Harold Pinter

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Evelyn Schreiber (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3091

SOURCE: Schreiber, Evelyn. “Stream-of-Consciousness and Freud's Primary Process: Comprehending Pinter's Old Times.Literature and Psychology (1994): 71-80.

[In the following essay, Schreiber discusses Pinter's use of dialogue in Old Times in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious mind. Schreiber asserts that Pinter's dialogue resembles the stream-of-consciousness flow of private internal thoughts.]

Harold Pinter's plays, with their weighted pauses, sparse, dreamlike action, and bare dialogue, present a challenge in interpretation. In Old Times, two mechanisms explain much of the play's puzzling nature: literary stream-of-consciousness and Freudian primary process. The action and dialogue seem to take place in the minds of the characters rather than (as first appears) between the characters. From this perspective, the dialogue becomes stream-of-consciousness, a type of inner speech, as the characters mouth their private thoughts instead of speaking directly to one another. This theory explains much of the apparently mismatched conversations and also accounts for Pinter's hallmark time-shifts and merging of personalities. The second mechanism at work here is the psychoanalytical parallel to literary stream-of-consciousness, the primary process mode of thinking of the unconscious mind. Through his drama, Pinter illustrates the operation of the unconscious mind in everyday experience. Pinter's message remains the same whether we view Old Times as a presentation of unconscious thought processes or a play of sparse dialogue between distracted characters. The playwright presents characters coping with uncertainty about their security and identity.

Martin Esslin, in Pinter the Playwright, outlines some fundamental fears evident in Pinter's works: fear of losing love; fear of an invasion from the outside world; fear of failing to communicate with others or of being able to know another person; and fear of relying on memory to be accurate (38). Pinter's works are filled with a “fundamental anxiety which is nothing less than a living being's basic awareness of the threat of non-being, of annihilation” (Esslin 39). Pinter expressed his fear of the outside world in an interview with Kenneth Tynan: “we are all in this, all in a room, and outside is a world … which is most inexplicable and frightening, curious and alarming” (Esslin 39). The author's fear of invasion from the outside world stems from the real events in Europe, beginning in the thirties. Like Pinter, his audience shares his fears (consciously or unconsciously) and seeks to escape through the artistic diversion of the theater. The following analysis of Old Times illustrates how primary process thinking helps to interpret the play.


How does this theory about primary process and stream-of-consciousness help analyze Pinter's text and its audience response? According to Freudian theory, conflicting functions of the mind consist of the id (pleasure-seeking, unconditional, primary process) and the ego/superego (reality-attending, adaptive, self-censoring, secondary process). These conflicting functions are universal and constantly produce anxiety. As a result, the reader or viewer of a work of art identifies with the artist's portrayal of his struggle with this conflict and his efforts to foil the censorship in finding discharge or fulfillment of something pleasurable. The appeal of a creative work comes from this identification (Jaffe). The majority of Pinter's plays are attuned to primary process levels of unconscious thought, portraying regressive action and behavior; the viewer's interest in Pinter's drama comes from his own ability to regress and to enjoy such regression. By stripping his characters and drama to bare essentials, Pinter reaches unconscious levels, capturing an essence of human thought and, consequently, a basis of human interaction that often goes unrecognized.

Before showing how primary process thinking operates in the play, its major aspects need to be defined. The primary process...

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“was so named because Freud considered it to be the original or primary way in which the psychic apparatus functioned,” and primary process thinking is “characteristic of those years of childhood when the ego is still immature” (Brenner 49, 52). This mode of thinking is close to stream-of-consciousness, where the mind works through association, and conventional distinctions of time in terms of past, present, and future disappear. The three major characteristics of primary process thinking resemble stream-of-consciousness thought:

(1) “the absence of any negatives, conditionals, or other qualifying conjunctions” (the context alone suggests positive, negative, or conditional meaning); (2) “the representation by allusion of analogy,” where “a part of an object, memory or idea may be used to stand for the whole, or vice versa. Moreover, several different thoughts may be represented by a single thought or image”; and (3) the absence of time: “There is no such thing as ‘before’ or ‘after', as ‘now’ or ‘then', as ‘first', ‘next', or ‘last’. Past, present, and future are all one.”

(Brenner 53)

In both thought processes, the self is often interchangeable with others, suggesting a shifting of personalities, and the immature ego shows curiosity for bodily functions. While primary process thinking and stream-of-consciousness differ in that the latter can signify the secondary process as well as the primary one, the above-mentioned aspects overlap for our purposes here. Vygotsky's inner speech is similar to stream-of-consciousness in its condensation of external speech. Inner speech “appears disconnected and incomplete” and is characterized by “a specific form of abbreviation: namely, omitting the subject of a sentence and all words connected with it, while preserving the predicate” (Vygotsky 139). In addition, “inner speech is speech for oneself,” private as opposed to public (Vygotsky 131). Recognizing the similarities between these mechanisms helps the viewer to grasp levels of meaning in the play.

In Old Times, Pinter presents three characters—a husband (Deeley), his wife (Kate), and the wife's former roommate (Anna)—each with his/her own memories, needs, and insecurities. The central event consists of Anna's visit to Kate and Deeley after many years and raises issues of identity, rivalry, and communication. The reunion takes place in a sparse living room in an isolated, converted farmhouse, minimizing the play's action and maximizing the characters' internal feelings, reminiscences, and thoughts. Using the primary process structure for interpretation, we see the characters struggle with their fears about being loved, their inability to communicate or know loved ones, and the disruption of their daily world. The elements of the primary process illustrate the characters' insecurities.


Pinter's sparse dialogue often lacks qualifying conjunctions and is understandable only in context. The play opens with three figures on stage, but with only two of them interacting and the dialogue describing Anna is a good example of ambiguity. The audience walks in on a conversation in progress:

(Reflectively.) Dark.
Fat or thin?
Fuller than me. I think.

(Pinter 7)

Or perhaps Deeley and Kate are thinking privately in response to Anna's arrival (the audience does see Anna in the living room; perhaps Deeley and Kate see her as well).

The context explains many pieces of conversation. The humor of Deeley's “She was incomparable” (Pinter 9) stems from the prior exchange about Kate having only one friend. Kate's remark that “She was a thief” (Pinter 10) is a nonsequitur and her remark that “everyone's married” (Pinter 13) makes no judgment as to whether this condition is good or bad. On one level this bare conversation suggests that people who know each other well can communicate without elaborate qualification. Their shared context allows them to relate to each other on a level close to inner speech. On another level, we see characters trying to understand each other by thinking out loud. Why didn't Kate have any friends? Why would she like someone who stole from her? Why didn't I know that my wife had a roommate? Deeley is full of questions and Kate has limited answers. It is evident that even the most intimate relationships are somehow tentative.


The interest in bodily functions characteristic of the unconscious shows up throughout the play. For example, Deeley recalls an usherette's stroking of her breast and his own looking up Anna's skirt at parties. All three characters spend time pondering Kate's underwear in a sexual way. In addition, Deeley and Anna talk at length about Kate's meticulousness in the bath, including the proper method for scrubbing as well as drying, and they seem quite fascinated by the “how and where and in what density moisture collects on women's bodies” (Pinter 56).

Kate's obsession with cleanliness recurs at the play's close, when she notes the clean sheets in contrast to Anna's dirty face, and then pronounces Anna dead: “I had quite a lengthy bath, got out, walked about the room, glistening, drew up a chair, sat naked beside you and watched you” (Pinter 72). This interest in death and the body itself parallels that for those “forbidden objects. … which are … important to an individual at a time when his ego is still immature and the primary process plays a major role in his thinking” (Brenner 57-58). The characters' regression to borderline scatological humor and the need to be the center of the love object's attention invite the viewer to regress as well. Audience identification with this early developmental stage allows for the enjoyment of seemingly nonsensical banter.


Displacement (where a part may be represented by the whole or where an idea or image may be substituted by another closely related to it) and condensation (where a single word or image represents several ideas or images) (Brenner 56) occur frequently in the play. When Anna tells Deeley, “you have a wonderful casserole. … I mean wife” (Pinter 20) she substitutes Kate's cooking for Kate herself. Kate's response is rather indirect as well:

Yes, I quite like those kind of things, doing it.
What kind of things?
Oh, you know, that sort of thing.
Do you mean cooking?
All that thing.

(Pinter 21)

Here, the words “kind of things” and “sort of thing” perform the service of condensation by representing a variety of images. Displacement occurs again when Anna and Deeley try to recapture the past with their medley of old songs, singing essential lines to represent the significance of the entire song. Similarly, Deeley and Kate escape for a moment into the dream world of Sicily when they displace Anna's presence with imaginary yachts and marble floors.

Deeley's account of his first meeting with Kate includes a regression to a state of innocence recalled by the neighborhood where he bought his tricycle. He then enters the dark world of good and evil, indicated by the contrasting usherettes. One scolds the other for her obvious enjoyment of her body (much as the superego reprimands the ego for permitting the id to function pleasurably instead of censoring or repressing it). While these usherettes are never referred to again, they allude to Kate and Anna. Deeley enters their world to see “Odd Man Out,” and ironically becomes the “fifth wheel” in the play as Kate and Anna recreate the past.

Displacement also occurs in the form of shifting personalities, much like the dream-like merging of people in stream-of-consciousness. At times Kate and Anna change roles and description so as to make one wonder whether they are merely two sides of a single personality. Anna wears Kate's underwear and skirts, imitates her smile, and at times pretends to be Kate, while Kate gets vicarious pleasure and even blushes at knowing that men eye her underwear on Anna. When Deeley tells Kate he met Anna twenty years earlier at The Wayfarer, Kate describes Anna's feelings for Deeley, which are really her own: “She found your face very sensitive, vulnerable. … She wanted to comfort it, in the way only a woman can” (Pinter 70). These feelings are foreshadowed earlier in the play when Kate tells Anna that she likes Christy because “he's so gentle. … so sensitive” (Pinter 63). Deeley and Christy become interchangeable.

Anna and Kate merge so frighteningly that Deeley fights to keep them separate. He confesses he was crass to peer up Anna's skirt, “If it was her skirt. If it was her” (Pinter 71). Anna's reply, “It was me. I remember your look … very well. I remember you well” (Pinter 71) contradicts her earlier remark, “You're saying we've met before?” (Pinter 50), and confuses the issue of identity. Deeley describes his meeting Anna to Kate by saying “She thought she was you. … Maybe she was you. Maybe it was you, having coffee with me” (Pinter 69). In fact, as the play progresses, Anna and Deeley begin to merge personalities as well. In Act I, Deeley marvels at Anna's use of the word “gaze,” but in Act II, he catches himself using it. Similar to the way their dialogue merges when they recall old songs, their lines reverse themselves when they discuss drying Kate after her bath:

You'd do it properly.
In her bath towel?
How out?
How out?
How could you dry her out? Out of her bath towel?
I don't know.
Well, dry her yourself, in her bath towel.
Why don't you dry her in her bath towel?
You'd do it properly.

(Pinter 55)

This interchangeable dialogue foreshadows Kate's replacement of Anna with Deeley. In order to accept Deeley as a lover, Kate must reject Anna, and does so by pronouncing her dead. Kate describes Anna as dead, with dirt on her face, and Kate's reaction to this vision suggests relief: “all was serene. … by dying alone and dirty you had acted with proper decorum. … What a relief it was to have a different body in my room” (Pinter 72). But Deeley fights the identification with Anna. When Kate tries to dirty his face (like Anna's) he prohibits her doing so. He suggests “a wedding instead, and a change of environment” (Pinter 73). He wants to erase any illicit association by legitimizing their relationship. Earlier, when Deeley and Anna talk about Kate she tells them “you talk of me as if I were dead” (Pinter 34), merging Kate and Anna with the death image.


The scene ends with a dramatization of Anna's prior tale about the strange man in their room one night. The mime functions like a flash-back, and the final picture of Deeley, Anna, and Kate, sitting in their ordered places, suggests that the three of them have been sitting, thinking, and perhaps only imagining what has taken place. This flash-back effect creates a time-continuum, similar to the often illusory world of stream-of-consciousness.

This dream-like world lacks distinctions of time, and the past and present begin to merge. Anna tells how Kate once believed she had slept through Friday although it was still Friday, and Deeley asks, “What month are we in?” (Pinter 25). The women begin to sink into their past while Deeley attempts to link the conversation to the present. This time continuum reinforces the notion of action as associative thought-process. Anna's comment that there “are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place” (Pinter 31-32), aptly describes this process.

As the women regress more and more into their previous life, Deeley vainly tries to assert himself in the present and establish his importance. Yet he draws attention to himself through fantasy about his movie career (“My name is Orson Welles. … As a matter of fact I am at the top of my profession” [Pinter 42]). He claims to be upset by the thought of Anna's husband rumbling around alone, when perhaps he is simply projecting his own feelings of being deserted or left out. When Anna describes how she and Kate complemented each other, Deeley's jealousy erupts: “You feel it's [Kate's passion] my province? Well, you're damn right. It is my province. I'm glad someone's showing a bit of taste at last. Of course it's my bloody province. I'm her husband” (Pinter 66).

The time-shift is most apparent when Anna answers Kate's question about the Sicilian people with “Don't let's go out tonight. … I'll cook something, you can wash your hair, you can relax, we'll put on some records” (Pinter 43). Suddenly, we are in their London apartment, where the young girls discuss their wardrobe and boyfriends. They talk about being hungry while Deeley (in the present) exclaims, “Hungry? After that casserole?” (Pinter 44). Later in the play this switch appears again when Kate returns from her bath. Anna and Deeley are conversing, but when Kate enters, Anna asks “Is Charley coming?” (Pinter 62). This oscillation between past and present creates an illusory effect upon the viewer which is compounded by the merging of the self and others, and by displacement and condensation. These elements combine to produce the play's hazy, almost frightening nature. The closing scene, with its reenactment of Anna's earlier story about a strange man in their apartment bedroom, creates an eerie sense of confused time and place and the inability to differentiate reality from memory.


Pinter's fear of a shifting context—of the invasion of one's world by outside forces—mirrors the postmodern concern with discourse and language. The fragmentation of identity and truth prohibits any consensus of shared experience, leaving the self subject to the interpretation of others. As Madan Sarup describes the process:

There is an inherent tension, a feeling of threat, because one's identity depends on recognition by the other. … Lacan suggests that intersubjectivity can never be fully attained because we can never enter another person's consciousness completely.


Kate, Deeley and Anna, whether through dialogue or inner speech/stream-of-consciousness, portray the fragmentation of modern life and question the ability to know others or trust reality.

Both Pinter's characters and his audience experience regression and thereby momentarily escape from the restrictive reality principle, functioning along the lines of primary process thinking with its characteristic access to gratification afforded by the pleasure principle (Freud 1911). The fact that such regression remains under some ego control serves to protect against conflict and anxiety. This mechanism has been referred to as regression in the service of the ego (Kris). Thus, Pinter's drama provides an outlet for what routinely is repressed and enables the audience to enjoy the artistic production on conscious and unconscious levels.

Works Cited

Brenner, Charles. An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Esslin, Martin. Pinter the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1984.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works Volume XII (1911-1913). Trans. and Ed. by James Strachey with Anna Freud. London: Hogarth, 1958.

Jaffe, Daniel S., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown University. Personal interview. September, 1991.

Kris, Ernst. Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International Universities Press, 1952, Chapter 14.

Pinter, Harold. Old Times. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1971.

Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Post-structuralism and Postmodernism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. Trans. and Ed. by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1962.


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Harold Pinter 1930-

(Also has written under the pseudonym Harold Pinta) English playwright, screenwriter, poet, and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Pinter's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 27, 58, and 73.

Regarded as one of the most influential English playwrights of the twentieth century, Pinter is credited with drawing on both the Theatre of the Absurd and the “angry young men” dramas of working-class social realism to bring English theatre into a new era. This distinct, innovative blending of absurdism and neo-realism has been widely recognized by scholars. Pinter's major themes include interpersonal power struggles, failed attempts at communication, psychological cruelty, antagonistic relationships, and the nature of memory. His dialogue, perhaps his most distinctive stylistic signature, is characterized by long pauses, non sequiturs, and silence. Among his most celebrated works are The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1965), Betrayal (1978), A Kind of Alaska (1982), and Celebration (1999). Pinter has also authored screenplay adaptations for a number of films based on novels. The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), The Handmaid's Tale (1990), and Lolita (1997) are among his most critically acclaimed adaptations. Pinter's far-reaching impact on late-twentieth-century theater and screenwriting is demonstrated by his influence on such playwrights as David Mamet, and filmmaker Peter Greenaway. In 1996 Pinter was bestowed the Laurence Olivier award for lifetime achievement in the theater. In the year 2000, Pinter's 70th birthday was celebrated with productions of many of his plays in England and the United States.

Biographical Information

Pinter was born October 10, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in London's East End. Pinter cites the bombings of London during World War II, and the fear they inspired, as a formative experience of his childhood. A descendant of Portuguese Jews (according to Pinter family lore, their name is an anglicization of de Pinta), he was also subjected to the violence of neighborhood bullies who targeted Jews. Pinter acted in high school productions and was encouraged by his successful portrayals of Macbeth and Romeo. Upon graduating from high school, he worked a variety of odd jobs, including waiter, dishwasher, and salesman. A conscientious objector, he resisted being drafted into the army, for which he was punished with a small fine. Pursuing a career as an actor, Pinter studied at several drama schools, including the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. From 1948 to 1958 he worked as an actor in various repertory theaters under the stage name David Baron. The Room (1957), Pinter's first play to be produced, was staged by the Bristol University drama department. Based on favorable reviews of The Room, Pinter was asked to write a play for professional production. His second play, The Birthday Party (1958), was his first to be professionally staged. In 1973, Pinter became director of the National Theatre in London. In addition to his twenty-nine plays, Pinter has written many screenplays and a number of radio dramas and teleplays. His novel, Dwarfs, adapted as a drama and staged in 1960, was written in the mid-1950s but not published until 1990. Pinter's Various Voices (1998) is a collection of his poetry and prose written throughout his career.

Major Works

Pinter's plays are characterized by a number of distinctive stylistic elements. Influenced by the “kitchen sink” school of realism, Pinter draws on casual, colloquial, working-class speech patterns for his dialogue. He is also known for his use of non sequiturs and sparse or elliptical dialogue, expressive of failures of interpersonal communication. The most notable quality of his dialogue, however, is the frequent use of pauses and silences, leading to the coining of the term “Pinter pause.” The frequent use of long pauses followed by non sequiturs has given rise to the term “Pinter moment.” Pinter is also regarded as a master of atmosphere, characterized by the sinister or menacing tone of the interactions between his characters. Verbal abuse, psychological cruelty, and the threat of impending or past violence is in the air as his characters engage in antagonistic interpersonal power struggles. Because Pinter's works often include an element of humor in the midst of these dark themes, his has been termed a “comedy of menace.” Pervading this atmosphere is a sense of existential malaise that deadens the spirit of the lonely, alienated characters. The overall effect of the world in which Pinter's characters struggle has been referred to as “Pinterland.” While critics differ on the exact characteristics of the “Pinteresque,” it has come into common usage as a term capturing the essence of Pinter's unique, innovative, and highly influential theatrical style.

Pinter often places his characters in the circumstance of a stranger or estranged family member intruding upon a household and disrupting the status quo of interpersonal dynamics. Vicious verbal and psychological power struggles emerge from the disruption caused by the intruder. In The Caretaker, Pinter's first popular and critical success, Aston brings Davies, an opportunistic vagrant, to the home of his brother Mick, urging Mick to hire Davies as a caretaker. But Mick responds hostilely toward Davies, and the two men engage in a mutually antagonistic verbal and psychological sparring match. The Homecoming, considered one of Pinter's most important works, concerns the interpersonal power struggles within a working-class family in London. Teddy, a philosophy professor, returns from the United States with his wife, Ruth, after a six-year absence, to the home of his father and brothers, where he grew up. Upon their arrival, Ruth and Teddy enter a world of verbal and psychological abuse. While Teddy fails to take control of the household, Ruth becomes a focal point for all of the men in the family, who regard her with both reverence and disdain. In the end, Teddy decides to return to the United States, while Ruth chooses to stay behind, acting as both wife and mother within the household, while supporting the family by working as a prostitute. Pinter received the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Homecoming. Pinter's plays since the 1970s are considered more accessible to general audiences than were his earlier works. In Old Times (1971) Kate and her husband, Deeley, are visited by Kate's former roommate, Anna, whom she hasn't seen in twenty years. Kate and Anna were lovers in the past, and Anna's presence presents a threat to Kate's husband, who competes with her for Kate's love and attention. Extramarital affairs, and their effect on all parties involved, are a recurring theme in Pinter's dramas. Betrayal narrates the events of an extramarital affair in reverse chronological order, starting with the ending of the affair and tracing it back to its beginning. During the 1980s, Pinter became increasingly interested in addressing political and social issues through his plays. Mountain Language (1988), perhaps his most overtly political play, was inspired by his sympathy for Turkey's Kurdish population. The story concerns Kurdish women, visiting their husbands in prison, who are forbidden to speak their native “mountain language” during these visits. A number of Pinter's more recent plays, however, remain in the domestic sphere of conflicted relationships between family members. A Kind of Alaska was inspired by the nonfiction work Awakenings, by Oliver Sachs, which presents case histories of people who have recovered from catatonic states. In Pinter's play, Deborah, stricken at the age of sixteen with a severe case of sleeping sickness, awakens twenty-nine years later with the help of a newly-developed drug. Having slept through much of her life, Deborah struggles to reconcile her sense of loss and disorientation with the expectations of both her sister and her doctor. Moonlight (1993) takes place at the deathbed of a dying man who must contend with interpersonal family dynamics while confronting his own mortality. Ashes to Ashes (1997), a one-act play, consists of a dialogue between a man and a woman, apparently a married couple, with intimations of past imprisonment, torture, and abuse. Celebration is set in an upscale restaurant and focuses on the interactions between the waitstaff and the diners at two separate tables. One couple celebrates their anniversary while another couple discusses an extramarital affair. Meanwhile, an overzealous waiter frequently interrupts the diners to talk at length about the fabulously eventful life of his grandfather.

Critical Reception

Pinter has been widely regarded as the most influential playwright of his generation. The coining of terms and phrases such as Pinteresque, the Pinter pause, the Pinter moment, and Pinterland is a testament to the lasting impact of his innovative theatrical style. He is consistently recognized for his innovations in dialogue. Roger Copeland, among the commentators who have praised Pinter's dialogue for its realistic replication of the rhythms of everyday speech, stated that “No playwright has ever possessed a better ear for the way people actually speak than Harold Pinter.” Critics have applauded Pinter's masterful use of pauses, silence, and non sequiturs for their expression of modern alienation and lack of genuine connection between human beings. Evelyn Schreiber argued that Pinter's dialogue reveals the unconscious thought-processes of his characters. Schreiber commented, “By stripping his characters and drama to bare essentials, Pinter reaches unconscious levels, capturing an essence of human thought and, consequently, a basis of human interaction that often goes unrecognized.” Neal R. Norrick and William Baker observed that much of the humor in Pinter's plays derives from his representation of the communication breakdowns that occur in everyday conversation. Norrick and Baker argued that, in his early plays, “Many of the strategies Pinter used most effectively to create humor revolve around the contradictions, non sequiturs, and misunderstandings typical of everyday talk.” Some critics, however, fault Pinter for dialogue that is so obscure as to be ultimately meaningless. He has also been criticized for banal, unlikable, and undeveloped characters. Several reviewers have suggested that Pinter's theatrical style, highly innovative in the 1950s and 1960s, has not significantly changed in over four decades, and that, therefore, what was once innovative has become merely a tired self-parody. In a highly critical stance toward Pinter's theatrical oeuvre, Michael Vestey commented that his own associations with the term “Pinteresque” are characterized by “boredom, misogyny, frustrated rage, repetition, monotony, bleakness, graceless and unsympathetic characters and a form of drama that never seems to have gone quite beyond the experimental phase.”

Kenneth Bernard (essay date winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Bernard, Kenneth. “Pinter's The Homecoming.Explicator 52, no. 2 (winter 1994): 116-19.

[In the following essay, Bernard comments that Pinter's The Homecoming is structured around a contrast between America and England, according to which America represents a fantasized promised land and England represents the harsh realities of life.]

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming derives much of its impact from its calculated assault on the viewer's normal expectations about family life. Pinter's lower-class English family is in no usual sense a family. Instead of a home, the house is a cage in which the inmates snarl and scratch at one another; life there is a community of vituperation. In what obviously passes for everyday discourse, Max, the family patriarch, describes his dead wife as having a “rotten stinking face,” himself as a “lousy filthy father,” his brother as a “tit” and a “maggot,” his daughter-in-law as a “pox-ridden slut,” and her husband as “stinkpig.” The epithets are returned in kind by the family.

The dramatic situation of the play is the return of the eldest son, Teddy, from America, where in six years he has married, had three children, and established himself as a professor of philosophy in a university. His welcome home is exactly what the viewer has by now been led to expect: an explosion of insult. And the major event of the play is a fitting conclusion to all this gemutlichkeit: In the second and final act, after Teddy's wife willingly has sex with Joey, the aspiring-boxer son, in front of the family (including her husband, who stands passively by), she is invited by the father and brothers to remain when her husband returns to America. She will sleep with them, and to earn her way she will prostitute herself several hours a night in an establishment that the other son, Lenny, a pimp, will set up for her. She bargains briefly for a finer establishment than is at first proposed, then accepts, admonishing her departing husband not to become a stranger.

At this final point of shock, the viewer is not likely to think that Pinter is making a great affirmation. Yet, ironically, that is precisely what he is doing.1 To understand this it is necessary to see how the basic opposition between America and England functions in the play. America here is a version of the Promised Land, Paradise, or Heaven; and England is the world we live in, a world burdened with ugliness and sin. One is ideality; the other reality. Teddy, the professor, is looked up to because of his migration to America. He is viewed as having attained some higher form of existence. However, the envy of Teddy is not unmixed with irritation. When his father and brothers sing the praises of America, each bit of praise is a laughable cliché or an obvious irony. In the pimp brother's catalog, for example, there are, in addition to the sun and the open spaces, the greyhound buses. Teddy himself tells them how “nice” it is in America, what a “very good life” it is. It is such a clean place. When he thinks of his children, it gives him joy to know that they are at that moment swimming in the clean pool of their community, and he contrasts it to the dirty swimming facility down the road, which is like a “filthy urinal.”

His wife Ruth, however, who also went to America six years earlier from the same neighborhood, does not share his view. From their entrance, the lack of communication and love between them is apparent. Their conversation is disjointed and cold; anxieties arise out of nothingness; there is a fundamental incompatibility. As Joey insists later in the play, of Teddy's sexual relationship with his wife, “He don't get no gravy!” America to Ruth is “all rock” and “sand.” It has “lots of insects.” It is a barren and pestiferous Garden. For all its hygienic splendor, she does not like it, for she has become desensitized there, or as she puts it on two occasions, when she first met Teddy she was “different”; and before she went away she was “a model for the body.”

Her view is the one upheld in the play. It is Teddy's aridity, not the demented household, that is being challenged. At one point, Lenny asks his brother a question about God, which he, being a philosopher and living in America, should presumably know something about. How, he asks, can one revere what one is ignorant of? Unable to answer this fundamental question, Teddy replies that it does not fall within his province. He never does reveal what his “province” is except to say that he has a point of view, that he has written critical works, and that he knows. He does know, but he does not feel. For Teddy, life is “a question of how far you can operate on things and not in things,” of maintaining “intellectual equilibrium.” He sees his family as “objects” because they are “lost” in life, as he refuses to be. They “move about”; he observes. Teddy's philosophy is as aseptic as the pool that his children swim in. His return from the Promised Land is, as Lenny explains to him with some irritation, a disappointment. It is supposed to be accompanied by “a bit of grace” to “reassure” them. They have kept an empty chair for him in the back garden, as they looked up at the stars on warm nights. In the midst of their sordid passions there was room for hope. It had been expected that Teddy would redeem them from the meanness of their lives. But he does not; he brings no “grace” with him—only his wife, who turns out to be another Eve.

When Teddy's wife allows herself to be seduced by Joey, she has already decided to stay. In fact, the “homecoming” more rightly refers to her than to her husband. She is the one who returns. Ironically, when she first arrives and is an unknown quantity, Max calls her a tart, a “smelly scrubber,” and a “pox-ridden slut.” When she succumbs to Lenny and Joey's caresses, he calls her “a woman of quality,” “a woman of feeling.” And that is precisely the point: Ruth has become a woman of quality because she has become again a woman of feeling. In choosing to prostitute herself and to become the mistress of her three in-laws, she has rejected life in the Promised Land; she has rejected any transcendental option for life here and now.

And what is this life? What is Pinter's vision of the human condition? Lenny has already alluded to it with his question about God. Man cannot revere a God of whom he is ignorant. But neither can he revere life, which he does know, because it is ugly. “[I]t would be ridiculous,” he says, “to propose that what we know merits reverence.” There is nothing, then, to revere, and Lenny is demanding from Teddy a solution to this enduring human frustration.

Pinter has described the human condition elsewhere with a brilliant metaphor. In The Dumb Waiter, two professional killers in a large and mysterious organization wait at night in a basement room without windows for an unknown victim to arrive. While they are waiting, they are provoked to a pitch of feverish anxiety by the impossible demands of a power upstairs, which communicates with them through a dumbwaiter. When they complain that they deserve better, that they have been tested enough, one of them, the one who has questioned the most, comes through the door and is shot by the other. He is the victim. Here, too, no grace is forthcoming; only death. Man lives in the basement of creation. He comes into the world in the dark, lives through the night, and leaves in darkness. He has no vision of anything better. He does his best, but it is never good enough; impossible demands are made on him by a power he neither knows nor understands. His condition is one of ignorance, frustration, fear, and anxiety. He participates in a communal brutality that is like ritualized slaughter. (The father in The Homecoming is, significantly, a butcher, and Joey, when not boxing, is “in demolition.”) If man, Ahab-like, questions his nature, his acts, the order of things, the cosmos, he becomes himself a victim. In the end, all he can do is live as a dumb waiter for the uncertain grace of some awful god.

In The Homecoming, America is parallel to the power upstairs in The Dumb Waiter. Instead of being terrible, however, that power here is bland, superficial, “intellectual,” and hygienic. It compares most unfavorably with “life,” however dirty. As Lenny says to Teddy, “[T]here's no question that we live a less rich life here than you do over there. We live a closer life.” But rather than merely the shock of the reality of human existence, as in The Dumb Waiter, there is in this play, along with a mitigation of the threat of God, an assertion, an affirmation of this life on any terms. Ruth's commitment to life provokes Teddy's uncle Sam (the name surely is not an accident) to reveal that Max's wife had been unfaithful to him with his best friend, whereupon he (Sam) collapses. Throughout the play, Sam has seemed the one bastion of normality in an abnormal household. He has represented the forces of convention, stability, and “civilization.” He is the only one to urge Teddy to stay, saying, “We could have a few laughs.” But Teddy will not stay, and as Ruth is taken in, Sam lies prostrate on the floor. Several times in the play, Sam is excoriated for his weak sexuality, his lack of passion. He is a “paralysed prat,” a “wet wick.” He absorbs insult like a sponge. Only with Ruth's decision to stay does he act in any meaningful way. He actively resists the forces at work in the house. But the effort is too much for him. He is the man who has played it safe. Like Estragon and Vladimir in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, he refuses to participate in a life that is brutal and ugly, unredeemed. He is above “having a good bang on the back seat” of his car. He leaves that to “others.” As Max concludes of him just before the play ends, he has a “diseased imagination.”

After Teddy has left and Joey, the boxer, has (quite tenderly) rested his head on the new Eve's lap, Max, overcoming what is apparently a stroke or heart attack, staggers to her side, affirming, “I'm not an old man,” and finally demanding, perhaps even as he is dying, “Kiss me!” It is the play's ultimate defiance of the Promised Land.


  1. Some critics do see the play in a positive light. For example, John Lahr, in his introduction to A Casebook on Harold Pinter's The Homecoming (New York: Grove Press, 1971), calls it a “triumph of craftsmanship and artistic intention.” Kelly Morris (“The Homecoming,” Tulane Drama Review, April 8, 1967) calls it a “comedy of manners” (58). William Baker and Stephen Ely Tabachnich, in Harold Pinter (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), call it “realistic theater” (149) about an “insecure ethnic [Jewish] group” (110). And Martin Esslin (The Peopled Wound: The Plays of Harold Pinter [London: Methuen, 1970]), thinks that the play can sustain “the most meticulous examination as a piece of realistic theater” (149). Other critics retreat into psychoanalytic and mythic theories about earth-mother-whores and primal families. For example, Katherine H. Burkman, in The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), finds the play's focus “clearly on the fertility goddess and her place in the ritual renewal of life” (108). A few forthrightly express their confusion. Bert O. States, in “Pinter's Homecoming: The Shock of Non-Recognition” (in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Arthur Ganz [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972]), speaks of the play as “spun outward from an invisible center of complicity, which clearly beckons the Interpreter to try his hand at supplying objective correlatives” (149). And Lucina Paquet Gabbard, in The Dream Structure of Pinter's Plays: A Psychoanalytic Approach (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1976), calls it a play “so ambiguous that it allows multiple interpretations even on a realistic level” (186-87). The strongest reactions come from those appalled by the morality of the play. For example, Simon Trussler (The Plays of Harold Pinter [London: Victor Gollancz, 1973]) feels “soiled and diminished” (125) by it. Margaret Croydon, in “Pinter's Hideous Comedy” (A Casebook on Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, ed. John Lahr [New York: Grove Press, 1971]), finds the characters “hideous” and “grotesque” (45). And James R. Hollis (Harold Pinter, The Poetics of Silence [Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois UP, 1970]) says that “the characters … are no more concerned with moral issues than a dog is self-conscious about his relationship to a fire hydrant” (110). Except for Burkman, in passing, no critic focuses on the significance of the England/America contrast as a means of seeing the play in a positive light.

Principal Works

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The Room (play) 1957

The Birthday Party (play) 1958

The Dumb Waiter (play) 1959

Last to Go (play) 1959

A Slight Ache (radio play) 1959

Trouble in the Works (play) 1959

The Caretaker (play) 1960

*The Dwarfs (radio play) 1960

A Night Out (radio play) 1960

Night School (teleplay) 1960

The Collection (teleplay) 1961

The Lover (teleplay) 1963

The Servant (screenplay) 1963

The Pumpkin Eater (screenplay) 1964

The Homecoming (play) 1965

Tea Party (teleplay) 1965

Accident (screenplay) 1967

The Basement (play) 1967

The Quiller Memorandum (screenplay) 1967

Landscape (play) 1968

Night (play) 1969

Silence (play) 1969

The Go-Between (screenplay) 1971

Old Times (play) 1971

Monologue (teleplay) 1973

The Last Tycoon (screenplay) 1975

No Man's Land (play) 1975

Betrayal (play) 1978

Poems and Prose 1949-1977 (poetry and prose) 1978; revised as Collected Poems and Prose, 1986

The Proust Screenplay: A la recherche du temps perdu [with Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray] (screenplay) 1978

The Hothouse (play) 1980

Family Voices (play) 1981

The French Lieutenant's Woman [adapted from the novel by John Fowles] (screenplay) 1981

A Kind of Alaska (play) 1982

Victoria Station (play) 1982

One for the Road (play) 1984

Turtle Diary (screenplay) 1986

Mountain Language (play) 1988

Reunion (screenplay) 1989

The Comfort of Strangers [adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan] (screenplay) 1990

The Handmaid's Tale [adapted from the novel by Margaret Atwood] (screenplay) 1990

The New World Order (play) 1991

Party Time (play) 1991

Ten Early Poems (poetry) 1992

Moonlight (play) 1993

The Trial [adapted from the novel by Franz Kafka] (screenplay) 1993

Ashes to Ashes (play) 1997

Lolita [adapted from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov] (screenplay) 1997

Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics (prose, poetry, and essays) 1998

Celebration (plays) 1999

The Tragedy of King Lear [adapted from the play by William Shakespeare] (screenplay) 2000

*Originally written as a novel, and published as such in 1990.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 17-31 January 1994)

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SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Two Quartets.” New Leader 77, no. 1 (17-31 January 1994): 22-3.

[In the following review, Kanfer praises Pinter's No Man's Land for its fresh humor, but criticizes the play for its use of ambiguities that seem to be merely gimmicks.]

no' man's' land': n. 1. a piece of land, usually wasteland, to which no one has a recognized title. 2. the area on a battlefield separating the combatants. 3. an indefinite area of operation, involvement, jurisdiction, etc.

Webster's New World Dictionary

All of Harold Pinter's plays could be grouped under the heading of “Enigma Variations.” From his earliest efforts he has specialized in menacing silences, elliptical dialogue and a vague but pervasive malaise. He was born for the era of deconstructionism, when the text is merely the real estate and the commentaries are the elaborate structures upon which so many academic careers depend. No wonder he has become the professors' darling.

Pinter has often earned his kudos. In such dramas as The Caretaker and The Homecoming he created characters as memorable as Samuel Beckett's. They spoke with an odd, musical effect that offset the air of foreboding with moments of lyricism and poetic anguish. On the other hand, more than a few Pinter plays were notorious for their gimmickry. Betrayal, for example, was nothing more than a melodramatic love triangle. To disguise it, the playwright applied a reverse spin: The habitual adultery took place in the first scene, the seduction in the middle, and the introductions in the last.

No Man's Land, at the Roundabout Theater, presents both the high and the low Pinter in one hypnotic evening. The plot, if it can be called that, features two elderly gentlemen. Spooner (Christopher Plummer) is a bard gone to seed. Dressed as an unlaundered Edwardian, he wanders about dreamlike, speaking of his gracious upbringing and dropping literary names with a resounding clunk. It takes quite a while to discover that he supports himself by cleaning up tables at a local tavern. Hirst (Jason Robards) is a booming, strutting, wealthy man of letters, a public building in trousers. He lives in a Northwest London town house, complete with elaborate appointments and a staff of servants. The two have just run into each other at a pub, and Hirst, ever the host, has invited his indigent colleague to come home with him for a drink.

But this is Pinterland, and things are never what they appear to be at first glance. Or second. Of the two men, Hirst has suffered the most ravages. He is an alcoholic, barely able to stay away from the bottle for three minutes at a time. His memory has sadly eroded; he scarcely recognizes that Spooner is a classmate from long-ago Oxford. Or is he? Perhaps the fumes of booze have created a relationship where none exists. Perhaps Spooner is only pretending to be an old Oxonian so that he can cadge a few more drinks.

For all the authority in Hirst's voice, he turns out to be at the mercy of his servants. Foster (Tom Wood), a young homosexual factotum, is stealing his time, space and money. Briggs (John Seitz), an intimidating butler, barks the orders his boss meekly obeys. Perhaps Spooner wants to join this pair of thugs, to insinuate himself onto the staff so that he, too, can rip off the estate. He makes an offer: He could go through Hirst's photo albums, identifying the faces his host can no longer name. “A proper exhumation could take place,” he says in the manner of a solicitous friend—or an anxious undertaker.

The ambiguities, coupled with interludes of fresh and genuine humor, sustain the evening. The brightest moment occurs when the two men recall their palmier days of sexual conquest. Spooner is modest; Hirst is all braggadocio. He begins by congratulating his companion for a lifelong pursuit of fitness. Indeed, he burbles on, when the young Spooner was competing in various athletic contests, Hirst busied himself by seducing the poet's wife, Emily. Spooner takes in this revelation with a minimum of distress. Does he believe it? Or does he ascribe it to the imaginings of a senile fool? For that matter, was Spooner ever married to Emily? To anyone at all? It is unclear.

So is everything else. The very title is open to a variety of interpretations. Is David Jenkins' vast sitting room a wasteland, perhaps an asylum of some sort? After all, the leather door is heavily padded, and there is a high brick wall just outside the huge picture window. Perhaps it is a battlefield where these two aging souls are about to have their last engagement. Perhaps, Spooner suggests, it is death, a condition “which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent.” Or perhaps. …

And therein lies the trouble. It is one thing for a playwright who seems in control to be ambiguous; it is quite another for him to drop hints and suggestions throughout an evening that seems nothing more than a conjurer's trick. Happily, the conjurers in this case are the inspired director, David Jones, and two old pros at the top of their form.

When No Man's Land was originally produced in 1975, the play was carried by its stars, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. Those knights of the realm could lend significance to a reading of bumper stickers, and it was widely assumed that no other leading men could come close to their magisterial interpretations. Apparently neither Robards nor Plummer has heard the news. Robards is the cello of this quartet, thrumming his lines and filling the air with dark undertones. Plummer is very much the first violin, tremulously stating and restating his melodic lines. Abetted by Wood and Seitz, they provide some of the subtlest and most rewarding moments of this season. I wish the group was interpreting a classic equal to its skills; then again, even the Budapest got tired of doing war horses every bloody night.

Screenwriters are notorious for biting the land that feeds them. From A Star Is Born through Sunset Boulevard to The Player, the film industry has remained the cherished target of its scribes. One would think there was nothing left to say about the excesses and egomania of movie folk. One would be wrong. True, the producers who went from Poland to Polo in one generation have vanished, the studio system has collapsed and the multiplex has replaced the movie palace. Yet all that has only made the arena more vicious and depraved, as John Patrick Shanley demonstrates in four dogs and a bone, the latest report from the frontlines of Celluloid City.

The sometime scenarist (Moonstruck; Alive!) precedes his two-act exposé with citations from Virgil: “O accurst craving for gold!”; Homer: “Victory shifts from man to man”; and Cicero: “I would rather be wrong with Plato, than right with men such as these.” But this literary attitude is pure swank. From the opening curtain, Shanley takes a clear and malicious delight in the rapacity, hysteria and backstabbings that continue to characterize the present-day film colony.

