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books you should have read by now: happy days

I am not merely talking to myself, that is in the wilderness, something I could never bear to do

- Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, published in 1960.

 

In Happy Days Samuel Beckett stages a play of extreme physical isolation. Winnie is geographically and mentally isolated from the only other person in the reality of the play: Willie. She attempts to fill the isolation of the landscape with an optimistic chatter, half-remembered fragments of poetry and repetitive rummaging through her bag and by a constant seeking of reassurance and validation from Willie.

Loneliness and alienation are embodied in the very setting and landscape of this play: a simple, barren plain; a blazing, cruel and harsh light and Winnie up to her waist in a mound of earth, then up to her neck. The setting is bleak and entirely decontextualized. Winnie speaks into the void and into a world which is apparently vacant of any meaning or significance. Although Winnie’s cultural references and language indicate a Victorian context, the play gives the audience no clue as to where and when it is unfolding. However, this only contributes to the play’s sense of loneliness, and that humanity has come to a spiritual and physical end. The setting could be said to be the wasteland of the contemporary. It carries a reminder of the holocaust and the atomic bombs and Winnie’s description of her body coming to melt and becoming charred puts one in mind of a landscape at the end of history and time, one which has been spent by the atrocities of war. Moreover, both audience and characters are held prisoner by the landscape. The light illuminates the speakers but its operation is a form of torture and is indeed described as a ‘hellish’ light and our status as spectators places us in collusion with the light; we are both alienated from and implicated in the play.

Through Winnie, the play throws very being into question by exploring her need to be heard and observed in order to gain a sense of her ontology and presence. The play is a sort of meditation on existence as merely filling time, as an endless performing of actions. Thus, questions surrounding the nature of both being and knowledge are brought to the fore: who confirms our identity, what legitimates our own existence and what really constitutes knowledge and who decides what knowledge is. Winnie panics when faced with emptiness and cannot bear to talk ‘in the wilderness’. Her being depends on the existence of an audience and as long as she is talking and there is someone to hear her she can be sure of her ontological status. While her efforts are somewhat admirable, as the play progresses one gets the sense that her endless chatter is futile; it can ultimately be read as pathetic. Her incessant talking simply underscores the silence, her loneliness, and draws attention to her need for validation.

Winnie and Willie’s isolation is amplified by the fact that time does not pass; the present is now entirely occupying. To speak of time passing, of yesterday and tomorrow, is to speak in ‘the old style’. Thus, the play is infused with a sense of endings: of time, history and meaning, as well as marriage and love. The objects in Winnie’s bag, such as the toothpaste, the half empty bottle of medicine, are running out but they will strangely be replaced the next time she is woken by the bell. The play seems to dramatise the end of history as progression. The grandnarrative of ‘progress’ seems totally devoid of meaning in this play because it seemingly heads nowhere. Furthermore, Winnie’s quotations too are decontextualized and refamiliarised in this hostile world but Winnie does not understand their meaning; it appears to be a simple failed recalling of the ‘old style’.  The words do not carry any meaning outside of their original context and function merely as consolation for Winnie and as a means of fending off the interminable silence of the landscape. However, Winnie’s frequent use of quotes alluding to woe creates an air of sadness which the audience can hardly fail to perceive.  Her consolations are accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and fear. Winnie reverts to a repetition of familiar words in order to fend off the threatening reality of isolation. It is not actual communication which produces Winnie’s ‘happy days’ but rather an illusion of communication, similar to her mistaking of information for knowledge. Willie is merely an object by which Winnie convinces herself of her own reality.

Reading this short play is a challenge at first: you find it hard to relate to the setting because it is so bare and cruel, and the premise seems both bleak and absurd. However, after a careful rereading you begin to notice that it is a highly intelligent text, full of interesting nuances. It takes you into ‘the contemporary’, making you reflect long and hard on issues such the frequent lack of affect and emotion in our own culture, on loneliness and despair. Well-worth the read.

By Camilla Patini

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