Long before he won the Nobel Prize,
Beckett was declared a modern master and has been considered one for
several decades while some of his potential peers, such as Bertolt
Brecht and Dario Fo, have been slipping. This means that heavy volumes
of explication and analysis of Beckett’s work grow apace. Enough has
been written about the possible meanings of his Happy Days, which just opened at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, to
occupy a diligent graduate student for 10 months. Yet in one quip he
explained it all. There is no surety that we can know enough joy in our
lives that we can declare we’re happy to be alive. We could be playing
golf, or, as the phrase has it, taking a day at the beach.
We do not, however, go to the theater to
receive messages. Learning that to rely on the kindness of strangers is
a great folly is not why A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most esteemed American stage dramas of the 20th century. The test of Beckett’s Happy Days
is whether it can amuse and delight us, or even hold us, on the
two-hour journey to his bleak insight. With veteran thespian Susannah
Berryman in the lead as Winnie, buried in the mound, we watch and we
care. The dialogue offers some puzzles we can figure out quickly. We
smile but never guffaw. And gradually we are pulled into her struggle
to find some happiness in the day.
Written in English when the playwright was 55 and buoyed by Waiting for Godot’s prestige success, Happy Days opened in New York City in 1961. According to stage lore, Beckett chose the heavily ironic title Happy Days on a challenge from the wife of Irish actor Cyril Cusack, who had recently appeared in the unrelenting Krapp’s Last Tape. In a play written for a woman, the author might sound more upbeat in the title.
Although widely performed in cultural capitals, this is the first-ever performance in the Syracuse New Times purview.
Anyone who follows live theater has seen a production still in which
there are only two possible poses. A woman of a certain age is seen
buried in sand up to her rib cage, sometimes holding a shabby parasol;
that’s Act I. Or only her head emerges from the mound; that’s Act II.
One of the reasons we keep seeing those
stills is that dozens of top stage actresses have looked upon Winnie as
a great “destination role,” like Medea, Lady Macbeth or Mary Tyrone.
Irene Worth, Jessica Tandy, Billie Whitelaw, Rosaleen Linehan and, most
recently, Fiona Shaw have sought it out. Physically, there is no more
demanding role that we ever see: 70 pages of text, most of it
monologue, with a sometimes silly-sounding surface and imposing depths
of subtext. Not to mention relying entirely on vocal and facial
expression in the second act.
Susannah Berryman can, without needless
inflation, be spoken of in their company. A longtime Equity player and
senior member of the Ithaca College Drama faculty, she has had wider
and deeper experience than many actresses in London or New York City,
from tragedy to farce. Her offstage default mode of smiling good humor
is a plank on which to build Winnie’s chatty upbeat blather. Her
opening line is, “Another heavenly day!” Even in the second act she can
warble, “My two lamps: When one burns out, the other burns brighter.”
At the same time Berryman must signal portentous meaning that we grasp
before Winnie does. In reading the handle of a plastic toothbrush she
squints at the words: “Genuine, guaranteed . . .” The manufacturer’s
promise is no more fraudulent than any we hear in life.
About a half-hour into Act I we learn to
our surprise that Winnie is not alone. Behind her in some kind of hole,
his head seen only at intervals, is the husband Willie (R.M. Fury).
Most of what he says is unintelligible, but his few words and actions
carry great weight. First, there’s his name, unmistakably British and
Irish slang for penis, an allusion possibly lost if the text had been
translated from French, the language of so many other plays. Winnie
craves love and sexuality, although she appears to be disappointed most
of the time. Willie’s most clearly enunciated word is a punning
affront: “Formication!” It may sound like “fornication,” making love,
but it actually denotes the abnormal sensation of having ants or other
insects running over the skin.
Play it again, Sam: Beckett’s Happy
Days, currently at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre, offers a plumb role for
actress Susannah Berryman.
Just as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot are widely recognized as being drawn on early 20th-century comics, Chaplin and Keaton or Laurel and Hardy, the roots of Happy Times’
characterizations have also been drawn from popular culture. The
talkative wife and the henpecked husband go back centuries and survive
in sitcoms. More specifically, several commentators have traced
Winnie’s prattle, mostly to an offstage character, to Hylda Baker, a
British comedienne from the 1930s through the 1960s.
In the end, a yearning Winnie asks
Willie if she has been lovable. Not if he loved her because she already
knows about that, but whether she could be loved. These moving
lines must be delivered in the flesh, even if that flesh is nearly
buried in the sand (or dust) from which we all spring and to which we
will return. Beckett wrote plenty of prose fiction before he turned to
the stage at age 34, after enduring the horrors of World War II, but
what he gives us here is not intended for the printed page. The
poignancy of Happy Times’ concluding lines must be spoken to us. Even when her hope is mocked, we hear it endure.
Happy Days gains intensity in the
Kitchen’s 73-seat theater. The company’s top professional standards are
required for such a demanding production, starting with Jesse Bush’s
intelligent, supportive direction. Steve TenEyck’s set is the sand pile
that sheds grains but stands firm when Willie climbs on it. Kelly
Syring’s lighting beats down like a little patch of the Sahara. Nate
Richardson’s sound design reminds us how close the sea is to the shore.
Beckett’s Happy Days is one of
the most talked-about dramas of the past 50 years. If this is your only
chance to see it in this part of the world, be glad it’s this
This production runs through Nov. 2. See Times Table for information.