The bone here is fame, and the four dogs who quarrel over it are a veteran performer, Collette (Ann Magnuson); a conniving ingenue, Brenda (Arabella Field); a loutish producer, Bradley (Adam Arkin); and a novice screenwriter, Victor (Reg Rogers). As the lights go up. Bradley is in full panic. His reputation for producing bombs has become legendary, and his ability to secure financing is growing more precarious by the hour. He needs a hit the way Dracula needs plasma. But the movie Bradley has just put into production is already over budget. For the project to be completed, the script must be vastly reduced in size and concept. Otherwise, he warns, the movie will go “straight to video if it gets off the shelf.” He seizes every opportunity to threaten the writer, bulldoze the performers and con the investors.

Made aware of their diminishing opportunities, Collette and Brenda begin to fight for every line. Brenda has the heavier weaponry: She is some 10 years younger, and she is sleeping with Victor. Collette, however, has greater motivation: She is in mid-career; with this production she either rises to star status or sinks to Shirley MacLaine-ish character roles, forever playing “somebody's aunt with cancer.” So she wheels out her own formidable arsenal of gossip and flirtation.

Each actress closes in on Victor, promising him fresh sexual delights if he will increase her part and diminish her competitor's. The trouble is, Victor has come to regard his work as sacrosanct and refuses to make any alterations. Unless, of course, he can convince Bradley to depose the director and give Victor the job. Result: threats, temptations, recriminations, backstabbings, four miserable people, and one piquant comedy at the Lucille Lortel Theater.

Shanley has a fine ear for sound stage patois. A cinematographer is characterized as “an idiot, I hope, savant.” The ambitious Brenda promises that by next year “you'll be hearing this voice in Dolby.” Bradley finds Collette's overacting “so grotesque it's Kabuki.” She has been a New York actress, and in his view, “theater is the Outback of the entertainment business.” Meantime, Brenda excuses her tantrums with bogus memories of abuse, having been “incested” when she was a child.

Every member of this quartet has at least one hilarious solo, but Magnuson fares better in the catfight, and Arkin is the best at being the worst. From Northern Exposure on television to I Hate Hamlet on Broadway, he has played vulgarians so often and so well that it now seems second nature to him. (Perhaps it is first nature, although the few times I have seen him on talk shows he seems to be the soul of calm and discretion.)

John Patrick Shanley the director compensates for the shortcomings of John Patrick Shanley the playwright. His script has only the vaguest structure; encounter follows encounter without resolution or crescendo. No matter. The internecine battle sends up enough sparks to ignite a highly diverting evening. Santo Loquasto's bright set and Elsa Ward's impudent costumes wittily fan the flames. In their light I recalled an aperçu of Fred Allen that has lost none of its salinity—or validity—in 50 years: “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly, and still have enough room for three caraway seeds and a producer's heart.” Plus ça change, plus c'est la même shows.

Mel Gussow (essay date March 1994)

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SOURCE: Gussow, Mel. “The Prime of Harold Pinter.” American Theatre 11, no. 3 (March 1994): 14-21.

[In the following essay, Gussow provides an overview of Pinter's life and career.]

Harold Pinter has always been able to surprise himself as well as his audience. Several years ago, he said with an air of resignation, “My attitude towards my own playwriting has changed. The whole idea of a narrative, of a broad canvas stretching over two hours, I think I've gone away from that forever.” Fifteen years after Betrayal, he wrote Moonlight. Although it runs only 75 minutes without intermission, it is a complete, richly textured play. As his body of work testifies and as Moonlight certifies, at 63 he is England's foremost living dramatist. Only Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn are close contenders.

Writing the play, he said, was “like opening a door and suddenly realizing you're on a plane of gold. I don't want to sound mystical about it, but I know that something happened which I can't really account for.” Because he wrote six short plays and eight screenplays in the interval between Betrayal and Moonlight, he becomes edgy when it is suggested that he overcame writer's block. But he acknowledges the new play as a breakthrough after periods of “bumping into brick walls.”

The opening of Moonlight at the Almeida Theatre in London began what was to be one of the most salutary weeks of Pinter's career. Several days later, the playwright presented his papers—all his extant manuscripts of 26 plays, 17 screenplays and sketches, prose and poetry—on a long-term loan to the British Library. In accepting the Pinter papers at a festive luncheon, Sir Anthony Kenny, the chairman of the library's board, said that the generosity was unprecedented. The “Deposit of the Archives” was followed by the reopening on the West End of Pinter's compelling production of David Mamet's Oleanna (starring David Suchet). Surrounded by these visible signs of his success, Pinter was in a celebratory mode.

But—and this is a but as big as a butte—there is the matter of his public image. Despite the favorable reviews and a Times of London editorial extolling his work, the British press treats him with hostility traditionally reserved for enemies of the State and prodigal members of the Royal Family. Every day during Pinter Week, the newspapers were filled with verbal and graphic putdowns. The most vicious attacks were unsigned. Because Pinter is chary about giving interviews, quotations and anecdotes were recycled and apocryphal. The playwright refers to this as “cuttings journalism.” Nothing fresh in the hopper? Call up “Pinter” in the computer menu and out pops all the old hearsay and gossip about his rudeness and hot temper.

Such assaults on a major artist seem unconscionable, but to the playwright, it was a bitter fact of his theatrical life. As the press marshalled its familiar arsenal, he kept his ire to himself. The focus was on Moonlight—a portrait of family relationships undermined by years of divisiveness. At the center of the play is a father on his deathbed, raging against the night of dying, a character superbly played by Ian Holm, himself returning to the stage after a long absence. As with all Pinter, Moonlight is filled with mystery. Is the daughter, a wraithlike poetic figure, a ghost? Are the grandchildren imaginary? Why do the two sons refuse to return home? Free reign is given to the eye and ear of the theatregoer. The mysteries will accumulate as the play is done in other countries and makes an inevitable move to New York. As with The Homecoming and Old Times, this is a play that will be greatly discussed, analyzed and debated.

As a confrontation with questions of mortality, it is a return to earlier Pinter as well as a step into previously uncharted dramatic territory. The early plays (The Birthday Party,The Caretaker and The Homecoming) were linked as comedies of menace. Next came a number of plays (from Old Times to Betrayal) concerned with love and the fallibility of memory, and they were followed by short sharp political works like Mountain Language that deal, in Pinter's words, with “power and powerlessness.”

On one level, the plays could be called comedies of language. As Peter Hall, who has staged more Pinter than any other director, says in his autobiography, with him, “words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort or destroy each other; and in defense to conceal feelings.” The plays, Moonlight definitely included, illustrate one of Pinter's favorite Cockney expressions, “taking the piss,” which means mocking people with apparent deference so that they do not know that they are being mocked.

As Ian Smith, a young Oxford don and cricket teammate of Pinter, says, all the plays are about “Englishness as an urban experience of alienation and dislocation, about establishing a personal identity in relation to other people and to language.” Smith equates Pinter's art with his bold style of playing cricket. As he says, “Everything is focused. It's about performance and economy of gesture.”

At the end of The Birthday Party, as McCann and Goldberg are taking Stanley away to what they euphemistically describe as “a long convalescence,” the landlady's husband says sympathetically, “Stan, don't let them tell you what to do!” In conversation in 1988, Pinter said that he lived that line all his life. That stubborn individuality has been a chief motivating factor for the playwright, whether, as a young man, he was rejecting his call up for national service, or, later in his life, he was reacting to censors, dismissive critics or nations undermining human rights. In the broadest sense, Pinter has always been a conscientious objector, even as people keep trying to tell him what to do.

In photographs he can look foreboding, but in the proper circumstances he is approachable and communicative, especially when speaking about subjects like cricket, James Joyce, Nicaragua, Bosnia and East Timor. On subjects of a closer personal nature, he remains circumspect. One direct result of his years as an actor is that he speaks in a crisp, carefully cultivated voice. Tall, black-haired and broad-shouldered, he is resolutely athletic and keeps fit by playing tennis (often with his wife Lady Antonia Fraser). As the captain of a cricket team, he is devoted to that sport but plays only when he feels he can earn a spot in that day's lineup.

The Pinters are a glamorous couple with a tight circle of protective friends, who include members of Lady Antonia's large family (many of them writers) and playwrights like Ronald Harwood and Simon Gray. For all the publicity that pursues them, they lead a comparatively quiet life, dining together in favorite restaurants, playing bridge at home with Karel Reisz and his wife Betsy Blair and visiting European hideaways on family holidays. They live in a large elegant townhouse on a quiet square in the Holland Park section of London. Every day, the playwright walks through the couple's lush garden to a two story stucco house that faces the next street. The building was renovated into what Lady Antonia calls his “superstudy.” It is super. On the first floor is an office, with fax, photocopier and files superintended by Pinter's assistant. On the second floor is his workroom.

At noon two days after the opening of Moonlight, Pinter greets me at the door, for the first of a series of conversations. For a moment it seems I have arrived too early: He is wearing what looks like a pajama top, a silky shirt with broad blue stripes. But, along with slacks and sneakers, this turns out to be a typical at-home outfit. As we walk through the study, everything seems to be precisely in place. The shelves are alphabetized with books in categories: Beckett and Joyce (Ulysses is nightly bedtime rereading); political works with an emphasis on books dealing with Nazi Germany; plays by fellow dramatists. There is a shelf for poetry and another for Lady Antonia's best-selling historical biographies and mystery thrillers; and an entire bookcase for volumes on cricket. In the hallway are copies of all his plays with their covers facing forward as in a wall-size collage.

On one shelf is a collection of scrapbooks of his clippings which he has carefully kept since the beginning of his career. On the first page is a review of his first play, The Room. The headline reads, “Written in Two Days. This Young Author Scores a Hit.” But soon there are other reviews with comments like “Mr. Pinter, you're just not funny enough,” and “What all this means only Mr. Pinter knows.” He keeps the bad with the good, though he draws the line at the scurrilous.

His desk is filled with memorabilia: a brass dodo from his wife for writing Moonlight; a brass buckle (not a knuckle) from Mamet for directing Oleanna. Facing the desk is a large painting of Joseph Losey's sitting room, Losey being the film director with whom he closely collaborated on The Servant and Accident. In Pinter's bathroom is a photograph of Sir Len Hutton, the cricket star who was his idol, about whom he wrote a three-line poem (“I saw Len Hutton in his prime / Another time / another time”). He sent that poem to Simon Gray and then called him to see if he had received it. Said Gray, “Yes, but I haven't finished reading it yet.”

Next to Hutton in the Pinter pantheon is Samuel Beckett. For many years, Pinter sent manuscripts of his plays to Beckett, who responded with valuable suggestions. The last time he saw him, Beckett was in a nursing home in Paris and feeling “pretty gloomy.” Pinter said, “I'm going to send you something to cheer you up: my adaptation of The Trial.” Both playwrights laughed loudly at the thought of Kafka as a day brightener. (The film of The Trial, directed by David Jones, opened late last year.) Now Pinter sends his plays to a number of people, including Simon Gray, David Mamet and Ian Smith. “It's called a mailing list,” he said. “I do feel my life has become much more open since Antonia and I have been together, which is now almost 18 years. I send my plays to more people and I say more and irritate more people than I ever did.”

Over lunch at a nearby restaurant (champagne and white wine to whet the conversation), we talk about the origins of Moonlight. Printer's plays have almost all begun with an image or a line of dialogue that triggered the playwright's imagination. In the case of Moonlight, it was something in No Man's Land, a play thought to be unrevivable because it was so identified with its august original stars, Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud. While others feared to follow them in a second production, the dauntless author stepped into the Richardson role himself, playing opposite Paul Eddington. The fact that they succeeded unlocked the play for future productions (Jason Robards and Christopher Plummer are starring through March 6 in a new mounting at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York). In character in the play, Pinter said, “Tender the dead as you would yourself be tendered in what you describe as your life.” As he recalls, “There was always an absolute hush in the house during that speech. That sense of the dead who are alive in us quickened something in me.” Speaking dialogue he had written also sparked his creativity. As he said, “I was led through the act of acting back into the act of writing.”

He began writing, as usual on a long yellow, legal-size pad, then suddenly stopped as he realized, “I've been here before.” He ransacked his papers looking for pads from the past. “I became like a wild, mad composer, throwing scripts and papers all over the place.” Finally he found what he had been looking for, pages written 15 years before. Rereading his jottings, he agreed with his original assessment that the material was not progressing but there were certain elements that echoed in the present. “A man was in his bed dying and his wife was in the room. I knew he was a man of considerable vigor and it was a question of children who weren't there.” In January, while on holiday in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, he rented an old manual typewriter and typed “feverishly, banging and clanking way into the night. I couldn't stop.”

In characteristic fashion, he was not aware of the shape of Moonlight or of the ending until he had finished it. “I didn't know what was going to happen between those people, except I knew the father was raging a good deal of the time.”

Taking a reflective look at his work, he said, “Theatre is essentially exploratory. Even old Sophocles didn't know what was going to happen next. He had to find his way through unknown territory. At the end of the journey, which of course is never ending, I've found things out, but I don't say, ‘I have illuminated myself, you see before you a changed person.’ It's a more surreptitious sense of discovery. Writing for me is an act of freedom and celebration.”

Asked how Moonlight related to his own family life, he pauses, then says, “Parent-children relationships are very very complicated. Both from natural observation of others and my own experience, I think it must have a general application.” About his son, Daniel, who is 35, he says, “He lives alone in the country, he writes music and we're in touch.” When I suggest that the play might subconsciously derive from his own experiences as a son rather than as a father, that sets him off on a memory trip back to his youth as the only child of a lower-middle-class Jewish couple in Hackney on the East End of London (according to family lore, the name was originally de Pinta).

“My mother died last October at the age of 88 [on the first day of rehearsal of No Man's Land] and my father [who was a tailor] is still going strong at the age of 91. When I ask him, ‘How are things, Dad?’, he says, ‘Well, no fireworks.’ My father was a man of considerable authority when he was young. He still is.” At the beginning of World War II, Pinter was sent to Cornwall for safety, a traumatic experience for a nine-year-old. Back in London, with the war still on, he watched as his street was struck with incendiary bombs. Evacuating their home, he rescued his two most prized possessions, his cricket bat and a “paean of love” he was writing to a girl down the street. From an early age, he wrote poetry and went to the movies, growing up on a diet of American gangster movies and British war films.

With a natural flair for dramatizing himself, he decided to become an actor. Skipping university, he joined Anew McMaster's touring company in Ireland. It was an eye-opener to be introduced to the theatre by appearing in Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, Julius Caesar, Othello and The Importance of Being Earnest all in the same week. Shakespeare “was given very directly and received very directly” by country audiences. Pinter began specializing in sinister roles, like Iago. For one performance, at a matinee in a convent, McMaster let him go on in his place as Hamlet, with the older actor playing the Gravedigger. After the performance, Pinter asked him how it went and he replied, “Very good, but be a little more compassionate with your mother.”

Under the name David Baron, he then acted with provincial troupes throughout England, meeting and marrying the actress Vivien Merchant. As journeymen actors, they struggled to make a living. Having written a novel, The Dwarfs, drawn from his roistering life as a young man in London, and thinking it unpublishable, he decided to shift his attention to playwriting. Writing the one-act The Room for his friend Henry Woolf at Bristol University, he plunged into The Birthday Party, which opened in London and was demolished by the critics. The play, but not the production, was rescued by Harold Hobson in an historic Sunday Times review. A touring production of the play was directed by the author with a young actor named Alan Ayckbourn in the central role. As Ayckbourn recalls, when he asked the playwright questions about his character, Pinter replied, “Mind your own business.” Pinter denies making that statement but savors the story and remains an admirer of Ayckbourn.

Pinter persisted and, with The Caretaker, found his voice and was proclaimed one of the leaders of a new wave of British dramatists. Early in his career, he began diversifying by writing screenplays and directing plays by others (in particular, Simon Gray). If he did face a writer's block, it was not in recent years, but in the early 1980s, after A Kind of Alaska. “There was a period of roughly three years when I did not write a play,” he recalls. “Something gnaws away: the desire to write and the inability to do so.” He felt that he wanted to write plays that would address his political convictions, and was finally able to do so “out of anger, very very cold anger.”

From the first, Pinter was regarded as an intuitive playwright rather then an intellectual one. The truth is that he is both. After the act of inspiration comes careful construction, meditation if not premeditation. The plays are dense with references to writers like Joyce and T. S. Eliot. Pinter is as much an autodidact as Stoppard (who also did not go to university), but he does not readily reveal his literary leanings. Over the years, his work has become more widely seen and more influential (and the word Pinteresque entered the international lexicon, joining Shakespearean, Shavian and Beckettian). His plays are performed even, to his surprise, in China, where The Lover, a play about “sex in the suburbs,” has recently been touring.

The Pinter Review, a scholarly journal published annually by the Pinter Society in Tampa, Fla., is one of many indications of his academic ascendancy. Scholars are probing and parsing his works in essays and books that range from the general (The Pinter Problem) to the specific (“Das groteske Kurzdrama und der Anreiz zur Entratselung: Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter”). Though he has a shelf full of these texts, he feels nonplussed by the critical attention and, for example, by a structuralist reading of one of his brief revue sketches (“a conversation that is mutually and simultaneously phatic for both interlocutors”). He explains, “I don't understand how people can be so terribly earnest and serious about a damn sketch. It's only a sketch.”

He is adamant about seasoning his plays with humor, with “salt, vinegar and mustard.” “Laughs are a constant factor in my work, and they always have been. You wouldn't glean that from our dear old friends, the press. Not a laugh, not a giggle, not a whisper of a smile attends these events. The history is: lots of laughs. The distortion is: no laughs!”

In speaking about his temperament, he says, “I know I've had the reputation of being a real pain in the ass over the last few years, and on certain occasions I have been.” But from his point of view, his reactions have been provoked, usually by an assault on his sense of justice. He has the strongest feelings about the hypocrisy of “the destructive society” he lives in, and is never hesitant to offer his opinion. Several years ago, he and his wife formed an anti-Establishment political discussion group that met in their house, a gathering that included Salman Rushdie, Germaine Greer and David Hare. They were criticized, and still are long after the group disbanded, for being “champagne socialists,” the British equivalent of America's radical chic. Soon after a Greenpeace ship was blown up by the French secret service, an event that Pinter describes as “an act of governmental murder,” he found himself at a dinner party across the dinner table from the French Ambassador to England. The playwright promised his wife that he would be polite, but his anger overcame his company manners and he became argumentative. “The ambassador accused me of insulting La France and nearly challenged me to a duel. Though in one way I regret that—it was the wrong occasion—on the other hand I don't. People who stand on a spurious sense of dignity irritate me. The solemnity of the official position!” Only once, he said, has he resorted to violence. That was in the 1960s when he heard a man in a pub making an anti-Semitic remark. The result was a brawl. “There is a violence in me,” he admits, “but I don't walk around looking for trouble.”

In our first conversation in 1971, at the time of the opening of Old Times on Broadway, Pinter said, “I think I am in a trap always. I sometimes wish desperately that I could write like someone else, be someone else.” When those words were quoted back to him, he said that he had changed. “I'm actually much happier in myself than I was 20 years ago.” Then he offered a correction. “When I talked then about the closeness of my family, in fact I was very unhappy, and I had not been happy for some time. You wouldn't believe this, but I have a tendency to the melancholic.” Then he smiled. “It really would be a waste to be melancholy when you're married to Antonia Fraser.”

On Sunday of Pinter Week, there was an unsigned profile in the Observer, deriding him for his pomposity in saying at “an expensive dinner party” that he was “sick to the soul.” Trying to track down the root of at least this one item, I asked him if he had ever said that in public, in private or in a play. He offered a categorical denial. Perhaps someone was eavesdropping and had misheard a comment. Could it be his old friend, the proverbial weasel under the cocktail cabinet? Offered roast beef at Buckingham Palace, Pinter may have said that he would “stick to the sole.”

On my last day in London, I visited the Pinter archives at the British Library. The magnificent high vaulted reading room was filled with authors and scholars. On any given day, Lady Antonia and several members of her family might be among those diligently at work. A maze of corridors led to a large, cold storage space. Pinter occupies one section of the room with 60 boxes of material, arranged alphabetically. The Moonlight files begin with 19 pages of yellow lined paper dating from 1978, followed by a scribbled notepad from Air Mauritius, an outline, drafts and completed manuscript. Names of characters changed, as did words (“codswallop” was replaced by “pigswill”). Clearly, the play grew by a process of distillation.

The fact that the Pinter papers are enshrined in the British Library with the works of G. K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh should make him an immortal of English letters. But wait a minute! Look whose papers are in adjoining bookcases: the collected works of Lord Chamberlain, for so many years the nation's official censor, arbiter of taste and gadfly to Pinter and other playwrights. Together with his staff of readers, he searched for improprieties and innuendo (dismissing The Birthday Party as “an insane, pointless play” and The Caretaker as “a piece of incoherence in the manner of Samuel Beckett”). He demanded excisions before licensing the plays to be seen by the public. This means that, in a final ironic coincidence, Pinter's manuscripts coexist in intimate proximity with the Lord Chamberlain's censorious reviews.

Further Reading

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Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. London: Faber and Faber, 1996, 414 p.

Presents biographical and critical essays on Pinter.


Cahn, Victor L. Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold Pinter. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 148 p.

Offers critical analysis of constructions of sex and gender in Pinter's plays.

Gale, Steven H., ed. The Films of Harold Pinter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001, 188 p.

Presents essays by various authors on Pinter's original screenplays and screenplay adaptations.

Gordon, Lois, ed. Pinter at 70: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2001, 342 p.

Collection of essays by various authors on Pinter's life, writings, career, and politics.

Hall, Ann C. A Kind of Alaska: Women in the Plays of O'Neill, Pinter, and Shepard. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993, 146 p.

Presents essays on the representation of women in the plays of Pinter, Eugene O'Neill, and Sam Shepard, including discussion of Homecoming, No Man's Land, Betrayal, and A Kind of Alaska.

Knowles, Ronald. Understanding Harold Pinter. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995, 232 p.

Offers criticism and interpretation of Pinter's plays and other writings.

Lyons, Donald. “On Belly & Floor in Pinterland.” New Criterion 12, no. 7 (March 1994): 44-6.

Provides critique of No Man's Land, asserting that its dialogue is tiresome, the characters are not well developed, and ultimately a meaningless play.

Page, Malcolm, ed. File on Pinter. London: Methuen Drama, 1993, 110 p.

Critical, biographical, and bibliographic information and discussion of Pinter's life and works.

Peacock, D. Keith. Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997, 227 p.

Critical discussion of Pinter's plays in the context of twentieth-century British theater.

Raby, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 272 p.

Offers critical essays by various authors on Pinter's works.

Silverstein, Marc. Harold Pinter and the Language of Cultural Power. London: Associated University Presses, 1993, 184 p.

Provides discussion of Pinter's writings in their social, political, and historical contexts.

Wetzsteon, Rachel. “Lyric Gestures: Major Dramatists Slip Into Bardic Guises To Take Up the Personal and Political.” American Theatre 20, no. 2 (February 2003): 60-7.

Asserts that the most interesting thing about Pinter's Various Voices is that it charts his development as a writer.

Additional coverage of Pinter's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 65, 112; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 27, 58, 73; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists and Most-Studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 15; Drama for Students, Vols. 3, 5, 7, 14; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production Artists, Eds. 3, 4; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Twayne's English Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

James Campbell (review date 25 March 1994)

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SOURCE: Campbell, James. “The Slow Unbaffling of the Pinterwatchers.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4747 (25 March 1994): 18.

[In the following review, Campbell praises The Birthday Party for its effective humor and tone of menace. Campbell comments that The Birthday Party is “seen as one of the defining plays of post-war theatre.”]

The Birthday Party brought the Theatre of the Absurd into the English living-room, introducing Vladimir and Estragon to Jimmy Porter. Its original London run, at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1958, lasted less than a week, but now it is seen as one of the defining plays of the post-war theatre, and the new production at the National, directed by Sam Mendes, has a very faint whiff of the museum about it. Pinter's latest play, the difficult, elliptical Moonlight, played to thin houses during its recent West End run, with baffled customers leaving halfway through, wondering what it was all about. No danger of such bafflement greeting The Birthday Party now. Almost forty years on from their first assault on the domestic strongholds of quiet desperation, the two “gentlemen” who come to break weak, unhappy Stanley's glasses and take him away have become immediately recognizable.

Mendes's production skips along fluently and enjoyably; in fact, it starts off pretending to be a sitcom, and requires a rather abrupt change of tone to achieve its icy outcome. The casting of Dora Bryan as Meg seems, at first glance, to be a masterstroke—she is dotty enough, seedy enough, exasperating enough—but rather too delightfully so. Her delivery of lines which set her up as an innocent foil to others' impatience is expertly paced, and her facial expressions are tic-perfect. But she's all heart, this Meg. Not a shade of Beckettian terror about her, not a hint of “I can't go on; I'll go on”. Who wouldn't wish to stay in her boarding-house, brightly lit, with Housewives' Choice-type music piping away in the background, wolfing her tea and fried bread? Her husband Petey is played by Trevor Peacock with similar relaxed professionalism, but also with reassuring good-neighbourliness. It almost comes as a surprise when grubby Stanley (Anton Lesser), finally roused from bed by Meg and now complaining over the stewed tea, sneers that in the last year her boarding house has attracted only one guest—him.

If Mendes is trying to lull us into a false sense of security with this exposition, then perhaps the arrival of Goldberg and McCann will introduce a suggestion of predatory threat? “Stanley had no home”, Pinter wrote in a poem called “A View of the Party”, “Only where Goldberg was.” But, try as he might to spread an evil atmosphere with Goldberg's smarmy confidences (to Meg: “How often do you meet someone it's a pleasure to meet?”; McCann: “Never”), Bob Peck—together with Nicholas Woodeson quivering with violence—can't quite help turning it into another comic double-act. Emma Amos as Lulu, looking like something that just walked out of a saucy seaside postcard in a shiny blue dress over upholstered brassière, adds to the jollity. The play is very funny, of course, but beneath the surface conviviality there should surely rumble a tremor of menace.

Stanley knows what it's all about, though, even if he doesn't quite know how he knows. Goldberg and McCann have come to do a job, and he is the job. Goldberg is, in Pinter's words, “A man he might have known / Triumphant on his hearth / Which never was his own”. When the moment comes, and Stanley, dressed in black suit and black tie, is led out by the two guests to whom Meg has taken such a liking, the scene is played with such effective horror that we are embarrassed to recall how much we laughed earlier. Stanley's last effort to communicate before he shuffles off like a patient after a lobotomy is a throat-twisting gaggle of “aarghs” and “urghs”, as if he knows at last what he wants to say about Goldberg but no longer has access to his tongue. “Man, suddenly realizing that he does not understand, will begin to understand”, wrote Arthur Adamov, one of the progenitors of the Theatre of the Absurd, in 1938. It is a remark Pinter might have taken as his “text” when he sat down to write The Birthday Party. In thirty-six years' time, when they come to do Moonlight at the National, those same spectators who spurned it last season will probably be found rolling in the aisles.

Charles Edelman (essay date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Edelman, Charles. “Pinter's The Birthday Party.Explicator 52, no. 3 (spring 1994): 176-79.

[In the following essay, Edelman explicates a one-line reference to the game of cricket in Pinter's The Birthday Party.]

Goldberg and McCann's interrogation of Stanley, in Harold Pinter's first full-length work, The Birthday Party, is to many an exemplar of what came to be called the comedy of menace. Within a ferocious few minutes of stage time, Stanley is subjected to a bombardment of accusations and questions:

I'm telling you, Webber. You're a washout. Why are you getting on everybody's wick? … When did you last wash up a cup? … Why did you kill your wife? … There's no juice in you. You're nothing but an odour.1

As if this were not sufficient, Stanley must also give an opinion on eternal philosophical matters, from “Is the number 846 possible or necessary?” to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Of the more than one hundred accusations or questions, though, only one question begins with “Who” (the others are why, what, when, or how): Between McCann's two wild queries about religion—“What about the Albigensenist heresy? … What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?”—Goldberg demands to know, “Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?”

Many readers of the play may be forgiven for thinking that Goldberg's query is as absurd as those that come before and after it. Andrew Kennedy considers it a “random fantasy question,” an opinion obviously shared by the German translator of The Birthday Party who thought the question meant, “Who urinated against the city gates of Melbourne?”2 In fact, “Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?” is neither random nor fantastic; indeed it may be seen as the one question in the entire scene to which Harold Pinter himself would dearly love to have an answer.

For Goldberg is alluding to his creator's obsession, the game of cricket. Pinter, who considers the day he faked a nervous breakdown in order to get himself thrown out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and then went directly to see a match at Lord's cricket ground “one of the happiest days of my life,”3 has also said,

I tend to believe that cricket is the greatest thing God ever created on earth … Certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad, either. But everyone knows which comes first when it's a question of cricket or sex—all discerning people recognise that. Anyway, don't forget, one doesn't have to do two things at the same time. You can either have sex before cricket or after cricket—the fundamental fact is that cricket must be there at the centre of things. To put my cards on the table, I must say that cricket means England to me.4

He has written nostalgic essays recounting his memories of the great cricketers Len Hutton and Arthur Wellard5 and, of course, has lovingly evoked the village cricket game from L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between in his screenplay for the Joseph Losey film. Several references to cricket can be found in No Man's Land; it may be no coincidence that the play's four characters—Spooner, Hirst, Briggs, and Foster—bear the names of eminent cricketers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pinter even captained his own team, Mr. Harold Pinter's XI, which numbered among its star players Tom Stoppard.6 For Pinter, then, “Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?” is of far greater cosmic significance than the relatively trivial “Do you recognize an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you?”

In the southern summer of 1954-55, England's national cricket team arrived for a series of Tests, as international matches are called, against archrival Australia. Those who think cricket is all polite applause and cups of tea, as I did before moving from America to Australia in 1970, would be surprised by the passions, as strong as at any World Series game, that the sport can provoke. The Birthday Party, by Martin Esslin's chronology of Pinter's works, was written in 1957,7 only two years after every English newspaper was expressing its outrage over the watering of the wicket at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and demanding that the perpetrator be brought to justice.

For Americans and others to whom cricket is an arcane and mysterious ritual, a brief explanation might prove helpful. One of the major differences between cricket and baseball is that in cricket the bowler (pitcher) hurls the ball toward the batsman—often at terrifying speed—on one bounce, rather than on the fly as in the American game. Therefore the condition of the “wicket” or “pitch,” meaning the area of the ground in front of the batsman where the ball will hit, is of crucial importance. A wicket that develops an uneven bounce could make batting not only difficult but life threatening, especially in the days before batsmen wore helmets. As a match is normally played over five days (six if there is a rest day), the curator's preparation of the wicket—soft or hard, damp or dry, grassy or bare of any green—can greatly affect the game's outcome, for it is illegal to water the wicket once the match has begun, and covers must be placed over the pitch at the close of each day's play.

The third England-Australia Test began at Melbourne Cricket Ground on Friday, December 31, 1954, in the middle of a heat wave, and by the close of the second day's play, with the teams evenly poised, it was clear that Jack House, the curator in charge of preparing the pitch, had not accounted for the effect of the heat. Percy Beames, cricket correspondent of the Melbourne Age, reported that

after two days' play the third Test pitch at Melbourne Cricket Ground has a broken, uneven, surface. Cracks, which have opened up to as much as half an inch, have left high and low ridges, the edges of which have begun to show signs of curling … Once the edges of cracks fall out of alignment, anything is likely to happen to the ball. Batting against pace bowling might even become dangerous.8

On the Sunday rest day the temperature reached 105 degrees, and everyone was convinced that the Australians, who were to bat last, would have no chance against England's bowlers on the cracked and broken pitch. There was amazement, then, when play resumed on Monday morning, for miraculously the wicket had become so muddy that when England's Brian Statham ran up to bowl, he promptly slipped and fell over.9

The next day, the Melbourne Age carried a front-page story by Percy Beames—“[T]he pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground has been watered … this has violated the Laws of Cricket”—and Frank Rostron in the London Daily Express announced “an illegal and horrifying act. We could have one of Test cricket's major scandals on our hands.”10 The officials of the Melbourne Cricket Club, who manage the Ground, immediately held a closed inquiry, and then issued a vehement denial. When pressed as to how the hard and dry wicket could somehow turn to mud without help, wild excuses were offered, including a previously undiscovered subterranean stream whose water was drawn to the surface by Sunday's high temperatures, a claim later supported by two eminent Australian civil engineers.

Who did water the wicket in Melbourne, then? In a recent conversation with me, Percy Beames, who first broke the story in the Melbourne Age, was unequivocal: “I was absolutely certain then, and am now, that it was done either by Jack House or by someone under his instructions.” When asked why House was not named at the time, Beames replied, “My editor was very nervous, and did not want to run the story at all, but I convinced him that if we didn't publish it right away, one of the English newspapers would beat us to it. At last he agreed, but the story had to run without anyone's name being mentioned. The Melbourne Cricket Club demanded I withdraw, and threatened to sue me, but they never did.”

Ironically, it was the Australians, not the English, who were to be the victims of the illegal watering, for England was to bat for most of Monday, when the now damp wicket provided an even bounce. By the time the home side batted again on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, the wicket had once more dried out, all the cracks had reappeared, and the Australians, helpless against the bowling of England's Frank Tyson, were easily defeated. One wonders, then, why Goldberg, whose origins are mysterious, is so outraged by the apparent crime. Is it possible that Goldberg is an Australian?


  1. Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1976) 57, 59, 62.

  2. Andrew Kennedy, “The Two Styles of the Birthday Party,” Harold Pinter: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, & The Homecoming, A Casebook, ed. Michael Scott (London: Macmillan, 1986); Martin Esslin, Pinter: A Study of His Plays (London: Methuen, 1970). The translator erred on two counts—Melbourne has no city gates. My thanks to a distinguished Australian cricketer, John Inverarity, for his help in preparing this article.

  3. Miriam Gross, “Pinter on Pinter,” Critical Essays on Harold Pinter, ed. Steven H. Gale (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990) 38.

  4. Gross 42 (note 3 above).

  5. Pinter, “Hutton and the Past,” and “Arthur Wellard,” Collected Poems and Prose (London: Methuen, 1986) 89-94, 109-16.

  6. Letter from D. A. Cairns to London Times, June 7, 1975, 13. Stoppard's cricket exploits are described by Kenneth Tynan in Profiles (London: Nick Hern Books, 1989) 297-301.

  7. Esslin 17 (note 2 above).

  8. Melbourne Age, January 3, 1955, 14.

  9. As recounted by England player Frank Tyson in The Century Makers: The Men Behind the Ashes 1877-1977 (Melbourne: Hutchinson, 1980) 177.

  10. Melbourne Age, January 4, 1955, 1; Rostron cited Keith Dunstan, The Paddock That Grew: The Story of the Melbourne Cricket Club, 3rd ed. (Melbourne: Hutchinson, 1988) 209.

Mark Ford (review date 9 December 1994)

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SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Oh My True Love.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4784 (9 December 1994): 21.

[In the following review, Ford praises Landscape as “one of the most resonant of Harold Pinter's shorter pieces.”]

Landscape is one of the most resonant of Harold Pinter's shorter pieces. Although written for the stage, it was originally performed on the radio in 1968 because the censors of the about-to-be-dissolved Lord Chamberlain's office objected to the play's language—in particular Pinter's use of the phrase “Fuck-all”. In fact, Landscape is one of Pinter's dreamier performances, and is certainly less viscerally shocking than anything he had written up to that point. Nearly all of his earlier plays build towards specific and irrevocable acts of aggression which lead to the pivotal characters being either appropriated—like Stanley in The Birthday Party—or expelled, like Davies in The Caretaker. In Landscape, however, the urge towards violence is denied any active dramatic embodiment.

This is because—as its title suggests—nothing actually happens in the play, which consists of two interwoven monologues. It features a middle-aged couple, Duff and Beth, seated throughout at opposite ends of a long kitchen table. Duff addresses his words to Beth, but doesn't appear to hear her voice, while Beth seems wholly oblivious of her partner from start to finish.

In both spirit and technique, Landscape is the Pinter play most obviously influenced by the theatre of Samuel Beckett. Even the names have a Beckettian ring. Like Winnie and Willie in Happy Days, Beth and Duff fit perfectly together without ever establishing actual contact. Whereas Pinter's previous dramas thrive on the energies of antagonism, Landscape explores the shifting configurations of the inner consciousness, the suspended, isolated realms of fantasy and memory fixation and loss.

The play's refusal of the possibilities of dramatic action, or even relation, suits the romantic Beth much better than her fidgety, frustrated husband. While she rapturously relives the experience of their first meeting, consummated, in the dunes by the sea, Duff witters on about being caught in the rain, sheltering under a tree in the park, and meeting “some nut” in the local who complains about the beer in characteristically Pinteresque terms: “Someone's made a mistake, this fellow said, someone's used this pintpot instead of the boghole.”

Duff's narratives of the mundane intermittently reveal, however, a yearning to be noticed which culminates towards the play's conclusion in a violent vision of possession: “you'll plead with me like a woman, I'll bang the gong on the floor, if the sound is too flat, lacks resonance, I'll hang it back on its hook, bang you against it swinging, gonging, waking the place up, calling them all for dinner, lunch is up, bring out the bacon, bang your lovely head. …” The furious impotence of such imaginings graphically demonstrates the way both characters' sublimated desire to achieve control effectively imprisons each in the private language of obsession.

Beth's lyrical reminiscences are less aggressive, but are equally a means of reducing the other to a figure of fantasy. Her trance-like recollection of the origins of their relationship fixes Duff as a shadowy, forceful stranger who represents all the mysteries of romance. Her seamless loop of memory blocks out all awareness of the present, and much of the play's pathos derives from the gap between her image of Duff in his prime, and the banally maundering middle-aged man across the table, desperate for her attention.

This excellent production is directed by Pinter himself, and stars Pinter veterans Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton. Although their intertwined monologues encapsulate radically opposed visions of their life together, and neither ever hears the other speak, they yet generate an intense, though wholly negative, rapport. The effect is almost of meticulously scored counterpoint; Wilton's rich, sensuous nostalgia seems both motivated and justified by Holm's insistent, plaintive wheedling, which in truth seems inspired by her complete indifference to his presence. In a way, the failure of their voices explicitly to interact at any point becomes itself expressive of an inescapable mutual dependence.

In the context of Pinter's overall career, Landscape seems a rather transitional piece, a deliberate move away from the theatre of conflict towards a more open-ended drama in which individual battles of will are subsumed within the larger patterns of time passing. Indeed, the play itself enacts this struggle; Duff's efforts to establish himself as a social entity end in collapse in mid-speech, while Beth's circling soliloquy might continue indefinitely.

The aura of timelessness conveyed in Beth's monologue is reflected also in the spare wooden set which avoids suggesting any very particular period or social environment. We learn from Duff that the couple worked in the service of a certain Mr Sykes, in the basement of whose house they still live, though he appears to be dead. After his hectic rape fantasy, Duff falls silent, and, as with the later Betrayal, the play concludes with the primary moment of rapture that initiated the narrative, an elemental vision of love both permanently true, and contradicted by everything that has happened since: “So silent the sky in my eyes. Gently the sound of the tide. … Oh my true love I said.”

Neal R. Norrick and William Baker (essay date May 1995)

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SOURCE: Norrick, Neal R., and William Baker. “Metalingual Humor in Pinter's Early Plays.” English Studies 76, no. 3 (May 1995): 253-63.

[In the following essay, Norrick and Baker assert that much of the humor in Pinter's early plays derives from his masterful use of typical, everyday speech.]

In his “Writing for Myself,” Pinter says, ‘I had a pretty good notion in my earlier plays of what would shut an audience up; not so much what would make them laugh; that I had no ideas about’. If we assume that Pinter is not simply being coy here, he certainly stumbled onto some effective ideas about ‘what would make them laugh’ early, and developed them into a whole brace of comic strategies as he went on. But Pinter goes on to say that his experience as an actor gave him a feeling ‘for speakable dialogue',1 and much of what makes dialogue speakable and believable also makes it amusing. In fact, many of the strategies Pinter used most effectively to create humor revolve around the contradictions, non-sequiturs, and misunderstandings typical of everyday talk, as Deirdre Burton demonstrates convincingly. Familiar enough to us from the conversation we hear around us, these disfluencies become the stuff of comedy on stage, and no playwright has utilized them more ingeniously than Pinter.2

Precisely these comic devices built around the turn-by-turn organization of everyday talk in the early plays of Pinter make up the central concern of this paper. We hope to distinguish these strategies from the more usual play upon individual word forms we find in punning or the attention to their incongruent meanings we find in paradox or irony. Following Roman Jakobson in his definition of the metalingual function of language as directed at the code itself,3 Pinter's comic focus on the form of talk counts as metalingual humor. At times, the characters themselves focus their attention on language in comically revealing ways, but usually it is the playwright behind them who manipulates their speeches to comment on language without their awareness. We shall argue that this metalingual humor is characteristic for early Pinter, and try to draw some more general conclusions about his dramatic method on this basis. The following discussion of other recurrent humor strategies will serve primarily to set off this particular one rather than as an attempt at a complete catalogue of Pinter's comic devices.

There is, of course, no shortage of traditional humor in the plays of Pinter. We often find humor based on incongruency within the situations Pinter portrays. This situational humor runs high when the two killers began to receive orders for progressively more exotic foods from the serving hatch in The Dumb Waiter or when the men ‘turn against’ various products made in the factory in the revue sketch Trouble in the Works, and it may appear admixed with foreboding and anxiety, as when strangers arrive uninvited in The Room.

Similarly, a whole range of traditional language-based humor devices appear from the early plays onward. For instance, one finds a classical malapropism in A Night Out, where an old man at a coffee stall reports that he saw a young man ‘looking very compressed with himself’. This the barman feels obliged to explain, saying, ‘Depressed. He means depressed’.4 And Pinter is not above playing on the dual senses of up, meaning either ‘elevated’ or ‘awake’ to create apparent paradox in The Birthday Party.

