The Wonderfulness of Helplessness

A woman is buried to her waist in a pile of dirt. A bright blue painted sky stretches behind her and the sun constantly beats down upon her. She is awoken by piped in buzzing sounds. Though stuck in the mud and controlled by unseen forces, she seems quite okay with her situation and proceeds to go about her day to day routine. Reaching into a tote bag, she pulls out an unusually long toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. Much time is spent attempting to read the writing etched into the handle of the toothbrush but to not much avail. The woman, Winnie, forgets what she has deciphered once she has deciphered it. Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days makes no attempt to explain why Winnie is buried the way she is. It is this lack of explanation, prevalent throughout his work, which makes Beckett a challenging figure and why his plays are tricky to produce. People want explanations, but like life itself, Beckett offers none. The play is often looked at as a comment on the human condition: a true expression of the absurd. We have no idea why we are here, might as well ramble on about it, might as well accept the circumstances as they are (even if that means sinking into a pile of earth). And yet, although the play comments on the human condition, Winnie’s experience is so far removed from what a typical person would experience that it is difficult to relate to her. Furthermore, Beckett’s stream of consciousness style occasionally goes in and out of one’s ears, with occasional phrases burrowing deep into the brain but with the majority leaking back out again.

Here would be where quality directorial choices and a strong performer would come into play. The goal is to make all the words stick, to engage the audience through the magic of theater. Intentional Theater’s production is almost completely able to make the play engaging and relatable. The show makes use of Beckett's production notebook from a 1979 performance in London. Winnie's mound is the same but the props are a real standout. They are surrealistic, elongated forms. Winnie’s mirror is about 2 inches wide yet has at least a foot-long handle. Her sun shade is a not very wide, crocheted parasol, a visual reminder of its uselessness against the constant sun. The deformed props highlight the futility of her condition. She can't read the toothbrush; she can barely use it to brush her teeth.

One occasionally feels sympathy for Winnie, as she tells stories from the past, as she calls out desperately to Willie, her husband, who lives in a hole behind the mound of earth. All that is seen of Willie, for the most part, is the back of his head and his papier mache boater hat. Asta Hansen brings a vulnerability to the role of Winnie that is quite appropriate, but occasionally the actor breaks character. There was a very audible line prompter hidden under the mound at the reviewed performance, and, suddenly, Winnie’s pauses were simply an actor forgetting her lines rather than an artistic choice.

Beckett is bleak. And yet, for that, each of his plays has some element of physical comedy, perhaps because comedy finds its base in sadness. Winnie digging through her props is one element of this. So is Willie's toying with his hankerchief and boater. Unlike Winnie, Willie is free to move about, and his flopping and climbing lighten the proceedings considerably. An accurate depiction of the frustrations and struggles of life, Happy Days is a must-see for anyone who has ever questioned their existence and then paused to smile about it.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post