Happy Days

Welcome to the Happy Days Learning Materials Page

On this page you will find lots of useful teaching and learning resources including an introduction to the genesis of the play, scholarship on the play and its production history, links to our blog, recent publications on Happy Days, a case study, discussion questions for students and teachers, and so on.


Fiona Shaw as Winnie in Deborah Warner’s 2007 production of Happy Days at the Lyttelton Theatre.

You may also be interested in Robert Wilson’s Happy Days premiered on 24 September 2008 at the Grand Theatre of Luxembourg.

Beckett’s Happy Days: A Critical Introduction

Click on the subheadings below to explore Happy Days in more detail.

Genesis: Beckett’s process when writing the play

Overview: Beckett’s comments to Brenda Bruce and an outline of the play

An actor’s point of view: Billie Whitelaw talks to Linda Ben-Zvi

Scholarship: Concepts explored by scholars in Beckett Studies

Case study: Katie Mitchell’s Glückliche Tage

Significant performances and reviews: List of noteworthy performances 

Manuscripts: Introductory list of MS references to notebooks and typescripts

Recent articles

Recommended reading

Key questions

Additional material




Beckett completed Happy Days on 14 May 1961, five years after Endgame, twelve years after Waiting for Godot. It took him a year and a half to complete (he began writing the play on 8 October 1960). This lengthy and difficult process is indicated in the many titles Beckett considered for the play: ‘Female Solo’, ‘A Low Comedy’, ‘Tender Mercies’, ‘Many Mercies’, and ‘Great Mercies’.

The first draft of HD was begun in the ‘Été 56’ notebook under the heading ‘Female Solo’ but breaks off after three pages (UoR MS 1227/7/7/1). A second holograph was begun on the same day. At this stage, the play was in one act only. An undated typescript of the one act version marks the next stage in the development of the play. This is followed by a further holograph version, in which the play now appears in two acts. Then comes the first typescript of Act 2 and after this a typescript of the full play. None of these typescripts are dated. The final holograph, which Beckett begun on 29 March 1961, is followed by two additional undated typescripts.

Through genetic studies of HD, we can gain an understanding of Beckett’s creative process and see when and where he makes both minor and major alterations. This contributes to our perception of Beckett the playwright and Beckett the director. Perhaps the most striking difference between the first and second holograph is that Tom, a male figure wearing pyjamas and sleeping, is present onstage and then removed. In the second holograph, Tom becomes ‘Bee’ (or B) and later ‘Edward’. Additionally, an alarm clock is replaced by an ‘invisible bell’, which means that Winnie no longer controls ‘the hour for waking’ but is controlled by an unseen force (much like the light in Play and the goad in Act Without Words II).

For a genetic study of Happy Days, see Rosemary Pountney, Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s Drama, 1956-1976; From All That fall to Footfalls with commentaries on the latest plays (Gerard’s Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988). Pountney discusses how ‘vague’ – from a manuscript note from the ‘first typescript of both acts’ of HD – describes Beckett’s wider compositional process (Pountney, 1988, 149). Also see S. E. Gontarski, Beckett’s Happy Days. A Manuscript Study (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State university Libraries, 1977) In this study, Gontarski considers the role of Winnie’s quotations, her song and her stories. Gontarski writes:

In Beckett’s selection of quotation and oblique references, virtually every historical epoch is represented: pre-Christian Greek philosophies, the blind religiosity and Christian idealism of the Middle Ages, renaissance Humanism, eighteenth-century Rationalism and nineteenth-century romanticism. The philosophers, literature and religions of Western man comprise the fragmented mythology against which Winnie fails and suffers and like a jeweller’s foil, mythology highlights the suffering. (Gontarski, 1977, 73)

From his observations of the various stages involved in Beckett’s conception for HD, Gontarski suggests that in the drafts Beckett moves ‘not toward a naturalistic, precisely-defined physical world, but toward an abstract clarity, an image free of cluttering detail.’ (Ibid., 43)

The Production Notebook of Samuel Beckett ed. James Knowlson (London: Grove Press, 1985) is essential reading for a thorough examination of Beckett’s notes on the design and manuscript of HD.

