Harold Pinter

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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

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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....

(This entire section contains 3564 words.)

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[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 that Stanley, Meg, and her husband Peter are believable figures living in a believable real world intensifies the horror of Stanley's situation when the intruders come to break into his comfortable humdrum life and take him away. But, it might be said, the arrival of McCann and Goldberg takes it out of the real everyday reality: whatever we may have done in our lives, it is unlikely to be anything so terrible and extraordinary that two professional killers would be hired to deal with us. The answer to that is that this might well be so if Stanley's offence were ever named, or the source of his punishment explained. But this is not the case: the menace of McCann and Goldberg is exactly the nameless menace with which Stanley cruelly teases Meg before they arrive…. Just as she can be terrified by this nameless threat of retribution for unknown crimes, so we can be terrified when the same fate actually overtakes Stanley. With his habitual dexterity in such matters Pinter manages to rig the scene of Stanley's breakdown in such a way that we never know what the guilt to which he finally succumbs may be: every conceivable accusation is thrown at him, one way and another…. Something for everyone, in fact: somewhere, the author seems to be telling his audience, you have done something—think hard and you may remember what it is—which will one day catch you out. (pp. 237-38)

The ambiguity, then, not only creates an unnerving atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty, but also helps to generalize and universalize the fears and tensions to which Pinter's characters are subject. The more doubt there is about the exact nature of the menace, the exact provocation which has brought it into being, the less chance there is of anyone in the audience feeling that anyway it could not happen to him. The kinship with Kafka, particularly The Trial, is obvious…. Pinter has not omitted to provide a footnote to The Birthday Party in a one-act play he wrote immediately afterwards, The Dumb Waiter. In The Birthday Party the hired killers (if they are hired killers) appear as all-powerful and inscrutable: where Stanley is the menaced, they are menace personified, invulnerable beings, one might suppose, from another world, emissaries of death. But no, The Dumb Waiter assures us, hired killers are just men like anyone else; they only obey orders, and while menacing others they themselves can also be menaced. (pp. 238-39)

The fact that the people being menaced [in The Dumb Waiter] are precisely those whose business it is usually to menace others, hired killers, offers an extra twist of irony, but does not make any essential difference to their situation. It does, however … [cast] doubts on the safety and integrity of the room itself. Without any physical intrusion whatever, the menace may be lurking already inside the room …; it is no good simply keeping our minds closed to outside influence, for even inside there the seeds of destruction may already be planted. (pp. 239-40)

[A Slight Ache] marks the end of the 'comedy of menace' phase in Pinter's work, though ironically just when he was moving out of it the phrase was coined and has become almost unavoidable in discussion of Pinter, though generally applied to work which does nothing to merit the title. For these early plays, however, the description is admirably exact. Menace is unmistakenly present: the central characters … are all prey to unknown dangers, unspoken threats, and finally an unpleasant fate (all the more sinister for remaining undefined) overtakes them all. But comedy is present, too, usually in the earlier scenes, but nearly all through in The Dumb Waiter. Evidently, on one level at least, Pinter has learnt a lot from the master of controlled horror, Hitchcock, many of whose bravura effects are achieved in precisely this way, from making some horrible reality emerge out of a piece of light and apparently irrelevant comedy. But Pinter's comedy rarely even seems irrelevant: it is 'about' the same things as his scenes of terror, the inability, or he has implied, the unwillingness of human beings to communicate, to make contact with each other. If it is terrifying to open the door to a strange knock, it is equally terrifying to open your mind to someone else, for once he is in you never know what he may do…. Consequently, in ordinary conversation Pinter's characters twist and turn, profoundly distrustful of any direct communication, and even when they attempt it are generally constitutionally incapable of achieving it: hardly ever in his work does one encounter two people of the same level of intelligence in conversation—there is nearly always one leaping ahead in the exchange while another stumbles confusedly along behind—except at the lowest end of the scale, where both are so stupid that communication is virtually impossible anyway. And out of these confusions and conversational impasses Pinter creates his characteristic forms of comedy…. (pp. 241-42)

[If his revue sketches] are plays in miniature, they are plays with many differences from what has gone before. There is no menace, no battle between the light and warmth of the room and the invading forces of darkness and disruption from outside…. They are just tiny cameos in which two or more characters are put into relation with each other and allowed simply to interact; they are all, in a sense, about failures of communication, or more properly perhaps the unwillingness to communicate…. (p. 243)

[Later,] the emphasis in his work comes to be placed much more squarely on the relationships between characters, their attempts to live together without giving up too much of themselves. (It might be remarked, parenthetically, that if no character really wants to communicate with the others in Pinter's plays he nearly always wants the other to communicate with him, and much of the tension in the dialogue comes from the constant evasions, the slight revelations and drawings back involved in this endless skirmishing on the threshold of communication, with each character determined to find out more than he tells.)… [Though] the earlier plays are certainly not tied to a moral of any sort, they are slightly impeded in the presentation of people just being, existing, by the exigencies of plot, which require them to be menaced and to succumb…. [But in A Night Out and The Caretaker], the characters, the one mysterious external menace removed, can get on with precisely the job this statement envisages for them: just existing.

