Winnie’s Smile (The Joy of Samuel Beckett)

James Nikopoulos

The first time I read Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days I was bothered to no end by a seemingly minor detail in the stage directions, the first instance of which comes just after the play’s heroine has brushed her teeth and spit out the results behind the mound that has her swallowed up to the waist:

She spits out. She cranes a little further back and down. Loud.] Hoo-oo! [Pause.  Louder.] Hoo-oo! [Pause. Tender smile as she turns back front, lays down brush.]  Poor Willie- [examines tube, smile off]

She will do this – smile that is, not brush her teeth – another thirty-seven times, a remarkable amount considering that she is buried up to the waist within a mound of scorched earth. This is Winnie, a woman of about fifty who whiles away the time in an almost uninterrupted monologue as her partner Willie, a man of about sixty and the play’s only other character, squirms around and behind this mound, uttering only a small handful of words during the entire piece. Not much else happens. Happy Days can boast of no real plot and of very little action. At most, Winnie will rummage through the shopping bag by her side, pulling out various mundane objects, such as a tube of toothpaste, and she will insist on speaking to the senile man nearby, who only rarely responds. The most startling development the play has to offer occurs at the start of the second act when, with no explanation why, we find that Winnie is no longer buried up to the waist. Now she is buried up to the neck, which means that all that’s left to her is her words, no more shopping bag to keep her occupied, nothing but her words and the same old partner she can only hope to catch a glimpse of as she darts her eyes around the room.  It is bleak indeed, this allegory of the human condition that Beckett gives us. As if to say the world will swallow us up in the end just as it has swallowed up Winnie, and there’s not much we can do about it. And yet despite the dismal tableau the play depicts, the heroine at its center continues to shoot off one grin after another. And each one confounds me.

It is not the fact that she is smiling that offends some sensibility of mine but how this smiling is described. The logical objection to make here is that this is a play, not a novel, so I’m supposed to be seeing Happy Days, not reading it, thereby leaving me ignorant of the stage directions. But it is too late, because I read the play first, as most people read the great plays before they see them, if they ever see them performed at all. Plus, Beckett must have known that people would be reading his plays and therefore be subjected to such a flagrantly un-literary means of describing the comings and goings of moments of happiness. For though they are not always described as “tender,” these smiles always appear in the same matter-of-fact manner and then disappear with only the sparsest of attention: “smile off.” They arrive seemingly out-of-nowhere, instantaneously, with little indication in the preceding moments that Winnie’s mood is tending towards the jolly, only to vanish as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared. They are like the light that is emitted from sheer darkness at the mere flip of a switch, leaving one less with the image of an actress allowing an upturn to emerge and fade from her lips than of one of those forced, awkward smiles that plague so many childhood yearbook photos.

My point in bringing all this up is that these smiles, more than fifty years after they were put to paper – Happy Days was written in 1960 and first performed at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater in September of 1961 – are capable of saying much about how we respond to happiness and joy, and how we perceive them in others. A smile, after all, is one of the most elemental ways we communicate non-verbally. For those of you who are parents, just think back to that first smile you spied on your adorable one’s little face. Is there any other movement so slight, so seemingly inconsequential, which can produce such joy in another? Even that flirtatious smile of a stranger’s. What could be more natural? Which is what irks me so much about Winnie’s not-so-sly grins – they seem to defy all that is natural without coming across as intentionally deceptive: Smile on, smile off, Beckett writes, and leaves it at that. But can a smile really come and go so mechanically? The answer is yes, but what kind of smile you’re talking about needs to be qualified.

If you go to the Science and Nature section of the BBC’s website, you will find twenty brief video clips of faces that quickly smile and then return to their previous expressions. The point is to test your ability to delineate between “fake” and “genuine” smiles. That the two are distinguishable at all derives from the fact that a “fake” smile is a conscientious movement by the brain that lifts the corners of the mouth outwards. By contrast, a “genuine” smile is unconscious and automatic. “When people feel pleasure, signals pass through the part of the brain that processes emotion. As well as making the mouth muscles move, the muscles that raise the cheeks… also contract, making the eyes crease up, and the eyebrows dip slightly.” Scientists distinguish between the two through the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), developed by Professor Paul Ekman and Dr. Wallace V. Friesen.

So yes, it is plausible that a middle-aged woman’s smile would appear and disappear quickly. But can the truly felicitous inspire such a phenomenon? Are Winnie’s smiles supposed to be sincere representations of her happiness? For a “genuine” smile is one of the ways we physically represent our happiness and our joy, and by definition it appears unconsciously, thus when “genuine” it is automatically something heartfelt.