Is Stanley up yet?
I don't know. Is he?
I don't know. I haven't seen him down yet.
Well then he can't be up.(5)

Again in The Room Rose says, ‘You're blind, aren't you? So what are you looking at?’6

Pinter also shows a particular fondness for technical terms which have a secondary sense suggestive of sexual organs or activities. In The Dumb Waiter Ben surmises that the toilet tank fills too slowly because ‘It's got a deficient ball-cock’.7 And in Trouble in the Works many of the offending products have richly evocative names like brass pet cock, bronzedraw off cock with handwheel, and high speed taper shank spiral flute reamers. At the beginning of A Slight Ache, the couple argue about the distribution of plants in their garden with names seemingly designed for double entendres, to wit honeysuckle and convolvulus. Finally, in keeping with the maxim that the old gags are the best gags, Pinter includes the following exchange in Night School.

I had to lay off. I had to lay right off tarts, since just after Easter.
I bet you never had a tart in prison, Wally.
No, I couldn't lay my hands on one.(8)

To the extent that word play reflects on language itself, it draws our attention to the system of words and their potentially clashing senses, and may thus count as metalingual. But these sorts of word play are the stock in trade of playwrights generally. What we want to identify as characteristic of Pinter's early plays in particular is humor built around the give and take of language in conversational interaction. And it is to this matter we now turn.

Austin Quigley argues that critics have failed to understand the use of language in Pinter's plays due to their traditional assumption that language is primarily referential in function, ideational in meaning. He cites Wittgenstein's contention that language has a multiplicity of functions realized in potentially infinite language games, then he critiques treatments of linguistic function like those by Richardson, Jakobson et alia, showing how they all ultimately fall victim to the belief that referentiality and ideation are primary. If we follow Wittgenstein in recognizing that meaning follows from use, we see that Pinter's characters use language to negotiate interpersonal relationships: of primary importance is not reference or ideational meaning in the traditional sense, but rather how the characters maneuver within—and against—the constraints of talk in interaction.9

All this meshes nicely with current trends in the study of discourse, particularly in conversation analysis, whether researchers express the constraints of talk in interaction in terms of ‘preferences’ for certain default responses or orders of turns, and inferences from unpreferred responses or orders, as do Sacks, Schegloff, Jefferson and others; or whether they speak in terms of negotiating meaning within the parameters of power and solidarity, politeness and clarity, where any speech resonates interpersonally in line with expectations defined in cognitive frames, as in work by Goffman, Gumperz, Lakoff, Tannen.10

Of course, Quigley focusses on the interactional significance of talk exchanges between characters, but his discussion in The Pinter Problem (Princeton, 1975) also points the way for an investigation of Pinter's style, which we would like to get at here. Pinter's construction of dialogue around points of disagreement on ways of speaking provides Quigley with examples of the interrelational function of language, but, at the same time, it counts as metalingual in the sense of Jakobson.11 And to the extent that it conduces to humor, it counts as metalingual humor for present purposes. Even Quigley himself goes on to identify two primary types of humor Pinter creates through the prism of language as an interrelational tool: first, ‘A great deal of humor in the plays is based on the characters’ need to confirm the status quo of their relationship by conversing after the manner of tennis practice’ (284). Second, ‘Pinter makes extensive use of another characteristic of language: its dependence on an axis of contrast’ (285). When systematic linguistic contrasts break down, misunderstanding results; and Pinter generates much humorous dialogue from these breakdowns and misunderstandings.

The ‘tennis practice’ nature of phatic small talk becomes its ‘smokescreen function’ for Arlene Sykes. Sykes in Harold Pinter (New York, 1970) makes the point—citing Pinter in interviews where he says we use talk as a smokescreen to avoid serious communication—that language in The Dumb Waiter provides an excuse not to discuss the impending threat. Arguing, as Elin Diamond does in Pinter's Comic Play, (Lewisburg, PA, 1985), that Pinter is parodying gangster talk does not help to explain his detailed interest in the minutiae of everyday small talk, an interest which goes far beyond that required for a simple parody of certain well-known conventions. Pinter's gangsters strike us as funny precisely because they get caught up in the trivialities of everyday talk about whether one lights the kettle or the gas; and it is this decidedly non-gangster talk which makes Pinter's style so much richer than straightforward parody. Pinter is perceptive about and sympathetic to our inability to communicate genuinely, and this comes through in his concern with empty dialogue—the games people play to avoid straight talk about their relationships and problems.

A parallel critique deserves to be leveled against the blanket claim that Pinter's humor derives from the music hall tradition. Even if his humor owes a great deal to this tradition, Pinter's attention to the realistic details of everyday talk remains to explain. Hence when Diamond assigns both Pinter and Beckett to the same music hall tradition,12 she loses track of the enormous difference between Beckett's anti-naturalistic formalism and Pinter's detailed naturalism—a naturalism sensitive to false starts, repetitions, mishearings, interruptions, and non-sequiturs. In fact, Pinter's microscopic attention to patterns in everyday small talk awakens playgoers' (or readers') metalingual awareness of the talk they themselves engage in, often with a startling comic effect. As Sykes writes, ‘The paradox of most writing (certainly Pinter's) that attempts to show up the thinness and lack of meaning in jargon and cliche—that is, the heightening process … actually injects life into the language, so that it becomes itself larger-than-life, attention-catching, and often very amusing’ (85).

Recent research in discourse and conversation analysis is developing an increasingly detailed description of everyday talk; it has repeatedly demonstrated the cooperative, interactional nature of face-to-face conversation.13 Conversationalists must signal their attitudes toward the ongoing interaction and agree on mutual background assumptions, they must work out patterns of turn-taking, must constantly draw inferences about each others' intentions, definitions for words and phrases, and ways of speaking generally. When presuppositions are not shared, when one participant fails to draw the conclusion the other invites or draws the wrong conclusion, communication breaks down. In our real-life conversations, this makes us angry; but in exchanges between characters on stage, it makes us laugh. We apparently enjoy watching others flounder in a conversation where communication breaks down or where no significant information is exchanged at all—and this is precisely what Pinter offers in many cases.

A basic requirement of any attempt to engage in conversation beyond hello, how are you, and goodbye is that at least one of the participants has something worth saying. One of Grice's well-known conversational maxims states that every conversational contribution should be relevant at that point in the conversation where it occurs.14 Statements of generally recognized social or physical facts are particularly obvious violations of this maxim; Mrs. Sands manages to utter both kinds of non-information in the two following exchanges from The Room.

Clarissa? What a pretty name.
MRS. Sands:
Yes, it is nice, isn't it? My father and mother gave it to me.
MR. Sands:
You think you saw what?
MRS. Sands:
A star.
MR. Sands:
MR. Sands:
In the sky.(15)

In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Sands spend a lot of time arguing about irrelevant matters to great comic effect while on stage.

Repetitions of statements just made of course also count as irrelevant in the sense of Grice's maxim, but this is precisely what we find in the hilarious Last to go. Except for the turns relating to a certain George, almost everything either person says in this sketch is already known information for both, often because it amounts to repetition of what has gone before. Again the early review sketch Trouble in the Works contains eleven consecutive lines all involving repetitions of the words bronzedraw off cock with and without handwheel.

In parallel fashion, since tag questions generally serve to elicit a reply when none is immediately forthcoming, tag questions following a positive reply like those Gus and Ben use in The Dumb Waiter are superfluous and laughable.

Well, they'll come in handy.
Won't they?
Yes, you're always running out, aren't you?
All the time.
Well, they'll come in handy then?
Won't they?
Yes, I could do with them. I could do with them too.
You could, eh?

Ben's whole final utterance is supremely redundant as well, since it serves to elicit a positive response to a question Ben has just answered twice in the preceding turn.16

Let's turn now to the second category of language-based humor Quigley recognized in Pinter. Beyond his poking fun at empty talk in lieu of genuine communication, Pinter builds dialogue around breakdowns in the system of contrasts in language. Quigley concentrates on the interrelational significance of such breakdowns and the ensuing discussions characters have about them;17 but we are again more interested in Pinter's method of creating humorous sequences out of failures to make or recognize systematic linguistic distinctions. Now when distinctions break down, misunderstanding results, and Pinter regularly employs misunderstandings of all kinds for humor. Conversationalists may fail to communicate harmoniously for a number of reasons, from simple mishearing, through failure to recognize where the syntactic boundaries go, to a lack of shared background knowledge or failure to infer one another's intentions.

At the most basic level of acoustic perception, we find Pinter perfectly willing in The Room to put on stage a character like Mr. Kidd, who gets laughs because he is hard of hearing. Kidd's failure to hear properly causes the other characters to repeat themselves, which we have already seen to be funny because it creates redundancy. But Kidd is also slow to catch the drift of the conversation generally, which makes for even more humor.

It must get a bit damp downstairs.
Not as bad as upstairs.
What about downstairs?
What about downstairs?
What about it?
Must get a bit damp.
A bit. Not as bad as upstairs though.(18)

Another old standby in conversational joking and stage humor built around misunderstanding consists in incorrectly analyzing and responding to the foregoing utterance. In The Birthday Party Pinter has Stanley analyze the adverbs first and just as part of what Meg asks him to say, rather than as words modifying the predicate.

Do you want some tea? (Stanley reads the paper.) Say please.
Say sorry first.
Sorry first.
No. Just sorry.
Just sorry.
You deserve the strap.(19)

Thus Stanley abolishes a systematic contrast in Quigley's sense; at the same time, Pinter draws our attention to the code in itself, which counts as metalingual focus in Jakobson's sense.

A third sort of potentially comic misunderstanding arises in the use of deictic words like I, you, here, today, which change their reference depending on context and who is speaking. In The Dumb Waiter, during a longish passage where Ben leads Gus in a catechism of the steps to take once their victim appears, Gus fails to switch the reference—and hence maintain the relevant contrast—in the personal pronoun, resulting in a humorously botched repetition.

But he'll see me.
He'll see you.
He won't know you're there.
He won't know you're there.
He won't know you're there.
He won't know I'm there.(20)

Conversationalists must share certain background assumptions in order to proceed in their talk without constant misunderstandings and backtrackings. The relevant contrast here obtains at the level of the discourse between information presupposed and information actually stated.

The problem can become so obvious that the character who feels misunderstood will break off the exchange in exasperation; and this happens fairly frequently both in real conversation and in Pinter's plays. One good example comes from The Dumb Waiter, where Gus tries to ask Ben several related questions while Ben apparently shares neither Gus's concern with the gas nor his assumptions about the matches shoved under the door nor even his interest in the matter.

Ben. Why did he send us matches if he knew there was no gas? Why did he do that?
Who sent us those matches?
What are you talking about?
Who is it upstairs?
What's one thing to do with another?
Who is it, though?
What's one thing to do with another?
I asked you a question.

Since Ben does not make the same background assumptions Gus does, he cannot see the connections Gus is beginning to make, and he cannot answer the questions Gus asks.

The next passage from The Birthday Party works in much the same way. Stanley wants to change the topic and find out what Lulu knows about the house he stays in, but Lulu fails to understand his reasons for asking and responds to Stanley's questions with questions of her own which cast doubt on Stanley's assumptions about the house.

Listen. I want to ask you something.
You've just asked me.
No. Listen. (Urgently.) Has Meg had many guests staying in this house, besides me, I mean before me?
Besides you?
Was she very busy, in the old days?
Why should she be?
What do you mean? This used to be a boarding house, didn't it?
Did it?
Didn't it?
Did it?
Didn't … oh, skip it.

Of course, such exchanges serve to show one character beginning to suspect trouble and to foreshadow the action to come, but as they are delivered, they elicit laughter from the audience.22

Closely related to the foregoing examples where one character lacks the information or interest necessary to figure out what some other character is getting at are exchanges where the second character seems unable to draw the obvious inference the first intends. This occurs most clearly when a particular word or phrase receives no response at all, as in the next excerpt from The Birthday Party.

Well? (McCann does not answer.) McCann. I asked you well.
Well what?
What's what? (McCann does not answer.) What is what?
I'm not going up there again.

Now McCann may purposely refuse to respond appropriately to Goldberg's queries in order to avoid a confrontation, but the effect is the same. Goldberg's I asked you well is itself a wonderfully insightful comment on just how Well? is to be correctly understood as Goldberg intended.23

Finally, and most characteristic of Pinter vis-a-vis other playwrights, including those often compared with him like Beckett and Ionesco, humor can arise from explicit talk about the form of talk itself. Here the metalingual focus of language identified by Jakobson looms largest. In an early example from The Room, Mrs. and Mr. Sands argue about the difference in meaning between the words sit and perch.

MRS. Sands:
You're sitting down!
MR. Sands:
(jumping up). Who is?
MRS. Sands:
You were.
MR. Sands:
Don't be silly. I perched.
MRS. Sands:
I saw you sit down.
MR. Sands:
You did not see me sit down because I did not sit bloody well down. I perched!
MRS. Sands:
Do you think I can't perceive when someone's sitting down?
MR. Sands:
Perceive! That's all you do. Perceive.(24)

According to Quigley, this sort of example shows how ‘the fluidity of language’ (287) can become the focus of conversation. At this point, we move from what Burton in Dialogue and Discourse (London, 1980) identified as the metalingual function in the macrocosm to the metalingual function in the microcosm of the literary work itself (184-85). That is to say that here not only Pinter and the audience focus on the form of talk, but the characters in the play themselves.

Another nice example of metalingual comment on word meaning comes in The Birthday Party when Meg reacts to Stanley's use of succulent. Meg seems to have her own special associations for succulent at odds with its dictionary meaning, so that her comments hearken back to the earlier discussion of Pinter's penchant for words like honeysuckle and convolvulus.

Was it nice?
The fried bread.
You shouldn't say that word.
What word?
That word you said.
What, succulent—?
Don't say it!
What's the matter with it?
You shouldn't say that word to a married woman.(25)

Meg refuses even to speak the offending word, which gives Stanley a chance to repeat it—with all the various comic possibilities we have identified so far.

The most intricate example of microcosmic metalingual humor in the plays of Pinter comes in The Dumb Waiter, when Ben and Gus argue about a whole set of phrases having to do with getting the range going to boil water for tea. Gus initially fails to understand the phrase light the kettle, apparently on logical grounds, so that one should say light the gas. The metalingual character of the discussion comes out most clearly in the following lines, where Ben defends his phrase as a figure of speech, and argues from common usage, while Gus insists simply that Ben is mistaken. The argument and the humor culminate in Ben's absolutely absurd claim that he has never heard anyone say put on the kettle.

How can you light a kettle?
It's a figure of speech. Light the kettle. It's a figure of speech.
I've never heard it.
Light the kettle! It's common usage!
I think you've got it wrong.
(Menacing.) What do you mean?
They say put on the kettle.
Who says?
They stare at each other, breathing hard.
(Deliberately.) I have never in all my life heard anyone say put on the kettle …

After several more lines of argument, Ben goes on the offensive, attacking Gus's phrase light the gas. In a delightful non-sequitur, Ben switches gas from the object of light to its subject, which thoroughly confounds Gus. Then just to be sure he wins the argument, Ben applies physical pressure.

Nobody says light the gas! What does the gas light?
What does the gas—?
(grabbing him with two hands by the throat, at arm's length) THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL.
All right, all right.

But even this does not completely end the argument, for a few lines later Ben says, ‘Put on the bloody kettle, for Christ's sake’. Which gets a rise from Gus, but no verbal response. Then several pages later, after listening to orders coming in through the speaking tube, Ben says, excitedly,

Did you hear that?
You know what he said? Light the kettle! Not put on the kettle! Not light the gas! But light the kettle!
How can we light the kettle?
What do you mean?
There's no gas.

It is almost as if Ben were introducing Gus to field methods for analyzing the phraseology of English. Then just when it looks as if Gus is gearing up to start the argument all over again with his question How can we light the kettle?, it turns out that he was focussing on real-world problems rather than on linguistic ones.26

In conclusion, most of the examples are from Pinter's early plays: much of his recent work has been increasingly preoccupied by external political considerations. Power struggles between people have been transformed into reflections upon political imprisonment and oppression, most noticeably in, for instance, Mountain Language (1988) in which ‘we see torture in action as sadistic soldiers terrorize both the women visiting their husbands and sons in prison, and the prisoners themselves suffering from beatings and menaced by the same soldiers’.27 There is little comedy or comic in Mountain Language or in A Kind of Alaska (1982) with its deeply moving evocation of a search for the self and of dream states. Although soliloquies, monologues and brief dialogues are present in these plays, they lack the metalingual humor of the earlier plays, which resurrects itself in the London based sketch Victoria Station (1982) and the reworked novel The Dwarfs (1990), first written in the early 1950's. Pinter's recent nonhumorous vision finds its latest expression in his poem ‘American Football’ (1991), a poem not noted for metalingual technique, expressing the language of ‘fucking shit',28 and retreating into almost mindless anti-Americanism. Similarly, the sketch ‘The New World Order’ (1991), lacks the subtle verbal dexterity of the earlier sketches. The short clipped dialogue, questions and pauses are present, as are the repetitions but the obsession with language such as ‘fucking’ and ‘cunt’ has replaced any comic strategy. In ‘The New World Order', Des tells Lionel, ‘You'd lose face in any linguistic discussion group, take my tip', to which Lionel replies ‘Christ, would I?’ Des responds, ‘You know what language means to you’. It is almost as if Pinter is writing about himself. Metalingual humor and innuendo have been replaced: a man is ‘just a prick … Or a cunt’.29


  1. Harold Pinter, ‘Writing for Myself’ in Twentieth Century 169 (February 1961), pp. 172-175.

  2. See Deirdre Burton, ‘Conversation pieces', in Literary Text and Language Study, ed., Ronald Carter, Deirdre Burton (London, 1982), pp. 86-111.

  3. See Roman Jakobson, ‘Linguistics and poetics', in Style in Language, ed., T. Sebeok (Cambridge, MA, 1960), pp. 350-377.

  4. A Night Out in A Slight Ache and Other Plays. (London, 1961), p. 49.

  5. The Birthday Party (ibid., 1963), p. 10.

  6. The Room and the Dumb Waiter (ibid., 1970), p. 28.

  7. Ibid., p. 39.

  8. Tea Party and Other Plays (ibid., 1970), p, 84.

  9. For a detailed discussion of Austin Quigley on Pinter and his application of Wittgenstein to Pinter's work, see Susan Hollis Merritt, Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter. (Durham, N.C., 1990), pp. 139 ff.

  10. Cf. Merritt, p. 289.

  11. See Roman Jakobson, ‘Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics', in Style in language, ed. T. Sebeok (Cambridge, MA, 1960), pp. 350-77.

  12. See Merritt, p. 168.

  13. See for instance, H. P. Grice, ‘Further Notes on Logic and Conversation', in Syntax and Semantics, vol. 9, Pragmatics, ed. P. Cole (New York, 1978), pp. 113-127.

  14. H. P. Grice, ‘Logic and Conversation', in Syntax and Semantics, vol. 3: Speech acts, eds., P. Cole and J. L. Morgan (New York, 1975), pp. 41-58.

  15. The Room and the Dumb Waiter, p. 18-19.

  16. Ibid., p. 46.

  17. See n. 9 above.

  18. The Room and the Dumb Waiter, p. 14.

  19. The Birthday Party (London, 1963), p. 18.

  20. The Room and the Dumb Waiter, p. 65.

  21. Ibid., p. 67.

  22. The Birthday Party, pp. 27-28; for an alternative reading of laughter and menace in the play see W. Baker and S. E. Tabachnick, Harold Pinter (Edinburgh, 1973), pp. 67-69.

  23. The Birthday Party, p. 75.

  24. The Room and the Dumb Waiter, p. 22.

  25. The Birthday Party, pp. 17-18.

  26. The Room and the Dumb Waiter, pp. 47-48, 62-63.

  27. Katherine H. Burkman, ‘Party Time and Mountain Language', The Pinter Review, 1991, p. 74. See also Ann C. Hall, ‘Voices in the Dark: The Disembodied Voice in Harold Pinter's: Mountain Language’, ibid., pp. 17-22.

  28. The Pinter Review, 1991, p. 41.

  29. Ibid., p. 2.

Mark Ford (review date 4 August 1995)

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SOURCE: Ford, Mark. Review of Old Times, by Harold Pinter. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4818 (4 August 1995): 18.

[In the following review, Ford asserts that Pinter's Old Times is ultimately an unsuccessful play.]

Old Times, written in 1970, is Harold Pinter's most recessed and uncertain full-length play. It is concerned—like much of his drama—with a triangular relationship, in this case between a man and two women. The characters are all in their early forties. Deeley and Kate are married, and live in a converted farmhouse in the country; here they are visited by Anna, with whom Kate shared a room in London twenty years before. It is the first time they have met since then.

Threesomes obviously appeal to Pinter because they allow him to present our strategies for survival and our attempts at appropriation at their starkest. Deeley recounts how he first met Kate in a cinema showing the film Odd Man Out, starring Robert Newton: “So”, he declares, “it was Robert Newton who brought us together and it is only Robert Newton who can tear us apart.” To which Anna responds: “F. J. McCormick was good too.”

Fear of being the odd man out is at the heart of many of the conflicts Pinter's plays enact, yet at the same time his couples frequently seem almost addicted to the energies and menace embodied in the intruder, and the battle for power he or she initiates. In early Pinter this struggle normally climaxes in an act of violence, but after The Homecoming (1964), his plays begin to inhabit a more nebulous dramatic space, closer to that of Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis-clos or Samuel Beckett's half-lit anywhere, in which no action could ever resolve or express the tensions that link the characters.

Old Times's tentativeness may stem in part from Pinter's willingness to accept that the piece might develop in any number of different directions. Whereas his earlier plays unfold with almost imperious confidence, in Old Times Pinter adopts a more kaleidoscopic approach. The play's momentum is circular rather than linear: past and present are confused. The set consists of an armchair and two sofas in the first act, and an armchair and two divans in the second. “The great thing about these beds”, Deeley explains to Anna, “is that they are susceptible to any amount of permutation. They can be separated as they are now. Or placed at right angles, or one can bisect the other, or you can sleep feet to feet, or head to head, or side by side. It's the castors that make all this possible.” The play slides along with similar ease: precise, formally compelling, yet curiously weightless.

Lindy Davies's direction never quite achieves a convincing dramatic focus. Julie Christie, making her West End debut, plays Kate as a bland, good-natured housewife whom it is impossible to connect with the mysterious young woman evoked by Deeley and Anna. Harriet Walter and Leigh Lawson seem more attuned to Pinter's methods—the seeming non sequiturs, the pauses, the exquisitely detailed stories that may or may not be true—but neither performance quite catches fire. The difficulty perhaps lies in the play's disclosure of its own imaginative methods. Anna counters Deeley's description of meeting Kate at the cinema with a story of her own involving a strange man sobbing in an armchair in their room one night, and later lying across Kate's lap. “There are things I remember,” she tells Deeley, “which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” The remark illustrates the extent to which the play asks to be seen as generating its own plot and context; inevitably, its conclusion has Deeley sobbing in his armchair, then lying across Kate's lap. The action is mirage-like, forever vanishing and re-grouping in the near distance. This conceptual dimension is very much at odds with the actors' determination to squeeze all they can from their roles. Their whole-heartedness tends to violate the play's deepest anxieties—those which derive from the playwright's doubts about the reality of his own creations.

Sheridan Morley (review date 2 September 1995)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Squeak and Bubble.” Spectator 275, no. 8721 (2 September 1995): 35.

[In the following review, Morley asserts that a central theme of Hothouse is a triangular power struggle between the characters. Morley comments that Hothouse is both sinister and hilarious.]

Certain Broadway musicals have, on this side of the Atlantic, always been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle (never seen in London), Herman's Mack and Mabel (about to open this autumn for the first time, some 21 years after it was first seen in New York), and Stephen Schwartz's Pippin (now in the National Youth Theatre revival at the Bloomsbury), have always attracted more backstage anecdotes and original-cast-recording addicts than actual audiences. And in the case of Pippin it is not hard to see why.

The score has one of the best opening numbers (‘Magic To Do’) in the history of the American theatre: it also comes from the composer of Godspell, and has the same kind of maddening optimism. You feel that the only other possible author would have been Lord Baden-Powell. And yet we are talking here of a show which ran to 2,000 Broadway performances back in the mid-1970s, won five Tony awards and launched the careers of, among others, Jill Clayburgh, Ben Vereen and Betty Buckley.

Over here, it's true, we took a dim view. In 1973 the London première survived barely six weeks despite a cast headed by Patricia Hodge and Elisabeth Welch, but then we'd already had Tony Newley stopping the world and wanting to get off. Pippin is also a carnival show about personal identity, albeit rather ambitious. We are in the era of Charlemagne, and it is his title-character son who rejects world dominance in favour of the simple life on the farm, rather as though Hitler had gone into a tour of Oklahoma!

In truth, all this show ever really had was Bob Fosse, the most inventive and remarkable choreographer in showbiz history; without his presence in the rehearsal room, Pippin will never make sense again; believe me, once it was the best show in town.

Though first staged only in 1980, Harold Pinter's The Hothouse (now at the Minerva Chichester in a David Jones production starring Pinter himself) in fact dates from 1958, and clearly belongs to a period when he was still gainfully employed writing revue-sketches. The scenes mostly have a blackout format, and peak in duologues of considerable comic menace concerning life and sometimes sudden death in a sinister State mental home run by a loony commandant who hurls glasses of whisky over an ever-replenishing assistant.

This is an elliptical early power play, at moments almost a parody of what we would now call Pinteresque. Kafka is somewhere in there too, as is the usual impression of a game of Scrabble from which someone has mysteriously removed the board. With the dubious wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to see The Hothouse as an early comic version of One for the Road or Mountain Language; but at its centre is really the triangular power struggle between Roote (Pinter himself, in an Ealing Comedy performance of blimpish eccentricity) and his two subordinates (John Shrapnel and Tony Haygarth) as they slug out the succession.

The brilliance of David Jones's studio-stage productions lies in the way they balance what we have since come to know and expect of Pinter with the demands of an earlier and more farcical nature: The Hothouse is at once sinister and hilarious, suggesting an unholy alliance of Kafka and Feydeau, and it introduces lessons of oppression and victimisation which, once written in comedy, were later to return as tragedy the more that the author chose to consider the ways of the world around him. In an immensely strong cast, Celia Imrie and (albeit only on for a final five minutes) Peter Blythe are also outstanding.

In the repertoire of the Barbican Pit, Tim Supple's new production of Wedekind's Spring Awakening is a masterpiece of intelligent rediscovery. Ted Hughes's new version gets us away from the dustiness of the original, and by using schoolchildren of the right ages Supple wonderfully illustrates the tragedy of parental incomprehension and prejudice without ever resorting to caricature or prejudgment. What is so good, and so terrible, about this staging is that it all makes perfect sense, right down to the suicide rate in German boys' boarding schools in the 1980s of the play's first production.

Bert Cardullo (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Cardullo, Bert. “Pinter's The Homecoming.Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 45-6.

[In the following essay, Cardullo explicates the significance of Teddy's Uncle Sam in Pinter's The Homecoming.]

At the end of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, right before Teddy leaves, his uncle Sam, with whom he seems to have a good relationship, “croaks and collapses” (78). Sam is not dead, yet no one does anything to help him, not even Teddy. Max, Lenny, and Joey, Teddy's father and brothers respectively, are more interested in whether Teddy's wife Ruth will really be remaining with them as their mother-whore (she finally agrees to terms of “employment”). Teddy is so concerned with getting out of the family home and back to his teaching duties, as well as his three sons in America, that he neglects Sam. Now that his wife has joined his father and brothers, he believes he has no alternative but to depart; to remain with the family is to become like them, which is perhaps one of the reasons Teddy left for America six years before.

That he sacrifices Sam in order to save himself, however, is a sign of the desperateness of his condition and of his family's insidious power to shape his behavior even as he takes steps to preserve his moral autonomy. For it is Sam with whom Teddy is most identified throughout the play and whose physical breakdown can therefore be viewed as signifying his nephew's moral breakdown, as opposed to moral self-preservation. Teddy, Sam's “favourite” (62), lives and works in America, while Sam's very title, “Uncle Sam,” as well as his job, driving Yankee businessmen around London (12), connects him with his nephew's country of refuge. Teddy married but apparently feared bringing his wife home to meet the family, although he finally does so for the first time after six years; whereas Sam never married, partly for fear of having to bring his bride home to meet the family, as the following exchange suggests:

When you find the right girl, Sam, let your family know, don't forget, we'll give you a number one send-off, I promise you. You can bring her to live here, she can keep us all happy. We'd take it in turns to give her a walk round the park.
I wouldn't bring her here.


After Teddy brings Ruth “home” from America, it is Sam, and only Sam, who insists that “[Teddy is Ruth's] lawful husband. She's his lawful wife” (69), when Max, Lenny, and Joey get the idea of keeping Ruth as their mother-cum-whore. And it is Ruth's coming to a business agreement with her father-in-law and brothers-in-law, together with Teddy's acceptance of that agreement, that in the end drives Sam to collapse: thus is he identified with the very man—his own nephew—who repudiates him.

Sean Abbott (review date January 1996)

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SOURCE: Abbott, Sean. “Echoes in the Moonlight.” American Theatre 13, no. 1 (January 1996): 8-9.

[In the following review, Abbott offers high praise for Pinter's Moonlight, and discusses its central themes of living versus dead and past versus present.]

Let's get one question out of the way right away. Is Bridget dead? Many have wondered about the corporeality of the spectral 16-year-old whose eerie soliloquies open and close Moonlight, Harold Pinter's first full-length play since 1978, which was given its U.S. premiere by New York's Roundabout Theatre Company in October. The playwright who famously declared in 1962 that “there are at least 24 possible aspects of any single statement, depending on where you're standing at the time or what the weather's like,” has for some reason chosen to make what resembles a definitive statement on the subject of Bridget: “I believe that she is dead, I always understood her to be dead. … To me, she's dead,” Pinter told New York Times critic Mel Gussow in a 1993 interview, politely leaving open the possibility that the playwright's opinion need not be the final word.

Tony Walton, the set designer of the Roundabout production, is satisfied that it is. He has created a breathtaking backdrop that depicts a colonnade of poplar trees in a haunted, Italianate landscape—inspired, he says, by the works of the American allegorical painter Albert Ryder and by that definitive painterly thanatopsis, Arnold Böcklin's The Isle of the Dead.

Walton emphasizes what he sees as Moonlight's “romantic nature,” but more importantly, he creates a vibrant and melancholy space that conjoins the realms of the living and the dead, a liminal area in which present and past flow together simultaneously. This area becomes the essential metaphor for the play itself, which resounds with echoes from Pinter's earlier works. Like the looney heaven of Genet's The Screens, the netherworld of the Roundabout Moonlight is a concrete and real place. We may peer into it at the same instant that Andy (Jason Robards), who is dying, probes its reality, worrying, as an Englishman must, about what the weather will be like when he crosses what his wife, Bel (Blythe Danner), cheerfully describes as his “new horizon”: “Is it uncertain with showers or sunny with fogpatches?” Andy asks. “Or unceasing moonlight with no cloud? Or pitch black for ever and ever?”


His daughter, dead Bridget (played by Melissa Chalsma with the right faraway eyes), describes “a dense jungle … I'm surrounded by flowers. Hibiscus, oleander, bougainvillea, jacaranda.” This is the landscape she occupies, and she is also simply upstairs, moving quietly so as to avoid awakening her parents: “They need to sleep in peace and wake up rested.” For what purpose? So that they may continue thumping one another verbally! Domestic badinage has gone savage to counter deep grief: “Perhaps it's my convent school education but the term ‘taking the piss’ does leave me somewhat nonplussed,” Bel slyly twitters at one of her husband's typically coarse outbursts. To which he screeches in response (nicely, phlegmily, screeched by Robards, philosopher of phlegm): “Nonplussed! You've never been nonplussed in the whole of your voracious, lascivious, libidinous life.” Danner's Bel is the kind of cool and sexy British woman that drives Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman around the bend—which is where Andy can be found. Bedridden Robards grimaces, twitches, bares his teeth and pounds his imperial purple coverlet with his fists—titanic masculinity rendered impotent by illness and pajamas.

Over on stage right, in a space obviously far removed physically (if not psychically) from the comfortable chamber of Andy's death watch, the couple's sons are also up to their own linguistic tricks. Fred (Barry McEvoy) lies perfectly still on his rusty metal bed, cocooned up to his scruffy beard in a filthy blanket, serenely regarding his smirking, swaggering brother Jake (Liev Schreiber). “And how is my little brother?” Jake asks, tilting his head back so that his over-sized hornrimmed glasses slide up his nose. “Cheerful though gloomy. Uneasily poised,” responds the prostrate Fred, pretty well summing up the situation of all the surviving family members: Fred looks sweet and vulnerable under his blanket—and like a malnourished homunculus. He is goat-god Pan come down with chronic fatigue syndrome, and Jake is not looking much healthier.

We are in a shabby room—Pinter ground zero—and we are back with two lovely rogues from early-career Pinter, two comedians out of a music hall routine, which is where Pinter's dialogue originated. The boys' talk is mainly of their father, with whom they obviously have had a profoundly disturbed relationship: “He loved me. And one day I shall love him,” Jake says. “I shall love him and be happy to pay the full price of that love.” “Which is the price of death,” Fred responds. Andy is in a similar emotional muddle, yearning to have his sons present at his side while furiously describing them as “a sponging parasitical pair of ponces. … Sucking the tit of the state. Sucking the tit of the state!”

Interrupting this unhappy family at its merry verbal blood sport are the sort of friends that people find themselves saddled with late in life—rumpled failures, chatter-boxes, nitwits; the contemporaneous confirmers of one's own steady decline. Ralph and Maria (Paul Hecht and Kathleen Widdoes) afford Moonlight an uneasy comic relief, but they are every bit as immaterial as Bridget the Ghost, appearing suddenly in rooms where they ought not to be—popping into the underground warren to chatter on about the boys' estranged parents and their own absurd little life stories: “But after years at sea I decided to give the Arts a chance generally,” Ralph preens, a hail-fool-well-met, though soon enough he might become another Goldberg, that nattering sadist of Pinter's second play, The Birthday Party. The echoes of Goldberg and of the voices of a dozen-odd early Pinter characters are not accidental; Moonlight, rightly described by director Karel Reisz as “radically different in concept from [Pinter's] other plays,” is nonetheless full of allusions to those plays, and quotations abound.


Someone somewhere has described Moonlight as “Pinter's Lear,” a bit of idle puffery that the Roundabout's dramaturgs recklessly saw fit to affix to a lobby display. “It's not a comparison I feel useful to pursue,” Reisz wisely observes. But how can Pinter's mind not be full of valedictory thoughts at his age, after what he has achieved? Some hint of the dilemma is offered by his own characters:

What a lovely use of language. You know, you've never used language in such a way before. You've never said such a thing before.
Oh so what? I've said other things, haven't I? Plenty of other things. All my life. All my life I've been saying plenty of other things.

Moonlight is a medley of familiar Pinter voices that have been separated from their famous setting, the single room, outside of which dread lurks and comes knocking. Here, dread is the sound of the telephone—but in fact it's only Mum, ringing up from Dad's sickroom, and the worst she can do is the worst that any family member can do in a Pinter play: figure out your game. She had called her sons to implore them to come to their dying father and wound up, in the play's emotional climax, “taking the piss” out of them.

Moonlight is not King Lear, nor need it be. It is, as Reisz says, “just a series of little poems that hopefully add up in the evening to a coherent thing.” A modest assessment, but Reisz and his collaborators can afford modesty, for they have delivered a production that is much more than merely a “coherent thing.” Moonlight offers the promise, perhaps, of further experimentation by this great writer. Whether more little poems or, indeed, a Lear emerges, what a welcome thing either way.

Ronald Knowles (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Knowles, Ronald. “A Kind of Alaska: Pinter and Pygmalion.” Classical and Modern Literature 16, no. 3 (spring 1996): 231-40.

[In the following essay, Knowles discusses references to the ancient myth of Pygmalion in A Kind of Alaska, as well as several of Pinter's other plays. Knowles asserts that Pinter's references to Pygmalion function as an allegory for the creative process.]

The printed text of A Kind of Alaska1 is preceded by a note indicating the source for the play. Dr. Oliver Sacks's book Awakenings, published in 1973. Awakenings records case histories of sufferers of sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, who were treated with the drug L-DOPA which brought them back to life after decades in a trance-like limbo. Pinter took some details from the case of “Rose R.”2

“Rose R” was a New Yorker, born in 1905, who lived an adventurous partying life until the age of twenty-one when in 1926 she was struck down by what Dr. Sacks describes as a “virulent form”3 of the disease. For forty-three years “Rose R” remained in her kind of Alaska until L-DOPA made a partial recovery possible. In fact Pinter took very little from Sacks's account. “Rose R” in the early stages of recovery declared “I love you, Dr. Sacks, I love you, I love you.”4 Her speech was often very salacious and she developed a physical tic of flicking her right hand across her chin. More significant is that, on awakening, though now in later middle age, Rose was still immersed in the world of 1926.

In A Kind of Alaska Deborah is a London girl who succumbed to the sleeping sickness aged sixteen. On coming to consciousness, at one point she says to her physician Dr. Hornby, “I think I love you” (20). Occasionally her language has teenage crudity. At a later stage Deborah appears to be going into remission as she begins compulsively flicking her fingers across her face (37-38). Again, on awakening it becomes apparent that Deborah's mind is still confined to the local London world of twenty-nine years ago. Apart from these details the rest of the play comes from Pinter's imagination. Bernard Dukore has drawn attention to thematic antecedents of A Kind of Alaska in Pinter's work but there is a further detail in the account of “Rose R” which suggests an alternative way of situating the play within the oeuvre.5 Victims of sleeping sickness often had premonitory dreams, and Rose “dreamed that she had become a living, sentient statue of stone.”6 The relationship of Hornby to Deborah and Pinter to his play may be reconsidered in terms of the enduring myth of Pygmalion.

The story of Pygmalion existed before Ovid's defining portrayal in book ten of the Metamorphoses and the fable has since undergone varied hermeneutic and representational metamorphoses from Ovide moralisé to J. Hillis Miller, in poetry, painting, drama, and aesthetics.7

Ovid's story of Pygmalion is amongst the most well-known of the Metamorphoses.8 In revulsion at the Propoetides, the first prostitutes, Pygmalion chose to live a celibate life. He falls in love with the statue of a beautiful girl he has made. His caresses and kisses, following his adoring gaze, treat ivory as a live human body. Pygmalion pays court to the statue with presents and clothes eventually installing it in his bed. At the festival of Venus he prays for a wife like the ivory girl. The goddess responds, recognizing his real love, and the statue is transformed, becoming warm and human as he kisses her. She, in return, now gazes upon her lover. Venus presides over their marriage, and from their union comes a child Paphos whose name is given to the island.

The story of Pygmalion is commonly considered in terms of the artist outdoing nature, a parable of the supremacy of art. But this was not always so. Early church fathers condemned Pygmalion for perversity. Shakespeare's redemptive version in A Winter's Tale is rather exceptional since at that time Pygmalion's statue signified whoredom.9 The fourteenth-century Ovide moralisé christianises the story as an allegory of the relationship between God and his creation of humanity. Secondly, this medieval French poem anticipates Frank Wedekind's Earth Spirit (1895), no less, with another story of Pygmalion as lordly householder who dignifies an uncouth but beautiful serving maid, grooming her to become his wife.10 The idealist view of the perfection of art was vigorously attacked by Georg Büchner in Dantons Tod (1835). In act two, scene three, Camille lambasts the escapist puppetry of high art theatre which turns its back on the reality of everyday life. Büchner contradicts an element of Ovid's myth by ascribing sterility to such art with the charge: “The Greeks knew what they were talking about when they said that Pygmalion's statue came to life but bore no children.”11 Büchner was in revolt against the neoclassical idealism of such figures as Lessing and Winckelmann.12

In his Pygmalion (1770) Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave a name to the statue—Galatea.13 In the nineteenth century Galatea took on a new lease of life with a post-Gothic affinity to tales of Frankenstein's monster and the Golem: she turned against or away from her creator-lover-husband. In such works as Hazlitt's prose, the Rossettis' poetry, in W. S. Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea (1871) and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1912) human psychology supervenes in a world also bequeathed to us by the ancient world—narcissism. Mystical interpretations of Pygmalion and Galatea as a compound of religion, love, and art persisted in paintings such as Burne-Jones's Pygmalion and the Image series but not without this psychological dimension. As a theoretical development from this subjective view two contemporary scholars, the classicist John Elsner and the literary critic J. Hillis Miller, independently reinterpret the Pygmalion myth in a complementary way.

Seeing himself as “The New Pygmalion” Hazlitt elevated his lower-class lover, Sarah Walker, into a Galatea in his Liber Amoris (1823). As a “mirror image of his desire”14 Hazlitt reflects his own narcissism in the idealised image he has created. Martin A. Danahay compares Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem The Mirror and comments:

The nineteenth-century twist on the Pygmalion myth … is the way in which the woman as mirror image of the male viewer refuses to conform to his desire. … Both Liber Amoris and “The Mirror” depict a situation in which the masculine subject's search for a complementary self-image has been thwarted by the woman's refusal to reflect accurately the artist's self-image.15

Christina Rossetti's poem In an Artist's Studio in part reads as a comment on her brother's paintings as a kind of Pygmalion obsession:

                                                                                every canvass means
          The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
.....          Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

(7-9, 14)16

Ironically, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's complementary poem The Portrait suggests that what he gazes on is the painting as mirror reflecting the artist himself:

This is her picture as she was:
          It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
          Should tarry when myself am gone.


