Happy Days are here again - - - NOT!

California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda is currently producing one of Samuel Beckett’s more humorous and colorful plays, Happy Days, and that is saying a lot, as few of his plays rise above frustrating boredom and lackluster pessimism, bordering on despondency. Beckett’s monumental creative frustration mirrors most of society’s frustration, and his puzzling bitterness tugs at reality, keeping his audiences grasping for meaning.

Today has literally been a “Beckett” day in my life, a day quite common in my property management, theatre columnist, photographer’s work-a-day-world. As the sun rises, I set out to assist in the feeding and clean up of our many animals, and return to consume breakfast. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I settle in behind the keyboard at my desk, raise my periscope above the piles of paper and struggle to clear away more of the burgeoning, multiplying work that just keeps happening. I open my email, reply by email, clean out this file and open that file, read a new theatrical notice, write that letter I’ve been trying to get to for a week, shred a stack of sensitive papers, update a schedule of pending work, add to my work calendar, and add to my theatre calendar. After a lunch break I complete the 12 page ballot list for my theatre reviewer’s guild for the first 6 months shows and email it to its next recipient. I throw away many of those no longer needed items, I pay more bills that just keep appearing, I respond to my anti-virus software manufacturer about the failure of their new product to install the way it was guaranteed to do. I break to eat a bit and return again to struggle onward and upward, to fight my way out of the ever growing monstrous backlog, only to find some nefarious person has secreted another stack of mail in the midst of the melancholy morass. Long after nightfall, I’m afraid to turn my head left or right, for fear of finding I somehow have ended up with more than what I started with. A grim reality persists. I never got to those prints my customer has been pleading for, for days, those prints I promised to get to today. As I settle down to write this article, it seems as if the earth is about to swallow me up. I can now relate to Beckett’s writings as I am definitely “in it up to my neck”!

“Happy Days” is surely an allegory of the human condition. Its intrinsic point is nothing close to an examination of, or in equation with happiness. This play is a testimony of one woman’s life as it resonates with the inevitability of life’s morass, pulling her back into a black hole of her own making or resulting from her own ineptitude and lack of understanding. As the play opens, Winnie, a middle aged woman, is buried up to her chest in a mountain of dirt and debris. A mound created from the tailings of life’s pursuits, a pyramid of promises, made and broken and the discarded refuse of life’s realities. Bits and pieces of human flotsam protrude here and there, an old radio, an up-ended and mud splattered little red wagon, a barely visible school class room chair back, and if you look closely, perhaps you will spot a little piece of your own memories mired in the mud.

Winnie (played most brilliantly by Patty Gallagher) exists in a world of never ending sunlight, exposed to the elements with no shelter, no ability to move other than to turn her upper torso slightly left and right. Above and behind her is a strangely rough hewn metal frame encompassing a large background screen upon which we see a projected image of blue sky. Her waking hours begin with a shrill bell jolting both she and the audience into consciousness and her day continues for the most part uneventfully until another bell announces the time for sleeping. She offers up a daily prayer, and then sets about her daily regimen, opening a large handbag laying on a mound of dirt near her, She carefully extracts and examines several items contained therein, a comb, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a nail file, lipstick, a medicinal tonic bottle, a music box and finally - - a handgun, all while she chatters incessantly to an unseen partner, her husband Willy, who lives in a small cave in the dirt mound, somewhere out of sight behind her.

During the first act we never see Willy’s face, only the back of his head, upon which he places an open handkerchief and then a straw hat. He is roused into view only after she rudely hurls her parasol at him to get his attention. He slowly slides his backside up to the edge of the mound, where he settles himself in, opening a news paper and occasionally retorting to her mutterings with grunts and sounds and an occasional monosyllabic word. Loquacious he is not!

The routine is raised to the level of ceremony! Beckett’s detailed instructions to Actress Billie Whitelaw in the 1979 production are as follows:

“Emphasize this - -
The bag is all she has – look at it with affection … From the first you should know how she feels about it … When the bag is at the right height you peer in, see what things are there and then get them out. Peer, take, place. Peer, take, place. You peer more when you pick things up than when you put them down. Everything has its place. Everything is wearing out or running out. At the start of Act I she takes the last swig of her tonic before throwing away the bottle, her toothbrush has hardly any hairs left and the lipstick, to use Beckett’s expression, is “visibly zu ende,” the parasol is faded with a “mangy fringe” and even her pearl necklace is “more thread than pearls”.