So what to make of a woman whose companion is barely capable of interacting with her, who is physically incapacitated? What does she have to smile about? To some extent all her smiles are “fake,” for Winnie is a fictional character and the actress wielding them allows them to appear on her face because of the exigencies of each moment in the scene. Our suspension of belief, though, makes this a moot point. What matters is whether or not they are genuine to Winnie and whether or not an audience reads them as such.

The problem with attempting to interpret a grin of course is that it is so ambiguous. This is not laughter we are dealing with, nor the stern finality of a scowl.  A “fake” smile can be interpreted as insincere or polite at best, and duplicitous at worst. The anatomical differences between the smile of a Falstaff and that of a Iago are small and not always easily detected (I guessed the correct authenticity of the smiles in the above-mentioned test twelve out of twenty times). I do not mean to imply that Winnie is trying to deceive her audiences, but I am saying that her smiles are not as tidy as a “genuine” smile. And since “genuine” smiles are not always read as such, even they represent a potentially difficult form of human communication to assess. This is especially so when we look at smiles in any form of art. As an obvious example, consider how much has been said about the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic grin. With Winnie at least, we have some other evidence – her words and accompanying gestures – from which to wring an interpretation.

Winnie’s third smile appears after she has removed a bottle of red medicine from her bag. She puts her spectacles on and begins to read the label:

Loss of spirits…lack of keenness…want of appetite…infants…children …adults…six level…tablespoonfuls daily – [head up, smile] – the old style! – [smile off, head down, reads] –

Here her smile feels like the aftereffect of a eureka moment. Part of this has to do with the way she looks up from her reading before she smiles, and part involves the statement that links the moments in which the smile appears and then disappears: “the old style!” This will be something that she repeats over and again throughout the play, and always accompanied by her smile. Beckett elaborates on this statement, but he never diverges too far from the simplicity of its initial wording. For example, several pages further into the script, Winnie contemplates the possibility of Willie’s death – “Whereas if you were to die – [smile] – to speak in the old style – [smile off]” – and then a page after that, when she is discussing how she puts all her possessions back in her bag at the end of the day, she interrupts her train of thought with her usual interjection: “[Smile.] To speak in the old style. [Pause.] The sweet old style. [Smile off.]”

Alan Schneider, who directed the first production, wrote to Beckett that he assumed Winnie’s smile on “old style” was indicative of some fond memory of the past. Ah, but things aren’t so simple. This was Beckett’s response: “‘Old style’ and smile always provoked by word ‘day’ and derivatives or similar. There is no more day in the old sense because there is no more night, i.e. nothing but day. It is in a way an apologetic smile for speaking in a style no longer valid. ‘Old style’ suggests also of course old calendar before revision. ‘Sweet old style’ joke with reference to Dante’s ‘dolce stile nuovo.”

Whatever one wants to make of this explanation – I can’t make much of it myself – at the very least it allows us to see the complexity Beckett was going for in his use of this stage direction. This particular smile seems to be multivalent – regretful, apologetic, perhaps nostalgic. But purely joyful, an unconscious reaction to pleasure? Or perhaps her smile is simply lying to us.

In the end, though, a smile’s most traditional and still most dominant association is with happiness. The motivations that produce the smile may be various and completely at odds with the idea of “happiness,” but the initial message of a smile is always one of happiness/friendship. The fact that a smile may be used as a means towards deception does not alter the initial message conveyed. As anthropologist Fabio Ceccarelli points out: “The capacity to lie has nothing to do with the message that the smile communicates. Only because it has an invariable signification can I use it in order to lie.”

Beckett utilizes this association of happiness directly when he associates a smile with laughter. Shortly after the moment cited above in which Winnie contemplates Willie’s death, another smile appears, one that threatens to expand into laughter. She asks herself what she would do all day if Willie were to leave her, “Simply gaze before me with compressed lips… Not another word as long as I drew breath, nothing to break the silence of this place…” There would be nothing but this silence, she says, save for

a sigh into my looking-glass. [Pause.] Or a brief…gale of laughter, should I happen to see the old joke again. [Pause. Smile appears, broadens and seems about to culminate in laugh when suddenly replaced by expression of anxiety.]

Here we recognize the smile among one of its familiar associations, as the prelude to laughter. Beckett utilizes this association in order to build up the tension of possibility, in order to make the arc of the fall down into “expression of anxiety” that much more steep. This threatened laughter initiates a gradual escalation of anxiety, as Winnie begins to worry about her hair, interspersing fractured comments concerning the presence of her comb and brush with the lines “Human weakness” and “Natural weakness.” The build-up reaches its apex once she has begun to question Willie: “What would you say Willie? … The hair on your head, Willie, what would you say speaking of the hair on your head, them or it?” Willie, as he is wont to do, provides Winnie’s long speeches with a fleeting instance of relief in the form of the barest of responses: “It,” he says.

