Ask Philippa!

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Happy Days, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Happy Days runs through Sep 6, 2009.

Samuel Beckett’s Winnie, protagonist of Happy Days, is locked in a mound of earth. “And I thought, who would cope with that and go down singing,” said Beckett. “Only a woman.” Repeatedly Winnie exclaims, “That is what I find so wonderful.”

But what’s so wonderful about her situation? And what’s it supposed to mean?

There are so many ways to see Winnie: as a victim, a heroine, a battler, a hilarious purveyor of humor in the face of life’s most depressing truths. No matter how you see her, however, there is one thing you can’t contest: Winnie is a talker. It is words through which she seeks to understand her life, and words through which she pries open the mysteries of eternity.

Have a question about the play, the playwright, or the production? Leave it in the comments section below, and I’ll do my best to answer it there!Pictured above: Philippa at the 2008 Pericles Inside Scoop.


30 thoughts on “Ask Philippa!

  1. >I found myself laughing less in the second act, and actually felt uncomfortable finding Willie's painful falls humorous in order perhaps to escape the horror. Do you think Beckett is deliberately making Winnie less funny to force us to deal with her (and our)appalling situation?

  2. >What a great comment! I do think that the action narrows in in the second act – it is so much more intense, as Winnie draws close to the end she knows is coming, and to the point where she can sing her song. She starts to move further and further inward (and she is, symbolically, buried more deeply in the second act) As she moves inward, she takes us inward with her. This is my first comment, so I am sending this to see if I have got the process right (there is so much else to say!)

  3. >Beckett seems to swing between very refined language 'in the old style' and crude 'up to her diddies'. Is it all for shock value or was it intended to be humorous? In the CalShakes version it seems to be played for the funny.

  4. >Hello Jay,I think the gun is the symbol of 'the end' – a relief, perhaps, or a threat? I love the fact that Beckett leaves this idea of the demise interpretively open-ended.

  5. >In response to the question about Beckett's intention with his language: I think that he plays out all these styles of language as a way of painting the depths and breadths of Winnie's character and imagination. The archaisms – eg the references to 'the old style' and the quotes from the classics – are all ways in which she evokes a time that is past, but which still lives in her imagination and gives purpose to her present and her future. (Do you notice that every time she refers to a day, or to days, she says apologetically, 'The old style'? This is because days aren't part of her life anymore – she has only an eternal day and a blinding light, as well as the ringing of the bell.) If you don't have days any more – ways of dividing life into days, and therefore months and years – your 'present' exists as a non-sequential, but constant, engagement with events from the past. Winnie calls her present her 'wilderness' – but this wilderness is rich with her sense of the tastes and colors of her past.In regard to the sexual references – 'my first ball', 'my second ball', or 'the toolshed', or 'up to her diddies in muck' – she is evoking parts of her past that are very sexualized. I often think that sexuality is mysterious to us humans – we have perhaps our sex lives; and then we have the sexual memories that in some way color our lives but which may in fact have little to do with our own sexual urges, but a lot to do with how we think people see us. It is how we integrate (or fail to integrate) our sexual urges with others' perceptions of us as sexual beings that helps make up the complexity of our characters.In Winnie's case the expression 'up to her diddies in muck' really portrays very clearly the confusion and anger she has built up as to how people have seen her and how they have treated her.I love the way that Patty Gallagher evokes the innocence of Winnie as a character as well as the very complicated feelings about sexuality that are part of her character and experience. Winnie retains an eternal 'newness', or innocence, that runs in counterpoint to the moments of sheer desolation that come out when she feels alone or abandoned.

  6. >I have another comment to make, based on today at the talk-back. Someone asked Patty 'what's it (the wilderness Winnie finds herself in?) supposed to mean?' Patty said, 'It could be the immortal life' – the life beyond life, the life in which there IS no more day and no more night.; What a fantastic thought – I just had to get it down. (It also gives a new cast to her words, 'what are those immortal lines?' and even to Willie's reporting of the Reverend Charles Hunter… dead in a tub.' AND as well as this, I remember that Becket has said that this scene he's created is indeed his vision of hell.) So perhaps Winnie and Willie are beyond life ('the old style') in Beckett's vision of eternity. BUT Beckett’s minimalist approach to dialogue and set design means that we will never know for sure… Patty, you are a genius. You make this play increasingly rich for me,

  7. >If Winnie's name tells us something about her eternal optimism, what should we make of Willie's name? Does he wish to become willful or willing? Or would Beckett say I don't know?Grace

  8. >Philippa–I greatly enjoyed your production of Beckett's Happy Days and thought Ms. Gallagher was marvellous in a demanding role. What I would like to know is–was there a decision not to do Winnie's speech with a bit of Irish, a little "lilt," not necessarily a brogue. Anything overdone I could see as blunting the subtlety of the humor. I imagine that was a directorial decision for some reason.

