Pinter, Harold (Vol. 6)
Pinter, Harold 1930–
Pinter, one of England's most important dramatists, has also written screenplays, revue sketches, poems, and criticism. The limitations of human perception are explored in all of Pinter's plays; but Pinter, the dispassionate observer, does not allow the possibility that investigation of human limitations might render his people less inscrutable, either to themselves or others. Life, for Pinter, is of no consequence; hence, political and social commitments are meaningless. Pinter's characters, safe and mindless in the womb-like rooms that he creates for them, ignore or fear all aspects of the world which always threatens to intrude. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[In The Homecoming, three] men are trying, by means of language, to surmount barriers and find common ground. Their language itself, because of its imperfections—and their lack of expertise—reveals the fears, needs, and inadequacies they struggle to conceal. All three co-operate to cover up things which are embarrassing not merely to one but to all. They attempt to close the abyss—silence is the great enemy—generally understanding too much rather than too little. Their talk shows … not so much a failure as an evasion of communication. In silence, the questions they avoid are deafening, and silence in this world becomes a catalyst of action, even action itself. Talk seems an expedient, a means of evasion. In silence and in the dark is the nonentity against which they all precariously struggle.
The fight against nonentity, or simply non-being, is something that echoes over and over through the Pinter plays…. In the case of the tramp of The Caretaker, who has left all his papers at Sidcup, the theme is worked out against the background of the other two men, who have a slightly stronger grip on identity. Aston achieves this by clinging tightly to the very little he has left, and Mick by refusing to let anything come between him and his "I'll-make-this-place-into-a-penthouse" delusions of grandeur. (pp. 73-4)
Kenneth Tynan, reviewing the play, wrote "one laughs in recognition; but one's laughter is tinged with snobbism." This seems to indicate an enviable certainty of being out of reach. It would be comforting if this picture of humanity had nothing to do with the world we know, but it seems to concern not an isolated group of institutionalized eccentrics, but Man in general. If my laughter was tinged with anything, it was embarrassment, and occasionally horror, a feeling of having been caught out, and exposed to a chill wind. (p. 74)
Does no one recognize in himself the hapless turning from attitude to attitude in order to entrench a position, or see, in the desperate claims to knowing what goes on, his own baffled attempts to lay claim to at least a partial understanding of what life is all about? Does no one share the feeling that "if only the weather would break," if only everyone and everything would stand still for a tick of time (in fact if only things were different) then one might have a chance? Does no one see in Aston's sad monologue, his own reduction by the shocks of living; does no one feel appalled at the difficulties of disinterested kindness in a world that lives not by charity but by politics?
We have all left our references and papers somewhere. We mostly feel we have "cards of identity" somewhere even more inaccessible than Sidcup. Sidcup seems to derive from the same myth-making impulse as the Garden of Eden, where we mislaid our innocence and our nobility, but if the weather would break, we might dash back and get them…. One sees in the play the frenzied attempt to feel important, and to be "in" on things. We must know the right responses whether to jig-saws, fret-saws, "Blacks," work-shy people, the latest "ism" or the newest West End play. We must know what "they" are saying, even if we choose to disagree. "Oh, they're handy," says the tramp, and we recognize the awful futility of it all. The terrible thing about the dialogue is that it has the authentic ring of the stop-gap. Behind it lies the awareness of another world of meanings, a plane on which defeats are being acknowledged, and where there is a fight for the right to exist, an endless apology for existence, a fierce assertion of rights, and a hideous plea for forgiveness of what is known to be unforgivable, and irremediable. When silence begins to leak through the battered pores of the speakers, they point to the obvious, to the bucket for instance, catching the drips from the roof. They distract each other's attention away to the mundane realities, that are at the same time a symbol of the unsatisfactory state of things which will, of course, be put right in time, when the shed is built in the garden, when we get back from Sidcup with our papers.
Or again, when the silence threatens, one may ask "What's your name?" and continue the fight against nonentity. No matter that it's been asked before, and given before; it's still a symbol of stability, especially if we know not only the assumed name, but the real name as well. Yet it tells us nothing. Anonymity remains, and the papers are still at Sidcup. (pp. 75-6)
Valerie Monogue, "Taking Care of the Caretaker" (originally published in The Twentieth Century, 168, September, 1960), in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Arthur Ganz, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 72-7.
In its own way Harold Pinter's The Caretaker is a perfect little play. Like the work of Samuel Beckett, it is a terrifying comedy. I mention Beckett, not only because Pinter has acknowledged his indebtedness to the Parisianized Irishman, but because The Caretaker is a variation on the theme that has begun to haunt the stage since the younger men of the theatre began waiting for Godot. This does not mean that Pinter is not an original talent: the specific English accent of his play lends it its own stamp. (p. 145)
Plays like The Caretaker owe some of their fascination to ambiguity. But this ambiguity covers what is inherently a simple—perhaps too simple—design. Hence they disturb without actually moving us. The artistic plan is narrower than it pretends to be; the ambiguity is an unconscious spiritual device whereby the author, uncommitted in his soul in relation to the bewilderment and anguish life causes him, remains congealed in his quandary—a situation which may after all be easier to bear than an outright decision as to how to resolve or change it.
It is a tribute to the talent and value of The Caretaker—one of the most representative plays in the contemporary English-language theatre—that it can provoke such thoughts, conjectures and perhaps controversies. (p. 147)
Harold Clurman, "Harold Pinter" (1961), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 145-47.
It isn't hard to see why The Caretaker should have been interpreted as a morality play in which Davies is Everyman, Aston Christ and Mick the Devil. But it won't do; the characters are far too actual for that, the play has too many incongruities and excrescences, there is too much movement beneath the surface. I think it far more to the point to consider the three men as constituting a triad roughly on the order of the brothers Karamazov—the major faculties of man's being, appearing as a triple irruption from the depths of the dramatist's imagination. And like Dostoevsky's brothers the characters of Pinter's drama are not therefore symbols but mysterious new creations; their reality is self-contained, so that they do not so much indicate meaning as irradiate it.
What then is wrong, or rather, less than magnificently right about The Caretaker? The final image is achieved: of unbearable loneliness, of war in the members of the body, and yet also of a persistent blind movement toward communion and authentic life. (pp. 98-9)
And yet there is a weakness somewhere, an ultimate failure of establishment, a final deprivation of fullness, of the sense of inevitability and of the vision of reality freshly apprehended. It seems to me that all this is due not to Pinter's untraditional dramaturgy but to the fact that he is not untraditional enough. That is to say, his play is too much a thing of jarring styles, characterizations and motivations, not a consistent piece of relentlessly exhibited discovery, such as we find true in the work of Beckett and in most of Ionesco. (p. 99)
Richard Gilman, "Straightforward Mystification" (1961), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 97-100.
Within each Pinter room, the props seem to be realistically functional, and only in retrospect do they acquire symbolic significance. Consider, for example, Pinter's treatment of such crucial details as food and clothing, in comparison with the casual realism of Osborne, or the frank symbolism of Beckett. The various preparations for tea in Look Back in Anger seem to be parallelled by the prosaic cocoa, tea, bread, sandwiches, crackers of Pinter's plays; in sharp contrast is the farcical and stylized carrot-turnip-radish "business" of Godot. So too, three men grabbing for an old man's bag in The Caretaker has few of the symbolic overtones of the slapstick juggling of derbies in Godot.
It is, however, in their respective use of that innocuous prop, a pair of shoes, that the different symbolic ctechniques of Beckett and Pinter are in most graphic evidence. Early in Godot, Vladimir establishes shoes as a metaphysical symbol: "There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet." At the end of Godot, it is by virtue of being barefoot that Estragon admits he has always compared himself to Christ. In Pinter's Caretaker, the old man keeps trying on different shoes that might enable him to get on the road to Sidcup, where he claims to have left his identity papers. Each pair of shoes is rejected for specific misfit—"a bit small," "too pointed," "no laces"—before the curtain-lines of the play: "they're all right … if I was to … get my papers … would you … would you let … would you … if I got down … and got my…." The finality of the fragments indicates that no shoes can ever fit, that the journey to Sidcup cannot be made. Thus, the symbolic significance of the shoes is instantaneous with Beckett, cumulative with Pinter.
Most crucial to an understanding of Pinter's theatre is the symbolism of his characters. For all their initially realistic appearance, their cumulative impact embraces the whole of humanity. In so generalizing, Pinter extends the meaning of his characters beyond such particulars as Osborne treats; nevertheless, he does not achieve the metaphysical scope upon which Beckett insists, from his opening lines: "Nothing to be done."
Pinter's defenseless victims are a middle-aged wife, a man who asks too many questions, an ex-pianist, a broken old man. Ruthlessly robbed of any distinction, they come to portray the human condition. And Pinter's villains, initially as unpreprossessing as the victims, gradually reveal their insidious significance through some of the most skillful dialogue on the English stage today . For it is language that betrays the villains—more pat, more cliché-ridden, with more brute power than that of their victims.
Even hostile critics have commented on the brilliance of Pinter's dialogue, and it is in the lines of his villains that he achieves precise dramatic timing and economical manipulation of commonplaces. Representatives of the System, Pinter's villains give direct expression to its dogma. In the plays of Osborne and Beckett, which also implicitly attack the System, the oppressive forces are presented through the words of their victims. (pp. 79-81)
Pinter's drama savagely indicts a System which sports maudlin physical comforts, vulgar brand names, and vicious vestiges of a religious tradition. Pinter's villains descend from motorized vans to close in on their victims in stuffy, shabby rooms. The System they represent is as stuffy and shabby; one cannot, as in Osborne's realistic dramas, marry into it, or sneak into it, or even rave against it in self-expressive anger. The essence of the Pinter victim is his final sputtering helplessness.
Although Pinter's God-surrogates are as invisible as Godot, there is no ambiguity about their message. They send henchmen not to bless but to curse, not to redeem but to annihilate. As compared to the long, dull wait for Godot, Pinter's victims are more swiftly stricken with a deadly weapon—the most brilliant and brutal stylization of contemporary cliché on the English stage today. (p. 92)
Ruby Cohn, "The World of Harold Pinter" (first published in The Drama Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, March, 1962; © 1962 by The Drama Review; reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Arthur Ganz, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 78-92.
At his best, Pinter is a dramatist of high urgency, clear color and unimpeachable intentions. He has the right kind of dissatisfactions and impenitences, the accurate chimeras, the anxieties, hungers and vertigos proper to our time. And he has a high degree of freedom from the expectations of audiences, an aloofness from the theatre conceived of as a place of mutual congratulation, a toughness, or blessed innocence, to resist most of the pressures to make his plays serve other purposes than their own—to prevent them from "commenting" on our condition, or offering explanations or providing us with solace….
