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.
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!
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.
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 …