Harold Pinter Essay - Pinter, Harold (Vol. 3)

Pinter, Harold (Vol. 3)

Pinter, Harold 1930–

Pinter, a distinguished British dramatist, is usually named as one of the leading contributors to the Theatre of the Absurd. His plays are filled with non sequiturs and peopled with characters who are unable to communicate above the level of the banal. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Pinter has an extremely acute sense of stage situations—a perception of what will "go" on stage. In all of his plays, static and incomprehensible though they may often seem, Pinter demonstrates a truly extraordinary ear for the speech patterns of ordinary people, as well as a highly developed ability to create interest and suspense by means of a series of momentarily sustained conflicts. The dialogue in Pinter's plays fascinates by its very monotony and repetitiousness because the audience recognizes it—they have heard this sort of talk before…. Pinter knows where to stop: precisely where real-life speech patterns stop. Pinter uses human dialogue as a verbal sparring match in which the participants feint and parry with words to avoid involvement with each other….

Pinter himself has indicated that his purpose is to observe what happens to people. In order to do this, he usually chooses as his central image a room—any ordinary room where people live—to serve as a microcosm of the world. In the room people feel safe. Outside are only alien forces; inside there is warmth and light. It is a womb in which people can feel secure. The conflict in Pinter's plays occurs when one of the outside forces penetrates into the room and disrupts the security of its occupants. Pinter's role is that of dispassionate observer, and much of the apparent difficulty of his plays stems from the fact that he writes them as if he were eavesdropping on his characters and recording their often pointless stream of consciousness….

[To] Pinter human beings are simply inscrutable, to themselves as well as to others. They may be emptiness surrounded by illusion, but they may also, without knowing it, possess a solid center of reality. The point is that they do not know and are too frightened to find out….

Harold Pinter has established himself as the most promising of England's young playwrights. Without a doubt he has far and away the most original mind (with the possible exception of N. F. Simpson) of any of the new English Dramatists, and (again with the exception of Simpson) he is the only one of them who is unafraid to experiment with new dramatic forms and techniques.

George Wellwarth, "Harold Pinter: The Comedy of Allusiveness," in his The Theatre of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 197-211.

The Homecoming adds no cubits to its author's stature. I have always been troubled by Pinter's reluctance to invest his works with anything more than atmosphere, but I have always admired his technical sureness and theatrical instinct—now even these have momentarily failed him. The play is mutilated by an inconsistent tone and a disunified style, as if the author were uncertain whether to write a mysterious drama of menace like The Caretaker or a drawing-room sex comedy with Pirandellian overtones like The Lover or The Collection. The action is sometimes penumbral and sinister, sometimes frothy and absurd; the authenticity of a naturalistic scene is frequently shattered by laugh-pandering; and the whole affair finally collapses in an unconvincing denouement.

Robert Brustein, "Thoughts from Abroad" (1965), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 119-21.

[I do not consider Harold] Pinter wholly without talent: in his less ambitious pieces, such as The Collection or The Lover, he is able to create moods of smiling sinisterness, casual evil, in which we never know whether the impending explosion will release laughter or violence. But the longer the play, the harder it is to keep the ambiguities in the air, to charge minutiae with enough electricity to last the full course, to sidestep incipient communication. In plays like The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, and … The Homecoming, desperate strategems are required to keep the scales from tipping over into total meaninglessness or, worse yet, inchoate meaning.

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 105-07.

I still don't like [The Homecoming] very much, though there is something in me that would like to join the crowd of theatregoers who have rallied to its support. I respect very much Pinter's efforts to extend his reach into the unexplored areas of human consciousness, and I recognize that The Homecoming is something of a new departure for him, but I still think the play tends to exploit the bizarre too much merely for its own sake. Pinter has the disturbing habit of establishing a convincing hypnotic atmosphere, only to break it with a strained stage effect, a coup de théatre, or an incompatible motivation…. [In] The Homecoming, a nicely formulated study of grotesque horror is compromised by a melodramatic conclusion in which everyone starts having coronaries all over the stage….

[Like] Antonioni, Pinter conveys a sense of the bleakness and coldness on our planet by violating conventional cause-and-effect patterns, and making verbal intercourse an obstacle rather than an aid to communication. All of this is highly suggestive, even important, but Pinter has not yet allowed himself to abandon a vaguely vulgar streak of theatricality or perfected the artistry necessary to support his explorations.

Robert Brustein, "Thoughts from Abroad" (1967), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 121-22.

If there is one talent Pinter obviously possesses, it is the compound one of producing mystery, suspense, and surprise, the [last] by means of rapid changes of pace and tone. And on the literal level, he succeeds very well indeed, if not indeed too well; that is, so well that he invites a suspicion of charlatanism.

