Description

Angus McBean (1904–1990) was a Welsh photographer who rose to fame in the 1930s. He was celebrated for his surrealist portraits of celebrities, and his unique style became much sought after by theatre companies.

This photograph, of actress Frances Day, was taken by McBean in 1938. It portrays Day submerged up to her armpits within an unrecognisable desert landscape. A disembodied hand rises from the ground holding a looking glass, as Day fixes a piece of peroxide blonde hair. The portrait belongs to a larger thematic series that includes shots of Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Dickson.[1]

What is the connection between these photographs and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days?

In 2014 James Knowlson considered possible artistic sources for Samuel Beckett’s distinctive image of the half-buried woman in Happy Days (1960).[2] He identified strong connections to Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel's 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (which closes with a shot of two women buried up to their waists on a beach), and McBean’s photographs of surreal, deconstructed bodies. It is likely, Knowlson argues, that Beckett knew of McBean’s photographs because they were widely distributed via popular weekly magazines such as the Sketch.

Beckett’s play features the character Winnie (‘blond for preference, plump, arms and shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom’), who in the first act is buried up to her waist in a desolate wasteland. She chatters constantly as she carries out her daily routine, removing items from her handbag including a lipstick, looking glass and revolver. The second act opens with Winnie now buried up to her neck, unable to physically move her body or head. In spite of this, Winnie’s optimism is unwavering, and the play ends with a love song to her husband, Willie, followed by a long, silent look at each other.

Beckett and the visual arts

In recent decades, scholars and practitioners of Samuel Beckett’s work have explored the playwright’s relationship with the visual arts (particularly painting). Knowlson writes of his ‘remarkable ability to draw on his knowledge of one artistic medium and see its possibilities for transformation and use in another’.[3] Equally, Beckett has been positioned as a strongly visual playwright: ‘He writes paintings’, observed actress and lifelong Beckett collaborator, Billie Whitelaw.[4]

[1] James Knowlson, ‘What lies beneath Samuel Beckett's half-buried woman in Happy Days?’, The Guardian (21 January 2014) <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jan/21/samuel-beckett-happy-days-half-buried-woman> [accessed 6 July 2016].

[2] Knowlson, 'What lies beneath'.

[3] James Knowlson, Images of Beckett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 53.

[4] Billie Whitelaw, in a telephone conversation with Ruby Cohn, quoted in Ruby Cohn, Just Play: Beckett’s Theater (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 31.

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