I’ve always liked Samuel Beckett, but I’ve never seen him in person. Last night, at The Guthrie’s premiere of Happy Days , I finally did.
Along with Krapp’s Last Tape and Waiting for Godot , Happy Days is another one of Beckett’s
masterpieces of the absurd. The staging is as pomo as it gets: a seven-foot-high berm of sandy dirt rises from the Dowling Theater’s stage, and on top of the mound, Beckett’s heroine, Winnie, is buried “up to her bosom” (it looks like Jonah was jammed halfway down the whale’s blowhole rather than trapped in its mouth).
Winnie is literally beached, with only a flimsy peach-colored nightie and a parasol to protect her from an overbearing sun. She rambles through a two-hour monologue, ostensibly addressing a husband living in a cave behind the berm. Willie, her husband, is a man who rarely speaks to her—he grunts a couple times, blows his nose once, interjects with two or three observations on his newspaper, and answers one of her questions in the affirmative. So Willie rarely speaks to Winnie, and he never touches her. Winnie’s only other accompaniment is a seemingly bottomless purse.
At least the purse is within reach.
(Am I right, ladies?)
At one point she recounts the story of the last couple that passed her and Willie. It was a young couple, and the guy stopped to look at her, buried up to her chest in this huge mound of dirt, only to turn to ask his girlfriend, “What is she supposed to mean?” So at the risk of offending you again, Winnie .
First of all, of course, Winnie reminds me of my own mother. A middle-aged woman who has built up this life, this mound of dirt, with which I’m sure she has mixed feelings. Sometimes, like Winnie, the hole must feel as if it’s grown a little tighter—either after a potato-chip binge, or a particularly egregious credit card bill—and she might (nearly) feel compelled to complain about the inevitable accumulation of her existential pain. While at other times, mom must feel at peace with her dirt, or at least optimistic enough to declare, like Winnie, “Today will have been another happy day!” In fact, like Winnie, my mom is a woman who only rarely voices despair. Sure, mom cries every Christmas, and she has been known to lament, whenever something shatters, “I’ll never be able to have anything nice, will I?” But there is something so polite and humble about my mother and her refusal to really bitch. Something, as Winnie says, “in the old style.”
Winnie is portrayed by the venerable Sally Wingert, and Wingert, who is all eyes and mouth and blonde curls, may have been created especially for this role—a grueling, two-and-a-half-hour absurdist monologue while held up to her waist, and eventually her neck, in dirt. Sometimes Wingert, especially in those big, Joe Dowling-directed Shakespearean comedies, can come off as either cutesy or overly broad. But here, she demonstrates a true broad’s full feminine range: blithe optimism for the future, dewey-eyed romanticism for past memories, a practical appreciation for the toil of regular, everyday maintenance, and a devastating awareness of how futile that everyday maintenance really is, whether it’s trying to hold onto that white smile or that snippet of Aristotle that used to mean so much to you. And I don’t know if it was the lights or what, but her eyes seemed to be swimming—she appeared to be constantly on the verge of tears. She seemed to really be feeling it up there, a living manifestation of that poetic state of human anxiety where we almost simultaneously wish for retreat (at a couple different points, she wishes she was a “dumb beast” unaware of her predicament) and transcendence (at others, she yearns to rise like a bird or a flame towards God or something like Him).
In fact, Sally Wingert may have finally driven me crazy. (I’ve feared “the break” my whole life.) Because for the last few days I’ve been asking myself a question over and over again. And here I was, sitting in the fifth row of a profoundly moving Beckett play, looking up at this actress in the middle of an epic ramble from the top of a mound of dirt, ostensibly rambling at this audience that I was sitting with, and I thought, “She isn’t talking to us. She isn’t really even talking to her husband but she’s talking to someone.”
And then I was asking myself that question again: Is it possible to be friends with a dead man?
Take a minute. Write down your own answer.
Okay. Well, I think it is.
I know that sounds Hamlet-talking-to-Yorick’s-skull-crazy; or worse, hippie-talking-about-the-energy-in-the-universe crazy. But can I ask you to hold your judgment for just a couple more paragraphs? Just listen to me. You know, like a friend.
Last night, I made friends with Samuel Beckett. (C’mon, stop—friends don’t laugh at each other right away.) He was the one who committed Winnie's words and actions to paper, sometime before it was performed for the first time in 1960. Now, if we agree that friendship implies some mutual relationship between two people, and in this case, one of those people is buried in a cemetery in Paris, then yes, this will not qualify for a conventional understanding of friendship. And sure, like Winnie, Beckett’s creation here, Beckett may have been thinking of one “ideal reader”—whether it was his mother or his lover or some other friend—while he was actually writing this play. But maybe he was thinking of some anonymous audience member like me. Or maybe he was thinking about the ideal reader, and the anonymous me, and himself, and Winnie, of course, at different points of the process—and maybe, sometimes, all of us, at once.
This play was clearly born out of compassion (and, yes, a deep understanding of how absurd this thing that we’re all going through actually is). Maybe Beckett himself couldn’t quite remember his classics when he needed them most, and maybe there were days when he couldn’t remember the Lord’s Prayer all the way through, you know, if he was put on the spot. And I’m sure he woke up with increasing amounts of pain. As for my part of the relationship, well, maybe my own mound of dirt isn’t nearly as tall as Winnie’s, but nevertheless, as a listener, I’m grateful for Beckett’s insight into the human condition. I appreciate him. I admire him. I laughed along with some of his dark jokes. And most importantly, I listened to him. That was my act of friendship.
So if we consider Beckett’s words a universal act of love—a gift to people like me, his friend—even if he knew, either while he was writing or while he was dying that many of us would never be able to respond to him personally, unable to acknowledge him with even a terse husbandly grunt, did he still not intend this work as a gift? And if I love him back across the decades and the Internets, even though he’s as caked in as much Parisian dirt as Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde, isn’t this still a conversation of some kind, driven by a mutual understanding between two people? Maybe this review, this, er...gift to Beckett will end up in some dead letter office, sure. But the speaking-listening part of our friendship already ha ppened. Does he need to physically (or even spiritually) hear me to be my friend? Does that somehow complete the circuit more poetically than my listening?
Some scholars refer to this back-and-forth as The Great Conversation. At the very least, it’s friendly conversation.
SAM!!! CAN YOU HEAR ME??