Happy Days is a two-act play by Samuel Barclay Beckett. Completed in 1961, the play centers on a woman inexplicably buried under mounds of earth who reminisces about better days. Beckett often uses trapped, paralyzed, or incomplete bodies to symbolize communication problems. He was an Irish playwright, stage director, novelist, and poet best known for both his pessimistic view of humanity and his darkly comic humor. Literary critics claim that he was one of the last modernist writers and a key figure in absurd fiction.
The primary character, Winnie, is married to Willie. We never learn their surname. It is also unclear where the play takes place and what time period it is set in. All we know is that she is buried to her waist in mud. Winnie cannot move her legs or her feet. Beside her are a parasol and a black shopping bag, and behind her, Willie sleeps on obliviously. The whole atmosphere is deliberately absurd.
A bell rings, symbolizing a new day. Following her typical morning ritual, Winnie brushes her teeth and washes her face. She has all the supplies that she needs in the black bag. Once she finishes cleaning herself, she complains because Willie is still sleeping. She envies him because he sleeps so soundly. She wishes she could get some rest, but she spends all day thinking about life instead.
Winnie doesn’t like being stuck in the mud, but she knows that life could be worse. She practices being grateful for everything she has, including her toothbrush and soap. She enjoys the simple pleasures in life. On this day, she decides to spruce up her routine. She tries to read the label on the toothbrush handle, but she cannot make out the letters.
Winnie gets Willie up. She gives him the toothbrush, but he can’t make out the writing, either. Winnie gives up and pulls out medicine from the bag. She drinks most of it but it is unclear why she is taking it or what medicine it is. She offers it to Willie, but he is too busy fussing over a cut on his head.
Winnie isn’t interested in the cut. All she cares about is why Willie doesn’t have his clothes on yet. He sits in his underwear, reading a newspaper. Winnie stops fretting over him and instead gets on with her day. Her day consists of staring at nothing. Willie reads out important headlines from the newspaper. Apparently, a priest died in a bathtub, and it is the talk of the town.
Winnie wonders why she bothered waking Willie up. He talks nonsense. She only woke him up because she can’t stand talking to herself. She hates being alone. She wishes that she could be content with her simple life, but deep down, she isn’t. She is frustrated and trapped in a life she didn’t ask for. Before she gets too depressed, she brushes her hair and her teeth.
As the day wears on, Winnie notices something strange. She feels like she is sinking. She can’t breathe properly. She wonders if she is imagining things, or if she has put on weight overnight. Whatever the reason for the growing mound, all she cares about is whether she can still see Willie. Although he is behind her, his presence reassures her.
Later, Winnie rummages through the bag again. She finds a small revolver. She remembers how Willie wanted to kill himself once. She stopped him, but she decides that it is now up to him whether he uses it. Willie doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, but he pretends to, nodding along. He goes back to sleep while Winnie sets up her parasol.
In the meantime, the earth rises around Winnie. It now covers her breasts. She feels that her youth is gone and she is no longer a woman. Again, Willie doesn’t understand her ramblings and he goes back to reading his newspaper. He wishes that she would stop talking so he could get some peace and quiet.
In retaliation, Winnie sings a song. Willie refuses to join in. Instead, he fusses over his own hole in the ground. Wanting to escape, he crawls forward. He tries to reach Winnie, but he is too frail now to crawl far. The earth mounds permanently separate them. Winnie assumes that she will die alone now. Even if she doesn’t die, she’s immobile and powerless in her old age.
Willie stops talking. Winnie sinks deeper into her hole until the earth is around her neck. She is angry because Willie didn’t try very hard to rescue her. She is going nowhere now. She retreats into her memories. She remembers happy days when she and Willie danced together. Willie stops talking. When the play ends, they stare at each other in silence. It is deliberately unclear whether they are alive or dead, or what the silence means.