  9. >Hi Steve,Thanks for this very useful question. We basically have the same view of accents with all our productions – we keep the native accent intact. (eg we could do Shakespeare with an English accent, but the speech is so much freer when it is in a person's natural voice.) But behind all this is the conviction that Shakespeare is not 'more authentic' when done with an English accent, and that Beckett is not more 'authentic' when done with an Irish accent. These writers put their works out to the world, and we receive them, and enact them, in our own places and times. (By the way, many people try to playfully copy an Australian accent when they meet me. They fail because the key to an Australian accent is not to open one's mouth at all if one can help it. It is thought that this originated with our need to protect our mouths from incoming flies.)

  10. >Hi Grace,About Willie's name: well, I don't know the origin of it. I know that in the first draft of this play, Beckett called Winnie 'Mildred'. Then when Winnie got to the place where she recalls her childhood, he decided to leave 'Mildred' in there. originally when we started rehearsing, we thought we should change 'Mildred' to Winnifred' for the sake of clrity. But then Jon said 'No – we need not under-estimate the interpretive powers of our audience. Let's stick with 'Mildred'." He was right!

  11. >Philippa,During your very illuminating pre-performance Grove talk, you mentioned that Beckett had said "only a woman" would cope with being trapped in a pile of dirt and make the best of it. At the end of the play, an audience member sitting next to us repeated that statement to her companion, agreeing that Winnie epitomized an admirable female capacity for coping in the face of despair. Meanwhile, behind us, two men were laughing to each other than Willie should have grabbed the gun and shut her up. Their take seemed to be that Winnie's continual chatter was maddening, not heroic. Have you found that in general, men and women respond very differently to Winnie (and Willie)?

  12. >Another excellent question! I have found that both women and men smile knowingly at the clause, 'only a woman…' (although, to quote Winnie, they might be smiling at two quite different things…) And I think the responses often do lean one way or the other in a gendered way – but (to quote Winnie AGAIN), not always, not quite. Some men feel deeply for Winnie, while others see her as a tiresome WOMAN who should be put out of her misery. I think a man's view will have a lot to do with how far he feels in touch with the conventional masculine action-principle – how much he identifies this as 'himself.' And of course it will also depend on how much in touch a person feels with 'the mound' that is a possibility in all of us – that feeling of being stuck in a place of one's own creation and incapable of getting oneself out – waiting for something or someone to 'change in the world.'

  13. >Is it ok to ask about Brownie in the second act? I'm wondering if women and men tend to interpret the intent of the character in that scene along gendered lines, similarly to how they respond to Winnie, and if Beckett ever gave any indication of his own thoughts about this.

  14. >Good morning Anon,Interesting that you ask… Well, Beckett said, 'If I knew what happened at that point, I would have written it into the script.' But definitely I would say that at least the possibility is there – is Brownie a promise or a threat? This is another question… I also think it is pertinent to remember what Winnie remembers Willie saying, 'Take it away from me, Winnie, take it away, before I put myself out of my misery…' So if it is on the cards, who is it for?

  15. >Philippa wondered aloud what the person I was sitting next to and I would say after the play, but actually I was with someone else. What we said was that first of all the performance of Winne was truly astonishing and even more so in the second act than in the first, if that is possible. The amazing thing is how much action there is in the language that Winnie uses; that is, the sort of language that ee cummings talks about has having "the precision which creates movement." The plasticity of the actor's face is matched by the incredible fluidity of Winnie's journey through her interior landscape which is far richer, in its way, than the stark scene in which we see her.The incredible truth in the pain of her recollections in the second act (is the doll being undressed? is she? by whom?) is made palpable by Winnie's screams, one of the hardest 'lines' to bring off in acting. We were both moved, even overwhelmed, by the emotional honesty in the writing and the acting. Are we alone? Is Winnie alone? Is our cheerfulness an act? An act of affirmation? Desperation?Bravo Cal Shakes!

  16. >Hello 'the Nun', it is later in the day (yes, we still have days!) and i am writing a longer response as promised. I like your question about cheerfulness (you ask, 'is it an act?) Perhaps any emotion we do have or express is in some sense 'an act', in that it is a decision to behave in such and such a way. I mentioned Hamlet in my grove talk, and now he comes up again. He opposes the hiatus of thought against ACTION – thought, for him, is in some sense incompatible with action. Although Winnie can be identified with Hamlet (bounded in a nutshell/king of infinite space), she is distinct from him as well: her thoughts are her words and her words are her actions – so I guess this makes Winnie's thoughts her actions! Well, she certainly can't do much else! Thank you again for your magnificent comment posted this morning.

