In an attempt to explore Matt Trueman’s ruminations on criticism as a “team sport”, I’ve decided to try and experiment with focussing on particular aspects of certain productions. Following my first go at this considering space in The Commitments, this short essay hopes to consider the role of optimism in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which has just been revived at the Young Vic.
“The world has never been a better place to live in,” writes Matt Ridley in his 2010 work The Rational Optimist, “and it will keep on getting better.” The general mood of pessimism in the modern world, he suggests, is founded on misused statistics and a pervasive desire to see the worst in people. We should, Ridley argues, be looking to the progress which is being made and the rise in the number of people who count themselves as “happy”. It’s a deeply flawed piece of work, taking a wholly Western-centric view of the world, doctoring statistics to make a point and generally making the wealthy feel less guilty. It’s the use of the word ‘rational’ which is interesting, however, suggesting that were we being reasonable and logical, we would in fact be optimistic. He applies the same process as, say, Stephen Emmott in 10 Billion, even though they both come to entirely different conclusions. There’s a desire to cater for those who want hard facts and reason, but what about irrationality?
This is where Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days sits. Winnie lives a life trapped in the earth, apparently watched over by someone or something. The first time we meet her, she is buried up to her waist. The second time, only her head is visible. Her husband Willie lives in a hole behind her, but for endless periods it seems he could be dead. All this time, however, Winnie keeps up a sense of boundless optimism against all odds, as she can see she will soon be buried forever and lives her life according to the things which happen every single day; she is the ‘irrational optimist’.
In Natalie Abrahami’s new production at the Young Vic, this idea of optimism against oppression is brought to the fore. Vicki Mortimer’s set is reminiscent of a Utah canyon, and cascades steeply downwards into the audience, a wave frozen in time. Above, a canvas of light glares down on the pair surrounded by spotlights, giving Paule Constable’s lighting design a sense of impenetrable and constant brightness. Tom Gibbons’ sounds come out of nowhere, and the alarm which marks Winnie’s day is a klaxon which wouldn’t be out of place in a dystopian city.
Whereas other productions of Happy Days may be located in a ‘non-place’, there is a sense that here we can imagine the world beyond this cross-section with which Mortimer presents us. Are there other women like Winnie, at various stages of burial? A forensic tent (borne, I imagine, of practicality) brought on and off during the interval and after the show adds to a sense that this pair aren’t alone, that they are being examined and excavated, even though they are unaware of being at the mercy of others. Winnie says she feels like she’s being watched, but though the audience are half-lit, it’s clear she doesn’t mean us.
She performs, then, for both herself and a Lacanian big Other, which may or may not exist in actuality. But even if the people who rule over this barren land are long gone, it kind of doesn’t matter; they’ve managed to do their job, oppressing Winnie to the extent that she feels a need to be perpetually optimistic to please their whims.
Where others have noted that “For Winnie time is a meaningless term; she lives in an everlasting now” (Alpaugh, 204), Abrahami’s production is not afraid to give a sense of the movement of time. Throughout, like an open hourglass, gravel rolls down the rock slope as rumbles murmur through the theatre, and at the end of each act there’s a deluge of small rocks before the lights go out. The punctuation of Gibbons’ sirens very clearly mark out a shift in time, whilst Winnie lays out the items in her bag in front of her like a clock, so that she may mark the day according to how much stuff is arranged by her hole. Here, there is a very real feeling of Winnie knowing that, eventually, she’s going to be completely buried, that at some point she’s going to be fully oppressed by the rhythms around her. Yet still she gives an impression of buoyancy.
We’re never sure, then, whether to feel sorry for Winnie or to envy her. If we were in this position of peril, would we be able to remain optimistic? The gun, which is highlighted in Abrahami’s production by a buzz every time Winnie looks at it, ends up being a MacGuffin even though it clearly finds itself lodged in the front of the protagonist’s consciousness. She has faith, however, that life is worth living, even against her terrible odds.
James Knowlson suggests that the “commonplace, worn-out words, which Winnie uses to tame and domesticate a mysterious, elusive reality, also lead her to the very edge of the abyss, when sorrow, regret and loss intrude repeatedly into her busy chatter” (21). Juliet Stevenson’s performance, however, only allows “sorrow, regret and loss” to intrude for infinitesimal moments, as we see a glimmer of pain in her eyes before she discounts the emotion and moves on, chirping away to her near-silent husband (David Beames). On the other hand, her rosy cheeks, wide eyes and expressive gestures point towards an optimism which is not just feigned but necessary, as if she’s performing a kind of double-think to stop herself from straying into sadness. The joy with which she repeats the phrase “This will have been a happy day” covers over the fact that to say such a thing is actually deeply sad, the future perfect continuous holding within it a sense that she is unable to live in the present and must keep herself going by constantly looking forward to a far-from-certain future. Even when the umbrella explodes, she perks up and observes that it’ll be back in position by tomorrow. Stevenson’s optimism is both infectious and alienating.
It’s generally accepted that Beckett’s plays are not concerned with ‘meaning’ in the conventional sense, but Abrahami’s decision to give the piece a sense of time and place, however abstract, means Happy Days can tell us a lot about oppression, optimism and the oppression of optimism. Ridley’s book embodies the much-vaunted sense that we must be optimistic, for the good of economic and social ‘growth’. What’s never mentioned, however, is that such pervasive, rational optimism allows those in charge to hold on to power, suppressing as it does challenge and dissent. Were we to suddenly find ourselves in Winnie’s position, most of us would be unable to be anything by pessimistic, but Stevenson’s performance gives a sense that this optimism has been engrained over a sustained period of time, giving her no option to feel anything else. To us, she is irrationally optimistic, maintaining joy even when it is clear things cannot end well. For her, however, it is a way of keeping going, even when everything, including her gruff husband Willie, seems to have deserted her. And if she is doomed anyway, who are we to take that faith away from her?
Alpaugh, David J; “Negative Definition in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days”; Twentieth Century Literature 11.4 (1966)
Knowlson, James; “Beckett’s ‘Bits of Pipe’”; Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives (1983)
Ridley, Matt; The Rational Optimist; Harper (2010)
Photo: Johan Persson