He has done what Edward Albee has only half done—he has broken through to a new dimension of drama, which means a present dimension of experience. (p. 93)
Pinter's plays introduce us to a reality we do recognize as our own, though it is one which we cannot truly know until someone like him gives it its proper telling shape outside us.
Yet in Pinter the action is not in fact much more than an introduction, the beginning of recognition and affect and change. The shapes he creates are skeletal and unfinished, as though they have known what not to be but do not yet know what to become. Having stripped away much of what is exhausted in conventional drama, having made a psychology that confirms or explains yield to a metaphysics that invokes, and having made the logic of narrative continuity yield to the terrifying arbitrariness of the way we really experience the world, Pinter hovers still on the threshold of a theatre of new events and new portrayals. [Note date of this essay.] Unlike Ionesco and Beckett, in whose light, especially the latter's he has so clearly worked, he has been unable to do more than present the reverse side of existence, the underskin of emptiness that sheathes our habitual gestures and spent meanings. (pp. 93-4)
Richard Gilman, "Pinter's Hits-and Misses" (1962), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 93-6.
Shaw [and] Arnold Wesker presume that one human individual understands another, that logical exchange of ideas is the normal mode of communication, and that human actions are capable of explanation. Wesker and Shaw, for example, assume that they fully comprehend the motives of Sarah Kahn or Major Barbara and can demonstrate, by cause and effect, why these characters act as they do; they assume in other words that there is a logic of action and of thought and that both are capable of dramatic exposition. Further, such dramatists believe it important to make clear to their audience the stages in the logic of thought or action; in fact, this process goes part of the way to prove the validity of the thesis advanced by their plays. And even where the dramatist is not proposing a precise thesis, these comments still apply. John Osborne does not set out to "prove" anything in Look Back in Anger, but he considers it essential to provide evidence, for example, of Jimmy Porter's previous experience of suffering, his attitudes to the "Establishment," or his University education; the play, so to speak, advances from the point achieved by such evidence. There is a basic assumption that, given such-and-such information, a dramatist can document comparatively fully the subsequent actions and responses of his created figures.
Harold Pinter does not make such assumptions. He is concerned with "subtle experiences" but he sets out to evoke rather than exhaustively to depict or narrate them; by suggestion, hints, variations in intensity of mood, and the like, he involves the audience in an imaginative comprehension of the dramatic situation, the seeming triviality of which masks its deeper significance…. [The] more he writes the greater facility he develops to enter a universal situation. He does not set out to provoke sociological thinking or to address his audience on "Life" like Wesker or Osborne; rather he requires an imaginative response to the truth of human experience presented (with varying degrees of success) in his plays, and he thereby increases our range of sympathetic insight into the business of being human. And although Pinter denies that he uses symbols in any conscious way, his plays, though not fully allegorical, must be "interpreted" as poetic rather than prose drama. Evocative or disturbing speech, language which is an accurate reflection of colloquial English and yet reflects the mystery that Pinter sees as an inevitable feature of human relationships: this is the starting point for a consideration of his vision. It leads directly to what is perhaps the chief irony in his plays: the discrepancy between the implicit claim in any patois that it is the currency accepted and understood by all its users, and the dramatic fact that such language in actual usage reveals not complete communication between man and man but their essential apartness. "Every word you speak is open to any number of different interpretations" (Mick in The Caretaker)…. [This comment points to one of] the central themes in Pinter's dramatic work.
"The terror of the loneliness of the human situation" is insisted upon time and again by Pinter. One means of demonstrating this fact is to show how he makes dramatic material out of the nostalgia for the supposed security to be found in the past, especially a childhood past, which appears to be endemic in our society…. Pinter's characters frequently take refuge in nostalgic moods or attitudes, with the result that their insecurity and fearful loneliness are emphasized the more. (pp. 93-5)
The settings Pinter chooses for his plays reinforce the feeling that his characters fear their isolation, strenuously look for security and cling to what shreds of it they have got, and are terrified at the intrusion of others into the private world they have created for themselves. A painting by Henry More—Figures in a Setting (1942)—comes to mind in this context. A mother and child, and two other figures are depicted inside some sort of fortified building, and the impression given is of a fearful humanity secure so long as it remains inside the fortification but having no communication with the world outside. Pinter's vision is somewhat similar except that his characters feel little confidence in their flimsy security. The key visual symbol is, of course, the room which appears in the title of his first play: there, as Rose says, "You know where you are"; it is easily accessible as soon as she leaves the outside world—"It's not far up when you come in from outside"; and "nobody bothers us."… When she is inside with her husband, she not only knows where she is but who she is; whenever anyone does bother her she is immediately suspicious and afraid. In The Birthday Party Stanley rarely, if ever, goes out of the boardinghouse, and in The Dumb Waiter the two hired killers, Ben and Gus, have no significance except within doors. They are never outside in daylight; they "can't move out of the house in case a call comes"; and when the outside world makes its presence felt either by means of an envelope containing matches pushed under the door of their basement room, or through the dumb waiter with its messages from a mysterious person above, the effect is always sinister and threatening. Although this play lacks the stature of the others mentioned so far—it has the air of a dramatised anecdote—there can be no doubt that Pinter creates a menacing atmosphere. (pp. 97-8)
A Pinter character rarely indulges in abstract speculation: he is not of the same world as Wesker's Beatie Bryant (in Roots). His speech invariably remains close to the facts of experience whether that experience is "real" or imaginary, manufactured for the sake of impressing his hearers, elevating his status, or merely extricating himself from an awkward situation. Indeed, one of the fascinations of Pinter's dialogue is its psychological accuracy in the sense that, as in everyday life, the distinction between the truth which depends on verifiable fact and the truth to the speaker's vision of his own significance (which may involve anything from deliberate fabrication to mere exaggeration) is often blurred. And it is at these moments that an audience will find itself caught between laughter and serious acceptance. (pp. 98-9)
Pinter's fascination with human isolation and insecurity, his awareness of a brutal world where mystery and tension are always suddenly liable to appear, his recognition of the humor as well as the sinister which are part of human experience, and his control of his verbal medium—all these features reappear in … The Caretaker…. This is undoubtedly his best play [note date of essay]. (p. 100)
The audience is … faced with a world of Kafka-like uncertainty; it is confronted with the question of identity at every turn. Pinter seems to suggest that man is a mystery, unknowable and yet fascinating, living in his own separate world which impinges only by accident on others equally separate, and it is these moments of impact that provide insight into the overall human situation. Cumulatively these insights add up to a view of man as moving further and further from a questionable innocence associated with childhood to the treacherous and evil world of experience; at once pathetic and humorous, man becomes a status-seeker looking for acceptance and security in a world that is unpredictable and has to be fought on its own terms; and because innocence has been lost, man cannot trust his fellows, does not frankly reveal himself to them, perhaps does not honestly know himself. But the insights are fragmentary and do not provide a definitive picture…. Pinter … rejects naturalistic completeness of detail because his insights are not validated or limited by such considerations; rather he presents details which are also images requiring of the audience an act of imaginative comprehension. (pp. 103-04)
James T. Boulton, "Harold Pinter: 'The Caretaker' and Other Plays" (originally published in Modern Drama, 6, September, 1963; reprinted with permission of Modern Drama), in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 93-104.
[Pinter] has a phenomenally sensitive ear for the real speech of real people. His dialogue is, superficially at least, of a devastating naturalness. He not only captures the vocabulary of real conversation but also the varied quirks of repetition, malapropism, tautology, spurious logic, and verbal incantation which pervade ordinary speech and which, hitherto, had been largely missed in stage dialogue that attempted to combine naturalness with good grammar, correct vocabulary and logical progression of its reasoning. Pinter's 'tape-recorder fidelity' has opened up a new dimension of stage dialogue; and as such it can be wildly funny.
This knack of naturalness has led some critics to class Pinter with the social realists among the new wave of British playwrights, the 'kitchen-sink school'. The affinity of his work with this group of playwrights, however, is a very superficial one. For Pinter is not a realist in their sense at all. He is not concerned with social questions, he fights for no political causes. Like Beckett he is essentially concerned with communicating a 'sense of being', with producing patterns of poetic imagery, not in words so much as in the concrete, three-dimensional happenings that take place on the stage. Like Beckett, Pinter wants to communicate the mystery, the problematical nature, of man's situation in the world. However natural his dialogue, however naturalistic some of his situations may superficially appear, Pinter's plays are also basically images, almost allegories, of the human condition. (p. 66)
Far from being a member of the kitchen-sink school …, Harold Pinter is a maker of myths, a real poet, both in his subject matter and imagery, and in his use of language. For here too the naturalness of his dialogue is deceptive. It has the rhythm, the strangeness, and by its very repetitiveness, the incantatory quality of poetry. (p. 68)
Martin Esslin, "Godot and His Children: The Theatre of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter" (originally published in Experimental Drama, edited by W. A. Armstrong, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1963; copyright © 1963 by G. Bell and Sons Ltd.), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 58-70.
Harold Pinter has been writing long enough for the shape of his plays, their mechanism, to be easily recognised: a small group of characters in a complex situation; at first both characters and situation are presented obscurely but through a number of surprises or shocks—often contrived with an obvious ingenuity—the audience is led to a clearer and deeper knowledge of the characters. The action of his plays can almost be represented by a formula so that every revue can now have its pinter-play and at small art theatres sub-pinters flourish. (p. 122)
In stage dialogue triviality can … impress character intimately and subtly and can express unconscious reactions, especially in situations which obviously call for words of greater import. Pinter uses trivia in this way consistently, and is here in line with many more writers and thinkers of the present century…. Through the usually "unnoticed" details of speech, Pinter, like some others at all times and like many writing today, can "let a penetrating eye [see] at once into a man's soul." He has outgone his predecessors most obviously in the ways in which he has seized on the audience's penetration. His dramas cannot be received without a continuous intimation of the unconscious lives of his characters. (p. 126)
Pinter, and with him Beckett, have also discovered how to link gestures with dialogue so that they make a more subtle impression. The point can be so fine that a gesture has to be repeated frequently or sustained for a long time. McCann in The Birthday Party twice sits down to tear sheets of newspaper into equal strips. The first time he does so the audience may see only an intriguing piece of business but McCann subsequently rebukes Stanley for touching the strips and in the third Act his fearful concentration in tearing more newspaper communicates itself to Goldberg and its effect is to bring upon McCann a revealingly angry rebuke. McCann has been concentrating his attention; this expresses a need to escape from consciousness of fears. In Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Vladimir fiddles with his hat, at first inexplicably; but wtih repetition this becomes an expression of the uncertainty of his attempt to live by conscious effort…. These gestures are no longer than ordinary behaviour but are slightly odd; they need explanation, and the audience is encouraged to consider them like puzzles until the slow exposition of the play reveals the inner need that actuates, explains and gives power to them. (p. 138)
Such a physical language seems a necessity today. We understand that no man can be judged solely by the thoughts and feelings he can speak about and recognize: he is what he is by virtue of his unknown desires and needs as well. Recognizing this more clearly than earlier generations, dramatists look for a mirror to hold up to human nature that can reflect the unspoken and the unspeakable with more clarity of form and continuance of pressure than dialogue of statement or the indirect dialogue of apparent insignificance. Pinter's "dialogue" contains gestures as well as words, must be seen as well as heard. (p. 141)
Pinter's originality is to be found in his style, and the aim of his style is to reveal the varying consciousness of his characters; to understand all he writes and assess his achievement it is necessary to look through the web of conversation and gesture to notice the other slowly-moving patterns underneath.
Even the interest of a play's action is here dependent on the half-hidden nature of the characters' moment-by-moment involvement. It was once said that The Birthday Party is a play with an exciting situation that is never developed. This is true in conventional terms, for despite its brief story the main effect is to give a developing knowledge of the characters. In all the plays, any slight change of situation serves to effect a change in the audience's awareness, to make half-perceived revelations click into place. Pinter's dialogue is contrived, so that, when a radically new situation is at last presented, the audience has already sensed the subtle and slow-developing movements which make it inevitable…. If the final tableau seems right and necessary to the audience, Pinter's whole design has worked: the action and dialogue have the same inner compulsion.
This fatefulness expressed in a play's action is not considered directly in words, but its effectiveness is inescapable if the actors have achieved any degree of success. And, to help them, Pinter has persistently maintained an intimation of the un-named forces behind the fashionable, accurate, amusing, everyday, trivial talk. The whole design is inextricably concerned with psychological issues, but that is not all. Each concluding change of situation comes with an added awareness in the characters of some previously hidden bias (as in A Slight Ache or The Lover), or with the elimination of other responses (as with Aston in The Caretaker), or with violence (as in The Dumb Waiter when Gus enters beaten-up or in The Room when Rose is blinded). In creating his complex dialogue and shapely plays, Pinter has found a means of showing a world of apparent triviality and helplessness that must submit to violence and challenge; only in these ways can his plays end.
Pinter's drama has something of the rigorous dissection of Strindberg. It has more of that enlargement of the usual to gain both revelation and entertainment which is found, variously, in Freud, Beckett and Music-Hall performances. But this dramatist is no showman or lecturer; he does not comment, or sum up, or stop for applause. He relies above all on the deeply considered expressiveness of actors who are used to the scrutiny of film or television cameras and also willing to 'complicate' their performances. Stanislavski's training techniques would be wholly applicable for actors in Pinter's plays as in Chekhov's, but more depends on them; no other dramatist of subtle character portrayal, including Ibsen and Shakespeare, has made psychological expressiveness so entirely the central fact and actuating principle of his drama.
The gains are paradoxical. The dramatis personae have become more normal, inhabiting the author's and actor's own mental and emotional world, so that any strangeness in the action seems like a representation of familiar fantasy and any violence a realisation of an unconsidered fear of violation. And at the same time the characters seem more imprisoned in conditions established before the play began and in the lack of any intellectually conceived means of escape; even the brief and fated development of their situations is inextricably predicated in all the petty decisions they make towards speech or action. On first hearing, or on impatient acquaintance, Pinter's plays, like his dialogue, can seem banal; their size, colour, delicacy and weight depend on the actors' ability to transmit under the text the deep and necessarily consistent truth of behaviour that they discovered in long rehearsal. If this is achieved in performance the author's world can become that of his audience, and his search for power and stability (or "truth") can enlighten its imagination. (pp. 142-44)
John Russell Brown, "Dialogue in Pinter and Others" (originally published in The Critical Quarterly, VII, No. 3, 1965; copyright © 1965 by The Critical Quarterly), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 122-44.
The shock-tactics of Harold Pinter's dramaturgy are so effective that his audience, cowed into the pit of irrationality, is afraid to ask why in the name of anxiety it has succumbed, and what it is in the plays that gives them such insidious power. To ask the question at all may seem silly, because Pinter, we know, deliberately destroys all clues for a rational appraisal: the irrationality is the major part of the meaning. Everyone has of course experienced the menace and terror and loneliness which are generally applauded as Pinter's chief dramatic effects. It is not only drama critics who by sheer repetition have made us accept anxiety and alienation as the final account of experience. And yet we are right to ask the question, because the very deliberateness with which Pinter befuddles us hints at an ordered meaning which will satisfy the rational levels of our minds. Anxiety is a word to conjure with these days, but what it pulls out of the hat is only the shadow of a meaning. And if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the state of shock is enjoyable only if sooner or later rational relief is in sight.
In spite of the clever dislocation of common sense, Pinter's plays affect us because they are about the middle-class family, both as sheltering home longed for and dreamed of and as many-tentacled monster strangling its victim. It does not, after all, surprise us that there is more menace and irrationality in this dramatic material than in any other. The London stage since 1945 (to look no further) has been very much occupied with the family as a trap-door to the underworld. Whether the angle of descent has been religious, as in Graham Greene, or social class, as in Osborne and Wesker, the game of Happy Families has provided the entertainment. Pinter, however, is by far the most radical in breaking with the naturalistic conventions of drame bourgeois. For he burrows into dark places where it is of little consequence whether a family is working-class or professional. If he is obsessed by the peculiar horrors of middle-class families, this is not within the larger view of social class, but simply because they epitomize everything that is horrifying in any family situation today. He makes us see that class distinctions are curiously out of date for today's theatre, and that a kitchen sink is no more enlightening than a coffee table. When such paraphernalia are made into class-symbols, they merely hide what Pinter knows to be the real drama. We cling to kitchen sinks in the belief that at last we have reached something solid and honest; but Pinter will have none of that. He destroys the predictable place of things, deliberately confuses and contradicts. As soon as a situation looks as if it were attaining a recognizable meaning, he introduces some nonsense, wild improbability or verbal play, and we fall once more through the trap-door. His plays consist largely of his dogged attempts to destroy consistency and any clue to a rational pattern. The act of writing becomes, then, the work of the repressive censor as much as what is usually thought of as the creative imagination. This would seem to account for the taste of ashes, the sterility which pervades not only Pinter's plays but the whole Theatre of the Absurd in spite of its wildly fantastic ingredients. But the interesting point about this censorship is that it in fact underlines, or at any rate circumscribes, the very clues it destroys. As a result the audience is insidiously attacked at a level where it hurts most.
Pinter's plays are largely about the running away from certain family situations, and the faster the running, the clearer it becomes what he is running away from. Every trick in his repertory is supposed to distract our attention from those unappeasable furies haunting his mind. But their faces, or masks, leer and glower from the plays all the same. By dislocating our attention from the common sense view of things he makes us alive to primitive fears, destroys the rational façade of the adult mind, and lays bare regressive fantasies. He does not put to secondhand use ancient myths, in the manner of Cocteau or Sartre, but discovers the infantile fears that lie at the roots of those myths, and that are the ultimate nourishment of the poetic imagination.
There is another level to his plays, one he himself has drawn attention to. Much of what strikes us as irrational, comic or even idiotic, he says, he has merely set down as actually observed. The way people talk at or past each other, have breakfast together, or discuss the furnishing of a room is quite extraordinary enough if it is set down without embellishment or literary convention. But this strangeness of the ordinary Pinter uses as a way into the more fearful strangeness of the usually hidden. (pp. 703-04)
The real power of Pinter's plays does not lie in the shock-tactics of the dramaturgy but in the terribly familiar situations they are supposed to draw our attention away from. We may not be aware of the obsessive fears of childhood which dominate Pinter's characters (or shadowy configurations that take the place of characters), but we are never far from them, and a Pinter play can trip us over into that neurotic world. The very shadowiness of the characterization makes his world more real, and makes it easier for us to enter it, to "identify." Pinter gets through to the level of neurotic obsessions by a radical break with conventional images of reality. He parodies the bourgeois life which plays out the neurosis. But his most remarkable achievement is that at his best his vision is not a fanciful distortion of reality, but has the effect of a more direct, honest understanding of it. This honesty is the strength of all original art; with Pinter it often reaches the extreme point of seeming naiveté: the pouring of a cup of tea, the reading of a newspaper can become events fraught with climactic meaning. These are not, however, symbolic actions; their significance is genuinely in their being lived. Pinter has a very strong sense of what people really experience (as against what literary convention says they experience), as well as a sense of the mystery contained in the trite and banal. In The Room (1960) the blind Negro is not a symbol, but the real instance of extreme loneliness, of human weakness, who calls to the woman, and who must be kicked to death by the man unable to face such weakness in a human being. The idea of the room itself occurs in most of Pinter's plays. It does not have to symbolize some abstraction of anxiety. The actual four walls are part of our most important experience: to be inside a room, or to be outside in the open spaces—this elementary contrast is probably as closely worked into our emotions as anything we can think of. By way of such outrageously simple imaginings Pinter arrives at the most direct and also the most harassing view of things, and the banal is forced to reveal its mystery. Every poet knows that the world of mysterious dreams is to be found at the very centre of banality. But the obverse is also true: the most terrifying anxieties are caused by commonplace occasions. Pinter's plays are not about menaces and anxieties in some metaphysical realm, but take their life from the very heart of reality, the bourgeois family. And whether we like it or not, nothing could be more real than that. (pp. 711-12)
R. F. Storch, "Harold Pinter's Happy Families," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1967 The Massachusetts Review), Autumn, 1967, pp. 703-12.
Harold Pinter's The Homecoming is a masterful play. I do not speak of its content but of its construction. When a play is praised in this respect what is generally meant is that the play conforms to a past model in the tradition of that subtly logical coherence Ibsen brought to the realistic form of the nineteenth century. Pinter's construction is of a different sort. Not to perceive this is to misconstrue the play.
To the unaware theatregoer The Homecoming may seem to have an ordinary continuity. But if he regards it in this way he will find it bewildering, unfathomable, unreal, to use adjectives which have been applied to it in most of the recent reviews. The play is none of these things. In fact it may be too simple.
