Harold Pinter

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Harold Pinter Drama Analysis

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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.

The Room

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...

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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 out on their jobs. Also Beckettian is the way an entire life is described in the most minimal terms: “I mean, you come into a place when it’s still dark, you come into a room you’ve never seen before, you sleep all day, you do your job, and then you go away in the night.” The many parallels are intentional: The Dumb Waiter is Pinter’s urban, Cockney version of Waiting for Godot. In Waiting for Godot, there was at least a tree; here, there is only a squalid room, with no windows, in the basement of an old restaurant. The two characters do not have any intellectual or poetic aspirations, as do the two characters representing humankind in Beckett’s play. In Beckett’s play, Godot’s name suggests at least a remnant of belief in a benevolent, loving God—if only by parody. The Dumb Waiter lacks even such a remnant. The name of Gus and Ben’s boss, Wilson, is deliberately lacking in any allegorical resonance. Further, Wilson is depicted as being increasingly arbitrary in his treatment of them, even though they have been faithful and pride themselves on their reliability. If God exists in this contemporary world, he is God as a fascist.

Early in the play, mysteriously, an envelope slides under the outside door. It contains twelve matches. Is a benevolent power giving them fire, the great civilizing agent, to help them stave off chaos? They use the matches to light a fire under their kettle, but a moment later, the gas fails, and they have no tea. It is not benevolence, but the power of chance, which rules their absurd world, as soon becomes manifest. There is a dumbwaiter in the room. A tray comes down to them from upstairs. They open the dumbwaiter and take it out. There is a message, ordering an elaborate meal. They do not know what to do, and a moment later the tray goes back upstairs. They are quite worried. When it comes down again, ordering an even more elaborate meal, they desperately fill it with everything they have—biscuits, tea, potato chips. A message comes down telling them that it is not good enough.

Earlier in the play, Ben had read to Gus items from the newspaper, accounts of bizarre accidents and killings, and they had been astounded that such things could go on. The popular press represented their access—from their safe room—to the absurd goings-on in the arbitrary world outside. They try to go back to remarking on the news items now, but they are no longer really interested in the news from outside, because now the absurd has invaded their safe room. They have passed all of their tests, they have been reliable and faithful on the job—yet absurdity is still with them. Their good behavior has not, after all, been able to save them. Ben, the senior partner, falls back on what has been successful for him before: He follows instructions more and more rigidly, becoming increasingly punctilious over the least detail of formal instructions. Gus, who from the beginning has shown himself to be more sensitive, reacts in a quite different way. He begins questioning the absurdity; he begins, to Ben’s horror, to question authority.

Gus’s first questions have to do with his job. He does not have the luxury of being a guiltless victim, such as the two tramps in Waiting for Godot. He lives in his modern society by being a part of its violence. Others die that he may live and hold his place in the world. This has already been bothering him, and when he finds out that on top of his burden of guilt, he will not even be treated fairly by authority, he begins to rebel; he criticizes Ben, his superior, and even shouts angrily up the dumbwaiter shaft. He wanders off stage left to get a glass of water. Then Ben is notified by the authority that the person he is to kill is coming in the door at stage right (to the audience’s left). He shouts for Gus, his partner, to come help him.

The door at stage right flies open. Ben levels his revolver. It is Gus, thrust in, his coat and tie and revolver stripped from him, to stand there, stooped and awkward; he slowly looks up to meet Ben’s eyes. The play ends there, but it is clear that Ben, who, faced with absurdity, reacts by following orders all the more unquestioningly, will shoot his partner. He will be the ostensible winner, the survivor, although in an absurd world, what can really be won? He will in the end be nothing. When Gus spoke earlier about coming in at night, doing a job, and leaving at night—a realistic statement but also a metaphor of a human being’s life—he went on to say that he wanted a window, a bit of a view, before he left. His perceptions of absurdity and guilt, a first step toward moral choice, constitute his bit of a view, his wresting of some meaning out of life.

The Caretaker

The Caretaker, generally considered to be Pinter’s greatest play, is in many ways an even more complex permutation of the elements that were developed in his first few plays. Though The Caretaker is much more realistic on the surface than the earlier plays and has much less overt violence, it retains its tie with absurdist theater in the fact that it readily lends itself to allegorical interpretation. The setting, again, is a single room, and once more, it is made clear that at least a degree of security exists within the room, and that outside, in the endlessly rainy weather, there is little chance for survival. Davies, the old tramp, is the man struggling to stay in the room, but he is ultimately thrown out to his destruction. The two young men, the brothers Aston and Mick, though in much more subtle and complex ways, occupy the role of the killers. It is they who throw Davies out.

