When this 1961 play opens, a woman is buried waist deep in a pile of sand, a large bag on her left, and a deep tunnel behind and below her on her right. The environment is treeless and bleak, and we have no idea where the woman (Winnie) is or why and how she came to be in her present predicament. Throughout the first act, Winnie shares the minutiae of her life, pulling out her glasses, a parasol, a gun, a music box, and her hat from her bag and blathering on about brushing her teeth, while questioning if she has brushed her hair. Occasionally, she looks toward the tunnel, where she addresses an unseen "Willie," who does not respond. When he emerges from the tunnel briefly, humming, Winnie gaily announces "Another happy day," before he disappears again.
The only changes that occur in the play are the result of time--there is no plot. In the second act, Winnie appears older, she has sunk into the sand so that only her head shows, and she is unable to move it. Though she is not sure Willie is alive and calls to him repeatedly, he ignores her, until he suddenly emerges, dressed in tuxedo and top hat and tries to crawl upward toward Winnie. End of play.
In this classic example of the Theatre of the Absurd, the characters are out of sync with the world as the audience knows it, living in some universe with which we are unfamiliar. Their lives are meaningless, undirected, and irrational, yet, during the play, they somehow survive the passage of time, the lack of connection with each other, and their purposeless existence. Willie seems to be trying, futilely, to connect with Winnie at the end, but, absurdly, Winnie cannot see him and he cannot reach her.
Author Samuel Beckett once said, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness...it's the most comical thing in the world." In that sense this is a funny play, but there were few laughs from the audience when I saw it recently. The production starred one of New England's most brilliant actresses in one of her most extraordinary performances, the lighting provided visual interest, and the direction was first-rate. Yet despite the fact that this was an audience of theatre-goers accustomed to serious drama, most of the audience was yawning by intermission, and about one-third had fallen asleep. If Beckett's intention was to show the meaninglessness of life through the monotony of this play, he succeeded brilliantly--putting the audience to sleep is the ultimate absurdity. n Mary Whipple