Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 15) - Essay

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I speak carefully when I say that [The Proust Screenplay is] incomparably the best screen adaptation ever made of a great work and that it is in itself a work of genius—minor compared with the source, as Pinter surely would be the first to scornfully insist, but I would insist that this screenplay [of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu] far surpasses anything conveyed by the term "adaptation" and becomes a re-composition in another art. This is by far the best of his screen writing and not just because it comes from a titanic novel: look at most screenplays from great novels. Pinter has touched genius in some of his plays; here, touched by a giant genius, he rises in the film form, technically and imaginatively, to the level of his best theater work.

A lover of Proust can take the stand that the novel should not be touched. It is; and it doesn't need to exist in any other way. With that view I can see no argument. But aside from that absolute purity, if one has any interest in seeing Proust on the screen, then Pinter has transformed it miraculously….

What Pinter has done is to dismiss any thought of carpentry, of sawing and patching to get an intelligible synopsis of the vast book into three hours plus…. Instead he apparently drenched himself in the book, absorbed it, let it seep into his blood and marrow, and then figuratively forgot about the work's prior existence. He seems to have said to himself: "If I were Proust, with his societal experience, his interior landscape, his range of sensory appetites, his intoxication with the Idea of Time, and if I wanted to write a screenplay with all this instead of a novel, what screenplay would I write?" In short, insofar as matters as delicate as Proust's work and the creative process in general can be laid out diagrammatically, we can say that Pinter disassembled the book and rebuilt its materials into a different...

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Peter Thomson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most loyal theatregoers tried to dismiss [The Birthday Party (1958)], but it wouldn't go away. You could say that the world of the play was unreal, but it was insistently analogous with the real world. What was missing from the plot was a clear motive, and, in a country dominated for two hundred years by the novel, motive had become a dramatic convention too. By ignoring, or at least obscuring, motive. Pinter concentrated his audience's attention on behaviour. The result is an uncomfortable diminution of human stature, and an equally uncomfortable analysis of human cruelty. (p. 21)

The lack of determinate values is a common feature of Pinter's plays. His characters flounder among approximations and hopeless enquiries (has no one ever counted the question marks in Pinter?). Pinter's cruelly accurate observation of the dialogue that surrounds a moral vacuum conveys his horror of it. Ben's question in The Dumb Waiter, 'What's one thing to do with another?', reverberates eerily through all the plays.

However perverse it may have seemed to its first audiences, The Birthday Party is governed by a ruthless narrative logic. (p. 22)

The Birthday Party, it seems to me now, is a brilliantly appropriate theatrical statement of a social nervousness whose subtext was the enigmatic Cold War. It is also a comedy of manners, constructed according to principles quite as cruel as its Restoration forebears, and with an equivalent linguistic precision. At the comic end of its spectrum, Pinter's dialogue deploys inanity with zestful resourcefulness. Inane conversations, like those of Gus and Ben in The Dumb Waiter, are funny if the speakers are serious…. At the other end of the spectrum, though, Pinter's dialogue presents with critical incisiveness the tendency of conversation to camouflage meaning. A generation of actors has learnt, through performing Pinter, to speak with conviction lines that are not intended to convince. The high point in this style is The Homecoming. Since then, Pinter has become increasingly interested, or sidetracked, by the more overtly poetic possibilities of monologue. (p. 23)

The four plays that conclude the first phase of Pinter's dramatic career may be loosely grouped with The Room and The Birthday Party as black comedies, or even comedies of menace, though they vary in quality. The Dumb Waiter (1960) is a small gem, the most certain of Pinter's plays to survive in the theatre. Such comprehending use of stage properties is rare, and modestly beguiling. Posterity may confirm it as the neatest and most engaging example of the 'comedy of menace'. It has escaped the excesses of critical explication. A Slight Ache (1959), alas, has not. This is an imperfect...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One approaches "The Proust Screenplay," by Harold Pinter …, determined not to complain that Proust's language has vanished. How could it not, given the foolhardy and fascinating idea of making a movie script of the immense "À la Recherche du Temps Perdu."… Still, one must marvel at how the playwright, a master of the laconic/elliptical/polymorphous-abrupt style of modern stagecraft, has cut this lushest of novels down from two million words to a string of four hundred and fifty-five shots….

Pinter's script makes no attempt to flesh out the dialogue with descriptive writing;… it places no significant reliance on the author's words in voice-over; and … it little resembles a conventional short story or novella. Indeed, I know of no other book that so uncompromisingly shows us what a film script looks like. Nor have I read another book, not even one of Beckett's, with such consciousness of the work of exclusion, of the effort the author has invested in keeping his product to this minimum. Nor, for that matter, have I hitherto reviewed a book where judgment must remain so definitely suspended, where so much of the proof resides in a deferred pudding [—the film version itself.]

One effect of casting the novel into scenario form has been suggested: the narrator, Marcel, deposed as verbal creator and enlisted as a dramatic character among many, becomes sullen, petulant, precariously unsympathetic, and even stupid. His behavior, pried loose from the matrix of his splendid philosophizing about behavior, seems more neurotic than...

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Thomas P. Adler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Especially] when dealing with a play as multileveled and enigmatic—a few might even say, and not without some justification, as obscure—as Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975), no single interpretation of the work can be exhaustive. Even contradictory readings are to be expected, but I hope instead to offer one that complements and extends the many illuminating critical comments that the play has already generated. There has been, for example, no dearth of suggestions as to the meaning of the title—almost always a key to puzzling out a Pinter play…. Pinter's text invites us to go even further [than previous interpretations of the title] and supports our equating "no man's land" with Death. Thus the work might profitably be seen as a summoning-by-death play, in which case it shares certain similarities with the pattern, though not with the philosophy, of the medieval moralities.

