Harold Pinter is sometimes associated with the generation of British playwrights who emerged in the 1950’s and are known as the Angry Young Men . His first plays, with their dingy, working-class settings and surface naturalism, seemed to link Pinter with this group, but only the surface of his plays is naturalistic; most of a Pinter play takes place beneath the surface. His closest affinities are with a more centrally important movement, the Theater of the Absurd . As a young man, before he started writing plays, the works of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett made a great impression on Pinter. Like Kafka, Pinter portrays the absurdity of human existence with a loving attention to detail that creates the deceptive naturalism of his surfaces. It is particularly with the meticulously rendered, tape-recorder-accurate language of his characters that Pinter pulls the naturalistic and absurdist strands of his drama all together. The language of his characters, bumbling, repetitive, circular, is actually more realistic—more like actual human speech—than the precise and rhetorically patterned dialogue found in what is considered to be “realistic” drama. Yet that actual language of human beings, when isolated on the stage, underlines the absurdity of human aspirations and becomes both wonderfully comic and pathetic as it marks the stages of human beings’ inability to communicate what is most important to them. Pinter, however, is more than an accurate recorder of speech; he is also a poet. The language of his characters, for all of their inarticulateness, is finally profoundly communicative of the human condition. What makes Pinter one of the most important modern British dramatists is his consummate skill as a dramatist; the fact that in language and pattern he is a poet, especially a poet of contemporary language, both its spoken expression and its expressive silences; and his existential insight into human beings’ place in the universe, which connects him with the most profound writers and thinkers of his time.
Pinter’s first play, The Room, contained a number of features that were to become his hallmarks. The play is set in a single small room, the characters warm and secure within but threatened by cold and death from without. The Room is overtly symbolic, more so than Pinter’s later work, but the setting and characters are, for the most part, realistic. Rose sits in the cheap flat making endless cups of tea, wrapping a muffler around her man before she lets him go out into the cold; her husband, Bert, drives a van. Under the naturalistic veneer, however, the play has a murky, almost expressionistic atmosphere. The room is Rose’s living space on earth. If she stays within, she is warm and safe. Outside, it is so cold it is “murder,” she says. She opens the door, and there, waiting to come in, is the new generation, a young couple named Mr. and Mrs. Sands (the sands of time? Mr. Sands’s name is Tod, which in German means “death”). They are looking for an apartment and have heard that Rose’s apartment is empty. “This room is occupied,” she insists, obviously upset at this premonition of her departure. A man has been staying in the basement. She imagines it to be wet and cold there, a place where no one would stand much of a chance. The man wants to see her. Again the door opens, to reveal a terrifying intruder from the outside. He comes in. He is a black man—the color of death—and he is blind, tapping in with his stick, blind as death is when claiming its victims from the ranks of the good or the bad. “Your father wants you to come home,” he tells her. Rose’s husband comes in at this moment, shrieks “Lice!” and immediately attacks the man, tipping him out of his chair and kicking him in the head until he is motionless. On the naturalistic level of the play, the action seems motivated by racist hatred, perhaps, but at the symbolic level, Bert seems to have recognized death and instinctively engages it in battle, as later Pinter characters kick out violently against their fate. It is, however, to no avail: Rose has been struck blind, already infected by her approaching death.
While this summary stresses the symbolic dimension of the play, it is Pinter’s genius to achieve such symbolic resonance at the same time that he maintains an eerily naturalistic surface—although less so in this first play than in later plays. Critics have objected to the heavy-handedness, the overt symbolism, of the blind black man, and characters with similar roles in later plays are more subtly drawn.
The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full-length play; in effect, it is a much fuller and more skillful working out of the elements already present in The Room. The scene once more is restricted to a single room, the dining room of a seedy seaside guesthouse. Meg, the landlady, and Petey, her husband, who has a menial job outside the hotel, resemble Rose and her husband of The Room. Meg is especially like Rose in her suffocating motherliness. In this play, however, she is no longer the main character. That role has been taken by Stanley, the only boarder of the house, who has been there for a year. He is pinned to the house, afraid to go out, feeling that intruders from outside are menacing bringers of death. Although he is in his late thirties, he is being kept by Meg as a spoiled little boy. He sleeps late in the morning, and when he comes down to breakfast, he complains querulously about everything she fixes for him. He is unshaven and unwashed, still wearing his pajamas. What is enacted symbolically by his refusing to leave the house is his fear of going out and engaging life, his fear that an acceptance of life—meaning going outside, having a job, having normal sexual relations with a woman his age—would also mean accepting his eventual death. He is refusing to live in an absurd world that exacts so high a price for life. It is an untenable position, and his refusal to live as an adult human being has left him a wrinkled and aging child. Further, it does him no good to remain in the house: If he does not go out into the world, the world will come in to him. In fact, he hears that two men have come to town and that they are going to stay at the guesthouse. He knows at once that they have come for him and is thrown into a panic. In the meantime, Meg decides that it is his birthday and gives him a present. The unintentionally chilling reminder of his aging is cut across by the present itself, a child’s toy drum, which Stan begins beating frenziedly as the first act ends.
