The Burden of “Happy Days” – Beckett’s Tragicomedy at the Schauspielhaus Zürich

By Eva Huber

samuel beckettProbably most famous for his Waiting for Godot, Beckett similarly plays with the simplicity of action, staging and plot in Happy Days. The latter play was recently shown at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich, directed by 85-year old Werner Düggelin. Düggelin may be a so-called expert in his fields. He has always been an enthusiast of Beckett’s work. Under his direction, other adaptions of “absurdist” plays, for instance by the French play-wright and contemporary of Beckett’s, Ionesco, have been shown in Switzerland.

The play is divided into two acts and the plot is reasonably simple, and so is the staging. Only two characters, namely Winnie and Willie, are present. Winnie, the woman, is buried into a mound over the whole course of the play. Willie, who is most likely her husband, is behind the mound.

The first act, which is also the beginning of the day, opens with the ring of a bell. The noise awakens Winnie. To her, it is the alarming sign for the start of another challenging day. It is challenging, however, only because she has to find some kind of occupation to get through it. While Winnie starts conducting some of her daily rituals, like brushing her teeth, Willie is still sound asleep. According to Winnie, he likes to sleep long hours and once he wakes up he starts reading the newspaper without giving attention to the ceaseless comments of Winnie. Without being discouraged, Winnie goes on talking, almost without getting any response from her taciturn partner. He answers or comments rarely, and if he does, only very briefly. Yet, when he makes some comment, Winnie’s mood is immediately brightened, and she calls the day “a happy” one.

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She repeats this several times throughout the play and, as Willie continues to be silent, Winnie starts looking through her belongings in her pouch. Among these objects are random things like a looking glass, a comb, and even a gun. As the day passes, the temperature rises and she is exposed to the burning sun. So she opens her parasol, which thereupon bursts into flames. Although this might be the only fairly exciting event of their day, no reaction follows. The sun goes down and another day has passed.

The second act again starts with the bell. Winnie, who is still in the mound, is embedded deeper into the earth unto her neck. Therefore, the only movable part of her body is her head. The second day goes on precisely the same way as the previous one. Only in the end, Willie finally carries out an action when he crawls upon the mound, trying to reach Winnie’s hand. Yet, he fails and the curtains draw.

Already in the very beginning of the day, when seeing Winnie’s point of presence, the viewer finds himself/herself to be witnessing a bizarre situation. It becomes even more curious when Winnie calls the present day for the first time, “another happy day”. The questionable and rather tragic circumstances of the couple’s lives are juxtaposed with Winnie’s optimism. The whole situation becomes increasingly ironic, and it is hard to decide whether one should laugh or cry.

However, the condition of being stuck in a mound is indeed a tragic one which should not arouse laughter. Both of their lives are bitter, even if they do not state it outright. Winnie clings to her routine in order to put some structure into her “imprisonment”. Although she has only very few possessions, she is not aware of the objects in her handbag and seems to rediscover them every day. This could simply be a way of busying herself, or it could also indicate the futility of even possessing the most basic objects. The toothpaste will eventually run out; the parasol burns down. And being literally stuck in dirt, Winnie will not get a chance to repurchase them. Sadly enough, the only interminably existing thing might be the gun which symbolizes death. Therefore, it may also signify Winnie’s only way out of this monotonous life.

While Winnie is physically and mentally stuck in life, Willie is only mentally unable to be active. Both are confined to their dull life, and as Willie seems to accept this condition, Winnie tries to find a way out by animating him, however unsuccessfully. She stays positive and is delighted by the tiniest reactions of her husband. Isolation is a constant factor of their life. They are isolated from each other, isolated from the outside world. And since Willie does not even make an effort to talk to the only other living being near him, their condition seems hopeless. The viewer feverishly waits for an action on the side of the speechless, mobile Willie but only in the very end the viewer is somewhat satisfied. However, Willie fails to climb up to Winnie. Is he too late? The earth, both literally and metaphorically, has reduced Winnie to such an extent that it almost swallows her up.

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The ending of the play is a truly tragic one. However, throughout the whole play the viewer is constantly torn between the comedic absurdity of life and the characters’ miserable existence. Not only does the scenery evoke curious sentiments, the character of Winnie is also somewhat a ludicrous one. She tries to manage the day, yet it is not clear whether this forced optimism is a genuinely courageous act or a pathetic one. Should one feel empathy for their predicament or is one allowed to mock their helplessness? Who is the one to feel sorry for? Is it the paralysed Willie or Winnie who seems to try really hard? Does Winnie’s name indicate that WINnie is the winner, the hero, of the two of them? Or is WILLie (not taking into account that the word Willie is also used for the male genital, which thus may ironically point to Willie’s – non-existent? – masculinity) the actual winner because he resigns to find a reason to live?

The answers to those questions remain unclear until the very end and Beckett’s intention might have been just that this play does not make any sense and that one cannot read any deeper meaning into it. So, it is similar to life, which also might not make much more sense than this play.

However, this is exactly what is fascinating about it. Given the very few actions and the repeating phrases and lines, one could expect that it might be fairly tedious to watch. In fact, this was clearly not the case here. The viewer is engaged to question Winnie’s character in particular (at least in my case, as a female viewer), trying to get some sense out of her. Poignant statements, curious incidents and surprising comical moments evoke the viewer’s emotions and invite reflections. One is even tempted to storm the stage, to try pulling Winnie out of the mound and to shake Willie to physical and mental awakening.

In the production of Happy Days in Zurich, the acting contributed persuasively to the success of this play. Beckett’s piece challenges the actors as they are exposed to very few variations in the plot, no climax, or, arguably, even an anti-climax, and very little movement. Winnie is particularly immobile in the second act where her acting depends on her facial expressions and words alone. And it is, therefore, even more impressive if the actors achieve to catch the viewer’s attention and maintain it throughout the whole play, which they certainly did in this adaptation. The fact that it was shown in German and not in its original language did not hinder to get the viewer captivated, but rather was beneficial to show its adaptability to every context. In the future, it is certainly interesting to see further versions of this play as its story alternates between comedy and tragedy. Whether it is comedy or tragedy that prevails in the end may be thus dependent on the interpretation of this masterpiece.

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