Samuel Beckett’s ironically titled Happy Days echoes the same vein of his jaundiced view of mankind’s fate as the line from Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Happy Days concerns Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist in a huge sand dune in Act I, and up to her neck in Act II. It’s a deft physical characterization of dying: the earth reclaims each of us from the moment of birth, and slowly we return to it.
Grim messages need some leavening humor, and thankfully, James Bundy’s splendid production for Yale Rep, now at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, has the superb Dianne Wiest as Winnie, an eternal optimist who fights constantly against the darkness. As she rhapsodizes about “happy days” and whether the present one will qualify—one suspects that it almost always does—she goes through a mundane but comical routine. Near her on one side is a large black vinyl bag; on another is an umbrella. Both come into play with comic business that has a vaudeville tinge.
Wiest, with her quirky persona, is able to move between the comic and the serious aspect with consummate ease. Winnie begins her morning by praying solemnly. Then she starts her toilet by brushing her teeth, squeezing the last drop of toothpaste from a tube. Then she tries to read her toothbrush. It’s made from “genuine, pure…”—but she can’t make out the rest. She removes her glasses. She takes a cloth. She wipes the lenses vigorously. She puts them on again. No luck. The process is repeated like a vaudeville routine, with small variations: spitting on the lenses, using a magnifying glass, rubbing grime away from the lettering. Finally, she discerns the missing words: “fully guaranteed, genuine, pure hog’s setae.” She throws her hands up triumphantly. (It’s unfortunate that Beckett uses a Latinate word so unfamiliar to his audience; it takes one out of the play and leaves the listener perplexed.)
Winnie’s days are filled with such small victories, and Wiest plays them superbly, adding wistfulness to the cheer, diluting the grim with the comic, but circling back to optimism. “Oh, well, what does it matter, that is what I always say, it will come back, that is what I find so wonderful,” says Winnie, “all comes back.” Periodically she'll refer to “the old style“ whenever she comes across the word “daily;" it suggests metaphorically that an old person no longer has days or nights, but that time is all run together.
At several points Beckett has Winnie struggle to remember lines from Thomas Gray’s Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. It’s a poem that resonates with Beckett’s own world view here. The last lines may be the most famous—“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”—but, more pertinently, the part Winnie tries to remember is “And moody madness/Laughing wild/Amid severest woe.” It’s a parallel to her own situation, and that of all mankind.
But the intellectual elements are balanced by the sometimes bawdy comedy. Winnie is not alone on stage. Behind the dune is her husband, Willie (Jarlath Conroy), who scarcely speaks. Indeed, when he does, she declares that it’s a “happy day.” At times one sees Willie’s bare back, facing upstage. He reads a yellowed newspaper. At her insistence, he shows her a postcard that he's been examining. It turns out to be pornographic, and Wiest’s successive reactions during this business are a delight: shock, disgust, curiosity.
Bundy has inserted a fart joke at one point to replace Willie’s blowing of his nose, but the slightly more emphatic low comedy fits in easily. Willie and Winnie have “discussions” about sex (“Fornication,” says Willie with a chuckle) and other aspects of life. In spite of Willie's presence and occasional speaking, Winnie handles most of the dialogue—the part is a tour de force for any actress.
Izmir Ickbal’s set of a massive dune puts Wiest high up on the stage, and the size of the dune vividly physicalizes that Winnie is being swallowed up by the earth. Only a couple trees with bare branches (echoing the tree in Godot) are visible, small in the distance. In the considerably shorter Act II, Winnie is buried up to her neck, yet Wiest, even without the ability to conduct comic business, does a terrific job of keeping one’s interest, and Conroy has his only full appearance on the stage. The production achieves a delicate balance between intellectual allegory and popular entertainment, and it should not be missed.
Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days plays through May 28 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit tfana.org.