'Happy Days': It's a Mud, Mud World, And Beckett Wallows in It

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007

Confined up to her waist in the earth on some Godforsaken heath, Winnie might be the saddest creature Samuel Beckett ever conceived. Thankfully, though, there is nothing remotely stick-in-the-mud about the brilliant Fiona Shaw, who makes of Winnie's pitiable predicament in "Happy Days" a glorious testament to the writer's achievement and an actor's extraordinary palette.

The visually arresting production, realized with astonishing verve by Shaw's longtime collaborator, director Deborah Warner, remains in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater only through Thursday. That's a shame. Like the "Medea" that this pair brought to the Terrace in 2002, their "Happy Days" locates the powerful stimulants in a text that in lesser hands succumbs to ponderousness.

Beckett's contemplative work can be a trial. The play is not exactly an open-book exam, and theatergoers in search of an evening that handily provides the answer key will feel a little frustrated. Not that Beckett wasn't fully aware of the mischief he was making. To the audience's wonderment over what Winnie is doing up there, stuck eternally in a hole, the dramatist delightfully asks: What the heck do we all think we are doing out here?

That and other existential questions are explored with a surprising buoyancy in Warner's production. And in Shaw's robust, life-of-the party countenance, we're supplied with a sublime mirror on the human condition, on our ineffable instinct to muddle through, to adapt to the limitations imposed by time and decay and -- even if we know the song ends badly -- to sing.

Warner and Shaw reaffirm here that "Happy Days" is one of Beckett's great pieces, not quite the vaudevillian masterstroke represented by "Waiting for Godot," with its rumination on divinity, but still a marvelously constructed tragicomedy. It helps to remind us of Beckett's skills as a portraitist -- a draper of vigorous flesh on what might have resulted in bloodless conceits -- and why this master of absurdism has remained relevant when other writers in this genre have tended to recede a bit with time.

No brush of a feather duster, it seems, was required for this script, first performed in 1961 in director Alan Schneider's legendary Greenwich Village production. We greet Winnie -- or rather, she greets us -- as the earsplitting alarm bell rings in yet another morning of a life lived wedged in the ground. Her companions in the middle of nowhere are her trusty black bag, filled with the humdrum flotsam of her daily regimen, and just over the ridge, her mate, Willie (Tim Potter), mostly seen with his back to us and heard through intermittent grunts, groans and titters.

The landscape itself is emphasized here to absolutely splendid effect. Set designer Tom Pye creates a desolate hillock of pebbles, sunbaked sand and broken concrete slabs -- a zone rendered dead by man and nature. (At times, the play almost can feel like an environmental parable.) To suggest a thinness of theatrical illusion, Pye and Warner hang a painting of this same desert at the back of the stage and allow us a glimpse just offstage of the Terrace's mechanical guts.

At the crest of the hill languishes Shaw's handsome Winnie, and for the first act she is visible down to the waist. Preternaturally hopeful, Winnie wakes up determined to make the best of very little, and even an activity as meaningless as making out the words of an advertised promise on a tube of toothpaste fills her with satisfaction. Or so she claims. "That's what I find so wonderful," is one of her mantras, repeated so frequently that it, too, comes to sound meaningless.

(The idea that there is an alternative to this existence is reflected in one of the items in her bag: a very serious-looking gun.)

What sustains Winnie, however, is the knowledge that she is not entirely alone, that she can count on the possibility that Willie -- who lives in his own hole nearby -- can hear her monologues, that she's not speaking into a void. The terror of this kind of total solitude haunts her more strongly in Act 2, after time has passed, the earth has swallowed her up to the chin and Willie is not responding anymore. At the foot of her mound, too, a crevice has opened. The abyss, perhaps.

Shaw generates an exuberant current that marvelously animates Winnie's spirit. In the actress's restless inventiveness, you're made to understand something alternately sad and funny and profound about the survival instinct, the imperative to carry on, the need, most of all, for company.

A mere cough from Potter's Willie can recall Winnie from despair. Time and again, the face of the expressive Shaw incisively illustrates Winnie's resilient nature. In a galvanizing evening in the theater, that's what we can all find so wonderful.

Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Deborah Warner. Lighting, Jean Kalman; sound score, Mel Mercier; sound design, Christopher Shutt; costume consultant, Luca Costigliolo. About 95 minutes. Through Thursday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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