Harold Pinter Essay - Pinter, Harold (Vol. 9)

Pinter, Harold (Vol. 9)

Pinter, Harold 1930–

Pinter, one of England's leading dramatists, has also written poems, short stories, screenplays, dramatic sketches, and criticism. In his plays there is an ever-present anxiety, a sense that nothing is certain. The seemingly meaningless conversation that is characteristic of his dramatic dialogue reveals a sense of the absurd akin to that of Beckett. The absurdity of atmosphere contrasts vividly to the naturalistic settings of his plays. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Pinter has chosen to be the great "mystifier," whose plays are famous (notoriously so, even to the point of parody) for their meaningful silences, their unanswered questions, their ambiguities, their symbolism admitting a multiplicity of interpretations. But this anarchic privilege of making his plays mean whatever one wants them to mean (traditionally, they are parables of "the human condition," taking place anywhere, at any time) does a considerable injustice to the achievement and particularity of No Man's Land.

The title … has its historical resonance, of course, taking us back to World War I, when the phrase was descriptive of that bleak, blasted space on the Western Front between the German trenches and the trenches of the Allied Forces. But Pinter is not writing a "war" play,… and his setting is not a battlefield but a very handsome drawing room, elegantly furnished—a great sweep of four windows in a semicircular bay, curtained in green velvet—in a fashionable quarter of London…. What do we find there?

Two men in their sixties, Hirst and Spooner, the former nattily dressed and evidently the host, for he is pouring drinks, the latter in "a very old and shabby suit; dark, faded shirt, creased spotted tie." Hirst … is a successful man of letters, very rich and very drunk—in fact, an alcoholic on his way, in this first act, to total incoherence and stupor. Spooner … is also a man of letters, sprightly where Hirst is ponderous, gabby where he is taciturn, and a failure where Hirst is so notably, in his expensive drawing room, a success. In fact, Spooner is the epitome of the potentially gifted writer who has talked his gift away over countless pints in countless pubs.

When the play begins, Hirst, pouring whiskey at the cabinet, asks, "As it is?" and Spooner replies, "As it is, yes please, absolutely as it is." This casual exchange of stereotyped phrases—precisely what one says in such a situation, the offer of a drink in someone's house—might serve usefully as the motto, or epigraph, or signpost for Pinter's play: "as it is," the true subject of No Man's Land. The crucial question, then …, is quite simply, "What does Pinter mean by 'as it is'?" To which one might fairly reply, the condition of life, "now and in England." (p. 102)

Hirst and Spooner—the one a success, the other a failure—are merely opposite faces of the same social coin: both belong to the class of gentlemen, as their accent (still a decisive indicator in English life) immediately proves. And both are powerless. They are the captives (in a quite literal way) of Hirst's guardians/nurses/caretakers—Foster, a man in his thirties, and Briggs, a man in his forties. When these two, who complete the cast, enter in the middle of the first act and begin to speak, we know, thanks to the decisive indicator, that almost certainly they are thugs, and certainly not gentlemen…. They are new men, flat, quasi-transatlantically accented, sinister, and outside the boundaries of class….

Poor drunken Hirst, poor gabbing Spooner, measured against the threatening, hinted-at realities of Foster and Briggs—how frail and anachronistic they seem, survivors from a discarded history. "All we have left," says Spooner, "is the English language," and together he and Hirst are allowed by their creator to offer a virtuoso display of language in action, resonant, allusive, echoing (deliberately) Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and others of the pantheon, the conventions of upper-class theater dialogue, on the battlefield and in the drawing room. So we have Hirst and Spooner featly footing it among echoes—resorting to parody, the form that remains to them after the substance has gone—and able, as if by magic, to become a variety of stock characters in any number of stock situations. (p. 103)

But mastery of language is no salvation, when it becomes an end in itself. And in due course, the real end comes; Foster and Briggs are finally in control: "Nothing else will happen forever." (pp. 103-04)

William Abrahams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), February, 1976.

One of the least likely working dramatists one tends to think of in terms either of palpable surface artifice or deliberate literary borrowings is Harold Pinter, and yet his latest play, No Man's Land, reveals both of these characteristics…. No Man's Land indeed emerges lobsterlike, its skeleton on the outside with the flesh hidden deep within…. [A] close examination of the literary affinities and the formal characteristics may demonstrate that through its structure the meaning of No Man's Land is dramatized. In other words, the shape of the play is what it is about.