Take a look at the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project for genetic editions of Beckett’s work: http://www.beckettarchive.org


On 7 April 1994, Beckett spoke to Brenda Bruce, who performed Winnie in the first London production of HD at the Royal Court in 1962 (dir. George Devine), about his thoughts when devising the play:

Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a “Dong” and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life […] And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman. (Beckett in Knowlson, 1996, 501)

The following extract by Katherine Worth’s study Waiting for Godot and Happy Days, provides a succinct outline of HD:

The situation is one of the strangest in the whole history of theatre. In the first act a middle-aged woman, immured to her waist in a mound of earth, addresses a more-or-less continuous monologue to her husband whose head is just visible above the slope at the back of her mound. Willie seldom speaks. When he does, Winnie responds with joy: “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!” Other resources for seeing her through her day are a capacious bag with a motley assortment of possessions, including a musical-box and a revolver and a parasol which catches fire when she puts it up. Her sleeping and waling are controlled by a bell but she creates a time world of her own, made up of memories, quotations, stories and dreams, interspersed with rare dialogue. She sets the musical-box playing the “Merry Widow” waltz and Willie joins in with the tune but she finds herself unable to sing. In the second act Winnie has sunk further into the earth which is now up to her neck: she cannot turn her head and can indicate feeling only through her voice and her eyes and facial movements. Willie is not heard or seen until the end of the act but she continues to talk as if he were there, reminding him of their romance, their wedding, the feelings they once had. Finally Willie emerges from behind the mound, an aged figure in wedding clothes, and crawls toward her to be received with a mixture of delight and other, more doubtful feelings. Now at last she is able to sing “her” song, the “Merry Widow” waltz. The play ends in a long-held pause with Winnie looking down at Willie, still on his hands and knees at the foot of the mound. (Worth, 1990, 34)

An actor’s point of view

For Billie Whitelaw, known unanimously as Beckett’s favourite actor, each role she embodied struck a personal chord. Whitelaw spoke to Linda Ben-Zvi about taking on the role of Winnie:

Whenever I’ve read anything of Beckett’s that I’ve been asked to do, the first thing that I’ve always wondered is how it is that everything he writes seems to be about my life. When I read Happy Days, I thought, what the hell was this man doing writing about me? He didn’t even know me. Now having said that, Beckett’s women are me, and therefore I don’t know how I can discuss these women because they are all about me. (Whitelaw in Ben-Zvi, 1992, 3)

The whole interview can be found in Ben-Zvi, Women in Beckett: Performance and Critical Perspectives (Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992). Whitelaw also spoke to Ben-Zvi about the arduous process of getting the rhythm of the language right for Winnie:

[I]t is so important to get the music right in Beckett, and I do think of the parts in terms of music. Beckett sometimes conducts me, something like a metronome. For example, I remember when we started working on Happy Days, I thought Winnie would say “Another happy day.” Sprightly. And Sam said – let me see if I can get it right – [flat monotone] “A-no-ther hap-py day.” And in brackets I put in, “Oh, Christ, here we go. Another sodding twelve hours to get through. Right. Off we go. Christ, okay, sun is up, we’ve got till sundown to get through.” (Ibid., 6)

In her autobiography …Who He? An Autobiography, Whitelaw writes: ‘Sam said the play was a sonata for voice and movement. By that he meant that everything was precisely tuned – like notes of music.’ (Whitelaw, 1995, 151)

See Tricia Kelly’s interview with Mark Taylor-Batty on the Staging Beckett website for interesting insights into performing the role of Winnie in Happy Days: https://research.reading.ac.uk/staging-beckett/interviews-talks/tricia-kelly-interview/


Women in Beckett: Winnie

Linda Ben-Zvi:

While the fiction is for the most part reserved for the male point of view […] the stage dramas, particularly the works after Happy Days, become the place where women emerge as full-drawn, independent figures in their own right. They are usually not aberrations of male desire and fear, not stereotypic images of myth and tradition, but real women living in the same world as Beckett’s men, prey to the same metaphysical conditions but reacting in ways that are comments on their position as women in a given situation and a given society that has shaped them.

In fact, by count women dominate the Beckett stage. In the stage plays from Happy Days on, there are ten women, eight men, and in What Where five of indeterminate sex, designated “he” but bearing no other visual marks of gender. More significant than their numbers, however, is the power of their depiction. With the sensitive eye of a painter, Beckett creates portraits of women that go beyond simple gender identification. His women are among the most arresting and powerful that a dramatist – particularly a male dramatist – has ever sketched. Immediately the following images come to mind: Winnie sinking into her mound and her routines in Happy Days; the trio of women in Come and Gostepping in and out of the unlit darkness, marking with their movements the steps from youth to age; the solitary walker in Footfalls pacing herself to oblivion; the aged rocker in Rockaby saying less but demanding “more” of her fading life; and – the most searing gender image of all – Mouth in Not I, a gushing orifice spewing the words of her fragmented life, attempting to talk herself into being.