The symbolic action, though more complex, resembles that of The Room: What is new is the much finer texture of the realistic surface of the play. The relationship between Stan and his surrogate mother, Meg, beautifully handled, is both comic and sad—comic because it is ridiculous for this nearly middle-aged man to be mothered so excessively and to behave so much like a spoiled child; sad because one believes in both Meg and Stan as human beings. Both comedy and pathos, realism and symbolic undercurrents, grow out of the fully developed language of the dialogue. Its richness, its circumlocution—all elements that have come to be called “Pinteresque”—are evident even in this early play.
It is obvious that the two men who come, Goldberg and McCann, have indeed come for Stan. There is no concealment between them and Stan. He is rude to them and tries to order them out. They make it equally clear to him that he is not to leave the premises. McCann is gloomy and taciturn; Goldberg, the senior partner, is glib and falsely jovial. His language is a wonderfully comic—and sinister—blend of politicians’ clichés, shallow philosophy, and gangster argot. There is a brilliant scene when they first confront Stan, cross-examining him with a dizzying landslide of insane questions (“Why did you kill your wife? . . . Why did you never get married? . . . Why do you pick your nose?”) that finally leaves him screaming, and he kicks Goldberg in the stomach, just as the husband in The Room kicks the blind black man. It is too late, however, for they have already taken his glasses, and he has had his first taste of the blindness of death.
Meg comes in, and they stop scuffling, the two henchmen putting on a show of joviality. They begin to have a birthday party for Stan. Lulu, a pretty but rather vulgar young woman, is invited. Lulu in the past has frequently invited Stan to go outside walking with her, but he has refused. She and Goldberg hit it off together, and she ends up in his lap kissing him as everyone at the party drinks heavily. They begin a drunken game of blindman’s buff—“If you’re touched, then you’re blind”—and the recurring image of blindness serves as a foretaste of death. McCann, wearing the blindfold, comes over and touches Stan, so that it is Stan’s turn to be “blind.” To make sure, McCann breaks Stan’s glasses. The drunken Stan stumbles over to Meg and suddenly begins strangling her. They rush over to stop him, and suddenly the power goes out. In the darkness, Stan rushes around, avoiding them, giggling. The terrified Lulu faints, and when someone briefly turns on a flashlight, the audience sees that Stan has Lulu spread-eagled on the table and is on top of her. With his mortality approaching him anyway, Stan, buoyed up by drink, makes a desperate effort to get out of the house, out of his entrapment in sterile childhood. He struggles to strangle the mother who is suffocating him and to have a sexual relationship with an appropriate female—a taste of the life he has denied himself in order to escape paying the debt, death. It is too late. In the morning, a nearly catatonic Stan is brought downstairs by the two henchmen. He has been washed and shaved and dressed in a suit, as if for burial. A black limousine waits outside the door. Petey, Meg’s husband, makes a halfhearted attempt to save Stan from the henchmen, but to still his protests, they need only invite him to come along. One is reminded of the medieval morality play Everyman. When Death is carrying off Everyman, Everyman’s friends and family promise to be true to him and help him in any way, but the moment they are invited to come with him, they find some excuse to stay behind.
The play in some ways points one back to other possible intentions in The Room. Perhaps Rose, like Stan, has denied life. Afraid to go out in the cold, she does not escape having the cold come in after her. What she has lost is the pleasure she might have had in actively engaging life. Her husband, for example, comes home after a cold, wintry day out driving his van and talks with almost sexual relish about the pleasure he has had in masterfully controlling his van through all the dangers of his route.
The Dumb Waiter
The Dumb Waiter has much in common with The Room and The Birthday Party. Again, the setting is a single room in which the characters sit, nervously waiting for an ominous presence from the outside. The two characters are a pair of assassins, sent from place to place, job to job, to kill people. They are, then, rather like McCann and Goldberg of The Birthday Party. What is interesting is that the cast of The Birthday Party has been collapsed into only these two, for they are not only the killers who come from outside, they are also the victims who wait nervously inside. While they wait in an anonymous room for their final directions on their new job, a job in which everything begins to go wrong, they pass the time by talking. The conversation ranges from reports of what one character is reading in the paper to discussions of how to prepare their tea, but in this oblique fashion it begins circling around to much more pressing speculations on the nature of their lives, questions with which these semiliterate thugs are poorly equipped to deal. The dialogue is quite comical at first, the verbal sparring between the two Cockneys handled with Pinter’s customary assurance, but the play is also witty in a more intellectual, allusive manner.
In the opening scene, a number of direct allusions are made to Beckett’s play, En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954). There is, for example, a great deal of comic business made over putting on and taking off shoes and shaking things out of them, and at one point a character walks to the apron, looks over the audience, and says, “I wouldn’t like to live in this dump.” Ben and Gus (like Didi and Gogo) are waiting, with varying amounts of patience and impatience, for the arrival of a mysterious presence to reveal the meaning of things to them—the person who makes all the arrangements and sends them...
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