Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 1) - Essay

Pinter, Harold (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pinter, Harold 1930–

A British dramatist, author of plays that are unmistakably Pinteresque, Pinter is best known for The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming. He also writes filmscripts. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

When Harold Pinter tells us that his plays contain no meaning outside of the material itself, I think we should believe him, giving thanks for his unusual, though somewhat self-incriminating, honesty. The Caretaker—being little more than the sum of its component parts and dramatic values—certainly seems totally free from either significance or coherence. In this, no doubt, it has something in common with real life. But while the work displays a surface painstakingly decorated with naturalistic details, these are so peculiarly selected that the effect is quite distorted: the play is a slice of life, sliced so arbitrarily that it has lost all resemblance to life. Because of the mystery surrounding Pinter's principles of selection, therefore, suspense is the play's greatest virtue. Pinter manipulates this with considerable skill, tantalizing us with the promise of some eventual explanation—but he stubbornly refuses to deliver. He refuses, in fact, to communicate with us at all. His language, while authentic colloquial speech, is stripped bare of reflective or conceptual thought, so that the play could be just as effectively performed in Finno-Ugric. You might say that The Caretaker approaches the condition of music—if you could conceive of music without much development, lyric quality, or thematic content. For the play is so scrupulously non-analytical—so carefully documented with concrete (though pointless) happenings, specific (though atypical) character details, and particularized (though unrecognizable) responses—that it goes full circle from its surface naturalism and ends up a total abstraction.

Robert Brustein, "A Naturalism of the Grotesque: The Caretaker by Harold Pinter" (1961), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 180-83.

Harold Pinter is quintessentially the English (I am tempted to say "London") representative of Absurd Theater. He has incorporated the genre so successfully that it is almost parochial in flavor and looks decidedly home-grown. This ability to fuse European Absurdity with the English way of life, the foreign with the native, the timeless and universal with the immediate and local, gives Pinter's plays a lasting quality. He will remain one of Britain's most important twentieth-century dramatists—in my opinion, the most important. (Preface)

Pinter's plays are a commentary on … reasonable expectation and observation on its lack of fulfillment; they are suggestive of some, albeit often quite minimal, hope. For him, the plays are their own justification; and hope for the system in which they exist is suggested because they do exist…. (p. 37)

In Pinter's plays, the potency of menace derives from an inability to define its source or reason even though it is all-pervasive. If it can be categorized, it is simply the constant threat to the individual personality, a vague enough category to keep it alive. Moreover, Pinter's plays escape a possible objection to Waiting for Godot, in which the menace is weakened by a symbolic landscape—a rather unearthly setting with vaguely cosmic implications. This comparison is only to suggest, of course, that Pinter is not Beckett and is doing something else. Pinter's terror and menace are greater because they exist in the house next door. (pp. 40-1)

Pinter's plays are simply about people bothering people who want to keep to themselves. In his article "Between the Lines," Pinter suggested that failure to communicate was probably the wrong description of what happens in life and in his plays: "I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming." And he is elsewhere quoted as saying that communication is a very fearful matter. (p. 43)

Pinter's limitations, if that is the right word, are simply any dramatist's limitations in having to put life on a stage for two hours and say something important. If the danger of Pinterism is that it tries to turn an image into a world view and tries to deny the validity of logic and language and the notion of the continuity of personality, there is every reason for denying these validities. Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children offers no better treatment of the basic problem. (p. 62)

Pinter, having taken us into the more terrifying corners of the human condition, now begins to use menace and lies as part of the fabric of life in order to build up what he has disintegrated. He produces a play [The Lover] that is nearer Pirandello's comic vein than Beckett's dark comedy, but Pinter is still concerned with the ambiguities of truth…. (p. 118)

Certainly, of all contemporary British dramatists only Pinter manages to be topical, local, and universal—to combine the European Absurd with native wit to create a record of common inevitability. Pinter says, modestly, of his own work: "I am very concerned with the shape and consistency of mood of my plays. I cannot write anything that appears to me to be loose and unfinished. I like a feeling of order in what I write." This sense of order is the key to his work in any medium, and his success rests on it. In a very precise sense, among his contemporaries Pinter is the miglior fabbro. (p. 165)

Arnold P. Hinchliffe, in his Harold Pinter, Twayne, 1967.

