Theater Review: Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” — Soldiering On Through the Void

æBrooke Adams portrays Winnie as the ultimate smiley face; her husband, Tony Shalhoub, is little more than another prop weathering her on-going babble.

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Andrei Belgrader. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, Wellesley, MA, through November 23.

Photo: Ed Krieger

Brooke Adams (Winnie) and Tony Shalhoub (Willie) in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.” Photo: Ed Krieger.

By Iris Fanger

Samuel Beckett, the mid-20th century, Nobel-Prize winning poet of a playwright, uses metaphor and irony to create a world on stage where he is always in control. Despite the traditional theatrical convention of collaboration between the actors, director, designer and playwright, Beckett supplies detailed and specific stage directions in his scripts – no deviations allowed.

In Beckett’s two-hander Happy Days (premiered in New York, 1961), the protagonist, Winnie, is buried in a huge mound of dirt up to her ample bosom. She wakes, opening her eyes to the sound of a bell which means that the day has begun. She will obey the command to close her eyes and go to sleep when the last bell rings. If she rests her eyes during the day, the bell rings loudly to jolt her awake. The milieu in which she is literally stuck—a desert of parched grasses under a sun that blazes 24/7—offers no clues to the ordering of the human cycle, other than the sound of the bell.

Relentlessly cheery, or nearly always so, Winnie finds things to do. A large bag sits on top of the mound within reach to her left; a parasol at her right. During the two days of her existence that we share she talks constantly to her husband (?), Willie — perhaps her partner — maybe her lover  (at one time, to be sure). Willie lives in a cave she can barely see, behind and below the mound. He seldom replies to her incessant monologue, except with a grunt which assures her that she is not alone in the wilderness, that she is still connected to another human being — one of the “great mercies,” as she puts it. If Willie adds a word or two, she lights up with gratitude and a sunny smile, “Oh, this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! (Pause) After all. (Pause) So far.” The phrase becomes her reoccurring mantra.

After reciting a brief prayer to an unresponsive Jesus Christ, Winnie starts off her morning by brushing her teeth, like the rest of us. Brooke Adams, the compelling actress who is cast in the role, begins by digging into her bag for her toothbrush and toothpaste, building a tableau of little actions that become a masterful comic scene. The viewer may be surprised by how imaginatively and thoroughly she combines the gestures and props. But look at the stage directions in script and, amazingly, it turns out that she and director Andrei Belgrader have deftly followed Beckett’s lead: “(Pause. She turns to the bag, rummages in it without moving it from its place, brings out toothbrush, rummages again, brings out flat tube of toothpaste, turns back front, unscrews cap of tube, lays cap on ground, squeezes with difficulty small blob of paste on brush, holds tube in one hand and brushes teeth with other. She turns modestly aside and back to her right to spit out behind the mound.)”

So, like the unseen deity, force of nature, government, or terrorist group that has mired Winnie and Willie in this situation beyond their control, Beckett, too, is a despot, demanding that his work be performed in the manner he has decreed. The irony in the title of his play is not only the optimistic way in which Winnie acquiesces to her bleak fate; it is also Beckett’s dictatorial insistence on the manner in which his plays are to be performed.

Adams portrays Winnie as the ultimate smiley face; her husband, Tony Shalhoub, is little more than another prop weathering her on-going babble. However, it is amusing to see such a distinguished actor in the subordinate role. Adams endows Winnie with an innate sweetness; there’s never a mean tone to her voice, no matter how frequently she makes deprecatory remarks about her mate. With a catalogue of nimble facial expressions that change with each passing thought, and a consummate sense of timing, Adams has found a way of making the character unique and her own within the strict parameters of Beckett’s instructions.

If you think Winnie’s life is bleak in Act I, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as the comics would say. In Act II, we find Winnie buried in the mound up to her neck. She cannot move her head from side to side, and must rely on her eyes to see anything that might be on the perimeter. She has not heard from Willie for days. If there’s a future, she does not know what it might be. As for the past, and the memories that comforted her in Act I, these, too, are fading. Although the bag and parasol are still resting next to her, she cannot reach them. And one thing more, the gun. In Act I, Winnie pulls a gun out of her bag, along with the conventional belongings such as a comb, brush, and lipstick. The gun poses a tantalizing possibility for both her and Willie. Should they use it to end their misery? Somehow, they do not: they seem to be compelled by an innate human desire for survival.

But Beckett has changed the equation in Act II. Although Winnie can no longer reach the gun and use it, Willie can. When he re-appears at the end of the second act, he is decked out in formal dress and top hat, climbing his way towards Winnie, perhaps making a beeline to the gun at her side. Beckett, ever the master theatrical strategist, does not allow us to see the resolution. Does Willie ever reach her side? Is he going for the gun, or to comfort Winnie by his presence? As in life, the circle never closes nor does the story ever end, at least as far as Beckett is concerned.

Despite the script’s bleak metaphor of two lives caught in an existentialist void, the viewer cannot help but feel a kinship to Winnie and Willie, soldiering on as best they can, victims of an unfeeling fate that that they don’t understand and cannot change.

Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).

Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.

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