From ‘Happy Days’ to ‘Eyes Wide Shut’: When Real Married Couples Play Fictional Spouses

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A new production of Happy Days — the Samuel Beckett play that, through minimalist symbolism, portrays love fighting a losing battle against time, gendered expectations, and solipsism — stars a real-life married couple. Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven) and Tony Shalhoub (Monk) have followed the show from Boston Court Theatre to New York’s Flea Theater, for a run that ends July 18.

It’s always striking when two actors who are partnered embark on a cinematic or theatrical journey to deconstruct monogamous relationships; what’s particularly notable here is that Beckett aimed, through the meticulous architecture of his characters’ relationships and his unwavering (and litigious!) precision in matters of set, lighting, props, and movement, to break fading love down into a series of symbols and objects — then watch them sink. (Happy Days‘ protagonist, Winnie, spends the whole play immersed in incrementally increasing levels of sand.) The casting recalls similar — and uncomfortably effective — gestures by Stanley Kubrick (who cast Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut), Woody Allen (who costarred with Mia Farrow in such memorable films as Husbands and Wives and Hannah & Her Sisters), and even Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Happy Days “tells” the story of Winnie and Willie — a married couple in their 50s like any other married couple, except that they live in a parched desert, with Willie inhabiting a hole he occasionally crawls out of (though, as his wife chides, he’s “not the crawler [he] used to be”) and Winnie sinking deeper into a hole of her own. (She begins the play waist-deep, with the mound of sand appearing almost as a massive dress. In the second act, she’s enveloped up to her neck, until her flesh and the sand all look like part of one amorphous and never-ending being.) Willie is stubborn and evasive, and the ditch he’s occupied lies directly behind Winnie, making it necessary for her to crane her neck whenever she wants to see him; on one of the rare occasions when he does emerge from his hole, he does so to jerk off to a specimen of vintage pornography.

The play, written in the early ’60s, reified the pervasive, stereotypical husband/wife dynamic of the prior decade: with the wife immobilized within the home by virtue of her larger social immobilization and the husband free to roam (or crawl), abandon, and return at his leisure. (Imagine if I Love Lucy were turned into an especially alarming work of absurdist theater.)

As Winnie becomes more and more subjugated by the landscape, and as Willie’s presence and communication diminish, it’s clear that Happy Days isn’t just (as much absurdist theatre is) about the inexorable and futile march towards death. Its more specific subject is how love in descent can parallel the body and mind in descent. Winnie holds on to love in her survivalist optimism and declarations that this is “another happy day.” Beckett seems to have deliberately chosen characters who are in their 50s because this appears, for many, to be the age when it becomes harder to divorce oneself from habit — or, more precisely, from marriage. With Winnie trying to sing, read the back of a toothpaste tube, or, most direly, attract Willie’s attention so she doesn’t have to “gaze before [herself] with compressed lips,” Beckett implies that love is the strongest of distractions from disappearance. So, when it slowly fades to apathy, that process is just as diminishing as aging. The bonds we extol as transcendent often turn, like everything else, to habit.

Looking back at marriages among more public, universally known celebrities who played husband and wife onscreen, those troubled fictional unions often become relics of their shattered real-life equivalents. Allen and Farrow, Kidman and Cruise, Ball and Arnaz — all of those romances ended offscreen but remain documented, in warped, fictional form, onscreen. I Love Lucy is, perhaps, the most classic example of this, with Ricky and Lucy appearing to be the perfect dysfunctional couple onscreen and then going home to a marriage that was, as Ball called it, a “living nightmare.” But what they were doing onscreen wasn’t ever as perfect as the swelling score or the chaste kisses made it look — almost every episode was about an intra-marital struggle. Though Lucy’s fight to be heard was trivialized by the times, each episode now reads as something of a prison-break scenario. And, with revisiting the stiflingly abstemious, twin-bedded sweetness of their onscreen relationship comes the knowledge of Desi Arnaz’s alcoholism and infidelity — and of a completely tumultuous partnership.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow (never actually married) play exes who split because they couldn’t conceive. The upsetting real-life dissolution of their partnership and the allegations that followed cast a shadow of discomfort over this and plenty of other Woody Allen movies. Eyes Wide Shut offers a more vivid and, er, physical look into a marriage that was considered the ideal Hollywood union, until it ended bitterly and seemingly very, very weirdly. In the film, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise’s characters each contemplate infidelity, with Kidman dreaming of it and Cruise accidentally finding his way into the web of a menacing orgiastic society, the latter of which doesn’t read as too dissimilar to real-life events.

Back in Happy Days, Winnie recalls two strangers having stumbled upon her a long time ago, and having wondered what lay beneath her sand-dune skirt — whether it “still worked.” Meanwhile, Willie’s whole existence is impotence. The play is one of the most essential marital dismantling acts out there, and watching two seemingly happily married actors devote themselves to each other to engage in it is both powerful and perplexing.

At the play’s close, Willie reappears and makes a staggeringly difficult trek towards the top of Winnie’s heap of sand, but it’s unclear whether this is a gesture of endured devotion or if he’s reaching for a revolver that lies between the two of them. In interviews about the production, Adams noted that she’d resolved, echoing Winnie herself, that “My decision [about that moment] is that he’s come to me and that he loves me, and this is a happy ending.” Interviews with both Shalhoub and Adams came out in advance of the production, revealing an acute devotion to one another, and one another’s art. From Playbill:

Brooke Adams:

Tony said he would do this without prompting or anything which was really an act of love on his part for me. That’s made it even more incredible. He only has five lines or something.

Tony Shalhoub:

But I do them very well.

Brooke Adams:

He steals the show.

Reading these interviews doesn’t so much undercut the play’s own pessimism about love, but rather show how perhaps one of the most generous things you can do for a partner is make art that acknowledges the fragility of such bonds — while reveling in the fact that yours is strong enough, at least at that exact moment, to enable you to collaborate so beautifully. In the case of other real-life loves documented by fictional collaborative endeavors, these become memorials of the moments when a couple cared enough about each other to be open about confronting, together, the scary ephemerality of passion.