Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Douglas Messerli | "Talking the Tears Away" (on Beckett's Happy Days)
talking the tears away
Samuel Beckett Happy Days / The performance I saw was in Pasadena, California at Boston Court Theatre, Sunday, September 21, 2014
After the disturbing ring of a bell, Winnie—in this new production, directed by Andrei Belgrader, at Pasadena’s Boston Court Theatre—once again awakens in Samuel Beckett’s clearly resurgent drama, Happy Days, to, after a short prayer, bless the blue skies of a new day before dipping into her treasure-leaden black bag to pull out a toothbrush and carefully brush her teeth. Buried up to her waist in a mound of earth, the unfortunate but nonetheless nearly always buoyant Winnie, calls over to her invisible husband Willie to possibly awaken him (he, unlike her is blessed with the “marvelous gift” of being able to sleep even through the annoying buzzer’s awakening cry) and proceeds to attempt to read the words on her toothbrush. For a great part of the first few moments of this play, Winnie continues to try to make out the words imprinted there: “Genuine”—pulling out glasses and a handkerchief embedded in her bosom, to clean them, later pulling a magnifying glass to better see the small words printed on the toothbrush’s handle—“pure…hog’s….setae,” words of which she can make little sense.
In Willie’s very first personal words of the play he explains, quite vaguely, that a hog is a “castrated male swine,” a being, we soon discover, that perhaps might be used to define Willie himself. But still Winnie can make little sense of the words. We know, or at least those of us who do crossword puzzles know (admittedly, I am not a crossword puzzle fan) that “setae” is the plural of seta, derived from the Latin word for bristle. In other words, the brush is made from hog bristles, probably by the Wisdom Toothbrush company of the United Kingdom, whose cheaper versions used hog bristles, while the more expensive versions used badger hair.
None of this, obviously, truly matters—or, one might contrarily argue, it matters immensely—being part of Winnie’s desperate attempts to make meaning in a world that has little or no obvious significance. For Winnie is a “cock-eyed” optimist, determined to discover a happy or, “a good day.” She is a doomed being who, as Beckett suggests, is a marvel simply in her ability to adapt: as she puts it, “That is what I find so wonderful. The way man adapts himself. To changing conditions.”
In a world in which, admittedly, there is “So little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great,” Winnie, like any literary artist, keeps talking, creating a reality that is seldom in sync with the strange, utterly post-apocalyptic world around her. If Willie says hardly anything, reading only from an old Irish newspaper about deaths and notices for jobs, Winnie has something to say about nearly everything—which given her dire circumstances, isn’t a rich vein for discussion. Indeed, Winnie, herself covered and surrounded with “several very hard, usually basaltic rocks” (the definition of “whin”), behatted with a ridiculous flower-topped head piece (suggesting perhaps the yellow flowers associated with the spiny evergreen shrub of the other meaning of “whin”), reminds me, in fact, of my 89-year-old mother, a healthy, partially crippled woman sitting in her assisted-living room (surely a kind of half-burial of this once active, house-cleaning wizard) who in our telephone conversations joyfully relays in our conversations the highly limited activities she weekly undergoes (her visions of the birds outside her windows, the fact that she is served good food—while unable to recall the specifics of her last meal—sharing a bathroom [something is clearly abhors], and the occasional visits of family and friends). Winnie, alas, has even less to report; even the sunny sky makes the heat so intense that it sets her parasol afire, and the ants (æmettes, as she describes them, using the Middle English term) she now and then spots seem to be devouring her. But no matter, Winnie, cleverly moving back and forth in time, patters on in a kind of “whinny,” like the gentle neighing of a horse, refusing to give in to the increasingly deteriorating quality of life she must endure. For her, even knowing that her husband, deep within his hole, might ever be listening to her prattle is enough; if he actually deigns to respond to something she says, it is surely “another happy,” even a joyful day!
