Notebook for Samuel Beckett's own production of Happy Days at the Royal Court

Description

From the mid 1960s Samuel Beckett began to direct his own plays for theatre and for television. Beckett kept this notebook during rehearsals for his own production of Happy Days at the Royal Court Theatre in June 1979. Billie Whitelaw – a renowned interpreter of Beckett’s work – starred as Winnie, with Leonard Fenton as Willie.

As well as containing substantial cuts and changes to the script, the notebook displays Beckett’s incredibly exact, meticulous approach to directing his own work. It highlights, too, the poetic precision of Beckett’s language, and his attention to the pace and rhythm of the work. No word, line, pause or movement is accidental. Beckett kept notebooks like this one for all of his productions. Together, they are invaluable for showing us Beckett’s dynamic, evolving vision for the staging of his work, as he directed from within the theatre space.

When Beckett directed Happy Days at Berlin’s Schiller Theater in 1971, he divided the two-act play into 12 key sections, which he retains here. In the notebook, Beckett further organises the play into 41 revealing thematic groupings, including:

  • ‘Happy Day’, i.e. list of all instances of Winnie using ‘happy day’ in her speech (see f. 13r). This is one of several phrases that are repeated throughout the play. As James Knowlson has noted, ‘Winnie uses it as one of her favourite phrases of reassurance, which echo ironically in so bleak and desolate a situation’.[1]
  • ‘Time’, i.e. a list of Winnie’s references to her experience of time (see f. 22r). Time is a central theme to the play. When working on the Schiller production of Happy Days, Beckett described how Winnie cannot understand time or her experience of it. As she is physically stuck, so she is temporally stuck in a present – without any memory of a past, and without any conceivable notion of a future.[2]
  • ‘Strange’ (see f. 27r). In Happy Days, strange is the norm. In rehearsals in Berlin, Beckett told Frau Schultz that what is most striking about Winnie’s situation is the strangeness, commenting ‘Here everything is strange’.[3]
  • ‘Wonderful’ (see f. 29r). This is one of Winnie’s favourite words, which she uses frequently throughout her chatter.
  • Beckett also used this notebook for his German productions of Kommen und Gehen/Come and Go, He, Joe/Eh Joe and Spiel/Play

Billie Whitelaw

Beckett and Billie Whitelaw had a close working relationship, collaborating on many productions. For Happy Days, they worked together on every section of the play. Whitelaw’s performance as Winnie has been celebrated for its ‘emotional power and conviction’, technical expertise and subtlety, but it was also markedly different to earlier productions in terms of the interpretation of the character. Knowlson reflected that ‘She hovered much closer to the edge of madness’.[4] The demands on Whitelaw were great, however; she said that at one point during rehearsals ‘she could no longer endure the strain of Sam’s obsession with the pronunciation, tone and emphasis of each syllable of every word in the long text’.[5]

Happy Days

Originally composed in English in 1960–61, Happy Days is a two-act play that centres on the character of Winnie, who is buried in a mound up to her waist in Act 1, and then up to her neck in Act 2. Winnie passes her time endlessly chattering away and retrieving objects from her handbag. A bell wakes her from sleep, although there is no night and day, only constant burning sunlight. Her husband, Willie, crawls around the mound, remaining largely silent. 

[1] Happy Days: The Production Notebook of Samuel Beckett, ed. by James Knowlson (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), p. 140.

[2] The Production Notebook of Samuel Beckett, p. 150.

[3] The Production Notebook of Samuel Beckett, p. 154.

[4] The Production Notebook of Samuel Beckett, p. 16.

[5] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), p. 658.

Full title:
Manuscript notebook prepared by Samuel Beckett for his own production of Happy Days at the Royal Court Theatre, June 1979.
Created:
1979
Format:
Manuscript / Notebook / Draft
Creator:
Samuel Beckett
Usage terms

Samuel Beckett: © The Estate of Samuel Beckett. The above selected images reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett c/o Rosica Colin Limited, London.

© Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading

Held by
Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading
Shelfmark:
Ms 1730

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Nonsense talk: Theatre of the Absurd

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Themes:
Theatre practitioners and genres, 20th-century theatre, Capturing and creating the modern, European influence

Absurdist theatre responded to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century by questioning the nature of reality and illusion. Andrew Dickson introduces some of the most important figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, including Eugène Ionesco, Martin Esslin and Samuel Beckett.

An introduction to Waiting for Godot

Article by:
Chris Power
Themes:
Capturing and creating the modern, 20th-century theatre, European influence

Chris Power explores how Waiting for Godot resists straightforward interpretation, producing audiences as uncertain as its characters.

An introduction to Happy Days

Article by:
William McEvoy
Themes:
Capturing and creating the modern, European influence, 20th-century theatre

The main character in Happy Days is a middle-aged woman inexplicably buried in a mound, first to her waist and then to her neck. William McEvoy discusses how Beckett uses this character and her predicament to explore a recurring interest in his work: the failings of bodies and language.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

Happy Days

Created by: Samuel Beckett

Happy Days (1961) overview Samuel Beckett often buries his characters literally – in urns or bins – and ...