It is quite an accolade for any Samuel Beckett play to be regarded as his bleakest. Indeed, the late Nobel-prize winning dramatist is known for his ostensibly miserable and existential plays. However, Happy Days surely tops the list. Over two hours we watch a middle-aged woman, Winnie, become slowly submerged in quicksand, with only her head visible in the second act. The only other character is her passive and largely silent husband who mysteriously refuses to help her. The only action that takes place beyond this unsettling spectacle is Winnie singing a song and her umbrella, at one point, catching fire. She spends a good section of the play trying to read the label on her toothpaste.
Each revival of the play tends to be greeted in terms of the actor’s challenge in performing what is, essentially, a breathless monologue. Certainly, Beckett’s own famously strict directions – still tightly enforced by his literary estate – tends to preclude much contemporary interpretation, though this did not stop Fiona Shaw drearily attempting a climate change reading in her 2007 production. In any case, Happy Days seems to be firmly rooted in typical 1960s satire. All the elements are there: the suffocating social conservatism which keeps Winnie bonded so unhappily to her husband; the stiff upper-lip loyalty to toughing out a difficult situation; and the empty ephemera of popular culture – represented by the objects in Winnie’s handbag.
Yet the unchanging face of Happy Days is also what makes every revival so urgent: whether we pity or admire Winnie’s fortitude seems to alter with every viewing. In the context of endless social debate about assisted dying, Winnie’s own refusal to take the escape route handed to her by the presence of a loaded revolver (which she affectionately nicknames ‘Brownie’) seems perversely heroic.
Happy Days, like Waiting for Godot, is no straightforward tragedy. However, the comfort to be found in Beckett is not just through his often silly sense of humour – her limp, largely immobile husband is called Willie – but in the struggle of his characters to love and keep on living, in spite of any physical impairment or post-apocalyptic setting the playwright throws at them.
Winnie is brilliantly portrayed here by Juliet Stevenson, whose voice at times becomes a powerful musical instrument, quivering between shrewish nag and existential howl. It may not always be easy viewing, but Happy Days remains as stirring a depiction of that old elitist subject, the human condition, as you’ll find in any play produced in the 50 years since it was written.