A year after Sheila Heti published her hugely original and popular metanovel, How Should a Person Be?, the director Jordan Tannahill contacted her to see if the play the narrator was struggling to write in the novel was real. It was, in fact, a little too real for Heti, who had written All Our Happy Days Are Stupid in 2001 for a feminist theatre company that never ended up putting it on. Heti has described how the efforts to “improve” the play utterly confused her, causing her to lose faith in the script. “In the six years that followed, I felt like a failure and a quitter.”
That failure feeling is what comprises most of the tension for the fictional Sheila Heti many of us fell in love with upon reading HSAPB. Both works center around a relationship between two women. AOHDAS follows the stories of Ms. Oddi and Mrs. Sing, each on vacation in Paris with her husband and 12-year-old child. The women’s paths cross when their children, Jenny Oddi and Daniel Sing, recognize each other through the crowd at a parade. Moments later, Daniel becomes lost and the Sings are unable to find him. In the scenes that follow, each of the women’s inner struggles are heightened—Ms. Oddi and her need to shine without her family, and Mrs. Sing’s desire for validation through an authentic female friendship. Ms. Oddi escapes to Cannes, and Mrs. Sing follows, uninvited.
In HSAPB, Sheila and Margaux are two young, Toronto-based artists struggling to make art and to develop a friendship despite complications of competition and comparison. As Margaux says, “I always had a fantasy of meeting a girl … who was as serious as I was.”
Both works inform each other—one literally exists because of the other—so it’s not surprising that their similarities are striking. As soon as Tannahill read AOHDAS, “the draft that came before the countless revisions it was subjected to in its decade of dramaturgical purgatory”—a process that he compares to killing and stuffing a bear—he got a group of friends together for a backyard reading on a summer afternoon. It was only then that the play “felt like something real” to Heti. After a few stagings in Toronto, the play finally (or what feels like finally to those of us who consider New York City the center of the universe) ran this past February at The Kitchen to a sold-out audience.
The question for Tannahill was always less about what the play meant and more about why it should be staged. “Why play?” he asks in his new foreword to this long-overdue, 2015 McSweeney’s printing. “Why come together and do this ridiculous and vulnerable thing night after night?” That vulnerable, dizzying feeling is what we all go for as creators, isn’t it? Communicating parts of ourselves and our existence that we otherwise may not have known.
A friend recently explained the difference between artists, non-artists and crazy people to me with a horse analogy. A horse with blinders is the adult we all think we’re supposed to be. Focused, not deviating to the left or to the right, perfectly in line. Then, there are some unfortunate among us who resemble a horse without blinders—that person on the subway pulling down his pants and shitting on the floor. Without blinders the entire, open experience of life is rushed upon a person; without the ability to shield any of it from themselves, they go insane. An artist is something in between, a person with, say, 45-degree blinders—taking in more than the average person, but with some necessary defenses. What I love about Sheila Heti is her ability to expose, to open the blinders. All of her work, even the smaller, less celebrated pieces such as All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, manages to do that in one way or another. For that, I am grateful.
All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is published by McSweeney’s.