It is, in fact, tempting to see Pinter's progression from the earlier plays to the later in terms of a closer and closer approach to realism. In the early plays the quiet, often wryly comic tone of the opening scenes is gradually replaced by something much more intense and horrific, and something considerably farther away from mundane considerations of likelihood. The probability of what happens, indeed, is never at issue: it is clear from the outset that this is a private world we have been permitted to enter, and as such, whatever relations with any outside world of objective reality we may imagine we perceive, it has its own consistency and carries its own conviction…. Menace, [in The Birthday Party], is a matter of situation: it does not come from extraordinary, sinister people, but from ordinary people like you and me; it is all a matter of circumstances whether at some point I suddenly become the menace in your life or you the menace in mine, and not anything inherent in either of us…. [In] The Dumb Waiter he comes closer still [to reality] by elaborating the point about the normality of those who menace when they are outside the context in which their menace is exerted, and by leaving the violence implied in the final tableau instead of having it directly enacted on the stage. From here it is a short step to A Slight Ache, in which the nominal menace is completely passive and the real disruptive force exists in the mind of the menaced. There is no violence here at all, because no violence is needed.

The point at which this gradual change seems to crystallize in a single decision is in The Caretaker, where again we have the room, but no outside menace, simply a clash of personalities on the inside, and again we have to have one of the inhabitants displaced by another. (pp. 244-46)

[In The Caretaker] for the first time psychological realism overtly won out; these … are people existing, making their own decisions, creating the circumstances of their own lives, and not in any sense the puppets of fate, as were in many respects the characters of The Room, The Birthday Party, and The Dumb Waiter. The Caretaker still works completely in terms of a private myth, as they did, but it gains in richness and complexity by also working completely, as they did not, on the quite different level at which comprehensible motivation comes into play: for the first time we can sensibly consider (if we want to) why the characters do what they do as well as, more obscurely, why what happens has the effect it does on us. (p. 246)

[The] style of The Caretaker is much more direct than that of Pinter's earlier plays. Everything that Aston says—suitably enough, considering his mental condition—is perfectly clear and unequivocal. And though Mick's mental processes are devious the intention behind everything he says is clear, even when he is talking apparently at random just to unsettle the old man…. Only Davies is subject in his conversation to the characteristic Pinter ambiguity, and this is here symptomatic not of the general unknowability of things, but of a specific intention on the character's part to cover his tracks and keep people guessing about himself…. (pp. 247-48)

In fact, [The Caretaker] seems to be built upon a proposition new in Pinter's work, one which he has expressed as 'simple truth can often be something much more terrifying than ambiguity and doubt'. (p. 249)

Little by little the desire for verification has shifted from the audience into the play they are watching; instead of watching with a degree of mystification the manoeuvres of a group of characters who seem perfectly to understand what they are doing but simply offer us no means of sharing that understanding, we are now required to watch understandingly the manoeuvres of people who do not understand their situation but are trying laboriously to establish the truth about it. And this truth goes beyond the mere verification of single facts (except, perhaps, in the comedies) to a quest for the how and the why, the who and the what, at a deeper level than demonstrable fact. This involves a new preoccupation with the means of communication, since the question comes back, will people tell the truth about themselves, and if they will, can they? (pp. 257-58)

Significantly, the only people in Pinter's plays who appear to tell the whole truth, into whose minds indeed we are permitted to look, are madmen…. Between The Room and The Dwarfs we have in effect run the complete dramatic gamut from total objectivity to total subjectivity, and discovered in the process that there are no clear-cut explanations of anything. At one end of the scale no motives are explained and everything remains mysterious; at the other as many motives as possible are expounded for us, and if anything the result is more mystifying than before. It is only from a middle distance, as in The Caretaker and A Night Out, that we can see a picture simple enough to hold out the possibility that we may understand it, that we are given enough in the way of motive to reach some provisional conclusions on the characters and their actions. It is a perfect demonstration of the conspiracy on which normal human intercourse relies, and incidentally of the knife-edge on which dramatic 'realism' rests: if we were told a little less about what is going on it would be incomprehensible, but if we were told a little more the difficulty of establishing any single coherent truth would be just as great.

In fact, the great paradox of Pinter's career, by the normal standards of the theatre, is that the more 'realistic' he is, the less real. With most dramatists the sort of compromise by selection which permits us to feel we have a sufficient understanding of the characters and motives in The Caretaker and A Night Out is the nearest they get to reality; it seems like reality because in life we often assume much the same (generally on quite insufficient evidence) and anyway the idea that we can safely make such assumptions is reassuring. But in his other works Pinter has, to our great discomfort, stripped these illusions from us: we cannot understand other people; we cannot even understand ourselves; and the truth of any situation is almost always beyond our grasp. If this is true in life, why should it not be true in the theatre? (pp. 258-59)

[Instead] of regarding Pinter as the purveyor of dramatic fantasy he is usually taken for, we might equally regard him as the stage's most ruthless and uncompromising naturalist. The structure of his characters' conversations, and even the very forms of expression they use, are meticulously exact in their notation of the way people really speak (and this is as true of his best-educated characters as of his least …), while in his minutely detailed study there is seldom room for the easy generalization, even in his most explicit plays, The Caretaker and A Night Out. But to label him simply as a naturalist so truthful that his audiences have refused to recognize themselves in the mirror leaves several important elements in his drama out of account.

