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.
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”.
“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.
G.B. Shaw’s Arms and the Man is both a sparkling romantic comedy and a telling satire of love, war and social pretension. It was Shaw’s first public success as a playwright when it premiered in London in 1894, and is currently enjoying an acclaimed revival at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, Surrey.
I’m joined by Shaw expert Ivan Wise, who is a previous editor of The Shavian, the journal of the Shaw Society.
C.P. Taylor’s powerful, cautionary play Good charts how an ostensibly ‘good’ person can become not just complicit to evil behaviour, but an active participant. Professor John Halder’s creeping moral compromise as he joins the Nazi elite in 1930’s Germany is a disturbing reminder of the dangers of populist political crusades.
The play is currently being revived at the Harold Pinter theatre in London with David Tennant in the role of John Halder, and I’m delighted to be joined by the production’s director, Dominic Cooke, to explore the contemporary resonances of this provocative play.
Frank Wedekind’s dark, expressionist play Spring Awakening is a cautionary portrait of adolescent angst and rebellion against oppressive social strictures and family pressures. Its frank depiction of sex and violence remains shocking more than 130 years after it was written, and it is the unlikely source of the award-winning modern musical of the same name.
I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Karen Leeder to explore the contemporary controversies and enduring relevance of this extraordinary play.
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 …