John Simon on Beckett’s Happy Days

“The play, as you should know, concerns Winnie, waist-deep in the sod at the center of a mound overgrown with withered grass; and then, in the second act, chin-deep. While she still can, she spends her days fussing with the toiletries in her large bag, a parasol, and, occasionally, her husband, Willie. He lives in a hole on the other side of the mound, is still fully mobile but extremely uncommunicative. Mostly he reads his newspaper, mutters to himself, and now and then says a word or two to Winnie. She, however, is cheerful—insanely cheerful under the circumstances—and keeps up a steady patter of observations, reflections, recollections, and sometimes even snatches of half-remembered poetry and songs. She has a gun in her satchel, but suicide is out of the question; even when she is in it up to her head, even when Willie can no longer climb the mound to touch her, she goes on contentedly, garrulously, gossipily, ecstatically jabbering about the infinite mercies of existence.

Happy Days is both a masterly literary metaphor and a powerful stage image. An image, moreover, that sustains itself through a series of small but brilliant variations for one and a quarter hours—the duration of the play and, it would seem, of human life, with which it manages to become co-extensive. This is not the place—and decidedly not the space—for a full discussion of the play, but I must quote two magisterial moments from it. The first occurs in Act I when, describing how an ant disports itself, Winnie elicits Willie’s pun, “Formication.” Blissfully, she exclaims: “How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?” A whole world view, a philosophy of life, a theology even, are encapsulated in that remark.”

John Simon on Theater: Criticism 1974-2003