People who don’t go to the theatre often wonder why theatre enthusiasts are, well, such enthusiasts. The answer lies in the rarely achieved bliss of the curtain call: the actors on stage, the audience in commotion, the physical and emotional synchronicity of the long applause. It is one in a hundred, but that’s the magic of theatre. And it happened on the opening night of Happy Days (all those historical accounts of 40-minute curtain calls may start to make sense now; it is not the time, not a sporting achievement; it’s the intensity, and the mystical quality of the reaction). Complete strangers stood up without any prior agreement, looked at each other, and asked: wasn’t that incredible? The physical dissynchronicity of the standing ovation. The way one felt like crying, except that it wasn’t possible (not among the people, not in the communal, generous moment of shared appreciation); the way one sat down feeling stirred, incoherent. Meeting someone who shares your favourite book has some of the same effect: you are united through an experience that is deeply personal. People never cry together reminiscing over favourite novels; they smile, nod, separated by silence, but united in the source of the silence.
In other words, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which has just opened at the Malthouse, is an extraordinary theatrical experience.
The 20th-century housewife is a figure of astonishing resonance whose full significance we could easily explore for the next hundred years before we exhaust the topic completely. The combination of post-war neo-traditionalism of ideals, realised across the media, in fashion as much as in suburban sprawl, combined with that strange, but common belief that the absence of hard, concrete oppression equals freedom, resulted in the most terrifyingly well-realised image of obtuse, happy misery. Up to that point, the obvious misogyny of most societies meant that women’s life was construed and self-explained as one long toil: there is nothing particularly chirpy about the advice given to daughters in Biedermeier, in the Jesuit unforgiveness of the etiquette manuals or the phrenological quackery of guides to Girls Not To Wed. Afterwards, structuralism and Camus made us see compulsion in what had up to then seemed most blatant absence of restrictions. In that pocket, not more than twenty years, between the end of the Second World War and the sexual revolution, rises the iconic housewife, stirred and blow-dried into marzipan perfection, smiling her tragedy away.
It was not necessarily the worst destiny for a woman there had ever been. It was, however, the most poetically atrocious. From the Dickensian chimney-sweepers to the Islamic janjicari, I cannot think of any systematically screwed demographic group that bore such wide smiles. Tele-wonder Man Men, a retrospective of the 1960s, can still dig deep into this well of sugary sadness, sadness kept willfully at bay. On the local theatre front, My Darling Patricia valiantly tried in Politely Savage in 2006. But Happy Days teases out something of the cosmic grimness of the image better than any other work of art I’ve encountered so far; realises, perhaps, for the first time the universal resonance of the smiling house-keeping slave. (Outside, that is, Betty Friedan.) That it looks so fresh, after all this time, suggests we have only started poking our noses into the problematics.
The plot, if one can call it so, is wrapped in a grotesque both comic and drab, that reveals Beckett’s debt to Kafka. Winnie, a woman of about fifty, is buried up to her waist in scorched earth. Unable to get out, but with a bag of beauty gadgets to keep her occupied, she carefully parcels her time between two demonic bells, one for waking and one for sleep. Willie, her man of about sixty, hides in a hole just outside her field of vision. Willie grumbles, reads the newspaper, and occasionally retorts – all of which delights Winnie immensely. She is, you see, living in the best of all worlds. In the second act, Winnie now buried up to her chin, and still smiling, still talking, but now unable to carefully keep herself busy with nail filing, hair combing, praying, and looking wistfully at the gun in the bottom of her bag. Finally approached by Willie, dressed in his Sunday best, Winnie nearly bawls with happiness – she can finally see him.
