Am I Still Ill?: Beckett in Brooklyn

I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them. The ideas that give rise to a work can be quite diffuse, so I would describe my usual working process as a kind of distillation—trying to make coherence out of things that can seem contradictory. But coherence is not the same as resolution. The most interesting art to me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in a tense coexistence.” –Martin Puryear, 2007

January can be a bitch of a month. Debt. Holiday weight gain. Gray skies. You get the point. So, I am trying to combat the bleakness by immersing myself in culture—as much culture as I can afford after paying off my bills. Of course, sometimes the culture I’m partaking in can be rather bleak.

Friday night I had nosebleed seats at BAM for Deborah Warner’s production of Beckett’s Happy Days, with legend of the British stage Fiona Shaw. My friend had never seen a Beckett play, so that in itself was exciting (everyone must see Beckett!). I have seen Waiting for Godot a couple of times (God, to think I even read it in French in highschool) but was not familiar with Happy Days. I was pleased to find it as “Beckett” (i.e. bawdy, linguistically sharp theatre of the absurd) as Godot.

BAM’s website reads thus: “A piercing bell sounds, and Winnie, buried in rubble up to her waist, awakes. Trapped, she rummages in a bag, brushes her teeth, kisses her gun, and chatters to her husband Willy (Tim Potter), who all but ignores her. And yet, nothing could be better. Samuel Beckett’s two-person masterpiece, Happy Days, offers a portrait in miniature of companionship at its hyperbolic limit: a couple having only one another, and then hardly that.”


Indeed, the entire two act play is made up mostly of Winnie’s monologue. It is only interupted a few times by a some grunts from her half-dead husband and by a shocking audio/visual fright. Shaw, as Winnie, is literally caught inside a spectacular set of glistening, massive rubble, her body placed dead center of it. Sometimes BAM cheap seats can be awful (especially for an intimately staged production) but because of the mammoth set and the hugeness of her performance, it really made no difference to be so far up there. In fact, being able to view over the whole thing was rather exciting (if not a little vertigo-inducing).

The production did everything my English-major-self remembers what a Beckett play should do—make you laugh, shock you, bore you, and leave you feeling as though life really does have no meaning. While optimism is a pretty strong drug, especially when it enables you to make friends with the objects in your large bag, it ultimately will not save you from a life of pushing up that rock over and over again. Or in this case, it won’t save you from being pushed underneath the rock (a clever play off Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus).

Happy Days is a critique on routine, a satire on a very English way of life. Beckett creates, within a dystopian landscape, a domestic anti-bliss made up of a nutty, babbling wife (complete with lipstick and proper hat) and a slag of a husband who grumbles answers when he occasionally chooses to acknowledge her. I was not surprised that he wrote this not in French (his most common writing tongue), but in English.

Beckett, born an Irishman (like his good friend Joyce), is an expatriate who lived in Paris.  His work–hilarious, black, minimal, and pretty desolate–is often looped into the Absurdist and Existentialist movements of the 1940’s and 50’s that came out of France. As I just mentioned, his seminal Waiting for Godot was written in French; I think any class on French Existentialism will teach the text or at least allude to it strongly. Happy Days, howver, was written after the heyday of the Sartre days (and just before the advent of the Post-Structurlists) in 1960. It is not, then, technically an Existentialist play. I saw it a piece that marries the absurdist tradition to an Orwellian British satirical sensibility (as in his early, pre-1984 work such as Keep The Aspidistra Flying and Down and Out in London and Paris). Winnie is a pathetic British housewife character as much as she is indicative of our suffering as humans as a whole.

Happy Days has a haunting, desolate bite that I won’t forget for awhile. While the second act finds Winnie buried up to her head (no longer having the free arms she did in the first act), she remains optimistic–and chatty. “Oh it’s a going to be a Happy Day” she exclaims! Day and night, though, are concepts which one speaks of “in the old style,” our Winnie tells us. Clearly, in this post apocalyptic landscape, day and night no longer function as markers of human routine. Winnie might not see it, but we do: time is the enemy, boredom is the thing to escape, and madness, while ultimately inevitable, is possible to be put off as long as you can keep pretending you’re living the “happy days.” A perfectly timed metaphor, written just before the world started to explode both culturally and politically in the mid 1960’s.

Intense stuff, indeed!

Later in the weekend, I went to MOMA with another friend, a friend who was visiting from out of town. I love when friends visit because it kicks me in the ass to go do shit in the city that I might not do if they weren’t in New York. I didn’t get a whole lot of time to see the Martin Puryear show, a small retrospective of the Post Minimalist sculptor, but the quote that opened the show affected me profoundly. The idea “where opposed ideas can be held in a tense coexistent” really stood out for me in my post-Beckett weekend.

How easy and yet how hard to understand that one can be utterly despondent and optimistic at the same time? Do either of these states, contradicting each other while coexisting, mean anything? Well, “coherence is not the same as resolution,” goes this quote. And I agree. I’m not sure what to make of the absurdity of existence, still. Twenty five years, nine of them years as a Beckett fan, and I’m still not sure.

But damn, it’s pretty nice live in NYC where I can be reminded of the struggle….in both art and in life.


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