Bergman’s Persona and Beckett’s Happy Days: a dialogue

I intended to write about the parallels between Persona, Robert Altman’s 3 Women and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It is coincidental that I am drawing a parallel between these two works instead. Also coincidentally, I attended a performance of Happy Days shortly after seeing Persona again. Persona, 3 Women and Mulholland Drive have elsewhere been analyzed in parallel with each other. As far as I’m aware, Happy Days has not been discussed in relation to Persona, so I’ll be doing that.

Persona has often been interpreted as being a treatise on duality – silence and human voice, black and white, light and shadow, body and mind. The silent Elisabeth allows Alma to voice her inner monologue, and to reflect on the nature of existence by projecting her wants and needs. Alma, in turn, sees Elizabeth as an interesting research subject. The revelation of this inner working of the relationship subverts viewers expectations. Alma is revealed not to be the strong and caring one, on whom Elisabeth is completely dependent. It also brings into motion the role reversal central to the film. Alma lashes out at the person she is caring for, and projects all her unfulfilled desires, wants and needs onto the silent Elisabeth. Elisabeth (Erzsébet?) is even depicted as vampiric in a dream (?) sequence, in which Alma cuts herself and offers her bleeding arm to her.

A parallel can be drawn between the silent Elisabeth and the almost-silent, brutish Willie in Happy Days. It is his presence that allows Winnie to speak, sing, and remain optimistic despite her predicament. She relies on him to listen, and derives meaning solely because Willie, and her assortment of things, are there with her. In fact, it is she who constructs the entire narrative of the play. The only time when Willie is fully seen on stage, he approaches Winnie ‘dressed to kill’, and retreats backstage when he fails to fulfil his aim. Winnie’s account of Mr. and Mrs. Shower’s/Cooker’s comments about her condition serve a dual purpose. The poke fun at questions about causality and highlight Winnie’s isolation, as her husband appears unwilling and unable to care for her. Thus Winnie, like Alma, is alone, almost murdered by her ‘listener’ and eaten away by ants, a metaphor for the way in which life eats one away.

Both works draw from existentialism to an extent. Analysis and talk subvert true meaning and lead to inevitable confusion and madness. In this way, they serve as reminders that one learns how to live only by living. I cannot expound on the existentialist implications of these works any further. I can comment that both grapple with questions of personal identity, memory, time, and human connection. Alma identifies with Elisabeth, while Winnie poses the rhetorical question of whether she can be the same person from one day to the next. Are memories part of who we are, or are we better off not thinking about the present in relation to what has come before? Persona draws its horrific force from the fact that it shows that loss of identity, even in the presence of memory, is possible. Happy Days has been linked to Zeno’s paradoxes, with Winnie’s mound compared to Zeno’s impossible heap. In Persona, too, time and space appear elastic, in that no one sequence can be identified from the next as being part of a dream. Events are juxtaposed in such a way that we cannot know exactly when they took place. This brings to mind McTaggart’s argument that the organization of time into past, present and future is an impossibility. If it is impossible to organize time into past, present and future, then it is immaterial, if not irrelevant, to the stories told by Beckett and Bergman.

On a psychological level, both the film and the play pose questions about human connection and dependency. What is it that makes a person so reliant on another, and why is it so difficult to stay alone? This is at the core of human relationships, so much so that being alone, in monologue, is the way to near madness, both for Winnie and for Alma.

The silent or near-silent characters are the most fascinating in both works. We all live with an inner monologue inside out heads, yet we seldom learn about the inner monologues of others. This dimension of human contact is portrayed by using the non-speaking roles. Each of us shares only what they want to share, and, during times of crisis, we often perceive others as having fallen silent. Nevermind if they have their own thoughts about you, your own thoughts cast you as an abandoned, isolated being, half-buried in sand. Both Persona and Happy Days crack open these inner monologues, and the near silence that surrounds them.

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