Happy Days is one of the 20th century's great masterpieces.
Samuel Beckett's metaphor for everything, it presents Winnie buried up to her
waist in earth. Indominable to the last, she cries "What a curse - mobility!"
and "Hardly a day without some blessing in disguise."
The Brooklyn Academy of Music has just presented The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of the play, directed by Deborah Warner, with Fiona Shaw as its unconquerable heroine. It's a brilliant, monumental success.
Tim Pye's set, a marvelous great pile of earth and stone, flows into the audience and out to the wings, the perfect image of solidity. Its weight is inarguable, but its glimmer of minerals gives it a sort of heartless sheen. As Winnie's emotions ramble from one top another, the existential fact of the earth remains unchanged. Behind is hung a postmodernist rectangle of barren landscape.
Beckett's great accomplishment is to transform his minimalist view of life into his minimalist style. As Winnie tells us,"There is so little to do one does it all." So little indeed. She has a bag full of objects - cosmetics, and a gun for comfort - and a hat to keep her entertained. Willie lives in a hole behind her. She cannot move; he cannot speak, although in Beckett's subtle, super-extended metaphor he does move a little, crawling out toward her twice.
The metaphor embraces the universe of consciousness - memory, tears, joy, anger. It's profound and abstruse. There's an inexplicable control over life: Winnie may throw away her hand mirror, but "The glass will be there again tomorrow without a scratch" in her black bag.
Moreover, Winnie has not always been in this fix, covered with earth, controlled by a bell for waking and another for sleep. There was a time she had legs. And there have been passers-by - indeed, "the last mankind to pass this way" suggested that Willie dig her out. Sometimes she speaks in "the old style" that acknowledges time, using words like "daily".
But memories aren't regretful. It all comes back to her sometimes, and she tells us "that's what I find so wonderful".
And after all, time passes, and the situation changes. After the intermission she's buried up to her neck. Now, the stage directions are notoriously specific in this play, so that its various productions are more or less the same, the way classical music compositions are more or less the same compared to jazz, with some better executed than others. The variations between performances are subtle but not unimportant. The choice characteristic of this production is to make Winnie noticeably lass sanguine in the second act. Things get worse, and she knows it.
In Fiona Shaw's bravura performance, each beat is crystalline. Her lines are a series of short outbursts, and she brings to them definition and commitment. This is the height of representational acting, anti-mimetic, without inner life, like the performance of a living marionette.
And we need to consider the effect of the British language us American audiences. Our associations with that dialect, its perceived self-conscious sophistication, give this hapless character a poignant edginess.
As it does so often, BAM has imported a masterpiece.
- Steve Capra