First, there is his mastery of construction, which is anything but naturalistic—life never shapes itself so neatly. Not only can he handle to perfection the one-act form, working up little by little to one decisive climax, but he can also sustain a three-act drama with complete mastery…. [This] is not to say that he writes what we usually mean by the 'well-made play', with its formal expositions, confrontations, and last-act revelations; for him much of the point of life is that we usually do come in half-way through a story and never quite catch up, that the two vitally concerned parties never do meet, that letter which will explain all and round things off neatly is probably never opened. And so instead his plays are usually built on lines easier to explain in musical terms. They are, one might say, rhapsodic rather than symphonic, being held together by a series of internal tensions, one of the most frequent being the tension between two opposing tonalities (notably the comic versus the horrific, the light or known versus the dark or unknown) or two contrasted tempi (in duologue there is usually one character considerably quicker than the other in understanding, so that he is several steps ahead while the other lags painfully behind). The resolution of these tensions used to be in a bout of violence, when one key would at last establish an unmistakable ascendancy (usually the horrific would vanquish the comic, the forces of disruption establish a new order in place of the old), but in the later works Pinter has shown new skill and resourcefulness in reconciling the warring elements or ending more subtly and equally convincingly on a teasingly unresolved discord.

This musical analogy points also to the other element in his drama which effectively removes it from the naturalistic norm; what, for want of a better word, we might call his orchestration. Studying the unsupported line of the dialogue bit by bit we might well conclude that it is an exact reproduction of everyday speech, and so, bit by bit, it is. But it is 'orchestrated' with overtones and reminiscences, with unexpected resonances from what has gone before, so that the result is a tightly knit and intricate texture of which the 'naturalistic' words being spoken at any given moment are only the top line, supported by elusive and intricate harmonies, or appearing sometimes in counterpoint with another theme from earlier in the play. It is this which gives Pinter's work its unusual and at first glance inexplicable weight and density; until we understand the process we are unable to account reasonably for the obsessive fascination the most apparently banal exchanges exert in his plays.

If Pinter's plays are the most 'musical' of the New British drama, however, it follows that they are the most poetic, because what else is music in words but poetry?… [His] works are the true poetic drama of our time, for he alone has fully understood that poetry in the theatre is not achieved merely by couching ordinary sentiments in an elaborately artificial poetic diction,… or writing what is formally verse but not appreciable to the unwarned ear as anything but prose…. Instead he has looked at life so closely that, seeing it through his eyes, we discover the strange sublunary poetry which lies in the most ordinary objects at the other end of a microscope. At this stage all question of realism or fantasy, naturalism or artifice becomes irrelevant, and indeed completely meaningless: whatever we think of his plays, whether we accept or reject them, they are monumentally and inescapably there, the artifact triumphantly separated from the artist, self-contained and self-supporting. Because he has achieved this, and he alone among British dramatists of our day, the conclusion seems inescapable that even if others may be more likeable, more approachable, more sympathetic to one's own personal tastes and convictions, in the long run he is likely to turn out the greatest of them all. (pp. 259-61)

John Russell Taylor, "A Room and Some Views," in his Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama (© 1962 by John Russell Taylor; reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters & Co. Ltd.), Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. 233-61.

James R. Hollis

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Harold Pinter has listened to the labored pulse of his century, limned its temper, and perhaps more importantly, recreated its frightening silences. In a time which Tiutchev adumbrated as the "hour of wordless longing," Pinter serves us well by reminding us that we live in the space between words. (p. 1)

Dramatic irony emerges from the disparity between expectation and result…. But Pinter's irony goes beyond "dramatic" or "Sophoclean" irony; it is existential irony. Pinter's plays may be ironic at many levels but their most pervasive irony arises from our confrontation with the world we actually live in but do not recognize. We ascribe anonymity to the characters and situations of Pinter's drama precisely because they are too familiar, too disconcertingly close to where we live…. [The] audience is implicated in the irony of Pinter's work in a fashion which is not superficially apparent but which accounts for the discomfort heroes and heroines always feel at the moment of anagnorisis. Thus the deepest ironic intent of Pinter's work is to make strange that which is familiar and to make familiar that which is strange. (pp. 7-8)

But even though Pinter's plays often seem bizarre and rather mysterious, they are nevertheless overtly realistic in their mood and movements. His characters, for example, are clearly upper, middle, or working-class types although that is not to say that they are typological or allegorical. Even though the problems of any single character may be paradigmatic, they are also distinctly individual. Pinter's characters are not pasteboard figures demanding a one-to-one identification with some allegorical backdrop; rather, they are open and incomplete as all men are open and incomplete. The abyss over which they seem to teeter is surely the same abyss which Heidegger describes as "the openness of Being." Pinter does not dehumanize his characters as Beckett and Ionesco sometimes do; they remain "human, all-too-human." (pp. 8-9)

Pinter seems to be the only playwright to fuse the absurdist consciousness with overtly conventional realism to achieve a dramatically viable amalgam. In A Slight Ache, for example, the audience readily enters into the world of the play because it seems comfortably familiar. Soon they realize themselves caught as the wasp is caught in the marmalade and, having committed themselves, must wait upon the conclusion. Then the playwright has his audience from the outset and they must see the matter through. Thus the afternoon tea becomes a horrifying ritual of divestiture without ceasing to be an afternoon tea as well. (p. 9)

Pinter is an original and creative talent. It is true that he has imbibed the vapors of the "masters" [such as Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet], and it is true that they have informed his vision, but the vision was there in the beginning…. Pinter is not then an absurdist in the strictest sense although he seems to be doing many things that the absurdists are doing. There are points of influence perhaps, but Pinter's voice is distinct and individual. (pp. 9-10)

Pinter perceives similar problems of communication as Beckett but employs a different strategy of dramatization.