The implied recalcitrance of the image to adequately mirror its creator is developed comically by G. B. Shaw and tragically by Frank Wedekind. As Shaw noted of Eliza Doolittle in his prose conclusion, “Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”18 Wedekind's Lulu, on the other hand, can be related to the destructive femme-fatale figures from Rossetti's Lilith to Maeterlinck's Melisande, for she finally destroys her Pygmalion “creator” Dr. Schön. Analysing the Pygmalion theme in Earth Spirit, Edward P. Harris observes that his interpretation “rests upon the associative connections with the unconscious constellation of effects of the fable” and “transposition of motifs … inversion, duplication, the splitting of one figure into other manifestations.”19 This is precisely the case in an analysis of Pinter's dramas in relation to the hermeneutics of the historical mutations of Ovid's myth. In Earth Spirit Wedekind included a parody of the Pygmalion fable with the inclusion of Schwarz, the venal and lubricious painter of Lulu chasing her round his studio. In the drama of another sculptor and another beautiful statue, Luigi Pirandello reapplied the Pygmalion myth in Diana and Tuda (1927) in which the dichotomy between art and life finds a tragic outcome. Tuda is the beautiful model for the statue of Diana sculpted by Sirio Dossi who believes in the consummate achievement of ideal art and thus intends suicide on completion of his work. The vibrant Tuda comes to believe that indeed the statue will immortalize her beauty and that Sirio should absorb her life-energy into his art. As she embraces the statue, another sculptor Giuncarlo, a rival in love and art, kills Sirio, and Tuda is left to “nothingness.” As we shall see, Pinter is drawn to the analogue of art and artists in varying forms throughout his work. A. R. Sharrock interprets the myth of Pygmalion as a paradigm of “woman perceived is woman as art-object.”20 John Elsner takes this a crucial step further. Pointing out how little of Ovid's story is devoted to the sculpting of Galatea, and how much is given to Pygmalion as viewer, he writes:

This suggests that Ovid's focus is not on the myth of the creative artist as such (as critics have invariably assumed), but on the role of Pygmalion as author of his own love, creator of his own desire. In other words, Ovid's picture of Pygmalion as artist-sculptor is itself a metaphor for Pygmalion as artist-viewer. … This theme of Pygmalion as viewer is itself a metaphor for the reader as creator of his own narrative, his own reality, out of the text of the Metamorphoses.

This statement appeared in 1991 in a double article by Elsner and Alison Sharrock entitled “Re-viewing Pygmalion.”21 Presumably this went to press before either could consider J. Hillis Miller's Versions of Pygmalion22 which sees in the Pygmalion myth an ur-trope underlying all culture. In principle Miller extends Elsner's point to all literature. Put simply, for Miller writers, readers, narrators, and critics are all Pygmalions in that they share in the fundamental personification that takes place in literary creation and re-creation. Miller's examples are primarily taken from nineteenth-century fiction, but his approach is even more compelling for drama, and Pinter's drama in particular.

To return to the beginning and recapitulate: the distinguishing features in Ovid's story and the shifts in interpretation I wish to stress are prostitution, the artist constructing the female, eroticism and narcissism, gazing upon the beloved, and Galatea turning against her creator-master-lover. Complementary to these in Pinter's plays, either read or in performance, are the playwright's constructing character and play paralleled by the interior analogue and internalized construction of a surrogate artist. In performance this is duplicated by the auditor struggling towards a rounded understanding of what is taking place: as Pinter does not offer the “Well Made Play” the auditor has to discern the shape of meaning. This dialectically complements what is happening on stage in the duplication of the gaze—in characters and auditors—all gazing upon the same object whose own gaze back resists responding.

In 1990, honouring Pinter's sixtieth birthday the BBC devoted a whole evening of Radio Three to his work including a production of A Kind of Alaska in which the dramatist himself took the part of Dr. Hornby. A whole new metaphorical perspective arose here in the complex of Pinter as artist, Pinter as actor, actor as character, Dr. Hornby, and finally Hornby as interior analogue of the artist. Further, Pinter does not regard his characters as fictions he has created but, in Pirandellian fashion, as existences having an independent life: “They observe you, their writer, warily,” he once said.23 Thus Pinter as Hornby observing the comatose Deborah became an allegory of Pinter attending the impulses of creative imagination, awaiting the engendering process which brings new life. The Pygmalion parallel is further duplicated by directors who have to breathe life into the page to embody performance on stage. Further, the condition of Deborah-Galatea symbolizes so much of Pinter's particular preoccupation with a kind of humanity: the alienated individual isolated in space and time struggling with fragments of memory.

A Kind of Alaska as Pinter's Pygmalion makes manifest what had been developing throughout his dramatic writing. The second half of this essay will examine Alaska and then look back to show the development of the myth as metaphoric palimpsest, bearing in mind those “transportations of motifs … inversion, duplication, the splitting of one figure into other manifestation.”

Galatea's beauty derives from consummate art. Awakening into life her spontaneous love is virginal and innocent, in contrast to the prostitute Propoetides who eventually turned to stone. Struck by sleeping sickness Deborah was “Like … marble” (30) in contrast to her father's rumoured mistress and the prostitution of the white-slave traffic she recalls later. Dr. Hornby, like Dr. Schön in Earth Spirit, was a friend of the young girl and the family. For twenty-nine years Hornby has gazed upon Deborah. Like Pygmalion his life is celibate, having seemingly ceased relationships with his wife Pauline, Deborah's sister.

Your sister Pauline was twelve when you were left for dead. When she was twenty I married her. She is a widow. I have lived with you.


Hornby's feelings are never explicitly stated but they are implicitly suggested by the Silences in the following sequence:

I have never let you go.
I have never let you go.
I have lived with you.


Pygmalion falls in love with a statue he has made and is rewarded with love when the statue becomes human. Hornby has devoted most of his life to Deborah, nourished her, exercised her, cared for her. Devotion and self-sacrifice foster the image of a reciprocated love. Oliver Sacks noted of “Rose R” that although in her sixties she looked half her age.24 Hornby confirms Deborah's beauty, and she suggests the comparison with Prince Charming and the Sleeping Beauty (19). The professional and personal have merged in Hornby's life. Throughout twenty-nine years desire and longing have been projected onto the sleeping figure as Hornby has created her as the object of his devotion. At least this seems to be the case as the director-auditor-reader enacts that enabling prosopopeia by which we construct motive, cause, and effect. In the same way, Hornby has to construct Deborah as something more than a sick comatose body.

The forty-five-year-old Deborah awakes as the sixteen-year old she was. She cannot fulfil Hornby's imagination and emotions. Every word she utters is full of the implacable otherness of youth, gender, and history. Like the nineteenth-century Pygmalions mentioned above, Hornby had inscribed himself upon her, “Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”

In The Room (1957), The Birthday Party (1958), and A Night Out (1960) Pygmalion is seemingly reversed as the female apparently constructs the male, but in each case it is finally patriarchy which constructs the female. In The Room Bert is passive and statuesque as Rose projects upon him “his” feelings, wants, and desires. Yet the audience becomes aware that it is she who acts on his silent behalf and is reclaimed by patriarchy and offered a new identity as “Sal.” The Birthday Party introduces the figure of the artist in Stanley as pianist. Celibate and in flight from the world Stanley's “statue” is himself as the international concert pianist he fantasises upon. But Meg reconstructs him as a pre-pubescent little boy, with the gift of a drum. Again Goldberg and McCann refashion him as the mute image of patriarchal conformity: “We'll make a man of you,” “And a woman” (83),25 they say. Albert's mother in A Night Out unwittingly acts as the agent of Pygmalion-patriarchy by insisting that Albert model himself on his virtuous dead father—“Are you leading a clean life?” (47). The virginal Albert's frustrated revenge is to bully a prostitute under the pretence of being an assistant film director, an artist manqué. Pygmalion's retreat from the Propoetides is really a retreat from his own pornographic desire which is sublimated in Galatea. Albert rages against the prostitute before returning to enforced celibacy and his mother's “love.”

In Night School the Pygmalion-Galatea theme begins to take shape as the celibate ex-convict Wally returns from prison to find a beautiful young schoolteacher installed in his bed like a realised fantasy. Walter is an artist-forger of post-office books. His imagination becomes divided between Galatea and the Propoetides, between purity and pornography, between Sally as innocent schoolteacher and Sally as the nightclub “hostess” he discovers in a photo. Wally finally declares the photo a “fake” and another of Sally as games mistress is discovered.

Ruth in The Homecoming relates that she had been “a photographic model for the body” (57). On returning to the East London home of Teddy's family, as respectable wife she combines Galatea and the Propoetides. In flight from the “filth” (55) of his East End neighbourhood and the association of his mother with prostitution, Teddy had taken Ruth to the cleanliness of the United States where as the Pygmalion figure of the learned Doctor of Philosophy he had remodelled her new life free from the suspect slur of her modelling past. Teddy's family wish to return Ruth to prostitution. Some productions draw on Ruth as a former model to direct the actress's self-conscious movements particularly at those intense moments when she makes herself become the object of the male gaze (e.g., “Look at me. I … move my leg” [52]). Like the nineteenth-century Galateas Ruth refuses to become a mirror for her Pygmalion who is effectively rejected. Teddy had wished her to go back to her male-ordered role as mother, wife, and helpmeet, back to his narcissistic image—“You can help me with my lectures when we get back” (55). But Ruth chooses to stay on, statuesquely taking her place centre stage, enacting a composite role which a patriarchal society has created yet can only accept as divided and polarised into pornographic desire and puritanical revulsion; fear, loathing, and adoration.

The dramaturgy of Landscape combines Galatea and Pygmalion as one in the figure of Beth. Visibly before us on stage Beth's posture and speech make her seem remote. Physically she becomes like a statue, particularly at the close, as in narratives like W. S. Gilbert's comic version, where Galatea returns to sculpture. Verbally, as artist Beth makes herself a figure in a landscape of memory. Duff is not directly associated with prostitutes, but he is with excremental filth, sexual betrayal, and sexual crudity. Beth's memory recreates ideal love, gentleness, and delicacy. All experience is aestheticized as she rejects the external world and worships at the altar of her own imagination, “I am beautiful” (10). As Pygmalion's love for the beautiful statue expressed itself in touch, so Beth transfers her sensitivity to her recreated lover who “touched the back of my neck. His fingers, lightly, touching, lightly touching, the back, of my neck” (13).

“I touched her profoundly all over” (31) are the words used about another poised figure who rejects Pygmalion: Kate in Old Times. Deeley, her husband, is a film director whose artistic business is framing the female image for, to use Laura Mulvey's word, the “scopophilic” gaze.26 Framed against a window at the rear of the stage, her back to the audience, is Anna, Kate's old friend visiting after twenty years. This image recalls the tradition of painting, domestic yet mysterious, in such works as Caspar David Friedrich's Woman at the Window.27 Anna's pose anticipates the way in which the audience is later encouraged by both herself and Deeley to gaze upon Kate as a beautiful but inert object—“You talk of me as if I were dead,” Kate says (34). Ironically it is their symbolic interment which Kate rehearses later. Living in a converted farmhouse on the coast Deeley has turned his back on the “prostitutes of all kinds” (42) in his professional world. Deeley had found Kate “a classic female figure” with “classic female posture” lacking in “understanding” (36) and thus “compliant” (35) to the male remoulding of body and mind. His sexual experience has shaped the beautiful but innocent Kate—“he thought I had profited from his teaching” (73)—who is now kept protectively like an object in a gallery.

Anna's visit makes apparent that, it is hinted, as a lesbian Pygmalion she had shaped Kate in her own artistic image aestheticizing their relationship with poetry, ballet, concerts, film, and painting. Thus between them Anna and Deeley split the Pygmalion sequence of art to eroticism, adoration to desire. Kate's Galatea-like turning away from Anna in part takes the form of a comic rejection of art, “I was interested once in the arts, but I can't remember now which ones they were” (37). Anna and Deeley vie with each other in seeing Kate as a pre-raphaelite “dreamer,” “floating” (23-24). Deeley attempts to subvert Anna's adoring gaze with his own pornographic gazing at black stockings and white thighs (51-52), but Anna's retaliation sees Kate as a kind of ethereal nude Aphrodite “float[ing] from the bath” (54).28 Both discuss her not as a person but as an object, “Doesn't she look beautiful” (59). However, Kate's disaffection is signalled long before the final rejection in the way in which, like Beth, her self-sufficiency is indicated by her making herself a figure in a landscape (20, 24).

Robert Newton in Odd Man Out brought them together Deeley claims (Old Times, 29-30). Ironically, in F. L. Green's novel of 1945 the demonically driven character Newton plays, Lukey (possibly recalled by “Luke” in Old Times? [49]), is a painter. In the film he insists on painting the fugitive IRA gunman Johnny, in order to reveal the wounded and dying man's soul, a curious anticipation of Pinter's favourite painter's [Francis Bacon's]29 studying and painting wounds and beaten figures. In the novel Lukey feels that his painting has failed but that nevertheless he has discovered something within himself—a dialectical internalisation of the narcissism within the Pygmalion myth.30 Kate's speech reflects both Deeley's and Anna's at different times, but in her rejection as she finally stares out at the audience, she freezes into Galatean otherness.

Whatever that otherness is we cannot know as we can't with any Pinter character. The reader as Pygmalion engaging in prosopopeia has equally as much to “read” as “misread” in J. Hillis Miller's deconstructive terms. The epistemological and ontological distance between Pygmalion and Galatea is realized at its extreme in A Kind of Alaska, as we have seen. Re-examining Pinter's work in this way, as a coherently developing oeuvre, it becomes clear that the familiar power-subservience theme is particularly built into the myth. Furthermore, Pinter's portrayal can be seen as a descendent of nineteenth-century artists' disquiet at the emergence of the rebellious New Woman, while currently, with the preeminence of gender studies, it can clearly be seen that the Pygmalion myth has metamorphosed into a version of patriarchy.


  1. Harold Pinter, A Kind of Alaska is printed with Family Voices and Victoria Station under the title Other Places (London: Methuen, 1982).

  2. Oliver Sacks, Awakenings, rev. ed. (London: Pan Bks, 1982), 67-79; originally published London: Duckworth, 1973.

  3. Ibid., 67.

  4. Ibid., 73.

  5. Bernard Dukore, “Alaskan Perspectives,” in Alan Bold, ed., Harold Pinter: You Never Heard Such Silence (Totowa, N.J.: B&N, 1984), 166-178.

  6. Sacks (above, note 2) 68.

  7. As an introduction to a voluminous literature see Jane M. Miller, “Some Versions of Pygmalion,” in Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, ed. Charles Martindale (Cambridge: Cambridge U Pr, 1988), 205-214.

  8. Ovid, Met. 10. 243-297.

  9. See Barbara Roche Rico, “From ‘Speechless Dialect’ to ‘Prosperous Art’: Shakespeare's Recasting of the Pygmalion Image,” Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1985): 285-295.

  10. See Edward P. Harris, “The Liberation of Flesh from Stone: Pygmalion in Frank Wedekind's Erdgeist,Germanic Review 52 (1977): 44-56.

  11. Georg Büchner: Sämtliche Werke und Briefe (Hamburg: Christian Wegner, 1967), 1:37. For a convenient translation, see The Plays of Georg Büchner, trans. Victor Price (Oxford: Oxford U Pr, 1971), 33.

  12. See M. B. Benn, “Anti-Pygmalion: An Apologia for Georg Büchner's Aesthetics,” Modern Language Review 64 (1969): 597-604.

  13. See J. L. Carr, “Pygmalion and the Philosophes,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 23 (1960): 242.

  14. J. Hillis Miller, Versions of Pygmalion (Cambridge: Harvard U Pr, 1990), 4. The quote is from Miller's description of Ovid's account of the Pygmalion story.

  15. Martin A. Danahay, “Mirrors of Masculine Desire: Narcissus and Pygmalion in Victorian Representation,” Victorian Poetry 32 (1994): 35-53; 37-38. For most of the above Victorian references I am indebted to this essay. For a specific parallel study of Browning, see Catherine Maxwell, “Browning's Pygmalion and the Revenge of Galatea,” English Literary History 60 (1993): 989-1013.

  16. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. R. W. Crump (Baton Rouge: La State U Pr, 1990), 3: 264.

  17. The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Boston: Little, 1906), 1: 128.

  18. The Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw (London: Odhams Pr, 1934), 757.

  19. Harris (above, note 10) 48.

  20. A. R. Sharrock, “Womanufacture.” Journal of Roman Studies 81 (1991): 36.

  21. John Elsner and Alison Sharrock, “Re-viewing Pygmalion,” Ramus 20 (1991): 149-182. Pages 149-153 introduces the Ovid with Latin text and translation by Alison Sharrock; “Visual Mimesis and the Myth of the Real: Ovid's Pygmalion as Viewer,” by John Elsner, 154-168 (my quotation is on 159); A. R. Sharrock, “The Love of Creation,” 169-182.

  22. Miller (above, note 14).

  23. “Harold Pinter: Speech, Hamburg 1970,” Theatre Quarterly 1 (1971): 4.

  24. Sacks (above, note 2) 69.

  25. Page references in the text are to the following Methuen, London, editions: The Birthday Party (1965); A Night Out, in A Slight Ache and Other Plays (1968); The Homecoming (1965); Landscape and Silence (1969); Old Times (1971).

  26. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (New York: Routledge, 1988), 57-68.

  27. Nationalgalerie, Berlin. See William Vaughan, German Romantic Painting (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 1980), 100, plate 16.

  28. The October 1991 BBC2 TV production of Old Times stressed the painterly aspect here with Kate's nudity “framed” by the open doorway of the bathroom and the interior lighting. See Ronald Knowles, “From London: Harold Pinter 1991,” Pinter Review (1991): 67-69.

  29. Steven H. Gale, Butter's Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter's Work (Durham, N.C.: Duke, 1977), 15.

  30. F. L. Green, Odd Man Out (London: Michael Joseph, 1945), 209.

A. A. Gill (review date 28 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Gill, A. A. “Harold Pauses, Antonia Is Silent.” Spectator 277, no. 8776 (28 September 1996): 31.

[In the following review, Gill asserts that Pinter's Ashes to Ashes ultimately does not make sense.]

On first nights, the Ivy—that communal greenroom for the boulevard arts—always has a particular atmosphere. Last Wednesday, there was a definite frisson, a froideur. The room was minding its p's and q's, sotto voce. As I sat down, I saw why. There, two tables away in a corner, was Harold Pinter—a theatrical lion at the watering-hole. Pinter is not one of those one-encore Wizard of Oz lions; not a ‘you-were-wonderful-darling-sing-us-a-medley-of-your-hit-sensations’. Pinter is the real thing—a dramatic classic—and he comes with his own unique atmosphere, like cerebral aftershave. He had also come with Lady Antonia.

As the waiter approached bearing champagne, I thought how uncomfortable it must be to serve Harold Pinter—the bloke who wrote The Dumb Waiter. You can imagine the dialogue:

‘Are you ready?’

‘Ready? Am I ready?’

‘Ready to order. Are you ready to order?’ [pause]


‘You want lamb? You're ordering lamb?’

‘Ordering? Am I ordering? I don't think lamb is an order.’

‘So, you're not ordering lamb? Lamb isn't your order?’

‘Yes, I think we're ready now, [pause] as ready as one can be.’

‘To order, you're ready to order?’

‘Not lamb. I never f—ing ordered lamb.’

When Pinter is in the room everything suddenly sounds unnervingly Pinteresque. All conversations become surreal, poignant, out of kilter.

‘Your cab's here.’

‘My cab, here?’

‘Your cab, sir, it's outside.’

‘Outside, here?’

And this must be the true measure of Pinter's greatness: he has given a name—his name—to the small exchanges of life; the loose exchange that drops unconsidered into conversation. He has taken the misheard, the ragged, the crippled edges of talk, the bits that fall down the back of the sofa, and given them gravitas. He has remoulded the timid question and repeated it as a statement of great, echoing profundity. People who have never seen a line of Pinter know what a Pinter moment is. Nobody talks of a Lloyd-Webber moment.

Pinter has made the hole in the mint of dialogue all his own. But the odd thing is, if you say, ‘That was very Harold Pinter', the company will laugh. Out in the streets, the pubs and the dining-rooms Harold Pinter is a great, droll humorist. This is the man who never wrote a comedy, who has not even written an intentionally funny line. Now if you said, ‘Oh my, that was a very Ray Cooney moment', nobody would laugh. Pinter's oeuvre has laid a funny egg.

A performance of The Caretaker at the Edinburgh Festival was advertised as being ‘Pinteresque’. That's immortal, that's deathless, that is, when your own plays are like the sort of thing you write: that's Pinteresque squared.

I have in front of me the Faber & Faber edition of the new Pinter play, Ashes to Ashes. It's 85 pages long. It ought to be 42[frac12] pages long, but only the right-hand folio is printed. Of course, maybe it is 85 pages and they've just forgotten to print the left-hand bit and I'm reading every other page without noticing—which would also be very Pinteresque but halved.

Anyway, the play doesn't make sense. That's not to say it's nonsense; it just has none of those tell-tale little nudges and winks that propel you through conversations—there is a distinct dearth of sequiturs. Not only are the two characters painfully opaque, but you get the feeling that they're not altogether honest. You see, even if they're telling the truth, it's like reconstructing a string of broken pearls. If they're lying, you've got to rub every line against your teeth. I tried saying the lines out loud, but I couldn't make them sound right. I thought maybe it needed another voice, a new voice outside my head. So I took it to my newsagent and asked him to do it with me:

‘You be Devlin, I'll be Rebecca.’

‘I'm Mr Patel. Who is this Devlin?’

‘It doesn't matter. Just read his lines.’

‘You want me to be Devlin?’

‘Yes. Read Devlin.’

‘Who am I?’

‘You're Mr Patel.’

‘No. Who am I when I'm Devlin?’

‘You don't need to know.’

‘I need to know who I am.’

‘I don't know who you are, that's why I want you to read.’

‘If you don't know, why do you want me to be him? I could be anyone. I could be Mr Patel.’

‘Just read, OK?’


Devlin: ‘Do you feel you're being hypnotised?’

Rebecca: ‘When?’

D: ‘Now.’

R: ‘No.’

D: ‘Really?’

R: ‘No.’

D: ‘Why not?’

R: ‘Who by?’

D: ‘By me.’

R: ‘You?’

D: ‘What do you think?’

R: ‘I think you're a f— pig.’

‘You can't say, “F— pig” to me.’

‘I wasn't.’

‘You just did.’

‘No, Rebecca said it to Devlin.’

‘Who is this Rebecca?’

‘I don't know.’

‘I don't want her in my shop.’

‘This is rather Pinteresque.’

‘Oh, Pinteresque. Yes. Ha, ha.’

The thing is, although dialogue can be Pinteresque, people can't. Characters aren't ever Pinterish. There isn't a recognisable Harold type. In fact, the revelation this week that the mistress in his play Betrayal was in real life Joan Bakewell has rather spoilt the essential weird enigma. It's too prosaic, too Sunday evening, like finding out that Hedda Gabler was really Valerie Singleton or Antigone was Paula Yates.

Ashes to Ashes has only two stage directions and they're used liberally. One is ‘pause', the other is ‘silence’. Now, I think here may well be the key to Pinter. When does a pause become a silence? Is it, perhaps, in that profound margin between silence and pause that the essential mastery of Pinter exists? Every time I looked over at Harold and Lady Antonia (and we all looked a lot), I noticed that he was eloquent with his pauses and she replied effusively with silences. It was the comforting banter of the long-term married intellectual. As we left, I overheard a snippet of dialogue. A young man nudged his girlfriend and pointed.

‘Look. That's him, the playwright.’


‘You know—what's his name?’

‘Oh. Harold Pooter.’

It was a Pinteresque moment.

Susan Rusinko (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Rusinko, Susan. Review of Collected Poems and Prose, by Harold Pinter. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 965.

[In the following review, Rusinko asserts that Collected Poems and Prose demonstrates that Pinter is an accomplished poet, as well as a dramatist.]

Of the twenty-eight poems that appeared in the first collection of Harold Pinter's verse (1968), all but one, “European Revels,” constitute the majority of the poems in his latest collection [Collected Poems & Prose]. These have been added to in subsequent publications in 1978, 1986, 1991, and 1996, bringing the total number to forty-six. Three poems are published for the first time, the most recent one written in January 1995. Each expansion has also included previously published prose pieces: e.g., an elegy composed on the death of Anew McMaster—the last in a tradition of great actor-managers—with whom Pinter played in his early days as an actor.

Two of the often-published poems, “A View of the Party” and “Kullus,” are a temptation to regard his poems merely as experiments leading to his plays. “A View of the Party” is a versified description of the characters in The Birthday Party, and “Kullus” is a poetic sketch about the intruder-displacement theme that is at the basis of so many of Pinter's plots. Still, he has continued to write poetry throughout the years of his stage successes. Both the quantity and quality of a sizable output of poems argues for his writing in that genre in and for itself. Moreover, Pinter wrote poems long before his playwriting days, during his years as an actor. His tribute to those early days is contained in a thin volume of poems which “represent my earliest work.” Ten Early Poems (1992) was released in a limited edition of 500 copies, fifty of which were numbered and signed by the author.

To read the poems chronologically is to sense Pinter's movement toward stylistic economy and overt political statement. The lushness of the earliest poems with their profusion of harsh imagery undergoes a noticeable paring, and the apoliticism of the early work veers to outright political protest in a poem such as “American Football.” Notorious for being refused by a number of publishers because of its obscenities, the poem is vituperative in its expression of Pinter's condemnation of American killings during the Gulf War.

Lyrically bleak in its reference to contemporary atrocities is the final poem, entitled “Poem,” whose line, “The world's about to break,” evokes the mood of Yeats's “Second Coming.” Visceral language—chuck, stuff, chokepit, dark, black, suffocated, kill, scream—leaves little doubt about Pinter's views of contemporary violence. In more polite imagery than either “American Football” or “Poem,” the penultimate poem, “God,” concludes that however he sought “a word to bless / The living throng below,” God discovered only that “he had no blessing to bestow.” On an unusually personal note, there is the love lyric “It Is Here,” written for his wife, Antonia Fraser. Also highly personal, two prose pieces, “Hutton and the Past” and “Arthur Wellard,” are Pinter's prose paeans to cricket, a lifelong passion.

There is little doubt that Pinter will continue to write poems and to rediscover more of his “earliest work.” Frequently described as a poet in the theater, he leaves no doubt that in whatever genre he chooses to write—poetry, prose, or plays—he is instinctively a poet.

Hal Jensen (review date 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Jensen, Hal. “Buried Alive.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4879 (4 October 1996): 23.

[In the following review, Jensen discusses the theme of the confusion of memory and desire in Pinter's Ashes to Ashes.]

Two armchairs, two side-tables, two lamps and a large window; a man and a woman, in their forties, enter; there is silence. This is the most that can be stated categorically about Harold Pinter's new play, Ashes to Ashes. We are given information sufficient to make the situation as unremarkable as possible. The woman (Lindsay Duncan) is called Rebecca, and the man (Stephen Rea) is called Devlin, although we know this only if we look at the script. As soon as Rebecca begins to speak, all certainty evaporates. She could be talking about something highly erotic or very upsetting; she could be talking about a lover, or she could be giving vent to her imagination.

Devlin begins delving for details. He wants facts. Rebecca will not satisfy him. He asks for the colour of the lover's eyes. It is an innocuous question, but Rebecca deflects it, just as she deflects direct questions throughout the play, offering instead a number of lyrical speeches which have neither specific contexts nor explicit meanings. It is disconcerting to have what seem like plain facts or answers not only withheld but derogated, and, at times, it crosses one's mind that Rebecca might be deranged; but her apparently abnormal trains of thought (about, among other things, elephantiasis, snow and babies) follow a logic inspired by poetic detail and imaginative reach rather than matters of fact. The clarity with which she expresses her confusion of memory and desire is so unfamiliar that it appears, at first, obscure—a point emphasized by the stage directions; as the play proceeds, the “room darkens”, but the “lamplight intensifies”.

The critical response to Ashes to Ashes has been disappointing; Pinter, apparently, has done no more than draw up a crude equation between sexual domination and Nazism, signposted with references to the Holocaust. Such interpretations are misleading and reductive. Rebecca's description of a crowd, with coats and bags, allowing themselves to be guided into the sea, has been widely glossed as an evocation of Nazi exterminations (we know that Pinter has read Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer); but if Pinter had wanted to make a specific point about extermination camps, he would have done so. As it is, his near-mythic imagery avoids glib commentary on particular atrocities by working at an allusive level.

Some of these allusions are literary; Rebecca's crowd, for instance, recalls the expressionless figures who shuffle over London Bridge in the first part of The Waste Land. Not insignificantly, the title for this section of Eliot's poem is “The Burial of the Dead”—that part of the Book of Common Prayer in which we find the Committal: “We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to Eternal life.” For Pinter, as for Eliot, the comfort of doing something for the dead is counterblasted by the idea of death undoing the living. The pretended consolations of the Committal itself are remembered in a less than flattering light: “Ashes to ashes / and dust to dust, / if the women don't get you / the liquor must.”

Can the slate ever be wiped clean? Guilt assuaged? The dead laid to rest? These are questions about where responsibility and involvement begin and end, and they are implicit in an exchange between Devlin and Rebecca in which he maintains that we can always restart things, while she argues that we can always restart things, while she argues that we can never restart, only keep on re-ending. Repetition and recurrence are the patterns by which Rebecca, and the play, are shaped, whether in rhyme, assonance (kissed / fist, oblique / bloke) and phrases which recall other Pinter plays (the chilling “fuckpig” from One for the Road), or in the echo-effect which dominates Rebecca's last speech.

Is Pinter, who has been “collecting” his work recently, also using Rebecca to assess the state of his own writing, acknowledging the impossibility of a completely fresh start or absolute end? In other words, is he facing up to the most dispiriting (and common) feature of his profession: lack of originality and inconclusiveness. Resisting self-deception, Pinter (like Rebecca) cannot forget, or conveniently explain away, his uneasy engagement with history—whether that history constitutes merely the influence of his literary predecessors or a common, less quantifiable and more disturbing burden of responsibility and guilt. The prevailing mood is far more pessimistic than in Pinter's last full-length piece, Moonlight (1993), in which mortality and vitality somehow managed to synchronize. Directed by the playwright, Ashes to Ashes unremittingly tests the perception and nerve of its audience. If you have listened closely, you should come out soaked with sweat.

Mark Steyn (essay date November 1996)

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SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Politics & the ‘Pinteresque.’” New Criterion 15, no. 3 (November 1996): 32-6.

[In the following essay, Steyn discusses elements of political commentary in Pinter's plays.]

Harold Pinter likes to tell a story against himself. A year or two back, he was flying to Miami and, as a ferocious scourge of the United States government, expected trouble at immigration. “But I was ready for them, I was ready for them,” he says. He handed over his British passport and the immigration officer examined it intently. “Pinter,” he said, slowly, and paused. “Would that be the dramatist Pinter?”

“Yes!” snapped Pinter, aggressively, preparing to launch into a diatribe on how outrageous it was that a country that claimed to be a democracy should attempt to impede his passage.

“Well, welcome to the United States, Mr. Pinter,” said the officer, cheerily. “Enjoy your stay.”

The most striking thing about the anecdote is how un-“Pinteresque” the exchange is—save, of course, for the pause, and even that, at least as Pinter tells the story, falls somewhat short. Over the years, he must have had many similarly pleasing encounters in America—in cabs, in restaurants, at check-in counters—and yet none of them has caused him to revise his opinion of the Great Satan: the best you could get from him during the Cold War was a surly assertion that there was an equivalence of evil between America and the Soviet Union. It's not that you'd expect a genial immigration officer to cause Pinter to alter his view of U.S. foreign policy, but you're surprised that he doesn't take it into account: if America is an Evil Empire, then surely there is drama to be made in the contrast between its outwardly perky, wholesome, have-a-nice-day appearance and its dark soul.

Instead, in his new play Ashes to Ashes (a Royal Court production at the Ambassadors' Theatre in London), we are in familiar territory: a land of murky, nameless horrors, whose language is explicitly brutal in character yet determinedly elusive in meaning. It is a duologue: Lindsay Duncan plays Rebecca, a terrorized woman; Stephen Rea is Devlin, the man who does the terrorizing, both of her, sexually, and of her country, politically. “I can sum up none of my plays,” Pinter has said. “I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.” His recent work has perfected the abstraction of violence. In traditional forms, when someone says, “I was seized by a nameless dread!” it usually transpires there's a vampire outside the window or the wicked Sir Jasper is riding across the heath. But, in Pinter, the dread stays nameless. For Stephen Rea, this presents certain difficulties. He has played explicit terrorizers, most famously in The Crying Game, as the IRA man who throws up on discovering his girlfriend has a penis—a scene subsequently parodied by both Leslie (Naked Gun) Nielsen and Jim (Ace Ventura) Carrey. But, in Pinter's nebula of non-specifics, his charm has nothing to play against, and you feel you're watching a man who doesn't quite believe in his character, or, indeed, isn't too sure whether there's a character at all. The dialogue chugs along like a slow-motion Abbot and Costello cross-talk routine—“Who's on first?” but without the ruthless, propulsive logic: “When?” “Now.” “No.” “Really?” “Why not?” “Who by?” “By me.” “You?” etc.

Pinter suffered from writer's block for much of the Eighties, and he seems to be recovering ten minutes at a time: some plays are short enough to be performed without an intermission; Pinter's comeback piece, Mountain Language, can be played within an intermission—it lasts about 17 minutes. By contrast, Ashes to Ashes is the equivalent of a Robert Wilson: it lasts an hour. I'm glad Pinter's pen is beginning to stretch itself again, but I wonder if there isn't a very basic reason for his difficulties: at heart he knows that people are not like this, and, after forty years, it requires increasing effort to write as if they are.

In the wake of Ashes to Ashes, there was a flurry of comment in the British media about the word “Pinteresque”: he is the only modern dramatist to have passed adjectivally into general currency. The official line can be summarized by Carole Woddis, former theater editor at the “radical” magazine City Limits, and Trevor R. Griffiths, Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at the Polytechnic of North London, in their Bloomsbury Theatre Guide: “‘Pinteresque’ has come to mean the dialogue of evasion.” Griffiths, as a Chair of Language, must be aware that that definition is itself an evasion. To most people, “Pinteresque” means a pause followed by a non sequitur. Down at the pub, when they're discussing, say, the popular footballer Gazza and there's a slight lull and then someone says absent-mindedly, “I've always fancied the Greek Islands meself,” they knowingly nudge each other and say, “Oh, very Pinteresque.” A couple of commentators have suggested recently that, in fact, “Pinteresque” is virtually indistinguishable from “Pooteresque”—an adjective deriving from the hero of The Diary of a Nobody and its assemblage of random lower-middle-class suburban banalities. But what's interesting is that, out in the real world, “Pinteresque” has nothing to do with evasion or menace, but is strictly a novelty turn, applied only to those weird disjunctions when normal human communication breaks down. Indeed, even theater folk use it in this sense. I once went to a conference of American producers at which, during the introductions, a lady from the San Diego Civic Light Opera stood up and proudly declared that, being a mile from the airport, they were the only theater with a plane spotter on staff. “When one's approaching, the amber light goes on. On the red, the performers freeze until the spotter gives them the green. Each freeze lasts about eight seconds, and on average there's 29 planes during each show.” A fellow producer called out, “You should do Pinter plays. Then no one would notice.”

It is when Pinter applies himself to something specific that you begin to find yourself pining for the dialogue of evasion, the fraudulence of memory, and all the rest. Last October, I discussed the London production of Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, directed by Pinter, and starring Daniel Massey as Wilhelm Furtwängler, the great conductor who chose to stay in Berlin during the war with his beloved orchestra. Pinter had cast, as the American major called upon to interrogate Furtwängler under the de-Nazification process, the British actor Michael Pennington, and what emerged knocked the play off balance: While Harwood's text declined to take sides, Pinter's staging did: Pennington's character was a coarse philistine cartoon, whose dramatic purpose seemed to be less to nail Furtwängler than to foreshadow the world's descent into the vulgarity of American cultural pre-eminence. The play has now come to Broadway (at the Brooks Atkinson), with Pinter replaced as director by David Jones, and Ed Harris taking the role of the major. Jones's production restores the balance: Harris is slier, warmer, more human: he and his director do not patronize the character. He is still coarse and philistine, a man whose cultural boundaries are defined by Bob Hope and Betty Grable, whose interest in music extends no further than a bandleader he saw in New Jersey called Dix Dixon. But, shorn of Pinter, the play's evenhandedness comes through: yes, he spews obscenities, but you're more aware now that he's the only one who's actually seen the concentration camps; similarly, his young American assistant is the only one who had relatives in the camps. As I walked up the aisle after an early preview, one guy said, “That Furtwängler—he sure comes over as an asshole”; another theatergoer said, “I think the play's rather hard on Furtwängler.”

There's a lesson in all of this, especially for so-called “political” theater. Iago is the greatest villain in all drama, but productions of Othello work better the more charming and beguiling the actor playing him is. If he's transparently evil, where's the drama? Unfortunately, most political theater in New York at the moment takes the same approach as Pinter and Pennington to that American major: they patronize their characters, and thereby their audience. Thus, your average abortion drama promotes the line that a woman has “a right to choose,” but a theatergoer does not: a theatergoer can not be expected to absorb fully delineated characters of opposing views and to thread his way through the ambiguities in between. The result, alas, is that most political theater may be good politics but it's almost always bad theater.

In the media, the 89 percent of journalists who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 maintain indignantly that, professionally, they're impeccably impartial. In the theater, the President's supporters are just as numerous, but, rather than subscribing to any bogus theory of impartiality, they insist that they're a beleaguered minority, whose freedoms are under threat from the likes of the “religious Right” and other such fanatics. It seems to have escaped their notice that, culturally, their views are now the only ones acceptable in polite society—to the extent that, on mainstream TV sitcoms, there are more gay weddings than straight ones. When was the last time, for example, a figure from the religious Right was portrayed sympathetically in a play or movie or TV drama? They've become the stock villains, their “intolerance” as plain as the twirled moustaches of Victorian melodrama. So, in Christopher Durang's Sex and Longing (at the Cort), Sigourney Weaver plays an especially overheated nymphomaniac whose sex life attracts the attention of (here we go again) the religious Right and prompts a Congressional inquiry. No attempt is made to get into the mindset of these characters—their preposterousness, their unreasonableness is assumed—and the jokes aren't as good as you get on even the stalest talk-show monologue. Satire, as the old George Kaufman line has it, is what closes Saturday night—and he should know. But current political satire arrives stillborn from the author's word processor. If anything, Theresa Rebeck's View of the Dome (at the New York Theater Workshop) is even more feeble. It's the sour tale of a progressive female attorney who goes to Washington full of ideals and comes back full of some slimy corrupt pol's seed—which précis probably makes it sound considerably more riveting than it is.

But nothing sums up political satire's present woes better than Political Animal, a one-man show (at the Westside Theatre) written by and starring Douglas McGrath, the screenwriter of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway and director of Emma. McGrath has been struck by a Big Thought—that only empty, shallow, desperate men can run for president nowadays. He has also found a form in which to present his theory: the glowingly plastic video-documentary tributes much in favor at this year's convention.

Fair enough. I happen to disagree with McGrath: scanning the presidential candidates of the last few elections, you could not honestly say that hollowness is the most common characteristic; even President Clinton is wily, unprincipled, self-serving, rather than merely an empty suit. But, granted that this is your chosen tack, which of the present parties' candidates best exemplifies it? Which effortlessly lifts his opponents' issues and policies to the point where he's barely recognizable as the man he was four years ago? In Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign, the theatricalization of politics is complete: the mainstream media like to compare it to Reagan in 1984, but Reagan ran a showman's campaign rooted in the same core beliefs he'd articulated four years earlier; for Clinton, consistency is the very last consideration.

Needless to say, the hollow slicker McGrath gives us is a right-wing Republican, and with gleeful relish the actor-author sets about mocking conservative positions on gun control and gay rights, unaware perhaps that on the whole glib, poll-led crowd pleasers eschew these subjects, recognizing them as the sort of complicated lose-lose issues that only politicians with genuine core beliefs would stumble into. It's comforting to think that such men are empty suits, though not perhaps for a dramatist: an empty suit is hard to bring to life on stage, especially when he's given such tired revue-sketch lines as the comment McGrath's candidate Alistair Farrell makes on homosexual teachers: “I shudder to think what Jesus would say if He knew we were teaching the students to love each other.” Ha-ha. Worse than the lameness of the joke is the witlessness of the insight: the dimly remembered Sunday school invocation that we should love our fellow man, or fellow person, seems to be all that survives of religious impulse in popular art; the other elements of the package—that, say, we should ask God to forgive us our sins—are deemed irrelevant and judgmental in an age when sin is just an alternative lifestyle.

So don't expect the theater to have anything to say about Clinton's America, any more than it had to say about Reagan's. Most plays on the subject content themselves with the roman à clef approach of Primary Colors: spot the Pat Robertson here, the Bob Packwood there. You'd have thought Theresa Rebeck, at least, would appreciate the deficiencies of this approach. Aside from View of the Dome, she's also in town with her new adaption of Ionesco's Rhinoceros (at Theater Four), the first New York revival since the original production. Written when the author was living under the Nazis, the play presents a bald but theatrical metaphor: one day, a rhino shows up in town and, such is the herd mentality, soon everyone else wants to be a rhino, too. The last version I saw was Peter Hall's semi-operatic adaptation at Chichester Festival Theatre a few years back, and to be honest I missed in the present production not the music but Hall's clear, bold staging: he'd updated it from Fascist Europe to consumerist America and set it in a shopping mall. I know it's a preposterous and demeaning analogy, but, nonetheless, the scene in which the first rhino glides up in a glass elevator was an exhilarating theatrical moment, for which Michael Murray's leaden, earthbound New York production can find no equivalent.

