From its first appearance, Samuel Beckett's work has elicited philosophical response. While such responses have appeared often and consistently, their tenor has, over the course of the last fifty years, varied not inconsiderably, generally following or drawing on topical trends in contemporaneous philosophy. This is not surprising. Amongst the voices in this voluble discourse, however, two stand out as particularly interesting for the way in which they buck this trend: Theodor Adorno's, in his essay "Trying to Understand Endgame" (2003), and Stanley Cavell's, in his essay of 1969, "Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's Endgame" (1969).
The two are among the earliest philosophical readings of Beckett (Adorno's may be in fact the earliest: Richard Coe's Samuel Beckett, the first philosophically oriented monograph on the author, was published in 1964)--and both, despite proceeding entirely independently, offer remarkably similar interpretations of the structure and significance of Endgame. The writers' understanding of the play, as demonstrated by their concern with form and the challenge it poses to conventional exegesis, prefigures in many important respects the most recent, and, to my mind, convincing, in a long series of philosophical readings of Beckett.
The paradigm shift that occurs between readings such as those offered by, for example, Martin Esslin (1965) and Richard Coe (1964), and those represented by writers such as Simon Critchley (2004), Richard Begam (1996), or Thomas Tresize (1990), lies in the recognition of the works' active antipathy to notions of significance, structure and development as premised on an existential, humanist construal of subjectivity. A great majority of studies from the mid-80s onward have read Beckett as involved in and depicting the reconceptualisation of the nature of the self as carried out in various strands of post-structuralist discourse, marking a shift from those earlier ones which centred on existentialist premises. One implication of this change of focus is an emphasis, in the case of the later readings, on the ludic, self-referential and fundamentally creative nature of the texts, in opposition to analyses which read Beckett in quasi-Sartrean allegorical terms as depicting issues of abandonment, meaninglessness and destitution. Adorno and Cavell's interpretations, in advance of and in opposition to their times, proceed along lines similar to those followed by more recent critics, as I will proceed to elucidate.
It is the form, both contend, that is finally and fundamentally most significant about a piece which seems to cast aspersions on the very possibility of significance; the meaning of the play is to be found in the style, structure and very syntax with which it attempts to dismantle meaning. A large part of the essays' interest lies in the fact that the remarks the two writers make regarding the function of form in Beckett's work are applicable to the author's entire oeuvre, and, indeed, to any art whose form makes conventional exegesis problematic. Adorno and Cavell's readings offer two of the most perceptive and convincing analyses of the peculiar resonance of Beckett's form, and the most compelling accounts of the implications of this for our understanding of not only our interpretive procedures with regard to literature, but of the way in which we understand ourselves, our lives and the world.
Because the way we experience ourselves in the world is so dependent on our structures and procedures of interpretation, it is precisely those aspects of the narratives which render interpretation problematic that are most significant. The primary significance of Beckett's work, in the opinion of Adorno and Cavell, is the way in which it makes us acknowledge the need to rethink our notions of artistic and philosophical signification and interpretation. The meaning of these works is the way in which they put meaning on trial, and the formal strategies by way of which this putting on trial is enacted demand an analogous reinterpretation of the nature of interpretation from the responsive reader or audience. …