Julien Carriere (Louisiana State University)
Happy Days and the Inferno, Canto X
Samuel Beckett’s interest in Dante, and in particular, the Divine Comedy is well known. This paper, however, investigates a heretofore almost completely overlooked source for Beckett’s Happy Days in Dante’s Inferno. I argue that this particular episode of the Inferno provided Beckett with both a structural framework and thematic context for his play. This source informs and parallels Beckett’s play to a degree further than any other source for any of his other works. A close study of Canto X of the Inferno sheds much light on an otherwise enigmatic work and is critical to a full understanding of the play.
In the paper I identify certain clues that may lead the careful critic from Happy Days to Canto X of the Inferno. I begin with Winnie’s insistence on the unusual phrase “old style” or “sweet old style.” Beckett himself acknowledged that this was a joke on the “dolce stil nuovo” school of poetry in a letter to Alan Schneider. However, Beckett does not elaborate. The reader is left to assemble the pieces of this puzzle on his own.
The next logical step is to review the Italian renaissance movement in poetry known as the “dolce stil nuovo.” Two important facts quickly become clear. First, Dante was a fervent supporter of the new style’s innovations. So much so, that he wrote his first book, the Vita Nuova in this style. Second, an important figure in Dante’s artistic development emerges: Guido Cavalcanti. Dante dedicates his first book to Cavalcanti in which he calls him his “best friend” (primo amico). More importantly, Dante acknowledges Cavalcanti as responsible for persuading him to write in the vernacular rather than Latin.
Given Cavalcante’s unrivaled influence on Dante as a writer, the careful critic might expect him to appear in Dante’s greatest work, The Divine Comedy – but he would be disappointed for Dante’s best friend never appears directly in the text. However, his father, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti does appear in Canto X of the Inferno. A thorough examination of this canto reveals striking parallels to Happy Days.
In this canto, Virgil and Dante arrive in the sixth circle of Hell where the heretics are punished. The contrapasso found here is striking; the condemned are forced to lie in open tombs with fire raining down upon them. In general terms, this recalls the blazing sun and “hellish” heat that torment Winnie and Willie as well as Winnie’s partial entombment and Willie’s prostrate position. The parallels with Happy Days become closer and more numerous over the course of the canto.
The first shade Dante meets is Farinata. Virgil says, “See there Farinata who has risen erect: from the waist upwards you will see him all.” (31-33) The two discuss Florentine politics until Cavalcante appears in the adjoining grave. Dante writes, “Then there arose to sight alongside of him a shade, visible to the chin…” (52-54) This is Cavalcanti with whom the poet will converse briefly until he falls back into his grave and Farinata resumes speaking. These two images of man partially buried are reproduced exactly in the first and second act of Beckett’s play.
See Schneider, Alan No Author Better Served, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1998 pp. 102-3
In the paper I analyze Dante’s conversations with Farinata and Cavalcante in order to explore how the common themes of memory, time and the endurance of suffering are developed and modified in Beckett’s play. Family and memory of life in the world of the living are extremely important to Farinata and Cavalcante. Likewise, Winnie constantly struggles with her memory and evokes a time when her situation was different. The shades’ understanding of time, as Dante learns, is curious for they see the future clearly yet have no knowledge of the present. Winnie also possesses an extraordinary notion of time and often uses the expression “old style” in this context. In conclusion, I note the striking dignity and humanity that Farinata, Cavalcante and Winnie share in spite of their suffering.
The paper ends with a remarkable anecdote that recounts a humorous exchange between Beckett and the playwright Israel Horowitz in which Beckett remarks his sometimes unconscious debt to Dante. The particular idea which they discuss comes almost certainly from Canto X of the Inferno.