Speaking of consumerism, we come to David Hare, back on Broadway with his new play, Skylight (at the Royale). As with revivals of Hello, Dolly!, much as it's a pleasure to welcome him back, one hadn't really noticed he'd gone away in the first place—especially as, like Carol Channing, the female characters seem to remain indestructibly unchanged; indeed, they're exactly the same regardless of which play they're in. The “skylight” of Hare's title refers to one of north London's Spartan, carelessly partitioned rented flats, to which Kyra, the latest earnest, do-gooding, left-wing Hare heroine (cf. Secret Rapture, Plenty, Racing Demon, etc.), has repaired after a failed relationship. Presumably, this type represents some sort of idealized woman to Hare: each to his own, I suppose.

As it emerges, Kyra was previously the mistress of Tom, a bloated Thatcherite plutocrat, played by the bulky if not bloated Michael Gambon. Right-wing boy meets left-wing girl: Hare is serving up the great issues as a love story. That can work very well, sometimes spectacularly so, as in the case of Casablanca. True, “We'll always have Paris” does not translate particularly well to Hare-land: “We'll always have Hackney Constituency Labour Party 1967 Composite Motion Drafting Sub-Committee on Inner City Index-Linked Housing Benefit.” And Casablanca had the advantage of being made up by a bunch of hacks as they went along. Hare is too clever, too articulate, and consequently has too many things he wants to say—or, rather, he wants his protagonists to say for him.

In London, more than a few tired businessmen recognized, sheepishly, the situation: the thirty-something ex-mistress who retreats to a poky flat and a mangy cat. But Hare has embellished the situation so that the end of the relationship is also, in a way, a political choice: Kyra now does good works as a teacher in the rundown inner city, and has forsworn the good life that came with Tom's hugely profitable chain of restaurants. Much of what they say to each other about capitalism and socialism is deft and pointed, but the cut and thrust isn't real, only the naïve jabbing of a sixth-form debating society: Kyra is figuratively and literally slumming in her good works, which gives the play's “compassion” (a favorite word with the New York critics) an air of upper-class condescension. In a desperate effort to make their dialogue sound impassioned and heartfelt, Hare has liberally sprinkled the lines with swear words, but, curiously, these sound the most unfelt of all. Gambon is big and florid and expansive and whirls around the flat, Miss Williams huddles fetchingly in her baggy clothes, and both these fine individuals under Richard Eyre's direction never once come together as a credible couple. At times, you sense the actors, Gambon especially, trying to accelerate away from the material, only to find Hare's portentous text dragging them back. For one thing, the play has a very basic structural problem: the relationship is over long ago, and the principals are now meeting up again after a three-year separation; but the politics was over long ago, too—the squabbles over Eighties Thatcherism and Sixties socialism seem so dated that the sparring comes over as some ancient ceremonial ritual, like the State Opening of Parliament.

Speaking as a right-wing bastard myself, I've long ago ceased to be surprised at the virulently left-wing feminists I'm attracted to. In my experience, it's a fairly widespread phenomenon: BBC current-affairs producers periodically put the Daily Telegraph columnist Auberon Waugh on a panel show up against the lesbian activist Beatrix Campbell or the black Hackney MP Diane Abbott only to find that he just winds up fancying them. Between Tom and Kyra, though, there's no crackle, no spark, no sense of any genuine attraction. Skylight gives us some tired politics, two splendid solo turns, but no drama. Maybe boy-meets-girl is the hardest trick of all.

Sheridan Morley (review date 1 February 1997)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Territorial Imperative.” Spectator 278, no. 8792 (1 February 1997): 42-3.

[In the following review, Morley praises Pinter's The Homecoming as a magnificently plotted drama that is both comic and sinister.]

Why were we always so afraid to laugh at, or at any rate with, Harold Pinter? When The Homecoming first opened in 1965 at the Aldwych, I seem to remember reverent silences both on stage and in the auditorium, and a willing suspension of disbelief that this was the same dramatist who, only a few years earlier, had been writing hilariously sinister revue sketches for comics like Kenneth Williams and Peter Cook, not that there were ever many like them.

Thirty years on, an admirable new revival at the National Theatre by Roger Michell makes it clear that this is indeed the Pinter of the revue sketches, and much of at least the first half of the Lyttelton production is bleakly, blackly, hilariously funny.

Of all Pinter's plays, The Homecoming is probably the most immediately accessible and user-friendly; it is the instant guide as well as thumbnail sketch of what we mean by Pinteresque. A grotesque North London family, many of whose cousins were soon to appear in the works of Joe Orton, send their newly acquired relative, in this case a glacial Lindsay Duncan, to try her luck and theirs on the streets of Soho as a prostitute.

As so many of his other plays, The Homecoming is about sexual violence and the territorial imperative; it also affords half a dozen truly wonderful parts, and is perhaps the only Pinter in which these parts are in the end greater than the whole, Menace and ambiguity, which any first-year drama student will tell you are the playwright's special stock-in-trade, are not so readily apparent here; instead we have a magnificently plotted drama dominated by the character of Lenny, of neither mice nor men but a magnificent creation once played by the author, a vintage semi-literate thug (‘Apart from the known and the unknown, what else is there?’, a question to stun even a cab-driver or a television agony aunt) and a marvellously anarchic character superbly underplayed here by Michael Sheen. Whether arranging for his sister-in-law to go on the streets, or merely playing filial obeisance to his Dad (‘I respect him not only as a father but also as a first-class butcher’), Lenny is one of the great creations of the modern theatre.

True, here as in Peter Hall's current Streetcar, the designer has taken a curious decision to set a claustrophobic piece in a space which could handsomely accommodate several armies, though at least here we do get to see a loft crammed with all the detritus of a long non-functional family. It suddenly occurs to me that Hancock, Steptoe, Arthur Haynes, above all Peter Cook, all the great television comedy shows of the period, owed a considerable debt to The Homecoming and, it must quickly be added, it to them. The truly comic voice of Britain in the early Sixties, a mixture of threat and whine, is better caught here than anywhere, and in what could also have been a situation comedy called At Home with the Krazy Krays, Michell has wisely cast such vintage tele-comics as Sam Kelly and the magnificently lugubrious David Bradley.

I don't believe there is a better revival in London at present, nor a better introduction to Pinter as a comic dramatist as well as the master of the sinister and the seriously strange.

I have to admit that I have come late to the joys of Fascinating Aida; in one form or another, this three-woman singalong has been around festivals and cabaret stages since the very early 1980s and I used to think their material (largely composed by Dillie Keane who remains the leader of the trio) somewhat secondary to that of such all-male groups as Instant Sunshine or Stilgoe & Skellern or Kit and the Widow, who confusingly is also a man and not even in drag. I feel the urge to spell all this out since Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage, traditionally the preserve of two actresses, is currently touring Britain played by two men in drag.

Anyway, the good news is that Fascinating Aida is now fascinatingly better, partly due to some brilliant new songs, not the least of which is a heartbreaking lament by a mother for a child she once ignored and who now no longer needs her; another is a rueful reminder that the tramps who sleep in boxes under the bridges of London have conveniently already neatly packaged themselves for interment. Several other numbers strike me still as a little sub-Brel or even sub-standard, but it's not that often you get to hear a good Richard Gere gerbil joke in a rhyming lyric, and the best news of all is the addition to the group of the great and glorious and considerably eccentric Issy Van Randwyck, by Beatrice Lillie out of Douglas Byng and far and away the most exciting and exotic cabaret talent this country has produced in the last decade even if she does happen to be a Dutch baroness. And when did you last get a really good laugh from one of those?

Herb Greer (essay date 30 June 1997)

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SOURCE: Greer, Herb. “Down and Out in London.” National Review 49, no. 12 (30 June 1997): 52-3.

[In the following essay, Greer offers a brief, negative assessment of Pinter's career and reputation as a dramatist.]

The London theater has been passing through a persistent scarcity of good new plays. A prominent symptom was Harold Pinter's latest gnomic, and incredibly tedious, Ashes to Ashes. It quickly expired in the West End, leaving the English stage hungrier than it has been for some time. As always, this pinched condition has provoked a scattering of hopeful revivals, including a good one of Pinter's The Homecoming. The startling contrast with Ashes to Ashes showed how far Pinter has fallen away from the genuine promise of his early work.

From the time when I first saw two of his one-act plays in a North London hall in the Fifties, it was clear that Pinter's flair as a theatrical craftsman was impressive. The novelty in his box of theatrical tricks—fresh and innovative then, but much satirized now—was his discovery that the most banal conversation can be heightened and given apparent “meaning” by introducing arbitrary pauses among lines of dialogue. This manipulative stunt opened a kind of vacuum which critics rushed to fill with their own speculations about unspoken profundity and “menace.” Pinter found himself labeled as a sort of theatrical guru, whose work hinted at revelations about the depths of human experience, life and death, etc.

This was surprising, because Pinter then had absolutely no intellectual pretensions. He had finished secondary school, bypassed university to become an actor, and moved on to playwriting. It was his peculiar fortune to arrive just as British theater was undergoing a curious transformation. Where most playwrights before the mid-Fifties had played for the audience in the traditional manner, the new crop began to play at the audience, to “make them think.”

By the Sixties the association of Pinter with a stage work was enough to ensure respectful attention. There now existed a style called “Pinterism,” deployed most successfully by Pinter himself. The “pause” mannerism had become his particular property, along with a trick of arbitrary repetition which he may or may not have borrowed from American writers like Ernest Hemingway. He was now the proprietor of a mystique in contemporary theater like that of Samuel Beckett, complete with intimations of mystery and awesome (if always rather unspecific) wisdom lurking in the hidden depths of his plays.

After a while, Pinter began to show signs of believing his critical adulation. He left his theatrical wife for a literary lioness, biographer Antonia Fraser. The pair and their friends assumed the role of an intellectual elite to show the nation the error(s) of its ways; they convened a salon of suburban champagne socialists like novelist Margaret Drabble and playwright John Mortimer. This little radical-chic klatsch provoked more mocking public laughter than political change.

Pinter's public utterances betrayed a definite etiolation of his sense of humor. He published a book of prose and dreadful poetry. He traveled to Turkey with Arthur Miller and allowed himself to be used for propaganda purposes by a Kurdish terrorist organization; he then insulted the American ambassador over dinner with accusations that the embassy was encouraging torture in Turkey. On his return to England he (with Miller) published a bragging article about all this fun and games in a prominent London Sunday newspaper. Later he recorded a half-hour television speech, denouncing Reagan and the Americans for “killing hundreds of thousands of people a day.”

While the thick cloud of critical pretentiousness continued to intoxicate Pinter, he did develop another side of his talent as a superb director of other people's work. And his own plays were changing. By the Eighties he had adopted a messianic air, writing down to his audience in over-mannered theatrical statements which were elliptical, vaguely indignant, and—he said—“political.” His characters, never very rounded, now began to flatten into the cardboard figures of agitprop. In Mountain Language, for example, he created a brief sentimental sketch of members of a minority who suffer for speaking their own language. The apparent idea was that oppression was a bad thing. Another short play (all his new plays were now short) made the same profound point about torture.

Ashes to Ashes is the latest work in this new canon. It is a half-hour of cryptic hints about marital cruelty and political oppression, exchanged in and around an easy chair in a living room by a bland man and a woman who is possibly his abused wife. There is no trace of humor. During thirty minutes of banal, incredibly tedious chat they pause a lot, squirm, glare, breathe hard, and get up and sit down once or twice; at last the lights go down. Critical reaction was mixed. A few apostates thought there was nothing to the piece. Among the faithful, Alistair Macaulay of the Financial Times was probably the most dazzled (and incoherent): “it may be important to say that not understanding Pinter is a very great pleasure. To feel the elusiveness of his meaning is, in fact, to come very close to its essence.”

If you emetize like that over a playwright long enough, he will—even if he is a saint—eventually stop wiping it off his face and come down with a case of ego-rot. Maybe a good Samaritan could found a clinic and treat Pinter for critical intoxication. With luck, he might dry out, learn to laugh again, and even write a good play.

Michael Barnwell (review date September 1997)

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SOURCE: Barnwell, Michael. “The Plots Behind the Plots.” American Theatre (September 1997): 57-8.

[In the following review of The Life and Works of Harold Pinter, by Michael Billington, Barnwell criticizes the author for providing an overly laudatory biography of Pinter.]

In the mid-1950s, an English repertory actor going by the stage name of David Baron [Harold Pinter] wrote an enigmatic short play about an unusual couple living as recluses in their spare one-room apartment. The couple, a woman who chatters incessantly and a man who is portentously reticent, are beset by any number of imagined—or are they real?—terrors. Despite their best efforts to maintain their isolation, an unsettling visitor bearing a seemingly innocuous and obscure message makes a breach, eliciting a furious and ultimately fatal response. In this simple room, meticulously encased in noir menace, Beckettian suspense and a lyrical, melancholic longing, the groundwork was laid for the development of the signature obsessions of one of Britain's foremost postwar dramatists, Harold Pinter, a writer whose stylistic traits are so well known that no fictive name could now conceal him.

Four decades after the staging of Pinter's debut play, entitled simply The Room, the sense behind his pause-laden and cryptic dialogues still proves to be an elusive and therefore all-the-more-desirable quarry for assorted theatre sleuths. Pinteresque may just as well serve to describe the unique interpretative challenge invited by the author's riddling cadences of surface linguistical sleights and willful miscommunications.

Joining a long line of Pinter interpreters is Michael Billington, theatre critic at The Guardian for the past 36 years, who asks in his new, self-described “highly subjective” biography, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, “So what can we read of Pinter's mind from The Room?” Mind-reading is normally left to professional savants, but Billington, the author of works on Alan Ayckbourn and Tom Stoppard, is determined to unlock the mysteries of this difficult writer, and he sets to it by digging up biographical particulars in order to pinpoint the uncanny similarities between Pinter's real life and his stage life. No doubt Billington proceeded with some measure of confidence, having been granted a number of gently reminiscing interviews by the notoriously cagey playwright and his second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser.

No mystery surrounds Pinter's birth. He was born in 1930 in London's East End into a family of second-generation Jewish immigrants. His father, who ran a modestly successful tailor firm, encouraged his son's writing, but his strong Zionist views conflicted with Pinter's own rejection of the Jewish religion. Typical of Billington's approach is his dwelling on such tensions between father and son to explain similar Oedipal struggles found throughout Pinter's work. In like manner, he cites Pinter's early awakening to political consciousness as a conscientious objector as evidence of a firm ideological outlook staked in all of the plays, even in those that are in no way overtly political. Billington depicts Pinter's early life as a period marked by impressionable scenes of menace, betrayal and male bonding. The effect rendered, strangely enough, is to see the plays as blueprints for Pinter's childhood, rather than the more logical other way around.

The Life and Work of Harold Pinter is conceived primarily as a critical work considered in the context of the writer's life, but the analysis one finds here has the feel of an expanded newspaper review, often filled out with commentary culled from a number of studies, Martin Esslin's Pinter the Playwright (Methuen) notable among them. Of the play Old Times Billington offers the rather indistinct all-purpose judgment that it “constantly renews itself, partly because of the extraordinary tension between what is said and what is felt, partly because of its mixture of exact social observation and emblematic imagery, and partly because so much depends on the chemistry of the casting.”

Billington is best at satisfying those readers curious about the plots behind the plots. We learn from Pinter, for example, that the idea for The Caretaker came to him at his first-floor flat at 373 Chiswick Road when he walked by the open door of an adjoining flat and saw two men inside: one rooting around in a bag, the other staring out a window—a “kind of moment frozen in time,” Pinter says, “that left a very strong impression.” We also learn that Pinter's intricate and devastating portrait of marital infidelity in Betrayal did not originate from second-hand sources, but drew upon intimate events while he was married to his first wife, Vivien Merchant, whom he met in the 1950s when they were working as actors in the same traveling company.

Although one tends to think of Pinter mainly as a playwright, Billington reminds us that he has written nearly as many screenplays as plays. Included in the biography are thorough accounts of the films, ranging from Pinter's chillingly clever observation of the master/slave relationship in The Servant (which preceded by a few years his stage treatment of a variant of the theme in The Homecoming) to adaptations of literary works such as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Kafka's The Trial. Pinter himself remarks on his charmed experience with film writing: “I've written 22 film scripts of which 17 have been made exactly as written; that's not too bad a statistic, given the nature of the movie industry.”

In the second half of the book, Billington concentrates on Pinter's increasingly public role as a political activist, in the late 1970s and early '80s. Pinter's particular loathing of the sanctimoniousness of Western democracies, especially in regard to their hypocritical foreign policy toward Latin America and Turkey, not only sent him into the fray of national politics but also led to a significant change in the subject matter of his by-then-infrequent plays. If in his early career he wrote about sexual politics, in his later plays, such as Ashes to Ashes and New World Order, he reversed the emphasis, exploring the sexual threat and sadism inherent in political repression.

What is treated gingerly, however, is the perplexing fact that his condemnation of Britain's Conservative government coincided roughly with his marriage to the former wife of a Tory M.P. and his vote in 1979 for Margaret Thatcher. But then, to treat it with any sharp objectivity would be inconsistent with the general laudatory tone of the book. Skimming the index gives the reader a good idea of what kind of biography this is. Under the heading “Pinter, Harold: Personality,” are the following entries: “cynicism about politicians; as a drinker; duality in his character; generosity; as good company; as a good listener; good taste; integrity; love of London; love of sport; love of women; nonconformity; reclusiveness; refusal to accept handed-down truths; sides with the underdog; stoicism against life's cruelties; suspicion of bureaucracy.” Quite a guy.

Such fawning gets Billington into trouble, though, preventing him from seeing the utter vacuity of lines such as, “What Pinter hates, above all, is hypocrisy; what he values is truth.” He would have done well to tone down the blustery adulation and heed a clue offered by Pinter about the characters he creates: “It is in the silence that they are most evident to me.”

Mary Lynn Dodson (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Dodson, Mary Lynn. “The French Lieutenant's Woman: Pinter and Reisz's Adaptation of John Fowles's Adaptation.” Film/Literature Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1998): 296-302.

[In the following essay, Dodson compares the novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles, with its film adaptation, by Pinter. Dodson concludes that Pinter's screenplay is a brilliantly structured, highly faithful adaptation.]

Fowles's first novel, The Collector, sold extremely well. With the success of this novel behind him, John Fowles felt secure enough to publish The Aristos, his “self-made opinion on all that concerns us” (8). He admits that this book is offensive in manner because of the “dogmatic way in which [he] set out [his] views on life” (Aristos 7). Fowles defines these views as existential; he perceives the primary concern of existentialism as “preserv[ing] the freedom of the individual against all those pressures-to-conform” (7). Fowles later insisted that his purpose in The Aristos was not in any way intended to “sell” the reader on his existential philosophy, that “[i]f [he] wanted that [he] should have written in a very different form and style, and wrapped [his] pills in the usual sugar coating” (7-8).

In 1969 John Fowles published another book: The French Lieutenant's Woman. This book was as successful as The Aristos was unsuccessful; Barry Olshen notes that “with the publication of The French Lieutenant's Woman … Fowles's work appeared as a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic … his reputation was extended into the … atmosphere of academe” (63). Critical reaction was sweet indeed! This time Fowles did write in a different form and style: allegory. This time he made sure his pill was sugar-coated; The French Lieutenant's Woman is coated with enticing moments of piercing self-examination and moments of unpredictable passion. Fowles manages to allow the reader to experience Victorian England through the eyes of a stereotypical young lady, an educated and refined gentleman, and an ousted woman—the mysterious Sarah. The reader also experiences 1867 from the vantage point of an additional one hundred years, i.e., through the eyes of a twentieth-century and literally intrusive author highly concerned with the tension between “the then” and “the now.” Fowles craftily webs a story that confuses the line between what is real and what is imagined. He communicates little-known facts about the Victorian Age; he turns prophet as he projects characters into their futures; and he leaves the reader no alternative but to move toward existentialism: the reader must exercise individual freedom and choose how to end Fowles's tale. Fowles brilliantly uses all of these avenues to communicate, once again, his views on life, his existential philosophy.

A brief description of Fowles's existentialism as outlined in The Aristos is in order. In The Aristos, Fowles states, “Freedom of the will is the highest human good” (26). Indeed, all other precepts discussed in this dogmatic and difficult work are discussed relative to a liberated self. Fowles takes great pain to explain that individual freedom must be limited by the mystery of hazard (chance) and the privilege of responsibility. Fowles warns against the irresponsible use of illicit sexual experience and cautions that the contemporary affaire de corps is usually “a flight from reality; and if children are involved, a flight from responsibility” (172). Fowles's Aristos concept of free will reflects his desire for greater equality, for art that humanizes, for gods that assist in the “necessary but merciless” (56) becoming process. Fowles wholeheartedly believes that individual acceptance of his Aristos precepts will result in “humanizing the whole,” i.e., creating a better world—an aristos world—for all mankind: “that is the best for this situation” (214).

A careful reading of the Victorian novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, leaves little doubt that this work again proclaims John Fowles's existential philosophy. The story-line in this most complex novel—the triangular love plot—is not complex: it is surprisingly unoriginal and easy to follow. It is the story of a man who must exercise his free will by making a choice. The novel begins in 1867. The setting is Lyme Regis “on the south coast of England” (9). Charles Smithson, a thirty-two-year-old Londoner and a baronet's nephew, and his twenty-one-year-old fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, are taking a proper Victorian stroll along the Cobb. They notice a dark figure gazing out to sea. Ernestina informs Charles that the figure is female, a mysterious and ostracized creature whom she refers to as “poor Tragedy.” She hints at Tragedy's sin: the ex-governess was defiled and deserted by a shipwrecked French naval officer. Charles is intrigued by the scarlet woman. The next day, while he hunts fossils in the Undercliff, he stumbles across the sleeping Sarah in a “tender and yet sexual” repose (61). Sarah and Charles keep stumbling into each other—finally into each other's arms. Charles gives up all pretense of maintaining a relationship with Ernestina and determines to make Sarah his wife. He breaks off his engagement. Alas, when he returns for Sarah, she has disappeared! He searches for her everywhere; he hires a detective to intensify efforts to find her. Driven by despair, ousted by society, Charles escapes to America. Finally, a telegram arrives stating that she is found. Charles immediately returns to London and once again faces Sarah.

The basic story, a man torn between two women, is certainly nothing new; what makes the triangular love plot so interesting is the existential dimension of the characters. The Victorian gentleman, Charles Smithson, Fowles's “everyman,” is engaged to marry young Ernestina Freeman, “the catatonia of convention” (300). Indeed, Ernestina is earnest in her allegiance to the “petty provincial day” (11); ironically, her “proper respect for convention” (28) left her enslaved to the dictates of Victorianism, not a “free man” at all, much less a free woman. Fowles describes Ernestina as fashion-conscious, demure, obedient, shy, pampered, frail, and proper. “Hers,” Fowles remarks, is “exactly the right face for the age—small-chinned, oval, delicate as a violet” (26). Ernestina is most comfortable in her proper Victorian home, particularly in the conservatory: a confining hothouse filled with flowers and plants struggling to grow in an unnatural environment.

Ernestina's rival, Sarah Woodruff, is a more complex individual, yet equally recognizable as an allegorical figure. As Sarah's story evolves, the reader learns that she is the daughter of a tenant-farmer who never forgot that his ancestors were of a more genteel station. Therefore, he determines to send his daughter to a boarding school totally out of keeping with her social rung on the Victorian ladder. Sarah's poor father dies. She is left alone, devoid of family and social connections, possessing only the “gift” of education. As Barry Olshen explains, “she has been forced out of her own class without being raised to the next” (74); thus, Sarah is a most melancholy person: she realizes that her only means of escape from a life of serving as a governess requires a high cost—marrying shame. When opportunity knocks in the form of a shipwrecked French Lieutenant, Sarah seizes her day. Knowing the nature of the age and, more specifically, the nature of the pious women of Lyme Regis, she counts on gossip turning her into a damned woman: “the French Lootnt's Hoer” (73). Sarah flaunts her “supposed” sexual immorality, thereby freeing herself from all of the demands of Victorianism, i.e., once she chooses to blatantly offend society, she no longer has to concern herself with its approval. Sarah affronts fashion: her riding coat is described as black and bizarre. Unlike Ernestina, Sarah is most at home in the isolated botanical Undercliff, a short stretch of coastal wilderness outside of Lyme Regis, “one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England” (58). Sarah's scandalous choice in favor of freedom gives her the opportunity to pursue a “do your own thing” lifestyle. This lifestyle, however, forces Sarah to undertake a journey of isolation. She emerges from this journey equipped to assist others in search of a better way—a way not yet historically defined as existential, but existential nonetheless. Indeed, Fowles's primary existential concern—freedom—is personified in the character of Sarah Woodruff.

The title of Fowles's book—The French Lieutenant's Woman—is misleading. It implies that the novel focuses on Sarah's story; this is not so. Simon Loveday explains: “In the field of literature a character who develops will always steal the show. … Sarah cannot hold the place of importance … she is merely the means. It is Charles who is the end” (71). Throughout his novel, Fowles quotes Victorian poets. The lines of poetry most associated with the novel's protagonist, Charles Smithson, are taken from Matthew Arnold's “The Grand Chartreuse.” They describe the plight of the intellectual Victorian caught “wandering between two worlds, one dead / the other powerless to be born” (85-86). Fowles describes Charles as “a man struggling to overcome history” (234), a man standing “with one foot over the precipice” (150). Charles is Victorian in his allegiance to ideas, in his worship of order, in his attention to the outward man, and in his “scandal as the ultimate sin” approach to life; he is non-Victorian in his desire for honesty, in his anti-materialistic stance, in his intrinsic tendency to embrace nature, and in his sensitivity to the “seeming respectability” of the age. Charles is indeed a torn man: a man torn between allegiance to Victorian convention (Ernestina) and John Fowles's existential freedom (Sarah).

Fowles devotes much energy to juxtaposing “the then”—the Victorian Age—and “the now”—the twentieth century. In The Aristos, Fowles states:

Adam is stasis or conservatism; Eve is kinesis, or progress. Adam societies are ones in which the man and the father, male gods, exact strict obedience to established institutions and norms of behavior, as during a majority of the periods of history in our era. The Victorian is a typical such period. Eve societies are those in which the woman and the mother, female gods, encourage innovation and experiment, and fresh definitions, aims, modes of feeling. The Renaissance and our own are typical such ages.


Thus, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles's existential allegory, is set in Victorian England, a period noted for unprecedented demands of conformity, excessive sexual inhibitions, an overwhelming need to appear respectable. Fowles goes to great length in his novel to describe this age in a highly negative light; in contrast, he minces no words describing our own “uninhibited” (168) age as positive. However, he cautions that our current freedom, particularly modern sexual freedom, is lessening our ability to imagine, to long for, to appreciate. In The Aristos, Fowles reminds readers that “[f]ree love does not encourage true love” (168). In The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles discusses sex “then” and “now.” He says that

the desire is conditioned by the frequency it is evoked: our world spends a vast amount of its time inviting us to copulate, while our reality is as busy in frustrating us. We are not so frustrated as the Victorians? Perhaps. But if you can only eat one apple a day, there's a great deal to be said against living in an orchard of the wretched things; you might find apples sweeter if you were allowed only one a week.


Charles Smithson confesses his plans to break his contractual agreement with Ernestina to a confidant. This individual replies, “If you become a better and a more generous human being, you may be forgiven. But if you become more selfish … you are doubly damned” (311). Sarah's mysterious flight from Charles after their intimacy is a source of critical debate. Was her desertion in Charles's best interest or was it in her own, i.e., was her desertion self-less or selfish? Robert Huffaker interprets Sarah's “love” for Charles thusly:

In gaining the self-awareness and self-sufficiency that characterize the existential consciousness, both characters have also embraced something of the selfishness that accompanies acting what one knows. This side-effect of the existential awareness, far more advanced in Sarah's case, is the twentieth century's greatest barrier to love … unfortunately, like Sarah, most of us have evolved so fiercely in pursuing our ends and preserving our selves that we have devalued our feelings. …


As noted earlier, the story line, the triangular love plot, is simple. That is, it is simple until the reader approaches “the end” of the novel. At this point, Fowles, who believes “that freedom is the highest human good” stops and ponders his belief. He decides that he must live up to this code; thus, he offers his readers two endings. He stands in the novel perplexed because he realizes that whichever ending he places last will appear to be the “real” ending. True to his belief in the importance of hazard (chance), he tosses a coin to determine placement. Also, while still “in” his novel, Fowles turns his watch back fifteen minutes; thus, both endings occur at the same time. To clarify, he intensifies the illusion that neither ending has authorial preference. The ending that is printed in the novel first (but “actually” occurs simultaneously) is the Victorian ending. In this ending, Charles and Sarah are romantically reunited; Charles is introduced to his daughter (the child of Sarah and Charles's ninety seconds of passion) and all ends well. This ending “is, in short, … the triumph of the Victorian-romantic side of Charles's personality” (Loveday 59). In the “final,” twentieth century existential ending, Charles chooses to exercise his own free will by refusing Sarah's “sex without commitment” offer. He sees the relationship Sarah proposes as self-defeating—incapable of providing the “emotional and domestic reward in life” Fowles advocates in The Aristos, incapable of ever resulting in “the harmonious marriage that is [most] human” (97). Thus, Charles emerges triumphant because he chooses to remain true to his convictions, because he chooses to remain isolated rather than live his life on Sarah's terms. Indeed, he “preserve[s] [his] freedom against all those pressures-to-conform” (Aristos 7).

The French Lieutenant's Woman was published in 1969. By 1980, readers had purchased four million copies; the novel had been translated into eighteen languages (Corliss 48). The novel's Wuthering Heights passion, endless literary awards, and “just enough sex” (48) made it a director's dream. However, all that Fowles included in the novel to again communicate his existential philosophy—the contrast between Ernestina and Sarah, Charles's desire to move into existential freedom yet maintain his allegiance to Victorianism, the constant juxtapositions between “the then” and “the now” via an intrusive twentieth century narrator, and the complications of the daring double ending—turned it from a director's dream to a director's nightmare. John Fowles, an author highly interested in film as art, wanted to see this work on the big screen. After meeting with numerous screenwriters and directors, Fowles was ready to concede defeat. He recalls that one Hollywood scriptwriter came to England and six weeks into the writing had a nervous breakdown (Corliss 50). Fowles concluded that “as it stood (or lay printed) the book was, and would always remain, unfilmable” (Fowles, “Foreword” viii). More than a decade after the publication of The French Lieutenant's Woman the combination of Harold Pinter and Karel Reisz accomplished the impossible: they began filming Fowles's “unfilmable” 366-page novel.

Pinter and Reisz realized that the biggest obstacle facing them was the necessity to somehow include Fowles's “existential mind games” (Ansen 97), his “aromatic blending of Victorian and modern sensibilities” (Corliss 48). Reisz astutely comprehended that

[t]he novel is a science fiction—a Victorian story and a modern speculation about fiction. Take away that acknowledgment of the 20th century, and the story doesn't add up. Our sense of Sarah's sexual awareness is a modern thing; inside her head, during the story, she jumps from the 19th to the 20th century.

(Corliss 49)

Endless discussion of Fowles's story line revealed that much of Fowles's denouncement of the Victorian age was portrayed through the characters' sexual frustrations. It occurred to Pinter that this might just be the key: “‘Suppose,’ he mused, ‘we had a modern relationship that started in bed and went from there'” (Corliss 49)? Thus, the idea of presenting the novel via a new structure, modern actors acting out the Sarah/Charles story, evolved.

As John Fowles indicates, The Aristos is his “un-sugar-coated” existential presentation; I contend that The French Lieutenant's Woman is his sugar-coated existential pill. Pinter's adaptation then is a highly compressed, intense, economized, “extra-strength,” if you will, capsule. According to Pinter,

the key word is economy, economy of movement and gesture, of emotion and its expression, both the internal and the external in specific and exact relation to each other so that there is no wastage and no mess.

(Bold xii)

The primary method Pinter and Reisz use to achieve this economy in their adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman is to concentrate on the implications of sex in the Victorian Age and contrast them with modern existential sexual implications. Thus, although they illustrate many aspects of Fowles's existentialism, the writer and director narrow their focus, “zooming in” on Fowles's concern that freedom devoid of responsibility, freedom carried too far, becomes nothing more than mere selfishness.

Pinter begins his screenplay where Fowles does the novel: in the 1981 present. Viewers immediately realize that they are watching a movie about a movie being made. They see a clapperboard that reads “The French Lieutenant's Woman. Scene 1. Take 3.” The camera zooms in on Meryl Streep playing Anna, who in turn plays the Victorian Sarah. Final touches are being applied to her makeup. The film crew is revealed; they gradually back away as someone off screen says, “All right. Let's go.” The audience hears someone else firmly say, “Action.” The black-caped Anna lets go of her hair, begins walking into the past, along the 1867 stone pier in the Harbour of Lyme. The camera tracks with her. In this opening shot, the suspension of disbelief usually desired by directors has been dispelled. However, miraculously, by the time the figure reaches the end of the Cobb, the 1981 present and the presence of Anna have mysteriously disappeared from the viewer's mind and the audience is focused on the Victorian Age and on Sarah. How is this accomplished? First of all, Reisz allows viewers to see Anna transformed into Sarah, placing emphasis on the “created” Sarah character. Second, romantic, hauntingly serious music echoes back to an earlier era. Third, the setting is poignantly Victorian. Last, Meryl Streep, under Karel Reisz's careful direction, physically turns from the reality of 1981 and step-by-deliberate-step moves into the past.

Pinter is exacting in his duplication of the Victorian story line. The heart of the movie is the nineteenth-century love story. Again, Charles escorts his proper fiancee, Ernestina, along the Cobb. Again, he is mysteriously drawn to the sorrowful figure gazing out to sea. Again, he is bewitched by Sarah's soul-penetrating eyes. The viewer becomes deeply involved in the unfolding drama. Charles quite properly proposes to the ever-so-proper, ever-so-delicate Ernestina in the conservatory Fowles so carefully describes in the novel. The miracle is that the viewer, rudely torn from the story line at this point (and at thirteen other dramatic points in the Victorian plot) to join Mike and Anna in their contemporary “romance,” is not offended.

When viewers are torn away from Charles's ever-so-proper proposal to Ernestina, they return to Jeremy Irons playing Mike, Anna's co-star and lover. It takes the viewer little time to realize that Mike is falling in love and that Anna is merely having an affair. Mike has much in common with Charles Smithson; there is something about the New Woman that attracts him.

As Pinter's existential romance unfolds, viewers comprehend that Mike is living out his Charles role, confusing reality with fiction. Anna and Mike's relationship illustrates much of what John Fowles-blatantly states in The Aristos, thoroughly discusses in The French Lieutenant's Woman regarding sex without commitment. One “Mike and Anna” scene is particularly revealing. They are in bed. Moonlight shines on Anna's sleeping form. Her foot is exposed, and Mike tenderly tucks it under the cover as he watches her. She stirs and drowsily calls for David—her husband. Mike looks stricken and replies, “It's not David. It's Mike” (Pinter 39). Sarah looks at him and tells him to come back to bed. She puts her arm around him and falls back into untroubled sleep, leaving Mike to face the isolation of his modern, without commitment, existence.

Perhaps the movie's most memorable scene is the almost brutish mating between Charles and Sarah, resulting from “Victorian pursuit that denies sexuality until it bursts out” (Ansen 96). Here, Director Reisz excels in bringing Fowles's word vision to the screen. The viewer has previously witnessed Sarah planning the evening carefully studying the effect of a dark green merino shawl against a new, sheer nightgown. A medium shot shows Sarah sitting in front of a hot fire, her “injured,” naked foot propped on a stool. Her long hair is set free and tumbles seductively downward. Charles enters the room. The mood is all it should be: firelight flickers over the sheer gown, Sarah's face, and her hair while rain patters ever so lightly against the window. At just the right moment, a coal falls from the fire, landing on the edge of the blanket Sarah has across her lap. Charles slaps the blanket, lays it once again ever so gently across her legs. They embrace; he sweeps her into his arms and carries her into the dimly lit bedroom. The audience hears the sound of stripping clothes; hears Sarah cry out with pain. They consummate their love and Charles learns the truth: Sarah's relationship with the French Lieutenant was not what she had claimed. Charles says with all of the weight of the Victorian Age in his voice, “I was … the first” (Pinter 71). Indeed, this scene suggests the pent-up sexual frustration of the nineteenth century and contrasts it with the “freer,” less climatic “love” scenes of Mike and Anna. And, “as Reisz notes, proves that ‘Jeremy [Irons] does have his Heathcliff side'” (Corliss 48).

Indeed, much of the success of the film adaptation is the result of superb casting. Corliss pays immense tribute to Meryl Streep's portrayal of Sarah/Anna: “She seems to be thinking on-screen, sorting through a hundred nuances before lighting on the one she uses—for just that moment” (98). John Fowles, in the habit of dropping by the film's location often during filming, was particularly impressed by Streep's “exact translation” of his descriptions in the novel. She is equally adept at portraying the mysterious Victorian Sarah and the nervous modern Anna. Streep's performance, Corliss concludes, “is the creation of a film character that does precise and breathtaking justice to Fowles, to Sarah and the actor's art” (48). Critics are just as enthusiastic about Jeremy Irons's portrayal of Charles Smithson, “a man wandering between two worlds, one dead / the other powerless to be born” (85-86), and find no fault with his portrayal of Mike. Corliss notes that “[a]s Mike, a slicker, glibber man, [Irons] is effortlessly charming at first, but as his involvement with Anna intensifies, perhaps fed by his identification with the role he's playing, Mike's eyes take on Charles's haunted look” (48). Obviously, Jeremy Irons comprehended John Fowles's concern about sexual freedom gone awry. Irons confides, “I hope what [the audience] come[s] out feeling is a sense of regret that maybe we've lost something” (Ansen 97). He continues, in very Fowlesian terms, “‘I think discipline and difficulty do increase pleasure when it's finally attained.’” Thanks to Pinter's screenplay, as well as Streep's and Irons's impressively directed performances, viewers comprehend the limitations of personal freedom in the Victorian Age, as well as confront the danger of modern existential freedom: selfishness.

In his philosophical work, The Aristos, John Fowles, a proclaimed agnostic, states that “‘God’ is a situation” (22). Thus, he defines writers of fiction as novelist/gods because they excel at creating situations. He insists in The French Lieutenant's Woman, however, that the novelist/god must create “with freedom [as his] first principle” (82). Pinter and Reisz evidently took Fowles's words to heart. They, too, created a work that forces the audience to exercise free will: like Fowles, they managed to offer the viewer a choice between a happily-ever-after Victorian ending or a bleak unromantic existential conclusion.

The Victorian ending is similar to the one Fowles described in the book; differences from the text are in the interest of simplifying a complicated authorial digression into the Pre-Raphaelite artistic community. In both endings, Charles and Sarah have been separated for three years. Sarah sends for Charles and he returns to confront a much different Sarah: a more mature, serene woman who is now ready to love Charles and be loved. In the novel, Fowles conveys the falseness of this situation: Charles, another self-proclaimed agnostic, suddenly returns to the faith of his father—“it had been in God's hands” (360). Clearly the novelist/god hopes that his reader will refuse this ending. In Pinter's “happy ending,” too, Reisz clues the audience that this ending is “off.” The acting is suddenly ragged, the camera is too far back for an intimate scene, Sarah falls with a thud and nervously giggles, becoming suddenly more Anna-like than Sarah-like (Corliss 50). It, too, seems to be an un-real ending.

In the novel's unhappy, existential ending Charles refuses Sarah's terms for continuing their relationship. He chooses to exercise his free will and accepts the price for existential freedom: isolation. In Pinter and Reisz's existential ending, the cast is having a wrap party. Mike is frantically searching for Anna, fearful of losing her. Anna is in the room where the “happy” Victorian ending was shot looking into one of Sarah's Victorian mirrors. The look is empty, devoid of introspection. She disappears: Anna clearly portrays one who has “evolved so fiercely in pursuing [her] ends and preserving [her] self that she has devalued [her] feelings” (Huffaker 114). As Mike runs into the room, he hears her car take off. He races to the window and cries, not “Anna,” but “Sarah.” Indeed, like the early Charles, Mike believes that he wants a woman and a world conventionalized, made safe, by rules. As the movie concludes, the astute viewer realizes that Mike, too, is in need of a situation to help him accept a world fraught with uncertainty and isolation, a world in need of responsible individuals who refuse to submit to the dictates of conformity. Reisz, however, is not quite finished. The final image on the screen is a return to the “happily-ever-after” Victorians rowing on a tranquil lake. Thus, the viewer is reminded one last time that this film presents the pluses and minuses of “the then” and contrasts them with the positives and negatives of “the now.”

John Fowles realizes that the novel and cinema are unique, that one cannot duplicate the other. He explains that there are “visual things the word can never capture, and word things the camera will never photograph nor actors ever speak” (Fowles, “Foreword” ix). Fowles claims “that the greatest gift a good screenwriter can give a director is not so much a version ‘faithful’ to the book as a version faithful to the very different production capability of the cinema” (xii). Using this statement as a standard, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a highly faithful adaptation. Pinter's screenplay structure, contrasting the tensions of the Victorian Age with the tensions of the twentieth century via the film within a film construction, was nothing short of brilliant. Indeed, his ability “to think and recast [a] thing from the bottom up” (viii) was Fowles's primary reason for insisting on Pinter. Too, Pinter receives the credit for economizing: for limiting Fowles's lengthy, discursive exploration of his existential philosophy in the novel to a look at the all-too-conventional Victorian Ernestina world and then turning to the all-too-liberated irresponsible selfish Anna age. Likewise, Reisz is due major accolades:

His transitions between the modern and Victorian episodes are direct and unaffected … he resists superficial stylistic differences which would disrupt the harmony of the complementary stories. The same muted colors and measured rhythms persist throughout the work. The realization of the Victorian sequences is especially praiseworthy because of the evident difficulty most modern filmmakers have in telling Victorian stories.

