The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Performance’ unfolds over the course of a two-act play. The fact that it works is a miracle.

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Once seen, she cannot be unseen: a chatty middle-aged woman buried in a mound up to her waist.

“Waiting for Godot” may be better known, but for unnerving visual impact, nothing tops Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.”

The absurdist play, perhaps the most stationary in the Western canon, has challenged actresses and viewers since it was first performed 60 years ago. How did this woman — Winnie — find herself embedded in the ground?

“What’s the idea of you?” Winnie recalls once being asked by a passerby. “What are you meant to mean?”

That is the question, as another great soliloquy notes.

Winnie’s good cheer seems alternately the best and the most horrific response to her rootedness. Even in the second act, by which time she’s buried up to her neck, she’s still exclaiming, “Oh this is a happy day!”

Is that optimism or madness?

Australian writer Claire Thomas has just published “The Performance,” a curious novel about three women watching “Happy Days.” It begins moments before the lights go down in the theater. Some 228 pages later, members of the audience file out to the parking lot.

The end. Thank you for coming.

As a plot, that sounds like Beckett squared. The fact that “The Performance” works at all is noteworthy; that it’s engaging and evocative is something of a miracle.

Thomas moves chapter by chapter around her three female protagonists sitting quietly in the dark:

Margot is a literature professor irritated by her dean’s suggestion that she retire.

Ivy is a philanthropist still getting used to the power of her fortune.

Summer is a drama student working in the theater as an usher.

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And don’t forget Winnie, onstage, buried in dirt but prattling on and on to her enervated husband. Thomas lightly laces Winnie’s lines through the novel as a kind of background melody to her characters’ thoughts.

Despite their best intentions, these three women sitting in the dark aren’t so much watching the play as periodically distracted by it. Thomas’s imitation of wandering minds is flawless and yet entirely comprehensible. Without drifting into stream of consciousness, she nonetheless reproduces that vast galaxy of thoughts that revolves around the dark matter of anxiety at the center of each life.

Although, in one sense, nothing “happens” in this novel, there’s something uniquely revealing about it. I’ve read hundreds of books in which people commit unspeakable crimes, have sex in every possible permutation, pray to strange gods, carry out cruel betrayals, nurse shameful jealousies and every other conceivable private act or thought, but I have never been invited into the minds of people sitting through an entire play: It feels oddly intimate.

Despite their wildly different positions, each of these women responds to Winnie’s plight from a different point of view. Like her, they’re all trapped in their own particular ways, coping with their own rising burdens, struggling to maintain the requisite good cheer.

The structure of “The Performance” forces Thomas to create movement even while her characters are sitting stock still, but she rises to the challenge. We’re drawn into the cares of these women’s lives and made to care for them. Margot, the professor, is self-conscious about the welts her husband has left on her arms; he’s been growing more violent as his Alzheimer’s progresses. Tonight’s performance draws her back 43 years to the first time she saw “Happy Days,” when her life was full of power and potential. Now she feels yoked not just to a violent man and a pompous son but to her own prickly, ungenerous personality.

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With Ivy, the philanthropist, Thomas explores the unseen entombment of grief. Despite her glamorous life of being feted and flattered for donations, Ivy is just keeping her head above a rising tide of devastating sorrows. The deference everyone affords her feels confusing and troubling — a confirmation of the basic unfairness of life.

Perhaps no one resonates with the terror of “Happy Days” as powerfully as the young usher, Summer. She thought working in the theater would give her time to think, but she now realizes it’s just more time to drive herself to distraction with worry. And there is so much to worry about. “Summer is forever anxious about the earth and its creatures and its air and its oceans and its dirt,” Thomas writes. “She is anxious about its terrifying seams that shift at a glacial pace and then suddenly rip apart. She is anxious about its creeping heat, its melting ice, its consuming waters and fires. Tear-inducing anxious. Nightmare-inducing anxious.”

Onstage, bathed in harsh light, Winnie says, “Just close the eyes – and wait for the day to come – the happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees.” Summer can’t help but consider climate change already fueling fires across Australia. “The city,” she thinks, “was already full of bushfire haze.”

We’ll never know how successful this particular staging of “Happy Days” is — the audience members are too preoccupied. But “The Performance” is an insightful response to Beckett’s 60-year-old classic and a thoughtful reflection on what’s burying women in the modern age.


Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

The Performance

By Claire Thomas

Riverhead. 228 pp. $26

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