by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Deborah Warner
Produced by The National Theatre of Great Britain
Presented at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
When Samuel Beckett’s wife asked him to write a cheerful play, he wrote Happy Days in which a mid-life woman is buried in an earth mound up to her waist in the first act and up to her neck in the second. For Beckett’s most cheerful exploration of despair now on the Terrace Theater stage, an earthquake of ruptured building materials, cement, rocks and glistening sand fill the stage apron. Relentless white light beats down. Ominous dissonance, a sound track of un-tuned stringed instruments and muffled horns, rattles and percussive ticking come from all directions to usher us in.
Fiona Shaw’s performance as Winnie is not to be missed for its fine-tuned clarity. As directed by Deborah Warner, Shaw delivers a performance that fills the devastation with moment-to-moment spontaneity and nuance, at times borderline jubilant. Considering the character’s limited movement range, Shaw’s expressive face and mane of dark hair adds a dignified elegance but earthy resilience to Winnie that is touching, funny and mildly mad.
This National Theatre production, if anything, addresses the basic question “Why go on?” In a low-cut black garment, like an indomitable earth goddess in the middle of life, Winnie is buried in dirt up her waist. At the sound of an alarm clock bell, Shaw’s Winnie, with a cheerful smile, celebrates “Another heavenly day” followed by a morning prayer, “World without end Amen.” From that point on, we never know what’s coming next from a survivor who happens to be in hell.
Shaw’s hands flutter, like a bird, as she structures Winnie’s life with her daily rituals of teeth brushing and keeping up appearances, rummaging in her bag for possessions. A pocket mirror confirms her identity as do spectacles, a magnifying glass, lipstick, nail file, and a revolver, which she kisses and names “Brownie.” But Winnie can’t keep chattering into empty space, backed by an upstage painting of a treeless, barren wasteland. She needs Willie, her lover/husband, aptly played by Tim Potter, because she believes she needs to be heard to verify she exists. He listens; therefore, she is.
But her memories are so random, we soon catch on that Beckett uses words, not to communicate meaning, but to cover the pain of existence. Strangely, Winnie babbles compulsively, even though out-of-sight Willie, who has a limited amount to do, ignores her and rarely growls back from his crawl-hole. Or when seen, he’s seated behind the mound, with only the back of his straw-hat shield from the sun in view, as he stares into the want-ads in an opened newspaper. Still Winnie needs him to move so she can see him. But then, Winnie is used to “the old ways,” a repeated refrain.
Program notes at this point would help. We need to know that the Irish side of Beckett still has its say, although he exiled himself out of Dublin to Paris. (along with James Joyce). Although Beckett endured the W.W.II Nazi occupation as a translator for the Paris Resistance, miraculous in itself, he was heavily influenced by German philosophers and contemporary history. Treaties and words fail. The old style of doing things, the old social structures don’t work anymore. Even “the old ways” of writing fail for Beckett who was rebelling against playwriting conventions, based on unities of time, place and action. His was a rebellion that succeeded. Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his writing about “the destitution of modern man…..”
Not all the many transcendental moments in Happy Days are emphasized in this production. But the ones that are, are delicious and absurdly illogical. In Act I, Winnie forecasts her own death by raising the parasol she can’t close or pull down. She’s forced to hold it up “into the blue” by both hands, by a form of reverse gravity. The parasol ignites with fire and burns, a vaudevillian trick. She throws it away. The parasol, like her words, won’t protect her from the heat of the sun. Shaw plays the moment ecstatically as a comforting epiphany: “The way man adapts himself. To changing conditions.”
No matter how good the acting, the rich layers of literary allusions in Happy Days, however, need pegs because Beckett simply doesn’t explain. Of Winnie’s remembered fragments of classics, the most illuminating ones come from Dante, Beckett’s favorite from childhood. In Canto X: Sixth circle of hell: the damned lie in open tombs with fire raining down, like the glaring sun on Winnie. That’s obvious. But when Winnie and Willie share wild laughter at Winnie’s discovery through her magnifying glass, of the emmet, or ant, immensely exciting in barren landscape, we don’t know why she and Willie laugh. Perhaps it’s because in the Cornish dialect, an emmet is a derogatory name for tourist, or maybe it’s a joke about Thomas Addis Emmet, a prominent Irish politician. A swarming ant hill of emmets would add to Winnie’s hell. Knowing more would help explain the hilarity.
Furthermore, even though nothing seems to be happening, everything is. Scraps of quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, poet Thomas Gray, romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, and Yeats, we’re expected to recognize, are thrown into the mix. Winnie, in moments of anxiety, half remembers her favorite quotes from the classics, memories of her first ball, and we are led to speculate: If there’s memory loss, does she lose her past and her self?
For Winnie, the answer is no, because she’s the eternal optimist. Enough memory comes back, which in Act II, she focuses on as “so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day” which ultimately raises another basic question: If life is meaningless, nothing more than birth next to a grave, why not end it now?
Such a layered text could only be acted by an actress of Fiona Shaw’s stature, who plays the allusions lightheartedly. But what was jarring in this production was the 1970’s “Happy Days” rock and roll theme song, by Paul Williams, for the television sitcom used for intermission music. Completely wrong unless it was meant to be harsh irony about the erosion of the soul.
In Act II, Shaw, with one of her front teeth now blackened to look missing, makes black humor out of being buried up to her neck. All Winnie can do is stick out her tongue to affirm her existence. The shorter sentences in Winnie’s monologue take a terrifying turn after she greets the day “Hail, Holy Light.” (from Milton’s Paradise Lost.) All she has left is her ability to hear sound and her mind to remember. Her bag and revolver are still on the mound but she can’t reach them. Still she adapts and optimistically, consoles herself without giving into despair. “If the mind were to go…….It might be the everlasting perishing cold……Of course my mind won’t go, not yet, anyway. And that’s great mercies,” a line that served as a working title before Beckett picked Happy Days. In a way, there’s so much compassion in the way Shaw plays it, Great Mercies fits. We have to be in awe of human survival.
The Estate of Samuel Beckett specifies that the playwright’s concept must be respected and performed word-perfect. In Pittsburgh, ten years ago, two Carnegie Mellon professors got away with adding a pantomimed scream of terror from Winnie at the ends of both acts. Better to stay true to the master, who launched modern theatre-of-the-absurd with his Waiting for Godot. The terror is more subtle in this British production. Willie crawls up the mound to reach his Beatrice. Is the revolver he is reaching for his way out, or a weapon to silence Winnie? Or is Willie reaching out to touch Winnie’s face with love? Willie’s famous, one-liner is uttered and the choice of how to end life and the play is Willie’s, no longer Winnie’s. Or will he sit out the remainder of his life at the foot of the earth mother, listening to Winnie go out singing “You Love Me So!” from The Merry Widow? The ending is ambivalent.
The apocalyptic set by Tom Pye is suitably relevant. Mel Mercier’s percussive and atonal score is John Cage-like, not attached to any recognizable musical culture. The lighting design by Jean Kalman and sound design by Christopher Shutt are supportive. In this setting, with this team, Happy Days could go on forever.
Running Time: 1:20 with 20 minute intermission
Where: Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
When: continues Sunday, November 25, Tues.-Thurs., Nov. 27-29, at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $65, at the Kennedy Center Box Office
Contact Info: Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600. Toll-free call at (800) 444-1324 or consult the website.