It is superficially a family comedy…. The third and oldest son [a professor of philosophy], absent for years, brings home a pretty wife for a brief visit. (p. 210)
The plot of the play, although it is misleading to call it that, shows the men gradually converting the philosopher's wife into a consenting whore. She must engage in the occupation to put her weight into the family budget while her father- and brothers-in-law look forward to enjoying her favors. She accepts the terms after driving a hard bargain, for she—a mother of three, by the way—is as unyieldingly calculating as any of them. Her philosophical husband leaves without further ado to return to his campus.
The scene in which the deal is made is not the climax of the story or the point of the play. It is only the finishing touch. Every scene and verbal exchange is as indicative of the play's meaning as every other. They are all facets of one theme. The play is a parable of insensibility, the death of values, a world in which little remains but primitive appetite. (p. 211)
The meaning is to be sought in the lack of feeling, absence of any moral or ideological foundation, the heartlessness which encompasses all.
This explains the attitude of the apparently wholly enigmatic character of the play: the soft-spoken philosopher's wife. There was a lack of living substance in the life she led with her husband on the immaculate campus, a place as barren of spirit and pulse as the home into which they have come. Being well taken care of as a whore will prove no worse and perhaps more honest.
How does Pinter make so absolute and damaging a statement theatrically fascinating and lucid? By constructing his play not on the basis of a simple narrative line, in which case it would indeed be incredible, but through a series of fragmented passages joined by brief but unmistakable breaks. The device renders the play abstract. There is a continuity of idea from one fragment to another, a unity of atmosphere. (p. 212)
What is the sum of all this? Pinter's manner is icy: he does not declare himself. He leaves interpretation to the audience. (This is most brave.) He has a keen ear for dramatic speech, he writes with superb control: there is hardly a wasted word. At first one is inclined to think that he must be either wickedly unfeeling or perhaps that he has no convictions. But no! Only a prophet or a fanatic, fiercely moral, can be so damning. But Pinter is wholly of our moment: we refuse to be hortatory, to cry out, plead, condemn or call to account. Since we do not permit ourselves to "take sides" overtly, we grin or keep our jaws so tightly clamped that it becomes hard to tell whether we are kidding or repressing pain. The mask is one of horror subdued in glacial irony.
I do not see life as Pinter does. But it is imperative that he reveal his view of it: it is part of the truth. He is an artist, one of the most astute to have entered upon the world stage in the past ten years. Those who do not respect and appreciate his talent understand little of our times or its theatre. (p. 213)
Harold Clurman, "The Homecoming" (1967), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 210-13.
The Homecoming, though flawed and marked by aesthetic problems not yet overcome, is the impressive culmination of a subtle process of change that set in midway in Pinter's career. It was toward a seemingly greater realism, a filling in the vacancies, in which abstract menace and unspecific fear lurked, that had resulted from his abandonment of accepted thematic developments, of ordinary psychologies and sociologies and the sequential narratives in which the stage has traditionally encased them. But this realism had nothing to do with an imitation of life or the conventions of popular drama, except that, in the latter case, it made a canny and partly ironic use of them.
The shift can be studied through Pinter's changing mises en scène. Moving into domestic settings, usually middle- or upper-middle class, he largely withdrew from those alarming locales of his earlier plays—the basement room of The Dumb Waiter, the seedy rooming house of The Birthday Party, the dementedly cluttered room of The Caretaker.
These theatrical sites were objectively disturbing, menacing in their own right, physical metaphors of violence which meant that their atmospheres tended to carry a disproportionate share of the plays' effects, tended in fact to consolidate those effects as the very essence of the works.
The setting of The Homecoming still possesses disquieting features in its great gray sparsely furnished room. But something crucial has happened. This new Pinter room no longer largely dictates what is to happen to its inhabitants but only reflects what has happened and will happen to them; its walls and furnishings have soaked up their emanations, for the center of dramatic reality has passed to them.
Yet it doesn't lie in them now in any way which we can organically connect with what we think of as domestic drama. If you think during the opening moments that you are watching a familiar battle scene, on the order of Virginia Woolf, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, you will be unprepared for what is to come and you may grow disgruntled, having expected, in the second act, denouement, completion, some satisfying rich ripe finale. But the play moves to its own logic, and is not a tale; its characters are only tactically engaged in representing potentially real people, their strategic task being to incarnate, along the lines of the "characters" in The Brothers Karamazov, certain human faculties, dividing among themselves fundamental possibilities of attitude and approach to existence. They are their figures in a drama of the mind, which is not to say an intellectual drama, but one which makes no pretense (or only a pretense) of being a replica of actuality. (pp. 103-04)
It is a brilliant piece of writing, one almost no other English-speaking playwright would be capable of. Fusing the most exact and compressed meanings with the most intense feeling, colloquial at the same time that it stretches to a more inclusive and nonrealistic level of speech, it exemplifies what is never considered in our public chatter about the theatre: that language can itself be dramatic, can be the play, not merely the means of advancing an anecdote, a decoration, or the emblem of something thought to be realer than itself. (p. 106)
There is something crowded, rushed into being, somewhat arbitrary about [the] last section. Ruth takes command, promising in the manner of a contemporary fairy godmother to be whatever the men want her to be: for Joey a madonna figure, for Lenny a whore, for Max a young and rejuvenating wife. A whole allegorical structure now rises shadowily into view. But it is too late, it has not been fully prepared for and therefore comes as an afterthought. Yet the main action of the play has been completed with Ruth's move toward the family and Teddy's devastating acceptance of it; to wish to do more, to want his dense, specific, precisely nonallegorical vision to yield up such further tenuous meanings is evidence that Pinter has not yet solved his major problem. And that is how to fuse meaning so securely with language, gesture and setting that it cannot be extrapolated from them. The taints of the old worn-out dramatic procedures—characters who represent, action that points to something else—are still discernible in his work.
Yet, they are taints, not major infections. A struggle for the new is always more interesting than a successful appropriation of the old. (p. 107)
Richard Gilman, "The Pinter Puzzle" (1967), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 101-07.
Pinter's world … is hermetically sealed off from nature. His plays are urban fables in which no poplars sway against the distant orchard, no wind underscores human loneliness. Man's earthly garden, like the one in The Caretaker, is cluttered with lifeless, alien objects….
When Pinter invokes Nature, it becomes a travesty, not only of pastoral simplicity, but of all those who would seek to recollect it in tranquility. (p. 62)
Pinter is obsessed by the arbitrary boundaries man makes for himself: the walls constructed of concrete, of language, of philosophy, which protect him from a protean reality and give him a chance. In one of his early plays, The Dwarfs, Pinter states what he later showed:
The rooms we live in … open and shut … Can't you see? They change shape at their own will. I couldn't grumble if only they would keep to some consistency. But they don't. And I can't tell the limits, the boundaries which I've been led to believe are natural…. (pp. 66-7)
It is in The Homecoming that Pinter is able to achieve his most subtle interplay of naturalistic fact and a disturbing fluid reality. Max's living room seems as logical as the human situation within it seems improbable. (p. 67)
The room seems certain to the eye, filled with a steel-gray light as solid and reassuring as a Vermeer painting. It is immediately recognizable; the objects coax the audience into a comfortable acceptance. The audience assumes that the surroundings describe the characters on stage. But their response is betrayed; the action uncovers elusive truths of sexual fantasy, lust, and impotence. As the play gathers momentum, the audience discovers—without Pinter forcing it—that the room has lost its apparent solidity. The stairway, covered by that monumental arch, takes on an unnatural, seductive, phallic length—an almost sexual potency. (pp. 67-8)
Pinter employs no future tenses. His language shows memory a tractable tool, deceiving with seductive clarity. Memory holds no salvation and no value. Man can only live in an anxious, protracted present. (p. 70)
Pinter, like Chekhov, uncovers a subterranean music. The difference in their techniques reflects the difference in evolving realistic appraisals of the world. If Pinter's world seems a smaller, grayer canvas, it is not a limitation of craft, but of the modern world—which leaves Man with less faith in his mind, more fearful of the dehumanizing forces outside it. (p. 71)
John Lahr, "Pinter and Chekhov: The Bond of Naturalism" (first published in The Drama Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter, 1968; © 1968 by The Drama Review; reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Arthur Ganz, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 60-71.
[We] explain [The Homecoming] as a study in psychic ambiguity: under the banal surface a massive Oedipal syndrome (like the part of the iceberg you can't see) bumps its way to grisly fulfillment. Or, beneath Freud lurks Jung and the archetypal: the father-sons "contest," the "fertility rite" on the sofa, the Earth Mother "sacrifice," the tribal sharing of her body (a Sparagmos for sure), the cyclical "return," and so on. But before the play is any or all of these things, it seems to be something much different and much simpler.
Perhaps the best way to pin it down is to try to say why psychology and myth seem unsatisfactory as explanations. The trouble with them is that they bring to the fore a purposiveness which seems at odds with the nature of the imagination we are dealing with. They assume that the play is about these things, whereas I think they come much closer to being by-products, as we would be dealing with by-products of, say, a story by Poe in the themes of crime-does-not-pay, or man-is-evil, or even in the mythic structure which I am sure there are plenty of in Poe, as there always are in tales of victimization. As for the psychological drives themselves, one somehow doubts that Pinter's characters, deep down, are any more troubled by appetites of the sexual kind than Dostoevsky's people are troubled by finding suitable jobs. They seem far more interested in manipulating the idea of sexuality, for its effect on others, than in their own performance. As for the mythic elements, it is simply hard to see what they prove, other than that Pinter deals in some pretty raw urges, hardly a distinction these days. To be "primitive" is not to be Pinteresque.
I suggest that it is in the peculiar way the story is told and in the liberties it takes with the reality it posits. For instance, if we reduce the play to its main turns of plot we have something like this: a son and his wife return to the family home on a visit abroad. Almost immediately, the father and brothers make open advances on the wife. She seems to tolerate, if not encourage, them and the husband makes no effort to protect his interests. In fact, it is the husband in the end who makes the family's proposal to the wife that she stay on as mother, mistress to everybody, and as prostitute. She accepts (!) and he goes back to their three children. We anticipate that it will be the wife who now controls the family.