The form of No Man's Land is inextricably linked to its literary antecedents—Beckett's Endgame and, primarily, Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." (p. 291)

In trying to "get the structure right" in No Man's Land, Pinter seems to have raised form to a position of preeminence and hence conspicuousness, perhaps, it might be argued, at the expense of some other aspects of the drama.

The principal carrier of the play's structure is its dialogue (supported by the deliberate diminution of such other components of drama as plot, and both physical and dramatic action). Two elements of the highly formalized speech are largely responsible for giving the play its peculiarly noticeable shape: 1) clearly evident and, at times, rhythmically stressed patterns of verbal repetition, and 2) a coherent, unified fabric of imagery emanating from or related to a controlling metaphor of stasis embodied in the play's title, the twice-stated definition of that title …, and Brigg's monologue on the difficulty of getting out of Bolsover Street…. While linguistic patterning is familiar enough as a device of Pinter's to give his plays shape, the inclusion of an insistent, pervasive system of images conveying a single impression seems uncharacteristic. Of course, linguistic repetition and a single system of related images, themselves frequently the content of the repetitions, are closely allied structural devices, and both may be seen as natural developments from literary antecedents of the No Man's Land.

The stasis in both Endgame and "Prufrock" is created by unresolved and, hence, balanced tensions between recollected memories of the past and ongoing life—such as it is—in the present, resulting in the virtual inaction of the characters trapped between these polarities. (p. 293)

Endgame gives little of its dialogue to No Man's Land, but instead chiefly yields up larger elements of dramatic construction: visual stage imagery, patterns of movement (or non-movement), and relationships between topics in the dialogue and the surrounding dramatic action. A room with a single entrance and curtained windows is nothing new in Pinter (The Room, The Caretaker), but place front and center in that enclosure "a strong and comfortable straight-backed chair" … from which one character plays most of his scenes and Endgame, as Irving Wardle observed, seems not far behind. Nor does it seem entirely coincidental that just as Hirst remains for the most part frontally seated like Hamm, the other three characters, all of whom at one time or another assume the role of his servant, usually remain standing and relatively mobile in the manner of Clov. In both plays, too, there is extended dialogue concerning either memories of the past or the prospect of remaining stationary in the future, these passages coming at the very time the characters involved are attempting to cope with problems confronting them in the present. (pp. 293-94)

In the verbal fabric of Endgame and No Man's Land one finds almost no direct analogues save one that appears deliberately and significantly chosen. To say that both plays contain numerous passages of repeated phrases or linguistic patterns is to suggest a very loose connection of small value. This general similarity is simply a further demonstration of something already known: Pinter's acknowledged literary indebtedness to Beckett. (p. 294)

[The] cadences of Spooner's speech … are suggestive … of the heavily stressed rhythms of Eliot's poetry….

The creation of … overall atmosphere by Pinter fairly primes the listener to be alert for specific reminiscences of Eliot and, further, has the effect of sharpening the very faintest of echoes to the degree that they make their impact in but a single viewing of the play. Twice after the first and famous "For I have known them all already, known them all," the speaker in "Prufrock" recalls specific aspects of a remembered past (eyes and arms,…) using identical sentence structures. So too Spooner, in similar rhythms, four times reiterates things from his past, each time beginning, "I have known this before."… (p. 295)

Whereas such passages in No Man's Land are demonstrably rhythmic as well as imagistic borrowings from "Prufrock," the rhythmic similarity is absent from an analogue structurally and thematically more crucial to the play as a whole. No fewer than four times does Hirst recount or allude to dreaming of a person drowning in a lake …, almost an inversion of the last line of "Prufrock," "Till human voices wake us and we drown."… The visual picture is the same, and the sensation of inanimate suspension in a fluid element is a vivid metaphor for the condition of stasis which makes up a large part of the form and meaning of both the poem and the play.

