Rosaleen Linehan. Still image from Patricia Rozema’s film, Happy Days. 2000.
- Play title: Happy Days
- Author: Samuel Beckett
- Published: 1961
- Page count: 65
Happy Days is a two-act play that explores the most basic needs of human existence. The setting is possibly apocalyptic with an ever-beating sun and a barren landscape. There are just two characters, Winnie, and Willie, but the play is taken up almost exclusively by Winnie’s monologue. Beckett’s heroine is in the unusual position of being fixed fast in the ground up to her waist in the opening scene and remains a prisoner throughout in physical terms. The playwright strips away all the accoutrements of life to just a woman’s handbag and a few other props. In the second act, Winnie is further submerged. The ‘action’ of the play is confined to Winnie’s daily routine and her monologue which touches upon her memories, the contents of her handbag, her songs and quotations, and her outlook. The title of the play is one of Winnie’s catchphrases that she uses at specific times.
Ways to access the text: Watching
There is an excellent, full movie version available on YouTube entitled Happy Days (uploaded by Oyunnomin Mod). This version runs for 1hr 17mins and Winnie is played by actress, Rosaleen Linehan.
This play text is not reader-friendly due to the extensive stage directions that constantly interrupt the characters’ lines. If you need to consult a written text, then there are copies available online via the Open Library.
Why watch Happy Days?
Winnie is an indomitable character.
In Happy Days, Beckett presents a surreal situation where a woman is initially half buried in the earth and eventually sinks to her neck with only her head above ground. In this play, the author is inviting us to analyse the meaning of a life and not just how that life was initially shaped, but in Winnie’s case, how ‘a life’ is maintained. There are several ways to interpret Winnie and not everyone sees this character as strong, however, she is acutely aware of her own predicament and shows astonishing resilience. This is a minimalist work in the way that few authors can achieve, meaning there is no plot per se and no real action as the lead character is fixed in one spot. Yet, Winnie’s monologue is captivating, frivolous, humorous, and thought provoking. This play showcases an extraordinary character by stripping away all the norms of daily existence and displaying what remains. The middle-aged, plump, bourgeoise, blonde of the play’s opening scene may eventually surprise readers.
The routines of daily life.
If you watch the play, then you will begin to look upon daily routines in a different light. In Happy Days, routine acts as a sort of anchor to many things. For example, one can interpret the routine displayed by Winnie as a link to her past life, to her gender role, to her sanity, or maybe it is just a way of marking out time, of killing time. Winnie, like most people, has a set daily routine but because it is performed against the backdrop of a landscape of sheer nothingness, the reader is being invited to focus more closely on the stages and meanings of the routine, for example, actions that are comforting or possibly distressing. It is apparent that her routine was learned in a former life, and one may contemplate how such a routine evolves in the first place and why it would persist in a totally new environment. For the reader, the idea of a daily routine which offers little space for deviation is simply normal life, but Winnie’s routine makes one wonder how much of the discipline is imposed by society and how much is self-imposed?
A middle-class housewife?
How should a reader classify Winnie? Beckett presents her as both an exceptionally ordinary and yet extraordinary figure. To begin, one may list the reasons why a reader can identify or relate to her as a normal character, a type that is familiar. So, regarding her physical make up, she is a plump woman in her 50’s with blonde hair and a large bosom. Her femininity and sexuality are underlined in several ways in the play, beginning with her daily routine. The hygiene/beauty routine involves teeth brushing, gum checking, hair combing, lipstick application, medicine taking and nail filing. This seems not so much vanity as proper maintenance. However, when Winnie’s thoughts create an imaginary scene then they reveal her personal view of sexuality. The person who represents the third-party view of Winnie is Mr. Shower. Yet, he is alive only in Winnie’s imagination, because as she says, “there floats up – into my thoughts – a Mr. Shower.” This person contemplates Winnie in a slightly demeaning, objective manner, noting of her bust, “can’t have been a bad bosom, he says, in its day.” He goes on to observe that she’s “stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground” and therefore “what good is she to him like that?” meaning what good is she to her husband when buried in the ground. As these are actually Winnie’s own thoughts, one sees that her ideas of personal value focus on her physical appearance and her sexual utility or lack thereof! It is amusing that the man’s name is “Shower – or Cooker,” both of which emphasize the domestic realm. It seems that Beckett is openly mocking his heroine as having a mind that cannot escape domesticity. Then there is the issue of Winnie’s total reliance on Willie, presumably her husband. She can hardly bear the idea of losing him, saying “just to know that in theory you can hear me … is all I ask.” Indeed, the catchphrase of “happy day” is elicited from her by the most miniscule responses from Willie, even by the mere confirmation of his presence. Taking all these aspects into account, if one had to classify Winnie then she is obviously enslaved to the cultural script of traditional womanhood meaning wife, potential child-bearer, domestic worker etc.
