The ingredients are simple, practical, and strange. One woman, Winnie, half buried in a low mound in an empty landscape. A husband, Willie, nearby, mostly out of sight, reading a newspaper. A large bag of little things to help Winnie get through her day: toothbrush, spectacles, magnifying glass, lipstick and a revolver she calls “Brownie.” When the image of a person irretrievably stuck in the ground under a blazing sun came to the playwright, he told a friend, “And I thought who could cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”
The playwright could only be Samuel Beckett, who found a way to make more out of less than any writer in recorded history. And more and less is what you get in Happy Days: less mobility, less melodrama, less plot, and more of everything else, including a rich musical language composed of everyday fragments, and perhaps the greatest female role of the 20th century. Winnie is middle aged, fleshy, foolish, doomed, innocent, cheerful, highly entertaining, a little sexy and truly heroic. Her situation is terminal; she’s going nowhere except down. She prattles on, but she also takes wing; she’s like, the playwright said, “a bird with oil on her feathers.” It’s a very physical role too, a kind of dance. You will be amazed at what can happen seeing a body from the waist, and then from the neck, up.
Radical minimalism puts even greater demands on actors and designers, since their work is continuously and unrelentingly exposed. You can’t have any actress, you have to have the actress, as well as the designer. We have asked Lynne Hastings to play Winnie; she’s a past recipient of our best actress award and widely recognized as one of our most gifted performers. We asked her real life husband, David Hastings, a fine actor in his own right, to play Willie.
After seeing Floyd Tunson’s astonishing retrospective at the Fine Arts Center, we knew if anyone could make a Beckett mound, it was Floyd. So he is making that mound.
Is it material that both Hastings and Tunson are both African American artists? Yes and no. We were fortunate in receiving a community engagement grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage this great play in a location where theatre is not regularly performed, and we are hoping the presence of color may prove attractive to audiences not used to attending classic theatre. Perhaps more importantly, we think this casting will lend a further enriching dimension to Winnie, often played as Irish or English. Yet we have all agreed this will not be a “black” production. Winnie is a kind of “every woman” and Beckett’s play transcends issues of race in speaking to what is mostly universally human in our experience of life, loss and perseverance. She is going down, but she’s going down singing, and not without a few laughs too. Sound familiar?
Happy Days isn’t just a classic. It’s not just a masterpiece. It’s a completely unique experience which will haunt you for a very long time, perhaps forever. It will startle you while at the same time feeling quite familiar; it’s both specifically grounded and effortlessly cosmic. See it again and less will prove even more — the play is infinitely layered and suggestive. I tell you no lies. Without question, Happy Days is the greatest show in earth.