There’s minimalist, and there’s minimalist. Beckett’s Happy Days is not just stripped bare of extravagant staging, but of familiarity, of movement, and almost, even, of cast. I was familiar with the more famous Waiting for Godot, and suspense had been built by our gaining entry into the theatre only five minutes before the start time, so I was eager to see what absurdist genius Beckett, Peake, and Frankcom in collaboration would have in store in this production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
Sure enough, a mound of earth comprised the entire set, in which Maxine Peake (Winnie), slumbering, was held fast up to her waist, beside an umbrella and open black handbag. Surrounded by a moat-esque puddle of water, this hill began to swivel slowly after the ‘bell for waking’ signalled the start of the play’s action and ‘another heavenly day’, a necessary and ingenious touch for this theatre-in-the-round. This turning soon revealed Willy, to whom Winnie addresses the majority of her incessant speech (a man of few words, to say the least) lazily occupying his man cave further down the mound.
The plot, if we can call it that, centres around the trapped and chattering Winnie and her husband, the unresponsive Willie. Her continual repetition of little, everyday, brave-face turns of phrase take on an increasingly pitiable tone: ‘No worse, no better. No change, no pain’, ‘Can’t complain’. She sporadically remembers quotations from the literary study of her school days, which ‘wonderful lines’ reveal the real emotions behind her chirpy front: from Ophelia to Thomas Gray, they all dwell on sadness and perseverance, the contrast of ‘fleeting joys … lasting woe’, the injunction to ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’.
It is when Willie first wakes from his dozing that Winnie declares it will, after all, be another ‘happy day’, which we come to doubt over the course of Act 1. The claim becomes increasingly unconvincing as Winnie’s perky commentary seems ever more flimsy and tragic, especially in the bleaker second act, when Winnie is buried up to her head and Willy nowhere in sight.
The question was (and remains): what does it all mean? What does this mound of sand which traps Winnie, forcing her to keep up her spirits with endless chatter and the limited resources of her handbag, stand for? Were we watching a fantastical piece about a shipwrecked couple trapped in the drudgery of a dystopia, or an innovative and symbolic depiction of the emotional state of a couple in a suburban home? Does it matter?
We’re the passing spectators described by Winnie, constantly wondering:
What’s she doing? he says – What’s the idea? he says – struck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground … What does it mean? he says – What’s it meant to mean? – and so on – lot more stuff like that
Of James Knowlson’s abundant suggestions to explain Winnie’s situation, my personal favourite is the evocation of the condemned souls of Dante’s Inferno in The Divine Comedy, as the painter Gustave Doré depicted them – though I’m not convinced that Beckett consciously wished to liken his prattlingly loveable heroine to one of the damned. Perhaps her loneliness and immobility echo their sorry fate.
My theory was human relationships in modern life. Winnie’s greatest fear is that her husband, even if he doesn’t respond, can’t or hasn’t heard her. She couldn’t bear talking without ‘Something of this being heard’. Her self-reassurance that such is not the case is admirable but heart-breaking:
I am not merely talking to myself, that is in the wilderness, a thing I could never bear to do – for any length of time
But we see that talking to herself is exactly what she’s doing. She clings to Willie like she does the occupying objects of her handbag, like she does the miniscule writing on her toothbrush – ghosts of things which keep her going.
The message is beautiful: that all we need to make our days happy is one another, meaningful human interaction. And yet Beckett’s commentary doesn’t offer such an uplifting message, because his bleak appraisal seems to be that we are not providing each other with such comfort.
In my reading this is a play about the smallest things we require from others – and the catastrophe of their not being given and received. It’s about the things we cling to to keep us going nevertheless, emotively captured in Winnie’s injunction to herself to maintain a self-control which becomes painstaking: ‘Do not overdo the bag’.
It seems that it’s those things which keep us grounded. In my favourite moment of the play, Winnie considers what might happen if she were, one happy day, freed:
Is gravity what is was, Willie, I fancy not. (Pause.) Yes, the feeling more and more that if I were not held – (gesture) – in this way, I would simply float up into the blue. (Pause.) And that perhaps some day the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out. (Pause.) Don’t you ever have that feeling, Willie, of being sucked up? (Pause.) Don’t you have to cling on sometimes, Willie?
If Winnie were ever released, she would be just as purposeless and powerless, floating in the blue, as she is now fixed in the earth. Winnie is condemned, perhaps like us all, to drudgery, to floating through life, and the best she can make of it really is to hold fast and convince herself that these are happy days.