Winnie’s reply to his welcomed communication is telling:

[turning back front, joyful] Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day! [Pause. Joy off.] Another happy day. [Pause.] Ah well, where was I, my hair, yes…

She turns to him, “joyful,” and just like the smiles from earlier, the expression of this sentiment on our heroine’s face vanishes as quickly as it appeared. I am left wondering. Should we construe that first sentence to be a hopeful one? My initial response is yes. Her next comment, though -“Another happy day” – feels anything but, for it is delivered with “Joy off.” Is she being sarcastic now, or has her previous “joy” merely been dampened? If this is sarcasm, I wonder how strong that initial joy could have been if it is so quickly replaced by such irony. A statement Beckett made to the actress Billie Whitelaw supports reading her “joy” as sincere: “I don’t think [Winnie] knows herself what kind of woman she is. She’s a mess. An organized mess. Her strength is through her unawareness.”[i] If it is merely a lessening of joy we are dealing with then, I cannot help but see Winnie’s situation as sadly pathetic, for can she truly believe that it will be a happy day now that Willie has uttered one more of his minimally syllabic phrases? Can that be enough?

All of these issues are dramatized by the language of the play’s protagonist in conjunction with these very odd stage directions, which seem to be conveying more of the emotional pathos of the moment than the words. Notice how the direction “joyful” appears and clicks “off” the same way that Winnie’s smiles do. A similar thing happens with Winnie’s “happy expressions,” which are almost as numerous as her smiles. Just earlier we see Winnie look out towards us in the audience and make her familiar remark: “[She turns back front, gazes before her. Happy expression.] Oh this is going to be another happy day! [Pause. Happy expression off.]”

That an actress could convey these abrupt shifts in emotion so quickly is more than plausible, but I wonder what constitutes a “joyful” and a “happy” expression according to Beckett considering that he delineates them from smiles and laughter, and I wonder how the “joyful” and the “happy” themselves differ. It seems that all must be, at least partly, made up of a smile. The difference then must lie in the degree. Maybe it is just a bigger smile that is needed for moments of “happiness” and perhaps an even bigger one for that lone moment of joy. If so, then the drop from expression of joy to “joy off” is far steeper than the “smile off” of earlier.

It is precisely the steepness of this drop, the speed with which Winnie goes from happy to not, that makes her joy suspect. But this suspicion has less to do with an inability to believe that Winnie is, in fact, not faking her joy and more to do with our inability to reconcile Winnie’s version of joy with our own idea of it. Because Happy Days is doing something to the idea of joy. It is making it less familiar to us by disallowing it the possibility of duration. Gone is the possibility of a happiness that persists. Yet the idea that joy and happiness can last is what separates them from the idea of mere pleasure, be it physical pleasure – as in the enjoyment of a sugary sweet or the sensual delight of lovemaking – or emotional pleasure – as in our laughter at a joke. Pleasure may create a feeling of happiness, but it is not in and of itself happiness. Pleasure is about the momentary. Joy and happiness too may come and go, but the idea of joy and happiness is an idea associated with what gives our lives meaning. To see what I mean, we need only add a rather sentimental qualifier to one of our terms. What is “true” happiness?  It cannot be just pleasure. It is not usually associated with a good laugh or a good lay. “True” happiness is much different. For some it may involve family, for others career, and still for others something different. It is a type of philosophical pleasure that we form in light of our outlooks on the world, one that is defined in part by its relevance to the entirety of our lives.

In Happy Days, though, joy comes and goes, hauntingly, and in the process conveys the idea that Winnie’s momentary “joy” cannot be anything more than wishful thinking or hollow posing. If one were optimistically inclined, then perhaps these moments could be read as moments of true joy, though this might be the most pessimistic of readings in the end, for what does it say that they come and go so quickly, and that this affective transition is rendered so unemotionally?

This is part of what makes Happy Days so powerfully ambiguous. This is why, despite the fact that Beckett himself calls Winnie a “hardened sorrower,” she is so often referred to as “optimistic.” A Google search for “Happy Days Beckett” will reveal Sparknotes interpreting her statements that today will be a “happy day” as almost “constant[ly] optimistic.” Likewise, the description of Winnie for a 2009 production by the Philadelphia-based Lantern Theater calls her “the optimist against all odds.”