It would be hard to conceive an action, in modern "family" terms, which violates so many of our moral scruples with so little effort and so little interest in making itself credible…. [The] reaction one has to the play comes nowhere near Pity and Fear, or any of their weaker derivatives, but is better described as astonishment at the elaboration. And it is precisely this quality of astonishment that is apt to disappear from any thematically oriented recovery of the play. (pp. 149-50)
The Homecoming may be about homecomings of all kinds but it is not ultimately about ours. We witness it, it even coaxes us to grope for connections among our own realities (and find them), but it does not, as its primary artistic mission, refer us back to a cluster of moral or existential issues we care very much about. What astonishes about the play is its taking of an extraordinarily brutal action, passing it through what is perhaps the most unobtrusive and "objective" medium since Chekhov's, and using it as the host for a peculiar activity of mind. We have invented special words for this activity ("Pintercourse," "Pinterism," "Pinterotic," etc.), which Pinter understandably detests, but it seems we have needed them as semantic consolation for his having hidden from us the thing they refer to. (p. 150)
[The] source of our consternation and fascination with Pinter [is] our quest for the lost superiority of knowing more than the characters who now know more than we do, the very reverse of the familiar "dramatic" irony in which we know but they don't. To put it crudely, it is the goal of the Pinter character, as agent of his author's grand strategy, to stay ahead of the audience by "inventing" his drama out of the sometimes slender life afforded him (glasses of water, newspapers, cheese-rolls, etc.). His motto, in fact, might well be Renan's remark (which I … crib from Chevalier [in his book on Anatole France]): "The universe is a spectacle that God offers himself; let us serve the intentions of the great choreogus by contributing to render the spectacle as brilliant, as varied as possible." To this end, he becomes, as it were, a little Pinter, an author of irony, sent into his incredible breathing world scarce half made-up, morally, to work on the proper business of his author's trade—to "trump" life, to go it one better by going it one worse. (pp. 151-52)
I feel obliged to put Pinter into the context he deserves most and that amounts to considering him as a craftsman rather than a thinker, a maker of theatre out of "accepted" materials. [For example], I find the question of whether he sees the world as "essentially violent" about as interesting and relevant to his art as whether, let us say, John Constable sees the world as essentially peaceful. (p. 157)
Terence Martin … makes a case for Poe's "play habit," the "desire to astonish by boundless exaggeration or confusion of proportions." He is "our one author," says Mr. Martin, "who makes an absolute commitment to the imagination—who releases the imagination into a realm of its own where, with nothing to play with, it must play at our destruction. He shows us insistently that the imagination at his kind of play is not only anti-social but anti-human. To do justice to his contemporaries, perhaps we should say that what Poe undertook was not to be looked at without blinking."
That is more or less how I feel about Harold Pinter. In fact, with just a little transposing, we could probably derive most of the old Gothic essentials from our play: the nightmare setting, the double vision of the real and the super-real, the lurking fatality and inexplicable tyranny, the mysterious inspecificity and yet utter relevance of everything. Even—allowing for an unfortunate degeneration in our heroine—the central Gothic theme of the pale and lovely maiden dominated by the inscrutable sadist of the "nameless vice." This is not intended as a dismissal of either Pinter or Gothicism. If anything, it is a plug for art which produces reactions other than the shock of recognition, art in which the very limitedness of the artist to relatively outré kinds of experience and his ability to arouse the precise sense of that experience are the things to be praised. To me, Pinter falls brilliantly into this category and it is with considerable respect for him that I subscribe to his own evaluation of himself as "overblown tremendously" by people who "tend to make too much of a meal." This is not at all to deny the good chance that he may come out in the end as the Poe or Huysmans of the Absurdist theatre—a better fate, perhaps, than the one in store for some of our sterner moralists. (pp. 159-60)
Bert O. States, "Pinter's 'Homecoming': The Shock of Nonrecognition (originally published in The Hudson Review, 21, No. 3, Autumn, 1968; copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.), in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays,, edited by Arthur Ganz, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 147-60.
Harold Pinter is the most obviously consistent of new British dramatists: his settings remain relatively simple and taken from the world he lives in; his plays progress, with little plot development, but by a progressive revelation of inner tensions and appetites, towards a moment of clarification when (as he has described it) something is said that cannot be unsaid. His ear for the nonverbal qualities of speech and his eye for gesture or stage-business that is both usual and gripping, seemingly casual and yet revelatory, have given a similarity to the dramatic texture of all his plays. His interest in everyday ritual has also continued, from a birthday party to a homecoming, through seeking living space, taking possession, or taking "care" of a room, to taking breakfast or lunch, taking orders, fulfilling routines, visiting, collecting, and so on. The development of Pinter lies in his manipulation of dramatic focus. (pp. 10-11)
Pinter's involvement with the world around him has led him to a more open acceptance of the fantasy and sexuality of inner life and to a wider and more interrelated view of character. (pp. 11-12)
John Russell Brown, "Introduction" to Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical. Essays, edited by John Russell Brown (© 1968 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 1-14.
The second act [of The Homecoming] is a shocker, but those critics, like Walter Kerr, who have implied that it could or should stand by itself as a one-act play are misled. None of the events in this act would be supportable without the first act foundation. It is also important to see that the central movement of this act and of the play is Ruth's process of self-discovery. Teddy's victimization and his presumably lonely return to America and to the fall semester are only of peripheral interest. In addition, the play does not seem to be about the victimization of Ruth. At its conclusion, she is the queen bee, as Flora is at the end of A Slight Ache, as Meg is at the end of The Birthday Party, as Stella is at the conclusion of The Collection. It is a much stronger play when viewed as a process of self-discovery in which Ruth remembers things about herself, discovers things she had not known, weighs the needs of Teddy against those of the group, and makes an amoral but none the less logical choice. Max, Lenny, and Joey may have a certain hypnotic effect upon her, but it is a hypnosis which she chooses to undergo. (pp. 147-48)
But we, the audience, need more time to evaluate the strength of needs than Ruth, the character, does. Thus, the first act is crucial in allowing us to see the motherless, wife-less, sexless family in operation and in allowing us to see the essential sterility of Ruth's relationship to Teddy (three children notwithstanding). (p. 148)
Thus, the title of the play, seemingly obvious, must be re-examined. Again, this is true of all of Pinter's plays. "The birthday party" is a central event in the play which bears its name, but it is much more than a birthday party; it is also an initiation and a rebirth. "The dumb waiter" is a physical object and a state of being. "The caretaker" is a specific function offered to Davies and also a deep pun on man's responsibility for his fellow man. "The homecoming" like "the birthday party" is an event that occurs in the play: Teddy comes home, But the truer of the "homecomings" is Ruth's. She comes home to herself, to all of her possibilities as a woman. What she comes home to may not be very pleasant and the experience of watching the return may be lacerating, but in Pinter's world, as in that of Sophoclean tragedy or in the equally fatal universe of Ibsen, the human truth will always out. In fact, it is interesting that Pinter's titles are similar to those of the early Ibsen. As titles, A Doll's House, Ghosts, Pillars of Society, and The Master Builder have a double-edged ironic thrust to which Pinter's titles simply add an ingrained affinity for the play on words.
Pinter has frequently referred to himself as an extremely traditional playwright. This warning has generally been ignored. In the fashionable rush to see him as a playwright of the "absurd" (whatever that may mean) or as Chekhov's heir in the contemporary theatre, it is seldom realized that his form may be closer to the well-made play in its Ibsenite incarnation than to any other structural source…. The Homecoming an Ibsenite play? Only if we see that exposition, development, and resolution have been driven underground through a healthy distrust of language. The surface of any one of Pinter's plays may seem chaotic, arbitrary, and illogical. Short passages of stichomythia about apparently irrelevant subjects may be succeeded by massive speeches recounting personal experience, plans, dreams, bus routes which seem not to fit into the context in which they appear. This pattern is even truer of The Homecoming in which Pinter's increased daring in the manipulation of dramatic dialogue is readily apparent. But to react to this dialogue as arbitrary absurdity is to miss the true excitement of a Pinter play. For in Pinter, far more than in many playwrights credited with tightness of construction and dramatic economy, every word is chosen so that in the final analysis, nothing in the design shall seem arbitrary. Apparently trivial differences of opinion over cheese rolls, cigars, glasses of water, routes to the airport, are, in fact, Pinter's somewhat unique means of exposition and development. What we lack in precise information about the characters' backgrounds and motives is made up for by a very complex knowledge (if we are alert to it) of the nature of their shifting emotions in regard to each other. What they do not say becomes an important here as what they do say. Thus, the pause, the silence, can take on an expository and developmental function. In addition, there are physical indicators. Pinter has stated that he begins his plays with a vision of certain physical relationships between people in a room: sitting, standing, lying, kneeling. A careful look at his final curtains will reveal a significantly altered physical relationship which makes a statement beyond the power of words. Other individual moments allow us to chart stages in the development again by purely physical means.
The Homecoming with its sinister family history (à la Rosmersholm), its clear division between exposition and development incited by the homecoming (à la Ghosts), its withheld facts from the past suddenly revealed in a climactic scene (à la almost any Ibsen play), and its emphatic resolution, is structurally a very traditional piece of playwrighting. What Pinter mainly adds is a distrust of language, a belief that language is more often used as evasion than as revelation. Only if we are committed to charting structural unity in a play through what is said, only if we are unwilling to try to see through layers of subterfuge to the emotional truth of individual moments, shall we be induced to believe that the structure of the play is arbitrary or that deliberate obfuscation is a motivating force. (pp. 148-50)
As Pinter's technique has developed, he has eschewed approaching his material through the inner life of a single character and has worked towards a balance in which various individual needs and fears may all be answered, if not satisfied, by a single resolution. The major turning point came in Act Three of The Birthday Party, where Pinter, having disposed of his ostensible hero, moved on to examine the conflicting needs of the group which had disposed of the victim. But the concept of inner geography remains valid in the subsequent plays. Exposition, development, and resolution can not be open in Pinter because he refuses to compel any character to say more than he wants to say or can say at a given moment. But what the characters do say is always to the point in that it exposes more and more what the characters fear, anticipate, and cherish. In this respect, it often does not matter whether what they say is, in fact, true. An invented past can be as telling as a true one. Thus, it makes little difference whether Ruth was or wasn't a photographic model for the body, or whether she was or wasn't a whore when Teddy married her. It makes little difference whether Jessie did or didn't sleep with MacGregor, whether Lenny's stories of his violence towards women are highly exaggerated or complete fabrications, or whether Teddy and Ruth have three children or not. The play does not operate at a level of facts…. All we are to expect from the play is a gradually expanding knowledge of the inner lives of the characters. This knowledge almost always reveals an imbalance which we can count on the resolution to bring a new equilibrium. Pinter's vision of human relationships is basically dialectical. Contradictions lead to new syntheses which in turn may break apart. (p. 151)
The concept of family which Max and Lenny have is clearly a collage of empty clichés. Responsibility, democracy, morality, quality, standards, feelings, values, liberality of spirit, and generosity of mind: words, words, words. But beneath the verbal gloss, as beneath a politician's panaceas, what we see in the attitudes and responses of the characters and in their relationships to each other is a reality which is prehistoric and primitive, a world where appetite reigns. Max's stick defends him against the murderous impulses of his sons; a woman is dragged into the cave and the inhabitants argue over their share in her as if she were a piece of meat; images of blood and butchery predominate; any respect for the value of human life is belied. Beneath the stated values of the play, there is a total absence of values, a void which is filled by the human family's animal struggle to survive and perpetuate itself. That such an environment should spawn a Doctor of Philosophy is one of the more brutal ironies of a play which exposes the powerlessness of rationality. The Homecoming makes us aware that Pinter is again showing us nothing more surprising or mystifying than man's primitive nature reasserting itself, naked and demanding, from beneath the layers of intellectual and ethical sophistication with which it has been so carefully covered. (p. 163)
Hugh Nelson, "'The Homecoming': Kith and Kin," in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown (copyright © 1968 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Hugh Nelson), Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 145-63.
