Critical Context

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Although he considered himself a novelist who turned to drama when he reached an impasse in his prose, Samuel Beckett was best known for his plays. Indeed, starting in the 1960’s he spent much of his creative energy supervising productions of his plays in several countries.

Happy Days marks a midpoint in the inexorable progression of Beckett’s drama toward immobility and silence. In many ways more austere than Beckett’s earliest dramatic work, Happy Days is clearly more traditional and direct than his later works.

Beckett’s literary reputation was made by the success of his play En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), a work that alone has sold more copies than all of his other drama and fiction combined. Along with his second important play Fin de partie (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame, 1958), Waiting for Godot established Beckett as the central figure in the Theater of the Absurd. Although each of these early plays presents a world of severely limited possibilities in which mortals have no effective control over their physical condition, each also portrays mobile characters who interact with one another.

In contrast, Beckett’s next two important plays, Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958) and Happy Days, focus on individuals who are almost completely isolated. The lone character in Krapp’s Last Tape sits in his room listening to his own tape-recorded reminiscences, carrying on a dialogue of sorts with his own temporarily distant self. Winnie of Happy Days speaks to Willie, but most of her speech is a rambling monologue to which Willie rarely responds. Thus, Happy Days moved Beckett’s drama toward the solipsism that characterizes his later work.

These two plays are also the first dramatic works that Beckett wrote in English. Beckett wrote in French because he believed that the acquired language made his work more disciplined, but he was sensitive to the accusation that he wrote in French to hide himself. He also chose to write these plays in English because he was eager for a commercial success. The subject matter of Happy Days, which in its early versions contained much harsh criticism of the Anglican Church and British policies toward Ireland, also made English an appropriate language choice.

Beckett’s subsequent drama became much more austere. Play (pr., pb. 1963; English translation, 1964), which was first produced in a German translation (Spiel, 1963), portrays three characters entombed in urns, in some after-death state. Each is completely unaware of the others and speaks only of self, with no hope of communication. Not I (1972), a teleplay, speaks through a disembodied mouth suspended in total darkness at mid-stage; Footfalls (pr., pb. 1976) shows only a strip of light through which the feet of an old woman can be seen passing as she speaks in the darkness; That Time (pr., pb. 1976) offers the white-bearded head of an old man suspended in air and darkness.

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