‘Happy Days’ play demands much of its audience

“A horror play” is how Samuel Beckett publisher and director, John Calder, describes Happy Days which opens at Cork’s Everyman Theatre on February 10 as part of an Irish tour.

Happy Days is the third of Beckett’s comic/tragic full length plays on the human condition, and London-based Calder says it demands a lot of audiences. It’s about a housewife, Winnie (Colette Kelly), who, with her husband, Willie (Oengus MacNamara), is stuck in a barren wilderness.

Winnie, no longer young, is embedded in a mound of earth and is subjected to constant light from which there is no escape. Beckett explained to actress, Brenda Bruce, what was going through his mind as he sat down to write the play. “Well, I thought the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a ‘dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree... there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life. And I thought, who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman?”

Winnie’s only distraction is her bag containing a comb, toothbrush, a nail file and a revolver. “The play is about what a woman is mostly afraid of, which is a slow lingering death. Winnie is going to be buried alive in the earth and she cannot face up to it. She puts it out of her mind. It’s very much a woman’s nature to put her best face on things and to try not see what she doesn’t want to see.”

Willie has virtually no lines in the play. She has to constantly wake him up to try and get him to pay attention. His occasional terse responses are of less importance to Winnie than the fact that he’s there to listen. She reminisces from an idealised part and quotes lines from classical literature. She is a compulsive talker. The contents of her bag — apart from the gun — give rise to memories of specific days and events.

In the first act, Winnie is buried up to her waist. In the second act, she is buried up to her neck. The gun “is a kind of comfort for Winnie but at the end, it’s beyond her reach. When Willie reaches for the gun, it’s up to the audience to decide whether it’s for him to kill himself or to shoot Winnie.”

The play, while bleak, has moments of Beckett’s trademark black humour.

Calder is very much a disciple of Beckett. “Beckett was a realist. He looked at life as it really is and was very aware of how cruel we are to each other. In a way, he tortured himself with the cruelty of the world.”

As a publisher, Calder also furthered the careers of experimental writers such as Eugene Ionesco and Marguerite Duras. He will be at the Everyman to answer questions about Happy Days.

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