“The greatness of Samuel Beckett, as far as an actor is concerned,” says Tony Award–winning actor Brian Dennehy, “is that Beckett depends so much upon performance.” In Endgame, “a huge responsibility is placed on the actor. There are beautiful speeches toward the end. You just can’t say these things. You have to infuse them with understanding and power.”
Understanding and power have long been Dennehy’s trademarks, and audiences can expect he will bring them to his starring role in the Endgame production premiering next month at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Long Wharf’s artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, directs.
Dennehy’s two Tonys—both for Best Lead Actor in a Play—were for Death of a Salesman (1999) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003). He has performed at Long Wharf in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
The 1957 Endgame is one of the Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s major works, like his Waiting for Godot a paragon of Theatre of the Absurd and an explication (with humor) of life’s meaninglessness. Four characters occupy a desolate room: Hamm is blind and lives in a wheelchair; Clov, his servant, limps; the others, Hamm’s legless parents, live in trashcans.
“One important thing about Beckett’s work,” Dennehy says, “is it’s a single sculpture, not a series of sculptures. All his work is of a piece. He’s trying to come to terms with what he has learned about what everybody carries with them as they trudge toward the last years or months or days of existence. It’s almost as if every few years he takes out a chisel and a hammer and does a little bit more work, so by the end it all adds up.”
“Endgame” refers to the final, deciding moves in a chess match. “It does suggest … some kind of plan, that the players of the game are moving their pieces toward some conclusion. Yet Beckett says in most of his writing that regardless of what your plans are, life has a way of interfering with them and upsetting the apple cart over whatever it damn well pleases. And certainly that happens in Endgame.
“It’s all madness. It’s uncontrollable. It’s outside of our control.”
Dennehy, 78, who portrays Hamm, says it’s tough to discuss the character. “It’s always difficult to describe Beckett’s characters, because they’re not characters as they would be in the sense of a normal play in which people’s lives correspond to what we think of our lives—work takes place, romance, love, children, the normal events of our days occur.”
That’s not Beckett, he says. “Most of his plays are abstractions of these events. You’ve got to deal with the abstractions. If they’re done properly and understood by the actors—which is the hard part, trying to figure out what the hell he is trying to say, and beginning to construct your performance around what you see as his intention—then hopefully at some point toward the end of the play some bright light is switched on.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Charles McNulty, reviewing an earlier Endgame production, wrote that like all Beckett, its subject is “the way human beings fill up the void, the games we play to pass the time, the stories we tell ourselves while making our passage from crib to grave.” Dennehy agrees.
“It’s Beckett’s famous description of life,” he says, citing a quote from Godot—“‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’
“I don’t think you can explain it any better than that.”