Happy Days

Happy Days (1961) overview

Samuel Beckett often buries his characters literally – in urns or bins – and makes them immobile. In Happy Days, the character of Winnie, a woman of around 50, is embedded up to her waist in sand.

Winnie’s days are mapped out by the sound of a bell. It wakes her and tells her when to retire. Her days are ritualised. She delights in the contents of her handbag. She talks incessantly. She wakes up her husband Willie who is all but obscured by the mound of sound, and talks to him, at him. His listening allows her to go on talking. Her talk is buoyant, resilient and optimistic; she frequently refrains ‘Oh this is a happy day’, and she hopes the ground may one day release her. She has a revolver in her bag. It was once Willie’s, but he asked her to take it away from him. She has a parasol, but this catches fire. She sings a music-box song. She wishes she were able to see Willie better.

In the bleaker second act of the play, Winnie is now buried up to her neck in the sand. She cannot see Willie and he does not respond to her calls. She embarks on her reminiscences once more, remembering a little girl called Mildred. Willie emerges from behind the mound and tries to crawl towards her. Winnie sings her song again.

Key productions of Happy Days

Beckett completed Happy Days in 1961 and the French translation in 1962. The writing is stuffed with word play and oblique references. Unusually for Beckett, the first production was in New York, at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961. The following year it premiered in London at the Royal Court Theatre, with Brenda Bruce in the role of Winnie. In 1979, Beckett directed his own Royal Court production with regular collaborator Billie Whitelaw playing Winnie.

Though Happy Days is one of Beckett’s most playful works it is also a play of despair and horror of sorts. Winnie’s predicament is said to have been, at least in part, inspired by Buñuel's 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou.

Beckett often writes roles that make physical demands on those performing them. Winnie is no exception. It is regarded as a rich role, however: Peggy Ashcroft described it as a ‘summit part’, on a par with Hamlet for female performers. Recent Winnies have included Fiona Shaw, Dianne Wiest and Juliet Stevenson.

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