Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 1)

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Pinter, Harold (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 2,689 words.)