Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Tom Stoppard’s majestic play Leopoldstadt include observations on the origins of its title, the metaphoric resonances of the child’s game, Cat’s Cradle, and how Gustav Klimt’s art is an apt choice to help paint the play’s story.

The title of the play
In our conversation Patrick revealed that Leopoldstadt had not been the original working title of the play, but it was an appropriate title. The checkered history of the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna certainly reflects the historical vicissitudes of Jews in Austria. It’s association with the Jews goes back to 1625 when Jews were banned from living within the city walls, and huddled together in a ghetto on the other side of the Danube. They were evicted again in 1669 by Emperor Leopold 1, and the site of their synagogue was cleared to make way for a church dedicated to St Leopold. The area was named Leopoldstadt by the Christian population in gratitude to the Emperor.

After Emperor Joseph issued his Edict of Tolerance in 1782, Jews began to return to Leopoldstadt, although they were still generally banned from the city itself for another century. By the late 19th and early 20th century the area was again associated with the Jews, particularly following the first world war by the poorest people. 

In the Reichskristallnacht pogrom of 1938 the area was once again the focus of persecution when six synagogues and thirty-one prayer houses were destroyed. Today, the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna is no longer Jewish: following the 20th century wave of expulsions only 3% of the population is Jewish.

So the origin of the name Leopoldstadt represents a bitter irony in its association with the Jews of Vienna. The title of the play is a short-hand for targeted discrimination, but it is also a definition of community; a place where people of a kind live together whether by choice or necessity. It’s history also testifies to the way that the identity and interpretation of a place and people can change almost arbitrarily through the currents of history. As the play itself asserts, it is important not to forget the realities of the past that can be lost or obscured over time.  

Emperor Leopold 1st 1640-1705

 

 

The Leopoldstadter Tempel – the largest synagogue in Vienna
Destroyed on Kristallnacht 10 November 1938

 

 

 

 

Cat’s Cradle
The string game that Nathan and Leo play with Ludwig in 1938, and which they remember together when they meet again in 1955 is not only a poignant  personal touchstone; it also has metaphoric resonance in the themes of the play. In typical fashion Stoppard gives us a few clues to these thematic reverberations, such as Ludwig’s observation that there seems to be “no rhyme or reason” in the progress of the game, but in fact “each state comes from the previous state”, as do the events that follow in the flow of history. There is actually a pattern in the game, a mathematical order that is hard to discern underneath the apparent randomness, as the mathematics professor likes to believe there is in nature, despite the chaos of the world they are living in.

Ludwig also points out that the knots in the string in the game “always stay the same distance from each other”, because they never cut the string – a metaphor I think for the fixed links in the family tree that cannot be broken. The individual knots are “not allowed to show up anywhere they like”, just as Leo cannot disown his ancestral origins no matter how far away he travels.

The Cat’s Cradle is a small but glinting example of Stoppard’s art, in that it adds beauty and emotional depth to the personal stories, at the same time as it elaborates on the largest questions in the play.

Gustav Klimt
In the play Gretl is having her portrait painted by none other than Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), one of the founders of the Viennese Seccesion movement and most famously the painter of The Kiss (1907). His work is renowned for its symbolist imagery as well as for its eroticism, which adds an appropriate  frisson to Gretl’s choice of artist. Klimt painted a number of portraits of women from the highest ranks of Viennese society, including two illustrious portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer,  the wife of wealthy Austrian industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Bloch-Bauer who was one of Klimt’s most important patrons, and a respected member of fin de siecle Viennese society. Although Adele’s portraits post-date Gretl’s sitting, they may have partially been a model for the story of her painting. Like Hermann Merz, Bloch-Bauer was Jewish, and in 1938 he fled Austria and his art collection was subsequently seized by the Nazis. After the war the Bloch-Bauer portraits became the subject of a long-running dispute over their ownership, which was only finally resolved in 2006 when the family reclaimed and sold them.

As we learn in the last act of Leopoldstrasse, Gretl’s portrait was also the victim of Nazi pilferage, and Rosa is embroiled years later in a determined battle to recover it from the Austrian state. The fate of the painting is symbolic not only of the lost possessions and lives of the Jews, but of the erased identities of the individuals of the past, one of the running themes of the play. As Nathan tells us, the painting was originally titled “Portrait of Margarete Merz”, but it now hangs in the Belverdere gallery in Vienna known only as “Woman with a Green Shawl”.

