Nagg and Nell – Beckett’s Love Story

Hamm: Throughout the play remaining seated in an armchair fitted with castors, unable to stand and blind. Hamm is dominating, acrimonious, banterous and comfortable in his misery. He claims to suffer, but his pessimism seems self-elected. He chooses to be isolated and self-absorbed. His relationships come off as parched of human empathy; he refers to his father as a “fornicator”, refused to help his neighbor with oil for her lamp when she badly needed it, and has a fake pet dog which is a stuffed animal.

Clov: Hamm’s servant who is unable to sit. Taken in by Hamm as a child. Clov is wistful. He longs for something else, but has nothing to pursue. More mundane than Hamm, he reflects on his opportunities but takes little charge. Clov is benevolent, but weary.

Nagg: Hamm’s father who has no legs and lives in a dustbin. Nagg is gentle and fatherly, yet sorrowful and aggrieved in the face of his son’s ingratitude.

Nell: Hamm’s mother who has no legs and lives in a dustbin next to Nagg. Reflective, she delivers a monologue about a beautiful day on Lake Como, and apparently dies during the course of the play.

Samuel Beckett said that in his choice of character’s names, he had in mind the word “hammer” and the word “nail” in English, French and German respectively, “clou” and “nagel”.

Beckett was an avid chess player, and the term endgame refers to the ending phase of a chess game. The play is dimly visible as a kind of metaphorical chess, albeit with limited symbolic meaning. Hamm at one point says “My kingdom for a knight-man!”. Hamm, limited in his movement, resembles the king piece on a chess board, and Clov, who moves for him, a knight.

I’ve never seen a greater love scene in modern literature than those two old people in the ash cans. I’ve always said, it’s easy to write a love scene on the back seat of a Cadillac with the leopard-skin seats. But if you really make me believe in love, two old people whose legs are cut off, who live in sawdust in an ash can, that shows great compassion and great understanding.

Alan Schneider
The director who introduced the works of Samuel Beckett to American audiences, beginning with Waiting for Godot. Since then, he has directed all the plays of Edward Albee.

from interview with Studs Terkel, found in
The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With the People Who Make Them