Pinter employs language to describe the failure of language; he details in forms abundant the poverty of man's communication; he assembles words to remind us that we live in the space between words…. The effect of Pinter's language, then, is to note that the most important things are not being said, that the dove that would descend to speak the procreative word still hovers amid the precincts of silence. (p. 13)

Language is obviously important in Pinter's effort to get himself across to us, but we must also recognize the many occasions when it is through silence that he communicates. There are many ways in which Pinter uses silence to articulate, but the first, and perhaps most common, is simply the pause. The pause occurs when the character has said what he has to say and is waiting for a response from the other side, or it occurs when he cannot find the words to say what he wants to say. In either case he has attempted to span the chasm that exists between him and those around him. He is caught up short; he has reached the limits of language and now waits in silence for something to happen.

There are other occasions in the plays of Pinter when the silence is hard to hear because there are so many sounds being made at the same time. (pp. 14-15)

This is the silence which emerges when the most important things are left unsaid. (p. 15)

Pinter's characters typically manifest the exhaustion of their capacities and of the forms by which they live. Although they may fill the air with words, the silence of these characters is the result of their having nothing to say. Ionesco has effectively parodied this cultural phenomenon by eliciting nonsense syllables from his characters. Pinter has tried to do the same thing the hard way, that is by using the normal speech of the characters to reveal the poverty, the emptiness of their lives. These are characters who finally exercise their power of speech but find themselves, like the orator in Ionesco's The Chairs, filling the air with gibberish to camouflage the fact that they have nothing important to say. (p. 16)

Pinter's gift has been to create dramatic representations of silence as a presence…. While there is much in Pinter which is of significance to the discerning observer of contemporary artistic expression, perhaps nothing is more important than Pinter's endeavor to forge a poetic out of the silence which surrounds us. (p. 17)

One of the central metaphors in Pinter is "the room." The room is suggestive of the encapsulated environment of modern man, but may also suggest something of his regressive aversion to the hostile world outside. (p. 19)

The Room conveys a drab lower-class environment without the implicit sentimentalism of social reformers. This is not to say that Pinter is insensitive to the condition of his characters but that their psychological peril is his focus rather than their social deprivation. Thus the social environment is supplanted by the psychological environment and the psychological environment is the product of the needs and weaknesses of those characters. (pp. 29-30)

As much as the barrenness of the room, the entry of Riley, the violence of Bert may contribute to the metaphoric atmosphere of the play, it is clear that language is the means through which Pinter articulates the nameless and says what one finds hard to say. Through his uncanny ear for the syntax and rhythms of common English speech, Pinter is able to reproduce the sundry kinds of silence which we often do not consciously hear. (p. 30)

The language of The Room and [of] other plays … is the standard speech of the working classes, a patois informed by the daily fare of sex and violence in News of the World and the "telly." Why then does Pinter's conventional transference of this speech to dirty little people in grubby little rooms seem so unconventional? What strikes us as strange in Pinter is often due to the failure of our memory. If, for example, we find ourselves overhearing a conversation on a subway, we expect that there will be numerous gaps or pauses, many sentences left hanging…. If one were to transfer such conversations to the stage that which we take for granted would suddenly seem strange. Such a playwright would hardly seem a realist until we chanced to recall that our everyday existence is charged with just such mystery. (pp. 30-1)

One of the ways in which Pinter permits silence to work upon our consciousness is to have the characters engage in seemingly insignificant but compulsively repetitive activities. At first these acts may seem slightly strange or slightly humorous; but as they continue, they become forms of expression for emotions too profound to utter. Stanley's beating of the drum ends the first act [of The Birthday Party] and the second act begins with McCann slowly and mechanically tearing a newspaper into equal strips. Both characters are channeling and expressing their fears and aggressions. (p. 35)

The systematic undercutting of … fact is characteristic not only of The Birthday Party but of the other works in the Pinter corpus. It is not that the characters are lying (though we do not know that they are not lying); it is simply that we can only see the truth over their shoulders…. As the separate testimonies to the "truth" accumulate in Pinter's plays, the "truth" becomes even more uncertain and the "facts" of the matter begin to call each other into question. (p. 36)

[For example, in The Birthday Party, we] never know for certain that Goldberg and McCann are killers; perhaps they are from an asylum and are trying to return a patient. We never know who Stanley is; it is likely that he is using an alias and perhaps even his musical career is part of his cover identity. The Birthday Party resists all allegory. Pinter has left too many loopholes for the one-to-one identification which allegory demands. To allegorize Pinter one must also assume the author to have a preconceived plan for the play. In the [Kenneth] Tynan interview on BBC, Pinter expressly declared that he did not. Rather he explained, the idea grew out of the concrete situation. The characters, in effect, make the idea of the play and not the reverse…. The Birthday Party, then, is not a tissue of systematic signification, the requirement of allegory, but an elaboration, an exfoliation of existential givens. (pp. 41-2)

Pinter possesses a heightened sense for the dramatic which one sometimes also finds in the Hitchcock film. Our attention is focused on the most mundane details even while we know that something more important is afoot. (p. 44)

The Dumb Waiter has a number of motifs in common with The Room and The Birthday Party. But most importantly, in all three someone sits anxiously within a room and regards each intrusion into that room as the externalization of a threat long felt but unsusceptible to complete articulation. For this reason the sundry silences of the three plays are perhaps more important to our understanding of those characters than whatever they may say overtly. (p. 49)

