize pattern if not order. The “Deleuzian” precedence of repetition over repression that is generated by Beckett’s application of these principles may be observed at a variety of levels in Endgame. The most obvious of these is the game of chess itself, which, having given to the play its title, is then repressed so that it can return in the disguised form of a dramatic situation in which, as Beckett himself suggested, Hamm is playing against a superior player; chess is also obscurely present in the gradual disappearance, not of pawns, bishops, knights, and so forth, but of bicycle-wheels, pap, nature, sugar plums, tide, navigators, rugs, pain-killer, and coffins.

   Other disguised repetitions draw upon earlier works, both published and unpublished. Among these, Gontarski calls attention to Beckett’s original plan for the setting of Endgame, which was to have been Picardie in the aftermath of WWI.  Having repressed this original idea, Beckett then staged its return in the form of a timeless and placeless, yet still devastated, setting. Gontarski also mentions certain minor works that Beckett discarded, including a mime play written in the early 1950s entitled “Mime de reveur A”; although Beckett had no conscious recollection of having written it, he did nonetheless acknowledge its affinities with Endgame.  In another, a text entitled “Avant Fin de partie,” the role eventually given to Clov is played, not surprisingly, by the central character’s mother.

   A far more intriguing example of Beckett’s repression of his earlier work has to do with the structure of Endgame, which has the same two-part division, but in a highly disguised way, as Waiting for Godot. We know that Beckett planned Endgame as a two-act play at some point in its composition, but eventually dismissed this idea because it repeated Godot in too obvious a way. While in its final version, Endgame is a one-act play (Gontarski suggests that this may actually have been Beckett’s original plan) close attention to the arrangement of its successive units reveals a rigorously chiastic structure:                        

Structure of Endgame

Prologue: Pantomimes and soliloquies
     A. Dialogue between Hamm and Clov (pp. 3-8)
     B. Nagg’s first appearance (pp. 9-10)
     A. Dialogue between Hamm and Clov (pp. 10-14)

Interlude: Nagg and Nell (pp. 14-23)
     A. Dialogue between Hamm and Clov (pp. 23-54)
     B. Nagg’s second appearance (pp. 49-56)
     A. Dialogue between Hamm and Clov (pp. 56-81)

Epilogue: Pantomimes and soliloquies (pp. 80-84)

   As we reflect on the contrast between the disguised presence of this chiastic structure in Endgame and the explicit two-act division of Waiting for Godot, we see that the symmetry revealed by this schema is countered by several asymmetrical elements that tend to obscure, or mask, its presence. These include the imbalance between the thirteen pages that precede the “Interlude” and the sixty-one pages that follow it, the significantly different lengths of Nagg’s first and second appearances, the further weakening effect created by Hamm’s narration of the story of the man asking for “bread for his brat,” and the progressively worsening predicament of the protagonists. We notice as well the contrast between Beckett’s creative use of the chiasm, which focuses attention on the “off-center” structural center of Endgame, and the psychological compulsion revealed by Hamm’s determination, not only that he be moved to the precise center of the stage (25-27), but that he and his personal predicament be the center of the play itself.

   Another form of disguised repetition comes to mind when we remember Alan Schneider’s well-known comment that Beckett’s principal innovation was to be found in his having brought painting and music to the stage.  Music and painting do not, to be sure, appear, in Endgame in their “original” forms but their disguised presence is nevertheless felt throughout via the powerful visual image that Beckett has so meticulously constructed as well as the musical “form in movement” that he created through the equally meticulous attention that he paid, in particular, to Clov’s movements.  A powerful visual reminder of Beckett’s having “disguised” himself as both a painter and an orchestral conductor when he directed his plays may perhaps be found in the photo of him directing Warten auf Godot in Berlin in 1975 in which his raised hand could be imagined as holding either a paint brush or a baton; that he is actually directing a play in this photo will by no means be obvious to the uninitiated.

