Happy Days | Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

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Happy Days | Context


Influence of Modern Literature

Dante, Proust, and Joyce

Although Samuel Beckett disavowed the intellectual's search for meaning and made individual impulse and emotion the center of his work, he was impressively an intellectual. He was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian and well acquainted with the art and literature of each culture. He also read Latin. He acknowledged the influence of Italian poet, writer, and philosopher Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), who wrote The Divine Comedy (1308–21, originally La divina commedia) in the Tuscan dialect, eschewing the Latin that was the literary standard for the time. Similarly, another key figure for Beckett, French novelist Marcel Proust (1871–1922), resisted the elitist intellectualism of French literature in favor of the raw stuff of memory. À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost time, 1913–27) is the title of the autobiographical memory text, a multivolume novel, for which Proust is primarily known.

Beckett's attachment to Irish writer James Joyce (1882–1941) led Beckett in another direction. Joyce chose to write novels founded on a history of the world and its customs, art, languages, and people. In contrast, an epiphany Beckett described having suggests that Beckett chose the role of the anti-Joyce. In the late 1980s Beckett reported the details of this epiphany to his official biographer, James Knowlson. He said that upon a return to Dublin to visit his ailing mother in 1946, he experienced this turning point in his work:

I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverish-ment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding.

Knowlson reports that Beckett described himself, as a result of this revelation, as a "non-knower" and a "non-can-er." Beckett became a minimalist maker of the confining, small-world fragments of individual experience. That his very focused vision provided for his audiences a sense of universal humanity is testimony to its completeness.

The Last Great Modernist

Beckett is considered, by many critics, to be the last great modernist writer, a view based principally in

  • the survey of the human condition at the core of all of his work;
  • the pessimism of the human inability to manage or control the chaos of history;
  • the vitality of the human spirit rooted in language itself.

The modernist novel calls attention to itself and to its style. Modernist texts, moreover, offer solace to the contemporary reader, who lives in a violent and bewildering world. By using idiosyncratic forms of expression, they confirm the vitality of the human spirit and present communication as a form of community. That is, if individuals each talk in their own way, and the ways are variously diverse, then human beings can—with some goodwill and some effort—understand each other despite their differences.

Thus the narrative in a modernist work such as Happy Days, the nature of "who-what-when," is only half the story. The many aspects of human nature are also represented through the characters' dialogue and interactions, with the goal of moving humanity toward a universal consciousness. It is hard to imagine Beckett's success and popularity based, as his work is, in a lifetime depiction of human despair. Beckett's universal appeal is, rather, derived from the wit and elegance of his linguistic creativity, which offers some measure of relief or distraction from humanity's suffering. In all of these senses, Beckett's achievement is quintessentially modern.

Influence of Modern Art

Beckett toured Germany in 1936 and 1937, setting aside many days to meet key German artists and study their works. He could stand in front of a particular painting for hours on end. He was particularly affected by German Expressionism (1905–20), an artistic style that attempts to depict "the subjective ... responses that objects and events arouse within a person." The paintings and woodcuts, in particular, in their "crowded, agitated compositions ... and their emotionally charged atmosphere ... express frustration, anxiety, disgust, discontent, [and] violence ... a sort of frenetic intensity of feeling in response to the ugliness, the crude banality, and the ... contradictions that they discerned in modern life."

All of this could be said about Beckett's work as well. In Happy Days Winnie's monologue expresses all of the discomforts named above. She is, however, a Beckettian character rather than an Expressionist figure. For Winnie, the gaps in her discourse, rather than her speech, convey the dark emptiness of despair, barely concealed by the strained "happiness" of her monologue. The depths are plainly disclosed in the failed cover-up of her cheerful prattle.

In fact, many developments in modernist art are congruent with Beckett's style of discourse. Notably, the need to distill reality into its basic rhythms and shapes informs the work of the major modernist painters and sculptors, many of whom recognized the promise of dreams and their interpretations as a way of knowing reality. For example, the primary colors, the flat surfaces, and the organizing grids of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian's paintings (1872–1944) represent the exploration of the essentials of experience or perception. Also, Mondrian sought, in mysticism, a vision of purity and harmony as the essence of what is human. The engaging and perennially colorful squiggles of Spanish artist Joan Miró (1893–1983) defined his playful essentialism in the use of color in the same way that writers like Beckett use words and musicians use notes.

Influence of Modern Music

Beckett loved music and was a pianist of no small accomplishment. He had friends among composers and musicians and was reported to have asked Russian modernist composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) about possible means of notating the tempi (rates of speed) of his plays and the length of pauses. Beckett actor Billie Whitelaw described Beckett's preference for directing her by "conducting" the lines. Not I (1972), the work Beckett wrote for Billie Whitelaw, is often timed with a stopwatch in rehearsal. The tempi are consistently fast, while Happy Days is a play of pauses, of gaps. Musicologist Dr. Catherine Laws astutely observes that the "musicality of Beckett's language" represents a tension in his work. Her reading of Beckett's musicality with respect to language offers insights into Beckett's minimalist methodology as the need to reduce reference and, consequently, produce ideas in his texts. Here, reference means the conventional dictionary definitions of words in contrast to ideas, diction managed by unselfconscious word choice that are expressions of the immediate condition of the body and mind of the individual speaker. In Happy Days Winnie must keep talking since her identity, her existence, is dependent on the continuity of her talk and its reception in the life of another. Talking into "the wilderness" is not an option for her.

Beckett's dissatisfaction with, in Laws's words, "a language system which makes impossible the direct expression of ideas" and at the same time, "the impossibility of abandoning our primary mode of expression," is the starting point. Music is a model of a system whose direct input is to the emotions, to authentic feeling. Beckett's drive, as Laws sees it, is to disrupt or negate the referential capabilities of words in order to "maximize their ability to express ideas." This drive to cleanse words of meaning and position them for an authentic relation to feelings and ideas—in the case of Beckett, to feelings surrounding human identity—is a key goal of modernist expression.

In Happy Days, for example, Winnie repeats the word happy throughout—including the phrase another happy day—and the phrase in the old style. In these repetitions, the referential, conventional nature of the words is weakened. The audience doesn't know what they mean exactly. Instead, the repetitions serve to show movement from present to past times. "Another happy day" returns Winnie to the present time with a glimpse of the future, another "happy day to come." Of course, Winnie's happy days are not happy at all. She has been immobilized, even imprisoned, trapped by her consciousness, her memories, the oppressive heat of the sun, the irritating alarm bell that wakes and puts her to sleep, and Willie's perennial inaccessibility.

And the future, death, is presented as a poetic line: "the happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees and the night of the moon has so many hundred hours." The audience has no idea what this means. However, the music or lyricism in the line suggests something more positive about the future than the "happy days" of Winnie's present time.

As Laws says, the effect of this "process of reduction" is to draw the audience's attention to "the unique relative position of each word within each text." For Laws, this technique explores "the fundamental relationship between words and meaning." This sort of reading is identified as musical as it also takes in the sounds of words that operate in repeated associations throughout the text, and the rhythm and speed of the actor's recital are crucial as well.

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