Harold Pinter seems to me the only man working in the theater today who writes existentialist plays existentially. By this I mean that he does not simply content himself with restating a handful of existentialist themes inside familiar forms of playmaking. He remakes the play altogether so that it will function according to existentialist principle. (p. 3)

Watching a Pinter play, we give over the scramble to stick pins in ideas and fix them forever to a drawing-board. We feel that the drawing-board isn't there and that our eager thumbs would only go through it. Instead of trying to bring matters to a halt by defining them, we permit them to move at will, understanding that we have been promised no terminal point. We give existence free rein, accept it as primary, refrain from demanding that it answer our questions, grant it the mystery of not yet having named itself. To have drawn us into so complete a surrender of our ordinary, long-standing expectations and demands is a considerable achievement, and Mr. Pinter has taught us to follow the sequence his way by being strict in his presentation of it. (p. 9)

Objects observed in a Pinter play tend to generate something like awe. They may be utterly commonplace, they usually are; yet they seem uncommon here because they have not been absorbed into a pattern that explains them away as mere tools of a narrative or as looming symbols of conceptual value. Sometimes these objects acquire such self-importance as to seem ominous, though that is not their initial function in a Pinter play. If we feel faintly startled to see how solid a cup is, or how shaped, we feel so—in the beginning—only because we are used to ignoring the solidity and shape of cups in our absent-minded lives. (p. 11)

As we move from the solid-inside-a-void environment of a Pinter play toward what we shall have to call the narrative movement of the people who have their being in that environment, we are instantly embroiled in threat. "Menacing" is the adjective most often used to describe the events in a Pinter play, "suspense" is considered one of the playwright's most satisfying effects…. Yet the one thing Mr. Pinter steadfastly refuses to do is to offer his audience—or his characters—any information whatsoever about the forces they come to feel as hostile. We see no precipice; we are not told what may happen at the stroke of mid-night; no oracle spells out, not even in ambiguous terms, the doom to be looked for. Ordinarily, danger is conceived in the future tense: that is what will happen if steps are not taken to avoid it. Apprehension rises as the future comes closer—while still remaining the future. Mr. Pinter writes exclusively in the present tense. (pp. 14-15)

Pinter is gifted in this sense: the fact that he has been an actor, and has worked inside the pressure-chamber of stage production, may well have contributed to the development of such felicity at moving forward as he was born with. Yet the particular suspense he achieves is made of something more than a story-teller's lucky ability to make a listener say "And then?" or an actor's instinct for taking center stage and holding it by hook or crook. A considerable portion of Mr. Pinter's suspense derives from the way that, in pursuing an existentialist method, he sets his plays in motion on a track that runs directly parallel to—or perhaps coincides entirely with—the track on which twentieth-century man feels himself running. It is a track quite different, in its tensions and apprehensions, from any most previous societies have found themselves pressed along. (p. 18)

Pinter deprives us of our detachment—and our security—by taking us into the pattern. He does so by refusing to say what the pattern is, or by hinting very strongly that there is no pattern. Bewildered, we look about us for points of reference. Finding none, we begin to share the anxiety of the characters whose lives we can observe but cannot chart. We no longer judge their collective state of mind. We inhabit it. (p. 20)

Though there is a degree of violence, or of sensed menace, in every Pinter play, the plays are not straightforward melodramas. Comedy is the constant companion of threat, and sometimes the threat itself contains an elusive edge. The messages from the dumb-waiter make the gunmen who are receiving them apprehensive; they also make us laugh, sometimes openly, sometimes nervously. Apart from the fact that the playwright himself has a knack for the curtly phrased retort that, read blandly, has an air of amusing insult about it—he has, in fact, written a group of revue sketches—the very methods he employs, and the shifting-sands vision of man's precarious existence which these methods record, tend naturally toward one kind of comedy. (pp. 26-7)