That stasis is indeed the controlling metaphor of both "Prufrock" and No Man's Land is, I believe, finally evidenced by the opening lines of each. Eliot's famous image of "a patient etherised upon a table" … establishes the mood of equipoise, of a precarious balance between life and death, present activity and recollected past, as much as the first exchange between Hirst and Spooner—literally just about how the latter wants his drink—sets the tone of immobility and suspended animation in the rest of the play. (pp. 295-96)

Though specific verbal repetitions and images of stasis from Beckett and Eliot may be said to be the cornerstone of the architecture of No Man's Land, they in no way make up all the structural components giving the play as a whole its specific shape. Apparently eschewing or underplaying most other elements of dramatic construction, Pinter builds upon his models by creating his own elaborate linguistic structures and a greatly expanded imagery of static balance and stagnation. Before examining these two key formal devices, however, one cannot simply dismiss those aspects of drama seemingly neglected in the play; the very effect of their neglect is too great for such dismissal. (p. 296)

While it may be said to have an "end" (perhaps), No Man's Land is not clearly tied to anything resembling a usual "beginning" or "middle," even in the dramatic world of Harold Pinter…. There is virtually no development of alteration of either character or situation from curtain to curtain in No Man's Land. (pp. 296-97)

With plotting and action kept to a minimum (and their effect thus achieved in a rather negative way), it remains for the linguistic structures and imagery (both verbal and visual) to give shape to No Man's Land and, through that shape, to convey its principal theme. It has already been noted that Pinter's chief linguistic device in this play is repetition; the forms this takes are several. One is the reiteration of a single sentence or groups of sentences such as Foster's parrot-like "What are you drinking?… How are you?… How are you? What are you drinking? Who are you?… Who are you, by the way? What are you drinking?"…. Each repeated question serves not to advance the situation but actually to keep things precisely where they are. By rattling on in a monologue and not letting Spooner answer him until the final repetition, Foster has effectively frozen their encounter at a particular point in time, not allowing it to progress any farther. A similar device is the refrain-like repetition of sentences syntactically the same but varying slightly in content. (p. 297)

Just as the play begins with "As it is?" and ends with Hirst's "I'll drink to that" …, assenting to Spooner's reiteration of the title definition …, No Man's Land from start to finish is packed with verbal imagery and direct statement suggestive of various aspects of the condition of stasis. (p. 299)

[Miscellaneous] images of stagnation (lost, time-blackened tennis balls …), bondage (chains, bonds, lack of freedom …), and entrapment (quicksand …), to cite only a few, permeate the play, but three larger "systems" of imagery or explicit statement help unite the more diverse individual images into the coherent single impression of stasis which forms the structure of No Man's Land.

The first of these systems is a series of related images, phrases, and even clichés projecting the idea of an "eternal present" very much in the existential sense—a time of timelessness beyond (or trapped within) the confines of normal chronology. (p. 300)

The second larger device bringing cohesiveness to the multiplicity of impressions of stasis is not, like the first, a series of passages scattered throughout the play. Rather, it consists of four pages of intensely concentrated dialogue … just prior to the final curtain, whose topic is the frightening and irreversible implications, physical and metaphysical, of changing the subject "once and for all and for the last time forever."… The two most profound results of this act, it emerges, are "that there is no possibility of changing the subject since the subject has now been changed" … and "that nothing else will happen forever. You'll simply be sitting here forever."… In short, as if by now it need be said at all, the results are complete and irrevocable stasis.

The third, and also most powerful, most explicit of these larger constructs embodying the play's controlling metaphor, consists of the title itself and the two virtually identical definitions of that title in the dialogue. Placed as they are, once fairly early in the first act and then at the very close of the second act, these definitions function almost as a frame to contain most of the other varied and sometimes elusive visual and verbal structural components. They also serve as direct thematic statements to which the ideas about stasis refer as they are conveyed through the formal aspects of the play. (pp. 300-01)

There is no suggestion, either in the shape of No Man's Land or in the more explicit statements that it makes, that anything external to a man—whether societal, cosmic, or metaphysical—is responsible for thrusting him into a state of suspended animation, of, perhaps, an everlasting equipoise between past memories and an eternal, though inactive, present. Quite to the contrary, most of the play's evidence points squarely to the person himself for creating—or, if not creating, at least allowing—his own condition of stasis….