[Although it is as tempting in this play as in the others,] it is not necessary to allegorize The Dumb Waiter to feel the compelling power of Pinter's dramatization of men ignorant of their assignment. It is not necessary to identify the mysterious voice with the Deity to understand man's suspicion that there is a power that is not so much malevolent as detached and unconcerned about those dancing on the killing ground beneath. There seem finally two ways of responding to the absence of answers to a man's questions. He may continue his frustration by asking himself additional questions until he has pushed himself to the abyss. Or he can simply continue to play the game and hope he does not stumble along the way. Gus and Ben personify this central dilemma. (p. 50)

The limitation of set in The Dumb Waiter and the other plays of "the room" metaphor obviously goes beyond the need to pare costs, beyond any desire to heed the so-called classical unities. It is rather a strategy to compress a situation, to focus on its central tension as a means of making manifest the Angst-ridden isolation of the characters in those rooms. What one may wish to make of those characters in those situations becomes the problem. Those who avoid allegory have Pinter's blessing. (pp. 50-1)

Pinter's theatre is consequently given to psychological realism rather than to social realism. His preoccupation is with the isolated individual and not the machinations of mace or mitre or suffering masses. But he is, paradoxically, more the realist than the realists. He cuts his "slice of life" thinner and thereby makes it more nearly translucent. Though he may portray a mad society, the basic commitment of the realist is to reason—the reasoned analysis, the reasoned solution. Pinter has no necessary obligation to reason, for his province is the psyche where there are things unaccountable to ratiocinative man. (p. 52)

Previously in Pinter one never discovered what any character's personality really was. The characters were all too frightened to undertake any probing self-analysis. In A Slight Ache (1959) we see at last characters who discover the truth of their identities. (p. 53)

The process by which Pinter takes Edward from a cocky, self-assured author to a snivelling dog that cowers before a man who does not speak is as subtle as it is terrifying. Edward's monologues are in fact dialogues, not between himself and the visitor but between himself and himself. He is engaged in questioning himself, and he finds that the answers are destructive. In the dialectic of examination, he discovers the synthesis, the final term, is emptiness. (p. 58)

Other themes which Pinter dramatized in A Slight Ache [in addition to this central theme of vacancy] include the psychological stratagems of projection and reaction formation, and the theme of blindness. (p. 59)

All of these themes have exercised Pinter's imagination [in other plays,] but they converge most successfully in A Slight Ache. (p. 60)

Pinter returns repeatedly to several themes which, expressed in problematic terms, seem central to the articulation of his vision. The problem of verification, for example, remains crucial to all of his plays…. The problem of identity recurs as well…. These themes are merged in some of Pinter's later plays as a struggle for possession. The struggle is to find and possess the truth, or as Kierkegaard might say, to stand in absolute relationship to it. But the struggle is also to find and possess the real person, the embodiment of the truth. The Caretaker merges these themes and is perhaps Pinter's masterpiece thus far. (p. 70)

[The] themes which preoccupy Pinter—the room as a haven from the threatening world outside, the search for the truth, the quest for identity, and the struggle for possession—attain their most engaging synthesis in The Caretaker. Night School and The Collection [which explore similar themes] thus serve as five-finger exercises for what most observers agree to be Pinter's greatest achievement….

The three careworn characters of The Caretaker are at various junctures along the circuitous path of this quest for identity. (p. 77)

Davies seems rootless, without a history or stable identity. His isolation is conveyed by his evasive answers to the questions. All identifying details seem lost and one wonders if Davies has ever known where he came from. The halting phrases, the confused pauses betray his fragmented consciousness. Davies has lost his way. He cannot retrace his steps or begin anew. (pp. 81-2)

Even the most banal aspects of existence seem fraught with serious implications for Davies because he is trying desperately to learn the game so that he can play it too. At every turn, however, he is defeated by language. Language is either too much for him or not enough for him; it either bewilders him or tells him the obvious. Either way he does not communicate to others nor understand fully what they are saying to him.

Because of the confusion about his own identity, about his "standing" in the world, Davies does not trust language at all. He cannot bring himself to say what he wants to say and so stammers around the subject. (p. 84)

Act two represents the fulcrum of the play. It is the occasion in which the triangular relationship begins to take shape and in which Davies begins to try to play the game. (pp. 86-7)

Each of the characters of The Caretaker nurses a private illusion…. Each wants to make his way in the world. While Aston and Mick are important to the story, it is clear that Davies is the central character. (pp. 89-90)

Davies is more buffoon than tragic hero, yet there are aspects of his character that approximate the classical hamartia. His "flaw" is to miscalculate, to misread the silent communion between brother and brother. (p. 90)

The apartment of The Caretaker may be seen as an expanded version of "the room." This time, however, the intruder is not the threat but the one threatened. (p. 91)

Again the vehicle through which the values of the play are made manifest is language. (p. 92)

Pinter has tried to do the most difficult of things, to talk about whatever it is we cannot talk about and for his effort, he is told that he lacks thematic content. Pinter gives voice to the silences, somethings poets have tried to do since Orpheus, and he is told that there is no lyricism in the proletarian paeans of Davies, Mick, and Aston.