(Lucas 178)

John Fowles believes that one of the primary purposes for the artist to create is to “express his feelings about [the] outer world” (Aristos 189), “to show one's readers what one thinks of the world around one” (French Lieutenant's Woman 317). Certainly Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman succeeds in relating Fowles's personal beliefs, his existential philosophy. To Pinter and Reisz's credit, they use another medium, cinema, to once again communicate Fowles's philosophic creed. The French Lieutenant's Woman was nominated for five Academy Awards; however, it failed to win in any category. The problem, conceivably, was its very faithfulness to the novel's philosophic theme. Lucas explains, “Perhaps the artistic achievement of The French Lieutenant's Woman is too subtle for present tastes and will be more appreciated with the passing of time” (178). He continues, “Its daring formal approach is deserving of profound respect.” Is the film a faithful adaptation? John Fowles has the final world: “[Pinter's] genius … seems to me to be his truly remarkable gift for reducing the long and complex without distortion” (“Foreword” xi).

Works Cited

Ansen, David. “The Woman on the Quay.” Newsweek 98 (21 September 1981): 96-97.

Arnold, Matthew. The Poems of Matthew Arnold: 1840 to 1866. Ed. Ernest Rhys. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1908.

Bold, Alan, ed. Harold Pinter. London: Vision Press Limited, 1984.

Corliss, Richard. “When Acting Becomes Alchemy.” Time 118 (7 September 1981): 48-50.

Fowles, John. The Aristos. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1964.

———. The French Lieutenant's Woman. Boston: Penguin Books, 1969.

———. “Foreword.” The French Lieutenant's Woman: A Screenplay. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1981.

Huffaker, Robert. John Fowles. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Loveday, Simon. The Romances of John Fowles. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Lucas, Blake. “The French Lieutenant's Woman.” Magill's Cinema Annual 1982. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, Inc., 1982.

Olshen, Barry. John Fowles. New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1978.

Pinter, Harold. The French Lieutenant's Woman: A Screenplay. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1981.

Kate Kellaway (review date 22 May 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “Harold's Hat Trick.” New Statesman 127, no. 4386 (22 May 1998): 50-1.

[In the following review, Kellaway offers praise for Pinter's plays A Kind of Alaska, The Collection, and The Lover.]

The three short plays by Harold Pinter now at the Donmar all lead to the same question: how do we know what our lives contain, and how can we trust the contents? In A Kind of Alaska, a 1982 piece inspired by Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, a woman who has been dead to the world for 29 years wakes to find herself middle aged. She still thinks like a child, recalling balloons, a favourite dog, blue lilac wallpaper, her father's diversions, her mother's kisses. But her mother is now dead, her father elsewhere, and the sister she always hated is waiting to see her.

This is Sleeping Beauty gone wrong. And instead of Prince Charming, the oppressive figure of a middle-aged doctor meets her waking gaze. With his help the woman is invited to make sense of what has happened to her. But she is lost.

Penelope Wilton is a formidable actress and plays this uncomfortable role to perfection. She sits in a white nightdress in a high hospital bed and her eyes provide a running commentary on her confusion: at first, they dart mistrustfully; occasionally she opens them wide and holds a stare with unnerving coquetry; at other times she stares into people's faces, as if to fix them for good. Sometimes she erupts into raucous schoolgirl laughter, but even through the laughter she can convey sadness.

As the loathed sister, Brid Brennan is excellent, with a strained, overbright smile that could turn predatory; while as the doctor, Bill Nighy's bedside manner is chilling.

A Kind of Alaska is beautifully structured and haunting in its details. The image of a young girl about to put down a vase of flowers, whose life stops in mid-act, is mysterious and vivid. Karel Reisz's production is austere and without distraction: it allows every word to breathe.

The Collection and The Lover are natural companion pieces. Here, though nobody has woken from sleep into confusion, there is uncertainty about where reality ends and fantasy begins. These two plays are funnier than the first and move at a lick. Joe Harmston directs with aplomb.

In The Collection (1961), Pinter himself plays Harry. I hadn't great expectations, having seen him in No Man's Land, where he did not survive the competition of Paul Eddington. But as a querulous old queen in an oriental dressing-gown, barking at his handsome young companion, Bill (Colin McFarlane), Pinter is first-rate. Their flat (designed by Tom Rand) is full of brash antiques and it is impossible not to reflect that the gilded sea monsters under the table are as symbolic as any snake in the grass.

A stranger (Douglas Hodge) turns up and accuses Bill of sleeping with his wife (Lia Williams). Bill denies it, confesses to it, and denies it again. How brilliantly Pinter follows the serpentine path between truth and lies. The path itself may be a well-trodden artistic thoroughfare nowadays, but Pinter was an early pioneer in the territory.

Lia Williams and Douglas Hodge again give scintillating performances in The Lover. This 1962 portrait of a marriage—and of the theatricality of eroticism—is also an exploration of boundaries: how far do this couple have to go to know and please each other? It is Pinter's answer to Genet's The Maids, but much funnier. Watch out, in particular, for Williams as a femme fatale in a dress inspired by a black bunny rabbit with a bobbing furry hem. She sees the milkman off in style.

Sheridan Morley (review date 23 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Man and the Arms.” Spectator 280, no. 8859 (23 May 1998): 49-50.

[In the following review of Three by Harold Pinter, Morley praises A Kind of Alaska, The Collection, and The Lover, asserting that this “Pinter treble of unresolved menace is a remarkable tribute to his unique stagecraft over the last thirty or forty years.”]

In a week when dubious arms deals are back in the headlines, the everlasting topicality of Shaw's masterly Major Barbara once again reinforces my belief that Peter Hall's financially embattled resident company is still far and away the best classical repertoire in London this decade. True, Peter Bowles as the massively sinister Undershaft, a megalomaniac arms dealer based none too loosely on Alfred Nobel, was a little shaky on the longer speeches at the first night, and Jemma Redgrave seemed an oddly uncharismatic Barbara; but both these performances, like so many others in the Hall seasons, will soon settle down and when they do we may well have the best production in living memory of a play written in 1906 and still quite literally firing on all its targets.

As so often, GBS has at least three separate plots going on here; there's the opening, a conventional Edwardian drawing-room comedy about unsuitable marriage, with Anna Carteret doing a memorable parody of Lady Bracknell; then we have the Salvation Army scenes, effectively Guys and Dolls without the score, and finally the great explosive shed at Undershaft's munitions factory where his conversion of his own children to the benefits of dynamite is infinitely more triumphant than anything achieved by the Salvationists.

It is here, in Undershaft's lyrical defence of the power of arms, that we find Shaw in his anti-Shotover mood, predicting that the world can only ever be run by men who are prepared to kill and be killed for their beliefs. Only when Hall gives us, at curtain fall, the sounds of the guns at Flanders in a world war already less than a decade away do we realise the terrible price about to be paid for Undershaft's seductive philosophy. In a strong cast, David Yelland is an unusually pugnacious Cusins and Michael Pennington splendid as an Alfred Dolittle in embryo. With the National about to settle into a summer of Oklahoma! and the RSC already out of the Barbican, it is Hall's company at the Piccadilly which alone continues to give London the right to consider itself the capital of major classical revivals.

If one play by Harold Pinter is good, then two must be better and three best of all. That certainly is the thinking behind a new staging at the Donmar Warehouse of A Kind of Alaska,The Collection and The Lover, and at almost three and a half hours at least nobody can complain this time about too brief a Pinteresque outing.

A Kind of Alaska dates from 1982 and is the one derived from Oliver Sacks's discoveries about patients brought back from years of catatonic lethargy by a then-new drug called L-Dopa. Pinter's patient (originally Judi Dench, now Penelope Wilton in a no less touching or memorable arousal, if perhaps a rather less petulant one) is Deborah, who fell into coma when she was 16 and we now meet some 29 years later, awakening to find her doctor and sister (Bill Nighy and Brid Brennan) trying to explain how she has come to lose three whole decades in sleep. A Kind of Alaska is about the unfreezing of the body while the mind remains desperately unable to thaw out quite so fast, and it remains one of the most touching and, of course, timeless of all his plays.

The other two plays here are television scripts from the early 1960s; The Collection is a betrayal thriller with the same events played and replayed through the eyeview of each of four characters (Lia Williams, Colin McFarlane, Douglas Hodge and a massively sinister silk-dressing-gown turn from Pinter himself) caught up in what may or may well not be a series of gay and straight affairs. What matters here is the mystery, not the solution, and Joe Harmston manages to keep the tension going well enough. But The Lover, the last in this trio, has always seemed to me a curious series of variations on a theme by Molnar, who in The Guardsman first set up the idea of a married couple only ever happy in their own bed when masquerading as illicit lovers. All the same, a Pinter treble of unresolved menace is a remarkable tribute to his unique stagecraft over the last 30 or 40 years.

A couple of seasons ago off-Broadway, Rent was the show which jolted the American musical back to some kind of shaky life after a decade of almost nothing but London imports. It won its creator Jonathan Larson countless awards including the Pulitzer, though tragically he never lived to receive any of them, having died of a brain tumour at 35 just before his show went into preview. Something about his sudden death gave Rent almost mythic status, and it is still selling out all over America; but seen now at the Shaftesbury it comes up looking like Hair for the brain-dead.

Sure there is a lot of noise and energy here, but Rent comes from nowhere and goes nowhere very slowly; there are, after the interval, a couple of good songs; but in hijacking the plot of La Bohème and ramming into the Nineties America of music videos and electronic amplification, Larson has somehow failed to add anything to the original creation.

As if terrified of giving his audience time to think, the director Michel Greif takes the show at such a pace that you never really get to care about any of the downtown loft-squatting group of Manhattan dropouts trying to raise the Rent of the title. The storyline is ramshackle, the show itself hopelessly fragmented, and yet there remain some isolated moments of a yearning, tentative, lyrical love which offer glimpses of the show Larson might one day have written had he lived. As it is, all he has left us is a rock video of urban despair which takes us nowhere very much and very loudly.

And, all too briefly, a triumph at the Barbican last Sunday; for a cancer charity, Hugh Wooldridge put together one of the most intelligent Sondheim concerts I have ever seen (and there have been dozens on both sides of the Atlantic), this one focusing on his early non-lyrical work but also giving us the glories of Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Cleo Laine, Michael Ball and the original Side by Side quartet in a joyous celebration of the greatest musical man of them all.

William Scammell (review date 31 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Scammell, William. “Words and Silences.” Spectator 281, no. 8882 (31 October 1998): 50-1.

[In the following review of Various Voices, Scammell asserts that Pinter is England's greatest living playwright.]

Harold Pinter is far and away our greatest living playwright. What the plays tell us is that wherever two or more are gathered together there will be a top dog and a bottom dog, a seven-stone weakling and a king of the castle, a torrent of words and a club of silence. Down below liberty, equality, fraternity—ideals espoused by citizen Pinter in private life—there are ravenous appetites and power games, clenched fists and bovver boots, beaks that peck as often as they speak.

When he isn't writing plays, it appears that he is writing essays, stories, poems, novels (The Dwarfs, a clotted early piece of dark fabulation, appeared from Faber a few years ago), giving interviews, and writing journalism critical of American and Israeli imperialism. He has slaved away at his trade, in other words, for 50 years and more. ‘When you can't write you feel that you've been banished from yourself.’

This collection of occasional pieces [Various Voices], subtitled ‘Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998’ opens with a rather unfortunate ‘Note on Shakespeare’ from 1950, which is a sort of prose poem or dithyramb on the great man's all-seeing and omnicompetent greatness, couched in the dark backward and abysm of youthful abstraction (a ‘periphrastic conjugation', as one of the poems puts it, of purple phrases); then moves on to livelier pieces about his own plays (‘One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness’) and an affectionate memoir of Anew McMaster, the actor-manager whose touring company initiated the young Pinter into the mysteries of rural Ireland, Shakespeare and good acting.

‘I regard myself as nothing more than a working man,’ he says in one public speech. In another he confesses:

I'm well aware that I have been described in some quarters as being ‘enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding’. Well, I do have my moods like anyone else, I won't deny it. But my writing life … has been one of relish, challenge, excitement.

He has largely taken his cue from Beckett, on and off the stage, who took his in turn from Joyce and Eliot. All talk about the work is a lapse into gossip, or abstraction, or both; attend to the words on the page and you'll know all you need to know. Authors are as-jealous of their meanings as any king or politician is of his grip on power. Hence their loathing of biography. Meanwhile, the critical barons foregather to debate the death of the author. There's another Pinter play in the making in this comical how-d'you-do—or a Stoppard one. Who owns words? Who or what regulates the stock exchange of meaning? Is it a cartel? Are these metaphors shoddy capitalist evasions, ripe for deconstruction? Do such things matter, or are we into the decadent realms of scholasticism? As ever, time will tell, in yet more words and silences.

The poems are fatally wounded by arbitrary, high-sounding adjectives, unlikely verse, sub-Shakespearean phrases, compound words that don't mean very much (‘eskimostars in an octagon’), rhythms that are pumped-up or trite. Most of them date from the early Fifties, when the good poets had been killed off in the war and Larkin and Hughes hadn't yet got going. ‘New Year in the Midlands’, damned by Pinter himself along the way, is a weird mix of Eliot, Dylan Thomas and George Barker. Later verses are little love poems, or occasional pieces on a teacher, a cricketer, the Gulf war (‘Hallelujah! / It works. / We blew the shit out of them’). Pinter interprets the refusal of several editors of quality newspapers to publish this last poem as cowardice. One or two of the editors admitted as much themselves. The poem itself is a blunt piece of anger and agitprop, moderately effective but of a fairly low order of achievement, a classic case of the sort of thing that drives editors crazy and makes writers shout ‘Conspiracy!’ In general the poems strive too hard for ‘Life with a big L', as Pinter acutely remarks elsewhere. As with Beckett again, who also wrote bad poems, Pinter's real poetry is to be found in his prose.

Television all over the world now is … run by about three people, as far as I can gather … news is highly selective and very specifically controlled … the words Rupert Murdoch are not far from my lips.

In one of his roles Pinter is an English Chomsky, castigating America for its follies and Thatcherism for its religion of greed. In both America and Britain

the word democracy begins to stink … There's a little bit of Left left in Britain. I pray that there is a Left left in Europe, but we have to recognise that the forces against the Left are very great and very ruthless … the poor have become the new force of subversion, because they do affect the stability of the state. So the only thing to do with the poor is to keep them poor.

Do I detect a contradiction in the last two of these statements? If the poor are subversive, then it would be in the rich's own interest to alter their status and bring them on board. My own politics are not a million miles from Pinter's yet when I hear him generalise I want to nag and qualify, as well as to cheer.

These certainties contrast with a baffled honesty about his own identity. ‘I'm still Jewish, I don't know what that means, really, nobody does.’ That seems more candid to me, and more illuminating, than anything we're likely to hear from George Steiner. The autocrat at his desk, the democrat at the microphone, the bundle of accidents and incoherence who sits down to breakfast—we are lucky to have him in our midst, together with the likes of Salman Rushdie and Ted Hughes. Being English, however, we are less likely to chant ‘Great men have been among us’ than to make jokes about their pretensions and talk about the weather.

Sheridan Morley (review date 5 December 1998)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Pinter Power.” Spectator 281, no. 8887 (5 December 1998): 60.

[In the following review, Morley comments that Pinter's Betrayal is stylish but ultimately empty.]

Of all Harold Pinter's plays, his 1978 Betrayal about a three-cornered affair, loosely based on his own with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, is perhaps the most familiar and easily revivable in the commercial theatre. As so often this season, one could have wished that Trevor Nunn, director of both play and theatre, had opted for one of the many Pinters that are more difficult to stage without subsidy, while anyone cast in this one has necessarily to compete not only with Penelope Wilton and Michael Gambon and the late Daniel Massey in the original, but also with the movie memories of Patricia Hodge, Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley.

These are tough actors to follow, but this time around Nunn is clearly going for the Art market; 90 no-interval minutes, a chic staging which could all too easily be whisked into the West End, but at the centre there still lies a script as ultimately stylish and empty as a dead bottle of Cinzano.

Pinter's device of starting at the end of the affair and working back over nine scenes to its beginning is of course nothing new, in that on Broadway Kaufman and Hart had pioneered it for their Merrily We Roll Along in 1934. When Stephen Sondheim's classic musical version was in troubled rehearsal almost 20 years ago, a stage manager was famously asked if it was getting any better. ‘How good can it get?’ came the reply. ‘It's still backwards.’

Betrayal also owes a considerable debt to Coward's Design for Living in its characterisation of agents and authors who can live neither apart nor together. But once we have worked out that, in Princess Diana's celebrated analysis, three people are apt to make a marriage somewhat crowded, there is not a lot more that Betrayal has to tell us. Moreover, to stage it in the vast open spaces of the Lyttelton only makes the whole affair seem still more remote.

Imogen Stubbs is, as always, enchanting and Douglas Hodge is an interestingly rough-trade Jerry, while Anthony Calf is a somewhat undercast Robert. The mood of the piece is Pinter at his most accessible and comparatively uncomplicated; if anything, Betrayal suggests a return to his form as the screenwriter of Pumpkin Eater, a similarly chilly and chic tale of unfaithful publishing folk filmed a decade earlier.

Let's be clear about the objection here; of course Pinter belongs at the National, but not necessarily in what has been the most commercially successful of all his plays. Nunn's principled belief that, with a standstill grant, his stages must make their money at the box-office has effectively turned his company this winter into the equivalent of a National Theatre Haymarket, restaging old winners that have seldom failed. There are two problems here; one is that the old oil-wells no longer gush quite as impressively as once they did, and the other is that in its present penny-pinching mood, the current arts administration is more likely to penalise the National for profit-taking than to reward its good housekeeping with an increased grant next time round.

Peter Hall, who directed the first and rather better National production of Betrayal, now sadly winds up his company at the Piccadilly and goes off to work in America, having been told that there is no public money for him to return to residence at the Old Vic. Given that the Hall Company at both the Vic and the Piccadilly has been the best classical and modern troupe to have hit London in the whole of this past decade (and it would be churlish not to acknowledge the financial help he has had from the impresarios Bill Kenwright and Duncan Weldon, as well as from the father-and-son Mirvishes when they owned the Vic), it is tragic that his curtains should have been so abruptly closed while both the RSC and the National flounder around in search of a millennial identity. It is also, I have to say, a little sad that he has chosen to go out on one of his very rare losers. Until now, Alan Bennett's Kafka's Dick has been the only one of his many stage and television plays that I had never seen, and I wish I had left it that way.

Bennett's special subject here is Franz Kafka (a querulous John Gordon Sinclair), whom we first meet on his deathbed in 1924 Vienna; from there we flash-forward to modern Britain, where Kafka's irritable biographer and friend Max Brod billets himself on an unsuspecting suburban couple (Julia McKenzie, forever doing something unexpected with avocados, and her henpecked husband Denis Lill who is writing a Kafka article for his fellow insurance managers' magazine).

It is not long before Kafka and his domineering father have also joined the houseparty, and so too has the host's father, a magnificently manic Eric Sykes who wields his Zimmer frame like a lethal weapon, and is in truth the only reason to visit the play at all. Bennett can never quite decide whether he is writing a parody of critical biography or a serious analysis of Kafka's confused mental state, and as a result the play reels around in listless farce before collapsing somewhere between Ray Cooney and Tom Stoppard. All in all, a disappointing close to a great company usually on magical and magnificent form; what we have to work out now is how to get Hall back where he belongs.

Norman Stone (essay date 27 February 1999)

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SOURCE: Stone, Norman. “Midnight Excess.” Spectator 282, no. 8899 (27 February 1999): 13-14.

[In the following essay, Stone argues against Pinter's vocal public support for Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.]

Trouble in Turkey? All aboard for Midnight Express. What damage that film has done. It is regularly shown on British television, and has impregnated the mind of a whole generation, to the point at which Turkey is permanently on the defensive—her police vilified, her courts regarded as kangaroo, even her children as rather on the fat side.

This is currently being reflected in the reporting of the Abdullah Ocalan affair. He will not get a fair trial and the police—large chaps with large moustaches—will beat him up in the dead of night in his island prison on the Sea of Marmara; will he even be buggered? (Midnight Express, passim). The Euro-Parliament will have its stalwarts—Pauline Green, as it happens, is an ex-policewoman—who will sound off: this is no way to treat minorities fighting for their rights. Who knows, the Council of Europe may be next, volunteering its judges to make sure that Ocalan has ‘a fair trial’. These judges might include the Czech one who left France in 1948 to go back to liberated, socialist Prague, or maybe it will be the Georgian. And there is also Harold Pinter, lecturing away about Kurdish rights as previously he has lectured us about the Sandinistas (whose sinister connections are laid out in Vladimir Bukovsky's Jugement à Moscou, based on Politburo records).

So far the tenor of British comment on matters Kurdish and Turkish has been a statesmanlike, ‘Yes, Ocalan is a terrorist, he kills children’ and so forth; ‘but on the other hand’ … that fatal British ‘on the other hand', which you know is going to offer you a poison pill. Harold Pinter tells us that the Kurds are oppressed. They do not have the right to use their own language. Talk Kurdish, and into clink you go. Leyla Zana, a rather good-looking Kurdish woman with long legs and black tresses, is in prison for 15 years for just wanting to be free. There are writers banged on for the same length of time. There has even been ‘ethnic cleansing', claims Le Monde in an editorial. Kurdish villages have been destroyed the inhabitants cleared off.

The Turks are getting quite angry with this sort of thing. Ocalan is a very nasty piece of work and the PKK, far from being a movement for national liberation, is actually a Maoist affair, rather similar to Sendero Luminoso. Its specialities included drug-running—when Ocalan was seeking refuge in Belorussia, he could apparently offer 1,000 million dollars—and it massacred entire families, tiny children and all, in order to intimidate the many Kurds who took the side of the Turkish state. There were organisations in London and a lady called Julie Flint who claimed that these acts were carried out by the Turkish army. However, since Ocalan's own lieutenant, Sakik, was captured and confessed, we now know that there was never any truth in those claims. No doubt Ocalan himself will soon confirm this.

Yet we are told by the Pinters that the Kurds are a people fighting Braveheart-fashion for their freedom. London has seen these demonstrations; as have many other European cities. Word in some Nato circles is that Kosovo is only the start: if the Albanians are to be freed, so must the Kurds. In fact, a Kurdistan might just enable us to replace Saddam Hussein's Iraq with a whole new country, a sort of Mesopotamia rediviva.

There may very well be a case for a Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. But it is Turkey, which has a free media, that is exposed to criticism for her handling of the Kurdish question. Two points need to be made. First, two-thirds of the Kurds now live in western and central Anatolia and they do not vote for the political party, Hadep, which claims to speak for Kurds. In the past week, with Turkish nationalist feeling running high, there have been very few incidents of Turkish-Kurdish conflict. We might see some instances of urban terrorism when the Ocalan trial gets underway; the PKK's publicity machine in the West will be working overtime. Television was, on the whole, quite sympathetic to those crowds who gathered outside and inside the Greek embassy last week. We shall see.

But there is another, important point. The Kurds are not Kosovo. Leaving aside the legal argument, that Kosovo is a constitutional entity, there has been almost no intermarriage between Serbs and Albanians, whereas intermarriage between Turks and Kurds (though not, for some reason, between Kurds and Arabs) is frequent. Ocalan himself was saying after his capture that his mother was a Turk. Besides, there is an all-important question: Kosovo speaks Albanian, but in ‘Kurdistan’ there are several languages, which are not mutually intelligible. This is why ‘Kurdish culture’ is a concept very difficult to translate into reality.

The word from Mr Pinter is that Kurdish culture is suppressed, that in the end Ocalan stands for something worthier than himself. But just look at the demonstrators. They read a Turkish newspaper, called Free Agenda. Interviewed on CNN from Germany, they speak Turkish. Their own foreign-based television station uses mainly Turkish, and, where not, Iranian or Arabic. British viewers might be slightly puzzled to see the demonstrators, in their trainers, doing that rum line-dance: it is an Anatolian and Balkan one, and yet it is now supposed to represent Kurdish culture. So is the funny Geronimo ululation that they stage. Have you seen the fat ladies with beaded head-coverings going on hunger strike? You can bet that, cameras removed, they light up: I have not heard of a single one carrying on the hunger strike for more than a few hours.

Kurds do not have a unified culture: they are pre-national. One authority claims that there are 28 different languages masquerading as a unified Kurdish tongue. If a Kurdistan were created, the main language, North Kirmanci, would have to be imposed by force. There is a further problem in that Turkey's Kurds are divided by religion. About a third of them are not Sunni but Alevi, a variant of Islam that is in some ways quite close to Christianity, in that wine plays its part, while men and women are not segregated. These Alevi Kurds are concentrated in Zaza-speaking areas and do not seem to work well with the Sunnis from elsewhere.

It is, incidentally, just not true that you cannot buy Kurdish periodicals in Turkey, or listen to Kurdish music. The problem is that no one bothers to read the stuff, which is why those London demonstrators can be seen reading a Turkish newspaper. As time goes by, some sort of Kurdish culture may emerge, but the far greater likelihood, at least as far as the Kurds of Turkey are concerned, is further assimilation. This has already gone a long way. I do not understand why the Turkish foreign ministry does not parade to foreigners the endless numbers of Kurds who are in high places in politics, business, the army, and whose identification with the Turkish state is 100 per cent.

It is difficult to decide what Turkey should do about the Kurdish question. But—and it would have been a kindness on the part of Mr Pinter to recognise this—the Turks are good guys. Their state works quite well. Their capture of Ocalan has been elegant: no one killed, ‘Kurds’ attacking Greek embassies rather than Turkish ones. If you are a Turk, life can be on the hard side, but Turkey is the only state between Graz and Seoul that works in a civilised manner. The place has done quite well since it was established in 1922, after defeating Lloyd George (no one else ever managed that). The economy was about a third the size of Sweden's a quarter-century ago, and is now bigger than Sweden's; the men live out their three-score-and-ten instead of turning up their toes, Soviet-fashion, at 50. With all her problems, modern Turkey has been rather a success story, and my own observation over the past four years shows that the large number of foreigners here have a great deal of affection and respect for the country. In fact I have never been in a country where foreigners are generally nice about the natives.

Turkey is full of character, and I have a lot of time for my students in particular. In a world of great confusion, it is a stable and increasingly prosperous place, and though the police do occasionally overdo things, this happens far less than it used to, and Turks are quite right to feel insulted when dubious figures from the Council of Europe want to butt in on the Ocalan trial. It is irresponsible of the Harold Pinters of this world to argue as they do about a place that they do not understand. Since the days of his blunders about the Sandinistas he seems to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. There is a Kurdish cause, and various solutions to the problem could be aired; but they should not include any sympathy for Ocalan and the terrorists, and it is not up to English playwrights to offer them any aid and comfort.

Mick Imlah (review date 5 March 1999)

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SOURCE: Imlah, Mick. “One More Go.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5005 (5 March 1999): 25.

[In the following review of Various Voices, a collection of Pinter's poems and prose, Imlah observes that its principal value is as a companion to Pinter's plays.]

Assured of his standing as his country's greatest living playwright, Harold Pinter has also liked to keep his less essential writings in print. Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998 is an enlargement of the 1986 Collected Poems and Prose, which itself updated Poems and Prose 1949-77 (1978). Yet if we exclude his experimental novel The Dwarfs (written by 1956; published in 1990), Pinter has never been more than an occasional writer in any non-dramatic medium, and in none of his book's three categories has he assembled what you could call an oeuvre. (There are fifty-four poems here, for instance, but fewer than half of those have been written in the forty years since the playwright found the proper outlet for his extraordinary gift.)

So the barrel has been scraped a bit in the making of Various Voices. Beside original work for the page, it includes the full text of interviews with Pinter, his speeches of thanks at prize ceremonies, letters to the press about Central America and other pet issues, even letters to the press from other people about Pinter's political activities. There are a number of enlightening curiosities connected with his work in the theatre, like the letter he wrote to the director before rehearsal of his first play, The Birthday Party (1957). This letter comes gift-wrapped still in the page-long “note” by Martin Esslin that attended its first publication in 1981 (“It is an important document. It is also a very fine piece of expository prose”); and the reader may catch a few more lapses of modesty along the way. That said, though the book's principal value will be as a companion to the plays that tower behind it, the percussive force of Pinter's intelligence lends real interest even to the slightest and most wayward of his ventures into print.

The best of the writing here is in the “Prose” section; three pieces (none of them new) stand out, the first two briefly suggesting a different sense to the title Various Voices. “Mac” (1966) is a memorable aural portrait of the great Irish actor-manager Anew McMaster, with whom Pinter toured as a young actor:

A bass of extraordinary echo, resonance and gut, and remarkable sweep up into tenor, when the note would hit the back of the gallery and come straight back, a brilliant, stunning sound. I remember his delivery of this line [from Othello]: “Methinks (bass) it should be now a huge (bass) eclipse (tenor) Of sun and moon (baritone) and that th'affrighted globe (bass) Should yawn (very deep, the abyss) at alteration.” We all watched him from the wings.

Another reverential tribute to an older man, “Arthur Wellard” (1981), beautifully evokes the presence of the former Somerset cricketer, a legendary big-hitter, who played and umpired for Pinter's beloved wandering side, Gaieties CC, into his seventies. Again, the skills of the dramatist are evident in the transcription of his friend's hard and humorous speech:

Compton and Edrich? On a hiding to nothing, son. Never known anything like it. What year was it, after the war, at Lords, we got rid of Robertson, we got rid of Brown, and these two buggers come together and they must have made something like a thousand. I'd been bowling all bloody day and the skipper comes up to me and he says, Go on, Arthur, have one more go. One more go? I said. I haven't got any legs left. One more go, says the skip, just one more go. Well, I had one more go and then I dropped dead.

Pinter's own schoolboy memories of such cricketers inform “Hutton and the Past” (1969), a blissful piece of cricket writing whose success he wisely never sought to repeat. There is, on the other hand, a sort of woozy commentary on the piece in the so-called “Poem” of 1986, which reads, in its entirety,

I saw Len Hutton in his prime
                    Another time
                              another time

(This is the poem on which a friend, pressed by the author, is supposed to have delayed judgment, on the grounds that he hadn't finished it yet.)

Such duplications and revisitings are part of the natural structure of the book. Equally natural are the shadowings, in certain poems, of the greater or more complete art of the plays. “A View of the Party” (1958) is a verse synopsis of The Birthday Party; less directly, the rearing brutality of the mother's advice in “Message” (1977) (“burn someone to death / … Kick the first blind man you meet in the balls”) recalls violent outbursts in the dramatist's imagination, such as the climactic scene of The Room (1960), when Bert kicks the Negro to death.

In Pinter's more recent writings, such violence is transposed and given an explicit political colouring. The most controversial of the pieces collected here for the first time is “American Football: A reflection upon the Gulf War” (1991). A monologue in the voice of the triumphal American armed forces, it is printed in the “Poetry” section; it is then reprinted whole in the “Politics” section, above an extended complaint (“Blowing Up the Media”) at how every literary editor in England rejected the piece. This rejection is indistinguishable, in Pinter's eyes, from a concerted act of suppression: “Blowing Up the Media” was first published in Index on Censorship. He writes, “nobody ever said ‘we don't think this poem is good enough. It is not a successful piece of work’”. Readers of the TLS, which has happily accepted every word of verse Pinter has offered it, from “God” (1993) to “Death” (1997) may judge for themselves; fortunately the poem is short enough to quote in full:

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.
It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

Eric Sterling (review date autumn 1999)

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SOURCE: Sterling, Eric. Review of Various Voices, by Harold Pinter. World Literature Today 73, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 750-51.

[In the following review, Sterling asserts that Various Voices provides valuable insight into Pinter's work and is essential reading for scholars and students of British drama. He further observes that Pinter's prose is intelligent, insightful, creative, thought-provoking, and enjoyable to read.]

Harold Pinter, known primarily as a playwright who authored many excellent absurdist dramas, divides his book Various Voices into four sections: prose, prose fiction, poetry, and politics. His prose writings, like his plays, are intelligent and thought-provoking yet esoteric.

Pinter begins his collection with “A Note on Shakespeare,” which may be considered his personal reaction to reading the Bard's dramas. Pinter discusses the complexity and diversity of the Shakespearean canon. He creates lists of various professions, languages, and voices to imply the universality of Shakespeare's works, that his plays speak to all men and women. Nonetheless, Pinter writes that Shakespeare “belongs, of course, ultimately, to a secret society, a conspiracy, of which there is only one member: himself.”

In “On The Birthday Party 1” Pinter writes to the play's director, Peter Wood, prior to the rehearsals in 1958. The playwright describes his writing process, how the play came about in his mind. Pinter assumes that the director would like to know how he interprets his own play, but the playwright declines. Pinter initially created in his mind a vision of the kitchen with Meg, Stanley, the corn flakes, and the sour milk, as well as the characters of Goldberg and McCann, but he had yet to decide why the latter two men would take Stanley away. Pinter describes the writing process as largely instinctive, although it is partly analytical. He says that he did not want to interfere with the characters and that, after a while, “the play was now in its own world.” The playwright labels the drama a comedy, an absurdist comedy, yet he insists that it is a very serious work.

Pinter's third essay, “On The Birthday Party 2,” concerns the cold reception that the play received in London, as opposed to the warmer reception accorded it in Oxford and in Cambridge. He also discusses playwriting in very elemental terms: a man who is in a room receives a visitor, and the two people interact, leading to further interaction.

“Writing for the Theatre,” a speech to the National Student Drama Festival in 1962, opens with Pinter's defensive discussion of the failure of The Birthday Party and the subsequent success of The Caretaker. Noting that The Birthday Party ran for merely one week whereas The Caretaker enjoyed a run of one year, Pinter claims facetiously that the difference is that he included dashes between phrases in the former and dots between phrases in the latter; consequently, he surmises, the public prefers dots to dashes.

The book contains fifty-four poems by Pinter, who manifests that his writing talents lie not only in drama and essays but in verse as well. The poems vary in style and form. “A View of the Party” concerns The Birthday Party, almost as though the writer were putting down in verse his thoughts and notes about the drama. “Message” concerns a message to a woman named Jill from her mother in which she relays the fact that Fred has telephoned and that the mother has given him advice: “Go on the town, burn someone to death, / Find another tart, give her some hammer, / Live while you're young, until it palls, / Lick the first blind man you meet in the balls.” This poem is more conversational and less abstract than most in the book and ends ironically: “I'll be back in time for tea / Your loving mother.” The juxtaposition between the shocking advice and the polite closure might indicate something about gender stereotypes and gender roles.

Pinter's political essays manifest his pacifist views and demonstrate his disdain for American aggressionist policies, as in Nicaragua. In “The US Elephant Must Be Stopped” Pinter calls then President Ronald Reagan a liar for labeling Nicaragua a “totalitarian dungeon” and using this label as a ruse to attack the Sandinista government in order to protect American interests. Pinter counters the idea that the Sandinistas are villains and the Contras heroes, stating that the Sandinistas held free elections in 1981 and that the Contras, whom Reagan likened to the Founding Fathers, murdered thousands of Nicaraguan men, women, and children. “Eroding the Language of Freedom” concerns the language that a government employs to justify its actions. Pinter compares the heinous actions of allegedly totalitarian regimes (e.g., in Nicaragua and Czechoslovakia) with those in England and concludes that although the occurrences are similar, they are reported differently. When Czech police beat up people, the actions are labeled repressive and brutal, yet when the English police charge students on Westminster Bridge or tear off a woman's finger during a protest of nuclear weapons, it is called keeping the peace. Pinter unequivocally disapproves of this double standard and states that these euphemisms sanction the abuse of power. Although the essay is powerful and convincing, the author is unclear as to who specifically employs this euphemistic and deceptive rhetoric, simply calling the users “we.”

Various Voices is essential for any scholar or student of modern British drama. Pinter is a major force in modern theater, and the book at hand provides a better understanding of this talented but sometimes esoteric author. At times he is rather evasive about his dramas and his thoughts on playwriting, but in other instances he is much more forthcoming. Pinter's prose style is excellent, and his thoughts and insights are creative and thought-provoking. This is a very enjoyable book.

Fintan O'Toole (review date 7 October 1999)

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SOURCE: O'Toole, Fintan. “Our Own Jacobean.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 15 (7 October 1999): 28-32.

[In the following review, O'Toole discusses the development of Pinter's political commitments as expressed in his plays.]


In early-seventeenth-century England, in the midst of what was supposed to be a golden age, young playwrights sounded a note of harsh discord. Against the myth of Elizabethan glory, they placed increasingly violent images of torture, of the abuse of power, and of profound psychological and political disturbance. Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, and others combined melodramatic action with brilliantly concentrated language, familiar issues with exotic settings, lurid plots with a fierce intensity of emotion and characterization. For a long time, critics could not decide whether their work was, on the one hand, utterly decadent or, on the other, profoundly moral.

The uncertainty was largely a matter of tone. In plays like Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy or Webster's The White Devil, it is often impossible to separate horror from comedy. Tourneur's play, for example, begins with Vindice holding the skull of his dead lover, who has been murdered by the duke. Toward the end of his speech, he thrusts the skull at the audience:

… Be merry, merry,
Advance thee, O thou terror to fat folks,
To have their costly three-piled flesh worn off
As bare as this …

The joke is menacing, the horror almost farcical. In The White Devil, Webster's Flamineo makes the fusion of torment and laughter quite explicit:

And sometimes, when my face was full of smiles
Have felt the maze of conscience in my breast.
Oft gay and honour'd robes those tortures try,
We think cag'd birds sing, when indeed they cry.

With Tourneur and Webster, you never quite know whether the speaker is singing or crying, whether the author is smiling at us or guiding us through the maze of conscience. Absurd farce and extreme violence coexist, often at the same moment. The stage is a world to itself: the characters have no past lives and their motives, when they have any, never offer more than partial explanations for their actions. Their moods shift with such waywardness that they seem to be many different people. The “motiveless malignity” that Coleridge attributed to Shakespeare's Iago becomes almost universal. Language becomes at once mesmerizing and treacherous. High rhetoric is often mere parody. Formal speech shifts suddenly into flat colloquialism. People often speak in a broken, staccato utterance, and the lines of dialogue on the page are littered with dashes to indicate the jerky stop-start rhythms which shape them. Almost all attempts at communication are defeated. A cry for help is assumed to be a cunning trick. Misunderstandings abound. Altogether, the plays reflect, as the English critic Nicholas Brooke has put it, “a disturbed recognition that the Elizabethan golden world was a myth and not a reality.”1 They are, in other words, very like the plays of Harold Pinter.

Harold Pinter was born in the working-class East End of London in 1930 and began to write plays in the midst of what desperate British optimists were calling the “New Elizabethan Age” of the 1950s. At the time, a popular book on British youth by Philip Gibbs was called The New Elizabethans. Benjamin Britten's opera Gloriana, specially commissioned to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, made the analogy with the first Elizabeth even more explicit. Apart from the superficial coincidence of having a Queen Elizabeth on the throne, the parallel with the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was founded on a few broad similarities. England, as it had done at the time of the Spanish Armada, had defied a major threat of invasion and emerged victorious in a fierce continental war. It was aligned with an ideology that was thought to be beleaguered (Protestantism then, anticommunism now). And it was experiencing rapid economic growth. The same year, 1957, in which Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, the prime minister Harold Macmillan famously told the British that “most of our people have never had it so good.”

If there was a new Elizabethan age, however, it was appropriate that there should also be a new John Webster to insist that this golden world was a myth. Harold Pinter's imagination was shaped to a large extent by Shakespeare, Beckett, Joyce, and Kafka. But in a speech delivered in 1995 and published now in Various Voices, a collection of his essays, interviews, short stories, and poems, he recalls the schoolteacher with whom he went for long walks in the 1940s and 1950s:

Shakespeare dominated our lives at that time (I mean the lives of my friends and me) but the revelation which Joe Brearley brought with him was John Webster. On our walks, we would declare into the wind, at the passing trolley-buses or indeed to the passers-by, nuggets of Webster. …

He goes on to quote, as if from memory, lines from The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil like “What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut / With diamonds?”; “There's a plumber laying pipes in my guts”; “My soul, like to a ship in a black storm, / Is driven I know not whither”; “I have caught / An everlasting cold. I have lost my voice / Most irrecoverably.” And, of course, “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” He adds, “That language made me dizzy.” In its forlorn cadences, bleak mockery, hard-edged ruefulness, and luxurious violence, he caught a tone that echoes through his own work and makes audiences dizzy with elusive but powerful disturbance.


In June 1996, armed police surrounded the Kurdish community center in Haringey, north London. As a helicopter hovered overhead, marksmen on the rooftops trained their rifles on the entrances and exits. Anyone emerging from the building was seized, handcuffed, and forbidden to communicate in Kurdish or Turkish. After an hour, the police smashed down the doors and stormed inside. There they found props and scripts for Harold Pinter's play about torture and repression, Mountain Language. The armed and masked men whom worried residents had reported entering the building were the actors. Their guns were plastic imitations. As Pinter remarks in a news report from The Guardian reprinted in Various Voices, “The line between fiction and reality sometimes becomes very blurred.”

It has certainly become increasingly blurred in Pinter's own plays. For a long time, the dark, strange, apparently enclosed fictions of his theater seemed utterly distant from public political realities. Their characters, as the audience experiences them, are inventing not just stories, but selves. They have no offstage lives. They are nothing more than what they say and do on stage. They have no interest in convincing us of their own reality, let alone of any particular proposition about the real world. Yet in Various Voices there are passionate essays and articles from the 1980s and 1990s denouncing American interventions in Nicaragua and El Salvador, attacking Margaret Thatcher's right-wing policies, mocking Clinton's stance on Cuba, declaring Pinter's allegiance to socialism, and excoriating what he sees as Tony Blair's collusion with American power politics. How do we explain the apparent contradiction between the plays and their author?

