in Beckett’s Dramas Happy Days and Waiting for Godot
Happy Days opens on a barren outdoor setting in which a woman around fifty, Winnie, is found embedded up to above her waist in a mound of earth. There is another character around sixty, Willie, who is lying asleep on the ground, hidden by Winnie’s mound, to her right and rear. Willie is hardly visible to the audience throughout the play except for a few times, although constantly addressed by Winnie in her monologue. The dramatist calls for a “maximum of simplicity and symmetry” in the set to indicate the absence of any trace of human society in the protagonist’s world. For the spectators who are used to the realistic stage, or to the stage on which events occur in the physical world, the stage of Happy Days is something of a shock, for they fail to find in the set any resemblance to the drama they have known.
Above all, Beckett does not put his action in a historical setting. Traditionally, drama creates a world with reference to objective reality. An important part of dramatic performance is to present the spectators with some event they can recognize and identify in connection with the practical aspects of life. Each time they see a performance, they find themselves thrown into a new world which is a mixture of the familiar and the strange and unknown. The familiar is the threshold through which they venture into the strange and unknown. The ratio of the familiar is the highest in the drama of mimetic objective realism, whereas it is low in the drama portraying the phenomena occurring in the unconscious. Beckett depicts life as strange, mysterious, and beyond rational explanation.
In the performance of Beckett’s work, the spectators find it hard to enjoy themselves due to the strangeness of the world presented on the stage. Beckett has reduced the familiar in his work to the extent that the strange dominates the action, seriously modifying the function of the familiar in the process of signification. Drama is concerned with life and death to be represented in such artistic genres as tragedy and comedy. In other words, drama is the ritualization of ‘life’ and ‘death’ with a view to familiarizing the fearful reality of existence. The spectators enjoy the spirit of ‘game’ or ‘play’ from the stage performance which imitates the action of man. In Beckett’s drama it is hard for us to experience the spirit of ‘play’ or ‘game’. Beckett rips off the veil of familiarized ritual from dramatic art when he reduces the familiar to a minimum in his work. The stylized action in traditional drama does not help the spectators confront bare existence. It induces them to ignore it. In order to deal with the question of bare existence as such, Beckett depicts man in the state of being nothing and doing nothing without superimposing conventional narrative structure on the action.
The simple but horrifying set of Happy Days is designed to awaken the spectators and urge them to face the human condition without any inessential decoration. Winnie can be seen as Everyman helplessly thrown into life like the protagonist. Beckett’s intention of exhibiting bare existence can be read in the compositional process of his work. From his earliest years Beckett chose to keep distance from objective mimesis for the reason that it relies on empiricism which is the art of the surface. Absence rather than presence characterizes Beckett’s world. The world of crowded images in Shakespeare is hard to find in the linguistic sparseness of Beckett’s empty space. An investigation of the manuscripts of Happy Days reveals that Beckett’s composition of the work is not something that proceeds from an abstract idea and skeletal structure at the outset to a concrete situation with fuller elaboration of characters in the later stage. To the contrary, his creative process is a transition from the realistic and concrete to the abstract, condensed and vague. Apparently his text is first full of social and historical facts, which are later removed or purposely ‘vaguened’ to reveal a universal pattern.
The dramatist condenses or decomposes the original manuscript in which the action is more traditionally motivated and the world more familiar and recognizable until the original identifiable world has completely evaporated. The elimination of the omniscient author himself takes place in this process. By the time he finishes writing, Beckett has gone through numerous intentional undoings of the text’s origins. Beckett’s method of representation can be compared to photography. The cover picture in black and white of Bert O. States’ book on Waiting for Godot, The Shape of Paradox, shows two men, one sitting on the ground and the other standing. What characterizes the picture most is the indistinct contour of the objects, apparently intending to remind the reader of Vladimir and Estragon. What is interesting in the picture is that it is almost impossible to discern the features of their faces, the fingers of their hands, and the shoes on their feet. They are all blurry.
If Happy Days is to be compared to a picture, it could be a picture which fails to show the characters’ contour clearly because they were taken at too close a range. Or, it is as if the cameraman had magnified the object so many times that it lost its natural shape to look like something else. Jonathan Swift makes Gulliver travel the country of giants to reveal the ugliness of humans seen in magnified versions. In Happy Days, the spectators seem seated so close to the protagonist that they can almost see her body hair, her pimples and the wrinkles in her face, and even smell her breath. Unable to see the overall shape of the protagonist’s body, they are not sure whether they are watching a human or an animal. This phenomenon occurs as the result of the intentional undoings in which Beckett removes all the decorations from the protagonist which can be used to make her look like a social being. The spectators come to see an old lady buried in a mound of earth, which is a poetic image symbolizing the existential condition of man.
In Happy Days, the temporal background of the action is vague and uncertain. In an early draft of the play the dramatist employs an alarm clock and the sunlight to control and measure Winnie’s day and night, but later changes them to a bell and a simple light that never changes in order to diminish the importance of mechanical time. The associations with quotidian activities in the alarm clock and the sunlight do not help examine the fate of man as such. Winnie never uses a date. When she broaches an episode from her memory, its history is never mentioned. Neither she nor the spectators can measure when and where the episode had taken place in her life. Furthermore, her memory is all fragments which do not make up a coherent story. It seems that she happens to run into broken pieces of past events randomly surfacing in her mind. Winnie herself is not sure of her own memory:
“The sunshade you gave me… that day… (pause)… that day… the lake… the reeds. (Pause.) What day? (Pause.) What reeds?”
Sometimes it is not clear whether her story had actually happened or she simply invents it to pass the time. The fundamental nature of the narrative is the linear progression of action in the continuum of time and space. In each scene, dialogues and movements weave the web of signification in conjunction with other theatrical elements on the stage. The concatenation of dramatic moments in the action and interaction of the characters is traditionally based on the principle of logic and causality. The causal links which are in charge of the progression of action are frequently missing in Beckett’s world. His scene is built with sentences with no apparent causal (logical) connectivity:
ESTRAGON: A kind of prayer.
ESTRAGON: A vague supplication.
ESTRAGON: And what did he reply?
VLADIMIR: That he’d see.
ESTRAGON: That he couldn’t promise anything.
VLADIMIR: That he’d have to think it over.
ESTRAGON: In the quiet of his home.
VLADIMIR: Consult his family.
ESTRAGON: His friends.
VLADIMIR: His agents.
ESTRAGON: His correspondents.
VLADIMIR: His books.
ESTRAGON: His bank account.
The above sentences seem like alternations of unrelated monologues which form an action scarcely invested with logical relation, narrative consistency, or linear progression. The characters do not seem to be aware of what they are concerned with nor where their conversation is leading to. Each sentence simply hints at the state of the speaker without actively participating in the process of describing or following events sequentially. It simply presents a fragmentary picture of the situation without necessarily being connected to the sentence before and after it.
In Waiting for Godot the temporal background of the action is rather conspicuous compared with his other works. It seems that Vladimir and Estragon have specific information about the appointment with Godot, knowing when, where and who they are waiting for. However, their sense of time and space soon become unstable by the intervention of another kind of time.
ESTRAGON: You’re sure it was this evening?
ESTRAGON: That we were to wait.
VLADIMIR: He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.
ESTRAGON: You think.
VLADIMIR: I must have made a note of it. (He fumbles in his pockets, bursting with miscellaneous rubbish.)
ESTRAGON: (very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?