Only when it was recognised that the verbal element need not be the dominant aspect of drama, or at least that it was not the content of what was said that mattered most but the action that it embodied, and that inarticulate, incoherent, tautological, and nonsensical speech might be as dramatic as verbal brilliance when it was treated simply as an element of action, only then did it become possible to place inarticulate characters in the centre of the play and make their unspoken emotions transparent. Pinter is among the discoverers of this highly significant aspect of drama.
If we examine some of Pinter's favourite linguistic and stylistic devices in the light of these considerations, we shall find that, far from being mere verbal absurdities held up to ridicule, they do in fact illuminate the mental processes that lie behind the ill-chosen or nonsensical words; and that in each case superficially similar quirks of language may serve quite different dramatic functions. (p. 214)
Traditional stage dialogue tended to err on the side of assuming that people have the right expression always ready to suit the occasion. In Pinter's dialogue we can watch the desperate struggles of his characters to find the correct expression; we are thus enabled to observe them in the—very dramatic—act of struggling for communication, sometimes succeeding, often failing. And when they have got hold of a formulation, they hold on to it, savour it, and repeat it to enjoy their achievement. (p. 215)
Repetition, which, as Pinter has discovered, is an aspect of real speech that stage dialogue had neglected under the influence of the rhetorical tradition (which rejects recurrence of the same word as stylistically inelegant), is, of course, also one of the most important elements of poetry—particularly in the form of whole phrases that recur as refrains, for example in ballad metre—on the realistic level. Pinter uses the refrain-like recurrence of whole sentences to show that people in real life do not deliver well-thought-out set speechs but tend to mix various logical strands of thought, which intermingle without any apparent connection; while the structure of rhetorical or written language tends to be logical, that of spoken language is associative. (pp. 217-18)
Always, in Pinter's world, personal inadequacy expresses itself in an inadequacy to cope with and to use language. The inability to communicate, and to communicate in the correct terms, is felt by the characters as a mark of inferiority; that is why they tend to dwell upon and to stress the hard or unusual "educated" words they know. (p. 224)
Again and again in Pinter's plays, language becomes the medium through which a contest of wills is fought out, sometimes overtly, as in the disputes about the correct expression to be used or about the correct meaning of a given word or phrase, sometimes beneath the surface of the explicit subject matter of the dialogue. (p. 229)
[If] one analyses Pinter's work closely, one will find that behind the apparently random rendering of the colloquial vernacular there lies a rigorous economy of means; each word is essential to the total structure and decisively contributes to the ultimate, over-all effect aimed at. In this respect also, Pinter's use of language is that of a poet; there are no redundant words in true poetry, no empty patches, no mere fill-ins. Pinter's dramatic writing has the density of texture of true poetry.
That is why—as in poetry, the caesura; as in music, the pause—silences play such a large and essential part in Pinter's dialogue. Pinter uses two different terms for the punctuation of his dialogue by passages without speech: "Pause" and "Silence."… When Pinter asks for a pause …, he indicates that intense thought processes are continuing, that unspoken tensions are mounting, whereas silences are notations for the end of a movement, the beginning of another, as between the movements of a symphony. (pp. 236-38)
Pinter's pauses and silences are often the climaxes of his plays, the still centres of the storm, the nuclei of tension around which the whole action is structured: there is the "long silence" at the end of The Caretaker, when Davies' pleading for permission to remain in Aston's room elicits no answer. This "long silence" is the death of hope for the old man, Aston's refusal to forgive him, his expulsion from the warmth of a home—death. But as the curtain falls before he is seen to leave, it may also be the long silence before that final word of forgiveness is pronounced: the "line with no words in it" thus has all the ambiguity and complexity of true poetry, and it is also a metaphor, an image of over-whelming power. (p. 238)
Such economy and subtlety in the use of language, such density of subtext beneath the sparseness of the text itself, are surely the hallmarks of a real master of the craft of dialogue. (p. 242)
Martin Esslin, "Language and Silence," in his The Peopled Wound (copyright © 1970 by Martin Esslin), Doubleday, 1970, pp. 207-42.
Meticulously written, with an odd lucidity in which every speech is shiningly clear and at the same time, in its context, bewilderingly ambiguous, Old Times suggests (it never says) that the past is a kind of palimpsest, so that one's memories overlay one another and one can't be sure which of them really happened and which are in fact dreams. (p. 286)
And since so much experience is centered in sexual longing, our lives tend to move toward a never fulfilled yearning for the satisfaction of some true knowledge, a confirmed consciousness of what life has been to us, an unequivocal grasp of its meaning. However, all that is left to us are imprecise but haunting "old time" melodies, songs that linger in the air.
Is it so? For Pinter it is. Subtle craftsman, shrewd dramatist, he builds his plays as metaphysical melodramas, their ambivalences fostering suspense. Nor does he omit the irony and surprising comedy of the situations he posits. With all this, Pinter remains a master of contemporary theatre writing with something more than a "manner"; he is no mere trickster or aesthetic tease.
Having acknowledged that much, I must extend my review with a few subjective notations or statements of personal prejudices. My tastes veer toward a less ascetic art. I favor fullness; I enjoy rich surfaces, greater body, broader canvases…. Perhaps there is no help for it, but I am discomfited by the bleakness of so much of the "modern." Why, I ask myself, must our own art be so sedulously "minimal"? (pp. 287-88)
For all my alienation from the Pinteresque "landscape," I nevertheless admire Old Times for the probity of its delineation, the authenticity in the projection of an individual vision—which is part of the truth of our day. (p. 288)
Harold Clurman, "'Old Times' (London)" (1971), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 286-88.
Old Times is Pinter's most poetic play. It is an extremely concentrated expression of mood rather than "story." Another writer might have attempted to convey that mood in a lyric or mystic manner. Pinter's mystery is wrought without "mysteriousness." Another writer might have projected the play so that the audience would immediately recognize it as fanciful. Pinter writes as if his mystery were cold fact, a literal and specific report of actual occurrences. In other hands, the play's idea might be transmitted with warmth; Pinter's artistic demeanor is tight, glacial.
What Pinter seems to be saying is that memory merges much of what has happened to us into things which we only imagined or dreamed as having happened. The reality of the past fades and memory transforms real events into shadowy remnants of experience which are no more substantial than reveries. "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened," one of the characters says, "but as I recall them so they take place." In other words what happens in people's minds is as true as what has happened in the objective world, while clouded remembrance of actual events may become dim to the point of nonexistence. (pp. 301-02)
Whatever reading one may ascribe to Old Times is less important than the anguish of sexual longing which many feel at the extinction of the past, with all its pleasures, hopes, ambitions and adventures. Hence an experience is both real and unreal, never fully possessed. Reality is remote. There are enormous gaps of darkness in our consciousness; with the passing of the years what we live through is buried in obscurity. Only the mirage of life is constant.
That at least is Pinter's feeling. But he does not say it. He will not be forthright, assertive, ratiocinative. All such attitudes might bespeak a theory, an ideology. Though there is longing and a quiet weeping in Old Times, there is no outcry; there is even humor. It is a frozen dream of life, conveyed as lucid and transparent. Life, finally, is puzzling and frightening, a wonder and a "slight ache." Pinter's "face" is fixed to avoid any indication of perturbation or plaint. (p. 302)
Harold Clurman, "'Old Times' (New York)" (1971), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 301-03.
One of Pinter's most notable skills is the ability not merely to catch the naturalistic note … but to add to it as the play develops suggestive symbolic overtones that give it greater resonance and at certain climactic moments to intensify, even to alter it, so that character becomes symbol and the work moves into another dimension.
Pinter's plays require of their audiences a sensitivity to these shifts in aesthetic key—some slight, some abrupt and daring—and especially to those moments of symbolic expansion when the characters lunge forward, thrusting their significance at the beholder. The feeling of dislocation that the audience experiences as the plays move back and forth between the realistic psychological mode and the symbolic one accounts, in considerable part, for the sense of menace that pervades Pinter's world. But it is the threat of meaning rather than the threat of violence that lies at the root of Pinter's menace. The beatings, blackouts, and guns of the early plays are ultimately no more disquieting than the inner disturbances of the later ones. What is evoked by the comparatively crude, though brilliantly effective, devices of The Room, The Dumb Waiter, and The Birthday Party is the same thing that is suggested by the more subtle effects of the plays that follow: the fear that what lurks in the inner self will force us to acknowledge its presence. The result is that when audiences begin to hear the symbolic resonances of the plays, they also begin to feel the special menacing unease characteristic of them. For that sense of menace is intimately connected with a paradoxical phenomenon: the further the plays move into the symbolic realm, the nearer they come to the world of the audience itself. (p. 7)
Arthur Ganz, "Introduction" to Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Arthur Ganz (© 1972 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 1-18.
From the first Pinter has dealt with the conflict between two significant impulses of the inner self. One is toward a life of power, energy, and sexual gratification; but because this impulse is often associated with coarseness, perversion, or crude self-aggrandizement, it evokes a contrary impulse toward retreat, restraint, withdrawal, remoteness from life. The desire to shelter in a room, so often noted in Pinter's work, is a way of expressing in dramatic terms the desire to retreat from those impulses of the self that are both dangerous and alluring. The new life that burgeons in the psychic waste land may be a vital growth, but it is not a spiritual one.