Beckett’s portraits of women, however, offer more than the human form or a part thereof; they offer a visual concomitant to what it is to be female. Men may also be stuck: in routines that deaden their perceptions, in time that holds them fast, in the earth that will eventually cover them. They too need company, someone to hear them in the wilderness. But it is hard to imagine a male Winnie reacting as she does. Conditioned to “make the best of things,” to “say one’s prayers,” recite one’s “classics,” take care of one’s bodily functions, and repair one’s physical appearance, Winnie goes through the rituals that society ascribes to, and allows, the female. Parasol, hat, and capacious bag are all the accoutrements she has inherited. Even her anger and her fear must be expressed indirectly in her fictionalized account of Millie, the surrogate figure who is allowed to scream as the proper Winnie is not.

Winnie could well be described as a caricature of the middle-aged woman from Borough Green, but Beckett prevents this interpretation by allowing her an awareness of her own predicament and her own limited means to ward off the despair she experiences. Her “on Winnie” indicates her determination to do whatever she can, with whatever she has, to survive. Beckett’s Winnie is thus not only a woman; she is the physical embodiment of the condition of being a woman in her society. Not a stereotype, she is the result of stereotypic views of women. Beckett suggests what culture offers as ballast for a woman like Winnie. Not much. And certainly not much more for her husband, Willie, also heir to gender-delineated roles. He can only muse over want ads that, as a male, he is expected to answer, and dress to play the part of the romantic gentleman come a-courting or, perhaps, a-killing. Happy Days illustrates the mythic, gendered tale of male mobility and female fixity, of the desire to leave and the desire to stay. The experiences of both are inscribed by their gender and circumscribed by a society as encasing as the earth in which she is buried and in which he burrows.

Beckett’s sensitivity to the loss of freedom associated with typical gender roles is evident in Happy Days. But what is even more remarkable about Beckett is his ability to see this dilemma from the position of his female figure. It is she who is the protagonist, she who occupies stage front, her particular angle of vision the shaping vision of the play. (Ben-Zvi, 1992, xii-xiii)

Further reading

Rina Kim, Women and Ireland as Beckett’s Lost Others (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Mary Bryden, Women in Samuel Beckett’s Prose and Drama (Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 1993)

HD and Psychoanalysis

Katherine Weiss, The Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Methuen Drama, 2013):

As is evident in this play, Beckett was keenly interested in the ways in which individuals struggle between the desire to disown their past with the need to speak of it. The inability to resolve this tension result in a recalling or replaying of the past […] In Winnie’s need to fill in the silence with constant talk of the past, trying to remember her classics perhaps in an attempt to forget memories of an unhappy childhood, she displays signs of trauma. (Weiss, 2013, 40)

It is clear that Winnie’s happiness is both generated and endangered by her recollections of temps perdu. From the outset, Beckett associates time with threat in the form of the piercing bell; a sound that is repeated and therefore reinforced as the play/Winnie’s struggle goes on. Weiss adds:

By incorporating the image of the musical-box, the revolver and the sound of the alarm clock in Happy Days, Beckett depicts Winnie as struggling between remembering and forgetting her past, a struggle which ultimately results in the return of wounds of unhappier days. (Ibid., 47)

Further reading

Angela Moorjani, ‘Beckett and Psychoanalysis’ in Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies, ed. Lois Oppenheim (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 172-193.

Landscape and the political context

Phyllis Gaffney, Healing Amid the Ruins: The Irish Hospital at Saint-Lô (Dublin: A&A Farmar, 1999)

Phyllis Gaffney suggests these ‘unhappier days’ refer to Beckett’s experience at Saint-Lô during the Second World War (see Beckett’s text intended for broadcast entitled ‘The Capital of Ruins’). Gaffney claims that the image of Winnie in HD ‘echoes the real experience of a Saint-Lô citizen who was found by rescue-workers standing upright, unable to move, stuck in the ruins of his house’ and ‘Winnie’s care to look her best recalls the women of the town, who would emerge into the sunlight from their dusty cellars, beautifully turned out in starched white blouses’. (Gaffney, 1999, 76) As Winnie occupies a ruinous space of ‘scorched grass’ and finds that her toothpaste and lipstick are both running out, subtextual hits of a war-torn world surface. Moreover, Winnie’s desperate optimism echoes Beckett’s conscious affirmation of the positive attitudes of the people of Saint Lô in ‘The Capital of the Ruins’.

Further reading

Carl Lavey, ‘Ecology in Beckett’s Theatre Garden: Or How to Cultivate the Oikos’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 28.1 (2018), 10-26.

