Humanity's last gasp

Beckett's "Happy Days' by the Lantern (3rd review)

6 minute read
Little things (like filing nails) loom large. (Photo: Jeffrey Stockbridge.)
Little things (like filing nails) loom large. (Photo: Jeffrey Stockbridge.)
Written jointly with Gresham Riley.

"Winnie is one of those parts, I believe, that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at Hamlet'---- a "'summit' part."
—Dame Peggy Ashcroft

Mary Elizabeth Scallen, who stars in the Lantern Theater Company's production of Happy Days, makes her own significant contribution to a role played by, among others, Dame Ashcroft, Irene Worth and Fiona Shaw. It's a demanding, exhausting role that requires an actress capable of combining impeccable timing with the patience required by Beckett's detailed stage directions.

Some productions, rejecting the staginess and theatricality of the frequent long pauses, sacrifice much of the play's power. The director, of course, makes the decision about this, so we congratulate David O'Connor on what we found to be a thoroughly satisfying production of this difficult play.

Happy Days (1960) is a "post-Godot" play, both in the sense that it appeared eight years after Beckett's signature piece but, more significantly, because the universe has continued to atrophy since Lucky explained his cosmology to Gogo and Didi. In his famous speech, Lucky informs his "audience" that there is a personal, emotionless, non-communicative and imperturbable God who loves us dearly, with some exceptions and for reasons unknown; that humanity is "shrinking" despite God's constancy; and that the earth is petrifying.

The mostly forgotten Almighty

In Happy Days matters have only grown worse. God is even more distant, making only a brief appearance early in the play in a mostly forgotten prayer that Winnie offers ritualistically each morning and a bit later when she and Willie (her frequently absent husband) "magnify the Almighty" by sniggering at one of his little jokes.

By now humanity has shrunken to a mole-like Willie, who spends most of his days in a burrow; Winnie, who is trapped in an earth and stone mound that comes up to her breasts (and later will rise to her chin); and the never seen Mr. Shower (or is it Mr. Cooker?) and his wife. As for the Earth, it's now almost completely stone, lacking even the lone tree with its leaf (seen) and the stream (unseen) in Waiting for Godot. Kudos go to Meghan Jones for her stark set that captures powerfully this increasingly atrophying universe.

Many of Beckett's familiar themes make their appearance. "Nothing to be done"; "Things are no better; no worse; no change; no pain." There is the significant role played by routine, ritual behavior, habit. Days come and go with their rhythmic pattern: "There is a bell for getting up, a bell for sleep."

Bleak and hopeless, but not meaningless

Never has the presence of others as evidence for one's own existence played such an important role in a Beckett play. Winnie needs frequent assurances that Willie is listening, and even the reported (by Winnie) distant sightings and conversations of Mr. Shower (or is it Mr. Cooker?) and his wife play their comforting roles. As in Waiting for Godot, Beckett's characters are committed disciples of Bishop George Berkeley's idealistic philosophy: To be is to be perceived.

As bleak as life is for Winnie (and Willie), and as hopeless as future prospects seem, Winnie's existence is neither meaningless nor absurd, and she is aware of this important fact. Thankful for "great mercies, great mercies," she remains confident that each day is a "happy day— so far" and "will have been a happy day" by its end. Robert Brustein once characterized Winnie as a "hopeful futilitarian."

Simple acts of kindness

Why so hopeful? On what basis? Little things loom large for Beckett: the presence of humor in life, sniggering at the Almighty's little jokes. Routine daily habits: brushing teeth (although the bristles are wearing thin), brushing hair and applying lipstick (lipstick is almost gone), dose of daily tonic (last portion consumed), filing nails, aligning items from a purse in an orderly row, and the regularity of the bell for awaking and the bell for sleeping.

Especially important for Winnie are the presence of others (or in her case the presence of another) and the awareness of her control over her own destiny. Even though the contact between Winnie and Willie is minimum to the extreme, the mere existence of the other provides opportunities for simple acts of human kindness. Ms. Scallen makes all this believable and compelling.

The unused pistol

Among the items in Winnie's handbag is a pistol. A truism in the theater is that a director should never introduce a gun in the first act unless it's used by the last act. In this case, the pistol is introduced early, but its failure to be used by the end of the play is what's significant. Winnie could, at any point, put an end to Willie's life and her own, but she doesn't. She knows that the decision about life and death is in her hands; she's in control, and that knowledge alone makes life worth living— so far.

In Act II, of course, Winnie can't reach the gun because she's now buried neck-deep in the ever-growing mound of earth and stone. Nevertheless, she has one powerful resource: the love she shares with Willie. Winnie has waited throughout the play for the right time to sing. The play ends with her bursting forth in song with the waltz duet, "I love you so much," from The Merry Widow.

By contrast, Humor Abuse

We saw Happy Days two days after we saw the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Humor Abuse, and we were struck by our different reactions to the two plays, having seen them so close together. While we appreciated and even often enjoyed Lorenzo Pisoni's lively, acrobatic and sincere performance, we came away feeling less than satisfied. After seeing Happy Days, we realized why.

The son's story in Humor Abuse, while touching and poignant and funny, never transcended the particular— in this case, the very particular. For theater to be truly memorable, the audience must be touched in some way not specific to one person but to all of us. None of us is the son of an abusive clown father, nor will any of us spend our last days buried in earth and stone that only gets deeper as our spouse grows deafer; but the second predicament is more likely, since we are to see it as metaphor.

A play should offer us more than what we see. The longer the two of us have spent talking about Happy Days, arguing about it, thinking about it, the richer it has become. We'll be discussing the Lantern Theater Company's production in particular for a long time— partly because it was such a good production, but mostly because it's such a good play.♦

To read another review by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read a review of Humor Abuse by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

What, When, Where

Happy Days. By Samuel Beckett; directed by David O’Connor. Lantern Theater Co. production through October 18, 2009 at St. Stephen’s Theatre, 923 Ludlow St. (215) 829-0395 or

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