Archive | April, 2014

Beckett’s Happy Days. Do we need to know if we’re unhappy?

5 Apr


I’m not sure why it hasn’t occurred to me before to look at Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days in this blog, but it certainly seemed like an obvious choice after I’d seen Juliet’s Stevenson’s wonderful performance as Winnie at the Young Vic last month. The piece’s idiosyncratic take on happiness is an important one, I think.

          Winnie is a woman who spends the first Act of the play immured to her waist in a mound of earth; by the start of the second Act, the mound has risen to her neck. She is a prisoner – in her marriage? her life? in the world? in Hell? – yet she remains resolutely cheerful. The only change that can possibly occur in her circumstances will definitely be for the worse. But nothing can dent her determination that the new day that has just dawned ‘is going to be a happy day! Another happy day.’

          Rather like the philosopher Epicurus (but probably with less intellectual justification) Winnie tells herself that if she isn’t in pain, then she must be having a good time. When at the beginning of the play she is examining the state of her teeth in a mirror, she exclaims,

‘ – no better – no worse – (lays down mirror) – no change – (wipes fingers on grass) – no pain – (looks for toothbrush) – hardly any – (takes up toothbrush) – a great thing that …’

One of her favourite expressions is, ‘Many mercies – great mercies’, and she finds these in everything, even in the fact that she is trapped under the burning sun, rather than in the freezing cold.

          Opinion is divided on the significance of Winnie’s attitude to her personal well-being. Is she fully aware of her situation, and should we therefore see her as displaying an admirable stoicism in the face of events beyond her control? Or is she being absurd, shutting her eyes to the true horror of what is happening to her? These questions link back to issues that I’ve touched on in the blog before. Is it right to disabuse people of their conviction that they’re happy, if they seem to us to be hideously misguided or oppressed? Ought we instead to leave them in blissful ignorance? (‘Work, love or progress’, 8 April 2013).  And is cock-eyed optimism a force for bad in the world, because it makes us complacent and blind to the suffering of others? (‘Anton Chekhov: does happiness matter?’, 28 July 2013; ‘let’s be cynical’, 15 July 2013).

          Whatever the answers are, Winnie’s approach to life definitely for me underlines the potential banality of the whole happiness question. Maybe happiness really isn’t the point, if we all end up being like the Winnies of this world.

          In the play Winnie’s happiness is to a very large extent bound up with the responses of her doltish husband Willie. Early on in the first Act, when Willie deigns to speak to her, she replies with, ‘Oh, you are going to talk to me today? this is going to be a happy day!’ And in Act 2, when Willie crawls over to her and manages to get out the word, ‘Win,’ the fact that she is paralyzed up to her chin does not stop her from coming out with her habitual, ‘This will have been another happy day!’

          Some feminists criticize the play for dwelling on this picture of a slavishly dependent woman, whose relationship with her unsatisfactory husband determines her sense of well-being. But for me it reflects the real-life position of many people (not just women) in our society for whom coupledom is the ‘sine qua non’ of their happiness. Whether this is to be deplored or not is another matter.

          Winnie’s nonsensical cheerfulness is most poignantly highlighted by her delight in her musical box, which tinkles out the tune of the Merry Widow waltz. When finally we hear the quavering voice of a woman who is trapped in the earth – earth which we know will eventually cover her – joining in with the words of this romantic song, surely most of us are moved to tears?

Love unspoken, faith unbroken, All life through.
Strings are playing, hear them saying,
“Love me true”.
Now the echo answers,
“Say you want me too”.
All the world’s in love with love
And I love you.

          Death, of course, can be the only outcome. Will Winnie make use of the friendly gun which she occasionally fishes out of her capacious bag? Or will she simply arrive, without trying, at the ‘happy day to come, when flesh melts at so many degrees’?