Is Beckett asking us to look on the bright side? It certainly seems preferable to Willie’s somnambulant approach in virtually the same predicament.
I think there’s more to it than that, though. Beckett equates us with the couple who pass by and wonder at Winnie, so our lesson is to be learnt from them. Despite bickering, the two end up departing ‘hand in hand’, and the chivalrous assertion of the male (in contrast to Willie’s lethargy) is that ‘I’d dig her out’. This couple has the compassion and ability to listen to and care about one another which Beckett implores from us, and as such is allowed to walk past Winnie and Willie merely as observers. But they come dangerously close to missing the value of what they have, and it is here that Beckett’s message lies, for me: appreciate the freedom and purpose you have, and, above all, utilise them to appreciate those around you.
But given Beckett’s own reluctance to ‘explain’ his plays, I’m eager to explore other interpretations. I overheard suggestions at the interval that Winnie is trapped in marriage – and I had initially toyed with the idea of gender roles. Winnie is more deeply embedded and less free than her husband, and the things which emerge from her handbag and shape her self-presentation, besides the revolver which she is looking after for Willie, are distinctly feminine and domestic.
The play often seems like a crazy take on folk linguistic notions of male and female discourse. I couldn’t decide whether Winnie’s exaggerated loquacity and Willie’s taciturnity was problematic from a feminist standpoint, especially given the total lack of women in Beckett’s celebrated Waiting for Godot, and Winnie’s subtle sexualisation – her ‘low bodice’ and ‘big bosom’ – which R Simone notes was key in Billie Whitelaw’s 1979 performance of Winnie, whom Beckett himself instructed. But, on the other hand, Willie’s infuriating minimal response did seem to be just as sharply criticised by Beckett as it is by feminist linguists such as Pamela Fishman. The conclusion of her seminal study on interactional effort, that ‘women must do the shitwork and not complain’, seemed to be something Beckett was almost explicitly dealing with.
Whether or not gender comes into the equation, this is a stark depiction of a marriage which is broken beyond the miscommunication of the two parties. As William McEvoy notes in his brilliant consideration of the play, Beckett himself spoke of ‘two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between [them]’. For me, this evokes Clarissa Dalloway’s certainty of the irreducible nature of the self in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – ‘here was one room, there another. Did religion solve that, or love?’ – and the difficulty of intimate human interaction in the face of that truth.
My fellow theatre-goer’s take was that the play is a vivid representation of disability and immobility. This seed (planted in our excitable conversation at the interval) flourished in Act 2, becoming almost prophetic, where it is clear that Winnie, as commentators have pointed out, is sinking deeper into the sands of time, and the failings of her memory, as well as her near paralysis, are more forcefully laid out. This might be the following day, it might be years later, but the distinct change which has taken place is brilliantly captured in this production: Peake’s hair and make-up are a touch dishevelled, and the intensity and claustrophobia of her situation is now tangible, with the image of her protruding head visible up close on TV screens facing the audience.
This time it’s like watching someone go crazy, not just keep their spirits up. Winnie’s apparent obliviousness to Willie’s disappearance and greater concentration on the past evokes a mind overtaken by dementia, and draws into question the perky stability and control of the previous act. No more can she cling to her little necessaries, because the bag lies out of the reach of her buried arms. No more does she seem convinced that these are her happy days, and the play now seems to take its title from her memories of old, carefree times.
Whatever theory we apply, Happy Days explores poignantly, in its strangeness, the insufficiency and the failings of human relationships, of memory, of will, of our bodies. It shows how routine, repetition and habit can alternately and simultaneously comfort and trap us. It presents bizarre entombment, before the grave, to explore the parallels between life and death.
It considers the powers and inadequacies of words and language both to describe and to shape our circumstances. As writers, but also simply as speakers of a language, Winnie’s assertion that ‘Words fail. There are even times when they fail’ is a scary prospect, and one which Beckett forces us consider when we listen to Winnie in a way that Willie never does.
Beckett declared that this play was ‘a much more difficult job … than any so far – all poised on a razor-edge and no breathers anywhere’ – and it’s certainly true that its starkness and intensity, its lack of explanations, continue to impress and baffle audiences. Peake’s performance was stellar, conveying Winnie’s well-disguised despair with her little bored fidgets and forbearing smile, and truly endearing us to a character from whom we can learn much, so that the overwhelming emotion as the curtain closes on this production is one of impressed, reflective, melancholy sympathy.