  17. >Two thoughts – First, there is much talk of Brownie or Browning, while the gun is being handled. The prop gun used is similar to a gun invented by John Browning called the M1911. Browning invented many modern guns and gun mechanisms. Could this be a Beckett pun?Second – I was haunted by this play and had several dreams about it the night after seeing it. I wonder if it is important to ask how many characters there really are in this play. I wonder if there is only one living character – Willie, who is somehow experiencing Winnie. Willie certainly behaves as if he is alone in a wilderness, having strange dreams or hallucinations. At the end he experiences the rather common dream or hypnagogic thought pattern of struggling to reach an object which is always out of reach. Marvelous production. I will not forget this one.

  18. >Dear Will,Now this is a fascinating thought. I mentioned Patty's comment that it is possible that this may be the life beyond mortality – where there is no day and no night – but I have never wondered whether it could be that Winnie exists only in Willie's imagination. The ambiguity structured in this play is amazing, isn't it? This is a wonderful thought you have had.As for Brownie/Browning, you're right – I think it is an intentional pun on Beckett's part. The classics/the gun/the tools that help Winnie feel a measure of control/connectedness (the gun connects her to her memories – Willie saying 'Take it away from me…' as well as giving her a sense that she can control something about her future – in the first act, at least, when she can use it.)Patty said that her husband, Stuart, said last time she finished performing the role: 'I'm going to miss Winnie.' I feel so much the same about this production. Scores of times every day I find myself thinking of a stray line, or of a visual moment from the wilderness.Thank you for your comment, Will.

  19. >Hi Philippa:My husband and I LOVED the play. We had so many ideas to discuss afterward. We didn't have any very good ideas, though, about why Willie was struggling up the mound and desperately reaching for something at the play's end. What are your thoughts about this? Also, where did CALSHAKES get all that dirt?!Marilyn

  20. >I keep thinking of what Willie was wearing in the last scene. I think that is called a "morning" coat that men often wore at weddings or big occasions. Is that a pun for "mourning?" I told you I keep thinking of the play and enjoying the fall-out.-Betty

  21. >Well, you will be very interested to hear about the stage direction that Beckett wrote for Willy in that last scene: 'Enter Willy, dressed to kill.' Isn't that amazing? When pushed to say more about what he intended, Beckett said, 'Well if I knew what I specifically meant I would have written it.' I think your suggestion about there being three types of person in the world is very interesting, because it alludes to the essential ambiguity that pertains to all of us. We can be this way given a certain circumstance; or, when pushed or pressed, we can bring out another part of our potential. One of the saddest things about life (or cruellest), I think, is that people often judge each other finally by one or another action, when that action is just the result of a certain pressure exerted against a certain potential.warm wishes,Philippa

  22. >That stage direction about Willie entering 'dressed to kill' just…well, kills me.It seems that at the end of Act 2 Willie is reaching for the gun and that Winnie knows this. The final moment of the play made me think that both characters were about to die. It made me so sad.What does the bell signify in Act 2? It's no longer a call to wake up and go to sleep, is it?

  23. >HI John,I sometimes think that the bell in Act II has a maddening quality as the play moves toward its close. I think the awful irritation of that loud, peeling bell is an incentive to us, to Winnie, to Willie – THIS MUST END. (or as Winnie says 'Something must move… in the world.')

  24. >I saw the play with a group of friends and we were pondering during Intermission whether it was a post-apocolyptic-event, where the two on-stage characters were among very few survivors. The set lends to this theory, appearing to be what's left of a building or box-car after an explosion of some sort. In the old style, "Shower" was a memory of long ago, but attributed to people, possibly other survivors, who wondered, among other things, why Winnie remained buried. Something someone else mentioned suggested that the play represented "Women's issues at the time it was written" ~ which made me wonder whether it was saying that women were being "willfully buried" by their situations. It also occurred to me, because of the costumes, that perhaps the main characters had died on their wedding day. There was also monologue to support that ~ references to her breasts having never been seen, and never will. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these topics.

