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G2: Arts: What lies beneath: It is one of Beckett's most famous - and most startling - images. But what inspired the half-buried woman in Happy Days? His friend and biographer James Knowlson tracks down the first Winnies

January 21, 2014

James Knowlson

Samuel Beckett was a passionate lover of art and a friend of many painters and sculptors. He loved Dutch and Flemish painting in particular - and art almost certainly inspired some of his most memorable theatrical images. Even his earliest plays, such as Waiting for Godot or Endgame, recall the old masters: the character Lucky in Godot may well remind you of a Brueghel grotesque; Estragon and Vladimir's physical antics echo scenes in Adriaen Brouwer's paintings ("Dear, dear Brouwer", Beckett called him); Hamm in Endgame appears to share genes with some portraits by Rembrandt, staring out at the viewer - Jacob Trip in his armchair, perhaps. As for Beckett's late miniature works - recently revived by the Royal Court with a tour de force performance by Lisa Dwan - they recall the images of more modern artists: Edvard Munch's The Scream (Footfalls and Not I), Whistler's Mother (Rockaby), even Salvador Dali's famous artworks featuring lips and a mouth (again Not I). The playwright emerges as the true theatrical innovator he undoubtedly was, but one who also belonged, as he himself claimed, to a rich literary and artistic European continuum. But what of the central image of the woman in his 1960 play Happy Days , buried up to her waist in act one and to her neck in act two - where did that come from? And how does Beckett use it? It might have surfaced from the depths of Beckett's own creative imagination, of course, since it had been anticipated in his vision of Malone in his novel, The Unnamable: "There are no days here, but I use the expression. I see him from the waist up, he stops at the waist." Or it may have occurred to him after seeing someone buried in sand on a holiday beach; or, more macabrely, as a form of punishment used in medieval torture; or in more modern times (reputedly at least) by the French Foreign Legion. And yet a half-buried Winnie would probably never have existed had Beckett not been familiar with some striking images in art. From his student days, Dante's Divine Comedy had always been one of his favourite books; and in his magnificent illustrations to the Inferno, Gustave Dore had memorably depicted Dante's damned with their heads or lower limbs protruding from the frozen lake, or the "livid stone". Material has also recently come to light that reveals Beckett was intimately acquainted with many of the distorted, fragmented, sometimes even decapitated images found in surrealist, cubist and expressionist paintings. One of his favourite painters was Germany's Ernst Ludwig Kirchner , whose stark, violent images made an enduring impact on him. What we can be quite certain of, however, is that Beckett was acquainted with the closing frames of Dali and Luis Bunuel's 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, in which two women are displayed casually buried up to their waists on the beach. Not only was this film very familiar to the avant garde literati of the time, Bunuel and Dali's script was printed in the same issue of This Quarter magazine as some of Beckett's own translations. But there may be more specific sources of inspiration for Happy Days , about to be revived at the Young Vic in London , with Juliet Stevenson as the lead. A whole series of portraits of celebrities bearing an uncanny resemblance to Winnie's situation were taken in the manner of surrealism, mostly in the late 1930s, by the British photographer Angus McBean . The full range of these pictures - which include shots of Dorothy Dickson , Beatrice Lillie , Diana Churchill and Audrey Hepburn - became known only fairly recently. In the shots of Frances Day , Britain's first blonde bombshell and mistress to four princes, the affinities with Happy Days are striking: burial in a mound of earth, albeit in a basket in the photograph; Day holds a lock of her hair, just as Winnie does; a looking-glass is held up like Winnie's, although by another person's hand. In the same year, equally strikingly, McBean photographed actor Flora Robson , with her chest again apparently bursting out of (or being sucked into) the earth. We do not know if Beckett saw these photographs but, even for someone who was living in Paris from 1938 onwards and visiting England or Ireland rarely, it is likely he did, since they appeared either in the weekly magazine the Sketch or in the well-known Picture Post . A further pictorial candidate came to my attention recently, in the shape of Max Ernst's Projet Pour Un Monument a WC Fields, a remarkable, kaleidoscopic painting of Mae West and WC Fields. In the centre of the 1957 work is a female figure, West, painted as a rotund, buxom torso in red, wearing an ornate hat and holding aloft an unfurled, multicoloured parasol. The right foreground features the head of a male figure, wearing a top hat and reaching out his hand. This is the comic actor WC Fields and the painting had apparently been inspired by the collaboration of Fields and West on a 1940 film called My Little Chickadee. Given the unusual light-filled setting of Happy Days and its preoccupation with the element of fire, it was the brightness of the colours of the Ernst painting, especially its fiery reds, that struck me. Happy Days is, after all, the only play by Beckett that has any bright colours. Looking at this painting, in the Bechtler Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina , I assumed that I had started seeing Beckett everywhere. But was there any connection between the play and the painting? And which came first? The latter question was quickly answered: the date 1957 is on the painting itself, inscribed with the artist's signature. We know, of course, that Beckett's play was written in 1960-61. But when did Hans Bechtler purchase the picture for his collection? Might Beckett have seen it in Paris before, or even after, it was purchased? In a general way, there were a sufficient number of personal links between Beckett and Ernst. The German painter had briefly been married to Peggy Guggenheim , with whom Beckett had had a passionate affair in the late 1930s; and Ernst would later illustrate a trilingual edition of Beckett's From an Abandoned Work. More decisively, the painting had been reproduced in Patrick Waldberg's beautiful 1958 biography of Ernst - and Waldberg's letters from Beckett revealed that the two men were dining together and playing bar billiards at the time he was writing it. Crucially, the letters also show that Waldberg sent Beckett copies of his many books on art. In addition, there is the strong likelihood that the painting figured in a special exhibition in 1958 to celebrate the publication of Waldberg's book. This took place at La Hune, the bookshop visited regularly by Beckett. Whatever the inspiration for this startling, even shocking image, Beckett certainly uses it in his own way. One of the most disquieting features of Winnie's predicament is that she behaves as if "entombment" were the most natural thing in the world - which, of course, for Beckett, with his vision of the encroachment of the sands of time, it was. She also touches, however lightly, on many of the central problems that have preoccupied western philosophy: the relationship of mind and body; the power and limits of the will; the relation of past experience to the present; and many more. To have taken an image associated with surrealism and to make Winnie into a credible, buoyant human being with a wide emotional range is a mark of genius. To counter the static nature of her situation, Beckett also has her perform an elaborate ballet with her hand gestures, complementing or interrupting her vocal runs, her little trills and her more extended arias. Maurice Bejart, the celebrated French dancer and choreographer, said he learned to dance simply by watching the French actor Madeleine Renaud play Winnie - despite the fact she moved only her head, her arms and, above all, her hands. Personally, I can't wait to see what Juliet Stevenson , subtle actor that she is, makes of this demanding role. James Knowlson is the author of Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett . Happy Days is at the Young Vic, London SE1 (020-7922 2922), Thursday to 8 March. Captions: In deep . . . clockwise from left, actor Flora Robson in a photograph from the 1930s; Max Ernst's painting of Mae West and WC Fields; Fiona Shaw in Happy Days


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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