Brian Dennehy in Endgame at Long Wharf Theatre

Playing God

Brian Dennehy is God.

Let me explain.

Dennehy, now playing the lead role of Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at Long Wharf Theatre, surely has a place among America’s gods of screen and stage. Often enlisted as a character actor—a phrase imbued here with great esteem–he’s appeared in nearly 170 TV or film productions since 1977 and many stage ones as well, including four at Long Wharf since 2008. Along the way he’s won a Golden Globe and two Tonys.

But a metaphorical, pantheistic, celebrity-worshipping notion of godhood is not what I was getting at before. What I was saying is that, though it’s not at all how his character is billed, Brian Dennehy is playing the role of God right now at Long Wharf Theatre.

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I wager that’s not an uncontroversial statement, so here’s the disclaimer. I’m new to Beckett, and Endgame, like many of his plays, is known for its power to confuse audiences. As Long Wharf’s artistic director (and this production’s director) Gordon Edelstein observes in his program note, “it took time for to learn how to look at and listen to Beckett’s unique genius.” Judging by the somewhat wobbly reaction from Wednesday’s crowd—perhaps attracted less by the play’s heavyweight pedigree than by the star power of the cast, which includes, in very fine form, screen and stage veterans Reg. E Cathey, Joe Grifasi and Lynn Cohen—that dynamic also applies to a 21st-century generation of theatergoers. Post-show conversations and overhearings indicated that, indeed, there was considerable mystification at what they’d just witnessed.

Not myself feeling mystified, I instead felt intensely gratified. My clapping—and eventual standing while clapping—was far from wobbly. And, of all things, I can thank a couple of medieval philosophy classes in college for that. They let me in on a secret: that Endgame presents a fully realized theological vision, one which brilliantly and heretically addresses core issues in Christian metaphysics, including the contours of God’s powers and perspective; the limits that attend free will, for humanity and for God; and the nature of God’s relationship with both humanity and the devil.

Amazingly enough, all of that and more airs out through a series of conversations in a single run-down room. Two tiny windows and a piece of blank parchment hung by a string decorate a wall of wispy grays. On the floor, a hillock of beat-up books rises around a couple of lidded carts. Opposite a wiry metal door on the right, a punched-in globe peaks a pile of rubbish on the left. In the center, a sheet-covered figure, who we soon discover is Hamm, sits in a chair. Another figure, who we come to know as Clov (Reg E. Cathey), stands in the door. Clov emerges, shuffling around, performing menial tasks slowly and inefficiently. We can tell he’s tired and it’s affecting his performance, like someone who’s already had a very, very long day.

We can soon tell something more: that Clov is Hamm’s servant. He obeys Hamm’s directives like he cannot do otherwise; he even says he literally can’t. Yet Hamm is no archetype of earthly authority. Not only is he immobile, he’s also blind and quite rude, which is to say he can’t credibly deploy any of the usual appeals—to affection, or fear, or duty, or exchange—that humans use to get other humans to do what they want. The most natural conclusion, reinforced over and over throughout the play, is that Hamm has a literal power to compel those he wishes to compel—at least, when he wishes to compel them.

This is just the first of many big clues that Hamm is God, a theory offered here in the hope that, for both audiences who’ve already seen it and those who are about to, it will help make the Endgame experience as profoundly rewarding as it ought to be. A survey of the play’s historical critical responses suggests most commentators see Hamm and Clov as human codependents in a ruined world—a sort of post-apocalyptic examination of human nature under extreme circumstances, with mere religious parallels—and Beckett has given observers reason to think so, cloaking his main characters’ extraordinariness in naturalistic language and human foibles, not to forget human bodies.

On the other hand, God made man in his image. Why shouldn’t God look a lot like man?

Endgame at Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Staging through February 5, 2017
(203) 787-4282

Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson.

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