Claire Gleitman writes on the salience of Beckett's play "Happy Days" to her teaching and her students' learning during Covid.
Claire Gleitman's illuminative reading of Beckett's "Happy Days" shows the writer's prescience in imagining times long after his death in which we would find ourselves immobilized by socio-historical events larger than ourselves. Here she writes of her students' realization that the play's protagonist, Winnie, is grappling with circumstances not unlike their own:
"Indeed, they saw the play as an uncannily prescient portrait of our current circumstances. Noting Winnie’s meticulous attention to her appearance—“Keep yourself nice, Winnie, that’s what I always say, come what may, keep yourself nice” (41)—irrespective of the fact that no one, least of all her indifferent husband, is looking at her, several students confessed that they found themselves putting on lipstick or, even more ludicrously, perfume, before attending Zoom classes. It was a strategy, they recognized, for feigning normalcy and for giving shape to the shapeless days. As Winnie puts it, “these things tide one over” (24). In like fashion, one student reflected in a written response to the play, “My routine has been so disrupted…that I find myself falling back on simple things like brushing my teeth to remind me that everything is okay” (Alexa). Winnie’s tendency to roam disjointedly from thought to thought reminded them of themselves, as did her reliance on the few resources within her reach to fill the empty hours while not thinking about that emptiness. “With no responsibilities demanding my attention,” another student wrote, “my mind has pondered the good (‘When this is over I will never take social interaction for granted again’), the bad (‘Should I get a nose job?’), and the strange (I spent an hour on an Instagram account for a dog who wears sneakers)” (Sophia). Winnie’s version of this is to pore through her mental rolodex in search of barely remembered scraps of poetry which provide her, Eliot-like, with fragments to shore against her ruins, a consoling if tattered reminder of an erstwhile order. If Winnie has tangled lines from Shakespeare, Thomas Grey, and the “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam” to divert her, we—a less literate age—have Instagram."
Professor Gleitman's essay, “Happy Days” is here again: Encountering Beckett in Extremis," appears in the journal Ideas and Futures, an e-journal of politics, culture, history and literature.