Lisa Dwan as Winnie
at the Riverside Studios
Photo by Helen Maybanks
031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett
A woman is buried up to her waste in a mound of scorched grass. She lies in blazing sunlight and around her stretches a barren landscape. Her only company is a man lying immobile on the ground behind her, obscured by the mound. This is the stark and shocking opening of Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece, Happy Days. It is a scene that remains as striking and unsettling on stage today as when it was first performed exactly sixty years ago. Its central metaphor, that we endure the empty routine of our daily existence through personal delusion and social ritual, remains as universal as ever. In fact, the apocalyptic world and personal predicament portrayed in Happy Days feels very much like a play for our own time: the portrait of enforced confinement speaks loudly to the monotony and isolation many of us have experienced in the pandemic.
Samuel Beckett established his reputation as the most innovative and challenging dramatist in the world in the 1950s with his first two plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Happy Days, his third full-length play, premiered in New York in September 1961, and a year later at the Royal Court in London in November 1962. The play is essentially an extended monologue that Winnie delivers while physically trapped in the mound throughout. Peggy Ashcroft, who played Winnie at the National Theatre in 1976, labelled the role a “summit part on a par with Hamlet for a female actor”.
To mark the 60th anniversary of its first production, Irish actress and Beckett specialist, Lisa Dwan has just finished a triumphant run as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London in a new production directed by Trevor Nunn. It was a stunning performance, full of instinctive and intelligent understanding of Beckett’s lyrical language, and deeply moving in her portrayal of Winnie’s defiant but vain struggle to keep despair and the encroaching earth at bay. I am hugely excited that Lisa is able to join us to share her enthusiasm for Beckett and this majestic play.
Lisa Dwan is an award-winning actress, director, writer and scholar. She is most well known internationally for her performances and adaptations of Samuel Beckett’s work, including multiple performances of Beckett’s Not I over the past 15 years at London’s Battersea Arts Centre , the Southbank Centre, and at the International Beckett Festival in 2012.
Starting in 2013 Lisa toured the world with “The Beckett Trilogy”, which comprised Not I as well as two of Beckett’s other short plays, Footfalls and Rockaby, visiting the Royal Court, West End, The Barbican Centre, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, among others. In October 2016, Lisa adapted and starred in No’s Knife, a one-woman production adapted from Beckett’s Stories and Texts for Nothing at London’s Old Vic and the Abbey Theatre Dublin.
She has written and presented documentaries on Beckett on BBC and Sky Arts. She has lectured at Columbia, MIT, New York University, Oxford and Cambridge and is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University and CAST Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist and MIT.
Lisa has also appeared on stage around the world in plays by Shakespeare, Pinter and Wilde, and she worked with writer Colm Toibin on new version of Antigone – Pale Sister, which was broadcast on BBC in March 2021. She also starred opposite James Nesbitt in the recent BBC TV drama Bloodlands.
The Footnotes to our episode on Samuel Beckett’s timeless play Happy Days include observations on the power of Beckett’s theatrical imagery, as well as the indeterminate nature of time in the play.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.
A compendium of dramatic intelligence!
Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …