This post is reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement article by Kate Womersley
The winter of 1925 in Dublin was a rather cheerless one. At least that is the picture the papers give: workers’ strikes, a general depression in trade and widespread unemployment. The Irish Times forecast a particularly cold Christmas, adding the small consolation that “if all goes according to plan, England and Scotland will be swept by Polar winds with an icy chill in them”. The “Public Amusements” page suggested some distractions for gloomy Dubliners. Humpty Dumpty: The Pantomime was doing a run at the Gaiety Theatre, “the famous Dixie Minstrels” were in town, and La Scala was showing Charlie Chaplin in The Pawnshop.
Meanwhile, a music hall revue called Happy Days was on at the Olympia. Scant information survives about the show, where it came from or where it went. The listing appeared from December 21 until Christmas Eve, leaving a few tantalizing clues about what the spectacle might have been like. A revue, the descendant of music hall proper and cousin to American vaudeville, tended to have a loose plot but still remained loyal to the traditional format of a series of showpiece fragments and cameo turns.
In 1925 Samuel Beckett was reading modern languages at Trinity College. Is this Happy Days a lost source for his own play of the same title? It has always been assumed that Beckett named his 1960 drama after the hit song of 1929, “Happy Days are Here Again”. But the dates and location lend weight to the earlier entertainment as well. Might Winnie in her faltering performance of optimism be a grim reworking of those “happy-go-lucky girls”? After all, one of Beckett’s abortive titles for his Happy Days was “A Low Comedy”.
But what is the likelihood that Beckett joined the Olympia’s boisterous audience, or even saw the listing in the Times? When James Joyce said in 1903 that “the music hall, not Poetry, [is] a criticism of life”, Dublin was awash with musical farces and other variety entertainments. Twenty-odd years later, music hall was a dying art. Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s first biographer, nevertheless writes that he made a habit of frequenting the Olympia and the Gaiety, as well as the more genteel Theatre Royal, a taste he did not outgrow when living in Paris after he had graduated from Trinity. He discovered the French strain of music hall, which derived from café concert, at the Bobino, attending “frequently, even in the afternoons, and nearly always by himself”.
Noting Beckett’s enthusiasm for these entertainments is not new; neither is spotting how they colour his work. Comedy collides with sobriety again and again in his drama. In a notebook for Human Wishes (1936), an early play, later abandoned, about the life of Dr Johnson, Beckett jotted down a line from a letter Mrs Thrale sent to a friend in 1750. Here she asks, “Did not Dr J say once that MacBeth wd make a good pantomime?”. If Johnson is right, why shouldn’t pantomime and its kind be fair game for good tragedy? Given how Beckett went on to develop these early ideas and influences, we should hear curiosity as well as caution in his remark that “If we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct . . . we might as well go home and lie down”.
A question repeatedly hangs in the air: “What do we do now?”
The contrasts of pace and modulations of tone in Beckett’s drama can indeed be dizzying, and are integral to its interest. Two popular performers from the 1920s, the Swanson Sisters, were lauded by the Irish Times as “almost a complete variety programme in themselves”, and the same could be said of Waiting for Godot’s double act. Whether they are swapping hats (in tribute to the Marx Brothers) or swapping insults, Vladimir and Estragon draw on a long stage tradition of clowning, minstrelsy and knockabout. Lucky and Pozzo could also be plausible extras on a comic bill. Each crescendo of action subsides with the rise of a niggling anxiety about endings and beginnings. A question repeatedly hangs in the air: “What do we do now?”.
Happy Days owes even greater debts to the illegitimate theatre. Winnie, with her capacious bag and garrulous tongue, recalls the halls’ grande dame, Marie Lloyd (immortalized in a famous essay by T. S. Eliot), and the later parleuse, Joyce Grenfell. Another of Beckett’s jettisoned titles for his play was “Female Solo”, which at once points up Winnie’s near-solitariness, her chattering monologue, and climactic swansong at the end of Act Two. Like Marie Lloyd, Winnie makes a routine out of routine: the morning rigmarole of readying herself for the day (saying her prayers, brushing her teeth, rouging her lips) is undertaken in the vein of a skit. And just in case the audience needs a further nudge, Beckett prescribes a “Very pompier trompe-l’oeil backcloth” to suggest “the kind of tawdriness you get in 3rd rate musical or pantomime, that quality of . . . laughably earnest bad imitation”.
This travesty of staginess and Winnie’s “desirable fleshiness” (low bodice and heaving bosom at Beckett’s request) are not there just for a cheap laugh. While critics have concentrated on important affinities in content, little has been said about the formal influence that music hall had on Beckett’s play. Indeed, the twice-nightly bill of turns in the 1925 Happy Days is a fruitful way to think about Winnie’s two acts with their repeating patter and increasingly restrictive routines.
There are more subtle divisions too. Instead of scenes, entrances and exits, Beckett uses the unit of a “turn” to organize stage space and partition stage time. Like turns on the bill, the play feels bitty to watch. When trying to map the “action”, “that bit with the postcard”, “that bit when the umbrella catches fire”, “that bit with the music box” are useful landmarks.
The discontinuity of the “bits” is reinforced through movement. They often begin and end with the physical action of turning away or turning around. Stage directions which prompt a turn are the most frequent after “pause” and “silence” in Happy Days (indeed in Beckett’s entire oeuvre). The mutual reliance of dramatic structure and bodily gesture is particularly prominent when watching Winnie, trapped as she is from the waist down in a mound of earth for the duration of the play. Every few minutes she twists and bends to look at Willie behind her (obscured to the audience except for his boater, which is just visible). Writing in 1961 to Alan Schneider, the first director of Happy Days, Beckett was at pains to emphasize that “all this leaning and turning and motion of arms and bust in Act I should be as ample and graceful (memorable) as possible, in order that its absence in Act II may have maximum effect”. By the second act, of course, Winnie is buried up to her neck, capable of turning only her head.
The visual and semantic richness of a turn on the Beckettian stage cannot be dismissed as a mere happy accident. The complexity of the word and its gestural weight is supported through instances of turning in his prose. Arsene, in the novel Watt (1953), recounts an estranging episode. While walking outdoors, “something slipped” and he experiences a “reversed metamorphosis”. The incident is likened to the transformation as told by Ovid, but instead of Apollo turning a woman to foliage, here Arsene says it is rather “the Laurel into Daphne”. This moment is taken up later: “Took a turn in the garden . . . . Made merry with the hardy laurel”. The wordplay showcases various definitions of a turn: rotation as well as transformation; a performance; a “go” in a sequence; a short walk; a spell of confusion or distress; all finished off with a nod to the short sketches of two of Beckett’s favourite performers, Laurel and Hardy.
Once you start looking, turns crop up all over the place. In the short story “Ding-Dong” from More Pricks than Kicks (1934), our anti-hero Belacqua makes a habit of taking numerous short strolls as if he were tracing the path of a “boomerang, out and back”. After “these little acts of motion”, if only “from the ingle to the window”, he always “returned, transfigured and transformed”: “Exempt from destination, [he] had not to shun the unforeseen nor turn aside from the agreeable odds and ends of vaudeville that are liable to crop up”. A charge can be felt between “turn aside” and “vaudeville”, spotlighting the familiar notion that all the world’s a stage. Circular and mundane activities performed in solitude are reframed as a one-man comedy show.
Turns on the stage and on the page meet again in From an Abandoned Work (1954). The nameless narrator imagines a future when “it will not be as now, day after day, out, on, round, back, in, like leaves turning, or torn out and thrown crumpled away, but a long unbroken time without before or after”. Turning leaves put us in mind of the pages of a book or script, spirals of foliage swept up on windy days and perhaps a fleeting momento mori as their greenness fades to brown. Life is cast as a succession of circuits, predictable as clockwork. The tedious imperative to go through the same motions “day after day” has its most famous expression at the end of The Unnameable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. A consummate performer must continue in the face of exhaustion.
The frequency with which these verbal contortions and physical turns occur points towards a principle at the centre of Beckett’s practice: expression within limitation. The “dramaticule”, Come and Go (1965), is its purest distillation, again not quite casting off affinities with music hall. Three women, Flo, Vi and Ru, dressed head-to-toe in block colour and seated in a row, perform a round of permutations. Each takes her turn to rise, rotate and exit, while the remaining pair share a whispered secret (inaudible to the audience). Beckett wanted the trio’s choreographed movements to be “stiff, slow, puppet-like”. The first line of the playlet, “When did we three last meet?”, recalls Macbeth’s weird sisters. This turn seems to be Beckett’s belated answer to Dr Johnson’s challenge, pitched between a funny skit and a tragic window on to a purgatorial existence.
It is intriguing, then, that Beckett should repeatedly describe his own vocation as if he were one of these trapped entertainers. Writing in 1954 to an inmate of a German prison who had staged a production of Godot, Beckett felt indebted to the performers.
“I am no longer the same, and will never again be able to be the same, after what you have done, all of you. In the place where I have always found myself, where I will always find myself, turning round and round, falling over, getting up again, it is no longer wholly dark nor wholly silent.”
This stumbling, disorientated and troublingly comic figure combines the persistence of Sisyphus with the clumsiness of a clown. To see the writer’s condition as a turn is simultaneously showy and modest, suggesting both singularity and sequential reliance. Beckett’s sense of his own art seems to equivocate between an individual moment and a humble episode in a line of artistic and cultural inheritance.
In his final prose work, Stirrings Still, such an awareness of predecessors and aftercomers is especially pronounced: “This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till it in its turn went out . . . . As when others too in their turn before and since. As when others would too in their turn and leave him till he too in his turn”. Another possibility is heard through the repetitions. Being “on the turn”, passing one’s prime, is inevitable. As this “outer light”, the limelight, fades, there is a lingering fear for Beckett that his work might, like the music hall shows of which he was so fond, become a dying form.
Kate Womersley is a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard University.