Samuel Beckett’s humorously dark and ambiguous play, Happy Days, takes the idea of optimism to an extreme level. In the wake of impending death, the main character Winnie still believes that happy days are still ahead for her.
A Dark and Ambiguous Play
The play unfolds rather loosely as we are introduced to Winnie, a middle-aged, happy-go-lucky woman buried up to her waist in sand. The “How” and “Why” she is in this situation remains unknown and is left up to the reader’s imagination. Winnie goes about her normal routine rituals. She brushes her teeth, reaches into her bag for miscellaneous items, and makes herself pretty by applying makeup.
Throughout the first act, Winnie always holds a high sense of optimism in her state of paralysis. She states how it is “another happy day with the sun shining.” She remarks on the loveliness of the sun, the blue sky, and obsessively tells herself how happy she should be that she is still breathing. The fear of impending death has her appreciating the basic needs of survival, as she is firmly stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.”
Winnie and Willie
Much of the play remains a mystery, especially the more enigmatic second act, which begins with Winnie buried up to her head in sand. Who buried her up to her neck? And why? These questions are entirely open to multiple interpretations. There is also the case of her husband Willie, a strange, bizarre, sluggish practically mute man by her side throughout the play.
At one point, Winnie’s extreme optimism leads her so far as to ask Willie if he ever felt the need for gravity to suck him up to the sky. Willie reacts with a groan and merely replies with the phrase “sucked up.” Her world is upside down and as she becomes more hyperaware of her grim fate, she fantasizes that her ironic thoughts could possibly be a reality. Willie is dressed in a suit, crawling toward Winnie, as if he is already mourning her death and ready for the funeral procession.
Loneliness is a Theme in Happy Days
The play is primarily a one-woman show. Since Willie barely has any lines, we never get a sense of his personality. He’s like a pawn in the background and Winnie relies heavily on his presence, constantly looking for assurance that he is listening to her as she talks incessantly.
Winnie escapes her loneliness by adhering strictly to her everyday routines and by taking great care of the inanimate objects she uses – a comb, toothbrush, lipstick, a nail file, and a revolver which she kisses. By treating these items almost like pets, she relieves her anxiety that she is alone. Although Willie is close to her physically, they are separated because she’s stuck in a mound of dirt and they barely communicate. At times, Winnie even looks to the audience for companionship.
Samuel Beckett wrote Happy Days in less than a year from October 1960 to May 1961. It is an interesting, avant-garde play that wrestles with themes of loneliness and extreme optimism in the face of utter hopelessness.
Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett. Grove Press; First Edition, First Printing edition (Jan. 13, 1994) ISBN:978-0802130761
Happy Days @ Spark Notes