The reason for this volitional entrapment or stagnation may be the same as the reason for characters' desiring the security of a room in other of Pinter's plays: fear. Here it is a fear of flux, of change, of encountering and perhaps being rebuffed by the unknown. By comparison, a life of quietude, even to the point of total immobility, is relatively safe and, hence, comfortable—though one may occasionally be disturbed by memories of what he was. (p. 302)

The stasis … which is one of the themes of No Man's Land is its dramatic and verbal structure as well. This structure of stasis operates partly through minimizing plot and action but mostly through constructing a complex of linguistic repetitions, visual and verbal imagery, and direct statements such as the title definitions which remain unchanged and unchanging from beginning to end. There is no movement or progression from one kind of imagery to another; there is not even an intensification. The verbal component of the play is static from the opening "As it is?" to the closing "I'll drink to that," and it is the very stasis of the structure, quite close to the surface of the play, which carries the meaning of No Man's Land. (pp. 302-03)

John Bush Jones, "Stasis as Structure in Pinter's 'No Man's Land'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1976, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with permission of Modern Drama), September, 1976, pp. 291-303.

Too many of the commentators on Pinter, faced with the playwright's refusal to explain himself, impose meaning on him, usually a kind of quivering metaphysics far too spongey for the dramatic solidity he puts on stage. By now everyone knows (or should know: there are always a few baffled people in the audience demanding a tune they can whistle) that what is happening on Pinter's stage and to whom will not be explained. Even so, audiences are drawn into the best of his plays, moved sometimes by emotions that they cannot define for themselves. Pinter is a playwright first, a creator of dramatic events, the implications of which float free for the viewer to trap, take home, domesticate, do with what he will.

The event in No Man's Land is a favorite one with Pinter. An outsider, a stranger, who may not be a stranger really (v. Old Times), is introduced into a static social or familial situation—as the derelict is in The Caretaker, the wife in The Homecoming. After several acts of remarkable talk—threats, cajolery, reminiscence, aborted philosophy—in which the intruder or the status quo appears to be in danger, the play ends, usually with a restatement of the original situation or a variation on it, as in The Homecoming. In No Man's Land the outsider is a down-at-heels poet, or perhaps a pub busboy who sounds and looks like one…. Hirst, obviously affluent, apparently a successful literary man, brings Spooner back to his house, to a fascinating circular room (tower? prison? hospital? tomb? home?), one of those enclosures in which Pinter so likes to trap his characters. They are joined by Hirst's servants (keepers? guards?), another of Pinter's menacing comic pairs, descendants of McCann and Goldberg in The Birthday Party, who spend a good part of the play tormenting Spooner, as Mick does the old man in The Caretaker. for the most part, Spooner appears to be invulnerable to their barbs, until toward the end of the last act when he makes a determined plea for a permanent place in this strange ménage—a place which he holds in any case since the Hirst establishment has its only reality on stage and Spooner, as abrasive presence, has been a part of it since the play began. His intricate connection with the small group is clear at the final curtain—not so much an ending as an abrupt breaking off of the action—when Hirst accepts Spooner's restatement of the "no man's land" that Hirst and all of them inhabit.

Pinter characters are regularly beset by uncertainty about their identities—Stanley's shifting history in The Birthday Party, the old man's lost papers in The Caretaker—and about their memories, as in Landscape, Silence and Old Times. "I am I," says Spooner proudly, making his pitch for a job as well as a stranger, a supplicant as well as a free man, a busser of pintpots as well as a poet. As with the present, the past. There is a marvelous sequence in the second act, almost a parody of Oxcam-Home Counties gossip, in which the two old men begin to remember or invent old triumphs, old scandals; each one tries to top the other until Hirst is ready to horsewhip Spooner for an insult to a woman whom neither of them may ever have known…. [Memories], in Pinter and in fact, have a way of borrowing from fiction. This sliding sense of reality only emphasizes that the theatrical moment is the closest in reality anyone can come to in a world with a redactable past and an unknown future. Any future here, as the age of the poets and some of their lines ("last lap of a race") suggest, is death….

No Man's Land … falls short of the best of Pinter—too many Pinteresque echoes perhaps, tinging immediacy with artifice. Still, No Man's Land has substance, characters, wit, verbal dexterity—all that one has come to expect from Pinter—and it would be foolish to let the memory of earlier achievements stand in the way of the new play. Dangerous, too, for if I understand Pinter correctly, I may have invented the early Pinter plays in retrospect. (pp. 20-1)

Gerald Weales, "Absolutely As It Is," in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 7, 1977, pp. 20-1.