Though the blatant power with which these ambiguous impulses surge through The Homecoming is much muted when Pinter returns to the theatre with the brief, contemplative, actionless Landscape, it is nonetheless present. Turning from the grand scope, the intense confrontations, the startling actions of The Homecoming to a drama of meditation, a theatre without movement, Pinter still remains committed to the exploration of the great antitheses that are the twin anchors of his work. Indeed, however different Landscape is from the major play that preceded it (and it is likely that Pinter intended it to be as different as possible) the opposition of force and delicacy, of passion and control, embodied in both Landscape and its companion piece, Silence, links them indissolubly to The Homecoming and to the general body of Pinter's work. Silence and The Homecoming, in fact, are in one aspect opposites: whereas the sexually active and powerful Ruth decisively chooses the passional life of her husband's family over the arid conventionalities of her life in America, Ellen, the heroine of Silence, fails to make a choice between the two suitors, who represent similar, though not identical, antitheses. (pp. 161-62)
Ellen's life is dominated by the memory of a past which, however elusive and uncertain, has had a sinister power in shaping the present. This great Ibsenite theme—of the weight of the past—begins to appear significantly in Pinter's work with The Homecoming, as Ruth broods over her earlier life in England and feels it drawing her back. (Figures from the past enter into The Room and The Birthday Party, but in these plays the past per se is not emphasized thematically.) In the dramatic sketches, Landscape and Silence, Pinter explores the theme, and finally in Old Times he lets it flower out as a central motif of a longer play. But whereas in Ibsen the past is a chartered countryside through which one makes a sure and progressive journey to some point of illumination, in Pinter the past is a misty wasteland into which one makes sporadic forays, returning with fragments of insight and information which contradict and confuse as much as they enlighten…. Pinter … is still searching for the resolution to that opposition, of quiescence and vitality, which has haunted his work from its beginning. The intruders in Pinter's plays have always tended to be impulses from the inner self; as his work has become more subtle and more clearly focussed on that inner life, the gangster from the void has been transformed into the living memory of the past. But given the fundamental antipathy of these impulses he is no more likely to find a resolution in the world of memory than in that of the sinister present. (p. 169)
As a Romantic artist, Pinter has known as much as any modern playwright the appeal of the liberated self. He has sensed, and embodied in the plays, that impulse toward the unlimited expansion of the ego, toward dominance, luxury, action, possession, sensual gratification. But as a late and disillusioned Romantic, Pinter has also known from the first that such an impulse was not to be trusted, that such qualities were as destructive as gratifying. Davies of The Caretaker is as near as Pinter has come to drawing a portrait of archetypal man; and though we pity Davies because he is, like all of us, weak, ignorant, lost on an endless journey, subject to age and death, nevertheless, we know that the endless self-aggrandizement of so vain and dangerous a creature cannot go unchecked. Yet so pressed are Pinter's characters by the demands of the self that the only way they can escape them is through total retreat into some state of withdrawal—some room—where they will be sheltered. Persons such as Stanley, Aston, Teddy, and Kate are not hiding from the I.R.A., or the trauma of a mental home, or a coarse family, or a lesbian past but from the demands of the inner self.
Pinter has often spoken of his admiration for Samuel Beckett, and his stylistic debt to the great symbolist playwright is easily enough perceived. Yet, though he shares Beckett's recognition of human vanity and fallibility, Pinter lacks the Irish writer's sense of the metaphysical on the one hand and his humane whimsy on the other. Of all the major modern playwrights, Pinter seems in certain essentials most closely allied to one comparatively distant in time and very different in style, Henrik Ibsen. Pinter shares with Ibsen a kind of grim humor, but more significantly, an essentially ambiguous view of the human condition. Both have given us figures possessed by a desire for self-aggrandizement, dominance, fulfillment, yet forever held back in a state of psychic paralysis. If he were not still trailing some clouds of Faustian glory, the Master Builder might find a place in a Pinter play; Hilda Wangel, the embodiment of feminine power, would probably not object to making certain contractual arrangements with Lenny and his family in The Homecoming. For the creators of Solness and Davies, of Hilda and Ruth, are both attracted by the power of the vital inner self and repelled by its ruthlessness. That there should be so marked a similarity between the first great modern playwright and the writer who has most recently assumed a place in the line of descent from him suggests not only a coincidence in personality but the extent to which the modern drama is a body of Romantic art. And as the Romantic writer has characteristically turned to the past as a source of fulfillment, so Pinter, in Landscape, Silence, and Old Times, has sought there for the resolution to the contradictions with which he has been concerned. If his search has not brought us answers, it has brought us his plays, which are significant records of his quest. (pp. 177-78)
Arthur Ganz, "Mixing Memory and Desire: Pinter's Vision in 'Landscape,' 'Silence,' and 'Old Times'" (© 1972 by Arthur Ganz), in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Arthur Ganz, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 161-78.
Like Chekhov, Pinter's chief dramatic means are the trivial remark and the small gesture, which in their apparent inconsequence seem to hide deeper meanings, but which, in fact, ultimately reveal the truth about people in a given situation. It is as if Pinter were saying that the most ordinary people in the most ordinary situations are actually experiencing King Lear, Oedipus the King, or Macbeth—that the great dramas of history are occurring every day in the lives of each of us. But he achieves this by employing very simple and natural means. (pp. 311-12)
Robert W. Corrigan, "Anger and After: A Decade of the British Theatre" (shorter versions originally published in anthologies edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 1962, 1965, 1968), in his The Theatre in Search of a Fix (copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Corrigan; used with permission of Delacorte Press), Delacorte Press, 1973, pp. 301-15.
The moment one underscores the word "sexuality" in relation to Pinter, almost his entire body of work takes on a different light. Even the trite but true idea of menace in earlier Pinter, of formless fear, becomes differently galvanized.
The majority of his short plays and all of his long plays except The Caretaker are concerned with sex in some degree….
There is an unmistakable difference in Pinter after The Caretaker. That play, a small masterpiece of hate and fear and desolation, so sure of itself that it often includes comedy, seems to cap a series of variations on materials and moods contained in The Room and The Dumb Waiter. Each of these plays deals with an enclosed space, a seeming refuge, into which menace and hostility seep. Through those early plays, The Birthday Party and a number of short works, sexuality had also been a theme, though not always the dominant one. After The Caretaker, sexuality takes over.
The dynamics of The Homecoming, Pinter's next long play, is non sequitur—in interchange, within long speeches, in action, in continuity of scenes. This method, applied to the subjects of family, marriage, and the family's relation to a son's wife, shocks us with disjuncture. One of its effects is to reveal the suppressed—both in the characters and in our own social composition. Also, because of the outrages calmly committed and calmly accepted, the play is very funny….
Pinter's next plays, two short works called Landscape and Silence, were innately sexual, as was the brief play Night…. An important point about all three of these plays is that the writing shows a gentleness unprecedented in Pinter. This gentleness continues as part of the complex mix in Old Times. (p. 39)
Is [Old Times] about a husband trying to defend his marriage against the recurrence of his wife's youthful homosexuality?… Well, even in this age of broadened acceptances, that could still be a legitimate drama, depending on its depth of character, on its honesty about the fears involved on every side. But I think that Old Times goes further, encompasses more, becomes something other than a battle between hetero sex and homo sex.
As noted, Pinter has lately moved more and more fully into the field of sexuality. But he has no social thesis, no psychological bent. Sexuality is to him a territory of powers and mysteries and paradoxes. Old Times no more says that we've all got to stand fast against homosexuality than The Homecoming warns us against creeping prostitution. In Old Times the particular arrangement of elements in the sexual field—a husband, a wife, a former girl friend of the wife's—appealed to Pinter, I would venture, only as colors and masses do to a painter, tone and harmonies to a composer. They had to be people, not nameless charade figures, or, Pinter's dramatic method being what it is, they would not have become "colors and masses" in his eyes. But it was feelings that he was after, rather than a schema, the powers of sex expressed through these exponents, in these tensions and attractions. It is that sense of sex power over lives—shaking and shaming and exalting them—that remains after the play. It is the agony of affinities, unchosen but irresistible, that Pinter has caught in the slender filaments of his exquisitely distilled dialogue, his pauses and silences. Deeley and Kate and Anna are very much themselves; they are also manifestations of a giant invisible force.
It is this ability to dramatize the invisible that characterizes Pinter's theater. Many have noted that his work hovers on the edge of the rational, that he likes to tease at the border of the irrational and unrational…. This aspect of the irrational, apprehension of the "horror," is signified often by physical threat (The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party), but the threat and the fear are only symbols for the tissue-thin security of life itself, the immanent condition of mortality, whether one is patently threatened or not….
Sexual vulnerability in us, immanent as the vulnerability to death, acknowledged or not, struggled against or submitted to, is what Pinter has circumscribed in this play. His delicately modulated, chromatic, contradictory writing, spaced and bound by silences, is like a series of colored markers sent up to the surface of a sea by a danger deep below, the mere surface index of a huge buried presence in us that has nothing to do with reason or explanation….
I have only tried to identify the surface markers of a deeper, inexplicable action. The great gift of Pinter is that his words and actions demarcate the inexpressible without needing to express it. The patterns of demarcation in Old Times are more important than the "becauses"—inevitably so, since the "becauses" do not exist. (p. 41)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Pinter and Sexuality: Notes, Mostly on 'Old Times'," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1974 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Stanley Kauffmann), July/August, 1974, pp. 39-41.
At the first appearance of Pinter's The Birthday Party … [in 1958], I was a fledgling critic still floating in limbo, a Bisto kid whose nostrils had not yet learned at one sniff to distinguish sulphur from incense.
The Birthday Party was clearly the work of a playwright of talent. But where I hailed him as full of promise, I should also have noted he was stuffed with threats. I recognised a potential, but underrated the potency. It seemed, then, too like a conjuring trick, a triumph of misdirection, possibly concealing some obvious sleight-of-hand which otherwise would not have fooled an adjudicator of student drama competitions. And Harold Pinter was a magician with a new gimmick: the slowness of the pace deceived the ear. So I ended up saluting the menace and the comedy while regretting that this new arch-plotter should rest content with producing a Hitchcock thriller without the last reel.
Since then, I've seen The Birthday Party I think five times and each time it has turned to open a new squint into previously hidden regions, like a sculpture on a revolving pedestal. In 1958, Pinter looked as if he were flogging old-fashioned content packaged in contemporary form. It was natural to contrast him with John Osborne who appeared to be advertising a totally new ingredient in traditional wrapping…. But in 1975, it seems clear that Osborne was marking an end, not a beginning. He inserted a full stop. Harold Pinter left a row of dots…. Since then, there has been the struggle for socialism, for nuclear disarmament, for Black Power, for Free Palestine and Ireland, for Women's Liberation, for survival of the planet, though some of these took a decade or so to get into the pages even of this magazine. But The Birthday Party could still encompass most of them. (p. 89)
Alan Brien, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 17, 1975.
