The Cherry Lane Theatre, an intimate little playhouse located at the elbow of an eccentric street in Greenwich Village, has for three-quarters of a century since its founding by Edna St. Vincent Millay and friends in the late 1920s, been home to many significant productions in American experimental theatre. One of its most important presentations occurred exactly forty one years ago: the world premiere in September 1961 of Samuel Beckett’s last multi-act play, Happy Days, after which his plays became increasingly minimalist, stringent, and compressed.. That tendency is anticipated in Happy Days in which the protagonist, Winnie, a middle-aged matron, is immobile: buried to the waist in a mound of earth in the first act, buried to her neck in the second. The play’s only other character, her husband, Willie, unseen and almost silent for most of the play, appears and replies intermittently until he makes an abortive attempt at action at play’s end.
Happy Days belongs to Winnie who delivers what is, in effect, a long ruminative monologue that is almost devoid of narrative content. We are given nothing that socially particularizes character or scene. Winnie prays, goes through daily rituals, inventories the possessions she carries in a bag beside her — a toothbrush, toothpaste, a small mirror, a handkerchief, a music box, as well as a revolver — invokes some names that are never identified (Brownie, Mildred, Bibby), has some sporadic philosophic observations about the conditions of her life, opens a parasol which is consumed by flames — all within the context of an optimistic litany that insists that every day is a happy day, indeed a "heavenly day." In this optimism, Winnie is the antithesis of the typical Beckettian dyspeptic complainer about life’s dispossessions, characters we know as Malone, Vladimir, Hamm, and Krapp.
Winnie with her material obsessions and Willy with his newspaper and dirty postcards represent the easy target of a boring, conventional marriage in which a henpecked husband submits to a strong but sentimental wife who prays, preens, and prattles endlessly. But Beckett will not stoop to simple satiric irony. No, even Winnie has moments of acuity:"Don’t squander all your words for the day," she tells herself, "stop talking and do something for a change, will you?" Even epiphany: "How often I have said, in evil hours, Sing now, Winnie, sing your song, there is nothing else for it." But she realizes she never did. Beckett does it for her in a great play which is Winnie’s song, a play that gets greater as you and it age.
The celebrated actor/director/master-teacher, Joseph Chaikin has long been devoted to Beckett (he both directed and acted in different productions of Endgame), and for over a quarter century has contemplated directing Happy Days. Now, forty one years after Alan Schneider’s original production, Chaikin has finally followed his impulse to completion, a task made all the more imperative for him by infirmity. In 1984 Chaikin suffered a stroke which left him aphasic (a blockage of words) but still functioning. Happy Day‘s central image of the rising mound of physical constriction seemed all the more powerful and necessary to reaffirm.
For Winnie and Willy, Chaikin chose actors who were early members of the important experimental ensemble he founded in the 60s, the Open Theatre: Joyce Aaron and Ron Faber. A powerful Winnie is, of course, essential to the proceedings. Indeed, Happy Days has held the stage because it offers a great acting challenge that several important actresses have seized, notably Madeleine Renaud in France, Billie Whitelaw in England, and Irene Worth in America.
Ms. Aaron has not the reputation nor artistic stature to match the preceding trio. As one of the early generation of committed young actors who contributed to the outburst of experimental energy in the 60s and 70s, Aaron did impressive but unremarkable work. Her current Winnie cannot project the undeniable magnetism or presence that the three great earlier Winnie’s possessed. But she brings something else that perhaps explain why Chaikin chose to go forward with her in the lead: Aaron has the pretty but inevitably aging face of an American suburbanite. Her persona is completely familiar to us, not at all exotic. Consequently she does not have to strain to establish Winnie’s conventional pieties; her very un-exceptionalism catches dead-on the kind of bland loquaciousness experienced when trapped by a voluble travelling companion on a Greyhound bus.
But Aaron and Faber succeed in bringing to the fore an element in the play usually subdued. Despite all of Winnie’s bullying and kvetching and despite Willy’s near impotence, their bond is strong. Near play’s end, the absent Willy appears round the corner of the mound, on all fours, dressed to kill in top hat, morning coat, and striped trousers. He advances towards Winnie and makes a desperate effort to crawl up to her. He struggles, then tumbles down to lie face down at the bottom of the mound. But Winnie’s face lights up with happiness at the attempt and she urges him on and softly sings the love duet from The Merry Widow. As she finishes, her eyes turn to meet those of Willy who has gotten up on all fours. The sustained love communicated by this contact (abetted by Faber’s finding an unusual intensity in his character) has an emotional power that transcends physical infirmity. That moment — memorably captured – enhances the bleak Beckettian optimism found in the Unnamable’s insistence that "I can’t go on, I must go on, I’ll go on." Which can be said as well for the wounded Chaikin. Any day that can make that claim is a happy day.