Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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James R. Hollis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Gareth Lloyd Evans

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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