  25. >Dear Seumas,Three very iinsightful thoughts from you. Your first and third thought are addressed here in my first response: I think the post-apocalyptic idea is spot-on. OR, as you suggest, it could even be, as Patty Gallagher put it at one of our talk-backs, a time beyond days and nights (i.e. beyond death.) In other words, the play could offer Beckett's vision of hell.In regard to your second thought – about the play being about women in the late 50s and early 60's being 'buried' – I had this very thought the first time I read the play. I was reminded of all the stories about post-war western-world women feeling trapped in their homes. Some of them were receiving higher educations, but still often with the attached social ambition of 'winning' a man and then settling down to raise a family. As society moved into the 1970s valium was invented, and, as I look back on my own childhood (although I didn't understand it then) I think that all over the 'developed' world this drug provided a key chemical mechanism for women who were mired in all of the conflictual demands on them to be wife, mother, worker… I think it helped them to cope, AND it entrapped them in dependency and fear. I think it was so stresful for women then because they were being asked not to let go of the domestic/social accoutrements that in the past had made them valuable, but to ADD to them the pressure of breadwinning as well. 'Happy days' was written in 1959-60, but I see it as offering an image of the pressure on a woman of Winnie's time and also as offering a prescient image of the issues that confronted women later (right up to the present day, in fact.) But a mound isn't only made for a woman/by a woman – Winnie's mound depicts the sense of stasis/feeling trapped that ANY person can create for themselves. The mound is the price of thinking; and of course thinking and feeling has its price.Please forgive me for having gotten on a bit of a roll here in this response. I am currently writing a book about the history of King Lear in Australia, and it has taken me into a lot of thought about gender relationships and all sorts of pressures felt by women and men at different points in recent history.

  26. >Hi Philippa,[Please delete the earlier post I made some typos which don't make sense.]I took my 15 year old daughter to see Happy Days (the same daughter that was so excited about having made some of same the edits to R&J in her English class that you made). One sentence and I'm already on a tangent… Anyway she has seen a number of plays, but this was her first existentialist play and she really thought about it. So a few days later she asked a question and I offered to send it to you.With plays like this one that is so open to interpretation she asks "the playwright must have an opinion of what the different symbols and symbolic acts mean when they are writing the play. Otherwise how would they know what to write about next? The play would just wonder about without necessarily going anywhere. For example, Beckett must of had some personal opinion of why Willie is reaching for the gun in the end? If not, then why would he have put it in the play? The author may choose not to tell us what they were thinking, but they must have been thinking something about it?"She has gotten a kick of telling people, very nonchalantly, that she saw a play; "yeah, a play about a woman buried to her waist in dirt and her husband lives next to her in a hole and in the second half she's buried to her neck", and then seeing their reaction.Great job to you and the rest of the crew – well done! You made for a great evening of farther-daughter time.

  27. >Hi Ray,I agree with your daughter – the playwright would have had interpretations in mind, possibly several. You know the old Chekhovian adage, 'If you're going to bring a gun on stage you'd better use it?' Well, true to Beckett's style, he doesn't use it – it sits there, redolant with memory (of the Browning guns from the war, of Willie saying 'Take it away from me, Winnie, take it away…') and pregnant with future possibility. (Who is Willie intending to shoot – himself, or Winnie? Or both? Or no one?) I think the gun signifies death, for sure – but the ambiguity of what Willie is going to do with the gun really suggests the unknowability that we all must live with, facing our deaths. We know that we are going to die – but we don't know how we will feel or what happens afterward. It is all conjecture. The act of reaching for the gu – BUT NOT TOUCHING IT – perhaps signifies reaching for one's own death – yearning for it, even – but not knowing if one wants to actually take the gun and use it.

  28. Dear Phillippa: The presentation on KNPR was most enjoyable. Of course the highlights were you and Hugh Richmond although the other participants did have thoughtful insights to contribute. Thank you for alerting me to the program. I appreciated Hugh’s contradiction of Harold Bloom’s position that little was know about Shakespeare, the man. And bless Hugh’s heart, he offered research to support his position. Good for Hugh.
    As a result of your winter quarter class I have become so enthused about Shakespeare and intend to learn all I can about The Bard.

    I look forward to taking other classes from you and to joining Calshakes.

  29. Hi Renee,

    Thanks for this comment. As for the upcoming Cal Shakes events, please do join us, firstly at the Inside Scoop, held this year at the wonderful old Orinda Theater. I love that building and am thrilled about the new venue. And of course we still have the same free coffee and ice cream, as well as the irresistible Moscone flights of hilarity and perspicuity. (I will be there at each one too, of course). First scoop – 7 pm Monday May 14th. Please do come!

    I’ll let you know the details of other OLLI courses that come up – the next one will be about Shakespeare’s fathers and daughters. And thank you for listening to the KQED interview, Renee – for any blog readers who want to hear it, it is on the subject of Shakespeare’s relevance, at

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