Winnie is an eternal optimist, but the available sources of her optimism are being exhausted and frustration is mounting. Her positive outlook is paper-thin when first we meet her and while she simply deals with the situation, we never see her complaining or cajoling or questioning how or why she is in this place. Like most women, she simply rises to the occasion and makes the best of it. Most of us never understand how we wind up in a rut, or stuck in the mud to use similar earthy metaphors — but her dream is that she will “simply float up into the blue … And that perhaps some day the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out.”

We realize that she is symbolic of women born in another time, more accepting, more flexible and less condemning than many of her counterparts in today’s society. Certainly she is more willing to endure the inevitable, more so than most men of current times. No yelling, no screaming, no cursing the situation, yes, Winnie takes it all in - - - (I was going to say “her stride”, but obviously she has no stride left) - - even bearing witness to her calamity with an occasional grin.

Willie (played by Dan Hiatt) for the most part ignores his wife. There never is anything that ever resembles a conversation. Like the cartoon with the wife and husband sitting at the breakfast table, the wife rattling on with coffee in hand and the husband blissfully hiding behind the daily news, Willie exists in this play simply to provide the function of a “listener”. His greatest contribution verbally is when he lavishes a magnanimous two whole sentences upon her in his definition of what a “Hog” is. For the greater part of the play, he simply sits with his back to the audience reading his yellowing news paper or looking at postcards, one of which he shares with Winnie, which is obviously an adult postcard. She very humorously dismisses it as “dirty” and offers it back to Willy, hesitates and pulls it back, sneaks another look, starts to hand it back, hesitates again and sneaks it back once more, this time pulling a magnifying glass from her handbag, and examines the card much more closely, before again judiciously handing it back to Willy.

The second act is even more dark and bleak. Winnie has now settled inexorably up to her neck beneath the sediment of time and disappointment. In the second act she has almost been engulfed by the mound; only her head is visible, now she cannot move and she admits to being in pain. Despite the desperation of her predicament, she is confident that this will be another of her happy days. She continues to chatter, but as she can no longer reach her bag or turn around, it takes more of an effort to keep up the front. It has been some time since she has seen or heard from Willie, but since she is unable to see over the back of the mound, she doesn’t even know for sure if he is still there though she needs to believe he is:

“I used to think that I would learn to talk alone. (Pause.) By that I mean to myself, the wilderness. (Smile.) But no. (Smile broader.) No no. (Smile off.) Ergo you are there. (Pause.) Oh, no doubt you are dead, like the others, no doubt you have died, or gone away and left me, like the others, it doesn’t matter, you are there.”

As dark as this play is, it still abounds with humor and hope and sprit. Beckett has written a play that few could get away with.

There is a rather stunning conclusion that makes everyone hold his breath as Willy exits the mound and slides down its slippery slope, dressed to kill. I won’t give away the ending but I have to say this is a play that is a very powerful and captivating work, one I am glad I witnessed. Even that most feared British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, one of the saviors of Godot, felt that Happy Days was "a metaphor extended beyond its capacity", he nevertheless admitted Beckett's strange, captivating power and urged his readers to buy tickets for the play.

This remarkable production plays Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Saturday matinee on September 5th at 2 p.m., and Sunday performances a 4 p.m., closing on Sunday, September 6th. The Cal Shakes Theater is located in the Brun’s Amphitheater at 100 Gateway Blvd. in Orinda, located by exiting the freeway westbound at the last exit on the east side of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets generally range between $32 and $68 each (except for previews). Call (510) 548-9666 or visit their website at www.calshakes.org or you can email the boxoffice@calshakes.org for more information. Be sure and dress in layers as it can get downright cold when the fog comes over the Oakland hills and drop down into the amphitheatre area. Last Saturday evening it turned out to be colder than a well-diggers heart. You may want to come early and enjoy a picnic in the wonderful park setting that surrounds the theatre as he grounds open two hours before the show. There is a food booth adjacent to the theatre seating area where you can purchase food and drinks prior to the show as well. There is a lot of very nice art sculptures on the grounds to investigate as well.