Review: ‘Happy days’ directed by Samuel Beckett. Royal Court Theatre, London, June 1979.
There was little by way of preliminary fanfare to herald Beckett’s own first production in English of Happy days. Equally, the first night provoked a somewhat desultory critical response: several of the main London drama critics were already away on holiday; others preferred the ‘sleak, smooth, slick’ attractions of the musical, Grease. It is true, of course, that this production, with Billie Whitelaw as Winnie and Leonard Fenton as Willie, followed hard on the heels of Peter Hall’s National Theatre production, with Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Winnie. Still one wonders how keen interest would have been in Germany in a production which had been unofficially announced as Beckett’s last work as a director.
It had also been confidently reported that the author had rewritten much of the play for this revival. The changes turned out in the end to be mainly cuts, fairly extensive in the first act, which Beckett finds unduly long, but much rarer in the second act, which he regards as more satisfactory. There are minor changes to the text, the annotated script of which is now in Reading University Library Beckett Archive, but these changes are largely of a single word or phrase; e.g. ‘And now’ for ‘what now,’ ‘talk’ for ‘speak’ and so on. These alterations have a definite part to play in marking out the phases of Winnie’s old-style ‘day’ and in adding to the recurring verbal patterns in the structure of the text. But some of them, introduced relatively late into the rehearsal schedule, certainly made the difficult task of learning so long a part even more onerous than it need have been for Billie Whitelaw. It ought perhaps not to go without mention that Beckett had been preparing for this production for many months and that rehearsals which extended over a period of seven weeks were intensive, even at times fraught with a tension which was counter-balanced by the respect and affection which author and actress have for each other.
The real innovation in this production comes with Beckett’s conception of Winnie. For the woman played by Billie Whitelaw is no model of middleclass decorum holding back the tide of entropy with a barrier of nonchalant heroism. She hovers much more perilously close to the edge of madness than in earlier productions. Winnie’s brand of domesticity is, then, far less comfortable here than it was, for example, in the National Theatre production. And if her habitual actions remain the same, there is a quality of strangeness and tension about them that has not been experienced before. In the first act there is still laughter but it derives from a comedy of discontinuity rather than of reassurance. So Winnie moves rapidly from topic to topic, often fitfully inspired by objects to hand which recall moments from a past which seems no more discontinuous, however, than her fragmented present. Her hands flutter, birdlike, before coming to settle on something to which she clings desperately, a precious commodity which (given her capacity for verbalization) will enable her to negotiate another ‘day’. In the first act, Billie Whitelaw looks much younger than some earlier Winnies, bringing out more sharply the sexual nature of some of her memories, as well as emphasizing the uneasy dichotomy which exists in Winnie between intellect and flesh.
In this production Winnie possesses what Beckett described as a ‘kind of profound frivolity’. But, allied with this frivolity, is a much keener insight into the nature of her plight than she is commonly allowed. It is not that such an awareness is conscious in Winnie, but rather that it is technically present in the performance. This emerges sometimes in a dualistic positive/negative weighting of certain phrases, as in the opening ‘another (-) heavenly day (+),’ sometimes in the introduction of a note of sadness into a word or phrase not apparently scored in this way.
Such alternations of tone add a further element of complexity to that already noted in Beckett’s conception of Winnie. As a consequence Billie Whitelaw is asked to weld together several different facets of this unusual `child-woman’ the term is Beckett’s own. On the first night, not surprisingly, all of these different levels did not quite come together to form a homogeneous whole. Yet on second viewing, only a week later, this difficult blend was far more successfully achieved in what by then had become an outstanding dramatic portrayal. The second act was a major triumph, more deeply sunk in terror than in previous productions and reaching at times towards the tones of Not I. It also showed how some critics, as well as a number of directors, have been very wrong in failing to recognize how crucial the internal contrasts between the two acts are to the power of the play. Much that is found in the first act only acquires its true justification in the light of the moving ironies of the later act.
In view of her striking successes as a Beckett actress, it is perhaps worth considering for a moment where Billie Whitelaw’s strengths lie. Beckett and she have a very close working relationship. As a result every section of the text is worked on closely together with specific reference to its place in the dramatic structure, its pace, rhythm, tone, pitch and so on. Moreover every varied inflection of the voice is tested by Beckett’s own keen musical ear as Billie Whitelaw repeats the text along with the author. And yet this makes this remarkable actress sound merely like a talented mimic and nothing could be further from the truth. For she also brings her own inventiveness and versatility to the part of Winnie. For example the subtleties which were present in her version of Winnie’s sophisticated ventriloquism—the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Cooker or Shower, and that adopted for the Milly and the dolly story—were entirely the actress’s own creation. More important, Billie Whitelaw breathes emotional life into the words of an author whom many theatre practitioners have supposed, with some apparent justification, to be aiming at a flat dehumanized form of delivery. If it is emotional power and conviction, then, that makes Billie Whitelaw’s playing of the part of Winnie so impressive, there is also a technical expertise (of timing, precision and clarity of diction) that one almost takes for granted. Although it comes at the end of a long and distinguished line of performances—Ruth White, Brenda Bruce, Marie Kean, Madeleine Renaud, Peggy Ashcroft, Eva Katharina Schultz and now Irene Worth—this is without doubt the most subtle of interpretations.
The set at the Royal Court was finely conceived and realized by Jocelyn Herbert. It is on the basis of her original design that the BBC television designer, Janet Budden, has recreated an extensive sea-shore set for the television version, directed by Tristram Powell, which was recorded on 6 July. Although the video recording gives a reasonably good idea of the power of Billie Whitelaw’s performance, what cannot be captured is her ability to hold an audience in the theatre with Beckett’s words. It is also only fair to this fine actress to record that at the time of the television production she was severely incapacitated by a virus infection which affected ear, nose and throat.