The setting is a run-down room in an old house, with a leaky roof and piles of miscellaneous junk stacked everywhere. As the scene opens, Mick, the younger brother, is scrutinizing the room. He hears a door slam and voices offstage, and he quietly exits. Aston, the older brother, enters. He has brought Davies, the old tramp, along. It is revealed that Aston had found him in a fight, had saved him from a bad beating, and is now taking him into his house and giving him a place to sleep. Davies is the worst kind of garrulous old man, puffed up with self-importance, constantly justifying himself, and running down everyone else, especially blacks and aliens. Aston seems kindly, ingenuous, almost a bit simple. Davies, who is wearing old sandals, says he needs shoes. Aston immediately rummages through his things and brings out a solid pair of shoes to give him. Davies regards them very critically and rejects them as too narrow, throwing them aside.

In a nice bit of theatercraft on Pinter’s part, the audience initially tends to see the play from the kindly Aston’s point of view and wonders why he has taken in this tiresome and ungrateful old bum. Very shortly, however, as Aston begins to act more strangely and as his brother Mick shows his own erratic and unpredictable behavior, the audience slowly realizes that it is seeing the play from Davies’ point of view—that Davies, disagreeable as he is, is Everyman.

Davies, who is shabby and bad-smelling, continues truculently to insist on his personal worth. He evidently does this no matter what the cost. He lost his job, which he sorely needed, and got in the fight, which might have killed him, because he was asked to carry out a bucket of slops when he had been hired to sweep up. He also values himself for not being a black or an alien and therefore, he believes, having a higher place in the scheme of things. He is rude and choosy when Aston offers him gifts. Obviously, however, these are all pathetic attempts by a man with nothing to preserve but a certain dignity. When Aston goes out the next morning, Davies is incredulous that Aston lets him remain behind, actually trusting him in the room alone. In other words, Davies knows that his position is low, but he desperately wants to keep it above the very bottom. It is all he has left.

Aston, though apparently kindly, is very strange. He goes out every day and buys more worthless junk to pile up in the room. He is constantly tinkering with electric appliances, though obviously without a clue as to how to fix them. He plans eventually to fix up the room but obviously, from day to day, is accomplishing nothing. When he leaves, Mick comes in. If Aston is slow in everything he does, Mick is dazzlingly quick. He deluges Davies with torrents of language, holds Davies completely in his power, and torments him with words—threats alternating with attractive-sounding offers. It is his house, it turns out, in which Aston merely lives. Both Mick and Aston, at different times, offer Davies the job of being caretaker of the house. The offer is tempting. Davies keeps saying he needs shoes so he can get down to Sidcup and pick up his papers and get his life sorted out. Yet as he refuses offers of shoes, it becomes clear that he does not want to go; he wants to remain in this room, which, for all of its shortcomings, is at least out of the rain. One night, in a long monologue, the usually taciturn Aston tells Davies about the time he was committed to an asylum and given shock treatment. Davies, who knows that he is himself near the bottom, only marginally above the blacks, now decides that, being sane, he is also above Aston. Although Aston has befriended him and put him up, and Mick has only offered him extravagant promises, Davies decides he will be Mick’s man and perhaps work to ease out Aston.

Aston has been waking Davies up in the middle of the night, complaining that his muttering and groaning make it impossible to sleep. Davies is fed up with this treatment, and the next time Aston wakes him up, Davies explodes and tells him that he is crazy and should go back to the asylum, and that he, Davies, and Mick will start running things—perhaps Aston had better leave. It is a typical outburst from Davies, overstepping himself, but he relies on Mick—though Mick has been erratic and unpredictable in the past—to back him up. At this point, Aston tells Davies that he had better look for a place somewhere else, and Davies is forced to leave. Davies comes back the next day to the room when only Mick is there, but Mick turns on him savagely, and Davies realizes he has been had. Aston comes in, and Mick exits. All Davies’ truculence is gone, and he begs Aston to take him back, but Aston ignores him, and it is clear that Davies must depart.

