Happy Days begins with a klaxon that makes the entire audience jump. On stage, buried up to her waist in sand, Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) awakes with a start. For the next two hours she tries to engage her partially visible husband Willie (David Beames) in conversation and gives a running commentary on her physical state, the contents of her bag (parasol, spectacles, revolver, music box, comb, toothbrush) and memories of her past, her optimism sounding increasingly misplaced. The second act is shorter and darker. Winnie is now buried up to her neck, and her fear and panic come to the surface.
It’s a mountain of a part for an actress and as you’d expect, Stevenson turns in a fabulously nuanced performance. She never lapses into histrionics, but the suppressed hysteria behind the stiff upper lip is extraordinarily affecting.
Being buried in sand evokes memories of children’s games on the beach, but also a presage of death. It’s an arresting poetic image that in the theatre could seem heavily allegorical but as is classic Beckett, meaning is free-floating. There is no night and day, time is parcelled out between sleep and waking and punctuated by the earsplitting klaxons. This is not the lux aeterna longed for in Christian liturgy; the harsh sun beats down on Winnie and Willie and offers no respite.
We don’t know who Winnie is, or her husband. We have no idea how she got there. There is no causality at all. Context tunes in and out like a faltering radio; Winnie tells us of her past but those memories remain fragments.
After the play our party spent some time trying to figure out the different layers in the text. Is it about a dying marriage? Is it a post-apocalyptic world? Is Winnie’s attachment to her comb, toothbrush and music box a comment on the human desire for ritual in the face of a hostile universe? Is it one of Dante’s circles of hell? Is it about the futility of language to make sense of experience? Is it a music hall routine gone wrong?
The skill of this production (directed by Natalie Abrahami) and of Stevenson’s performance was that all those potential meanings co-exist. It would be a mistake to plump for one unitary reading, since it’s a play that resists all closure. This makes it sound like it could be a terrible couple of hours spent in the theatre, but Beckett done well is mesmerising. Though you might need a glass of wine afterwards.
Beckett wrote in both French and English: Happy Days was staged in New York in 1961 and in Paris in 1963 as Oh Les Beaux Jours. Apparently Beckett got the idea for that exact title from a Verlaine poem, Colloque Sentimental (1869). You can see why he was drawn to it. It’s a short, melancholy piece, where the narrating voice overhears the fragments of conversation of two unnamed figures in a park. One is constantly asking the other to recall their past, but the other’s terse replies are a refusal of love or a refusal of memory itself. They eventually fade out of earshot. (There’s an English translation here http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/15247/.)
Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux formes ont tout à l’heure passé.
Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles,
Et l’on entend à peine leurs paroles.
Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.
-Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?
– Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne?
Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom?
Toujours vois-tu mon âme en rêve? – Non.
Ah ! les beaux jours de bonheur indicible
Où nous joignions nos bouches ! – C’est possible.
– Qu’il était bleu, le ciel, et grand, l’espoir !
– L’espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.
Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,
Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.
– Paul Verlaine