The Bright Side of Things: All Our Happy Days Are Stupid by Sheila Heti
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Hailed as ‘unproduceable’ by Nightwood Theatre, the group for which it was written, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is the impossible play made manifest. Until recently, it was merely the motif around which Toronto-born Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel, How Should a Person Be?, was constructed, in which she tracked her failure to finish the play. However, over ten years after its initial draft, Heti’s theatrical albatross has been liberated from her wilfully ignored notebooks. McSweeney’s publication of the play is the final stage of an organic process. All Our Happy Days Are Stupid has been carried to term after an extremely long and difficult gestation.
As is de rigueur, the play’s initial run was crowdfunded by an Indiegogo campaign, and premiered at storefront theatre Videofag in 2013 in a low-budget production by Canadian theatre company Suburban Beast. Its ensemble cast consists of professionals and non-actors–often Heti’s friends–with several roles played by the same person. Initially staged to audiences no larger than thirty people, the play has gone on to enjoy two sold-out runs; the first at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, followed by a New York production in late February of this year, at the experimental theatre space The Kitchen. With starkly monochromatic backdrop and costumes, its scenery and props thickly outlined in black, the set has a cartoon quality, with no attempts made at replicating locations. The lack of color and softness is extremely effective in mirroring Heti’s pared down, blunt script, and her characters’ brutal honesty.
Although written in 2001, the play is Heti’s seventh published work, following 2014’s collaborative collection, Women in Clothes, which featured contributions from over 600 women from all across the globe. Co-edited with Leanne Shapton and Heidi Julavits, and comprising of interviews, photographs and testimony, the book examines the relationship between those who identify as female and their clothing. Much of Heti’s writing is focused on women and womanhood; in particular the politics of female relationships, and enduring nature of friendship verses heterosexual romance.
Heti achieved commercial success with How Should a Person Be?, her partially fictional, semi-autobiographical novel, which careens from the graphically sexual to hysterically funny in a matter of pages. Casting herself and friends as the novel’s characters, she often recorded conversations and used these transcriptions in lieu of a traditional narrative, giving the novel an immediate and intimate quality. Heti studied playwriting before temporarily abandoning it to write literary fiction, and her background in theatre can be glimpsed in the novel, despite her self-proclaimed ‘failure’ as a playwright. In presenting dialogue as script, in addition to her division of the novel into five acts, Heti lends an air of theatricality, further emphasized by her penchant for histrionics.
The melodramatic tragicomedy of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid dramatizes the volatile encounters between people experiencing a trauma. Set at the height of summer, first in “gaudy, bubblegum” Paris and later Cannes, it follows the doomed vacation of Mr. and Ms. Oddi (“OH-dee”) and their daughter Jenny, whose trip aligns with that of Daniel Sing and his mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Sing. When twelve-year-old Daniel goes missing, lost amidst a Parisian parade, his disappearance sets off a sequence of events in which the play’s characters become caught up in existential doubts and crises of identity, and we are given a fly-on-the-wall perspective of relationships, and indeed families, breaking down.
Suburban Beast’s Jordan Tannahill provided the foreword, in which he refers to its epitomization of the ‘Heti-esque’. Considering a dramatic equivalent (which is difficult), All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is also–without wanting to draw too close a comparison–Pinteresque, with Heti’s use of the “comedy of menace” to hint at the power-play between her characters through their mundane, even dull, conversations, and elusive pasts. While not quite absurdist theatre, Heti borrows from the genre’s existentialism, especially with regards to the female characters’ quests for meaning in the face of unfulfilling marriages and a disinterested universe.
When commissioned by feminist group Nightwood Theatre in 2001, Heti asked “does it have to be a feminist play?” to which the response was “No…but it has to be about women.” This allows a fairly open approach, and Heti uses the vagueness to her advantage, ignoring obvious feminist themes and tropes in favor of her frank examination of failing relationships, difficult friendships, and middle-aged women on the verge of nervous breakdowns. Rather that focusing specifically on womanhood or femininity, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid instead explores the hopes, fears and failings inherent to all, regardless of gender. Where feminism comes into play is Heti’s exploration of the complexities of friendships between women, particularly the less palatable side of female companionship.
Upon first reading, the depiction of female relationships in All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is understated and less immediately relatable than those in Heti’s autobiographical How Should a Person Be?. This could in part be due to the play’s detachment through fiction, as this time Heti’s voice is hidden behind characters, and we read the play from an audience’s perspective. The lead characters are all female; the “young for her age” Jenny Oddi, her “vain and a little glamorous” mother Ms. Oddi, and Mrs. Sing, described as “tense and hostile”. The male characters, Mr Oddi. Mr Sing, his son Daniel, and older iteration in successful pop-singer Dan (played by The New Pornographer’s Dan Bejar), are more supporting cast, although Dan appears intermittently to perform a soundtrack of sorts. The ‘action,’ predominantly taking the form of heated discussions and antagonistic remarks, is at its most vitriolic and effective when concerning the female cast. We learn the women’s thoughts through conversations with their husbands, which bring intentions to light, and offer sympathetic explanations for behaviour that often appears inexcusably disrespectful–especially in the case of the play’s star, Ms. Oddi.
Jenny Oddi, balanced precariously on the cusp of puberty and thus caught in the excruciating zone between child and woman, already exhibits more compassion when reacting to her friend’s vanishing than her mother, the acerbic Ms. Oddi:
Ms. Oddi: You have a tear in your eye!
Jenny: I am trying to hold it in.
Ms. Oddi: Well you’re doing a terrible job! Let it out, Jenny, you’re not proving anything.
