10.9.13

Samuel Beckett's Obsession with Chess

Stephen Moss charts the influence of chess on Beckett's life and work
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: John Minihan.
From Stephen Moss (The Guardian):
Beckett had a lifelong interest in chess and was a keen player, following many of the big matches, says his nephew, Edward, who oversees the Beckett estate. Samuel was taught to play by his elder brother, Frank, and by his uncle, Howard, who achieved the remarkable feat of beating the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca, later world champion, at an exhibition in Dublin. There are a score of chess books in the library of Beckett's old flat in Paris, which is now occupied by Edward and his wife. Beckett played regularly with friends during the second world war, when he was holed up in France working for the Resistance; he liked to annotate master games – the chess books in his library are full of comments – and corresponded with Spanish playwright and fellow chess aficionado Fernando Arrabal. In the early 1940s, he also played – and lost to – Marcel Duchamp, an expert on the game who wrote a chess column for the Paris newspaper Ce Soir.

Poet John Montague, a close friend of his fellow Irishman in Paris in the 1950s and 60s, tells me that Beckett, who was ill at ease with people he didn't know well, would sit in a cafe moving the objects on the table around, "playing a fantasy game of chess", as Montague puts it. It is also tempting to see Beckett treating the stage like a chessboard. An exhibition in Enniskillen includes a diagram of his stage directions, in which he has drawn the precise angles at which actors should process across the space, as if the characters were pieces interacting in a chess game, and where any mis-move would spell disaster.

Endgame in particular is, as the title makes clear, infused with chess. "Me – to play," announces Hamm, the king on a battered throne, at the outset. In chess, the king is the key piece around which the game revolves, yet also the most restricted and impotent, able to move only a square at a time, just like Hamm, who is shuffled round the stage by Clov, the pawn who glimpses freedom. In chess, the feeble pawn, if it can progress to the eighth rank, becomes an all-conquering queen, the true monarch of the game. Who really holds power – Hamm or Clov?

As always with Beckett, there is no easy key to understanding. Chess is clearly a subtext of Endgame – his biographer Deirdre Bair says Beckett was clear on this point – but it is difficult to be reductive. Are Nagg and Nell, trapped in their dustbins, pieces that have been dispensed with to save the king? And when Hamm cries out, in an echo of Shakespeare's Richard III, "My kingdom for a nightman," should we take that as a reference to the knight in chess? Beckett once said the pun was accidental, but a knight – eccentric, dynamic, able to unlock closed positions – is just what the stasis of this endgame needs.

Commentators have suggested that Beckett was intrigued by chess because of the way it combined the free play of imagination with a rigid set of rules, presenting what the editors of the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett call a "paradox of freedom and restriction". That is a very Beckettian notion: the idea that we are simultaneously free and unfree, capable of beauty yet doomed. Chess, especially in the endgame when the board's opening symmetry has been wrecked and the courtiers eliminated, represents life reduced to essentials – to a struggle to survive. [Read More]

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