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 happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees.” Winnie is distracted from this somber thought by the appearance of Willie’s arm. He is holding a postcard and evidently examining it from a variety of angles. Winnie takes the card, and despite her shock at discovering that it is pornographic, examines it minutely, even using her magnifying glass.
Winnie discusses the importance of Willie’s companionship, expressing the fear that she could not continue in silence and total isolation. She recognizes that Willie rarely listens or speaks himself. She is, therefore, particularly pleased when he responds to her question regarding the appropriate pronoun to use in reference to one’s hair with the monosyllable “it.” “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!” she exclaims with joy.
Winnie remembers her parasol but worries about putting it up too soon. The bell’s arbitrary division of time and the unchanging light leave her with a dilemma. If she acts too soon, she could be left “with hours still to run, before the bell for sleep, and nothing more to say, nothing more to do.” If she waits too long, the bell for sleep could go off with “little or nothing done.” Winnie decides to...
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unfold her parasol, but it soon bursts into flames spontaneously, and she tosses it onto the back of the mound.
As the first act nears its end, Willie speaks his longest line in the play. Winnie, still thinking about the message on the toothbrush, wonders what a hog is, and Willie says, “Castrated male swine. Reared for slaughter.” Excited by Willie’s communicativeness, Winnie implores herself to sing or pray, but finds that she is unable to do either.
Act 2 opens with the same set, but Winnie is now buried up to her neck, wearing the same hat, her head completely immobile. Beside her on the mound are her bag, the revolver, and her parasol. Once again the painful ring of the bell signals the start of the action. Winnie enumerates the shortening list of sense experiences that remain for her, the experiences that make existence “so wonderful.” Cut off from the manipulation of objects that occupied her in the first act, she notes the items she can still see, the sounds she can still hear, and the memories that well up within her mind. She wishes that she could free herself from the authority of the bell, but she consoles herself by thinking that “there is my story of course, when all else fails.” She tells of young Mildred being frightened by a mouse, and she screams in sympathy with the little girl’s fright.
The play ends with an “unexpected pleasure.” Willie crawls from behind the mound, dressed in full formal attire, and positions himself at the front where Winnie can see him. He attempts to crawl up the mound toward Winnie or the revolver, as she cheers him on and wonders about his motives. He fails in his effort and slides back down the mound, but looks at her and speaks her name. In joy, she bursts into song—the waltz from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (1905). The play ends with Winnie and Willie gazing at each other.
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.
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.