However, Beckett also depicts Winnie as the most extraordinary of heroines. One somewhat covert hint comes from the many fragmented quotes provided by Winnie. Even though her memory has become weaker, she litters the text with famous literary quotations, for example from Shakespeare’s plays, “fear no more the heat o’ the sun” (Cymbeline 4.2.331) and “this bird of dawning” (Hamlet 1.1.175). There is also a phrase from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Hail, holy Light” (3.1) Therefore, even though she is a diminished character, she remains somehow powerful and impressive in her state of imprisonment. The most obvious trait of Winnie’s is her exceptional endurance in the face of great adversity. The presence of the Browning revolver shows that she is not simply a chatty, idle-minded woman, but is consciously counteracting despair. In fact, she had to take the gun from Willie as he had intended to commit suicide. It seems appropriate that this woman with such a merry disposition is the owner of the music box that plays a tune from The Merry Widow operetta. Indeed, song is how she normally chooses to end her daily routine, a form of defiance even as she sinks lower into her grave. In Happy Days, Beckett constructs a scene which physically disables his heroine, locking her into the ground and yet she will not give up. Winnie knows that there is no real hope of relief or escape, laying as she does under a baking hot, unrelenting sun, asking “shall I myself not melt perhaps in the end.” What Winnie ultimately shows the audience is how a person’s mind copes by using songs, memories, simple daily routines, and optimistic resolve to shore up a barrier against feelings of despair or self-pity. Therefore, if one dismisses Winnie as the puppet of a cultural script then she shows how she transcends that script, literally turning it into a weapon of defence, of survival.
As with many complex works of literature, the ending of Happy Days is not readily understood. The lack of a neat, definitive ending robs the viewer of the satisfied feeling of having completed the task and understood the message. However, the lack of an ending seems to be exactly what Winnie is struggling with on a daily basis, if indeed the timeframe between the “morning” and “evening” bell can be called a day. As viewers, we have witnessed someone suffering, albeit that Winnie puts on a stoical face and defies not just our expectations but the silent expectations of her cruel environment. One expects death to end the play, either by Willie reaching for and using the Browning revolver on her, or by the ground finally swallowing Winnie. It seems the ultimate paradox that the play ends in song with Winnie saying “oh, this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!” The drama that immediately precedes this finish centres on Winnie’s doubt about Willie’s intentions as he crawls up the mound. She asks, “is it a kiss you’re after, Willie … or something else.” It is a strange, tense moment because Winnie is at her most physically vulnerable, buried up to her neck, and maybe her husband will rob her of the only choice she has continually stuck to all this time, to live. However, nothing happens, and her exhausted husband just slides away, back down the mound. In light of this inconclusive event, the ending seems somewhat absurd because it shows that her husband is now probably as helpless as she is, and thus the end will come anyway. It appears that Winnie knows her fate but will not hasten its arrival, she will greet it with a smile.
The ending of the play may force one to reflect on the whole of the work. As already discussed, Winnie follows a very structured daily routine which in many respects helps her to make sense of her current existence in a dystopian landscape. While we may become invested in the character of Winnie, she is somewhat like a human marionette that Beckett uses to explore how the last woman alive will cope with the psychological strain of having all the familiar aspects of life stripped away, what Winnie herself refers to as reminders of “the old style.” Winnie seems to exist in a loop of almost perfect repetitions with the only change being her depth in the earthy mound. For example, Winnie says of the parasol that bursts into flames in the hot sun, “the sunshade will be there again tomorrow, beside me on the ground.” Similarly, she says that the little mirror she smashes will be back in her bag tomorrow, intact. Therefore, she is partially forced and partially participates in the overarching routine of her existence and will do so until she breathes her last breath. Even if one interprets this as a reflection of the prison of daily life that we all live in, to some degree, Winnie is a true heroine due to her poise in the face of unending misery.
Beckett, Samuel. Happy Days. Grove Press, 1961.
Lehár, Franz. “I love you so.” The Merry Widow. 1905.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Penguin Books, 2014.
Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline. Wells and Lilly, 1823.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Cambridge University Press, 2006.