Scenography and Beckett’s collaborative process

British theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert (1917-2003) had considerable impact on what we think of the visual aesthetic of Beckett’s theatre. Herbert’s first involvement with Beckett’s theatre was in 1957/8 when she designed the double bill of the English language premiere of Endgame at the Royal Court, directed by George Devine, and the world premiere of Krapp’s Last Tape directed by Donald McWhinnie. The importance of Jocelyn Herbert to Beckett’s theatre productions is clearly outlined by Anna McMullan in her essay ‘Samuel Beckett’s scenographic collaboration with Jocelyn Herbert’ (2012). McMullan looks closely at Herbert’s scenographic contribution to the sensory and affective impact of Beckett’s plays, arguing that the iconic stage images we associate with Beckett’s theatre and conception of aspects of the mise en scène of his plays are due, in part, to this collaboration. By carefully plotting the evolution of Beckett’s performances in different productions, McMullan’s essay suggests that ‘there remains plenty of scope for scenographic reinterpretation in the changing conditions of each production.’ (McMullan, 2012, 17) McMullan writes of Beckett’s collaboration with Herbert:

As frequently happened with the diverse premieres of [Beckett’s] plays in the United States, France, Germany and London, what Beckett learned from one production would inform subsequent productions. Since many of Beckett’s plays had their British premiere at the Royal Court Herbert was responsible for some design decisions that both reflected and in some cases influenced shifts in Beckett’s envisioning of particular plays. For example, Herbert designed two productions of Happy Days at the Royal Court some fifteen years apart, and when she returned to the play for the second time she made some significant changes. The actress Brenda Bruce had been brought in at a late stage for the first stage for the first production in 1962, directed by [George] Devine, while for the second in 1979, Beckett directed Billie Whitelaw with whom he had already built up a close working relationship. (Ibid., 10)

Case Study: Katie Mitchell’s Glückliche Tage (Happy Days).

This production premiered at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, on 12 February 2015. Julie Wieninger played Winnie and Paul Herwig played Willie.

For Klaus Lefebvre’s photographs of this performance see: https://www.schauspielhaus.de/en_EN/repertoire/glueckliche_tage.1011613 [accessed 26 August 2018]

For a short excerpt from the production at the International Thetaer Amsterdam see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkOMCtls7Jg

A brief note on Mitchell’s work on Beckett can be found in S. E. Gontarski, ‘Samuel Beckett and the “Idea” of Theatre: Performance through Artaud and Deleuze’ in The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), 126-145 (135-136)

When asked who and what have acted as influences on her work, Mitchell responded as follows:

Even on my way to this interview I was researching Beckett’s Endgame. I saw this fantastic old man dressed in black who looked as if he had just walked out of Waiting for Godot. Then I saw this other old man, barefoot, carrying two pink blankets. A few days ago a bomb exploded in the Isle of Dogs. Everything I experience as a member of a community has a direct influence on the work I do. (Mitchell in Giannachi and Luckhurst, 1999, 99-100)

For the full interview see: On Directing: Interviews with Directors, eds. Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1999).

Mitchell talks to Anna McMullan in detail about her experience working on Happy Days:

[W]hen I directed Happy Days I really wanted to focus on the terror of the situation the character is in. Because there’s something about knowing that it’s a very famous actress in a pretend hole in a rock or in a fake bit of earth that for me takes away the real terror in the writing. And Winnie’s cheerful refusal to face the reality of her situation only functions emotionally if we can see the horror of that reality. It’s an absolutely terrifying situation.


When you spend lots of time reading about Beckett, all the biographies, I must have read three or four of them, it’s what he lived through during the Second World War that always strikes me most, and the violence of that time. He worked in St Lô in Normandy in 1945 to help clean up in the aftermath of the war and I can’t imagine what he must have seen. He wrote a brilliant poem about it [‘Saint Lô, 1946]. For me his writing is so connected to the events of that World War and he seems repeatedly to attempt to write it out or process it – Godot, Endgame, Happy Days, Ill Seen Ill Said.


It must have had such a profound impact on him, and his experience of working for the Resistance in France. I think sometimes the aesthetic chosen for productions of what I consider his post-war plays aren’t really plugged into that historical reality where I imagine that so many of his metaphors come from – figures existing in dust-bins without legs, women buried alive as their husbands die or people living in a world where they do not know if anyone else has survived. He’s very political in his writing but people treat him as if he were very aesthetic, austere, formal. Actually he’s very visceral, psychological, and political and as a director you ignore this aspect of his work at your peril, because without this frame the language doesn’t function, the texture of it. (Mitchell in McMullan, 2018, 129, 130)

For the full interview see: Katie Mitchell and Anna McMullan, ‘Katie Mitchell on Staging Beckett’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 28.1 (2018), 127-132.