The play is moving enough only on its surface, by turns comic, ominous, perhaps even approaching the tragic. It does not remain at the surface, however, but pushes toward allegorical interpretation. There are many possible readings of the play, none of which necessarily excludes the others. Martin Esslin, in The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter (1970), sees the play as an Oedipal confrontation: The father lords it over the sons while he has the power, but when he gets too old to defend himself, their covert antagonism against him comes to the surface, and they destroy him, throwing out the old generation so that the new generation has room in which to live. An even older archetype, however, might fit the play more closely. A kindly God puts together a world for man and invites him to come live in it. Man, rather than being grateful, as he ought, becomes puffed up with self-importance and lets a tempting Satan (Mick) convince him that he, humankind, is the equal of God; as a result, he is thrown out of his paradise. Pinter has updated his allegory. It is a rather trashy and rundown paradise, a Cockney paradise in a London slum. Obviously, the temptation and fall, the ejection from paradise, is a pattern that can be read into many stories. There is evidence in the text, however, that Pinter intended this particular reading. Aston is referred to in terms that would suggest such an interpretation. “There was someone walking about on the roof the other night,” Davies says. “It must have been him.” Aston, of course, is the giver of all necessary things—a roof, money, bread. When Davies wakes in the morning, he is startled to find that Aston is sitting smiling at him. Davies, characteristically, immediately begins complaining that Aston’s gifts are not enough. Aston gives him bread but no knife with which to cut it (reminiscent of Wilson, in The Dumb Waiter, sending the two men matches to light the stove but providing no gas for the stove); gives him shoes with unmatching shoelaces; and does not give him a clock.

Aston’s curious life history suggests an identification with Christ. He tells Davies that he used to talk to everyone, and he thought they listened, and that it was all right. He used to have hallucinations, in which he would see everything very clearly. When he had something to say, he would tell the others, but some lie got spread about him, and they took him away, and gave him shock treatment (the Crucifixion?), after which he was no longer able to work or get his thoughts together. After his long confessional monologue to Davies, Aston seldom speaks to him again, and Davies feels deserted. In suggestive words, Davies says: “Christ! That bastard, he ain’t even listening to me!” By this time, Davies has also deserted Aston. He listens to Mick, forgetting Mick’s previous bad treatment of him and forgetting Aston’s many kindnesses to him.

It is a hopeless situation for Davies, because Aston does indeed seem feckless and unstable; Mick seems to own the world now, and in a world of increasing absurdity, Davies has to make his decision, has to struggle for survival and some sort of existential sense of personal value. In the final scene before Davies’ expulsion, Mick and Aston meet briefly and smile faintly, and there is almost, for the moment, the hint of collusion between them, as if God and the Devil worked in concert to destroy humankind, as if, working together, they were indeed the two hit men sent out to annihilate humankind after human beings’ brief sojourn in an absurd world.

The Caretaker carries to full maturity the themes and techniques that Pinter first adumbrated in The Room and developed over his next few plays. With its characters, its allegory, and its brilliant language and stagecraft, it is a quintessentially Pinteresque play, the perfection of all he was feeling his way toward as a playwright. Thereafter, he had to change direction if he were going to avoid merely imitating himself. He felt increasingly that he “couldn’t any longer stay in the room with this bunch of people who opened doors and came in and went out.” He changed his milieu, writing plays with middle-class characters, leaving behind the Cockney language of the first plays but demonstrating that he had just as accurate an ear for the absurdities and banalities of middle-class speech and could hear just as clearly what was trying to be said under the affectations of its language.

The Homecoming

The Homecoming, perhaps the most Kafkaesque of Pinter’s plays, firmly established his dramatic idiom as unique. In the play, a professor who has been teaching in the United States returns to his London home so that his wife might meet his father and his brothers. He is greeted with oblique suggestions of enmity and sexual overtures toward his wife. In the end, the detached professor (like so many of Kafka’s passive protagonists) acquiesces when his wife announces her decision to move in with the father and the two brothers.

Later Plays

With plays such as Landscape and Silence, Pinter began working with more lyrical language. In One for the Road, Mountain Language, and The New World Order, Pinter began writing overtly political works that reflected his growing activism as a self-styled “citizen of the world.” In each new direction he has taken, he has continued to show that the essence of Pinter is not one or another easily imitated mannerism, but rather his poetic brilliance with language, his flawless stagecraft, and his insights into the human condition.

In February, 2002, nine of Pinter’s sketches, none longer than ten minutes, were performed at the Lyttleton Theatre. Seven dated from around 1959, but “Tess” was two years old, and “Press Conference” was new. “Tess” is a slight work featuring a smiling lady from a comically disreputable upper-crust family. In “Press Conference,” Pinter himself (battling cancer and chemotherapy) played the lead, a Minister of Culture who was recently head of the secret police. This sketch reveals the same skepticism of, even hostility toward, supposedly democratic governments as reflected in One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes. During the press conference, the urbane Minister blandly announces what his response will be to those people who resist the free market. Their women will be raped, and their children will be killed or abducted. Dissent will not be tolerated. The journalists greet the Minister’s program with chuckles and applause. In the latter part of his career, Pinter appears to draw little distinction between governments of the capitalistic West and brutal dictatorships elsewhere in the world.


Harold Pinter Poetry: British Analysis