Harold Pinter Harold Pinter World Literature Analysis

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Harold Pinter World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In his introduction to Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays (1972), Arthur Ganz writes that Pinter “shares the reluctance of many writers to have the full evocative experience of his work reduced, or altered, to an intellectual formation.” In Pinter’s case, however, this reluctance is tempered by his conscientiously designing plays that, in Ganz’s view, “demand analysis even as he frustrates inquiry.” Pinter’s willful obscurity was often viewed as a breach of contract between the playwright and his audience, which left many theatergoers dissatisfied, feeling cheated or foolish, as if they had missed something, while critics and scholars attacked Pinter for his frustrating dismissal regarding the “meaning” of his plays.

Those most hostile to his early work complained that Pinter intentionally teased viewers into expecting certain revelations that were never delivered. It was, however, this very technique of creating symbolic resonance in otherwise naturalistic action that would earn for Pinter his distinctive reputation.

Much of the confusion surrounding early public reaction to Pinter’s work stems from the fact that his plays are neither clearly absurd nor clearly realistic; his style derives its distinctiveness by its quirky combination of elements from both schools. Pinter blends the authentic, mimetic behavior usually associated with realism—evoking a world that the audience recognizes as the everyday world that it inhabits—with the absurdist vision of a senseless, purposeless world to create, out of seemingly ordinary situations, symbolic overtones that invite interpretation.

For example, the room in his first short play, The Room, is a real room, but it is also a symbol of sanctity and violation, of security, betrayal, and displacement. Likewise, in The Dumb Waiter, the idea of two men receiving instructions from a serving hatch implies a theme larger than the surface meaning of the play: It details two guilty souls confronting an implacable, unseen, and unreasonable power beyond their understanding. In a similar way, The Caretaker is about two brothers and a tramp, but it is also a psychological study of power, allegiance, innocence, and corruption, just as The Homecoming is about both a bizarre family reunion and an ironic treatment of Old Testament myth, psychological disengagement, and familial archetypes.

The nineteenth century Irish wit and playwright Oscar Wilde once said in a letter that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” Pinter would agree. According to the British critic John Russell Taylor in Anger and After (1966), Pinter, when asked about the meaning of his plays, replied that they were about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet,” a statement that exemplifies the difficulty of critically coming to terms with Pinter’s perverse style. Is it nonsense or enigma? In a 1971 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Pinter said that his remark was meaningless, meant only “to frustrate this line of inquiry.” Ganz, however, suggests that the statement is a metaphor central to an understanding of themes in Pinter’s plays, that of “the violence and bestiality that lies beneath the surface of our society and our selves.”

Frequently labeled an absurdist, Pinter distances himself from any school of theater. He has, however, acknowledged the influence of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett. The lyrical dialogue, the meaningful silences, the intentional obscurity, the mordant humor, and the cryptic plots are all Beckettian techniques that Pinter has assimilated into his own style. Yet there are marked differences between Pinter’s plays and those of Beckett. For one thing, where Beckett generally abandons any pretense to realism in his plays, Pinter strives to maintain a tentative surface realism that, like a thin veneer of logic, covers the menacing uncertainty beneath the action of the play. Another difference between Pinter and Beckett has to do with each...

(The entire section is 4,347 words.)