Winnie, a woman in her 50s, is buried waist-deep in the center of a mound of scorched earth, with little else around other than a large, black shopping bag and a collapsed parasol. Behind her and hidden from view sleeps Willie. A piercing bell rings, stops, rings again, and Winnie wakes and looks at the sky.
She recites the end of the Anglican prayer "The Gloria" while making appropriate gestures. She tells herself to begin the day and brushes her teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste from the bag. As she fiddles in front of a mirror with her toothbrush, she laments that "poor Willie" has no interest in life, but concedes that his constant sleeping is a gift she wishes she had. As she takes off her glasses to clean them, she wonders if she would miss the sense of sight. She cleans her toothbrush with a handkerchief, and again wishes she had Willie's gift, but tells herself that she must not complain, as she has much to be thankful for, such as the absence of pain aside from an occasional headache. She attributes the "great mercies" in her life to her prayers.
Winnie tries to read something written on the toothbrush handle, but can only make out "genuine pure," and quotes the line (from William Shakespeare's Hamlet III.i.164–165) "Woe woe is me to see what I see." She takes off her glasses, comments on the age of her eyes, and directs herself to move on. She takes the parasol and pokes Willie to wake him. She drops it, but Willie, still hidden, hands it back. She asks him not to fall asleep again, as she may need him. She removes a revolver from the bag, kisses it and replaces it, then takes out a bottle of red medicine. She reads its label, which promises "instantaneous improvement" for a variety of ills, such as "loss of spirits lack of keenness want of appetite." She drinks from the bottle and tosses it in Willie's direction, where it shatters. As she applies some lipstick, she quotes a line (from John Milton's Paradise Lost 10.741–742).
Willie sits up, and Winnie turns to see blood trickling from his bald head. He spreads a handkerchief over his head, disappears behind the mound, and we see him put on a beaker, or straw hat. She tells him to put on his underwear, which he doesn't do. She proclaims it will be "another happy day" as he reads a newspaper and she dons an ornate hat from her bag.
Willie reads out a headline that announces the death in the bathtub of Father Carolus Hunter. Winnie fondly recalls her childhood memories of sitting on his lap. Willie reads about a job opening for youth, and she remembers her first kiss, with a man inside a toolshed. As Willie continues to read the paper, using it to fan himself as well, Winnie takes out a magnifying glass and tries to read the toothbrush handle. After much difficulty, she finally reads "genuine pure hog's setae," or bristles. It pleases her that provided one makes an effort it is possible to learn something new each day. If this is impossible, she says, then one simply has to wait for the "happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees and the night of the moon has so many hundred hours." This thought comforts her when she is sad and envies the "brute beast."
Winnie sees that Willie has a postcard, and asks to look at it. She is appalled by the picture, presumably one of a sexual nature, and returns it to him. She can't remember what a hog is, but comforts herself with the knowledge that the memory will return, then thinks that some of it leaves forever. She chastises herself, asking what the "alternative" is, until she is interrupted by Willie's loud nose blowing.
While scholars have believed for years that Samuel Beckett was futuristically inspired by the 1970s sitcom "Happy Days" for his play's title, recent research reveals that he really took it from Jack Yellen and Milton Ager's 1929 song "Happy Days Are Here Again." The claim that Willie's original name in Beckett's first draft was "The Fonz" remains unverified. Nevertheless, the title sets up two immediate themes of the play—the ways we define and experience our happiness and our days.
The play opens with a string of rituals that never go away. Winnie runs through a virtual baptismal each morning, praying and cleaning herself and her personal effects. These are the mundane rituals we all go through each day that, in Beckett's view, grind us into a world of stasis, as when Winnie examines her damp hands and says "No better, no worse, no change No pain." Why we pursue these rituals in not yet clear, nor is the meaning of Winnie's burial, but the words at the end of the prayer may hold a clue: "World without end." Winnie is praying for a world that literally does not end, an infinite life, and her reliance on rituals reinforces this infinitude—rituals are by nature repetitive, and their repetition erases the distinction between past, present, and future. This effacement of different tenses creates a single temporality, an idea that will be explored in depth later in the play.
Happy Days is known as one of Beckett's more cheerful plays, due in large part to Winnie's nearly unflagging optimism. She praises not only the happiness of the day, but is grateful for what is not bad in her world. Still, her dependency on a number of external forces is well established and not all of her day is happy. She needs the attentions of Willie, who ignores her, takes a medicine that cures a variety of negations ("loss of/lack of/want of"), and wishes she could sedate herself with sleep. Most important, she seems eagerly aware of death's approach (the "happy day when flesh melts"). Willie, on the other hand, the play's "brute beast," interrupts Winnie's existential queries with his animalistic nose blowing, and avoids the question of death with sleep or through vicarious news stories about death.
Various hallmarks of the Theatre of the Absurd are present here. The specific language of the play is crucial to understanding the ideas at stake. When Winnie confusedly says "poor Willie" after having previously read "pure" from the toothbrush, she exhibits the slipperiness of language and the way words can "fail," as Winnie often remarks. Even the language we do not hear in the theater is important. Happy Days is a difficult play to read for the numerous stage directions, but this is a necessary tactic of Beckett. Beckett emphasizes the stasis in Winnie's life with her literal paralysis below the waist, and the stage directions mark the ways she frenetically keeps herself busy with rituals. He defies a traditional theatrical rule of using motion to keep the audience engaged, and thus draws us into Winnie's own struggle—we, too, may be bored watching her being bored. Finally, Beckett's Absurdist humor, which often plays ribald comedy off the more profound philosophical drama, is evident here. Note the implication when Winnie tells the hidden Willie to work in "that stuff," presumably sunscreen and presumably onto his buttocks.