Study Guide

Happy Days

By Samuel Beckett

Happy Days Introduction

The sun blazes above a barren, desert landscape. Sand stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see. In the center of it all, a woman is buried up to her waist in sand, stuck and unable to pull herself out. No, this isn't the opening scene to the latest installment in the Saw franchise; it's Samuel Beckett's mind-blowing play, Happy Days. Hold onto your hats because you are in for one crazy, claustrophobic read.

Happy Days, like Samuel Beckett's other great plays, challenged, confused, and surprised audience members and critics alike. Happy Days was without a doubt a game-changer. Here was a play with a female protagonist buried up to her chest in sand for no apparent reason (and no reason ever is given in the play), a minimal plot, and a wacky setting. In fact, the play's opening image still causes murmurs and gasps today. It seems Beckett knew a thing or two about breaking theatrical conventions and shocking audiences.

Beckett's approach to theater forced the actors, audience, and critics to question the kind of theater that was important at the time (before Beckett came along, naturalism was the norm).

In Happy Days, not only does Beckett do away with cumbersome sets and large casts, he also likes to keep his characters in one place, like Winnie, our protagonist, who is buried in the ground and only able to move her upper body throughout the first act of the play. In the second act, she'll be limited to only head movements. Talk about confining. Yikes.

Beckett sure pushed the envelope with Happy Days—with its minimal plot, lack of exposition, contradictory characters, and absurdist conventions, it's no wonder that the reviews were mixed when the play premiered. Yet without a doubt, the play is still a great example of how theater can be used to shock, move, and change our ways of thinking, responding, and even living.

What is Happy Days About and Why Should I Care?

Sure, Samuel Beckett was an Irish playwright and intellectual who was born when people still used horses and buggies to get around, but believe it or not, he understands you dear Shmoopers. We've all been there—stuck in class for hours when it's a beautiful day outside, wishing you were hanging out with friends and not having your head stuck in some dusty old textbook. For those of us who can relate to that feeling, Beckett wrote this play with you in mind.

Throughout Happy Days, Winnie (our protagonist) is presented with a dull and empty environment within which she must live her life. Despite her dire circumstances, she manages to quite literally keep her head up, finding enjoyment in the smallest things. The fact that Winnie doesn't let her predicament get the better of her is something we should note—maybe it would do us good to shut off the TV, log off Facebook, and take enjoyment from the simple things in life.

On the other hand, Happy Days is also a tale about the monotony of everyday life (imagine listening to Ben Stein's lecture on the economy of the USA over and over and over), the struggle of everyday life, and, ultimately, one's woman perseverance against a literal mountain of despair.

Happy Days Resources

Websites

Eat, sleep, and drink Beckett
Homepage for the renowned International Beckett Festival.

Coming to a theater (not very) near you….
Information about the upcoming production in London, England.

Movie or TV Productions

Sunday, Monday, Happy Days
Directed by Patricia Rozema (2001), starring Rosaleen Linehan as Winnie.

If it's anything like Waiting for Godot, then this may take a while…
Waiting for Beckett, directed by John Reilly and Melissa Shaw-Smith (1994); features excerpts of Billie Whitelaw as Winnie in Happy Days.

Articles and Interviews

Happy Days are here again…
The Belfast Telegraph talks to director Sean Doran about his International Beckett Festival in Eniskillen, Ireland.

"A song of rue that will haunt the inner ear long after you have heard it"
Howard Taubman reviews the play for the New York Times.

Videos

C'mon get happy
Billie Whitelaw in Happy Days.

Another heavenly trailer
Trailer for the National Theatre's production of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett with Fiona Shaw as Winnie.

Radio days are here to stay
WNYC's Leonard Lopate spoke with Fiona Shaw, who stars as Winnie, a woman buried in rubble up to her midsection.

Audio

They say jealousy is the greatest compliment
Edward Albee, the playwright, speaks to NPR about the influence Beckett has had on his work and how Beckett created two scenes that make Albee a bit jealous.

Images

Just another Happy Day in Dublin
The Corn Exchange presents Happy Days at the Project Arts Centre (2010).

Happily married (or not!)
A collection of images displaying Winnie and Willie.

"An installation that talked"
Fiona Shaw as Winnie in National Theatre's production (2007).

A great picture of the man himself, Mr. Beckett.
Looking mighty dapper.

Winnie, my dear, you have never looked more beautiful...
Winnie examines her toothbrush.