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After Work: Samuel Beckett's Demented Typewriter

Happy Days? Could dramatist Samuel Beckett have written such a piece? Or was it produced without human intervention by a berserk typewriter? Dona Gibbs is driven to desperate musings during a Food for Thought production in New York City.

Last Thursday afternoon found me squirming in my theater seat. No, wait, let me be more accurate: I was writhing in my seat, barely enduring a reading of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

My discomfort was not the fault of the actors. Not the fault of the director. Not the fault of the turkey sandwich I had gulped down before the performance. Not even the fault of the metal folding chair on which I was perched.

No, I lay the fault on the typewriter of Samuel Beckett.

Not Samuel Beckett himself, but his typewriter. The thing must have demonically written the play all by itself.

Happy Days, indeed.

For those of you lucky enough not to know this absurdist work, Happy Days is a two-character play. Winnie, the female lead, is buried up to her arms in a mound. By the second act she’s up to her neck. Her more mobile husband, Willie, can crawl about on all fours and lives in a hole in the ground. A bell marks days, and endless days they are.

Happy Days has been seen as a metaphor for marriage, aging and life itself. It may have been all of the above but it wasn’t a cheery way to spend an afternoon.

I saw this reading at a venerable old club for actors, playwrights and people who love them. It was a Food for Thought production, which I’ve subscribed to for three years now.

The Food for Thought concept was cooked up by an energetic woman, Susan Charlotte, a playwright herself. She invites (coerces) Broadway actors to read a one-act. The performers are only given an hour and a half rehearsal time, a sandwich lunch, a problematic sound system and little in the way of pay. Believe it or not, there are actors who pout if they haven’t been asked to read during the season.

These lunchtime readings are usually a real treat. Dorothy Parker, Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and David Mamet have all been on the calendar. And the actors have included Tony Roberts, Mary Lou Wilson, Marlo Thomas, Elaine Stritch, Campbell Scott and many, many others whose names are often in lights.

When Happy Days was performed in Chicago in 1961, much of the audience left at intermission. I would have been with them except Ms. Charlotte, no fool she, and the director Austin Pendleton staged this as a one hour and fifteen minutes one-act with no intermissions.

The grinding tediousness of it all was certainly not the fault of the actors, Marian Seldes, who portrayed Winnie in all her ever-lasting and annoying optimism, is a many time winner of all kinds of critics’ and audience awards. Brian Murray as Willie got few lines but at least got to crawl. Critics and audiences have heaped awards upon him too. Both should have gotten a special award for agreeing to be sucked into this morass.

Now the Food for Thought audiences are generally unfailingly polite and appreciative as long as the club has provided enough tuna sandwiches and cookies, but the content put these ladies of a certain age either in a snit or asleep. Several, actually a whole row full, crept out as silently as women can who must juggle their umbrellas, bags and the cookies they’ve cadged from the buffet.

Winnie got the majority of the lines and during the first half of the play when her hands are still free she rumbles through “her black bag” and pulls out her hat, a mirror, toothbrush and toothpaste and ominously a revolver, which she kisses.

Now one of the first rules of storytelling is that if you allude to a gun, you’ve got to see it’s used later on.

I kept waiting, hoping, that Winnie or Willie or someone would fire it. Darn, I was about ready to take the stage myself and start shooting.

But no, this play would not end with a bang.

And this reinforces my theory Happy Days was the product of a berserk typewriter, written without human intervention.

On my way out of the theater, Mr. Murray, AKA Willie, went racing by me and up the stairs probably seeking a men’s room, a cup of tea or something stronger.

It was all food for thought.


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