No success like failure : Beckett's Endgame and the frustration of sonata form
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Samuel Beckett’s skepticism regarding language’s ability to communicate effectively drives his dramas’ use of formal and stylistic gestures that emphasize the musical potential of words. In this report, I analyze Beckett’s play Endgame (1958) in light of its musical elements and their implications for performance. Critics have debated the putative presence of sonata form, a type of musical structure prevalent among classical pieces from the eighteenth century, in Endgame. Emmanuel Jacquart proposes that the play follows such a form, while Thomas Mansell and Catherine Laws doubt the possibility of such interdisciplinarity. Mansell wonders whether the ascription of sonata form to Endgame’s structure merely couches dramatic fundamentals in musical terms, while Laws argues that the lack of harmonic structure in human speech prevents a spoken medium like drama from fully absorbing the formal conventions of classical music. I explore the uncharted territory between these two critical camps, linking the implications of Jacquart’s position for the performance of Endgame, as well as Mansell’s and Laws’s reiterations of the fundamental separation of language and music, to Beckett’s own preoccupation with the inability of language to express thought and emotion adequately. Ultimately, I contend that Endgame functions not simply as a sonata, but as a frustrated sonata; that is, it approximates sonata form but can never fully replicate it. As such, Endgame becomes a point of origin for Beckett’s more experimental later plays, a concept I illustrate by demonstrating how Play (1963), the work commonly regarded as the turning point between Beckett’s early and late dramatic styles, essentially revisits and refines the frustrated sonata.