‘All Our Happy Days Are Too Expensive’: Is Sheila Heti’s New Psychodrama an Exercise in Self-Immolation?

“I think I learn less every time it is performed,” Sheila Heti confessed after the second night of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid at The Kitchen in New York. “It’s a terrible play,” she murmured. Heti’s confession had a twin effect: it presented a low-key staging as superfluous — even decadent — and it somehow made the whole spectacle more endearing.

But what is All Our Happy Days Are Stupid? And why did it get so much real estate in this weekend’s New York Times? Everything about the play, every piece of writing in advance of its staging this week, has presented its straightforward backstory as metafictional imbroglio. It’s not that complicated: Heti was awarded money to produce the play 14 years ago, in 2001, after her first collection of stories was published. Although she had studied playwriting and theater in Toronto, she had dropped out, and she no longer considered herself a playwright. But, needing the money, she pressed ahead, producing, at the end of the day, an amateur work that was considered unstageable. Heti spun the life drama into a traumata (and back into a drama), and the failed production of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid became the backdrop for her Künstlerroman, the metafictional novel How Should a Person Be?

The play tells the story of the Oddis and the Sings, two families from a small town who have the misfortune of running into each other in Paris. The Oddis’ cheery, maltreated daughter, Jenny, spots her schoolmate, Daniel Sing, in the midst of a parade. After some seriocomic banter, Daniel gets lost in a parade, and from there the play becomes a Miranda July-esque commingling of adult and childhood personas, one that moves from Paris to Cannes to Jamaica and, ultimately, back to Paris and, again, Jamaica. Basically it’s Ibsen’s A Doll’s House meets Degrassi Junior High. I should add that the play is threaded with songs written by Dan Bejar (of Destroyer and The New Pornographers), who contributed eight tracks that eventually formed much of the 2004 album Your Blues.

So why was the play so hard to produce? “It seemed like they were worried about the set,” Heti told New York Magazine this week. “And there are a lot of characters in the play, which is a pain because it costs a lot of money to put on a play with so many actors.” The solution, according to director Jordan Tannahill, who runs Toronto’s Videofag, was to replace traditional stage actors with members of the city’s cultural scene. After that, Tannahill said, “everything fell into place.”

The visual design of the play was appropriately self-referential for its subject matter; it looked like the set of a play filtered through a late Resnais film: it featured papery, cutout-like backdrops in black and white, rendered with a Comic Sans variety of cartoonishness that produces waves of existential despair. It’s the sort of thing you might think Heti would like to avoid in 2015.

That doesn’t seem to be the point. In fact, the entire production has the air of light self-immolation. One gets the feeling that Heti is enduring All Our Happy Days Are Stupid for metafictional reasons. The play sits on the see-saw of respectability: at moments it’s funny and interesting enough to warrant production; at others, it’s not. So it’s as if the audience, too, has been brought along to witness the completion of some event in Heti’s life, to witness the anticlimactic denouement of a so-so metafictional drama.

There is nothing wrong with this per se, and, judging by ticket sales, audiences are certainly willing to go along with charade, wittingly or not. But there is also the question of the excess of metafictional games, especially when one witnesses their spillage into life. When the upbuilding worlds of metafiction don’t escape the author’s solipsism, when they fail to yield extra-literary value for the audience — some social, political, or ethical insight, or some quality escape from the world — charges of decadence are not far away, especially under an austerity regime that tightens the resources of the imagination. “Why did I pay $25 so that Sheil Heti could finish her therapy?” one young woman asked, rhetorically, as she exited The Kitchen on Friday. All Our Happy Days are too expensive, it seems, for some.