With the possible exception of a bygone amusement called Young England, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party must be the most famous bad play in the annals of English drama. Upon its first appearance in 1958, it was set upon in the prints with a virulence that was unquestionably a touch overdone and, on that account and in the light of Pinter's later successes, the reviewing trade has been behaving with grovelling penitence towards it ever since, as though the practitioners had somehow allowed their conservative prejudices to blind them to the arrival of a new Ibsen. It has been said, indeed, that the 'obscurity' of The Birthday Party produced precisely the same kind of recoil among reviewers as had the 'moral shock' of Ghosts in a previous generation, although I am inclined to doubt this view, such people as Eliot and Beckett having already established the artistic virtues of bafflement. Even so, it can probably be said that Pinter raised to a new level of acceptability the kind of play in which the audience not only has no precise idea of what is going on, but seriously doubts whether the author has, either….
In fact,… all this is digression, prompted by the latest revival of The Birthday Party, on which I have nothing to say beyond persisting in the unfashionable belief that Pinter is the most overrated dramatist of his time (his most notable achievements, I have always thought, have been in the fields of the revue sketch and the film script), and that this particular play, while it has its vagrant merits, is not essentially a great deal better than it was first thought to be. (p. 72)
Kenneth Hurren, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 18, 1975.
No Man's Land … explores the paradox between chillingly inflexible ideas and a reality so ephemeral that it may be false, and often is. What turns this grandiose philosophical dilemma into exhilarating theater is the fact that the play is very funny….
Pinter people tend to live ineffably in the present and represent nothing outside themselves. Events have no proximate causes, let alone final Aristotelian ones. But in his last play, Old Times, Pinter's characters began to be defined by their uncertain memory of the past. Now the particulars of the present are beginning to be bounded by the dark inevitability of the future, the no man's land of death in life. The new and more abstract world that Britain's leading playwright has begun to explore at 44 is still imperfectly mapped, and he will no doubt travel in it further as he moves on into middle age.
Lawrence Malkin, "Pinter's New World," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 19, 1975, p. 80.
No Man's Land, it seems to me, is the inner landscape of the old—when life has stopped but existence goes on. Hirst summarises: it 'does not move … or change … or grow old … remains … forever … icy … silent.' Outer reality is a matter of politesse accelerating into shambolic anacoluthon. Hirst's incredible drinking is not an explanation of this condition, but the excuse for a complete fuddlement which would exist without alcohol. Banalities are the only safe currency, memories drift into dreams, the past must be clumsily improvised, pointless power-struggles take place between Hirst and the decrepit Spooner—it is the world of Ending Up, without the jokes. Moreover, Hirst is not ending. The terminus has been reached. Briggs and Foster, the two young sinister helpers, with their threats, jokes, deliberate nonsense and exaggerated politeness ('Doctor's orders') are surely the alien living, seen through the clouded retina and the failing mind. (p. 152)
Craig Raine, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 1, 1975.
Much of Pinter's early writing may be set down as moral parable about an amoral reality. Yet, for all its distortions, there is a weird clarity in the imagery. In Old Times Pinter's distorting mirror seems to be overlaid by a veil which causes one to doubt whether any reality exists at all. Many theatregoers, therefore, insist that the play is thoroughly unintelligible. They fail to recognize that this opinion arises not from the play's composition but from its very point: the medium, in this case, is the message.
Some find Pinter's new play, No Man's Land, just as or even more puzzling. It has been subject to the most fantastic, not to say idiotic, interpretations. If one is disposed, as I am, to take it almost literally, it is by no means as "difficult" as some would have it. It presents two writers who may have known each other in their nonage and who, now in their 60s, meet each other by chance. One of the men has become affluent and famous, the other has won little recognition; he is poor and looks rather the worse for wear. His attitude toward the luckier man [who, Clurman notes, "lives in a constant alcoholic haze"] appears deferential, but one perceives in his semi-servile stance a touch of superiority, an innuendo of vindictive malice….
Characteristic of Pinter's art is his refusal to say anything—anything, that is, which may be readily formulated as a "position." The play, an emanation of the writer's troubled being, is projected in "detached" imagery. Like the unsuccessful writer (his conscience, his alter ego; the play may be auto-criticism, the two writers being one man "before and after"), Pinter is perhaps summing himself and his work up in its concluding lines: "You are in no man's land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent." To which the successful one's response is, "I'll drink to that." If such be the case, I submit that while it is significant of Pinter's present spiritual condition and is to be assumed relevant only to that (for Pinter disclaims all concern with political or social issues), it may still be taken as an utterance which has its source in a society at a dead end, unable to move backward or forward. (p. 124)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 16, 1975.
It is impossible to think of a Pinter play in terms of mime, for the groping attempt of two or more characters to mark out contested territory with indefinite words—as animals … mark out territory with definite posture, movement, colour and sound—is central. The new patterns of dialogue can be regarded as the principal interest in each play. All other interests—including structure and insight into character—are inseparable from the 'transactions' in the dialogue. Pinter has worked out his plays, and the plays work on us, through words.
On the level of artistic creation this means that … [the] words on the page are the shaping medium of the play, occasionally showing a strain of inbreeding, words multiplying words in scenes that seem autonomous. On the level of 'audience impact' the words compel patient listening, attention to how things are being said, sometimes against what is being said. For certain patterns in a Pinter play may gain an almost hypnotic hold on ear or mind, even though they do not inform, have no emotional charge, and offer only neutral clues to the speaker.
On the linguistic level proper Pinter's dialogue is precise enough to provide samples for a work on the Varieties of Contemporary English; and the conversational rhythms alone could be used to train 'aural perception' in foreign students of spoken English. (It would be a much less mechanical primer than the one that inspired Ionesco's The Bald [Soprano]). The precision is matched by the social-cultural range of the dialogue across Pinter's entire work…. Pinter has a facility for starting with a particular speech-style at a level of mimesis which Beckett found uncongenial and which Eliot could only achieve with strain. Yet a particular speech-style is not left 'to speak for itself', each is gradually made to exhibit its 'absurd' potentiality. (pp. 165-67)
Pinter stands in sharp contrast to Beckett and Ionesco. Beckett—who seems to have been present at some latter-day Fall or Babel of literary language—has created his dialogue out of the stylised breakdown of hyper-literary styles. Pinter, to develop the image, has taken the linguistic Babel for granted (perhaps too glibly at times) at the level of everyday exchanges, talk, chat, verbal games—with an ear for local usage, or rather abusage and verbiage. He seems to carry no literary 'burden of the past'. He has created his dialogue out of the failures of language that might occur as English is spoken, by frightened or evasive or sadistically playful characters. The words come much less from 'eavesdropping'—that naive picture of the dramatist in the bus queue—than is sometimes supposed. The patterning in the dialogue frequently goes with violent or mannered distortion. Yet a Pinter character's speech can, eventually, be 'pinned down' to an identifiable person even when it is used to conceal identity. In sum, Pinter's dialogue tends to 'correspond' to what we hear outside the world of the play, even though it is made to 'cohere' with the overall rhythm of the play. (p. 169)
[The] texture of Pinter's dramatic language is quite different from Beckett's. Yet clearly this is related to other important differences which can only be listed here. The structure of many Pinter plays—notably The Caretaker and The Homecoming—can be plotted as a half-submerged but otherwise forward-moving action (implicit exposition, denouement, and so on), while Beckett's plays turn in a static-perennial cycle. A Pinter character can nearly always be extrapolated (the dots can be connected to draw a familiar figure, as in the child's puzzle), and hours can be spent discussing quite traditional questions of motive and psychological interaction. The time-scale for a Pinter play can be measured by the clock; there are no 'timeless moments', and no openings to time lost beyond redemption. Pinter's silences are perfectly timed to fit characterisation and to create a rhythm, but we do not feel—as we do in Beckett—that language is created out of a silence that is, in the end, all-consuming. (Though Landscape and even more Silence are Pinter's attempt at reaching this dimension.)
In sum, Pinter has little of Beckett's intense 'metaphysical' anguish; and, again, little of the sheer intensity of feeling—that to speak is to suffer and that all language is exhausted. But Pinter has learnt to exploit his own sense of languagenausea. (pp. 171-72)
In his most authentic work Pinter succeeds … in 'making something occur' out of the felt paralysis of words. He can re-create the rhythms of difficult or failing utterance with a detached, almost ego-empty method of writing, in a dialogue 'not subjected to false articulation'. This is a specialised, reduced version of one of the aims of classical naturalism. (p. 172)
[The] progression of Pinter's work as a whole shows a determination to avoid cliché and self-repetition. Each of the four major stage plays has attempted to do something different—and the urge to innovate, to re-create the language in and for each new play is something Pinter shares with Eliot and Beckett. Pinter keeps renewing his dramatic form and language, at the cost of what looks like increasing critical self-consciousness…. The price is recurrent mannerism. The achievement: the shaping of an essentially mimetic dialogue towards a new kind of expressiveness in a 'theatre of language'. (pp. 173-74)
In the early plays, particularly in The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and A Slight Ache, quasi-ritualistic patterns are used repeatedly to give a rhythmic intensity to climactic scenes. Yet the rhythms of ritual—responses, catechismic cross-examination, litanies—are used parodistically or playfully to dehumanise speech…. Then, in The Caretaker … a language of lived encounter is created out of the fragmented speech of two inarticulate persons: Aston and Davies set against the sadistically elaborate jargon-speeches of Mick. To that extent The Caretaker is Pinter's most valuable achievement in unified 'listening' and 'shaping', in fusing the human and abstract attributes of dramatic language. (p. 177)
Landscape and Silence can be seen as a concentration—or distillation—of Pinter's concern for 'shaping', both as overall design and as insistent patterns of sound and rhythm. At the same time these plays point, once more, to one of the polar extremes of modern drama: the 'infolding' of language, at once reduced and musicalised, within a miniature play. The urge against explicit or rhetorical language which was first expressed by the Symbolist poets … has finally found expression in a carefully limited dramatic language. (pp. 190-91)
Andrew K. Kennedy, in his Six Dramatists in Search of a Language: Studies in Dramatic Language (© Cambridge University Press, 1975), Cambridge University Press, 1975.