Further reading

Julie Campbell, ‘Staging Embers: An Act of Killing?’, SBTA, 7, Beckett versus Beckett (1998), 91-104.

Significant performances and reviews

The first production of HD was directed by Alan Schneider at the Cherry Lane Theater, New York on 17 September 1961. Ruth White played Winnie.
Herbert Mitgang, New York Times, 17 September 1961.

Oh les beaux jeux was first performed in France in 1963. It was directed by Roger Blin, with Beckett’s assistance. Madeleine Renaud played Winnie.
Gilles Sandier, Arts, 935, 6-12 November 1963.

Beckett directed the German version of the play at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt (the smaller, studio theatre of the Schiller company), West Berlin in 1971. Eva Katharina Schultz played Winnie. Beckett’s Schiller notebooks can be found at the University of Reading’s Samuel Beckett Collection.

Peter Hall directed the play with Peggy Ashcroft as Winnie and Alan Webb as Willie at London’s Old Vic on 13 March 1975. This production transferred to the National Theatre (Lyttelton) in 1976.
Irving Wardle, The Times, 15 March 1975

Beckett directed the play in English at the Royal Court Theatre in 1979, with Billie Whitelaw as Winnie. His production notebook, edited by James Knowlson, was published in 1985.
James Knowlson, ‘Review: Happy Days Directed by Samuel Beckett. Royal Court Theatre, London, June, 1979’, JOBS, 5 (Autumn 1979), 141-143.

HD returned to New York in 1979 directed by Andrei Serban, with Irene Worth as Winnie.
Richard Eder, New York Times, 3, June 8 1979 https://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/08/archives/stage-irene-worth-in-happy-days-serbans-view-of-beckett.html [accessed 26 August 2018]

In 2007, HD returned to the Lyttelton Theatre with Fiona Shaw as Winnie. The play was directed by Deborah Warner.
Michael Billington, The Guardian, 25 January 2007 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2007/jan/25/theatre [accessed 26 August 2018]

Juliet Stevenson played Winnie in a production directed by Natalie Abrahami at the Young Vic in 2015.
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, 20 February 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/feb/20/happy-days-review-juliet-stevenson-young-vic-samuel-beckett [accessed 26 August 2018]

Maxine Peake played Winnie in the UK’s most recent production of Happy Days. Manchester Royal Exchange 2018
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph, 31 May 2018 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/happy-days-review-manchester-royal-exchange-production-might/ [accessed 26 August 2018] Also see our blog for this production on the Staging Beckett website: https://research.reading.ac.uk/staging-beckett/happy-days-at-manchesters-royal-exchange-theatre-25-may-23-june-2018/ [accessed 26 August 2018]

The film version of Happy Days(dir. Patricia Rozema, with Rosaleen Linehan as Winnie) was produced in 2001 for the Beckett on Film project.


Below is an illustrative list of the Happy Days archival materials at the Beckett Collection, Reading.

UoR MS 1227/7/1 Eté 56 notebook. Happy Days, under the heading ‘Play Female Solo 8.10.60 Ussy’ (p.71-88)

UoR MS 1227/7/8/1 Notes for Glückliche Tage Regiebuch 1970-71. Holograph with handwritten alterations by the author. Notes are written in English and German in preparation for his German production of HDat the Schiller-Theater Werstatt, Berlin (September 1971).

UoR MS 1396/4/10 Glückliche Tage, Schiller Theater production notebook. Contains notes and diagrams by Beckett in English and German.

UoR MS 1547/1 Happy days quotations. Typescript with handwritten additions and alterations by the author. List of quotations from various literary works, which appear in Happy Days, compiled by Beckett.

UoR MS 1396/4/11 Happy days production notebook: London [19]74. Holograph with handwritten alterations by the author, otherwise known as the Red ‘Rhodia’ notebook. Contains notes and diagrams written in preparation for the production of HD at London’s Old Vic Theatre in March 1975.

Recent articles

Elaine Wood, ‘Cript Sexuality in Happy Days’, JOBS, 24.2 (2015), 210-222.

Richard Eastman, ‘Samuel Beckett And Happy Days’, Modern Drama, 6.4 (2013)

Recommended reading

George Craig, Dan Gunn, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck eds., The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. III 1957-1965(Cambridge: CUP, 2014)

Anna McMullan,Performing Embodiment in Samuel Beckett’s Drama (London: Routledge, 2010)

Katherine Weiss, ‘Beckett’s Happy Days: Rewinding and Revolving Histories’, South Atlantic Review, 75.4 (Fall 2010), 37-50.