In the contemporary theater Pinter's work is original in method and unique in its effect upon the stage. An Arnold Wesker and a John Arden can be related in intention and style. Beckett and Ionesco have sunspots in common. It is possible to put John Osborne and Edward Albee side by side and see that they raise their disturbances with much the same lift of voice. But Pinter's territory is very private territory. He has drawn upon a philosophical disposition that is very much in the air and available to everyone, true. But he is the one man who has fought essence to a standstill, refused it houseroom until he has finished moving freely about. (p. 36)

Pinter might be called "traditional" in the sense that he has begun to restore, under the fresh questioning of a twentieth-century philosophical method, an old and neglected urge to enter the arena naked, without the support of tried-and-true tricks or proved propositions but with a firm determination to move as much as a man may move against whatever can be made to yield to him…. At the same time, Pinter is obviously untraditional in that he has almost fully freed himself from the realistic-naturalistic "problem-play" notion that drama is best constructed as a syllogism, with a conclusion following inevitably from known postulates. He is also untraditional in that he has accepted, for practical dramatic purposes, the post-Greek proposition that the lip moves first and that its "nature" as lip comes later—after the utterance and because of it. He does not particularly care whether "nature" or "essence" is absolutely arrived at within the confines of his activity as continuing observer. As a dramatist, he wishes to observe in the same way that, as man and householder, he wishes to live. (pp. 44-5)

Walter Kerr, in his Harold Pinter, Columbia University Press, 1967.

[The Room, Pinter's first play,] already contains a good many of the basic themes and a great deal of the very personal style and idiom of Pinter's later and more successful work—the uncannily cruel accuracy of his reproduction of the inflections and rambling irrelevancy of everyday speech; the commonplace situation that is gradually invested with menace, dread, and mystery; the deliberate omission of an explanation or a motivation for the action. The room, which is the centre and chief poetic image of the play, is one of the recurring motifs of Pinter's work….

The starting point of Pinter's theatre is … a return to some of the basic elements of drama—the suspense created by the elementary ingredients of pure, preliterary theatre: a stage, two people, a door; a poetic image of an undefined fear and expectation….

For Pinter, there is no contradiction between the desire for realism and the basic absurdity of the situations that inspire him. Like Ionesco he regards life in its absurdity as basically funny—up to a point….

Everything is funny until the horror of the human situation rises to the surface…. Life is funny because it is arbitrary, based on illusions and self-deceptions….

But in our present-day world, everything is uncertain and relative. There is no fixed point; we are surrounded by the unknown….

The area of the unknown that surrounds us includes the motivation and background of the characters. What Pinter, in his search for a higher degree of realism in the theatre, rejects in the 'well-made play' is precisely that it provides too much information about the background and motivation of each character. In real life, we deal with people all the time whose early history, family relationships, or psychological motivations we totally ignore. We are interested if we see them involved in some dramatic situation. We stop and look in fascination at a quarrel in the street even if we do not know what is at issue. But there is more to this rejection of an overdefined motivation of characters in drama than the desire for realism. There is the problem of the possibility of ever knowing the real motivation behind the actions of human beings who are complex and whose psychological make-up is contradictory and unverifiable. One of Pinter's major concerns as a dramatist is precisely that of the difficulty of verification….

[Basically] Pinter is a man of the theatre. He is a poet and his theatre is essentially a poetic theatre, more so than the euphuistic verse drama of some of his contemporaries. Pinter, who acknowledges the influence of Kafka and Beckett, is, like these two writers, preoccupied with man at the limit of his being….

We see Pinter's characters in the process of their essential adjustment to the world, at the point when they have to solve their basic problem—whether they will be able to confront, and come to terms with, reality at all. It is only after they have made this fundamental adjustment that they will be able to become part of society and share in the games of sex or politics. Pinter repudiates the suggestion that in so presenting them he is unrealistic….

[It] is possible, even on the basis of what is still an early phase of his development, to say that he has already won himself an important place among the playwrights of this century. His mastery of language, which has opened up a new dimension of English stage dialogue; the economy of his technique; the accuracy of his observation; the depth of his emotion; the freshness and originality of his approach; the fertility of his invention; and, above all, his ability to turn commonplace lower-class people and events into a profoundly poetical vision of universal validity justify the very highest hopes for his future development.

Martin Esslin, in his The Theatre of the Absurd (© 1961, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday-Anchor, revised edition, 1969, pp. 231-57.