At the same time, regardless of his denial of symbolic content, Pinter writes with poetic nuance and with what seem to be metaphysical overtones, or at least forces the imagination to look for them in his work. One is inclined to do so, I think, for one simply cannot reconcile oneself to The Caretaker, as a literal experience if one happens to like the play strongly or is absorbed by it, as the present reviewer was, because one must feel that one has been "had" by a very clever but hollow contriver. To proceed to formulate an exegesis is to invite trouble, but that is unavoidable. The trouble is minimized, however, if one eschews allegory, as one should because the parts of the play simply won't fit together as allegory and one would be forced to ask questions for which there are no answers in the play. Indeed, the author's disclaimer of any sub-surface reality in his play may have been motivated precisely by an understandable reluctance to have to live up to allegorical expectations….

The Caretaker is a haunting work as well as an exciting one; even the humor is wry and enigmatic. To spell out all that this work suggests to the present writer would be time-consuming without being provable. Here I can only conclude that the experience it provides is portentous as well as comically melodramatic and melodramatically comic, constituting, as it were, a dramatic genre all by itself.

John Gassner, in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Drama Criticism, edited, with an introduction, by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968, pp. 505-06.

Harold Pinter's new short plays [Landscape and Silence] reveal a new Pinter. He doesn't produce much, but usually a new Pinter work means some sort of development. Each of his successive long plays, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming—has shown, within the realm of Pinter's temperament, differences in control and interest. These two new short pieces are Pinter's first works of gentleness….

The plays are not concerned with alienation or difficulty of communication, two facile Pinter "labels" that have already been trotted out by people who finally got a pigeonhole carpentered for Pinter and keep trying to shove this changing man back into it; the silences in these plays are between people who have communicated….

Pinter has always placed words exactly: for verisimilitude, for rhythm, for silhouettes of banality that enclose horror or, very often, humor. Now his language is evolving new lyric qualities, poignant, still, compassionate. Most of his characters have been on their own, fighting for prerogatives of self against others, fighting even for their desires against the persons desired. In these two new plays there are acknowledged weaknesses and dependencies….

These new plays are not works of major scope and force, like The Caretaker and The Homecoming, but they are lovely, and they certify that [Pinter] continues to inquire his way through experience of the world and of imagination. Silence, in particular, sounds haunting chords, made of three lives combined like notes of music. "Elected Silence, sing to me," said Hopkins in one of his best poems. Pinter has elected a rather different silence, but it sings to him.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 25, 1970, pp. 20, 31.

[Pinter's] The Birthday Party really represents society in three aspects—the supersalesmen who pound the individual into insensibility with the day's minatory and promissory clichés, the mistress-and-mother who will sponge on him and yet jog him as sonny-boy-friend, and, on the other hand, in Petey, the quiet undominating friend who would give comfort and aid but who cannot prevail against the predators. So the tendency is somewhat away from the morality play, where man takes on a monolithic quality, and toward a realistic multiplicity of men. Still the action centers on Goldberg and McCann, a dual Mr. Worldly Wiseman with power and the single-minded will to enforce it. Morality play yes, but with a difference. Pinter's skill is to translate the power of the world into gangster idiom, the ordinary public brainwashing by mass media into an extraordinary domestic third degree. The sinister lies in a fusion that simultaneously exacts incompatible responses—that to the oppressive society of Ibsen, and that to the antisocial conspiratorial gunmen.

Robert B. Heilman, "Demonic Strategies: The Birthday Party and The Firebugs," in Sense and Sensibility in Twentieth-Century Writing, edited by Brom Weber (© 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 57-74.

In Pinter, I see only a clever ex-actor turned playwright full of surface theatricality underneath which resides a big, bulging zero. But Pinter knows how to make his nothingness look portentous….

Old Times is even emptier than the usual Pinter product. There has, in the past, been an aura of glittering sinisterness around his work, which people could equate with some inscrutable anguish or horror festering at the heart of existence—or whatever phrase best dignified the hollowness at the core of Pinter's plays…. [But] Old Times suffers from what I can only call spiritual shallowness. It is of the greatest possible unimportance with whom one of these figurines spouting dim witticisms or pregnant silences (false pregnancies, as I once called them) has slept, is sleeping, or will sleep….

But what about the language? the Pinterites will ask. Well, what about it? Like Albee, Pinter is linguistically nouveau riche … but the mock-serious grandiloquence about trivia is again only a verbal trick, not worthy of being—as it, alas, is—one of the comic mainstays of Pinter's oeuvre.

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1972 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXV, No. 1, Spring, 1972, pp. 83-6.

