Sunday, December 21, 2014

Today, 12/21/14, the exceptional actress Billie Whitelaw died at 82. I did not see her as Winnie in Happy Days (pictured above), but did see Fiona Shaw at BAM in 2008, and wrote this post that the woman buried in the sand, with just ritual and verbal/intellectual exercise to pass the time, defines a blogger. Yikes. Beckett, as genius: check.

Happy days are here again,
The skies above are clear again,
So let's sing a song of cheer again,
Happy days are here again.

I was never a student of Samuel Beckett, Ireland’s great, bleak ultramodernist, master of black humor. When I was at college at Southampton University (England, not Long Island), one of the dons performed Krapp’s Last Tape. It was compelling, and the intimate nature of the performance was memorable, but it did not send me running to a Beckett tutorial.

The chance to see Fiona Shaw, however, sent me running to BAM for her limited engagement in Happy Days in 2008. I went with few preconceived notions. I had seen photos of Irene Worth somewhere along the way. Her aging music hall woman, with flapper headband, stuck in the sand never looked very appealing. I did not know of Billie Whitelaw's embodiment, which is immediately more appealing.

But from the moment I walked into the Brooklyn theater, I was carried away. Tom Pye’s “mound” is a visually stunning mixture of English seaside gone nightmare and post apocalyptic landscape. The lighting is piercingly LCD bright, unnatural, startling.

An elegant white parachute material curtain rises to the ceiling, and when it gently falls, Winnie is there, buried to her waist in the sand, gently folded over herself, with her head and arms resting on the ground.

A loud, jarring, ugly alarm sounds—jolting everyone--and Winnie wakes up. Her day is book ended by the buzzer that tells her to sleep.

She begins her morning rituals by brushing her teeth, and reading the toothpaste tube.

The absurdity of the situation is heightened by the familiarity of it—-both in the normalcy of brushing your teeth in the morning, and in the fears being embodied before your very eyes: the fear of being stuck, or buried alive, or isolated from all humanity.

It turns out Winnie is not completely isolated. There is Willie, her husband, who lives in a hole to the side of her mound. He grunts monosyllabic answers to her questions and reads headlines from his paper. Winnie speaks of how wonderful it will be if/when he moves to the front of her mound and she’ll be able to see him without straining her neck.

The rest of Winnie’s world is a parasol and a black bag that contains her mirror, a revolver, and a hat. The sun is merciless, and she is baking. The hat offers a little protection, as does the parasol, until it mysteriously blows up.

Winne As Blogger.
Winnie’s life is ritual punctuated by verbal utterances. Her conversation is peppered with quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, Browning, Keats, Byron, authors who make her feel less alone. (Here is a guide to them--scroll down to the Literary Allusions). Even her oft repeated “sorrow keeps breaking in” is apparently from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

The fear that she articulates is that there will be no one to listen to her. "Just to know that in theory you hear me even though in fact you don't is all I need." Just how much of blogging did Beckett foreshadow?

All of our voices are “out there” in the barren landscape of the blogosphere in the hope that someone is listening. In the hope that we don’t come across as the droning, tedious wife. We bring as much of life as we can into the void, soldiering on through anxiety and angst. From the other perspective, Winnie herself is the consummate blogger, with her daily entries of conversation.

Back in her theatrical world, what comes across most in Act I is the life force at its purest. Fiona Shaw is luminous. Her “chatter,” as it has been called, is not grating in the least, but engaging, measured, rhythmically inflected, with extraordinary facial gestures and arm movements.

There is a lot going on here. The piece could be a metaphor for what happens to married couples when they settle into the coexisting grunting state. Willie as the henpecked husband, who has shut himself off from his wife’s eternal yammering. Winnie can’t stop yammering because she literally can do nothing else. Willie could leave the mound, could leave Winnie, and we have no idea why he doesn’t.

The gun is an ominous presence. Winnie kisses it, and could use it to end her situation, at least in Act 1.

In Act II, with no relative time to Act I, Winnie wakes up and is buried up to her neck; she can no longer do her morning rituals, or reach the gun. Winnie doesn’t comment directly on her worsening condition. She continues to try to organize her time as best she can, knowing that the song must be sung before the bell to sleep. That she shows no outward sign of complete despair is deeply unnerving.

At the end of the play, Willie moves to the front of the mound, ‘dressed to kill” as it says in the play in formal mourning trousers and top hat, and Winnie is excited that he is reaching out to her. She sings “The Merry Widow Waltz” (I love you so) since she can no longer open the music box. The last moment is Willie reaching up toward her, and the two looking at each other.

But is he reaching for the gun? Is it to use on himself, or her? It is a haunting ambiguity.

I grew attached to Winnie in the course of the play, drawn in by her spirit and determinism. “This will have been another happy day.” I could say the same from my mound here in Lucky for me Steed always responds in full sentences and doesn’t like guns at all. In fact we BBBBBUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZ.