Harold Pinter

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Harold Pinter World Literature Analysis

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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...

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beneath the action of the play. Another difference between Pinter and Beckett has to do with each playwright’s attitude toward his characters. Beckett’s players tend to be held in a sort of dramatic limbo, whereas Pinter’s people are thrust into decisive encounters that radically change their lives. Additionally, whereas Beckett treats his characters mainly as vehicles for his ideas, Pinter shows them less contempt than compassion: The suffering in Pinter’s plays is acutely human, and he is quick to shun subtle abstract truths in favor of more personal revelations of human nature.

For example, in Beckett’s famous En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), two tramps inhabit a minimalist landscape obviously intended to be more representational than realistic. Their dialogue is laced with overt poetical and mythological allusions, and the entire structure of the play implies a larger metaphor of humanity’s general despair, spiritual alienation, and debilitating nihilism. In contrast, Pinter handles similar themes in The Caretaker but without the heavy-handed symbolism and thematic posturing. The setting never pretends to be anything but what it is—a cluttered room—and there is no question as to what motivates the characters in their struggle for allegiance.

Though Pinter’s is a private world, his style paradoxically has roots as much in the “kitchen sink” school of social realism as it does in the absurdist theater. Kitchen sink—a trend in British theater during the 1950’s—was popularized by the so-called angry young men, playwrights such as John Osborne, John Arden, and Trevor Griffiths, whose plays focused on the problems of the working class. Pinter, however, while maintaining the often sordid realism, discards the moralistic concerns of kitchen sink drama. His plays tend to ignore the causes of social strife, presenting instead more spiritual conflicts involving the uncertainty of experience and the existential dilemma of identity, what Martin Esslin in Pinter: The Playwright (1984) calls “coming to terms with one’s own being.”

The theme that life is inscrutable, more a creation of the mind than an actual set of discernible facts, recurs throughout Pinter’s work and underscores his disdain for both the use of language to make sense of the human predicament and of logic to explain absurd political dialogue. The Nobel Academy described his work as restoring theater “to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles.” As one character explains in Old Times (pr., pb. 1971), “There are some things one remembers even though they never happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them they take place.” In Pinter’s world, experience is reality, the past cannot be verified, and no one possesses “the truth.” Memory, in this context, can arm or disarm, depending on the speaker’s intent.

The Dumb Waiter

First produced: 1959, in German; 1960 in English (first published, 1960)

Type of work: Play

In a basement room, two thugs awaiting their next assignment receive directions from a serving hatch—a “dumbwaiter.”

The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s second play, was his first critical success. A short one-act piece, it opened in English performance at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1960 as a double bill with Pinter’s first play, The Room, and immediately established Pinter’s reputation as an important new voice in contemporary theater. Though Pinter draws his theme and plot from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the treatment is highly original and contains all the stylistic trademarks that Pinter developed in his later work.

The most distinctive Pinteresque touch in the play is how the primary action acquires a secondary, allegorical meaning while never compromising the realistic grounding of the story. Moreover, while none of his other plays invites such a clearly allegorical interpretation, this technique of creating situations that, no matter how concrete, suggest larger, more abstract meanings became a standard device in Pinter’s writing.

The plot of The Dumb Waiter is so straightforward that it is deceivingly simple. The story concerns the lives of two thugs—possibly killers—on the night of a new assignment. The uncertainty of their situation, however, is remarkable: They do not know who has hired them or who their victim will be. They are merely waiting for their orders. For diversion, Ben concentrates on his newspaper, while Gus, the more inquisitive of the two and ultimately the most vulnerable, nags him with questions about their assignment. The menacing tone becomes more pronounced as Ben begins reading newspaper accounts of violent deaths—an elderly man crushed under a truck, a child killing a cat. Then suddenly the two begin receiving requests for food from upstairs via the serving hatch. The more ridiculous the requests—from a braised steak to Char Siu and scampi—the more desperate the men’s reactions: The absurdity is unsettling, as much for the audience as for the characters.

As if to regain a sense of allegorical equilibrium, Gus and Ben begin sending up stale cakes, potato chips—finally everything in their packs—as if their gesture of offerings might appease the unseen force upstairs, with whom they are soon communicating through a speaking tube that they find attached to the dumbwaiter. At a decisive moment, Gus leaves the room and Ben receives his instructions. When Gus reenters, he is disarmed, stripped of his coat, vest, and tie, and is clearly the intended victim of the night’s assignment.

Much of the power of the play is derived from its haunting abstract dimension of existential doubt within the otherwise concrete reality on the stage. The situation is presented in realistic detail, but the absurdity of the action is disconcerting: The situation is as unintelligible to the audience as it is to the two men in the play. The orders from the dumbwaiter are specific but improbable and essentially meaningless. Who is sending down the orders? Why? American writer and critic Susan Sontag, in her influential 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” insists that “to interpret is to impoverish.” Moreover, while The Dumb Waiter does not necessarily attempt to confound meaning, the dramatic effect of the play challenges the impulse of the audience to interpret the action in order to create in the viewer a more general acceptance, an immediate experience, of what is there “in reality.”

Much of the suspense involves the attempts of the men to explain logically a basically illogical action; in this way, the play becomes self-referential: The experience of the characters on stage mirrors the experience of the audience; that is, just as the two men must try to make sense of what appears to be incomprehensible, so too must the audience try to decipher the apparently meaningless events on stage. The controlling allegorical theme, therefore, implies that the ways of God—the dumbwaiter—are often inscrutable to humankind—as ultimately the ways of Pinter, the playwright-god, are often inscrutable to his audience.

The Birthday Party

First produced: 1958 (first published, 1959)

Type of work: Play

A retired musician hiding out in a dilapidated boardinghouse is visited by two men apparently sent to kidnap and possibly murder him.

The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first full-length play, opened in 1958 to terrible reviews at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. One performance reportedly played to exactly six people. Most critics found the play confusing, obscure, and unconvincing. The general theatergoing public, conditioned by the popular media, were equally dismissive, and the play closed after only a week. It seems that neither the public nor the critics were aesthetically or culturally prepared for Pinter’s style, accustomed as they were to the established genres of the day, which, aside from musicals, consisted of strict realism or drawing-room comedies—the one an act of forceful social engagement, the other a clever, farcical escapism.

The play did, however, attract the attention of Harold Hobson, theater critic of the London Sunday Times, who had championed Pinter’s first play, The Room, when it was produced at Bristol University in 1957. Following the critical and commercial success of Pinter’s next full-length play, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party finally proved itself worthy of Hobson’s accolades (and prescience) with a successful 1960 revival in London. Later that same year, it was televised by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and in 1968 it opened on Broadway. Along with The Caretaker and The Homecoming, The Birthday Party is generally considered to be one of Pinter’s most significant plays, perhaps one of the most important plays of the mid-twentieth century.

The play, in three acts, centers around Stanley Webber, a retired musician in his late thirties, who is living at a boardinghouse in a resort town on the coast of England. Apparently, he is hiding from some unspecified event in his past that has forced him into exile, isolated from the world outside the confines of his room. Living in the house with Stanley are the proprietors, Petey and Meg Boles, both in their sixties. Petey works at a beachside hotel, while Meg manages the house. Aside from an occasional visit from a young woman named Lulu, their lives are dull and ordinary, punctuated only by habit.

The uneventful, monotonous life at the house, however, seems to be exactly what Stanley needs to maintain his isolation. The order of his routine provides him with a measure of security against the contingent forces that he fears outside. In fact, Petey and Meg form a sort of family unit: Petey is the father, absent at work and play, Meg is the fussy, doting mother, and Lulu completes the illusions of middle-class normality as “the girl next door.”

If Stanley’s withdrawal from the world represents a retreat back into childhood, however, his dream of infantile security turns to nightmare when two men, McCann and Goldberg, arrive to “do a job.” It is the night of Stanley’s birthday, and Meg has planned a party—hence the title of the play. She believes the occasion is merely an innocent celebration, which reinforces her surrogate sense of motherhood; for Stanley, the birthday party becomes a grim ritual of psychological terror. This contrast between Meg and Stanley’s understanding of the party is eerily illustrated at the end of act 1, when Meg gives Stanley a drum for his birthday. Stanley hangs his present around his neck and plays it, at first rhythmically, then erratically, his face “savage and possessed.”

Act 2 begins with Stanley’s initial encounter with McCann and Goldberg. Stanley tries to persuade them that they have come for the wrong man. The situation becomes increasingly violent as the men begin accusing Stanley of a series of offenses. Charged with “crimes” ranging from betraying some unnamed organization to “driving that old lady off her cork,” the accusations at first seem trivial, but soon it is clear that what Stanley has committed are existential transgressions. In his refusal to act, in his withdrawing from the world, he is not, as he hoped, free: He is still a man with a past, which he must acknowledge. Just because he is no longer active, no longer vital, he is not excused from being acted on. Apathy is no refuge from responsibility.

As the interrogation continues, McCann and Goldberg use more progressively absurd logic to break down Stanley’s defenses, both the tactical strategies that he has devised to hide from his enemies and the psychological barriers that he has erected against his own sense of guilt, until finally Stanley is unable to answer even the childish riddle of why the chicken crossed the road. By the time Meg and Lulu join McCann, Goldberg, and Stanley for the party, Stanley’s breakdown is nearly complete.