Beckett directs Warten auf Godot

   Another kind of repetition in which Beckett’s disguises parallel while subverting Hamm’s dialectical reversals is to be found in the many literary and biblical sources of the play. The most obvious of these are Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which the roles played by Hamm and Clov revisit the Prospero/Ariel couple, and the crucifixion of Christ in which (on Beckett’s own authority) the names of all three characters who share the stage with Hamm – Clov, Nagg, and Nell – allude to “nails” in French, German, and English, respectively. The clear implication that Hamm is a perverse Christ – one who advises “Lick your neighbor as yourself” (68) and who inflicts suffering rather than bearing it – may lead us to wonder further if Beckett may also have been thinking, as he fashioned the character of Hamm, of canto 34 of the Inferno in which Christ “reappears” in the perverse form of a Satan who re-enacts the Last Supper by eating notorious traitors (Brutus, Cassius, and Judas) rather than offering his body and blood to his followers. This pattern whereby Hamm repeats in a maleficent – and, hence, dialectical – way a figure whose actions are beneficent in the source to which Beckett alludes also relates to other biblical echoes, including the journey to the Promised Land (recalled by Hamm’s derisive allusion to “manna in heaven?”), the Joseph story (Hamm’s mention of the corn that he has in his granaries), and the many gospel accounts of Christ curing the sick and feeding the hungry, which are all compressed into Hamm’s account of the man who begged him for “bread for his brat.” 

   The difference between creative disguises and dialectical reversals also corresponds to the distinction that Deleuze makes between the “will to power” and the “desire for power” in Nietzsche et la philosophie. The will to power – for Deleuze, as for Nietzsche – is a source of affirmation, whereas the desire for power is a slavish, reactive and negative desire. The desire for power, according to Deleuze, is nothing more than the image which the impotent fashion of the will to power. A useful illustration of this distinction appears in the photograph of Beckett directing Pozzo during rehearsals of Warten auf Godot in 1975. 

Beckett and Pozzo

   What I find especially intriguing in this photo is the close resemblance between the gestures of Pozzo and Beckett, which amounts to a repetition into which—in Deleuzian terms—has slipped a crucial difference. Pozzo, like Hamm in Endgame, is motivated by a desire for power that will repeatedly meet with frustration. Beckett, in contrast, is motivated by the will to power, which, according to Deleuze is essentially creative and giving; it neither aspires, nor seeks, nor does it desire power.

   However, as the photo may also suggest, the will to power and the desire for power, as well as the distinct forms of repetition to which they give rise, are not entirely distinguishable from each other. We may even observe in this photo something akin to Freud’s Ich-Spaltung – a splitting of the ego in which the artist, as he obeys the promptings of the creative demon that inspires and guides his aesthetic activity both uses and distances himself from the part of his own personality that is in thrall to a destructive demon who lures him into an impasse. It may also be worth remembering, in this respect, Nietzsche’s idea that the will to power is always inhabited or contaminated by reactive forces. The question then becomes how can one overcome this contamination and give untrammelled expression to the affirmative will to power. Beckett’s strategy, in Endgame as elsewhere, is to project compulsive, or “involuntary,” repetitions upon an alter-ego – perhaps we could even say a scapegoat – who is both like and unlike himself. 

   This process is obviously at work in Beckett’s major novels, in which the protagonists are writers who confront an apparently insurmountable stumbling block that Beckett himself circumvents through the act of writing. This explicit resemblance between Beckett and his creatures applies in a less obvious, but no less fundamental way, to many of his plays in which we notice not only the proliferation of storytellers, whose art resembles that of their creator, but of “protagonist/directors” whose exercise of power in their directorial guise is every bit as meticulous – perhaps one could even say as “dictatorial” – as Beckett’s. 

   Once we have understood that Hamm is struggling to repress the trauma of parental indifference by refashioning himself as a powerful and “happy” king who, in his turn, is indifferent to the suffering of others, the strategies that contribute to this dialectical reversal become reasonably transparent: he wears a “crown,” sits on a “throne,” issues “commands,” confiscates the material goods of his kingdom, and even “quotes” Shakespeare’s Richard III (“My kingdom for a nightman.”). When, on the contrary, we see that Beckett is creatively imitating for his own theatrical purposes the diverse models offered to him by the tyrant, the visual artist, and the orchestral conductor, we see in this innovative self-fashioning something entirely different from an endlessly repeated and ultimately futile cliché. 

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Murphy. New York: Grove Press, 1957.

---. Endgame. New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche et la philosophie. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1962.

---. Différence et répétition. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1968.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton, 1975.

Gontarski, S. E. The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Passeron, René, ed. Création et répétition. Paris: Editions Clancier-Guénaud, 1982.