Julie Campbell, ‘The Entrapment of the Female Body in Beckett’s Plays in Relation to Jung’s Third Tavistock Lecture’, SBTA, 15, Historicising Beckett/Issues of Performance (2005), 161-172.

Derek Goldman, ‘What was that Unforgettable Line?: Remembrances from the Rubbleheap’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103.1 (2004), 45-55.

Katherine Worth, Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: Life Journeys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999) – covers later productions of Beckett’s plays by directors such as JoAnne Akalaitis, David Warrilow and Worth herself.

James Knowlson gen. ed., The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1994) – The Samuel Beckett Collection at the University of Reading archive, contains notebooks kept by Beckett when he was directing his plays. Knowlson and others have edited these notebooks in these invaluable volumes.

Lois Oppenheim, Directing Beckett (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994) – critical essays and interviews with Beckett directors.

Cathy Courtney ed., Jocelyn Herbert: A Theatre Workbook (London: Art Books International, 1993)

Knowlson ed., The Production Notebook of Samuel Beckett (London: Grove Press, 1985)

S. E. Gontarski, The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)

John Goodwin, Peter Hall’s Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983) – covers the period during which Hall’s production of Happy Days (with Peggy Ashcroft as Winnie) was being staged.

James Knowlson and John Pilling, Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1979), 93-110.

David J. Alpaugh, ‘Negative Definition in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days’,Twentieth Century Literature, 11.4 (January 1966), 202-210.

Key questions


The discussion of habit in Beckett’s critique of Proust [Proust, 1931] is highly relevant to Happy Days. To omit or remove the protection of habit is to introduce ‘suffering’ which, says Beckett, ‘opens a window on the real.’ It is such a confrontation with reality that Winnie experiences at the end of Happy Days. Consider how Winnie’s reaction to Willie’s coming around to her side of the mound could be described as a “pernicious and incurable optimism” (Proust: 15), as Beckett writes in Proust.

See P. H. Collins, ‘Proust, Time, and Beckett’s Happy Days’, The French Review, 47.6 (Spring 1974), 105-119.


During rehearsals in Berlin, Beckett said: ‘In this play you have the combination of the strange and the practical, the mysterious and the factual. This is the crux of both the comedy and the tragedy of it.’ (Beckett in Fehsenfeld from Burkman ed., 1978, 54) Consider how Beckett creates the tension between comedy and sadness in Happy Days. How does the largely comic tone of Act 1 give way to the increasing horror of Act 2?

Winnie’s need to comment on the Heavenly blue sky as she remains fixed in her mound encapsulates a tension between flight and fixity. Beckett referred to this dynamic when he said that Winnie is ‘Like a bird with oil on its feathers’. (Ibid,. 50) If the body’s central contradiction is that it is simultaneously a potential source of our enslavement and our freedom, how can a Foucauldian reading of Winnie’s body contribute to our understanding of Happy Days? Does the mound become a metaphor for the security of home or the entrapment of our moribund existence?

See Victoria Swanson, ‘Confining, Incapacitating, and Partitioning the Body: Carcerality and Surveillance in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Happy Days, and Play’, Miranda, 4 (2011) 1-18 http://miranda.revues.org/1872 [accessed 26 August 2018]

Memory & Repetition

Ruby Cohn writes that ‘In Happy Days the texture is so luxuriant with repetition that it is difficult to distinguish refrains.’ (Cohn, 1980, 120) How does Beckett’s use of repetition shape the rhythm of this piece?

See Catherine Laws, ‘The Music of Beckett’s Theatre’, SBTA, 13, Three Dialogues Revisited (2003), 121-133.

In both instances of the memory of Mr Shower/Cooker and in the tale of Mildred, Winnie interrupts and returns to the memory. How might this fragmented narrative be read in light of trauma theory?

Dominick LaCarpa suggests that survivors of catastrophic events are ‘possessed by the past and performatively caught up in the compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes – scenes in which the past returns and the future is blocked or fatalistically caught up in a melancholic feedback loop.’ (LaCarpa, 2001, 21) How does LaCarpa’s theory relate to Winnie’s attempt to relay her memories?

(See Dominick LaCarpa, Writing History, Writing Trauma [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001].)