Through her victimization, Jenny is perhaps the most sympathetic character, as despite her young age she is insightful, and desperate to be respected as an adult. Of the fateful parade that later swallows Daniel, she remarks “My parents think it’s amusing for me but it’s not. I think it’s so limited,” but her mother, dismissive of Jenny’s attempts at maturity, calls her “a great naïf”. Heti effectively evokes the frustration of adolescence, and female readers may find themselves recalling, with discomfort, their twelve-year-old selves.
Despite appearing long-suffering, Mr. Oddi is pushed to his limit by his wife’s endless criticisms. After she describes an acquaintance’s house as smelling like “onions and sweat and soil,” he snaps:
Mr. Oddi: You’re not a poet, Grace
Ms. Oddi: (hurt) I’m not trying to be a poet.
Mr. Oddi: …trying to describe the way things are. Leave that to the poets…for heaven’s sake, Grace!
Ms. Oddi: I was just searching for the words.
Mr. Oddi: A poet doesn’t search for the words, just ladies trying to look all poetical!
This could be a thinly disguised reference to Heti’s own turbulent writing process, and her desperate quest to define herself, both as a woman and a writer, but always left “searching for the words”. Heti skilfully communicates interior thoughts in a way that, while encouraging engagement, also evokes aversion and even disgust. So, while Ms. Oddi is not a likeable person, her impolite actions and unwarranted lectures at times echo our own internal monologues and compulsions. As a result, she is wildly funny, her lines witty in their sharpness, and we are attracted by her ‘take no prisoners’ approach.
While initially appalled by Ms. Oddi’s rudeness, her female compatriot, Mrs. Sing, is still drawn to her, much like an impressionable moth to a flame; “In her face was something of the brutal woman. I do like brutal women (…) Oh, think of it. I would just admire her… sit and admire her and stare”. Vulnerable in the wake of her son’s disappearance, and finding little comfort from her husband, Mrs Sing seeks the kinship of a strong, if unwelcoming, female presence. Taking the other woman to one side, she breaks down:
Mrs. Sing: It’s not like you imagine it. You find that even oranges look menacing to you. The whole world turns inside out, and you see nothing but the maggots! The midgets and the maggots!
Ms. Oddi: I wouldn’t know about that, Mrs Sing. I have always tried to look on the bright side of things.
Oddi’s intentional impoliteness is, again, laughable, and we are encouraged to find comedy in her disdain for the other woman. But our laughter is hollow, for sadness quickly follows, as we empathize with Mrs. Sing, confused and in pain, reaching out in hope for a friend but getting nothing. Heti’s script plays with us, like a cat toying with a mouse, as brief moments of hilarity mask the darkness lying at its core.
To an extent, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid can be read as an extension of How Should a Person Be?, in particular Heti’s exploration of the complexities of friendships between women. There are certainly echoes of Heti’s friendship with Margaux Williamson in that between Ms Oddi and Mrs Sing. However, while Heti used her own attachments in the novel, her play’s characters are fictional, their situations invented. We are not given insight into what has shaped the characters of Ms Oddi and Mrs Sing into the sharp, bold, and fairly unlikeable women they are, but the nature of their marriages are certainly hinted to be partly responsible.
Men, for Heti, provide a sandpaper-like surface for women to rub up against. A source of joy and tension, passion and antagonism, the actions of the male characters bring the female leads together, while at the same time setting them against each other. The disappearance of Daniel triggers not only his parents marital turmoil but also in a way that of the Oddi’s, as Ms. Oddi reacts to Jenny’s sorrow, and Mr. Oddi’s failure to appreciate her, by vanishing herself. The play is strewn with awkward conversations between the two couples, each prodding at the other’s shortcomings, in scenarios too real for comfort. In a delightfully odd scene, where Ms. Oddi is requested to play the flute at a royal dinner, her husband’s dismissal of the honor elicits a strong reaction:
Ms. Oddi: Must you spoil everything good in my life! For once I am the one who is necessary. I am the one who will make the evening shine! (…) You want to keep me tucked away in this hotel room, away from the eyes of the world. Why didn’t I get on the stage? Why didn’t I pursue my flute? Instead I took care of Jenny.
It would appear more deeply seeded issues are at work here, and with Ms. Oddi’s unhappiness as both wife and mother illuminated, her subsequent escape to the heady romanticism of Cannes makes sense.
Act One ends with Jenny–so desperate to be an adult but not yet ready for the hardships that come with age–witnessing her mother’s abandonment of their family, her father left “crumpled on the stoop” of the hotel. Act Two opens with Ms. Oddi and Mrs. Sing in Cannes, a town infamous for glamour and excess. Mrs. Sing’s fixation on the other woman is based in ill-advised admiration for Oddi’s spontaneity, independence, and self-assuredness, traits we know are not as genuine as they appear. These scenes between the women are excruciating–both are damaged, lost, and alone, searching for affirmation in all the wrong places; casual sex, alcohol, and anonymity, which is clearly the opposite of what they dearly want: to be seen.
Heti herself is no stranger to such pursuit for self-definition, and while How Should a Person Be? recorded her struggle–and was self-obsessed to the point of vanity–All Our Happy Days Are Stupid inhabits the struggles of others with perceptive sympathy. Tannahill comments:
After years of workshops and feedback and rewrites and letdowns, what began as a play can feel like the furthest thing from playing. It becomes drudgery. It becomes a vortex of existential malaise and self-doubt.
With this in mind, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid–a work Heti considers “something upon which the reflected light of my experience and knowledge could be seen”–can be regarded as a metaphor for our personal search for self-worth and happiness, a warning against seeking to ground such value in others.
by Sheila Heti