Friday, February 01, 2008

Happy Days

I think I got the last available seat in the house, a partial view orchestra ticket. Luckily, since the protagonist of Beckett's Happy Days is encrusted in a pile of rubble from which she can't escape, I saw the proceedings unimpaired. And I am so glad I did. Fiona Shaw is incredible as Winnie. Not only is her diction pure and pristine and clear as day, but her voice is a marvel of delicacy and power, a marvel of musicality and rhythm, of comic timing and ferocious struggle. Every word comes ringing out, imbued with feeling. This is what a stage actor should sound like. Wow. WOW.
As for the play, it is funny and poignant and, in this production, very entertaining. I have seen two recent productions of Beckett (Waiting for Godot and this) and I wonder if in our age of Prozac the funny is enhanced at the expense of the disturbing. Not that this is necessarily bad. The plays are very funny, and overzealous productions that don't get the clowning must be hell to sit through. Maybe we're finally getting it, that they are meant to be more funny than dark and gloomy?
I imagine that the existential malaise that afflicted people in the fifties or sixties, when the plays were written, right after WWII, with a sense of impending doom thanks to mass genocide and the Cold War, has now been replaced by a feeling of, "fuck it, I needn't worry too much about the meaninglessness of life, since I won't be here to pick up the mess we've created, anyway. I have to run to my yoga class. Ta ta".
We survived the dark period in which Beckett wrote his plays. We're still here, so let's not take it all so seriously.
I wonder if every subsequent age will interpret Beckett as we have interpreted Shakespeare, according to our neuroses du jour. However, Shakespeare does not seem to me to be aging as quickly as Beckett. Hmmm...
Happy Days is poignant in that this woman, who is encased in a pile of rubble, surrounded by destruction, still has the survival instinct to look at the bright side, to make the best of an untenable situation. Her hopes are small, her triumphs very humble (they mostly have to do with whether Willie, her mate, answers her, or even listens to her). Human beings can get used to the worst, sadly. Her moments of despair are intermittent but ferocious, but then she distracts herself with banter, to make it through another meaningless, scorching day. She gives meaning and dignity to these endless days, and that is her heroic effort. The more I think about the play, the more it resonates and the more it grows on me and the more I appreciate its gorgeous poetry. But as I was sitting there, it felt a little quaint. Not because of the production, which is a very realistic pile of concrete rubble and dust, but perhaps because of the heavy symbolism.
I would have loved to see Beckett's plays when they first came out and blew everyone away with their revolutionary modernity. Today, somehow, we've become inured to the poetics of the absurd, because others after him, notably Harold Pinter, have made the absurd something palpably real, not symbolic. Pinter somehow took the poetry of the absurd inside and made it more frightening. The absurd lives among us, within us, no need to encase people in symbolic garbage.
I recently saw the current, highly uneven, Broadway production of The Homecoming and I was blown away by the brutality of the play. The situation is realistic but what happens is absurd. What happens is horrifying, but it takes place in a house in London. We cannot hide behind the safe pretense that oh, this is supposed to be poetic, see? she is trapped in rubble, there is a bell that signifies night and day, or the passage of time. Somehow the poetics keep us at bay.
Still, if anybody can give Happy Days gorgeous life, and do justice to the amazing language of the play, that is Fiona Shaw and for that I'm grateful that I saw it.

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