In part, the turn toward overt politics in Pinter's work is pure contrariness. In the early 1960s, when political plays were in fashion, he declared himself an apolitical writer. When, for example, the magazine Encounter surveyed British artists to ask them whether it was advisable for Britain to join the Common Market (the embryonic European Union), Pinter's reply was the shortest received: “I have no interest in the matter and do not care what happens.” The director Bill Gaskill recalled taking part in a mass demonstration for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1980s with many of the younger writers of the day. Pinter, whom Gaskill regarded as “politically uncommitted,” “watched us from his flat in the Chiswick High Road but didn't join the march.”2 In 1966, Pinter told The Paris Review, “I don't think I've got any kind of social function that's of any value, and politically, there's no question of my getting involved because the issues are by no means simple—to be a politician you have to be able to present a simple picture even if you don't see things that way. … Ultimately politics do bore me, though I recognise that they are responsible for a good deal of suffering. … I don't feel threatened by any political body or activity at all. … I don't care about political structures. …”3

For the older generation of committed left-wing playwrights like Sean O'Casey, who in 1964 attacked him almost with his dying breath in the last article he ever wrote, Pinter's strange dialogue (“like the hammering of a woodpecker's beak against the trunk of a tree”) and apparent refusal of public meanings seemed like decadence.4 He derided Pinter in the same way that another left-wing Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, had once scorned John Webster's “insane and hideous rhetoric” and “plays that have no ray of noble feeling, no touch of faith, beauty, or even common kindness in them from beginning to end.” If socialist theater was defined by its nobility, faith, and beauty, Pinter could not be part of it.

Nor, for that matter, could Pinter's acknowledged mentor Samuel Beckett, hailed in a brief piece from 1954 in Various Voices as “the most courageous, remorseless writer going.” As late as 1977, when Beckett's Shades and Not I were screened on BBC television, the leading English antiestablishment TV dramatist Dennis Potter attacked what he saw as their obscurantism and their apparent irrelevance in the face of the human disasters of the gulags and the concentration camps.

Would Solzhenitsyn have understood? Would the Jews on the way to the gas chamber? Question: Is this the art which is the response to the despair and pity of our age, or is it made of the kind of futility which helped such desecrations of the spirit, such filth of ideologies come into being?

Those same rhetorical questions could have been directed at Pinter. And yet how misplaced they now seem. For nothing seems more obvious than the fierce political sensibility that drives so much of both Beckett's and Pinter's work.

It is not, of course, that all of Pinter's work is primarily political. For him, as for Beckett, Marcel Proust's experiments with time and memory are as urgent and intriguing as any contemporary public issue. The relationship of memory to reality has long been a particular concern of his. As early as 1962, Pinter was writing, in an essay included in Various Voices, of “the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past.” Anna in his 1970 play Old Times utters the essentially Proustian thought that “there are things I remember that may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” And Pinter spent almost all of 1972 working on a magnificent screen adaptation of A la recherche du temps perdu for a film that Joseph Losey hoped to make. In the introduction to the published version, he writes, “Working on [The Proust Screenplay:] A la recherche du temps perdu was the best working year of my life,” a statement which suggests the attractions for him of becoming absorbed in relatively abstract questions of form. Yet it is striking that even under the pressure of attempting to distill the essence of Proust's huge text to a workable cinematic length, Pinter still gives prominence to the surrounding political atmosphere of the Dreyfus case and to the conjunction of sinister political power with sadomasochistic desires in the figure of the Baron de Charlus. Striking, too, that the method of the screenplay, in which memory and reality gradually merge, could be a template for a later, extremely political Pinter play, Ashes to Ashes. Just as Beckett's fascination with Proust ultimately fed into his political vision, so too did Pinter's.

It says much for the contrarian spirit of both men, however, that they allowed their explicit political commitments to emerge as a part of their public personae only in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the once-pervasive leftism of the theatrical culture had gone out of fashion. Beckett, of course, did so with his play Catastrophe, written in 1982 as a direct response to the persecution of Václav Havel, to whom it is dedicated. In that play, the protagonist's appearance—whitened face and gray pajamas—deliberately recalls images of concentration camp inmates, while the direct reference to Havel's plight implicates the entire spirit of Stalinism. Yet the received wisdom about Beckett's apolitical or even antipolitical position was so strong that even the play's final gesture of defiance, in which the tormented protagonist raises his head and asserts the survival of his independent will, was described in reviews as “ambiguous.” Beckett complained angrily to his biographer James Knowlson: “There's no ambiguity there at all. He's saying ‘you bastards, you haven't finished me yet.’”5 And if Catastrophe has an unambiguous political implication, why should we assume that, for example, the image of the master and slave, Pozzo and Lucky, in Waiting for Godot is any less directly political, or that the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Endgame or Happy Days do not emerge directly from the nightmares of the nuclear age? Beckett's political gesture in Catastrophe, in other words, has to alter the way in which his previous work is seen.

This is equally true of Pinter's political turn. At one level, his emergence as a fervent campaigner can be seen as a reaction to the very particular circumstances of the Reagan-Thatcher era. In a 1996 interview published in Various Voices, Pinter reflects on the antipolitical mood of the 1980s and his own gut reaction against it:

We are in a terrible dip at the moment, a kind of abyss, because the assumption is that politics are all over. That's what the propaganda says. But I don't believe the propaganda. I believe that politics, our political consciousness and our political intelligence are not all over, because if they are, we are really doomed. I can't myself live like this. I've been told so often that I live in a free country. I'm damn well going to be free. By which I mean I'm going to retain my independence of mind and spirit, and I think that's what is obligatory upon all of us.

But there is a great deal more at work in Pinter's emergence as a passionately committed political writer than mere contrariness. What has happened is partly that Pinter has become much more explicitly political, but partly, too, that the central concerns of politics have become much more explicitly Pinteresque. The politics of the left have focused much more clearly on cruelty, violence, arbitrary power, and torture. As the abstract and schematic utopianism of the 1960s has wilted, the brute facts of what people do to other people's minds and bodies have taken their place at the center of political concern. And those facts are and always have been Pinter's territory. It became clear, in other words, that what used to be called the Theater of the Absurd is sheer realism. It has less to do with existentialism or the death of God than with the pervasiveness of political terror.

Pinter has remarked that “my awareness of the facts of torture and states of affairs that exist in the world I take very personally indeed.”6 That notion of taking torture and the state of the world personally is the key to understanding the apparent contradiction between the early Pinter's avowed lack of interest in politics and his later emergence as a passionate political campaigner. For what can't be avoided is the simple fact that Pinter is a Jew who grew up during the Holocaust and the Second World War. When I interviewed him in 1994, he recalled, as an adolescent, being sharply aware of the Holocaust and seeing photographs and newsreels of the concentration camps.

By the time the war ended I was fifteen and a half. I wasn't a child anymore. And then immediately the war ended, on top of that, the fascists came out again in London, which again is not a fact that is generally acknowledged. So I ran into them straight away between the ages of sixteen and seventeen. Once again the taunt “Jewboy” came up and related itself to what had just happened in Europe.7

Politics, in the largest and most profound sense, were not, then, a matter of abstract, external issues. He had before him a direct, immediate link between what was happening in his own life and what had happened in the wider world.

But how do these formative experiences relate directly to Pinter's early plays? It might seem obvious that his first professionally performed play, The Birthday Party, in which a man is abducted by two sinister outsiders, is shaped not just by Hemingway's story “The Killers,” which has long been acknowledged as an inspiration, but by the specter of the Gestapo. That this was in fact by no means obvious is due, in part, to Pinter's own efforts to throw directors, audiences, and critics off the scent. He did this, most obviously, by making one of the killers, McCann, an Irishman and the other, Goldberg, an archetypal Jew. He did it, too, by insisting on the self-enclosed nature of the play. In a letter to the director Peter Wood, written just before the start of rehearsals in April 1958 and published for the first time in Various Voices, he resists any notion that the play might refer to anything outside itself:

I take it you would like me to insert a clarification or moral judgement or author's angle on it, straight from the horse's mouth. I appreciate your desire for this but I can't do it. … The curtain goes up and comes down. Something has happened. Right? Cockeyed, brutish, absurd, with no comment. Where is the comment, the slant, the explanatory note? In the play. Everything to do with the play is in the play.

The very publication of this letter marks a definite change in Pinter's attitude, for back in 1971, when Pinter was interviewed by Mel Gussow for The New York Times, he complained bitterly about the publication of a letter he had written to the director of a German production of Landscape and Silence: “I was extremely angry. … It's not public, that business. I was talking, practically, to my director. … I'm not interested in helping people to understand it.”8 What is not reflected in this letter, or anywhere in Various Voices, however, is that Pinter's deflection of questions about the political implications of the play was designed actively to mislead. As he told me in 1994:

I think The Birthday Party is certainly shaped by persecution. … There's a man being persecuted. It's very, very simple, the actual structure, the focus of it, I remember feeling when I was asked once or twice what the hell does The Birthday Party mean? where do these two men come from? It always surprised me then, the fact that people seemed to have forgotten the Gestapo had been knocking on people's doors not too long ago. And people have been knocking on people's doors for centuries in fact. The Birthday Party doesn't express anything unusual, it expresses something that is actually common. … I think the forces that had been present in the war and were still present in 1957 did go into my bones, and were in my bones. … I have to be quite clear here and say that I always knew that particularly The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter and The Hothouse, which I didn't produce for many years, were all political plays. I knew that at the time. I must say I tended, when asked, on the rare occasions when I was asked, to deny this. I've thought back and wondered why I, in effect, lied on those occasions. I really do believe it was because I didn't want to make great claims, or be pretentious in any way. I thought they spoke for themselves already.

A key part of Pinter's deliberate playing down of politics in his early career was his suppression of The Hothouse. In the Paris Review interview quoted earlier, Pinter dismissed The Hothouse as “quite useless” because he was “trying to make a point.” He had, he claimed, “discarded it at once” after writing it in 1958. Yet, in 1979, when he had become more comfortable with “making a point,” he admitted to Mel Gussow that “I didn't discard it. I held on to it.” At that time, coinciding with the start of the Reagan-Thatcher era and with Pinter's explicitly political turn, he made some cuts in the text of The Hothouse, but released it for production largely as it was originally written, As Karen Kohlhaas's fine recent New York production showed, the suppression of The Hothouse for over twenty years is an extraordinary example of a writer censoring his own work in order to maintain an inaccurate public perception of his central concerns. On stage, it is vivid, chilling, marvelously energetic, and grotesquely funny. It is also nakedly political.

The play is set in a state-owned mental institution or sanitarium run by brutal and corrupt staff. The patients, whom we never meet, are referred to only by numbers. A reign of terror, including torture by electric shock, is conducted under the guise of benevolent paternalism. A guard, for example, reports on his conversation with the mother of a patient who has died of heart failure, presumably under torture:

You can rest assured that if your son was moved from here to another place it was in his best interests, and only after the most extensive research into his case, the wealth and weight of all the expert opinion in this establishment, where some of the leading brains in this country are concentrated; after a world of time, care, gathering and accumulating of mass upon mass upon mass of relevant evidence, document, affidavit, tape recordings, played both backwards and forwards, deep into the depth of the night. … I also pointed out that we had carte blanche from the Ministry. She left much moved by my recital.9

Given that it was written in 1958, when very little was known in the West about the Soviet psychiatric prisons, the play's absurd faithfulness to real events seems quite eerie and its author's conclusion that it was “useless” seems all the more baffling. How many writers, after all, have taken a desire not to be pigeonholed to the extreme of actually suppressing a successful piece of work? And what can explain the decision of a man who obviously burns with political passion to present himself as a man uninterested in politics? The place to look for an answer is, as it usually is with writers, in the form of the work itself.


Most plays begin, from the point of view of the audience, with a total ignorance that is gradually reduced. Pinter's begin with a total ignorance that is gradually increased. Instead of moving toward knowledge—who these people are, what they think and feel, why they do what they do, how they end up—we move deeper into mystery. The people on stage decline to do what characters in the theater usually do for the audience—fill in the gaps in our knowledge, impart information, construct a story. We know nothing about them except what they say from moment to moment. We come to understand that the words they use are designed not to communicate with us or with each other but to avoid communication. They do not ask for our sympathy or our understanding and we have little opportunity for empathy. They do not offer enlightenment or uplift.

Watching a Pinter play for the first time is rather like the moment in mathematics class in school when the teacher introduces the idea that numbers can be minus as well as plus. It seems at first a ridiculous notion—how can anything be less than zero?—but because this absurdity follows all the forms and rules that you have been taught to expect, you learn to accept it. Pinter's plays work the same way—starting with next to nothing and working down. But because they do so with perfect logical precision, you find, as a member of the audience, that they have shape and coherence. Pinter's genius was to construct his plays as if they were of the usual sort, as if all the familiar rules still applied. The outward form of naturalistic theater is maintained, even though its inner core—cause and effect—has been removed. The plays are, in this, strongly reminiscent of M. C. Bradbrook's description of the action of Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy: “always just logically possible, like a detective story, though impossible by any other standards.”10 They have the shape and feel of well-made plays in which every effect has a cause and every action produces a reaction. But the things they describe—violence, terror, disintegration—are usually dark and irrational.

Stripped as they are of so many of the things that normally make theater interesting, all the force of Pinter's plays lies in what is not said, in what remains, beyond the confines of the room where the action takes place, unseen and unheard. What he has done, at one level, is to take a commonplace of twentieth-century theatrical technique—the idea of subtext—and push it to new extremes. Since the Second World War, almost every trained actor has learned the principles of Constantin Stanislavski and in particular the notion of creating an entire life for the character beyond and below what is actually said on stage. In Building a Character, Stanislavski enjoins his actors to create an “inner stream of images, fed by all sorts of fictional inventions” which will form the “basis for everything the character does, his ambitions, thoughts, feelings. …”11 If an actor in a play has to tell another actor that it is cold outside, she ought to run a film in her mind of the icy streets, the people with hunched shoulders wrapped up in scarves, her breath crystallizing in the air, so that the simple words “It's cold” emerge from a deep well of sensations and emotions. This technique is central to the psychological realism of mainstream drama since the war, and Pinter, broadly speaking, belongs to that tradition.

There is, however, a crucial difference in his approach to this familiar idea of subtext. In Stanislavski's formulation, the subtext is there to support and enrich the text. The actor's fictional inventions are at the service of the greater invention of the play. Pinter, however, broke the connection. In his plays, the unstated subtext doesn't support the explicit statements that are on the surface; it attacks them. It doesn't add to their meaning, but drains away the meaning they seem to have. So much so that, as the director Peter Hall has pointed out, a Pinter play is not really a single thing:

You have to direct two plays each time you direct a Pinter play. And I think the achievement of a Pinter production must be that the two plays meet. Because what stirs the audience is not the mask, not the control, but what is underneath it: that's what upsets them, that's what terrifies and moves them. In that sense Pinter's is a new form of theatre.12

Pinter's originality, in other words, lies in the extent to which the subtext diverges from the dialogue. The spoken words have the flat, impenetrable feel of an Andy Warhol picture, the sense of a surface unsupported by any volume, because the images and emotions that ought to give them depth exist on a completely different plane. They are outside the room and they have to stay outside, for if they became explicit they would lose their force. The vast reality of the Holocaust may be the subtext of The Birthday Party, but if it were referred to even indirectly, the play would become an appallingly banal reduction of an immense catastrophe to an odd little incident. It can be allowed to enter only as a silence. And in Pinter, there is often a silence even when people are speaking. As he put it in a speech delivered in 1962 and included in Various Voices:

There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.

The method of plays like The Birthday Party,The Dumb Waiter,The Caretaker, and The Homecoming is precisely one of necessary avoidance. Just as the plays of Webster and Tourneur gather their political force from the absolute insistence that the terrible world they depict is not England, making that absence insinuate itself into our minds, so Pinter makes the political horrors of his day obvious by the way the plays pretend such complete ignorance of them. To acknowledge in public that he was a political playwright and these were political plays would have been to give the game away. And Pinter is not, in any case, a great polemicist. When he engages directly in political argument, the passion of his convictions is not matched by subtlety of thought or brilliance of expression. A polemical poem from Various Voices like “American Football: A Reflection upon the Gulf War” hardly bears comparison with the discretion and mastery of Pinter's theatrical writing:

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

At the simplest level, Pinter's avoidance of direct political statement was a recognition of where his own strengths as a writer really lay.

So why, then, could Pinter come out of the political closet in the late 1970s? At least part of the reason must be that Pinter's method was changing. He was moving toward a style in which the central tension is not that between the explicit surface and the absent subtext but that between two different worlds, each of which is present on stage. His early plays still operated within the conventions of domestic realism. They presented an apparently realistic world beneath which all sorts of other forces were operating.

By moving gradually further from these conventions with plays like No Man's Land,Betrayal, and A Kind of Alaska, Pinter created the possibility of presenting political realities directly on stage without reducing them to a mundane level. Whereas in the early plays, the banality is apparent and the political passion outside the room, in One for the Road,13Mountain Language, and Ashes to Ashes, the two share the stage. In One for the Road, the room is obviously the office of a torturer, and the unknown people who enter it are clearly his victims. In Mountain Language, we know from the start that the setting is a prison where people are tortured and that the visitors are the families of the prisoners. But within these recognizable settings, the familiar Pinter devices take on chilling new meanings. The obscure, uncommunicative speeches are reflections of the torturers' power. The broken, staccato sentences are the frightened responses of their victims. Even the silence is explicitly politicized. The most chilling image in Mountain Language is the old woman's loss of the power of speech. She is warned that she is not permitted to speak to her son in her own language, the only one she knows. In the end, when the rule is arbitrarily changed, and she is told that she can use her own language after all, she cannot find the words to speak to her son.

Ashes to Ashes, which opened in London in 1996 and in New York this year, pushes even further away from realism and changes the relationship between text and subtext even more radically. In effect, the subtext invades and occupies the realistic surface. The silence that surrounds The Birthday Party—the Holocaust and the experience of persecution—becomes audible. The play begins as if it is a realistic psychological drama: a man and a woman in the sitting room of a country house; the woman, Rebecca, talking of what seems to be a sadomasochistic relationship with a former lover. The man, Devlin, seems at first to be a psychiatrist, then to be her husband. But as she talks, her recollections stray into the field of political nightmare. Her lover brought her to what sounds like a forced-labor factory. She has seen through the window, looking out into the English countryside, groups of people wearing their overcoats and carrying their luggage walk into the sea. She has seen refugees on the city streets. She has seen her lover on a railway platform, tearing babies from their mothers' arms. By the end of the play, the stories and the reality have merged. Devlin has become the sadistic lover. Rebecca's memories have moved from the third person to the first. She recalls herself moving toward a train, her baby wrapped in a shawl and carried under her arm in order to hide it from the guards. But the baby cries out and a guard calls her back and takes it from her. The idea, so central to Pinter's work, of taking torture personally has reached its imaginative conclusion.

With such work, Pinter has kept open the possibility of a political theater that neither sacrifices the essential strangeness of art to the demands of polemic nor seeks refuge from large responsibilities in the pure play of forms. He has found ways of representing violence and terror without merely reproducing them, and of acknowledging the loss of meaning in the late twentieth century without becoming meaningless. He has, above all, reminded us of the obscenity of regarding as a golden age an era that began in the shadow of the Holocaust and the gulags and that has yet to emerge from that awful darkness.


  1. Nicholas Brooke, Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy (London: Barnes and Noble, 1979), p. 11.

  2. William Gaskill, A Sense of Direction (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), pp. 34-35.

  3. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Penguin, 1972), p. 307.

  4. Sean O'Casey, Blasts and Benedictions (St. Martin's, 1967), p. 71.

  5. James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 680.

  6. Mel Gussow, Conversations with Pinter (Limelight, 1994), p. 121.

  7. This interview was conducted in London in April 1994, for the Irish Times.

  8. Gussow, Conversations with Pinter, p. 42.

  9. Harold Pinter, The Hothouse (Grove, 1980), p. 57.

  10. M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, second edition (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 160.

  11. Constantin Stanislavski, Building a Character, translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (Theatre Arts Books, 1981), p. 119.

  12. In an interview with Catherine Itzin and Simon Trussler, Theatre Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 16 (November 1974-January 1975).

  13. Published in The New York Review, May 10, 1984.

Harold Pinter and Mary Riddell (interview date 8 November 1999)

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SOURCE: Pinter, Harold, and Mary Riddell. “Harold Pinter: The Odd Dissenter, a Professional Mr. Angry Who Is More Victor Meldrew Than Vaclav Havel.” New Statesman 128, no. 4461 (8 November 1999): 18-19.

[In the following interview, Riddell discusses Pinter's polemical stance on many political issues.]

As Harold Pinter wrote recently, in an open letter to the Prime Minister, he was “chuffed to the bollocks” by the advent of the Blair government. This variant of the feel-good factor—first articulated by Lenny in The Homecoming—has long since dissipated. War in Kosovo, sanctions on Iraq and bellicose foreign policy elsewhere have rendered Pinter as dischuffed as it is possible to be.

“I find the whole Blairish idea more and more repugnant every day,” he complains. “New Labour: the term itself is so trashy. Kind of ersatz.” Then there are the substantive charges. “Blair is a war criminal and a murderer. He is living a deluded life. While he's smiling and grinning at everybody, he's responsible at the same time for the murder of thousands of civilians. He has their blood on his hands.”

Pinter's polemical approach is not new. Nor is his reputation for ferocity. In a speech in 1995, he summarised his character references as “enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding”. Still, there are encouraging hints that the Pinter scariness may be overhyped. When I first asked for an interview, he sent back a pleasant note couched in the manner of a third-former trying to get off swimming. “I'm very much under par at the moment—physically, not spiritually!” he wrote. “A chest infection. I feel I have to lead a quiet life.” Other bulletins followed. “I've recovered!” he finally noted.

So here we are in the book-lined house he keeps for working. Pinter has uncorked the white wine and page-marked the Eliot poem he wants to read me (“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark”). A jolly evening beckons, in which we shall discuss theatre, the third world war and the role of the dissenter.

Pinter is an odd sort of dissenter: less a Vaclav Havel or a Günter Grass than a Victor Meldrew—a professional Mr Angry whose thermostat is supposedly calibrated between a steady simmer and a rolling boil of fury. “I think it goes even further. I am reported as a deranged man; someone who is stark raving mad. There's this idea that if a traffic warden walked down the street, I would go and throttle him. I'm continually enraged and out of control.”

This perception, Pinter thinks, turns on his “very odd relationship” with the British press and on something more sinister. “I'm not especially paranoic, but I believe there is a link between the press and something else. I'm not saying there would be a directive, saying: ‘Get him. Make him look like a bloody fool.’ But I suspect there's something going on in this country—not just to do with me but with any form of dissent.”

Are we talking a full-blown conspiracy, Harold? “To make a claim about a conspiracy theory from on high would be extremely pretentious and vainglorious. But I am not totally persuaded that there isn't something in it. I am just a slight pain in the arse to the powers-that-be, particularly the American ones. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there is a belittling policy. But I mustn't go on whingeing to you that I might be at the end of a conspiracy theory. I don't give a fuck one way or the other. I'm past it.”

It seems fair to conclude that one component in the mysterious Pinter stitch-up is Pinter himself. However much one might concur with his anti-war stance, his thunderous indictments do evoke a man splattering a caterpillar with a club-hammer. Free markets, globalisation and the Third Way are uncompromisingly dismissed by Pinter, without much further debate, as “crap” or “bollocks”.

But his difficulty may not lie chiefly in reductionism or political naivety. In 1979 he voted for the woman he now calls “Mrs Bloody Thatcher”. “I don't think I've ever done anything more shameful. It was idiotic; infantile on my part.” Then there is the charge that his privileged world sits awkwardly with his aims. I ask about the June 20 Group, a left-wing think-tank set up in the eighties by him, his second wife, Antonia Fraser, and other well-heeled thinkers. Did the spectacle of this cosseted band debating world poverty over River Café polenta not invite media odium—particularly after Pinter had one innocent television journalist evicted, mid-meal, on the incorrect grounds that he was spying?

“It was a classic case of undermining people who were concerned about the society in which they lived. You couldn't have got a more interesting body of people, and we were pissed upon by the press. Ludicrous. This champagne socialist stuff is a cliché. I can't take the rewards of society and shut up. I can't, and I bloody well won't.” Besides, as he says, his money has been acquired “only by the sweat of my own brow. I am a totally working man.”

The son of a Jewish tailor, Pinter staged his first play, The Room, at Bristol University in 1957. In February next year, he—now almost 70—will direct a revival to run with Celebration, a new, “disgustingly vulgar, very funny and violent” verbal farce, at the Almeida Theatre. Steven Pacey, Lindsay Duncan and Lia Williams will star along with Henry Woolf—a Canadian professor, one of Pinter's oldest friends and an original cast member of The Room.

“I am very high on all this. There are 43 years between the two plays, but they have things in common.” The intervening four decades have not always been marked by such pleasing symmetry. Pinter's work, particularly in the early years, attracted a schizophrenic blend of praise and rubbishing; a process that may have inured him to insults.

He does appear to have a rubbery resistance to rejection and, perhaps, to hurt. I ask him about his first wife, Vivien Merchant, who drank herself to death at the age of 53, and he says: “It was very sad that an extremely brilliant actress died so young … I would simply say that Vivien was a very, very obstinate person. If she determined a course, she would just pursue it. But in 1975, an extraordinary thing happened. Antonia and I met, and here we are. People—the press—really wanted to destroy us, by the way.”

But the signal destruction in Pinter's life appears to be the breakdown in relations between him and his only child, Daniel. In 1993, they agreed that it would be better if they no longer spoke. “I certainly feel sad about the alienation from my son … He has a brilliant mind. He is 41. It's all a great pity. He lives alone. It's a very solitary life. In so far as he can be happy, I believe he is.”

Despite this estrangement, Pinter has what his biographer, Michael Billington, calls a “Hemingwayesque” bond with other men. His attitude to women seems less clear. Certainly he is charming. He fusses round with the wine bottle and addresses me as “Mary” as if we are old pals; a chumminess only slightly marred by his recollection of a Newsnight spat with Norman Lamont. (“I called him Lord Lamont, and he kept calling me Harold. Ha! They do that to soften you up, you know.”)

The Pinter oeuvre has, however, not always endeared him to feminists. In particular, Ruth, in The Homecoming—the don's wife turned prostitute—disturbed even his former mistress, Joan Bakewell. “A lot of women hate the play, but they've got it all wrong. Ruth has them all (her male in-laws) for breakfast. I don't idealise women. I enjoy them. I have been married to two of the most independent women it is possible to think of. My first wife was incredibly independent, and I know of no more independent and intelligent spirit in the world than Antonia.”

Harold can sound rather pompous. Nor does he lack amour propre (although he has sedulously denied that he once tried to elicit Tom Stoppard's support for a plan to rechristen the Comedy Theatre the Pinter Theatre; whereupon Stoppard suggested that he changed his name to Harold Comedy). I ask where he puts himself in the pantheon of great writers, and he says, modestly: “That is not for me to say. But I do receive a great number of letters from all over the world—very warm ones. That is gratifying, but I can go no further. I know the writers I really admire—Shakespeare, Proust, Joyce. Those are my boys.”

This accolade, alas, is not applicable to Blair's men. Robin Cook is a terrible disappointment. “Ethical foreign policy, how are ya?” says Pinter with deep scorn. Chris Smith he has spoken to only once; exhorting him over a formal lunch table to scrap Trident and save the Royal Court Theatre.

I had heard that, despite his loathing for new Labour, he had been courted by individual ministers, but he, the outsider, dismissed that as ludicrous. And yet there is a streak of conformism—and therefore, perhaps, of insecurity—in Harold Pinter. He tells me, in a confessional way, that he has just accepted the Lord Mayor's invitation to a lunch (held on 2 November) attended by 300 other “people of the century” and the Queen. “Well, I do live in this bloody country. I do work here. I'm not an establishment person. I'm not a monarchist. But I'm a CBE for God's sake. Slightly preposterous, isn't it, but I haven't sent it back. There are certain inconsistencies in the way one conducts one's life.”

Not half, the sceptical might think. It is easy to lampoon Pinter: a dissenter out of step with government but in tune with the ordinary punters he meets at such demotic haunts as “Cheltenham or Hayon-Wye”. And yet he does work rigorously for his causes. He has also paid a price for his beliefs. Reviewers of his recently published anthology, Various Voices, predictably seized on his tirade against the Gulf war (“Hallelujah. It works. We blew the shit out of them.”), while wholly ignoring his other—and better—poems. For Harold Pinter to risk opprobrium is nothing new. To court oblivion suggests either a laminated ego or a fierce sincerity. Or, most probably, a cocktail of the two.

Anne-Marie Cusac (review date January 2000)

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SOURCE: Cusac, Anne-Marie. Review of Various Voices, by Harold Pinter. Progressive 64, no. 1 (January 2000): 37-8.

[In the following review, Cusac applauds Various Voices, observing that it provides valuable insight about Pinter and his plays.]

I have a confession to make. Well, “confession” may be the wrong word, since I am proud of this trait: I love young adult novels.

Want a well-written, entertaining, spirited, perceptive critique of society? The best young adult novels are the place to go. They are clever, rebellious, playful. They question the norm.

Like Alice in Wonderland, many of these books reveal the absurdities underlying the rules, manners, and habits that govern the adult world. They can be outspoken enough to declare the whole structure a house of cards.

Louis Sachar's Holes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), winner of the 1999 Newbery Medal, does exactly that. But it also, like Twain's Huckleberry Finn, tackles a subject of great interest to adults—prisons and, more particularly, the imprisonment of children.

Stanley Yelnats, an unlucky misfit, ends up at a youth correctional facility called Camp Green Lake when he is convicted of stealing a famous athlete's shoes. But Stanley Yelnats is no thief. Camp Green Lake is no camp. And the only lake is a dried-out pit, once the site of “the largest lake in Texas.”

In this old lake bed, each young inmate is required to dig a hole five feet in diameter and five feet deep—every morning. The temperatures, says the narrator, “hover around ninety-five degrees in the shade.” But the boys don't spend much time in the shade, since the only trees in the entire place are next to the warden's cabin.

At the correctional facility. Stanley is given the nickname Caveman. For the first time in his life, he fits in with a social group—six boys he lives with, cats with, and works with, called Group D. The other kids in his group—X-ray, Magnet, Squid, Armpit, Zigzag, and Zero—protect Stanley, but most are also ready to turn on him if he violates their hierarchy. The camp's warden, a tall, red-haired woman, mostly stays out of the picture unless something happens to interrupt the boys' work duty, which she says will build character.

But Stanley discovers that she is having the boys dig because she wants them to find something. The grim, supervised world of this correctional facility then becomes the setting for a compelling mystery.

The result is a book I, for one, couldn't put down. The plot twists and turns, the world of the children's correctional facility is fully imagined, its young inhabitants humanely drawn. I was especially moved by Zero Zamboni, a homeless kid who stayed on a playground (where his mom told him to wait for her) for a month, until he realized she wasn't coming back. He is the real thief of the famous athlete's shoes, and he becomes a close friend to Stanley. Together, these two brave and irreverent kids discover what the adults are hiding.

Three cheers also for British playwright Harold Pinter's Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics (Grove, 1999). Many of Pinter's plays are concerned with how abuse of power takes place through language. This is no less true of his political essays. Here is a passage from “It Never Happened” a 1996 piece written for The Guardian: “The U.S. has actually educated itself to be in love with itself. Listen to President Clinton—and before him, Bush and before him, Reagan and before him all the others—say on television the words ‘the American People’ as in the sentence, ‘I say to the American People it is time to pray and defend the rights of the American People and I ask the American People to trust their President in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American People.’ A nation weeps.”

Later in the piece, Pinter explores the erasure, through language, of recent events: “Sometimes you look back into recent history and you ask: Did all that really happen?” he writes. He traces the deaths of half a million in Indonesia in 1965; 200,000 in East Timor in 1975; 300,000 in Central America since 1960; the persecution of Kurds in Turkey, which has “reached levels which approach genocide”; the thousands of Iraqi children dying every month because U.N. sanctions deprive them of food and medicine; and the repression and suffering caused by military coups in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile.

“Has the U.S. to one degree or another inspired, engendered, subsidized, and sustained all these states of affairs?” asks Pinter. “The answer is yes. It has, and it does. But you wouldn't know it.

“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the U.S. throughout the world have been systematic, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented but nobody talks about them. Nobody ever has. It's probably more than a newspaper or TV channel's life is worth to do so.”

Pinter's concern about who controls the meaning of the past runs through his body of work. He shows how this control can be used to brutalize people. In the 1970 play Old Times, a woman's husband and her best friend battle over her past as if they own it. And in a speech he made in 1962 to the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol, Pinter said, “Apart from any other consideration, we are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past. I don't mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. … What's happening now? We won't know until tomorrow or in six months' time, and we won't know then, we'll have forgotten, or our imagination will have attributed false characteristics to today. A moment is sucked away and distorted, often even at the time of its birth.”

This volume also contains poetry and prose fictions, many of them dramatic monologues. It gives us insight into this writer of plays that unsettle, terrify, and touch.

Sheridan Morley (review date 1 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Pinter Double.” Spectator 284, no. 8956 (1 April 2000): 65-6.

[In the following review of Pinter's The Room and Celebration, produced as a double-bill, Morley observes that both plays, like much of Pinter's work, explore themes of sexual jealousy, nameless terrors, and violence. Morley asserts that Celebration is Pinter's “funniest script in years.”]

It is not often you get to see the first and the most recent plays by a major dramatist on the same double bill, and rarer still when these plays are separated by more than 40 years. But at the Almeida we currently get just that: Harold Pinter's The Room (1957) followed by his Celebration (2000) in an immensely assured production by the playwright himself, one which will, I suspect, be in the West End before he has time to write anything else.

To start with the new work. Pinter has occasionally and rightly complained that critics seldom credit him with any sense of comedy, and as if to disprove that misapprehension Celebration is certainly his funniest and also perhaps his most accessible script in many years. It is set in an amazingly familiar West End restaurant, where he has even managed to cast a lookalike for the tall, urbane real-life manager; at two separate tables (and it is worth noting the subtext here: while Pinter was writing The Room, he was playing in Rattigan's Separate Tables, to which Celebration owes a minimal debt) sit a cross-section of recognisable Pinter types. At the smaller table are a couple (Stephen Pacey and Lia Williams) taunting each other with past and present infidelities; at the larger, two Mafioso thugs and their blowsy, aging trophy-wives are celebrating a wedding anniversary.

But, as usual with Pinter, there is a good deal going on just under the tablecloths; neither group is really in any mood for celebration, and as the wine loosens their tongues some extremely unpleasant truths start to crawl out from the past. Meanwhile, the unctuous manager, his female assistant and a young waiter with extraordinary false-memory fantasies start to assert themselves as something more than restaurant staff, and at the end of the evening it is the young waiter (Danny Dyer in what should be an award-winning performance), left alone on stage to confront his own demons, who has not only the last words but also the most immediate claim to our ultimate attention.

Virtually all this wondrously versatile cast also appear in The Room, where to complete this Pinter circle they are joined by the actor who first discovered and directed the play back in the Fifties, Henry Woolf. What is intriguing here is the way that The Room not only signals and foreshadows everything that we now mean by Pinteresque, but also the way that it has failed to date. Unlike, for instance, Look Back in Anger, first staged a year before The Room and now often looking very creaky indeed, the Pinter is made timeless by its signature minimalism, by its sense of unspoken menace and mystery, by its absolute refusal to play the game by any of the then current theatrical rules. The reason that Pinter's earliest critics (among them Noël Coward, who very quickly came around to him) found The Room so hard to take was largely that it made a then traditionally lazy audience do at least some of the work to fathom the unfathomable.

Now the sinister landlord, the downtrodden housewife and the two thuggish visitors seem like old friends rather than new threats; both these plays are about some of the same things—sexual jealousy, nameless terrors, violent men and women who have only their sex to define them. But where The Room is frequently vicious, Celebration is something still more dangerous; the only visible knives here may be the ones on the elegantly laid tables, but people are also getting laid and knifed, only this time with a smile. It is the smile of the killer monsters and mobsters, but the shark still has shiny teeth, dear, and Pinter shows them pearly white.

At the handsomely refurbished Jerwood Upstairs of the Royal Court, Christopher Shinn's Other People is the story of half a dozen dysfunctional and disconnected misfits trying to work out the purpose of life and art in New York's East Village. So what, you hear me cry, as we have certainly been along these mean streets many times before; Shinn even has the gall to mount a brilliant attack on the inanity of Rent (with which I entirely agree), only he is unfortunately blaming that overpraised musical for doing precisely what he is also doing on a rather more slender budget, namely staging the lives of the dispossessed and the mentally and morally inert in order to intrigue and titillate infinitely wealthier and better-organised middle-class theatregoers.

His whole script is a fragmented and fragmentary debate about the borderlines of art and reality; all his characters (a stripper, a middle-aged malcontent, a born-again Christian coming off drugs and a video-packager who gets fired for praising films he hasn't even bothered to fast-forward) are so unhappy with their own reality that they all escape into some form of sexual or religious fantasy. But this is an uneasily mid-Atlantic production by Dominic Cooke on Robert Hopkins's brilliant sliding set. It is, for instance, wildly unlikely that a local London audience are going to understand a crucial last-act reference to Dick Clark, unless they happen to be unusually familiar with American television's New Year's Eve rituals.

For all that, a strong cast led by an erstwhile National Theatre Peter Pan, Daniel Evans, does its best to only connect with an interesting new voice which is a world away from the harsher realities of the Mamet generation; Shinn is an eccentric and wilfully edgy love child of Stephen Sondheim and Woody Allen.

Kate Kellaway (review date 3 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “A Party for Pinter.” New Statesman 129, no. 4480 (3 April 2000): 43-4.

[In the following review, Kellaway asserts that Pinter's The Room and Celebration, produced as a double-bill, are marvelous companion pieces.]

Here it is—a showcase of Harold Pinter's career. His first play, The Room, written in 1957, and his new play, Celebration, are at the Almeida Theatre together, directed by the man himself. But would it prove a celebration? “I am so glad not to be reviewing this,” someone murmured behind me, “because you could never say what you really thought of it.” The implication was clear: Pinter has put himself beyond blame. I suffer from no such inhibition, but have no need to struggle with myself either. I was bowled over by the evening.

The Room is beautifully acted and directed. It is an almost perfect play, and its originality does not date. Perhaps this is, in part, because Pinter's plays are not polemical. He writes about people and their deficiencies. He is not primarily interested in trying to illuminate a period in time. There is no such thing as “ordinary” in Pinter. He shows us how strange even the most “normal” moments are. His plays are full of people who do not know themselves. They are not in control of their language, but Pinter is. He seems to be a realist, but is nothing of the kind, his language betraying more than the speaker could ever have intended. Over and again, he walks into the dark. No one writes like him—though not for want of trying.

This is not to imply that The Room is not of its time. On the contrary, the designer Eileen Diss invites us into a 1950s room, grey and sepia, that is rather like the inside of a teapot. Rose (Lindsay Duncan on first-rate form) keeps talking to her speechless husband, Bert (Steven Pacey), as he shovels bacon into his mouth. But he turns down all her servings of conversation: fear of cold weather, the “news” that it is getting dark, anxiety about the tenant in the basement. Rose praises the room itself. It is a room, she keeps saying, in which “you stand a chance”. But not much of a chance, for this is the story of a haunted house.

The landlord, Mr Kidd (Henry Woolf, who directed the first production of The Room, compellingly recreates the part he played then), has a face like a smiling pumice stone. Even his clothes look unhealthy—he stands about in an off-colour cardigan making dismal pleasantries. Mr and Mrs Sands, hoping to rent a room, show up. Mr Sands (played to thuggish perfection by Keith Allen) is a jumpily disagreeable bloke, in a pristine sheepskin coat, with an intemperate wish to know best about everything. He and his wife (Lia Williams, not fully in charge of her cockney accent) let it be known that “the room” is shortly to become vacant. It is a destabilising piece of news. But it is the arrival of Riley, the black, blind man from the basement (a most arresting performance from George Harris), that provides the extraordinary climax to the play. How does Riley know Rose? Why does she say she doesn't know him? And why does he call her “Sal”? Into this name, he pours love, sorrow, reproach. And what's the reason for her transformation from anger to tenderness? When Rose feels the contours of Riley's face, it is as if she, not he, were blind—a kind of prophecy, as the last line of the play makes clear. The Room is moving, funny, sinister and mysterious—classic Pinter.

Celebration is set in a restaurant. There has been a huge improvement in the standard of living between the first play and the last. Damask table cloths, tall glasses and glittering bottles are on display. Rose would not last a second in such a place. The immediate impression—seized in a second as if one were walking into the restaurant oneself—is of vitality, vulgarity and ease. The language is coarse, scintillating and free. “Osso buco” is introduced early on, as a curse (you need to pronounce “buco” with especial venom). But this is as nothing to the insults soon traded between the party “celebrating” a wedding anniversary. If it isn't their last supper, it ought to be—for these people loathe one another. The staging is superb: the diners make a marvelously gruesome line-up—Max Ernst would have had a field day painting their faces. Andy de la Tour is especially riveting. He looks as though he has a permanent bad smell under his nose.

The weakest dialogue belongs to the table-for-two where Suki (a dazzling Lia Williams) and Russell (Steven Pacey) take each other apart. She says she wants him to be rich so that he will buy her “houses and panties” (an unconvincing line). She reminisces vengefully about being a “plump young secretary” and having it off behind filing cabinets. She is a kind of siren/buffoon, and their talk is an ugly strip cartoon—with all the limitations that that entails.