There is another reference to Klimt in the play, specifically to his paintings of ‘Philosophy’, Medicine’ and ‘Jurisprudence’, which he was commissioned to produce for the great hall of the University of Vienna. The paintings were greeted by outrage because of their allegorical imagery which many deemed pornographic, and they were never displayed at the university. The painting of ‘Philosophy’ has been described as illustrating an idea prominent at the time that the “purposeful progress of history was ultimately governed by incomprehensible and uncontrollable cyclical forces of nature.” A meaning that sounds particularly fitting for the cycles of persecution and devastation that we witness repeated in the play and over the history of the century. Are these uncontrollable, destructive forces part of our fundamental character as human beings? As Ernst says about the meaning of the paintings: “The rational is at the mercy of the irrational. Barbarism will not be eradicated by culture.”  As if to highlight his point, a postscript to the story is that Klimt’s three university paintings were deliberately destroyed by the Nazis on their retreat from Vienna in 1945. Barbarism indeed.

 

 

 

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)

 

 

Philosophy (1900, 1907)

 

 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

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.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

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!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

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.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

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

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

 

 

 

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard’s latest play Leopoldstadt takes its name from the Jewish district of Vienna, and follows the fortunes and fates of an extended Jewish family as they live through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. As the play begins in 1899, when Vienna had claim to be the cultural capital of Europe, successful Jewish business man Hermann Merz and his family have cause to hope their hard-earned prosperity and security will be long-lasting. Over the next fifty years however we witness their diaspora and decline through the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the First World War, through the Anschluss in 1938 and the death camps that followed, to 1955 when the world is attempting to process the horror and guilt from the second world war.

The play is a sweeping work of history and ideas which addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that remain insistently relevant in our time.  It is both intellectually stimulating and piercingly poignant. It is also a very personal play, because it is in part based on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history. He himself was a Jewish refugee, who as a boy fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia in 1938, escaping finally to England after the war, and where throughout much of his adult life he lived unaware of his Jewish ancestry or the terrible tragedies that befell them.

Tom Stoppard is of course one of the most acclaimed and prolific playwrights of our time, renowned for his intellectual brilliance and wit in plays such as Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, Jumpers, Travesties, Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia and The Hard Problem, to name a selected few. Written as he entered his eighties Leopoldstadt is a towering achievement.

The play opened in London’s West End in January 2020, only to be prematurely closed by the first pandemic lockdown a few weeks later. Happily it has been revived for another London run this Autumn. I’m delighted to be joined in this episode to talk about the play by Patrick Marber, who directed both London productions. Patrick is uniquely qualified to share insights into this play and Stoppard’s work, having also recently directed Travesties in London and New York.

 

Patrick Marber

Patrick Marber is a writer, director, actor and comedian. Patrick began his career as a stand-up comedian, before becoming a writer and cast member on the radio shows On the Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You, and their television spinoffs The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge.

In addition to his acclaimed credits as a director, Patrick is the author of a dozen plays including Dealer’s Choice, Closer, Howard Katz and The Red Lion, as well as adaptations of plays by Strindberg (After Miss Julie), Moliere (Don Juan in Soho), Turgenev (A Month in the Country) and Ibsen (Hedda Gabler). He is also a screenwriter, adapting his play Closer into the 2004 film directed by Mike Nichols, as well as the screenplays for Asylum and Notes on a Scandal.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. Through our selected partners Bookshop.org and Blackwell’s you will also be supporting independent bookshops. Thank you.
Photo © Marc Brenner
We have footnotes for this episode …

The Footnotes to our episode on Tom Stoppard’s majestic play Leopoldstadt include observations on the origins of its title, the metaphoric resonances of the child’s game, Cat’s Cradle, and how Gustav Klimt’s art is an apt choice to help paint the play’s story.​

Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

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.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

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!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

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.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

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

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

 

 

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Published 26th August
This episode is a recorded collection of the recent Footnotes that we’ve published here on the website. During the course of my researches and conversations with my guests there is all sorts of material that fails to reach the final podcasts, either because we simply didn’t have time to talk about it during the recording, or it was too trivial or too much of a digression to fit into the flow of our conversation. I felt after our very first episode that it would be a shame to leave these facts and observations on the cutting room floor, so I started publishing these Footnotes on the website to accompany each episode.