The difficult trick which Pinter tries to turn in The Caretaker is to show the way in which the language succeeds in revealing most profoundly by seeming to fail…. It is in the "edging around" that the real conflicts of the play emerge. (p. 93)

There are other ways in which Pinter communicates by seeming not to communicate. The recurrent references to the Buddha statuette provide one example. The real symbols of the play, the shoes, the shed, et. al. are so mundane that one naturally expects the Buddha to function symbolically as well; but it does not. One could see it as the ordered center of a disordered universe but that takes us nowhere…. The point behind all of these non-symbols is that the symbols, the referents, the guidelines are not functioning. Davies wants to make his way in the world, to make the "right connections"; and he seeks the deeper explanation behind the phenomenal appearances, but there is none. (pp. 93-4)

It is in the sundry recitals of silence, then, that Pinter's recurrent themes are integrated and articulated. (p. 94)

It is easy to feel out of one's depth with the plays of Pinter. One always faces the question "what is this about?" or "what is he doing?"… When Pinter's drama is at its best, it is true that the audience may wish to evaluate what is going on; but their involvement is not so much rational as non-rational. Insofar as the nameless anxieties that haunt the characters are validly, that is to say dramatically, rendered, the observer is drawn into the same circle of anxiety. We are not all itinerant caretakers, of course; but we are all, in our own way, care-taken wanderers. If we rationalize while watching Pinter's plays, it is more likely that we are trying to hypostatize into categories the encircling metaphors of the play, to beat off their seductive gestures with our reasoned principles. (pp. 94-5)

Pinter's two act play The Homecoming (1965), reveals an assured craftsman who knows what he wants to do and is doing it. For many The Homecoming is not as satisfying a play as The Caretaker, but there is little doubt that The Homecoming is a rich fusion of the previous themes of the search for a secure home, the poverty of the self, and the struggle for possession. (p. 96)

Critic John Warner has argued that The Homecoming is a dramatization of the plight of contemporary man in the time of the eclipsed gods and their sorry substitutes, Science and Rationalism. Consciously or unconsciously, then, the characters of the play represent their fellows in a search for psychic wholeness. (p. 108)

The issue of morality has often been raised in connection with The Homecoming. At the superficial level, The Homecoming is a shocking play, an affront even to the morality of those who live in a morally fluid age. But the characters of The Homecoming are no more concerned with moral issues than a dog is self-conscious about his relationship to a fire hydrant. That is not to dismiss the characters as being merely animals. Rather they are dramatizations of a region of the human consciousness which lies below volition and is amoral in character…. They, like those who went before and like those who shall follow, are about the business of coming home, the return to the proximity of the source. (p. 110)

The Homecoming suggests the possibility that [Pinter's] silences are widening and are extending themselves toward the expression of compelling human archetypes. For all their refusal to leave "this world," Pinter's characters nevertheless strain for something beyond. The transcendental motive need not take its grounding in a specifically theological, philosophical, or cultural pattern to be authentic. Lenny tells us in The Homecoming that neither the known nor the unknown merits our reverence. But the silence which ensues from such a confession need not necessarily be arid. Neither is it necessary to conclude that to arrive home is to have completed one's venture. If the Pinter corpus can develop beyond The Homecoming, if the ensuing forms continue to be "original," if the silences continue to be procreative, then he will have demonstrated that "the way home is the way forward." (p. 111)

The silences of the last plays [Silence and Landscape] differ only in degree, not in kind from the silence which surrounded Rose, the Birthday Boy, and Davies. Throughout the corpus, characters try and ostensibly fail in their efforts to fling linguistic bridges across the abyss. But the abyss widens or deepens and the ballistic potential of their language is again outdistanced. Thus, the silence deepens…. While the early characters moved in a generally realistic environment, however strange and unreal that environment often seemed, the last characters do not move about very much at all. Their isolation is intensified, literalized; their movements and gestures toward each other are mechanical and rigid. Their discourse is more fragmentary than before. They begin somewhere near where Davies ended. Their conversation proceeds at different levels and rarely is there a point of intersection. Each seems caught in the prison of himself, in the strictures of an unrelieved past, and blessed (or cursed) with only a partial insight into the nature of his condition. (pp. 112-13)

As Pinter follows the direction of his vision, as he moves ever toward the OM, he runs the risk of replacing drama with apotheosis, of trading the stage for the temple. (p. 113)

For all the static qualities of Landscape and Silence, however, there is movement still. Bodies are turgid and comparatively immobile, but spirits yet move through deepening shades of silence. For all their truncation, for all their visions and memories manqué, these characters … are embarked. They cannot go home again; they cannot see what they are heading toward; they are, however, irretrievably embarked. If they may not then go with the protective word, they must journey with broken words through regions of silence. For all the chaos and discordancy of their silences and ours, a poetic of the highest order emerges, a dramaturgy become thaumaturgy. (p. 121)

Pinter's concern is not with the "struggling proletariate" of the social realists or even with an abstract notion of "man," but rather with the concrete experience of being human. His characters are found neither at the barricades nor behind the threatened panoplies of power. They are lonely, frightened individuals who have returned to the privacy of their rooms to have a think. They are kings and counselors without their regalia. They are all, under the skin, shivering creatures who fear the silences around them…. There is, finally, no hortative moral to draw from Pinter's plays, no deontological road map to guide us though his work does remind us that the dream we dream is communal. (pp. 122-23)

Perhaps Pinter's greatest contribution is to rediscover the wordless quality of our language, to recover what Rilke called the "language where languages end."

