Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

As its title suggests, Happy Days focuses on the persistent human desire to believe that humankind’s cruelly limited and meaningless existence can be seen as “happy.” Winnie, the play’s central character, is obviously and comically limited. Buried in an earthen mound set in the midst of a barren and unchanging plain, she struggles to survive in a cultural and spiritual void. Even her waking and sleeping are conditioned by a Pavlovian bell that rings unpredictably and irresistibly. Condemned to a timeless and uneventful purgatory of unchanging light and unvarying landscape in which even the basic temporal sequence of day and night is no longer available, Winnie is deprived of the external patterns that give human existence a comforting semblance of order. With no prospect of meaningful action short of suicide, Winnie works to fill this arbitrarily divided time by performing routine personal tasks, examining her mundane possessions, cherishing each insignificant bit of new information, and talking. She uses the slightest occurrence to maintain her illusion that she is living another “happy day.”

The desperate need to communicate, no matter how imperfectly, is central to Winnie’s condition. Her speech is a clutter of partially remembered bits of poetry, a cultural montage that she creates in an effort to link herself to the “old time” when life seemed to offer greater meaning. To continue, she must believe that human communication exists. Thus, she is ecstatic when Willie responds to her, even if his response is monosyllabic or random, disconnected “titbits from Reynolds’ News.” She is even satisfied if she can convince herself that he is listening, or if not actually listening at least hearing. Meanwhile, she talks on and on, trying to forestall the silence that she fears more than anything. In the second act, when her opportunities to fill time are even more limited, she reassures herself that “someone is looking at me still,” as though communication need only be the awareness of some other, not necessarily the sharing of meaning.

Willie’s abortive attempt to reach Winnie at the end of the play rekindles Winnie’s hope although, since Willie is dressed for either a wedding or a funeral, it is unclear whether he means to kiss her or kill her. Perhaps it does not matter to Winnie. When Willie fails to climb the mound and weakly calls her name, panting on all fours at the base of the mound, Winnie is inspired to sing of love.

The play displays the comic persistence of hope. Despite the glaring light that makes it impossible to ignore the horror of Winnie’s situation, she resists using Brownie or expressing blasphemous anger. Instead, she exhausts herself with efforts to find something praiseworthy. She uses her diminishing energy to construct illusory fictions from the paltry array of objects and memories available to her.

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