This 3rd volume of Footnotes covers episodes 24-31. It’s a smorgasbord of titbits of information and observations on specific elements of the plays. Examples in this episode include:

  • How lessons from Greek Tragedy could have been learned in Nina Raine’s play about sexual aggression, Consent.
  • Why the men of Athens were especially fearful of Medea.
  • Why the Harlequins are always hungry in A Servant to Two Masters and One Man Two Guvnors. 
  • The meaning of the anagram of Garry Essendine’s name in Present Laughter 
  • The religious power of Bob Dylan’s music in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country
  • What is the connection between Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts and Sheila Delaney’s 1958 sensation A Taste of Honey.
  • Filming Caryl Churchill’s prophetic play Escaped Alone during lockdown
  • Samuel Beckett as an installation artist

And much more… A compendium of dramatic intelligence befitting the best kind of Footnote.

Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

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.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

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!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

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.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

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

Leopoldstadt – Footnotes

Happy Days – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

Happy Days – Footnotes

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.

Installation artist
When I asked Lisa Dwan about the striking visual tableau that we see on stage in Happy Days, she described Samuel Beckett as an “installation artist”. The visual settings of his plays are extraordinarily arresting. They are simple, yet mysterious and powerful. The lone tree in the otherwise empty place where Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, or the room with the windows set high up in the wall, two dustbins and a single throne-like chair in Endgame. We are aware that these particular locations are part of a larger world, but the characters do not have any agency to change or exit their self-contained space. Their constrained circumstances prompt many questions – what is in the world beyond? How have they arrived in this situation? How do they practically survive without the usual necessities?

In fact it is notable how quickly we put aside such questions and accept the status quo of the world we are witnessing. We understand very quickly that the space that the characters occupy is a metaphoric one. As Lisa observed, Beckett’s landscapes reflect a “psychological state”. We experience directly the state of existential uncertainty and enquiry the characters do, and we also understand that there are no rational explanations for what we are seeing. We accept that any answers are going to be unknowable, and we simply adapt to the circumstances we are presented with, as the characters do.

In stripping back the physical world to a minimum Beckett also imbues it with a sense of existential challenge, so that what we witness and experience is essentially consciousness itself. How we respond to psychological pressure, doubt, or fear. As Lisa so succinctly put it, Beckett was “putting the mind on stage”.

Lisa Dwan on the set of Happy Days
at the Riverside Studios

 

 

Diane Wiest as Winnie
photo by Gerry Goodstein

 

“The old style”
Throughout the play Winnie refers obliquely to how life was in a time before as being in “the old style”. Although she never explains explicitly what occurred to separate her from the past, we understand her reference to be describing a world and a life that we would recognise as normal. She describes her first dance, her wedding day, and even an encounter with a man in a tool shed.

Winnie suggests that time passed differently in “the old style”, where the definition of a ‘day’ was not signalled by the ringing of the bell: “Not a day goes by, to speak in the old style”. Linear time as we know, and it used to be for Winnie, no longer seems to apply. There does not appear to be any sunset; the weather never changes; nothing grows; and in fact Winnie suggests that things that she removes from her bag will reappear again tomorrow. Time is an artificial construct of the old world and a way of thinking: “May one still speak of time? Say it is a long time now, Willie, since I saw you. Since I heard you. May one? One does. [smile] The old style!”

Yet we do have a sense that Winnie’s time is running out. The earth has risen to engulf her up to her neck. “Ah well, not long now, Winnie, can’t be long now, until the bell for sleep.”  And of course the title of the play refers to transient, subjective and limited time. In the end Winnie exclaims: “Oh, this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!…After all….So far.” Ambiguous, inevitably.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

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.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

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!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

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.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

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

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

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

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 Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. Through our selected partners Bookshop.org and Blackwell’s you will also be supporting independent bookshops. Thank you.
Photo © Marc Brenner
We have footnotes for this episode …

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.

Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

033 – Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

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.

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

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!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

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