Pinter's particular achievement has been to sustain linguistically the sort of tensions which seem to drive his characters from within. The fragmentary sentence, the phrase left hanging, the awkward pause, become outer manifestations of the inner anxiety, the deeper uncertainty. The discordant clash of language in, say, The Caretaker, is indicative of the discord that arises not only between character and character but within each of the characters. The fumbling efforts at conversation which ensue indicate the desperate need the characters have to make themselves known. (p. 123)

Many of Pinter's characters, on the contrary, go to some length to evade being known by others…. [This] evasion arises out of the character's fear that if he reveals himself, if he comes clean, he will be at the mercy of those who know him. (pp. 123-24)

The subtle beauty of Pinter's quotidian language arises from its capacity to tell us more about the characters who use that language than they are capable of telling us themselves. Like all lyric poets, Pinter's first obligation is to the how of communication and not to the what. If such mundane language seems mysterious and terror-ridden, it is only because the lives of men who use a worn-out language are mysterious and terror-ridden. The realist usually sets out to employ the language of common men and succeeds in reproducing only what he thinks is the language of common men. Paradoxically, Pinter's success in attuning our ear to the everyday modes of discourse makes it possible for us to recover the strangeness, the mystery inherent in common human experience. (pp. 124-25)

The kind of hearing necessary to experience Pinter's drama fully is not a simple matter, for Pinter's language is not the rhetoric of direction but the rhetoric of association. One word can, like a pebble in a pond, send out an infinite number of circles. One word may not only lead to another but will more often stir some forgotten experience of pain or pleasure; however, that which ensues is not more language but more silence. (p. 127)

James R. Hollis, in his Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence (copyright © 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

John Simon

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The least of The Homecoming's troubles is that it does not make sense. This only stirs the interpreters, professional and amateur, to greater heights of interpretative madness. Ambiguity and implication are, of course, valid and potent artistic devices, but if the whole scenario, on almost all levels, has to be supplied by the critic or spectator, who then is the playwright? Pinter's play, like all his others, depends on tricks of diametrical reversal, going from one extreme to the other and saying vague, hostile nothings that can be made menacing, portentous or deep.

The basic flaw of The Homecoming is that it is totally formulaic and predictable: every character, sooner or later, becomes the opposite of himself. (p. 345)

These instant contradictions extend to the whole play…. Now, people are often inconsistent, but they are not schematically self-contradictory. Nor are they, and this is the second big flaw here, all profoundly repulsive or utter nullities. But those are the only kinds of characters you tend to find peopling (or, rather, insecting) a Pinter play. Pitiful worms or poisonous adders: nobody you can care about in the least; not even when, as invariably happens, the worms lengthen into adders, and the adders shrivel into worms.

This leaves the language. But there hardly is any in Pinter: only commonplaces, repetitions, insults, non sequiturs and pauses. This too is a language, I grant you, but is it a language for human beings?… [But] the pauses, ah, those famous Pinter pauses! How minimal can minimal art get? That is where you, dear spectator, fill in the play. And if others can have their interpretations, you won't be caught with your mystagogic pants down either, by gum…. As for all those gratuitous pauses, if they serve any purpose, it is to stretch Pinter's meager, stunted inventions into full-length plays. (pp. 346-47)

Most noteworthy is the play's intense though latent homosexuality. Once again the motif of the same woman (and what a beastly woman!) shared by two or more men somehow involved with one another—in rivalry, kinship or love-hate—appears; just as it did in The Servant, Accident, and The Basement, among others. And as so often is the case with homosexual sensibility, the action oscillates between affectlessness and sadomasochism. Instead of a casebook on The Homecoming, I'd like a case history on its author. (p. 347)

John Simon, "'The Homecoming'" (1971), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 345-47.

Gareth Lloyd Evans

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If we seek, in twentieth-century criticism, for anything approaching the extent of the detailed verbal analysis of Pinter's plays, we find it only in commentaries on Yeats, Eliot and Christopher Fry. In short, we find it in poetic dramatists in whose language the technical and aesthetic resources of poetry and verse are used to a very high degree. (p. 166)

Pinter's language is generally regarded by the intelligent theatregoer and by some perceptive critics as a remarkable evocation of 'real speech'. It is often declared to be the embodiment of the way we speak—half-inarticulate, stumbling, leaving questions completely or half-unanswered, lacking clarity—generally of meaning, often of articulation. Both 'real' language and Pinter's version of it, are a long way from that of the 'well-made' play and even from the studiously-constructed naturalistic drama of, say, Galsworthy and Shaw. Indeed it is easy to conclude that Pinter's language is a particular antithesis of Shaw's, having nothing of its sinewy articulateness, its directness, its wit, its socratic poising of question and answer, statement and counter-statement, its almost embarrassing lucidity. (p. 167)

At face value, certainly, Pinter 'sounds' like people speak…. [When] Pinter (as in No Man's Land) writes 'educated', balanced, apparently intellectually superior characters, they still manage to sound inconsequential. (pp. 167-68)

Compare the language of a well-made play with a Pinter play, and a contrast is apparent—verbal purpose, direction as opposed to apparent ad hoc verbal activity. We may, indeed, push the matter a little further and declare that his plays do not, in the conventional sense, 'end' at all. They stop.

But although we seem to recognize, in … real speech, the Pinter timbre, we should, if we listen carefully, also realize that it lacks, unquestionably, a kind of tension which Pinter habitually possesses. This, in itself, should warn us against a too close association between the real and the written. Pinter's language is as taut as a bow-string—it contains a potential that the real neither has nor intends. (pp. 168-69)

One very important facet of [Pinter's uniqueness] is that the language is eminently written for the actor—he is a player's playwright—as a kind of code. This is not to say that other dramatists, using very different modes, are not aware of the requirements of the actor. However, Pinter is unique in expressing his awareness in this extraordinarily precise way.

Yet, however much a close examination of Pinter's language reveals a sophistication of concept and technique, it is difficult still not to feel the tang of 'real' speech in it….