But what does it mean "to die" or to "be dead" in Pinter? What, more precisely, is the nature of death, or of man's condition when he is dead? Some enlightenment on this question can be gained by returning to Pinter's "memory plays" (like Landscape and Old Times) that immediately preceded No Man's Land; from these, we can infer that death means, at its most basic level, that man's mind is finally frozen, is fixed forever. And it is here, in its fixity, that death intersects with art. (pp. 197-98)

[For Pinter's characters, in order for the past to exist, it] must first be remembered, yet in the very process of doing the remembering, the characters can alter or modify the past at will, or even recreate it totally anew to fit their present needs; Pinter himself has suggested that the past is what one remembers, imagines he remembers, convinces himself he remembers, or pretends to remember. Memory can thus become a creative activity, and the remembrance a work of art. It is in that sense that we are all artists. If present memory takes priority over past reality, this means, then, that there is no objective truth, that everything is potentially true…. Death means a cessation of this power to control the past by modifying it at will; no longer can all times and events, both real and fictive, be simultaneously present in the mind, but only one image will be fixed there permanently. No Man's Land opens with the words, "As it is?"…; the final words could just as easily read: "And ever shall be." (pp. 198-99)

There exist … several details in the text indicating that Spooner is to be seen as a figure of Death come to call for Hirst. He has evidently been a brief visitor, one who fulfills his role with dispatch, in other people's lives before Hirst's; he refers to...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Betrayal"] is curiously thinnish Pinter, containing few of the usual Pinter hints that behind the banal domestic chitter-chatter of our time lies some irremediable Original Sin of incommunication, older, perhaps, than Adam and Eve. The play runs backward, from 1977 to 1968, but little illumination is furnished by this device: the three characters with whom the play is concerned change scarcely at all over those nine years. Though they gain a certain amount of information about one another, this information is fastidiously circled around rather than learned from…. This is a comedy in which everyone's feelings are forever being hurt, invariably for selfish reasons; though the characters are approaching early middle age, their emotions are not much above the nursery level…. (pp. 55-6)

Brendan Gill, "Looking Back," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 48, January 14, 1980, pp. 55-6.∗

Terry Curtis Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Harold Pinter, the] obscure, difficult playwright of the early '60s has emerged, two decades later, as our foremost exponent of naturalism. Pinter, we are told, has changed. Hardly: Pinter's style and themes have remained remarkably intact. He is now, as he has almost always been, primarily concerned with power relationships between men, with the ambiguous tension of sexuality, with the unspoken difficulties of an unacknowledged class system. But Pinter does write mystery plays, in both the secular and the religious sense of the word: He takes us on a search for the unknown during which he manages to physicalize the unknowable. Secrets do not give themselves up in Pinter's work; we learn about the nature of secrets instead.

On the surface of things, no play should seem less secretive than Betrayal. The work is more or less constructed backwards …; the path of discovery is to see how something happened, not what might happen next…. The backwards structure is not merely a device … but a means by which Pinter can make the events of the play appear inevitable. This gives Betrayal a rather bittersweet, nearly sentimental aura …; it also provides Pinter with a means of sidestepping all the usual questions.

It makes no difference, Pinter tells us, whether or not one lies to a lover about the existence of another. Fidelity itself is beside the point…. What matters is passion, which, being uncontrollable, is as likely to vanish as it is to disruptively appear.

While Pinter believes that irrational passion rules the world, he is also convinced that this force can never be openly acknowledged. The famous ellipses of Pinter's speech are not a device to conceal information, but rather a means by which his characters avoid direct emotional challenge.

Terry Curtis Fox, "Passion Plays," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission; copyright © 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 2, January 14, 1980, p. 81.∗

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With Betrayal, Harold Pinter has committed the strategic error of writing a comprehensible play. When—once or twice—he flirted with perspicuity before, it was in one-acters and television playlets, where contingency could be invoked as excuse. Never before in a full-length stage work had Pinter deviated into sense, and thus into that manifest triviality, if not vacuity, that the percipient few had unfailingly noted, drowned out though their dissenting was by the din of hosannas. Rightly was Noël Coward an early defender of Pinter's: Underneath the third-rate imitator of Beckett, there always lurked a second-rate Coward clone.

Betrayal, which might be more aptly entitled...

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Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though completely lucid in narrative line, Harold Pinter's Betrayal remains a puzzling play…. Spare in writing, succinct in statement, it hides as much as it reveals. It calls for a do-it-yourself interpretation. (p. 92)

Pinter does many things with [his] plot structure. On the simplest level he indulges in tight-lipped irony about English upper-middle-class manners—for instance, in the routine banality of exchanges apropos the playing of squash and the publishing of books. But the absurdities of such palaver, Pinter implies, are a cover-up for rarely expressed emotions. How genuine or profound these emotions may be is hard to say. They may have withered for lack of manifestation: correct...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reduced to its bare bones, the situation [in Betrayal] teeters on the edge of soap opera. But what interests Pinter more than the future of [his characters'] relationships is the impact of knowledge on behavior: how Robert won't play squash with Jerry though he continues to do business with him, how Emma has conceived a child by her husband while her lover was abroad, how Robert hates his work because he really hates books, how Emma confessed her adultery to Robert in Venice after he had already discovered it. These revelations in reverse introduce a novel irony into contemporary drama—common enough to ancient Greeks watching a familiar story like the Oedipus myth—where the audience is privy to certain...

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