Manuscript draft review of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, by B S Johnson


Samuel Beckett’s two-act play, Happy Days, premiered in New York, and was first produced in London at the Royal Court Theatre in November 1962. The London production was directed by George Devine and Tony Richardson, and starred Brenda Bruce as Winnie and Peter Duguid as Willie.

What does this review reveal about Happy Days?

In this review, drafted in pencil and heavily revised, B S Johnson primarily addresses Beckett’s startling innovation and experimentation. He opens his review with the statement:

Always with Beckett one asks oneself what can he do next, where can he go from the point now reached; and in each new work he answers the questions by development, and refinement, where none seemed possible…

It is as though he is taking the elements of drama one by one, just to see if he has anything left at the end worth calling a play[.]

Beckett’s pushing of dramatic boundaries prompted strong responses from the Royal Court audience. Johnson observes that people had walked out – ‘quietly or noisily’ – during performances. From Johnson’s perspective, ‘their dissatisfaction will come to be seen as another example of the artist being ahead of his audience’.

Although, unlike traditional plays, Happy Days contains ‘hardly any movement, or action, in physical terms’, Johnson argues that it holds our attention due to Beckett’s mastery of language – ‘language charged with such gravity and precision’.

Johnson also praises Brenda Bruce, whom he describes as a ‘tour de force’, for her performance as Winnie, and Jocelyn Herbert’s set design.

Who was B S Johnson?

Johnson was a British novelist and critic, known for his formal experimentation with the novel (The Unfortunates, for example, was presented in the form of loose sheets in a box, encouraging readers to create their own narrative and structure). Johnson admired Beckett, the elder writer, and throughout the 1960s and until 1973 (the year of Johnson’s death) they exchanged letters (see Add MS 89001/5/1/4) and occasionally met in Beckett’s adopted city, Paris.

Full title:
B.S. Johnson Archive: Draft book and theatre reviews
3–4 November 1962
Manuscript / Draft
B S Johnson
Usage terms

© Estate of B S Johnson. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 89001/4/2/2

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