Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 9)

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Pinter, Harold (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Pinter, Harold 1930–

Pinter, one of England's leading dramatists, has also written poems, short stories, screenplays, dramatic sketches, and criticism. In his plays there is an ever-present anxiety, a sense that nothing is certain. The seemingly meaningless conversation that is characteristic of his dramatic dialogue reveals a sense of the absurd akin to that of Beckett. The absurdity of atmosphere contrasts vividly to the naturalistic settings of his plays. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Pinter has chosen to be the great "mystifier," whose plays are famous (notoriously so, even to the point of parody) for their meaningful silences, their unanswered questions, their ambiguities, their symbolism admitting a multiplicity of interpretations. But this anarchic privilege of making his plays mean whatever one wants them to mean (traditionally, they are parables of "the human condition," taking place anywhere, at any time) does a considerable injustice to the achievement and particularity of No Man's Land.

The title … has its historical resonance, of course, taking us back to World War I, when the phrase was descriptive of that bleak, blasted space on the Western Front between the German trenches and the trenches of the Allied Forces. But Pinter is not writing a "war" play,… and his setting is not a battlefield but a very handsome drawing room, elegantly furnished—a great sweep of four windows in a semicircular bay, curtained in green velvet—in a fashionable quarter of London…. What do we find there?

Two men in their sixties, Hirst and Spooner, the former nattily dressed and evidently the host, for he is pouring drinks, the latter in "a very old and shabby suit; dark, faded shirt, creased spotted tie." Hirst … is a successful man of letters, very rich and very drunk—in fact, an alcoholic on his way, in this first act, to total incoherence and stupor. Spooner … is also a man of letters, sprightly where Hirst is ponderous, gabby where he is taciturn, and a failure where Hirst is so notably, in his expensive drawing room, a success. In fact, Spooner is the epitome of the potentially gifted writer who has talked his gift away over countless pints in countless pubs.

When the play begins, Hirst, pouring whiskey at the cabinet, asks, "As it is?" and Spooner replies, "As it is, yes please, absolutely as it is." This casual exchange of stereotyped phrases—precisely what one says in such a situation, the offer of a drink in someone's house—might serve usefully as the motto, or epigraph, or signpost for Pinter's play: "as it is," the true subject of No Man's Land. The crucial question, then …, is quite simply, "What does Pinter mean by 'as it is'?" To which one might fairly reply, the condition of life, "now and in England." (p. 102)

Hirst and Spooner—the one a success, the other a failure—are merely opposite faces of the same social coin: both belong to the class of gentlemen, as their accent (still a decisive indicator in English life) immediately proves. And both are powerless. They are the captives (in a quite literal way) of Hirst's guardians/nurses/caretakers—Foster, a man in his thirties, and Briggs, a man in his forties. When these two, who complete the cast, enter in the middle of the first act and begin to speak, we know, thanks to the decisive indicator, that almost certainly they are thugs, and certainly not gentlemen…. They are new men, flat, quasi-transatlantically accented, sinister, and outside the boundaries of class….

Poor drunken Hirst, poor gabbing Spooner, measured against the threatening, hinted-at realities of Foster and Briggs—how frail and anachronistic they seem, survivors from a discarded history. "All we have left," says Spooner, "is the English language," and together he and Hirst are allowed by their creator to offer a virtuoso display of language in action, resonant, allusive, echoing (deliberately) Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and others of the...

(The entire section is 4,296 words.)