Up to the Neck in a Play about Being

From March 2014.


“Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett – from Beckett on Film


My dear friend Roberta and I saw “Happy Days” last night, the current production with well-known film and TV actor Juliet Stevenson at the Young Vic. We were lucky to get tickets – and it was really good, a joy.

My father died a month ago – alcoholic, diabetic, alone, his second—and lesbian—wife having snapped up his house and estate – along with that of our own mother’s. And he was probably wearing a Grattan mail order satin camisole under the denims and thick check cotton work shirt.

I had not seen him for fourteen years.

Being Beckett – absolutely absurd, visually striking (he derived a lot of inspiration from painting, apparently), laugh-out-loud hilarious, wrist-slittingly tragic, scarily bizarre and puzzling – Happy Days works on multiple levels. Not least a giggly Pythonesque one.

Beckett is a master of language, he creates rhythms and music out of speech and pauses. He is extremely exacting in the text in his directions.

It was written in 1960 and you can infer the stark mood of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation and great light and heat in a desert landscape working as both great blazing illumination of life, the light of consciousness even, and as perhaps metonymic for the apocalyptic light of the H bomb flash. A world in many respects now history, over, the madness of a polarised world and its incessant, dangerous rhetoric, on the brink of mutually assured nuclear destruction, dissolved.

Never mind the possibility of a twenty first century equivalent of Gavrilo Princip with more than just a pistol.

There is the idea of being buried in ( the shit or mire of ) culture, language and history – being sucked down into it. But also, Winnie keeps trying to remember lines of poetry or words in her attempts to stay buoyant, lucid and focussed and the feeling is that the earth is sucking away her memory. There is just a head protruding.

There is the theme of being tragically earthbound – but forever straining to transcend. And there are also filthy, dirty jokes and ribald laughter – to make things all the more poignant.

There is the idea of bravely struggling on, chirpily, stoically, keeping going, keeping the chatter going, heroically maintaining the veneer of normality in excruciating circumstances – but it being also like an excruciating denial. Willie, her husband, for the most part stuck in a hole out of sight, is comically monosyllabic – and anyway, just what the hell is she doing there and who the hell does she think she is talking to ?

Having been drawn into this strange, hypnotic situation there are times when we wonder just exactly who we are too – who is the audience in this situation ?

What I love about this kind of drama is its capacity to make a bare world without God or certainty or much illusion so mysterious, interesting and captivating.

Life-affirming I suppose is what I mean, too.

Juliet Stevenson portrays Winnie using a middle class English accent, not Irish, so the resonances with our own mother (she died of liver cancer after a very brief illness in ’97, having just retired) and a post-war generation background were powerful.

Beckett apparently said the main character of Winnie had to be a woman – he thought only a woman could accept, make the best of, and heroically endure something like this the way she does. But even just looking at reviews and blogs, appreciating the impact of this play on people, I feel it is clear Beckett is a genius at the universal and the timeless.

I have all of the Channel 4-produced “Beckett on Film”. I can’t find them on Youtube now – they all used to be there. They are beautifully made productions with major actors, with a different director for each play lending each their distinct style.

The filming of Beckett is not without legitimate objections. He didn’t allow people to mess with his works. His plays are for live theatre, not film, and it is interesting to think about the completely different experiences of the created, imaginary spaces of film and those of live theatre. You can talk about meanings, characters, motivations, story, language – but the actual medium is not insignificant.

This was not obvious to me before I met Roberta who, here from Italy doing an MA in Theatre Studies and a passionate lover of ancient Greek drama, is both seriously and mock-disdainful of film. I used to conveniently, reductively, collapse all fiction into the category of narrative.

I think it becomes really important with Beckett just because he focusses on big things like Time, mind and embodiment, and memory. For instance, “Krapp’s Last Tape” is about a man listening back to tape-recordings by his younger self. His reactions are poignant and hilarious. I felt it was significant to watch a filmed recording of the play ( with John Hurt b.t.w. – fabulous ).

The “Beckett on Film” production of “Happy Days” was filmed in Tenerife on the side of a volcano. Watching it, I cant help but both laugh and shiver in admiration at what the crew and actors endured in order to make it.

Please excuse me if by any chance any of this stuff about Beckett is already familiar. Or if you find it obscure and extremely unfamiliar. But I can’t contain my enthusiasm – I felt this play had great richness and resonance in the current circumstances.

The other thing that motivates me about Beckett is that I was terrified of him at school. We did him at A level and I did no work despite having one of the nicest, most amenable and welcoming English teachers who invited me to act in a production of Godot.

But there was a reason for my blindness or twerpish refusal towards the blithe smiles and the warm, agenda-less welcome: I was utterly paralysed, in my teenage confusion, by the hot and cold war, the psychosexual menace and throat tearing, happening at home.

And Beckett does the big themes – Time, mind and body, Death, silence, existence, secular modernity, our closeness to or distance from others.

It was a shame for me to get to Beckett so late. But I am kind of happy in a way because at least all those big, important themes were never reductively dumped in the banal mental drawer marked “school homework” and left there as if they had been dealt with – “been there, done that, got the T-shirt”.


Juliet Stevenson on playing Winnie – on Front Row BBC R4

interview at 6m 15s

What lies beneath Samuel Beckett’s half-buried woman in Happy Days? Guardian.com

“One of the most disquieting features of Winnie’s predicament is that she behaves as if “entombment” were the most natural thing in the world − which, of course, for Beckett, with his vision of the encroachment of the sands of time, it was. She also touches, however lightly, on many of the central problems that have preoccupied western philosophy: the relationship of mind and body; the power and limits of the will; the relation of past experience to the present; and many more. To have taken an image associated with surrealism and to make Winnie into a credible, buoyant human being with a wide emotional range is a mark of genius.”







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