Review: ‘Beckett’s “Happy days”: a manuscript study’

by S.E. Gontarski (Columbus, Ohio State University Libraries,

1977. x, 86 pp.)


Colin Duckworth


This study is based on a close reading of primary documents kept at the University of Reading and Ohio State University. Its aims are ‘to help us understand Beckett’s creative process, something of his intent, and ultimately, the completed works’ (2). To achieve the last aim, Mr Gontarski goes well beyond the analysis of the various stages of composition (the preliminary notebook, three holograph versions and four typescripts) to draw comparisons with the thematic, structural, dramatic and comic features of Beckett’s other plays, being mindful of Beckett’s own caveat: ‘Literary criticism is not book-keeping.’ This, then, is another in the series of genetic studies (Cohn on Endgame, Admussen on Play, and myself on Godot), to which Mr Gontarski makes generous reference. In addition, the author alludes briefly to two theatrical sources of information: Alan Schneider’s annotated typescript for the first production in 1961, and Beckett’s Regiebuch for his own 1971 production.


We are fortunate to have such a complete dossier made available to us; for, in the case of a meticulous and self-critical writer such as Beckett, whose method, like Flaubert’s, is to pare down the initial substance, each version is a form of creative criticism of its predecessor. In fact, genetic studies give us that rare item of literary comment: Beckett on Beckett.


Mr Gontarski notes the slow crystallization of definitive names for the characters (first B and W, then Edward and Mildred before being immortalized as Willie and Winnie—so, from starting life as one of Beckett’s ‘Ms,’ she is finally returned to the original inversion—W). There were several abortive titles: Tender mercies, Many mercies, Great mercies; and two working titles: Female solo and—significantly from the point of view of overall tone—A low comedy.


The major changes effected during re-writing apply to (1) the set, (2) the revolver, (3) the bell, (4) Willie, (5) Winnie’s character, and (6) the emmet. The main effect of the changes was to ‘vaguen’ detail; to make Willie less distracting and less of a butt for Winnie; to reduce Winnie’s maliciousness towards Willie; to omit details of her past experiences; and to make her less explicit about her sexual needs. Most important is the substitution of an alarm clock (operated by Winnie) by the deafening, unseen bell: she thus becomes a helpless object of an outside force, deprived of all control over the rhythm of her life.


Mr Gontarski’s main revelation regarding structure is that, contrary to Endgame, Happy days began life as one act and became two. The final two-act form determines the contrasting tones (‘Hilare—Mortellement triste’), but the manuscripts do not reveal the primary motivation for the change: did the excision of concrete detail and character-development necessitate the addition of a further act, or vice versa? Whichever it was, the extreme care with which Beckett strove (successfully) to achieve a balance between comedy and pathos gives the lie, if it is necessary, to the doctor who wrote to me that ‘Happy days is full of boring platitudes—I could do the same myself.’


It comes as a surprise, and a slight disappointment, to find that the incomplete literary allusions with which Happy days is tantalizingly sprinkled were added in the course of composition. Mr Gontarski interprets their function (62-3) lucidly as ‘part of Beckett’s attempt to universalize Winnie’s struggle .  .  . a crucial adjunct of the play’s central irony’ and not just a means of emphasizing the unhappiness of the human condition, as Ruby Cohn has suggested. Beckett saved Mr Gontarski a lot of work by noting exact references to most of the fragments—more than he did for Godot! In Mr Gontarski’s commentary, the complex pattern of literary allusions and echoes (‘the backdrop of western thought in jagged fragments,’ [61] ) is shown to re-inforce the play’s themes: failure of love, misery of the human condition, transitoriness, the real/ideal gap, and the misery of awareness.


It is on this final point that I would differ with Mr Gontarski. He maintains the play shows the imaginative treatment of life (literature) to be as irrelevant to the human condition as the divine cosmic order of Greeks: ‘The hope provided by literature and the imagination is unfounded’ (72). But Winnie’s allusions are of a different order from the impersonal (non-attributed) irony of the title of All that fall, Comédie and Happy days, which are part of Beckett’s ironic world-view. She—however imperfectly and unjustifiably does not matter—does get solace from her faulty memories of those ‘wonderful lines.’ Only if one claims she is unaware of her condition can one say her allusions are as purely ironic as her reference to the tender mercies of Psalm 40. Now, the performance of both Madeleine Renaud and Peggy Ashcroft reinforce the implication of the text that awareness does keep breaking in. The voice falters several times. Thirty-odd smiles there may be, but her eight valiant skirmishes with despair—beginning with the bowed head (‘Perhaps prayers not for nought’) and ending with the deepest trough just before the musical box - make it impossible to accept Mr Gontarski’s view that ‘Winnie never fully realizes her plight’ and that thus ‘this keeps her from being tragic’ (25). On the contrary, her sense of past wholeness become present fragmentation is strong; here ‘everything is strange’ she is ‘so changed’ from what she was.


So far as the final jeu is concerned (what are Willie’s intentions regarding the gun?) extrapolation from the writing process to performance does show that a harsh and bitter interpretation is justified: as he gestates, Willie becomes more irritated with Winnie, and it would be natural for him to want to finish her off (not as an act of kindness). The ambiguous tenderness of Barrault/Renaud is more moving, but, alas, less authentic.


Mr Gontarski surely underestimates the importance of the image (hope, or fear?) of the universal witness in Beckett’s works including this one, by stating that Winnie is fantasizing about ‘being watched’ (23). Willie’s definition of hog ‘may be revealing something about his own condition’ (18). About the ‘bright boy,’ surely (also unknowingly reared for slaughter)?


One hopes that this genetic exploration will be taken to its finale, for Mr Gontarski has stopped midway on the road to the definitive version of the play: Oh les beaux jours. For example, when ‘the tongue you so admired’ becomes ‘la langue que tu goûtais tant’), we can now see it is a throwback to Winnie’s original revelation that Mr Johnston, or Johnson, was ‘eager I recall to put his tongue in my mouth.’ The French version is more vulgar (e.g. Good Lord: bon sang, bon Dieu!; all this stuff: toute cette saloperie), less reticent (Has she anything on?: Est-ce qu’elle est à poil là-dedans? Charlie Hunter: Charlot Chassepot), has a richer vocabulary (especially in pet names for Willie), but is more telegraphic (Just one of those old things, another of those old things: petit malheur, encore un; Don’t forget your straw: ton paille). These changes, nowhere more striking than in ‘e vers qui me ronge’ which replaces ‘something is gnawing at me,’ are all part of ‘the duty and the task of a writer’ which—as Beckett remarks in his essay on Proust—‘are those of a translator.’ But within the limits of the English text, Mr Gontarski has peformed the task of presenting this manuscript material with considerable delicacy and understanding.


Not all the allusions in Happy days are literary, of course, Mr Gontarski was hardly to know that Mildred and her mouse really existed. She was Mildred Coote, a childhood friend who also lived in Foxrock, whose leg was likewise visited by a mouse, in Beckett’s house.


There are a few misprints: genesis study (1), Wille (14), humen (19), Godot defines hope (defies?) (21), remeber (43), strage (76), Marcelluss (77).