it’s true, it’s true, i love me so!
a close study of samuel beckett's happy days
first performed in new york september 1961
Song is talked about more than it is sung in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It encapsulates Winnie’s suspended hope and is her sole measure of productivity before the end of each day. The song You Love Me So secures her love of the old style and prolongs her will to hope for “another happy day.” Song as cliché helps Winnie mentally escape her dire predicament. She explains that the fantasy of romanticized memories helps her live: “one loses one’s classics. Oh not all. A part remains. That is what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day” (Beckett, 58). In light of the multiple metaphors song represents, what interests me most is what drives one to sing.
I see a lot of my Korean grandparents in Winnie and Willie. Like a hummingbird that flutters its wings eighty times per second just to hover in place, my grandmother is never still. She picks up every speck of dust off the floor and cooks for everyone, chatting all the while. By contrast, my grandfather spends his days on the sofa with his beloved television-remote in hand. Baseball or the news fill the screen. He rarely responds and when he does, he is always irritable. But without my grandmother, no real movement or noise would touch him. Her energy ripples through the mundanity of his surroundings, the thick molasses that was once fresh air, and sparks him. Shock therapy. He, their four children, and all eight grandchildren know, she preserves him. Winnie’s sentiment, “Poor Willie – no zest – for anything – no interest – in life – poor dear Willie – sleep forever,” (Beckett, 10) embodies my grandfather during the last two decades of his life.
Both Willie and my grandfather surely love their women, but they do nothing for them. They do nothing at all. Winnie’s calls for help grow from subtle innuendos to booming cries. In her theatrical dialogue, she distances herself by speaking in the third person. “Why doesn’t he dig her out? He says – referring to you, my dear … She says, have a heart for God’s sake – Dig her out, he says, dig her out, no sense in her like that – Dig her out with what? She says – I’d dig her out with my bare hands, he says” (Beckett, 43). Winnie becomes more outspoken in act two and questions Willie: “do you think the earth has lost its atmosphere, Willie? Do you, Willie? You have no opinion? Well that is like you, you never had any opinion about anything. It’s understandable” (Beckett, 51-52). Again, “it’s understandable” erases her initial insult and excuses Willie as simply incapable. Finally, she confronts Willie when he returns after leaving her: “Where were you all this time? What were you doing all this time? Changing? Did you not hear me screaming for you? … Have you gone deaf, Willie? Dumb?” (Beckett, 62). This confrontation might deceivingly illustrate growth, but in reality her words are never encountered. Her efforts centered around Willie result in nothing but wasted energy.
Willie tunes her out and takes his bodily privilege for granted, reaching no mental, emotional, or physical heights. Still, Willie’s uselessness is excused in Winnie’s take on the act of singing. She says, “one cannot sing just to please someone, however much one loves them, no, song must come from the heart, that is what I always say, pour out from the inmost, like a thrush” (Beckett, 40). Her rhetoric highlights the idea that song is birthed from lived experience then pours out involuntarily. How could Willie feel the need to help his wife without ever personally experiencing her trauma? This physicality of song calls to mind the way Winnie views her objects. “It’s things, Willie. In the bag, outside the bag. Ah yes, things have a life. Take my looking-glass, it doesn’t need me” (Beckett, 54). Song as an autonomous entity leaves the singer faceless and somewhat powerless, acting as Winnie’s excuse for Willie’s failure to live passionately. The origin of song forgives Willie and his absent effort to rescue her. “Love” is sympathy at best, completely devoid of empathy or action.
During brief pockets of time when Winnie’s optimism runs dry, she is fleetingly honest. Realistic and afraid, claustrophobia lends her lucid clarity. “Stop talking now, Winnie, for a minute, don’t squander all your words for the day, stop talking and do something for a change, will you?” (Beckett, 40). In another moment of open-eyed defeat, she says, “I can do no more. Say no more. But I must say more. Problem here. No, something must move, in the world, I can’t any more” (Beckett, 60). I wish Winnie processed her self-criticism. Say no more. Dwell in your fear long enough for it to evolve into radical problem-solving. What if, all along, it was actually easy to dig oneself out? Imagine! Willie crawls in and out of his hole as he pleases. Does this imply he too was once buried before he freed himself? Instead of asking, “why doesn’t he dig her out?” what if she tried to dig herself out with her own bare hands?
The verbosity and speed of Happy Days left me little space to assess Winnie’s circumstance. As vast as the sky and earth were before Winnie, I too was held captive in her hole and stream of consciousness. Now, after the play’s end, I am still stuck. In the open space of silence, I begin to digest her issues as my own. I feel compelled to dig her out, because as a woman, to free Winnie is to free myself. Unsupported by my patriarchal world with only myself to rely on, I start ferociously shoving the gravel away in a panic. After all, is not a hole different from a grave? The play closes with Winnie finally singing her song, but I am disappointed to hear the song was never hers. She sings this old tune, You Love Me So, in the old style, about the very sympathy-filled “love” and “you” that failed her. I wonder how things might have transpired if she sang a new song, for herself, instead of persistently yearning for a love that was never enough.
Win! (Pause.) Oh this is a happy day, this will be a new happy day!
It’s true, it’s true,
I love me so!
WRITTEN MAY 2018
Written in Ben Ratliff's MA course: Critic versus Cliché
Beckett, S. (1961). Happy Days. New York, NY: Grove Press, Inc.