Happy Days

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Happy Days

Director Rush Rehm and actress Courtney Walsh discuss Samuel Beckett, women and aging

by Adrienne Rose Johnson on Saturday, March 14, 2015 - 12:06am

A woman, immobilized, half-buried in a mound of earth, in the first act, then up to her neck in the second. Then only her mouth moves, and her eyes widen and narrow, blinking, fluttering back into memory.   

The woman, Winnie, is the central character of Samuel Beckett’s 1960 two-act play “Happy Days.”  The play tells the story of Winnie, partially buried in the earth, remembering her life as the sands of time envelop her.  The play was recently performed by the Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT). Rush Rehm, professor of Theater and Classics, and Artistic Director of SRT directed the bilingual production;  Winnie was played by actress Courtney Walsh. 

Following the production’s limited Paris engagement, Walsh and Rehm joined the Clayman Institute to discuss women, aging, the complexities of language, and the challenges of Beckett’s play for the actress playing Winnie.  

“Oh fleeting joys”: Beckett on women and aging

“She really speaks to me about this aging process,” Walsh said on performing the role. “It’s particularly female,” Walsh continued, adding that Winnie’s circumstance  reminded her of her own experience on enforced bed rest while pregnant. Like Winnie, Walsh was immobilized, constrained and trying to keep healthy when all else was taken from her. Just the routines of everyday life remained — the needlepoint and lunches, the set times for waking and rest. 

Yet even these routines are tenuous, dramatizing how little life leaves us with.

“We all are completely aware that we are losing it and that it’s going to be over,” Walsh noted.  

Winnie, in particular, is made aware of her mortality as the mound grows, eventually burying her neck-deep. Every passing moment brings Winnie closer to the inevitable. 

“And yet,” Walsh said, “we have to keep going.” For all the challenges Winnie faces, Walsh remarked “she finds optimism. She goes down singing.” 

Beckett and the women he loved

As a director, Rehm is very aware of the challenges of production that places such demands on an actress. Happy Days requires that Winnie must keep the audience interested for nearly 90 minutes, while at the same time never acknowledging their presence. In this production, the actress performed in a mixture of French and English, both inflected with Irish accent, making the performance that much more difficult. 

Rehm discussed two of Beckett’s closest relationships with women to suggest how Beckett may have developed the Winnie character and related to the “female voice” in “Happy Days.”  

“He had a very troubled relationship with this mother,” Rehm noted, adding that the mother and son had some “very difficult rows.” Eventually Beckett left his Irish homeland, in part, as some have suggested, to distance himself from his mother. 

“Yet Beckett and his mother were very close,” Rehm observed. Even for all their disagreements and conflict, “Beckett returned to Ireland and tended to his mother in the last months of her life.”  

Beckett also had a very complicated relationship with his longtime companion (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil. They married in 1961, but had met decades earlier in Paris.

Rehm noted that the couple was an unlikely pair. Beckett was Irish, a heavy drinker, sociable, with a wide and rambunctious circle of friends. Déchevaux-Dumesnil was French, a teetotaler, austere, with limited patience for Beckett’s carousing. Rehm also remarked that Beckett was a notorious philanderer.  

Yet they loved each other very much.  

These two relationships — with his mother and his wife — greatly informed Beckett’s relationship to his female characters. Winnie, in a way, demonstrates how Beckett imagined the human dilemma on a woman’s terms.  Winnie’s struggle was a woman’s struggle, recollecting the rhythms of a life stuck in recollection.  

Memory and the human dilemma

As Walsh reminded us, that is a very human dilemma: Of being “completely aware that we are losing it,” and of aging, every minute, getting closer to the certain end, closer to the burial mound that swallows Winnie inch by inch.

Walsh remembers the pathos of the last scene.  

The dirt mound has risen. Winnie is alone but her monologue is populated by memories, by the glimmers of happy days long gone and scarcely remembered. Just as the curtain comes close to falling, Winnie begins to “sing her song, that is her mantra to all her memories of a happy romantic time.”

“And then she smiles and closes her eyes,” Walsh said, “and then opens them, waits a second, and the smile starts to fade.” 

 

Ph.D Candidate, Program in Modern Thought and Literature

Adrienne Rose Johnson is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature. She studies American popular culture with particular attention to the body, labor, and the landscape, and has done research on the history of American vacationing, frugality, and dieting. She is a 2008 graduate of UC Berkeley's American Studies program and has taught in the American Studies, English, and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at...