After a vicious game of blindman’s buff, Stanley tries first to rape Lulu, then to strangle Meg. His resistance having snapped, he finally accepts his role as a sacrificial victim trapped in a fate that he can no longer deny. By act 3, Stanley’s transformation is complete. He is an image of a broken man, compliant, no longer able to speak.

Even though his next play, The Caretaker, would be more immediately successful, The Birthday Party represents a turning point in Pinter’s career. He not only proved that he could sustain a full-length work but also demonstrated an uncanny control of suspense. A sense of horror is sustained throughout The Birthday Party by Pinter’s contrasting the vicious attacks on Stanley and his increasingly pathetic denials with the harmless pretensions of Meg and Lulu, whose complicity in the plot against Stanley only increases the irony of their ignorance. Finally, The Birthday Party marks a change in Pinter’s approach to his material, from his cerebral, often abstract early plays to plays that were less about ideas and more about people. It was this shift in focus, from the philosophical concerns of the playwright to the human concerns of the characters, that assured Pinter his later critical and commercial success.

The Caretaker

First produced: 1960 (first published, 1960)

Type of work: Play

One of two brothers sharing an East London house brings home an old tramp, who then tries to displace his benefactor.

Pinter’s second full-length play, The Caretaker, opened in London in 1960, and, after a twelve-month run it moved to Broadway, where it was acclaimed as a critical, if not commercial, success. The Caretaker has been described as Pinter’s most naturalistic play. The British theater critic Kenneth Tynan called it “a play about people,” which, in Pinter’s case, marks a significant turn in his approach to theater. His early work, such as The Room and The Dumb Waiter, was laden with symbolism and was heavily influenced by the absurdist theater of Samuel Beckett and Romanian-born French playwright Eugène Ionesco. In The Caretaker, however, Pinter eschews latent meanings and focuses instead on the lives of the three characters, presenting the action realistically, in naturalistic fashion. The setting—a cluttered room—has no overt symbolic significance: It is, as is often the case in Pinter’s plays, a realistic vision of isolation and withdrawal, nor does Pinter force any allegorical message into the story. The characters are readily identifiable as localized people in ordinary circumstances.

Nevertheless, the play is anything but conventional. The characters seem unfinished, indeterminate, with no stable, verifiable stake in life. Davies, an inveterate liar, claims that he has “papers” in Sidcup that will establish his identity, but it is never made clear exactly who he is or where he has been or what the papers in Sidcup would prove. Aston, the benevolent brother who befriends Davies, recites a poetic soliloquy that describes his incarceration and treatment in a mental institution, but why he was committed is never established. He says only that, at some point in his life, he saw things too clearly and talked too much where he worked. Mick, his brother, who is more hostile to Davies, seems to improvise his past, whimsically concocting stories that confuse Davies while providing no real information regarding his identity. Their plans about the future are especially vague. Davies hopes to get his papers from Sidcup but makes no real effort to go there. Aston hopes to build a shed, but the idea sounds more like a pipe dream than any project he could actually complete. Mick mentions several projects involving renovation and a van, but he is never specific; when he offers details, no conclusions can be drawn from what he says.

Another characteristically unconventional tactic Pinter uses in The Caretaker, which gives it that quality of uncertainty that has become the trademark of his plays, is the way the meager plot belies the psychological complexities of the characters as they strive to discover and maintain their separate identities. Aston finds Davies one night after the homeless tramp has been fired from his job, and he offers to share his living quarters with him. Davies is a self-righteous bigot, a cantankerous reprobate, ungrateful, untrustworthy, and exceedingly selfish. Aston, who is laconic, withdrawn, and passive to a fault, overlooks the old man’s negative traits and tries, inexplicably, to make him comfortable, offering him money, a bed, and a key to the house. As soon as Aston leaves the room, however, Davies is assaulted by Mick, who treats him like a burglar, an intruder, and asks him, “What’s the game?” Mick has been trying to develop Aston’s interest in some projects, hoping to help him adjust after his treatment at the mental institution. Mick sees Davies as a manipulator who is trying to take advantage of Aston’s condition. He immediately engages Davies in a series of verbal encounters that serve to disorient the old man and protect Aston, all the while realizing that Aston must reject Davies voluntarily, thus assuring himself that he can deal independently with people and situations in his life. In the end, after talk of Davies becoming “caretaker” of the property, Aston sees through the tramp’s machinations and tells him to leave.