Pinter is no more and no less successful in depicting the speech patterns we recognize in the disaffected, the under-privileged, as in Davies, than he is with the sophisticates in Old Times, or the pompous (with a trace of Jewish incantation) in Goldberg. We recognize them all. We swear we have heard people who sound like this. (p. 170)

[However, it] is extraordinarily difficult to visualize Pinter's characters; they are, until an actor becomes them, particularly disembodied. No one on this earth looks like a Pinter character.

The difficulty of visualizing them or assessing what they are like or what motivates them is due to the fact that a Pinter person is not complete—it is a piece of ore that we experience, and a small piece at that…. In fact the range of emotions covered is very small and though he uses the speech-characteristics of different social and professional classes, the characters who speak this speech are too partially-formed to represent their class—they sound as if they come from this or that class, but they do not in any other way relate to it. What Pinter has done has been to endow very fragmentary dramatis personae with the apparent characteristics of totally-rounded characters, and he has done it by creating a language which to a degree 'impersonates' the real, but which very often has its own ritual and rules, its own life….

And, indeed, even when we are, in the hands of this supreme verbal magician, lulled into believing that what we hear is 'real', inside the speech a certain stylization is at work. (p. 171)

The effect, in reading the text, is as if you were coming across or, more accurately, being led into, a short or extended poetic image. It is poetic because of the technical resources of rhyme, repetition, rhythm and out-of-the-ordinary verbal resonance; it is an image because although the impersonation of real speech is always, to a degree, present, what is being said is a key which unlocks a door to what is unsaid. (pp. 172-73)

The development of Pinter's expertise and sensitivity with language has not meant a departure from this basic 'metaphorical' writing but a subtilizing and complicating of it in structure, tone and implication. In The Homecoming there occurs not the first but, up to that point, the best manifestation of that development, for in it there is a complete and superb integration of dramatic language with the language of theatre. Throughout his career Pinter has been acutely aware of, and has utilized, inanimate objects, stage-furniture, and made them into extra dramatis personae. The newspaper, the spectacles and the electric light in The Birthday Party [are examples]…. Even when there is no one dominating object, the reader and the theatregoer are made to feel, every time an object is handled or even mentioned, that it means significantly more than mere touch or mention. Nothing, so to speak, is wasted—the realistic bric-à-brac of the well-made play seems, by comparison, museum'd and inert: in Pinter inanimate objects seem always on the point of coming to life…. Each time, in The Room, a stage-direction occurs, an extra dimension is added not just to the action of the play, but to the elusive meaning that lies behind the words. (p. 173)

The customary notion of a Pinter play is that it sidles inconsequentially from an unimportant point A to an indeterminate point X, Y or Z—it does not matter which. In fact the verbal image-building which has been noted produces an episodic structure…. The movement of a Pinter play on stage is very much one of ebb and flow. The extended images represent points of crisis, but between their appearances there lie areas of relaxation. (pp. 173-74)

Pinter's plays are 'about' certain states of feeling (rather more, indeed, about feeling than thinking) which are presented to us in human embodiment—it is a kind of allegorical writing. The feeling is the character just as surely as, in a mediaeval play, the vice or the virtue is the character—the message is the medium….

Many of Pinter's plays are, to a degree, concerned with one or other of the seven deadly sins and these are embodied in characters, though he does not, like the earlier playwrights, often depict or assume or imply the existence of virtue. Good Deeds, we may say, has little to do with Pinter's Everyman, but Lust, Pride, Avarice have.

It is, therefore, as wrong to assess a Pinter 'character' and the language it uses in customary psychologically realistic terms as it is to conceive of a dramatized mediaeval Vice or Virtue in those terms. (p. 174)

Older critics would claim that his work is poetic because it uses, though in ways that are often covert or disguised, many of the conventional resources of poetic communication—rhythm, associative value of words, image-making, tonal effect. He is poetic in the deeper sense that no specific and clear literal meaning can be abstracted from the majority of his plays. In a very obvious sense you not only change a Pinter play if you try to translate it into different terms, you destroy it in the way you would destroy any work of art and, moreover, you find you are no nearer the heart of a mystery. (p. 175)

The allusive and the elusive predominate in Pinter—unlike naturalistic prose-drama where it is either non-existent or of marginal effect. Unlike so many of his contemporary prose-naturalistic colleagues Pinter neither seems in any sense to want to lead men to action nor to relate his events and characters to explicit contemporary actualities; he exhibits no anger, looking either backward or forward, about the establishment, and he seems not to have considered the social causes of underprivilege and tried to root them out.

Pinter incites the imagination, troubles the spirit, and excites the emotions. None of his plays, while we are actually watching them, engage us in any 'issue', moral or otherwise—the 'experience' given us with dramatic subtlety, verbal sophistication and a complete awareness of theatrical possibilities is too strong to allow us to engage ourselves with anything else. It is only afterwards when, in any case, we are often trying to pin down meaning, that the question of 'issues' may arise—as, for example, the 'morality' of The Homecoming.

Pinter is not concerned with the actualities of man in society but, taking on the traditional function of the poet, with some of the realities of what man is. He uses, as many poets have done, the sense-data of the contemporary world as a sharp salt, but it is no more.

When we enter into a Pinter room we have to accept a format which embraces states of feeling rather than impersonates the real world, which is self-sufficient and has very much more the status of an image rather than of an actuality. (pp. 175-76)

Gareth Lloyd Evans, "Harold Pinter—The Deceptive Poet," in his The Language of Modern Drama (© Gareth Lloyd Evans, 1977), J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 1977, pp. 166-76.


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