Five or six years ago we used to go to Pinter plays straining to find the profound meanings beneath his brilliant surfaces. Now we've twigged that Pinter's plays are nothing but surfaces, and after all the variations he has spun, the surfaces no longer seem so brilliant. It's fun, up to a point, to be teased by Pinter's enigmatic little games, and there's no doubt Pinter has a great sense of mimicry and a terrific ear for revealing idiom. But ultimately I'm turned off his work for the same reason I stay away from those revues that feature the collected songs of a certain composer. When I go to the theatre I want not just the production numbers but the play they were built into. Pinter's chamber concerts are like production numbers without a context.

Pinter creates verbal ping-pong matches for performers…. [No Man's Land] is simply a vehicle to show off an incredible pair of actors…. (p. 63)

Martin Knelman, in Saturday Night (copyright © 1977 by Saturday Night), January-February, 1977.

No Man's Land is a play about … "long perspectives": a battle between two men, one trying futilely to escape the isolation of the artist's perspective, the other trying, equally futilely, to gain it.

Both men are, appropriately, poets, men who strive to make words immortal. Hirst, in whose house the play takes place, is a distinguished poet and a "man of letters," while Spooner is a failure—as he explains it, "I was one of the golden of my generation. Something happened." Spooner has joined Hirst for a nightcap and a chat, but it soon becomes apparent that his host is not all there. (p. 160)

It takes … every bit of Hirst's concentration just to stay anchored to the present. His first line—"As it is?"—is as much a declaration of his intent to stay fixed to the present as it is a query to Spooner concerning whiskey. Spooner, on the other hand, longs for immortality…. The action of the play is a series of strategical maneuvers by Spooner in an attempt to ride Hirst's coattails into immortality.

In Old Times Pinter showed how memories can be deliberately revised to suit whatever situation arises. Remembering becomes an act of aggression: the power of a memory lies in its ability to wound another, and the actuality of a remembered experience becomes secondary…. In No Man's Land memory bears a similar relationship to the present. Spooner struggles to become Hirst's partner in timelessness by imposing biographical details on the latter's past. He wants to share Hirst's past so he can merge his life with that of a successful poet. As in Old Times, the "truth" of a memory is determined entirely by its effectiveness in the present. (pp. 160-61)

[The] "truth" of a fiction lies in its attractiveness, its ability to convince: Spooner equates accuracy with "essentially poetic definition."… Hirst [wards] off Spooner's attempt to create a mutual memory while reinforcing his isolation. A few moments later Hirst, perhaps exhausted by this effort, loses his tenuous grip on the present and collapses (literally) under the weight of his accumulated past:

No man's land … does not move … or change … or grow old … remains … forever … icy … silent.

Hirst's no man's land is the zone where past and present, memory and reality, are indistinguishable. (pp. 161-62)

[Hirst] thwarts Spooner's attempts to tamper with his life once and for all, but in doing so he also backs himself into a state of permanent stasis….

The poet is again trapped by his own words. The scene takes on the existence of a work of art, in which "nothing else will happen forever. You'll simply be sitting here forever." Hirst's entire past and present begin to blend and settle around him, and he hears the sound of birds: "I hear them as they must have sounded then, when I was young, although I never heard them then, although they must have sounded about us then." He returns to his dream of a person drowning, the dream in which Spooner had identified himself as the drowning man. "But I am mistaken," he says this time. "There is nothing there."

In altering his dream this way, Hirst remembers Spooner out of existence, as in Old Times, where one character "murders" another by saying "I remember you dead." Ironically, Spooner's one successful attempt to incorporate himself into Hirst's life is used against him. Spooner's defeat is total. His existence to Hirst both as poet and man has been denied. Excluded from the still life formed by Hirst and his keepers, he numbly repeats an earlier speech of Hirst's…. Spooner has finally been forced to the realization that he can only be a witness to art, a parasite. A describer. (p. 163)

Craig Latrell, "As It Is," in yale/theatre (copyright © by Theater, formerly yale/theatre 1975), Spring, 1977, pp. 160-63.