Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 11)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Pinter, Harold 1930–

A major British playwright, Pinter has also produced poems, short stories, screenplays, dramatic sketches, and criticism. His work is noted for its brilliant handling of dramatic mood and tension. The superficial, banal dialogue characteristic of his plays reveals the dramatist's fascination with the way people communicate, which for Pinter transcends the limits of language. Pinter's plays have at their core a fabric of irrationality and absurdity; this serves to highlight his persistent theme of the ambiguity of truth and ways of knowing. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The technique of casting doubt upon everything by matching each apparently clear and unequivocal statement with an equally clear and unequivocal statement of its contrary—used rather crudely in some parts of [his first play, The Room]—… is one which we shall find used constantly in Pinter's plays to create an air of mystery and uncertainty. The situations involved are always very simple and basic, the language which the characters use is an almost uncannily accurate reproduction of everyday speech (indeed, in this respect Pinter, far from being the least realistic dramatist of his generation, is arguably the most realistic), and yet in these ordinary surroundings lurk mysterious terrors and uncertainties—and by extension, the whole external world of everyday realities is thrown into question. Can we ever know the truth about anybody or anything? Is there any absolute truth to be known?

However, this is to anticipate. In The Room the hand is not yet entirely sure and the mystifications are often too calculated, too heavily underlined. The suppression of motives, for example, which in later plays comes to seem inevitable, because no one, not even the man who acts, can know precisely what impels him to act, here often looks merely an arbitrary device: it is not that the motives are unknowable, but simply that the author will not permit us to know them. So, too, the melodramatic finale…. [Rose, in this play], belongs to that group of characteristic Pinter figures from his first phase (that in which he wrote 'comedies of menace'), those who simply fear the world outside. The plays of this group—The Room, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, and A Slight Ache—all take place in confined surroundings, in one room in fact, which represents for their protagonists at least a temporary refuge from the others (it is tempting, but not really necessary, to see it in terms of Freudian symbolism as a womb-substitute), something they have shored up against their ruins. The menace comes from outside, from the intruder whose arrival unsettles the warm, comfortable world bounded by four walls, and any intrusion can be menacing, because the element of uncertainty and unpredictability the intruder brings with him is in itself menacing. And the menace is effective almost in inverse proportion to its degree of particularization, the extent to which it involves overt physical violence or direct threats. We can all fear an unexpected knock at the door, a summons away from our safe, known world of normal domesticities on unspecified business (it is surely not entirely without significance that Pinter, himself a Jew, grew up during the war, precisely the time when the menace inherent in such a situation would have been, through the medium of the cinema or of radio, most imaginatively present to any child, and particularly perhaps a Jewish child). But the more particularized the threat is, the less it is likely to apply to our own case and the less we are able to read our own semiconscious fears into it. (pp. 235-36)

[In The Birthday Party], the element of external violence has not altogether disappeared, but the heavy (if cloudy) symbolism of The Room has vanished, and instead we get a real comedy of menace which is funny and menacing primarily in relation to the unrelieved ordinariness of its background. The very fact...

(The entire section is 9,960 words.)