The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Happy Days opens on a stark, barren scene that is bathed in intense light. A low mound, which slopes gently toward the front, is center stage. Scorched grass extends across an unbroken plain to the distant horizon. The simplicity, the symmetry, and the blazing light draw attention to the only visible character, Winnie, a well-preserved woman of about fifty, who is buried in the mound to her waist. She is plump, buxom, and wears a low-cut dress. On one side of her, a large black shopping bag lies on the mound; on the other side rests a folded parasol. As the play begins, Winnie is leaning forward, asleep on her arms. Willie lies asleep on the ground, hidden from the audience’s view by the mound.
After a long pause, a piercing bell rings continuously for many seconds, but Winnie does not move. After another pause, the bell rings again, even more sharply than the first time, and Winnie awakes. She stares at the sky for a long time and then proclaims that it is “another heavenly day.” Winnie mumbles her prayers and then commands herself to begin the day.
Throughout the first act, Winnie removes a variety of objects from her bag. The first is her toothbrush. As she brushes her teeth, she tries to wake Willie, noting that his ability to sleep through the bell is a “marvelous gift.” While intermittently trying to decipher some small print that she notices on the handle of her toothbrush, Winnie cleans her glasses, awakens Willie by striking him with the parasol, kisses her revolver named Brownie, drinks a bottle of red medicine, and tosses the emptied bottle behind the mound. The bottle apparently strikes Willie, for the top of his bloodied, bald head appears behind the mound.
Awake, but only partially visible, Willie interjects phrases from newspaper headlines, obituaries, and want ads into Winnie’s rambling memories of their youth. With the help of her magnifying glass, Winnie finally deciphers the words on her toothbrush handle—“Fully guaranteed . . . genuine pure . . . hog’s setae”—and happily proclaims that “not a day goes by . . . without some addition to one’s knowledge,” then thoughtfully adds that even if such were no longer the case, one could “just close the eyes . . . and wait for . . . the...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The set of Happy Days is carefully designed with a “maximum of simplicity and symmetry” that forces the audience’s attention toward Winnie, buried at center stage. There are no other visual distractions; the intense light, coupled with the bright, heat-connoting colors of the backdrop, make Winnie an appealing visual alternative for the audience.
Many of Samuel Beckett’s plays use darkness to express his characters’ isolation, but in Happy Days he uses intense, unchanging light to counterpoint his central character’s blindness. The unforgiving light compels the audience to face the bleakness of Winnie’s condition while alluding to the proverbial heat of Hell.
The mound is the focus of the set. It physically represents Winnie’s confinement, but it also serves as a barrier that prevents the audience from fully observing Willie throughout most of the play. Their obstructed view parallels Winnie’s restricted perception, allowing them to share some of her discomfort and forcing them to adjust to limitations, as she must. The mound represents Winnie’s entombment, her death-in-life, but the play suggests that she has created this situation herself. At least she confesses to a fear of floating away and a need to cling to the earth. As Winnie sinks deeper into the mound in the second act, it becomes the insurmountable obstacle that separates Winnie and Willie.
The bell is the goad of the play. Its harsh, extremely elongated ring forces the audience to share in Winnie’s discomfort and helps them understand the Pavlovian manner in which she is controlled. Winnie dreams of being able to ignore the bell, but such freedom seems impossible within the context of Happy Days.
The various articles that Winnie pulls from her bag speak voicelessly of the manner in which humans attempt to define themselves through possessions. Winnie busies herself with removing, using, and examining these things. In the first act this is her primary way of filling the arbitrarily divided time in which she exists. In the second act these objects lie about her, but since her arms are buried and she is unable to move even her head, Winnie can no longer fill her time with them—nor can she escape from time by using Brownie, her revolver. In this state, she must resort to her mental faculties to fill time.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Andonian, Cathleen. The Critical Response to Samuel Beckett. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton. N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Doherty, Francis. “Theater of Suffering.” In Samuel Beckett. London: Hutchinson, 1971.
Eastman, Richard M. “Samuel Beckett and Happy Days.” Modern Drama 6 (February, 1964): 417-424.
Fletcher, John, and John Spurling. Beckett: A Study of His Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1972.
Gontarski, S. E. “Literary Allusions in Happy Days.” In On Beckett: Essays and Criticism. New York: Grove Press, 1986.
Gordon, Lois. The World of Samuel Beckett. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Gussow, Mel. Conversations with and About Beckett. New York: Grove-Atlantic, 1996.
Kenner, Hugh. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
Worth, Katharine, ed. Beckett the Shape Changer. Boston: K. Paul, 1975.