There is a macabre clockwork to Winnie’s routine of body management, of hair curling and hat donning and parasol waving, the minute tick-tock of narcissistic busywork – narcissistic not because inherent to Winnie’s personality, but because it is all so centred on physical upkeep. It recalls the terrible routine of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, who over 210 minutes walks from one room to another, scrubs bathtubs, shops for groceries, mends buttons, lifts lids, stirs soups, flours schnitzels: the Sisyphean absurdity of her days is so heart-wrenchingly, grittily hypnotic that, when she starts making mistakes, the viewer is immediately aware that the magnitude of the disturbance in her life must be enormous. Similarly, the nail file and the parasol are quite literally Winnie’s crutches against sinking, her only weapons against the stillness which would equal absurdity. I have repeatedly encountered the notion that Happy Days is not only a cheerful play, but one of Beckett’s most cheerful. This is a grave confusion of terms. There is not a trace of either optimism or genuine happiness in Winnie’s leaden, ebony-white refusal to despair. In fact, the stern genius of the play comes from recreating closely that terrible despair that each one of us must have felt, at times, looking at women in our lives who were, in every aspect, insanely invested in their miserable lives, but whose astronomic tragedy was tempered by the fact their predicament was also fairly average. If retelling Happy Days crushes me, it is because it brings to mind a grandmother who spent a decade grumbling at a mute grandfather; a mother who smiled one such leaden smile for my entire childhood; girlfriends with hair graying in teenagehood who chirped: I have nothing to complain about. Not for nothing did Beckett qualify his writing choices in Happy Days by saying: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”
In The Corrections, his masterpiece on the modern family, Jonathan Franzen’s mater familias, Enid, is one such stupendously optimistic character. What appears clear, though, as the novel progresses, is that, stuck with an abusive, demented husband who refuses to either die or accept treatment, Enid’s predicament is so dire that her relentless optimism is the equivalent of pulling herself out of the water with her own hand, Munchausen-like. A purposeful tunnel vision as the only hope for survival. Franzen, however, gave Enid a way out. In the disturbingly upbeat final paragraphs, Albert has succumbed to dementia and uses the occasional presence of mind only to attempt suicide in numerous laughable ways; Enid, on the other hand, uses his final immobility, this long-awaited ready availability of her husband’s body that has evaded her all her life, to tell him, again and again, how much he wronged her, how right she was, how much better he should have treated her, and grows stronger and more optimistic. Once he’s dead, Enid “felt that nothing could kill her hope now. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”
If Happy Days avoids any such baroque resolution, it is a function of its time. I was reminded, again and again, of Tristan Tzara’s post-World War One program: No pity. After the carnage, we are left with the hope of the purified humanity. Yet Tzara’s dada, reacting to the Great War, was in many ways stern and moralistic: it had a program, exclamation marks, conclusions. Winnie and Willie represent no purified humanity. Beckett is post-hope. After the Second World War has proven that tragedy-come-around is a very bleak farce, neither moralism nor optimism is appropriate. There were no manifestos after Auschwitz. Happy Days is resignation without resolution, strength in absurdity, absurd strength. Sisyphean in the sense Camus intended.
The Malthouse production, I am tempted to say, is predictably masterful. Trapped inside Anna Cordingley’s abstractly organic set, suggesting the bureaucratic, industrial horror of early expressionism (and winking another wink at Kafka), the characters’ situation is measuredly hopeless, without a trace of slapstick. Julie Forsyth and Peter Carroll are among the finest living Australian actors, and are directed with enormous subtlety by Michael Kantor. Peter Carroll delivers his seven lines impeccably, while Forsyth’s blabbering Winnie is an exquisitely balanced creation, simultaneously genuinely cheerful and genuinely desperate. While Malthouse’s earlier Optimism, a re-working of Voltaire’s Candide, was greatly similar in intent, it wavered uncertainly between hollow comedy and heavy didacticism. Happy Days, instead, is perfect: neither too sour, nor too bitter. Its tragedy is pastel-coloured.
Yet there is nothing predictable about perfection, and it should be appreciated as such. As Chekhov would say: Reader, I’m in raptures, allow me to embrace you!
Happy Days. By Samuel Beckett. Director Michael Kantor. Set and costume designer Anna Cordingley. Lighting designer Paul Jackson. Sound Russell Goldsmith. With Peter Carroll and Julie Forsyth. Malthouse theatre, July 3-25. Belvoir Street Theatre, November 4 – December 16.