Winnie, nonetheless, is almost always on the verge of tears; how could she not be in her absurd condition, where, she senses, even the audience members (under the visage of a couple named “Shower” or “Cooker”—both derived from German words, schauen and gucken meaning “to look”) cook up questions or shower their misunderstandings upon her in rude insinuations of disbelief of her situation. Why doesn’t someone simply come and dig her out? Does she have any feeling left in her legs, any sexual potential left? Just the kind of questions of a jeering music hall audience—which critics have pointed out, bares a close relationship to Beckett’s work, reminiscent, perhaps, of his trip to the beachside resort of Folkestone.
But still she goes on, just as almost all of Beckett’s doomed figures do go on, even, if like Willie they hardly stand or like Winnie they are trapped in the earth to which they will soon return. Indeed, by Act II, Winnie is buried up to her neck, and is now unable even to ritualistically dig through her beloved bag to remove and replace the sacred amulets of her hermetic world. Throughout most of this act, she and we have no way of knowing even if Willy is still alive. Winnie, herself, fears that he might be dead, having gone down his hole head first. But the very fact that she has not heard from him illogically allows her to presume he might still be listening, permitting her, as Beckett suggests in several others of his works, “to go on.”
Now, however, Winnie realizes, is very different from “before.” “Then” and “now” are marked definers of a kind of before and after that not only demarcate time, of which she clearly has little left, but separate a once open world, a world even of sexual possibilities, from her current incarceration. Her memories of her childhood adventure, where she (as Mildred, the name for Winnie that Beckett had used in earlier drafts) sneaks into a room in the middle of the night only to encounter a mouse. The mouse, of course, which causes her to scream out in terror, is a Freudian symbol of the penis. The memory hints, perhaps, of abuse from a male member of the house. But it also reminds me, a bit, of Alice’s journey into the rabbit hole where she encounters the many terrifying figures of childish fear, including a French-speaking mouse, nearly drowned in pool her tears; in this case, however, Winnie has somehow been unable to escape those childhood terrors, remaining partially trapped in the Wonderland hole, a kind of frigid memory of Willie’s obvious still-active sexual desires.
Willie may, as Winnie suggests, have always needed “a hand” in his sexual obsessions, but she—as he evidences in the kiss she implants upon the silver handgun, Brownie, which she refuses to return to her bag—a bit like Hedda Gabbler, has kept hold of the “weapon,” making Willie almost impotent, a man left only with pornographic postcards for sexual relief. Is it any wonder that when Willie suddenly appears in Act II—dressed in splendiferous, if tattered, formal attire as if he were an agèd, disgruntled bridegroom—he is probably not as much interested in winning the hand of his “Win”—in his bumbling, fumbling efforts to move toward her—as in attempting the lay hold of gun at her side, either to put an end to his own miserable suffering or to finally silence her, to “win” the domestic battle the two have been playing throughout their lives. She, of course, perceives it as a last romantic gasp, another reason to perceive her unbearable position as representing a “good day, another happy day,” both she and Beckett intentionally defying, as my theater-going companion Pablo reminded me, Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s advice: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
Both actress Brooke Adams and her husband Tony Shalhoub performed admirably as the doomed couple. For a short while in act one, I must admit, that I felt (like Los Angeles Times reviewer Charles McNulty) that the purposely slow pace of Adams’ actions and observations created a kind of tedium that, while perhaps conveying the emptiness of Winnie’s world, made the play itself a bit tedious. But quite soon thereafter I began to see her performance as a subtle indication of Winnie’s endless thought-processes, as revealing the mind behind her never-ending but constantly shifting fantasies of possibility that she daily invented in her delirium. By play’s end the fact that we could actually almost see the gears of her mind clicking in mad determination to turn a forsaken, blasted landscape into a romanticized vision of possibilities provided a great depth to Winnie’s bi-polar thinking. In the end, as she “sings her song,” vaguely humming the “The Merry Widow” waltz—a work many creators have seen as a kind of delirious sweep into a world of fantasy (one need only recall Orson Welles’ use of it in his film, The Magnificent Ambersons and Alfred Hitchcock’s equally perverse employment of the song throughout his small-town drama, Shadow of a Doubt [see My Year 2005])—at the very moment when we perceive that, whether she realizes it or not, Winnie, having no one left to talk to, may have to purse her lips and stare eternally into space, reveals not only her insatiable pluck but her utter dementia.
Los Angeles, September 23, 2014