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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 (1960), Samuel Beckett stages a play of extreme physical isolation, filled with modern angst yet steeped in the tradition of European philosophy and literature. Its central image of the half-buried woman, Winnie, is one of Beckett’s most famous and startling. The play is pared-down, shocking and bleak. But what is it really about?

Loneliness and alienation are two themes infused in the play’s language and embodied starkly in its setting: a simple, barren plain, a blazing, harsh light and Winnie up to her waist in a mound of earth. Speaking into the empty landscape, filling it with optimistic chatter, and half-remembered fragments of poetry, Winnie references many of the central problems that have preoccupied western philosophy: the relationship of mind and body, the power and limits of the will – to mention a few – yet the play is almost entirely decontextualized. Winnie speaks into the void and into a world which is apparently vacant of any meaning or significance; her cultural references and language indicate a Victorian context, but we are given no clue as to where and when it is unfolding.

This only contributes to the play’s deep sense of loneliness. Being infused throughout with the sense of humanity’s spiritual and physical end, the wasteland of the contemporary is seemingly set before us. Throughout, the play unearths memories of the holocaust and of atomic bombs, images of landscapes ravaged by war. At various points Winnie describes her body melting and becoming charred over time, evoking horrific images of a world at the end of history and time. The play is everywhere infused with a sense of endings: of time, history and meaning, as well as marriage and love.

Through Winnie, the play throws the issue of being itself into question. Amongst her optimistic chatter is her constant seeking of reassurance and validation from Willie, the only other human presence in the play.  By exploring her need to be heard and observed in order to gain a sense of her ontology and presence, the play is a bleak meditation on existence as merely filling time, as an endless performing of actions. Questions surrounding the nature of both being and knowledge are brought to the fore: indeed, who confirms our identity and what legitimates our own existence? What really constitutes knowledge and who decides what knowledge is? Winnie panics when faced with the world’s emptiness and cannot bear to talk ‘in the wilderness’.

The audience must bear her chatter in silence. Ironically though, Winnie’s existence depends on our existence as an audience; as long as she is talking and there is an audience to listen, she can be sure of her ontological status, sure that she exists. As the play progresses, the endless chatter appears more and more futile, however – almost pathetic. This underscores the play’s silence, Winnie’s loneliness, and draws attention to her need for validation. In the end, it is not actual communication which produces Winnie’s ‘happy days’, but an illusion of communication. Willie is merely an object by which Winnie convinces herself of her own reality.

This play is a challenging read, and the roles would be demanding for any actor. I’d love to see this on stage.

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