Going Down Singing

The Rogue Theatre takes 'Happy Days' for a spin before delivering it to Ecuador

Here's what you always hear from people coming out of a Samuel Beckett play:

"I wanted to laugh at some of it. Was it supposed to be funny?" (Yes.)

"I suddenly feel depressed about my crappy little life." (You should.)

"What the hell did it mean?" (Nothing. Everything.)


Beckett was the sort of playwright whose work makes people understand the world a little better, even if they don't immediately understand the plays. And that's when they're performed in the (usually) original English for American audiences. Imagine the challenge of performing one in Spanish in South America, where there's not much of a Beckett tradition.

That's exactly what's going to happen as Tucson's Rogue Theatre mounts Beckett's Happy Days, with a one-weekend performance schedule in Tucson this week, a longer run next season and, in between, performances by the same lead actress in Ecuador.

That actress is Patricia Gallagher, a veteran of past Rogue productions (including The Cherry Orchard and The Good Woman of Setzuan), even though her home base is the University of California at Santa Cruz. In 2006, a Fulbright grant sent Gallagher to Quito, where she worked with a theater ensemble called Malayerba. One of its directors, Santiago Villacis, asked her if she'd be interested in working on Happy Days, but there wasn't enough time to get it together before she returned to the United States.

Later, Gallagher casually mentioned the incubating project to the people at Rogue Theatre, who were intrigued. Rogue's Cynthia Meier resolved to work up a production this season, even though it was too late to squeeze in a full run, then send Gallagher back to Ecuador for a version in Spanish directed by Villacis, then bring her back next season for more Tucson performances in both English and Spanish. There have already been invitations to take the production to other locales.

"It's a little overwhelming, the thought of two languages, two directors, two continents," says Gallagher. "I'm really looking forward, though, to seeing how these two incredibly gifted directors interpret Beckett differently. Further, I'm anxious to grapple with the issue of translation. ... Of course Beckett was talking about the existential human condition, but how will the rendering of that condition shift depending upon the context? I don't know, and I'm looking forward to struggling with that question."

Happy Days, which Beckett completed in 1961, presents to us a talkative woman named Winnie who, buried to her bosom in soil, ponders the meaning of existence and the tenuous relationships that bind people to one another and to the universe. Meanwhile, her husband, Willie, sits in a tunnel reading the newspaper and looking at dirty postcards.

Obviously, this is not to every theatergoer's taste. Even such a staunch Beckett defender as English critic Kenneth Tynan described the play as "a metaphor extended beyond its capacity," but he still urged people to see it.

"It's easy to pass it off as an absurdist monologue, but it's not at all," says director Meier. "It's so rich with pain and joy and bravery. It's really a remarkable play."

Says Gallagher, "I do think Winnie is brave in a sense: She is both buoyant and resilient in the face of despair, isolation, absence of meaning and the failure of language."

The obvious way to think about Happy Days is as a pessimistic play about extinction, personal and otherwise. Meier thinks otherwise. "I see it mostly as a heroic play," she declares. "In the midst of all the pain, of moving toward death, we have this resilient figure who says, 'Oh well, it could be worse. This is actually one of my happy days. Let's go on.' Here's a woman buried up to her waist; the day is endless; she only has an old shopping bag with a few leftover items in it; her husband barely grunts at her, and yet she sees the light gleaming for an instant--'laughter amidst severest woe.' So she has a heroicism that is really extraordinary."

Supporting that notion, Gallagher repeats a remark by Brenda Bruce, who played Winnie in the first London production, remembering Beckett telling her all the horrible things he wanted to put Winnie through: "He was talking about a woman's life, let's face it. Then he said: 'And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing: only a woman.'"

One playwright who was somewhat influenced by Beckett, but more so by Brecht and even Kafka, was the Hungarian-born, German-trained George Tabori: novelist, playwright, director, Hitchcock screenwriter, English spy in Istanbul.

Tabori, who died last July, spent decades in England and America, but his most important late work was done in Germany. On Monday, Feb. 11, the University of Arizona Department of German Studies is presenting "An Evening for George Tabori: Writer. Jew. Spy. Director. Foreigner."

Tabori could twist even the most horrible subject--for instance, his father being killed at Auschwitz--into a dark farce. Humor, he declared, was his weapon against insanity. Excerpts from his work will be performed by Cynthia Jeffery, Edwin Van Woert, David Morden and Douglas Mitchell.