In the end, what these moments of happy expressions do, being that they come and go so mechanically, being that they form on the face of a woman mired in a miserable situation, is play with an audience’s natural expectations of what the human expression of joy entails. Is it that Winnie is manipulating us? Perhaps she is merely too proud to admit her frailty or unwilling to show true sadness in front of her companion. There is also the simple explanation that she really is an “optimist against all odds,” and that no matter what she has encountered and continues to encounter, she refuses to be bogged down by the weight of fatalism. If this is the case, then one could interpret her as heroic or foolish, a conscientious protestor against the tyranny of life’s misery, or a clueless half-wit.

Happy Days is a kind of examination, a woman examining the reality of her life: past, present, and future. What emerges is a play that asks us to reexamine the validity of our emotional responses to our lives. In consistently calling into question the type of smiles and happy expressions we are witnessing on the face of this woman, the play is asking us to examine why it is that the act of expressing joy and happiness both to others and to ourselves is such a fundamentally important aspect of human existence. Because the showing forth of joy cannot just be a construct. Fake smiles are physically detectable, and the “genuine” ones, even if they blink on and off, still must come from somewhere, whether it be a place of long-untapped hope or unavoidable rancor. It’s like singing. As Winnie says: “One cannot sing…just like that, no. [Pause.] It bubbles up, for some unknown reason, the time is ill chosen, one chokes it back. [Pause.] One says, Now is the time, it is now or never, and one cannot. [Pause.] Simply cannot sing. [Pause.] Not a note.”

But what if one can sing, and one does, before anyone and everyone to behold, even despite a miasma of misfortune others might perceive as inescapable? Would such a person come across as brave or ludicrous, full of child-like hope or jaded irony? Roland Barthes once said that joy is never undeserved. Happy Days asks if it is ever unjustified. “Ah well what a joy in any case to hear you laugh again,” Winnie tells Willie after they share in a chuckle. “I suppose some people might think us a trifle irreverent, but I doubt it. [Pause.]”

There is, of course, another interpretation to all this, one that refuses to harp on the pessimism of Winnie’s situation. It notices less the rapidity with which Winnie’s smiles disappear and more the speed with which they form along her lips. Could Happy Days not be an exercise in true joy, in the joy that can be culled from the dullest of bright spots, from the smallest of gestures? Consider how the play ends.

As Winnie nears the finish of her second act monologue, she is greeted with a surprise of sorts. Willie emerges from behind the mound, for the first time dressed as a proper gentleman, or as the play describes him, “on all fours, dressed to kill – top hat, morning coat, striped trousers, etc.” Winnie’s enjoyment of this unexpected pleasure increases when her companion begins to crawl up the mound towards her. He is described as “Gleeful” and Winnie responds with enthusiasm, encouraging the ascent that will culminate in Willie’s slithering back down to the foot of the mound. But this over-the-top assay, which is so visually dramatic, does not represent the climax of Willie’s attempt to connect with Winnie. That comes moments later. After having slid down to the foot of the mound, he lifts his face from off the ground and rises to his hands and knees, and he responds to his excited companion: “[just audible] Win.”

Another ambiguous statement. What it means exactly…? There is something recognizable in it though, its possibility as a verb, its resemblance to the name of the play’s heroine, who responds:

[Pause. Winnie’s eyes front. Happy expression appears, grows.]

Win! [Pause.] Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!

Beckett wrote to Alan Schneider that “Winnie [is] happy [at this point] because Willie has answered. Doesn’t matter to her what he says, as long as he speaks to her.” Yet like all of Beckett’s directions denoting delight, the “happy expression” soon clicks off. We hear Winnie sing the words, “It’s true, it’s true / You love me so!” only to have them punctuated with the familiar interruption: “[Pause. Happy expression off.]” That something has happened, that something has changed now within Winnie’s mind, cannot be denied.

The play ends with the staccato disruption of Winnie’s most protracted showing forth of glee, which then morphs into nothing other than a smile. This concluding smile is perhaps the most ambiguous of them all. After Winnie’s “happy expression” clicks off, she closes her eyes:

Bell rings loudly. She opens her eyes. She smiles, gazing front. She turns her eyes, smiling, to Willie, still on his hands and knees looking up at her. Smile off. They look at each other. Long pause.

Here it is. The smile, protracted now. Her eyes meet ours, then her companion’s, then…a pause.

It is an ending fitting with everything that has come before, one that asks us to determine for ourselves whether or not such a smile, no matter how slight its reason for appearing, could be anything but genuine, as though asking if our joy could be so fragile.

[i] This is reported in Gontarski, S.E. The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. All other correspondences with Beckett are cited from Harmon, Maurice, ed. No Author Better Served, The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

James Nikopoulos writes on modern literature and film. He lives in New York City.

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