Beckett’s work is often talked about in terms of a sense of endlessness and a need for storytelling as a necessary source of company. Ruby Cohn says of Happy Days: ‘As in earlier Beckett plays, the repetition of Happy Days imitates the repetitive quality of all human experience. However, in this play, the audience has ironic awareness of repetition, whereas Winnie remains relatively unware of it. […] Each day is a new day for Winnie, with its own questions, answers, and built-in memories of a past that may never have happened. However, we see Act I before Act II, and wehear Winnie’s valiant repetitive defences, with their minute variants. We know that each “happy day” accumulates repetitions of the last.’ (Cohn, 1980, 123) How does Winnie’s incessant soliloquy relate to this sense of endlessness that quickly tips from hope into despair?


In an interview with Jonathan Kalb, Billie Whitelaw talked about Beckett’s advice to her when rehearsing Happy Days: ‘We were doing Happy Days and I just did not know where in the theater to look during this particular section. And I asked, and he thought for a bit and then said, “Inward.” And it was the most marvellous, succinct piece of direction I’ve ever been given.’ (Whitelaw in Kalb, 1989, 240) If ‘inward’ refers to the underlying philosophical questions pertaining to the human condition, how does Happy Days portray the relationship of the mind and the body, the autonomous existence of things or their dependence on human consciousness, the power and limitations of the will, the lack of belief in God, and the status of past experience and its effect on the present?

See Reiko Inoue, ‘The Mound of Sand in Happy Days: Tomb to Womb’, The Harp, 14 (1999), 60-69.

Seen/Unseen & Spectatorship

‘In Happy Days, Beckett brings together two of his most important themes, integrating them far more closely into the dramatic situation than in any of his previous plays. First is the need for a witness to validate one’s own existence. Second is the compulsion to go on saying words “as long as there any” [The Trilogy]. Bishop Berkeley’s dictum ‘to be is to be perceived’ [esse est percipi is used in the preface to Film1964] here takes the form of Winnie’s desperate need for a witness who, if he cannot actually see her, will be there as an “Auditor” [see Not I] to listen to her words, even at times to respond to them.’ (Knowlson in Knowlson and Pilling, 1979, 99) In light of these comments made by James Knowlson, how important is the audience in Happy Days? It is useful to consider Anna McMullan’s comment that Happy Days ‘draws attention to the limits of the visible, what is hidden, withheld, unseeable, or unreadable from the audience’s perspective.’ (McMullan, 2010, 55)

See Matthew Davies, ‘“Someone is looking at me still”: The Audience-Creature Relationship in the Theater Plays of Samuel Beckett’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 51.1, Samuel Beckett in Austin and Beyond (Spring 2009), 76-93.


When Martha Fehsenfeld attended rehearsals of the 1979 production of Happy Days at London’s Royal Court Theatre (with Billie Whitelaw as Winnie), she wrote in her diary that for Beckett, the musical-box was ‘a prop of [Winnie’s] inward life’. (Fehsenfeld in Weiss, 2013, 39) What impact do the props in Happy Days have on our understanding of Winnie’s character and the notion of gender?

See Susan Hennessy, ‘Happy Days Sinking Into Immanence: Samuel Beckett and The Second Sex’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 17.2 (2016), 65-76.

Intermedial prisms

Happy Days and the visual arts

James Knowlson, ‘What lies beneath Samuel Beckett’s half-buried woman in Happy Days’, The Guardian, 21 January 2014  https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jan/21/samuel-beckett-happy-days-half-buried-woman [accessed 26 August 2018]

Amanda Coogan’s The Yellow Mountain: a collaborative ArtVideo (2009) is a contemporary response to Happy Dayshttp://www.amandacoogan.com/the-yellow-mountain.html [accessed 26 August 2018]

See Brenda O’Connell, ‘“I’ll sing you a song from around the town”: Echoes and Transformations of Samuel Beckett’s Theatre in Amanda Coogan’s Durational Performance Art’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 28.1 (2018),82-94.

Happy Days and music

Opera director Netia Jones explores the relationship between words and music in Samuel Beckett’s work on a radio essay ‘Lost in Translation: Samuel Beckett – Happy Days’ for BBC Radio 3, originally broadcast on 18 September 2014 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04h7vyq [accessed 26 August 2018]

Happy Days and technology

In light of the ‘Beckett and Technology’ conference in Prague 2018, ideas surrounding transmediality and digital humanities is becoming increasingly relevant to Beckett studies. For a discussion of Happy Days in relation to habit, repetition and sound patterns see Ulrika Maude ‘Beckett and the Laws of Habit’, Modernism/modernity, 18.4 (November 2011), 814-821.

Additional material

Fiona Shaw talking about memory and the rhythm of the text in Happy Days:


Short clip of Billie Whitelaw performing in Happy Days (Act 1) at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York:


‘Working with Samuel Beckett: Billie Whitelaw interview’ (1999): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG4xfk1PdMA

‘Performing Samuel Beckett: Actress Billie Whitelaw interview’ (1986): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skx1kigZhOs

William McEvoy, ‘An introduction to Happy Days’, British Library, Discovering Literature: 20th century, 7 September 2017 https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/an-introduction-to-happy-days [accessed 26 August 2018]


  1. Who first performed as Winnie and where?
  2. List five items Winnie pulls out of her handbag.
  3. Name five actors who have played Winnie.
  4. True or false: Winnie’s revolver is called ‘Brownie’.
  5. Who composed ‘The Merry Widow’?
  6. What does Winnie recoil from when she sees it through her looking glass and what does it carry?
  7. The central image of Winnie buried up to her waist in earth may have been borrowed from what film?
  8. What author is Beckett referring to when Winnie says ‘Hail, holy light’?
  9. To what Shakespearean character does Winnie refer to when se says: ‘what are those wonderful lines [wipes one eye] woe woe is me [wipes the other] to see what I see’?
  10. Describe Willie’s appearance at the end of Act 2.



Ruth White, Cherry Lane Theater New York
Lipstick, toothbrush, toothpaste, medicine, glasses, revolver, mirror…
Billie Whitelaw, Fiona Shaw, Brenda Bruce, Madeline Renaud, Maxine Peake
Franz Lehár
An emmet (ant) and a ‘little white ball’ (egg)
Un Chien Andalou by Buñuel and Dalí
John Milton
Ophelia from Hamlet.
Willie is wearing a ‘top hat, morning coat, striped trousers, etc., white gloves in hand. Very long bushy white Battle of Britain moustache’.


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Staging Beckett team members, Matthew McFrederick and Professor Anna McMullan, alongside Walter Asmus and Dr Nick Johnson at the TCD Beckett Summer School. IMG_3277
Walter Asmus in conversation with Nick Johnson for the second Staging Beckett public talk at the Beckett Summer School, August 2014.
James Knowlson with Richard Wilson and the BBC Artsnight team at the University of Reading, July 2015.
Richard Wilson and James Knowlson during the filming of the BBC's upcoming Artsnight episode dedicated to Samuel Beckett, July 2015.
Lisa Dwan and Walter Asmus at the Royal Court, December 2013.
Lisa Dwan and Anna McMullan interview University of Reading, March 2018.
Samuel Beckett directing the San Quentin Drama Workshop actors Bud Thorpe and Rick Cluchey. (Photo by Chris Harris, David Gothard Collection.)
Billie Whitelaw's dress for Footfalls
Godot, Gare St Lazare, 2014.
Conor Lovett in Godot, Gare St Lazare, 2014.
Fizzles, 'Beckett in the City'. Photo courtesy of Company SJ., 2013.
Beckett observing rehearsals at the Riverside Studios. (Photo by Chris Harris, David Gothard Collection.)
Waiting for Godot at 60: An Exhibition, 2015.
Exhibition photo, 2014.
Exhibition photo, 2014.
Exhibition photo, 2014.
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
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Staging Beckett team members, Matthew McFrederick and Professor Anna McMullan, alongside Walter Asmus and Dr Nick Johnson at the TCD Beckett Summer School. IMG_3277
Walter Asmus in conversation with Nick Johnson for the second Staging Beckett public talk at the Beckett Summer School, August 2014.
James Knowlson with Richard Wilson and the BBC Artsnight team at the University of Reading, July 2015.
Richard Wilson and James Knowlson during the filming of the BBC's upcoming Artsnight episode dedicated to Samuel Beckett, July 2015.
Lisa Dwan and Walter Asmus at the Royal Court, December 2013.
Lisa Dwan and Anna McMullan interview University of Reading, March 2018.
Samuel Beckett directing the San Quentin Drama Workshop actors Bud Thorpe and Rick Cluchey. (Photo by Chris Harris, David Gothard Collection.)
Billie Whitelaw's dress for Footfalls
Godot, Gare St Lazare, 2014.
Conor Lovett in Godot, Gare St Lazare, 2014.
Fizzles, 'Beckett in the City'. Photo courtesy of Company SJ., 2013.
Beckett observing rehearsals at the Riverside Studios. (Photo by Chris Harris, David Gothard Collection.)
Waiting for Godot at 60: An Exhibition, 2015.
Exhibition photo, 2014.
Exhibition photo, 2014.
Exhibition photo, 2014.
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading, 5 April 2014
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