Note to readers: You may choose to read this analysis of Happy Days here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article.
This week, I am going to discuss a play created by one of the great writers – in both French and English – of the 20th century, who was acclaimed in both the country of his birth, Ireland, and the country where he lived most of his adult life, France: Samuel Beckett.
The play I have chosen is not his most famous piece for the stage, Waiting for Godot (En Attendant Godot), but rather a later play, Happy Days (Oh les Beaux Jours).
While those who have not seen or read Waiting for Godot will still have an idea of what it is about, so deeply has it entered the general consciousness, Happy Days is not nearly as well known. Both plays share certain characteristics: each is divided into two parts and in each very little seems to happen. In Godot, the stage is dominated by two tramp-like figures, Vladimir and Estragon. Happy Days also has two characters: the loquacious and ever-present Winnie and her largely silent and invisible husband Willie.
One interesting difference between the two plays is that while Beckett originally wrote Godot in French (its first performance was in 1953), before writing the English version (first staged in 1955), with Happy Days he did it the other way round: the English text was first performed in 1961, with the French version coming two years later. I have been careful not to call either the English or French renderings “translations” because, even though many of the passages could be viewed as close translations, Beckett in many ways re-creates the play in each version, using in one or the other imagery familiar to French or anglophone (particularly Irish) audiences/readers. For that reason, if you have even a little French, I would recommend reading the play, if possible, in a dual-language version.
The towns or people Winnie mentions are given names appropriate to each language, often involving a jocular or poetic turn of phrase. The English name Charlie Hunter, for example, becomes Charlot Chassepot, a French surname that is infinitely more playful than the English one, while both first names evoke Charlie Chaplin, whose films were adored in France as much as in the United States. (Charlot, the name the French gave to Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, became synonymous with Chaplin himself.)
Winnie’s speeches are filled with quotations from multiple authors and songs, and, while some are simply translated directly into French, others are replaced by quotations from French authors – one example is a Shakespeare quotation that is replaced by a line from a play by Jean Racine.
And, of course, with Beckett’s Irish heritage and profound knowledge of the French language, he manages to use turns of phrase that are quintessentially of their respective cultures. Thus, the distinctively Irish phrase “Ah well, what does it matter” becomes “Enfin quelle importance” in French.
Now let’s get to the play itself. The joyful title Happy Days and the French Oh les Beaux Jours (a quotation from a poem by Paul Verlaine) have often been described as ironic by commentators. Even though the bleakness of Winnie’s situation might allow us to see it as ironic, I would say that from Winnie’s perspective it is not: it is a phrase that she uses repeatedly and sincerely throughout the play. She sees the best in everything and seems to hope for a better future, despite the fact that in the first act she is buried up to her waist and in the second up to her neck.
The setting would seem to be a desert-like or lunar landscape, perhaps some kind of post-apocalyptic world, but even though Willie hardly ever responds to Winnie’s words and only contributes muttered interjections or smutty jokes, Winnie herself seems oblivious to her situation, as she recalls many happy memories and events in her life.
Beckett was always absolutely punctilious about his stage directions, which he considered as important as the actual words. In Happy Days, there are always precise directions about how Winnie, for instance, arranges and rearranges various objects in the handbag that sits next to her, how many pauses there should be, and the ordering and manner of characters’ laughter. Inevitably Winnie’s even greater lack of mobility in the second act leads to a deeper sense of bleakness, yet extracting the comedy and laughter would create an overly dark vision of the play.
One trait shared by traditional comic figures and characters in the theater of the absurd is that they are in many ways character types. Even though Winnie’s plight is sad on its own terms, it would be wrong for us to mistake her and Willie for fully rounded characters. Even their names, in their similarity to each other, seem to evoke character types. Beckett and other playwrights in the middle years of the 20th century, like Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet, viewed their characters as, to quote the critic Martin Esslin, “the embodiments of basic human attitudes.”
The steady torrent of words that flows from Winnie’s mouth is at times enchanting and at others touching, but the fixed position in which she finds herself (buried up to her waist and then neck) surely invites us not to look at the character as a real person. It is particularly telling, I think, that Beckett went on to write a monologue for a female character, Not I, in which the audience can see only one part of the actress: her lips.
It has been said that Happy Days was Beckett’s response to a friend who asked him to write a happy play. Beckett himself wrote that it was hard to separate the comic from the tragic but said that comedy, with its “intuition of the absurd,” was more despairing because it offers no way out. Whereas a tragedy traditionally ends with a death, thereby releasing the audience from the emotions of fear and pity they have felt during the play, the lead characters in both Godot and Happy Days do not die but remain on stage at the end, unreleased, as it were, seemingly destined to repeat their actions and words forever.