Only the writing of Harold Pinter, obsessed as he is with the impossibility of historical verification, has ruthlessly pursued and refined a dramatic structure which allows memory and immediacy to coexist. Pinter understands that fantasy and fact, memory and the moment, are entwined. With parody, put-ons, and the now famous pointed pauses, Pinter has dramatized modern man dummying up a destiny which is never certain. Pinter has been the most responsible contemporary guardian of language and stage spectacle, purifying both ingredients by stripping them to essentials. Every vocal experience is framed and expanded by Pinter's strong scenic intuition. To experience his plays, the audience must see them, not merely hear them. Groupings, gesture, spatial relation are scrupulously calculated and add a density of meaning to Pinter's works that [makes] them genuinely playful, a puzzle which the audience must solve. Yet even he seems to have sailed into still water.

With Old Times, Pinter has extended into a full-length play the findings from his technical experiments in both Landscape and Silence. As a literary accomplishment, his craftsmanship is astonishing. But Old Times could be a dramatic cul-de-sac. As Pinter's characters move farther into their dream-walker's isolation, the stage experience becomes more "artistic" and insubstantial. Immobility is elevated to metaphor. Personality becomes pale and indefinite. This is, no doubt, true to Pinter's philosophical intentions, but, as a style, it is also a strangulation for the stage….

[Yet] Pinter is undoubtedly the most influential and important craftsman in English theatre….

"Theatre Without Adventure," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), December 29, 1972, p. 1570.

In The Homecoming [Kauffman is, in this review, discussing the film version of Pinter's play] the set is a room. The quintessential Pinter mode is to fix an enclosed space, then have an outsider enter it. The power of enclosure, of making related series of enclosures, is native to film, and the motion of the camera itself counterpoints the idea of alien entry….

As with most good works, a synopsis of The Homecoming can be accurate but must be false. What this play is depends on how often one has seen (or read) it, how it is performed, even on the sequence in Pinter's work in which one sees it. Here are four responses to my latest viewing. First, it's a comedy, in two senses: in method, through the rude juxtaposition of irreverences and non sequiturs; in overview, through its vision of men and women furiously making their pygmy arrangements and pronouncements in the face of huge dark overwhelming forces. (In line with the play's irreverent method, I would sometime like to see it played in Marx Brothers style and tempo.)

Second, although the characters are individuals, they are used as mediums. Through them we get both their lives and relations as they are stipulated to be, but we also get their repressed thoughts and unconscious feelings—not as asides or implications, they are switched right on to the main tracks of their utterance. This is one of the sources of the comedy, as when remembrance of the dead mother abruptly switches from sentiment to vilification; but, more important, it gives chordal texture to the play as it progresses homophonically. This view of the characters as mediums transforms them into fissures through which we see not only their own psyches but their world battering at them.

Third, the power of the language. What a wizard of the vernacular Pinter is. How easily he transmutes the commonplace into beautiful rhetoric simply by hearing sounds and rhythms, by building in rising arcs (Lenny's description of clumping the amorous woman) or by dropping in the perfect, unique, irreplaceable phrase, "You daft prat." "He'll be chuffed to his bollocks." Lenny savagely needles his father about what was in the old man's mind the night he begot Lenny. The father listens grimly, then after a pause, says: "You'll drown in your own blood." Try speaking that line aloud if you want an example of how to make six simple Anglo-Saxon words into a thick and terrible blast. That is theater mastery.

Fourth, sequence in Pinter's work. To see The Homecoming again, after seeing his subsequent, almost equally good Old Times, is to see the earlier play as part of a pair (whether consciously designed as such or not). Old Times deals with female space and one male intruder; The Homecoming views matters the other way round, male space and one female intruder. In both plays the female element finally dominates the male, more or less cruelly. The true homecoming referred to in that title, as has been observed, is Ruth's, not Teddy's: not just because she was born in this neighborhood but because she is like a queen of sexuality moving into a kingdom that has been waiting for her and for which she has been waiting, a life more complex and powerful than her American domestic existence….

A fine play is now a fine film. It's a safe bet that generations to come will be glad that it exists.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 8, 1973, pp. 22, 33.

The essence of Pinter is in suggestion and allusion and tone. Of all contemporary writers, he has best calculated how to contain fire under ice. His plays flourish in paradox. He appears to hold a distance between himself and his characters; yet the greater his disengagement, the more cutting the drama. The plays are about stripping away, about revelation; yet they give the feeling of tightness, of mounting frustration and desperation, like a large room in which all the exits systematically and for no apparent reason begin to disappear. They are funny, brutal declensions of pathology, each rooted in a private pain whose source remains a secret.

Jay Cocks, "Fire and Ice," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), December 17, 1973, pp. 80-1.