The irony in the title of The Caretaker evolves from Davies’s being offered a job as “caretaker” when, in fact, he is capable of neither caring for himself nor expressing care for others. It is his rejection of basic human kindness, his need to manipulate instead of trust, his choosing lies over honesty, that finally result in his being rejected by the brothers. Cynically, the play suggests that the innocents of the world are at risk and that to survive without being threatened, one must develop the defensive tactics that, it seems, Aston is still learning, but which Mick has already mastered.

The Homecoming

First produced: 1965 (first published, 1965)

Type of work: Play

A son, who has been living in America, returns to England with his wife to visit his family, whom she has never met.

By the time that The Homecoming opened in London in 1965, Pinter’s career as a major playwright had been firmly established. His name was synonymous with contemporary theater, and the public had grown accustomed to his style. In addition, by this time The Caretaker had been filmed, his screenplay of The Servant was in production, and his early plays were being revived at major theaters in England and abroad. The Homecoming would open in New York in 1967.

The play, in two acts, is deceptively realistic. Its themes of emotional blackmail and manipulation, of seduction and jealousy, are delivered in bizarre deadpan. The situation—an estranged son comes home to introduce his wife to his family—is cliché, and the painfully ordinary, middle-class set—with “a sideboard . . . a mirror . . . a radiogram”—appears to be nothing more than standard fare for a family drama. Yet Pinter’s version of this “homecoming” is anything but traditional, and what appears realistic quickly shifts into parody.

The father, Max, is an embittered old man, fawning when he seeks advantage, striking out when cornered, soured by the world. His brother Sam is an ineffectual hanger-on and a latent homosexual. Son Lenny is a vicious pimp; son Joey, a hopeless, fledgling boxer. Indeed, their ineffectiveness fuels their aggression.

Into this acrimonious, all-male household (Max’s wife died years before), Max’s eldest son, Teddy, introduces his wife, Ruth. Teddy is bookish, objective, a “specialist” uneasy outside his field. Ruth is more intuitive, cagey, hungry to restore sexual vitality to her life. Yet like her husband, she too can be coolly detached, calculating—a game player. Teddy, emotionally and intellectually isolated from the others, has lost touch with the basic needs of marriage—even with human relations—and finds himself literally “outside” the family. Ironically, however, Pinter suggests that emotional detachment is, at least, a strategy to maintain some sense of control in one’s life, a sense of order that would otherwise be threatened by passion. Both Ruth and Teddy can remove themselves from their emotions, and this disaffection becomes a source of strength for them as the rest of the family’s emotional fits underscore their weaknesses and reveal their vulnerabilities.

Eventually, after an abrasive reception, the men attempt to seduce Ruth, each man (except Sam) measuring her by his need. The men are motherless, wifeless, consumed by love-hate relationships with women. Lenny claims to have beaten the women who annoy him. Joey simply rapes them. Max is as quick to whine about his wife as he is to berate her. Their obsession is to restore harmony to the family, the male-female balance that is missing in their lives, so that they both fear and crave Ruth’s attention. Like Ruth in the Old Testament legend, who by her strength and resolve restores order to a broken family, Pinter’s Ruth in The Homecoming achieves her power and status by exploiting male desires.

By the end of the play, the pimps, boxers, and braggarts (Lenny, Joey, and Max) have been reduced to groveling at Ruth’s feet. Lenny gets a dance and a kiss; Joey gets two hours of “love play.” Max suggests that they call her “Spanish Jacky” and “put her on the game.” The plan that they devise is preposterous: Ruth will stay in England and work as a prostitute, while ministering to the sexual needs of the family as well. The scheme is possible, but not probable, yet the irony is in how matter-of-factly the men propose the idea—as if it were not unusual in the least—and in how casually Ruth and Teddy accept it. The effect is both comic and disturbing, and in one of the most hauntingly funny scenes in all of Pinter’s plays, Ruth agrees to the plan (strictly on her own terms), and Sam falls unconscious on stage, while the others ignore him and continue their negotiations.

The incongruity between the outrageous plan that the family concocts and Teddy and Ruth’s equally outrageous reaction to it establishes The Homecoming as one of Pinter’s most absurd plays; yet, on another level, the discrepancy between the audience’s expectation and the jarring behavior of the characters provides Pinter with a perfect vehicle through which he comments on the irony inherent in human relationships. In The Homecoming, to be disconnected is an act of supreme virtue; to act without involvement or emotion a laudable goal. That Ruth can be so callous and Teddy so indifferent suggests that their marriage—and their relationship with their families—is nothing but a game of savage logic, where stability is purchased at the expense of humanity and where the intellect triumphs over feeling.


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