Neither Samuel Beckett’s Endgame nor Edward Bond’s Lear are described by their authors as tragedies, and it seems unlikely that Aristotle would recognise them as such. Nevertheless, both writers draw self-consciously on elements of classical tragedy – though with different aesthetic and moral intentions, and with strikingly different results. In this essay, I will discuss the ways in which Beckett and Bond have adapted the model of classical tragedy, as outlined by Aristotle, to reinvent the genre for the modern era.At the same time, I want to explore the theme of silence.
This is a key idea in both plays, but it is interpreted very differently by the two writers in their diverse tragic schemes. Thanks in no small part to Beckett and Bond, tragicomedy has been the dominant theatrical genre of the last half-century – so much so that it has become an almost meaningless catch-all term to describe any play which combines sad and funny elements. However, both Lear and Endgame can properly be described as tragicomedies, as recent productions make clear.A review of the revival of Lear at the Sheffield Crucible states: ‘If Shakespeare’s Lear blurred the line between high tragedy and black comedy then Edward Bond removes that line completely’ (Highfield, 2005).
Meanwhile, the programme notes for the Oslo Shakespeare Company’s Endgame advise: ‘The danger any production of Beckett faces is trying to steer the correct course between the Scylla of taking him too seriously and the Charybdis of not taking him seriously enough’ (Oslo Shakespeare Company, 2004).This ambiguity is succinctly...
summed up by Nell in Endgame: ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ (p. 101). In fact, the characters in Endgame comment on the farcical nature of their unhappy existence: ‘Why this farce, day after day? ‘ asks Nell (p. 99) after the pitiful pantomime of her and Nagg’s attempt to kiss, and her words are echoed a few minutes later by Clov (p. 107).
To underline the point, Beckett introduces many moments of farcical action (which are much more apparent in a stage production than on the page).Clov’s attempts to kill a flea by pouring insecticide powder down his trousers (p. 108) are a particularly gleeful example. For Aristotle, this would be the lowest form of comedy. According to his definitions: ‘Comedy aims at representing men as worse.
.. than in actual life’ (Cooper ed. , 1997). Beckett emphatically does this: it is hard to imagine characters depicted in a worse state than Nagg and Nell, human waste confined to a dustbin. Hamm himself is almost as grotesque, a sick, blind and unpleasant man confined to a wheelchair.
Yet he is well aware of his role as a tragic hero: ‘Can there be misery loftier than mine? ‘ he asks in almost his first words (p. 93). ‘No doubt. Formerly.
But now? ‘ The elevated tragic heroes of Aristotle’s age are no more: Beckett makes us consider the tragedy of man in his most degenerate state. He later mocks the conventions of classical tragedy: ‘Did you never hear an aside? ‘; ‘I’m warming up for my final soliloquy. ‘; ‘More complications! Not an underplot, I trust. ‘ (p.
130). Such conventions provide a meaning and an order which is conspicuously lacking in Beckett’s absurd universe.Hamm’s blindness evokes the greatest of classical tragic heroes, Oedipus (while simultaneously creating comedy through this juxtaposition). This is a quality which Bond’s Lear also shares. In Shakespeare’s version, it is Gloucester who is blinded.
Bond changes this in order to focus the tragedy on Lear himself. Lear’s stature as a tragic hero in the classical mould is more straightforward than Hamm’s: he is a king, and the sufferings he undergoes are of a magnitude which Aristotle would recognise.Indeed, the character of King Lear is already firmly established as a tragic hero from Shakespeare’s version, however much Bond may depart from this. In fact Lear reworks certain tragic conventions to suggest a vision of history. For if tragedy is to be an appropriate and useful genre for Bond’s socialist themes it must resist delivering up a sense of time that is unrelated to the real movement of history.
For example, in A. C. Bradley’s traditional interpretation of King Lear, an equation is struck between injury and retribution: in a justly ordered cosmos, man learns through suffering and evil confounds itself. Time seems to reconcile the moral and political orders that men’s actions have upset. Bond finds this vision a dangerous moral: for him time is not redemptive, but entropic, an abstract force eating away at life and against which all characters are pitted.
The end result is an experience of mortality that has nothing to do with the movement of history.For Bond time is history and the characters’ subjective experience of time depends on their particular relation to history- as victims, as motive forces, or as a combination of both. Act One of Lear offers the accelerated tempo of chronological time: the structure of this act recalls the linear progression of many tragic plots; Act Two focuses on Lear’s imprisonment where he confronts his past, and the experience of time slows to a tidal flow of psychic life; Act Three joins these two perspectives as Lear attempts to reinsert himself in the movement of history in order to change it’s ultimate direction.Bond’s play depends upon many of the essential elements of tragedy as outlined by Aristotle: the ‘Reversal of Fortune’ (at the beginning of the play Lear is a king ordering the building of the wall; at the end he is with the peasants trying to tear it down), ‘Recognition..
. a change from ignorance to knowledge’ (‘I knew nothing, saw nothing, learnt nothing’ (p. 4) Lear realises, while his blindness, like Oedipus’, gives him insight), the ‘Scene of Suffering’ (too numerous to mention in what remains one of the most violent plays ever written). So as tragedy, Lear displays elements from both Aristotelian and Shakespearean models: it traces the fall of a man from an eminent position (peripeteia), involves the hero’s discovery or recognition of his error through suffering (anagnorisis), and involves the death or destruction of the protagonist (catastrophe).A number of typically tragic themes could be added to the list: Bond’s exploration of the complex relationship between history and the individual, between the experience
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