During their first exchange, at the very beginning of Celebration, I feared that the restaurant could never compete with the room. But I quickly changed my mind. There is always the danger, in Pinter's later plays, that he will sound as if he is parodying himself. But the music and tempo of Celebration are different to that of the first play. It is more overtly cruel, more extrovert, much faster. It has more panache than pathos. But it is clearly by the same hand, and Pinter's mastery of the non sequitur is still intact. As Sonia (Indira Varma), the maîtresse of the restaurant, hilariously explains: “My mother was a chiropodist. Are you going to try our bread and butter pudding?” This is no ordinary restaurant. The staff are, comically, more civilised than the punters.

The two plays are marvellous companion pieces. In each, there is a key figure who cuts through the play like a knife. It is the young waiter, marvelously played by Danny Dyer, who upsets Celebration—just as the blind man shakes The Room to its foundations. The waiter is always interrupting diners to tell fantastic stories about his well-connected grandfather. It's all fantasy—and most entertaining. Until the end, when all the diners have left. And then—like the sun going down at speed—there is the sudden, unmistakably Pinteresque sense of life as stranger than it had seemed, more tragic and unpalatable.

Michael Vestey (review date 21 October 2000)

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SOURCE: Vestey, Michael. “Plugging Pinter.” Spectator 285, no. 8985 (21 October 2000): 68.

[In the following review of several radio broadcasts of plays by Pinter, Vestey asserts that Pinter's dramas are deeply unsatisfying.]

I've never forgotten a remark the director Bryan Forbes made to me many years ago when I went to interview him about a film he was making at the time. We got on to the subject of critics and their fanciful interpretations of what a film or play might mean, and he mentioned the last scene of his POW film King Rat. It ends, if my memory is correct, with the leading character (I think James Fox) facing the camera and standing upright in the back of a lorry and holding on to each side of the vehicle with arms outstretched as it receded into the distance.

A certain critic, said Forbes, described this in his review as a powerful metaphor of the Crucifixion. ‘And was it?’ I asked. He laughed. ‘Have you ever tried to stand up in a lorry on a bumpy dirt track without holding on. It was the only way he could do it.’ Still, pretentiousness in art as in criticism keeps Pseuds Corner in Private Eye in business so we must be grateful for that. I was thinking about this remark of Forbes when I listened last week to plays and sketches by Harold Pinter on Radios Three and Four broadcast to mark his 70th birthday.

Here I must declare myself: I have never liked Pinter's work but have approached it each time in the hope that I might find something to prove me wrong, particularly as the BBC describes him as ‘our greatest living playwright’. It is true that his work deserves to be described as Pinteresque but not, as far as I am concerned, in the way he might hope. For me, Pinteresque means boredom, misogyny, frustrated rage, repetition, monotony, bleakness, graceless and unsympathetic characters and a form of drama that never seems to have quite gone beyond an experimental phase, however well he uses the language and orders his words. He is not without wit, either, but I find the whole deeply unsatisfying.

I didn't stay with Moonlight on Radio Three (Sunday) with Pinter playing Andy, an angry dying father, the first radio production of this play. I did persist with a new production of A Slight Ache in ‘The Friday Play’ slot on Radio Four and Last to Go; a 1964 theatre revue sketch, fished from the archives. I dozed off halfway through but fortunately I had a tape of it and listened again on Monday morning this week. Described as a comedy of menace it was about a writer in a dead marriage living in a country-house whose peace is disturbed by the presence outside the back gate of a match-seller who stands there silently for weeks on end. The idea of a match-seller is rather quaint, though, as this play was first broadcast on the old Third Programme in 1959 match-sellers were, presumably, still in evidence at the time, like rag-and-bone men whom you no longer see.

Pinter played the writer Edward and Jill Johnson his wife Flora with hospital-matron cadences as if she were talking to a child. The match-seller didn't speak throughout. By this device it did work as radio drama, though I grew bored by the contrived repetition and the unattractiveness of the characters. Was the match-seller the rapist who ravished Flora in the woods when she was a girl out riding her pony? Did his presence make the silly Edward feel guilty about his wealth and success? Did her going off with the match-seller at the end convey that she was making a choice between someone she imagined might need her and someone who clearly didn't? Who knows? As Noël Coward remarked after seeing the ranting Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's 1956 premiere of Look Back in Anger: ‘What is he so angry about?’

My impatience grew during the somnific revue sketch Last to Go which featured a newspaper-seller (Geoffrey Bayldon) and a coffee-stall barman, played by Pinter, of course, meeting late at night. I had a better idea of what this was about: the sterility and emptiness of what passes for ordinary conversation between people with nothing to say and of limited horizons. We've all heard these conversations around us in the street and in pubs but even this didn't work for me as it was so manneristic and self-parodic. Nor did it seem particularly dramatic as it was obvious that it wasn't going to advance. Perhaps this is how he thought working-class people talk all the time or he might have been choleric about his own roots. Although it was quite short it seemed to last an eternity. So, it's no use; I just can't get going with Pinter. Good luck to those who can.

David Jays (essay date 30 October 2000)

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SOURCE: Jays, David. “Missing.” New Statesman 129, no. 4510 (30 October 2000): 42-4.

[In the following essay, Jays laments the neglect of Jewish writing in British theater. Jays comments that Pinter's Jewish background is rarely mentioned in critical discussion of his plays.]

Harold Pinter has just turned 70, and theatrical celebrations continue throughout the winter. They include not only Michael Gambon in a revival of The Caretaker, but also an adaptation at the National Theatre of an unfilmed screenplay based on Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Faber & Faber's birthday present gathers together affectionate, wary tributes from friends and colleagues in Harold Pinter: A Celebration. They touch on many subjects—Pinter's place in the European intellectual tradition, his fervent political conviction, his passion for cricket—but never his Jewishness.

It might seem a puzzling omission, but it's not untypical. Despite the work of Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Deborah Levy, Jewish writing is a neglected presence in British theatre. If you want to see an overtly Jewish character on the British stage, you usually have to wait for the ambivalent hero-villains in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice or Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, both written at a time when Jews were officially banished from the country. Subsequent waves of immigration did not produce a correspondingly heightened profile among the dramatis personae of British drama.

Pinter's relationship with Jewishness is interestingly ambiguous. His monstrous patriarchs—the retired butcher in The Homecoming, the father spuming on his deathbed in Moonlight—carry uncomfortable resonances of the religion in which he was raised. “God speaks through me,” booms the interrogator in One for the Road. “I'm referring to the Old Testament God, by the way, although I'm a long way from being Jewish.” His early work struggles against the grip of organised religion. As Michael Billington points out in his biography of the dramatist, The Birthday Party argues against the dead hand of Judaism and Catholicism, as represented by the heavies Goldberg and McCann. Pinter himself has said that the play “showed how the bastards … how religious forces ruin our lives”.

Jewish identity is a slippery subject, because it is both an ethnicity and a religion. Also, there are almost as many forms of British Jewry as there are Jews. There was certainly widespread immigration from eastern Europe, but there is an equally strong tradition of Jews with an Iberian and Mediterranean heritage. None the less, there are connecting experiences, of which the Holocaust was defining. Despite honourable exceptions, such as Kinderstransport by Diane Samuels, it is too rarely addressed by Jewish playwrights in Britain. Audiences here have recently seen two plays examining Albert Speer's delicate games of conscience, but only Julia Pascal, in The Holocaust Trilogy, creates a wide canvas of collusion and exclusion beyond the rotten glamour of evil.

Even in the 1980s and 1990s, years that were dominated by writing about identity politics, few Jewish plays were produced to accompany black, feminist and gay texts (again with exceptions, such as the plays of Deborah Levy, although Judaism is a subdued texture in her work). Instead, the people of the book include vibrant transformers, adapters and re-readers of texts. Jonathan Miller, Mike Alfreds and Steven Berkoff have played, argued with and reconfigured Shakespeare and Kafka, Sophocles and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Michael Meyer, the mighty translator and biographer of Ibsen and Strindberg, who died this summer, was in the same tradition. Jews make good spectators, too, according to the playwright David Hare. When Michael Gambon asked why West End audiences slumped in quality during a long run, Hare told him: “Because there are only enough Jews and gays in London to give you 80 rewarding nights. After that, you have to play to the rest.”

Dodgy racial theories about aptitude are best avoided. Daniel Pick collects several in his study Svengali's Web (Yale University Press), noting that the necessarily adaptable wandering Jew was unflatteringly described as a natural actor. Nietzsche proclaimed that “one might see them virtually as a world-historical arrangement for the production of actors, a veritable breeding ground for actors”. George Steiner, pondering more soberly why Jewish communities have produced (he considers) relatively few artists, comments: “The Jewish impulse is to know, not to invent. The world is there to be understood. It is a lifetime's work to try and interpret its complexity. Why fecklessly create new complexity?”

Flushing out the Jew from your bookshelves is a distasteful idea. In the United States, Mary McCarthy and Leslie Fiedler were among the critics who hounded Arthur Miller for denying the Jewishness of the Lomans in Death of a Salesman, just as Pinter has denied that The Homecoming depicts a Jewish family. Well, they are the writers. But would it be so bad if the subjects were Jewish? What is equally distasteful is the notion, lurking behind their vehemence, that a play tied too closely to Jewishness would be somehow less significant, less “universal”. Universality is an increasingly tired and discredited concept, too often subsuming difference and particularity.

Just as the great American novel can be a Jewish one, so can the great American play. Although Miller's probing of the American conscience has an ambiguous relationship with Jewishness that makes him, like Pinter, appear reluctant to place it at the centre of his drama, he none the less addresses the Holocaust directly in plays such as After the Fall, Playing for Time and Broken Glass. The critic Christopher Bigsby believes that “the knowledge that the sky can fall has given a greater urgency and a sharper edge to his commitment to reinventing the moral world”. Tony Kushner's hugely accomplished Angels in America (Nick Hern) makes of the United States a teeming diptych that contains multitudes, where Jews, fags and Mormons bob around in torturous moral squirming and dazzling self-discovery. David Mamet, too, conducts ethical inquisitions about what it is to be a man, about words invested with bluster and deceit, about the tenuous moral community implied by shared language.

Why does Pinter on stage, like Mike Leigh on film, not deal with this material in an overtly Jewish context? Beyond questions of artistic choice, there is surely an issue of cultural confidence. Jews in Britain have long been an “invisible” ethnicity. Among white Europeans, they can fade in and out if they want to, and assimilationist politics often encourages a low-key approach. Pragmatism, keeping your head down and not drawing attention to yourself have characterised mainstream Jewish life in Britain.

Public probing of fault lines and divisions, even individual perfidy, is best avoided for a community quietly trying to fit in. Jews behaving badly are a rare sight on stage, which makes Berkoff's rancorous, unapologetic creations in plays such as Kvetch a bracing corrective. Ritual in Blood, to be produced at the Nottingham Playhouse next year, concerns the “blood libel” persecutions in medieval England. Judging from the text, which was recently published in the third volume of Berkoff's collected plays, the argument arrives like a sledgehammer. Amid a raft of venal Christians, the hounded Jews of Lincoln attempt to respond with conciliation and adaptation, until one character spits: “I am sick of your perpetual victim philosophy, Rabbi!” These arguments are as old as assimilation itself, and too rarely aired on stage.

British, as the recent Runnymede report revealed, is still a contested term, an umbrella whose spokes may still poke you in the eye. I don't want to see tokenism on stage, to confine writers to thin dramatisations of their CV. I don't need to see people shrugging and saying “Oedipus, Schmoedipus” every time I go to the theatre. But isn't the immigrant experience, the construction of modern Britain, the examination of society as a moral crucible—hell, isn't all that kind of interesting? Not to mention the struggle of secularity against orthodoxy, the ideological and personal conflicts that have shaped modern Israel.

Linda Grant's novel When I Lived in Modern Times, the winner of this year's Orange Prize, dealt audaciously and seriously with several of these subjects—it can be done. “Perhaps our compulsion to tell each other our stories is no more than talkativeness and we would be better left in our silences, each with our own essential mystery,” reflects Grant's narrator. “Though God knows how you're going to sell that one to the Jews.” Surely it is time that some of those unstoppable stories edged out from the silence and on to the stage.

Sheridan Morley (review date 25 November 2000)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Pinter Surprise.” Spectator 285, no. 8990 (25 November 2000): 69-70.

[In the following review, Morley applauds a production of Pinter's The Caretaker that emphasizes the comic elements of the play.]

Now here's a funny thing, and it happens rather surprisingly to be Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. In celebration of the dramatist's 70th birthday, and indeed the 40th birthday of the play itself, Pinter's first international hit is back with us in a new staging by the playwright Patrick Marber, who also knows a thing or two about menace and minimalism.

But the surprise is in the tone of the playing, notably that of Sir Michael Gambon who (now in his full Ralph Richardson eccentricity on stage) moves the title character about as far as it is possible to get from the original, defining, sinister and secretive stage and screen presence of the late Donald Pleasence. It is not that Gambon or Marber go for laughs which are not valid or buried deep in the text; it is just that they seem to have found something basically comic about the dotty old vagrant and the two brothers, also several sandwiches short of the full picnic, who take him into their derelict lodging house and then fight territorial battles over his bizarre loyalty.

Pinter has always noted, amiably enough, that he never gets credited with a sense of stage humour, but here it is unmissable, as indeed is this production, already largely sold out, so start queuing now. The connections that are made here are surprisingly different; The Caretaker, which once seemed the very definition of Pinteresque, comes back to us now, in Rob Howell's brilliantly scabrous, cluttered setting, looking like a distant English cousin of Arthur Miller's The Price or even David Mamet's American Buffalo.

For this, too, is a play about a scrapheap, and people who deal only in junk; this too is about triangular power-games, brother setting on brother, and the knife that lies on the table. Marber has redefined it as a savagely supreme mix of farce and fear, and Gambon strides through the clutter and the crises like some already demented and dispossessed latter-day Lear, a king who has lost not just an empire but also his mind, and of course his shoes, on the long road to Sidcup.

We are also much more at home now than we were 40 years ago with Pinter's own obsessions—the manic quoting of the London A to Z streetguide, the sinister sound of placenames, the listing of increasingly exotic synonyms for one simple, but always missing word.

It is even arguable now that the modern British theatre began not with John Osborne in 1956, but with Pinter four years later; already The Caretaker looks forward to the coming of playwrights like Mamet and Marber, whereas Osborne always looked back towards a lost world of prewar certainties. What separates Pinter from his contemporaries is precisely the lack of a past; these three men in The Caretaker have, although they deny it frequently, come from nowhere and are going back there soon. They are already in the No Man's Land where Pinter was to find another major hit 15 years later, and it does not alter: the icy wasteland of A Kind of Alaska is also first charted here, and in that sense this play can now be seen as a pointer to almost all the Pinter that lay ahead.

What makes it work this time around are the performances, not only of Gambon but almost equally of Douglas Hodge and Rupert Graves as the brothers who have also been damaged in nameless and terrible ways, and for whom the dark is never again going to be light enough. The Caretaker has always chilled the spine; now, it also tickles the ribs, and the balancing act of Marber's staging on the high wire is at once a celebration and a revelation of one of the half-dozen greatest British plays of the century just ended.

If Peer Gynt had indeed been written by Synge or Yeats, there might be some purpose in staging it as a rambling Irish poetic drama to match Playboy of the Western World. The trouble is, however, that it is by Henrik Ibsen and, after the excellent job he did on Enemy of the People a couple of years ago at the National, it is kind of sad to find Trevor Nunn, who by all accounts came in to ‘assist’ this new production of Peer by Conall Morrison during troubled rehearsals and previews, failing to retrieve much of the shambles. True, matters are not helped by the new National Ensemble, one which having made a right old mess of Romeo and Juliet now sets out to demolish another classic on the open Olivier stage.

In this curious endeavour, they are much helped by the ten-year-old Frank McGuinness adaptation which demands not one but three Peers, thereby making an already fragmented and diffuse classic all the more vague and inchoate. Peer Gynt needs the strict control of a brilliant stage-manager; it also needs a leading player with whom we can cross continents and lifetimes, about whom we can care, and who like a recalcitrant Father Courage can bind this vast circus of a play together. We no more need three Peer Gynts than we ever need three King Lears in the same production.

Hilary King's ever-enterprising Red Pear Theatre in Antibes is, apart from the English Theatre of Vienna, the only resident and regular English-language theatre company in Continental Europe, and it is they who now bring to the King's Head in Islington an intriguing group of seven American strolling players who specialise in cut-down Shakespeare, though not after the satirical fashion of the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Subtlety is not their strongest suit, but they belt through Macbeth in rather less than two hours, lining up along the back wall as the drama starts, and then taking on several roles each until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.

Ingrid Wassenaar (review date 8 December 2000)

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SOURCE: Wassenaar, Ingrid. “Plying the Little Phrase.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5097 (8 December 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Wassenaar applauds Pinter's stage adaptation of Marcel Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Wassenaar discusses the themes of snobbery and sexuality in both works.]

Harold Pinter first wrote a screenplay version of A la recherche du temps perdu at the request of Joseph Losey, in 1972, but the film was never made. Now it has been staged, at the Royal National Theatre (in the Cottesloe), under the inspired direction of Di Trevis. The production deserves high praise. Remembrance of Things Past is a prodigal screenplay which has at last come home to the theatre.

Proust and Pinter both stage the world as a rhapsodic arrangement of scenes which build a picture of how humans are both interconnected and isolated by their desires. This picture is stitched together through minute associations, as though the order of scenes arises because they are reminders of one another. Pinter takes huge liberties with the structure of A la recherche—how could he not?—but they are motivated liberties. The most important example of this is the great party scene, the culminating glory of Proust's book, which has been shifted to the beginning of Pinter's play, and juxtaposed with the goodnight kiss episode. Pinter thus gives away the ending of the novel, but generates for his own play the energy to propel the action, through Swann's jealous love affair with the manipulative Odette, the investigation of belle époque aristocratic life, beach parties, salons, wartime male brothels, concerts, and the narrator's doomed involvement with Albertine.

At just under three hours, the production is long, and the second half drags slightly. The problem, however, is not with the pacing of Pinter's script. Nor, to be fair, does the drag lie in the delivery. The play is wonderfully well acted: despite the gorgeous costumes (by Carrie Bayliss), the actors have not succumbed to period-drama coyness. Sebastian Harcombe as Marcel, the narrator, is a quiet, permanently worried everyman figure. Paul Ritter, doubling as Dr Cottard and Marcel's father, gives us a pair of priceless cod-Victorian positivists. Fritha Goodey, as the ever-youthful Odette, manages to add years with a mere stiffening of her movement, Pinter writes self-consciously unnatural lines, that, while not calqued on the original French, preserve the awkwardness of discussing intimate subjects, and the cast handle this slightly alienated dialogue uniformly well. Indira Varma as ambiguous Albertine, the narrator's potentially lesbian girlfriend, spits out potential tongue-twisters—“I'd much rather you left me alone for once in a way”—at speed. The problem with pacing, in fact, comes from A la recherche itself, as the entropy of Marcel's story, all bright illusion at the outset, and bitter, jealous despair towards the end, is acted out. Pinter has taken up the challenge of showing time passing, and if the pace suffers, that is mainly because unhappiness takes a long time to come to an end.

Having said that, the delight in this production, and its pictures of Paris and the Normandy coast, definitely lie in the first half, when Proust's great themes are opened up: snobbery and sexuality. Proust is endlessly fascinated by the idea that, in essence, snobbery explains the ambivalence of all human interaction. When Mme Verdurin, perfectly played by a scratchy-voiced Janine Duvitski, tells everyone how much she suffers if she hears Vinteuil's sonata, we see that she is both a vulgar social climber, and an accurate prophet of the development of twentieth-century art movements.

Pinter is one of the few adapters of Proust who has been able to transmit what keeps A la recherche on the move, which is sex, and the Cottesloe—at once intimate and spectacular—is the ideal space in which to house Proust's exploration of how the boundaries between sexualities merge and overlap. Male homosexuality is rendered as a half-lit wrestling match. Cafe tables, used to sculpt a frieze at one point, are upturned to become thickets, pleasure domes and spy holes. One beautiful scene has a group of girls as laundresses. As they groan with the effort of wringing and shaking out wet sheets, we become aware of Albertine concealed behind the tables, moaning in unison, busy with her own private labour of love. Di Trevis economically transforms a piano kept on stage throughout the performance into a repository of sexual mobility; it is an instrument for expressing orthodox desire—the “little phrase” of Vinteuil's sonata, which Swann adopts to define his affair with Odette—but at other moments, girls lounge together across it, or use it as a promenade for predatory attacks on men.

The presiding metaphor of the production is the mysterious little patch of yellow which relieves Alison Chitty's grey backdrop. It is finally replaced by the little patch of yellow roof in Vermeer's “View of Delft”, Proust's shorthand for the essence of artistic creativity. This is the right visual correlative for Pinter's essence of Proust; the amplitude of A la recherche fuses momentarily with the elliptical concision of Pinter's reading. But, for all its aptness, this final image is not the most impressive. In a play that presents us with a picture of human emotion as the fleeting interruption of unalloyed indifference, there is just one moment that really moves us: it is the barely perceptible flinch of the narrator's dying grandmother (Judy Campbell), when Marcel tells her that she is too old to be photographed.

Harold Pinter and Anne-Marie Cusac (interview date March 2001)

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SOURCE: Pinter, Harold, and Anne-Marie Cusac. “Harold Pinter.” Progressive 65, no. 3 (March 2001): 32-8.

[In the following interview, Pinter discusses his political orientation and his treatment of the themes of power and powerlessness in his plays.]

Several months back, a colleague handed me a copy of the British journal The New Internationalist. The issue would interest me, she said, because it included a special section on U.S. prisons and because Harold Pinter had written an essay for it. (She knew I had long admired Pinter's plays.) I read the Pinter essay, finding to my surprise that it mentioned the stun belt and the restraint chair, two subjects I had reported on for The Progressive.

I wrote Pinter, requesting a couple of hours for an interview. He promptly agreed.

I first checked out a copy of The Caretaker from the library years ago, on the advice of a writing teacher. When I finished with that one, I returned and checked out all the Pinter plays on the shelves. I read them over the next few weeks, pausing to gasp at a particular music I soon realized was Pinter's own—simultaneously lyrical, hard-assed, implicitly brutal, and rhythmically dead-on.

His twenty-nine plays, which include The Birthday Party,The Caretaker,The Homecoming,Betrayal, Party Time, and One for the Road, have inspired the adjective “Pinteresque,” which the Financial Times defined as “full of dark hints and pregnant suggestions, with the audience left uncertain as to what to conclude.”

But Pinter might be reluctant to apply such a phrase to his own writing. “Once, many years ago, I found myself engaged uneasily in a public discussion on the theater,” said Pinter on being awarded the 1970 German Shakespeare Prize. “Someone asked me what my work was ‘about.’ I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of enquiry: ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.’ That was a great mistake. Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my own work. But for me the remark meant precisely nothing. Such are the dangers of speaking in public.”

Pinter is also an actor, director, and screenwriter. Among his twenty-one screenplays are The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1969), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980), The Trial (1989), and The Tragedy of King Lear (2000).

Born in 1930, Pinter is also an outspoken human rights advocate. He has protested the NATO bombing of Serbia, the Gulf War and the bombing of Iraq since that time, the ill-treatment of U.S. prisoners, censorship, the U.S. role in Latin America, and the Turkish government's mistreatment of the Kurds. He has also demanded the release of Mordechai Vanunu—the Israeli citizen imprisoned for fourteen years because he told the British press that Israel had developed nuclear bombs.

I interviewed Pinter in his office in early December. Careful with his words, he often paused for a time before stating his opinion. He had an artist's caution about summing up or explaining his plays and an artist's enjoyment of craft talk. He expressed delight when demonstrating another actor's clever move. He was serious, but quick to laugh. And when talking about abuses of the state, he was passionate.

Just before I left, Pinter pulled two books from a high shelf and handed them to me. One was Celebration, his most recent play, which I had told him my library didn't own. The other was a book of screenplays which he said he was giving to me because I clearly admired The French Lieutenant's Woman.

[Cusac]: Early on, you didn't talk about some of your plays, like The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, or The Hothouse, as political. But more recently you've started to talk about them that way. Why?

[Pinter]: Well, they were political. I was aware that they were political, too. But at that time, at whatever age I was—in my twenties—I was not a joiner. I had been a conscientious objector, you know, when I was eighteen. But I was a pretty independent young man, and I didn't want to get up on a soapbox. I wanted to let the plays speak for themselves, and if people didn't get it, to hell with it.

Did you feel that if you got up on a soapbox it would take away from the art?

Yeah, I thought it would, really. As I said, I thought the plays would speak for themselves. But they didn't.

What was your experience like as a conscientious objector?

I was quite resolute. This was 1948, I remind you. And I was simply not, absolutely not, going to join the army. Because I had seen the Cold War beginning before the hot war was over. I knew the atom bomb had been a warning to the Soviet Union. I had two tribunals and two trials. I was prepared to go to prison. I was eighteen. It was a civil offense, you know, not a criminal offense. I had the same magistrate at both trials, and he fined me twice. My father had to find the money, which was a lot of money at the time, but he did. But I took my toothbrush with me to court both times. I was prepared to go to prison.

And I haven't changed a bit, I have to say.

And your family?

They were very upset by it. My God, yes. I mean it was a disgrace. But they stood by me, nevertheless. You know, in those days, one did what one was told. This was national service; it was conscription. And that was that. You went into the army.

What changed your way of approaching your plays?

I changed myself. I became less and less reticent about saying what I felt, and therefore I was able to talk about the plays in a slightly different way, too.

I really did have a great jolt in 1973, when the Pinochet coup overthrew Allende. It really knocked me, as they say, for six. I was appalled and disgusted by it. And I knew how the CIA and the U.S. were behind the whole damn thing. And of course now, surprise, surprise, the documents come out confirming this.

So, anyway, in '73, that really jolted me into another kind of political life. Now what happened to my plays, I don't know. I've written plays which have nothing to do with politics, during the seventies, one or two. I've always had a number of lines going in my life. And I don't write plays, you know, to do with party politics.

You'll have to ask one of those professors how to define what I'm doing because it's difficult for me.

But you are also concerned with power and powerlessness. That's political, isn't it?

Oh, well, of course it is. If you can say that an exploration of power and powerlessness is in itself political, I think that I wouldn't argue with that. I think it's true.

What about The Homecoming and The Caretaker? Do you feel that they express some of these issues—power and powerlessness?

I don't really see either of them as political, as such. Here is a very true story. Terence Rattigan was quite a celebrated English playwright, and he said to me, “I know what The Caretaker is about.” And he said something about “God, the Holy Ghost, and mankind.” And I said, “No. It's about two brothers and a caretaker.” You know, it's just, that's what it is. Certainly, the caretaker figure, as it were, is homeless. So it's about someone who has nowhere to go. But it's about I think three really dispossessed characters anyway. I don't know how political it is.

There's a real sense of economic risk, though, because if he loses that house he's …

… gone. Yeah, he's down the drain. Oh, yeah, that's absolutely right.

The Homecoming is, I believe, a play about family. And about misogyny, certainly, very much so. There's a production at the Comédie-Française. I've already seen a run-through of it. I thought it was pretty good. There's one very interesting piece of staging in the opening of the second act. You know, when they've all had lunch, the whole family, after he's insulted her like nobody's business, and the men come in smoking cigars and then she comes in with the younger brother and coffee and the men sit down and she serves every single man with coffee. It all happens in absolute silence. It's so clear.

Except, I'm happy to say, she turns the tables on all of them. That's my view. The whole damn bunch of them—by the end. Ruth at the end of the play is a really free woman, and nobody knows what to do about her. They're all blown over. I truly believe it's a feminist play.

The last time it was done here, at the National Theater about three years ago, it wasn't an entirely successful production for various reasons. But it did have one wonderful moment at the very end. You remember, she's sitting there with Joey, his head on her lap. And the old man is kneeling beside her, saying, “Kiss me.” And Lenny, you know, the brother, is standing at the back. I just say, “Lenny stands watching.” And this fellow who played Lenny, he was a very clever actor, very talented. All he did—normally Lenny stands watching—that's how I've always seen it, watching, thinking. “What the hell do we do now with her? We can't control her, period.” This Lenny, however, did this. [Pinter stands up and starts to shift from foot to foot, looking back over his shoulder, then forward at an invisible Ruth.] There's a door there. He's going to slip out in a minute, and he just, he just shifted. It was brilliant. You saw immediately that, really, he knew he had no power over her whatsoever.

Whereas, the last French production I saw—not this one, but about four years ago—I went on the stage after and met the actors and director and actually protested, said they'd gotten something totally wrong. And they didn't seem to understand it. Because, what happened in this case, she was sitting here [indicates where Ruth would sit] and this Lenny fellow came behind her and put his hands on her shoulders: a possession. And I said, “That's ridiculous. He doesn't possess her in any sense.” They'd really misunderstood that.

Anyway, I still think Ruth is a free, independent woman, and I've always liked her. And I think she is also pretty vulnerable. Of course she is. But she can take them on. And reduce them.

You've talked about having an antagonistic relationship with your audience, as an actor—hating the audience, or “fuck the audience.” Does that give you some freedom as an author also?

Yeah, it's rather tempting to feel that. One of the greatest theatrical nights of my life was the opening of The Homecoming in New York. There was the audience. This was 1967. I'm not sure they've changed very much, but it really was your mink coats and suits. Money. And when the lights went up on The Homecoming, they hated it immediately: “Jesus Christ, what the hell are we looking at here?” I was there, and the hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it.

The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything they'd got. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in their tuxedos were just horrified and the women, because the actors just went [he makes the sound of an explosion]. I thought it was a great night. And that was a real example of a contest between the play and the audience. There's no question that the play won on that occasion, although that is not always the case.

I don't want to overstate the point. I mean, sometimes, if audiences are intelligent and receptive, then, of course, I like them!

I was wondering about some of the plays like Mountain Language or One for the Road.

They are much more overt political statements, I think.

So the imagination has less free rein in that kind of play, then?

No, it doesn't. The only way I can write is to let the imagination go, you know. But for example in Mountain Language, and perhaps to a certain extent in One for the Road, also, and Party Time, I have a certain sort of horrified relish in some of the characters, whom I actually, at the same time, find totally detestable. But when I say “relish,” I mean I relish writing where they are appalling and presenting them fully, I hope. I mean, certainly in One for the Road and Mountain Language, there are brutal, brutal, brutal forces. And you have to let those forces speak for themselves—no holds barred.

So, if you say, “Is the imagination constrained?” the answer is no because I try to inhabit those ghastly characters.

But I always did, you know, going back to The Birthday Party many, many years ago, there's one called Goldberg, who is a real shit of the first order. I relished writing him.

And in The Homecoming there are some like that.

That's right. [He chuckles.]

What do you enjoy about those characters?

Well, I suppose, looking at their truth, finding what they really are, and not attempting to in any sense apologize for them, and certainly not to explain them—just to present them. And also to realize how finally impotent they are.

Incidentally, there is going to be a festival of my plays at the Lincoln Center next July, and I'm going to act the part of Nicholas in One for the Road. I will enjoy doing that as an actor, although I detest the character. He's a murderer. But I will enjoy just giving full value to his own ghastly richness.

You've also written about conflict with your characters as a writer. What do you mean?

When I said that, I think I was talking about if I attempt to stop them, they resist it. I think it is not fanciful or silly to say that the characters do start to possess their own life.

Are you ever tempted not to write the character the way it wants to be written?

No, not really. You do have a leash, finally, as a writer. You're holding a dog. You let the dog run about. But you finally can pull him back. Finally, I'm in control. But the great excitement is to see what happens if you let the whole thing go. And the dog or the character really runs about, bites everyone in sight, jumps up trees, falls into lakes, gets wet, and you let that happen. That's the excitement of writing plays—to allow the thing to be free but still hold the final leash.

This appears on your web site. “In 1958, I wrote the following: ‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’” But then you make the note, “I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen, I must ask: What is true? What is false?” Do these two ways of seeing and experiencing ever come into conflict for you?

I don't think they do. It's slightly odd. When you are writing a work of fiction, you're inhabiting a very different kind of world from the world we actually live in every day of the week. It's simply different, the world of imagination. You can't make those determinations—about truth and lies—in what we loosely call a work of art. You've got to be open and explore. You've got to let the world find itself, speak for itself. Whereas, in the actual, practical, concrete world in which we live, it's very easy, from my point of view, to see a distinction between what is true and what is false. Most of what we're told is false. And the truth is, on the whole, hidden and has to be excavated and presented and confronted, all along the line.

But I think that even now what I'm saying is perhaps a little too hard and fast. There are, of course, correspondences between art and life, as there should be. There have to be. Otherwise, what does art mean? But it's very complex, the world of our imagination, and human life is very complex. Political issues don't seem to me to be at all complex.

What do you mean by, “Mostly what we're told is false?”

Well, in the so-called democracies in which we live—the word I believe is meaningless, the word “democracy.”

Meaningless in the way it plays out?

In the way it is played out, yes.

So, as an idea …

No, no. [He laughs.] It's an awfully good idea. I think we are mostly told lies. Or, where we are not told lies, we are told a lot of bullshit. The actual propaganda of our democracies is palpably hypocritical. Who are they kidding? The trouble is, they do manage to kid an awful lot of people. That's a terrible thing.

My dear father, who died at the age of ninety-six, was a great guy. He was a very vigorous man. But nevertheless, I do remember him saying, “But it says so in the papers. I'm saying that because it said so in the paper.” And I believe the complicity is a fact—the complicity between government, business, and media, which few people care to contemplate. I think that the structures of power essentially treat people with contempt because that's the way they survive. But they say the opposite. They say, “We love you.” It's the Orwellian thing: “We're taking the greatest care of you.”

Even while they're torturing them, they're saying, “We love you. Please trust us and rely upon us.” And what appalls me is, “We're looking after your best interests by torturing you.”

You know T. S. Eliot said something about, “Don't expect serenity from old men.” Well, you certainly won't get it from me, because I have become more and more disgusted by that kind of lie.

What kind of torture are you talking about?

All kinds of torture, including the torture you've written about, and so have I, in American prisons. I'm not really saying that the United States would assert that they are looking after the best interests of the two million people in prison. But they would say they are looking after the best interests of society. And they're not. They're not by a very long way. They're doing something quite different. They are suppressing a great body of people, you know, thousands upon thousands for obviously very minor offenses—very small drug offenses and so on. The proportion of black prisoners is extraordinary, and recently with the whole question of Florida, the number of black voters who are actually disenfranchised in a number of ways is quite eloquent, I think, as to what's going on in your country.

Mind you, I don't have much to say about my own country.

Yeah, we'll get to your own country. But actually, I think to have someone like you from Britain writing in The New Internationalist about U.S. prisons might surprise even our readers. I'm wondering how you got involved in that issue.

I gradually knew more and more about it as I made investigations. I do have friends in America, one or two who do, believe me, keep me well up-to-date and well informed. They're pretty beleaguered, I have to say.

Leftwingers, you mean?

Yeah, yeah. Beleaguered, lonely, but they are there, you know. So I've been kept up on the developments, and I've read a lot about what's happened in American prisons in the last ten or twenty years. But I also, of course, have read the Amnesty report from two years ago, with the stun belt, the restraint chairs. And then I made a number of speeches here about it. Because I think it's not just a U.S. domestic affair with nothing to do with anybody else. Not at all. Since the U.S. makes so many pronouncements about the world it sees before it, I think I am entitled to make pronouncements about what actually is taking place in the United States.

Do you have any qualms about making statements about the U.S.?

I don't have any qualms. People don't like it—here they don't like it.


Oh, I'm notorious.

They don't like it here?

No, no, no, because I have become, I have to tell you … I used the word “notorious.” I don't have to be romantic about it. The fact is, I am quite unpopular. Because you have to get the special relationship between Britain and the United States. Everything the United States does is good, et cetera, et cetera. Well, I don't take that view at all.

I thought that the Gulf War was a disgrace. And I thought the NATO bombing of Serbia was another disgrace, to put it mildly.

I was asked to make a speech during the bombing of Serbia at the Institute of Jungian Psychiatrists. And I said to the fellow who asked me, the president of the organization, “Why do you want me to make a speech?” He knew where I stood. He said, “Well, I think they'll be interested.”

In short, I did write a speech. It was all about what had happened, in my view, why it was happening, what it was doing, what it was representing, and with specific reference to the terms “humanitarian intervention,” “humanitarian values,” “civilized values.” And then I gave a long account of the U.S. penal system—the restraint chair, the stun belts, the stun guns, the death penalty. And I have to tell you—there were 250 people packed into the place—nobody said, “This isn't relevant.” I was attacked on a number of other grounds, but not on that ground, because they all saw.

It was simply that you use the term “humanitarian intervention” while you have two million people in your own prisons, who you treat in the main with absolute contempt. And then the same state says, “We are now acting from a humanistic point of view.” I think the rhetoric is serious crap.

So I'm always looking for those schisms between language and action, what you say and what you do. This is where I find constant sources of curiosity and disgust.

OK, now about your country: Do you feel that the Labor Party has betrayed its radical promise?

Yeah, absolutely, all along the line. I feel it very, very strongly. I mean, this country is now being really sold down the river, quite apart from what's happening in foreign policy.

What do you mean?

The privatization of this country, it's difficult to digest. Our railways are privatized now. Since they've been privatized, and in the last eighteen months, there have been two appalling accidents. I mean, unbelievable. Two crashes, which have killed roughly sixty people. And this is to do with safety measures which are not taken because they say they can't afford it. There's no profit in safety. It's the same as factories. Safety provisions are simply not taken because they cost money, and who cares anyway? The railways are in the most appalling state. It's a total scandal in this country.

Water, here, has also been privatized. And it really is the case that in many parts of the country when there's a drought, which there was here last year, people were paying more, desperately, for their water. Their water rates went up, you understand. And the water trickled through. There was no proper provisional care for the distribution of water, which is rather important, whereas the directors of these companies walked away with millions of pounds. And the same applies to the Railtrack. These directors, after having fucked the whole system up through negligence and indifference, they go away with twenty-seven million pounds. And they play golf.

This is what this government has actually developed from the Thatcher years. Because this government is interested only in big business. It makes all the noises about the money it's spending on this, that, or the other thing. All public services are a shambles here. They're falling apart. So I think politics in this country has been a bum steer for many years.

Did anything happen to you early on that changed your life?

I don't know. I don't know really. How the hell can I say what changed my life or affected my life?

Perhaps all I can tell you is that at the age of thirteen I fell madly in love. I was quite precocious, and I fell in love with a girl who lived on my street. And it wasn't her fault, but I became very unhappy. I mean, we had a certain kind of relationship, very young. But I think the fact that she was inevitably going to go on to others and wasn't going to be mine forever …

I was writing a lot of poetry to do with precisely that. My father was a tailor, you know. He used to get up very, very early in the morning to go to work. And one day, he came down and found me. This was about six-thirty in the morning, or something like that. And there I was, sitting at the kitchen table, writing, I think I was almost in tears. And he said, “What are you doing?” quite gruff. And I said, “I don't know, Dad. I don't know what I'm doing.” He took what I was writing and looked at it. Then he gave it back to me and just patted me on the head and went to work. He never referred to it again. He didn't say, “Oh, put that rubbish away,” or anything like that. He just knew that I was going through the anguish of love. And I always loved him for that.

Who are some of your heroes? Do you have them?

[Laughs.] James Joyce. Yeah. I love Ulysses. Johann Sebastian Bach. And one or two others.

Is it for their art?

Yeah. And their independence. Nobody knows much about Bach, but my God, he just did what he did with music. It's like nobody else's.

Roger Copeland (essay date October 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4446

SOURCE: Copeland, Roger. “A Room of His Own.” American Theatre 18, no. 8 (October 2001): 23-6, 130-33.

[In the following essay, Copeland asserts that the time has come for a major reevaluation of Pinter's career and of his legacy to British theater.]

The essential ingredients rarely change: A room, a safe enclosed space of some sort. Characters who feel not only secure, but “at home” in that space. An unexpected visitor whose very presence evokes a sense of dread, of inexplicable threat—a fear that seems at first, unfounded, even paranoid. Then … almost imperceptibly, an “invasion” begins; and the boundaries between inside/outside, familiar/unfamiliar, safe/unsafe, self/other begin to blur.

Eventually, territory changes hands and roles are reversed. The battlefield may be domestic, but the tactical maneuvers are as complicated as any military scenario ever studied at West Point. And no matter how violent or unsettling the outcome, language—and its necessary complement, silence—remains the principal weapon with which these wars are fought.

Welcome to “Harold Pinter 101,” a time-honored, follow-the-numbers, almost numbingly familiar introduction to the work of one of the world's greatest living playwrights. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with this sort of approach to Pinter. It's just that this particular set of theme-and-variations has been repeated so many times that it's hardened into the sort of received wisdom that conceals as much as it reveals. Shall we round up the usual suspect phrases, run 'em up the flagpole and see if they still fly? “Comedy of menace.” “The weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” “A Hitchcock film with the final reel missing.” And, of course, there's the most Pinteresque buzz-word of them all, that infinitely resonant … PAUSE.

The problem with such clichés is not that they're false. Quite the contrary. It's that the truths they convey are all too self-evident. Their very obviousness becomes as much an impediment to clear thinking as all those platitudes and non-sequiturs that perpetually chase their own tails in Pinter's plays.

But if ever the moment was ripe for Americans to try and re-think the whole subject of Pinter—to re-evaluate his legacy and ask the tough questions about (just for starters) his relationship to the British theatrical revolution of 1956, to the larger European tradition of “the absurd” on the one hand and “realism” on the other, his debt to Beckett, David Marnet's debt to him, etc., etc.—that moment is now.

Thanks to the enterprising Michael Colgan of Dublin's Gate Theatre and Nigel Redden, director of New York's Lincoln Center Festival, Americans were able to see a very provocative sampling of Pinter's work—nine plays in all, plus ten films for which Pinter wrote the screenplays—at Lincoln Center last July. The productions were performed in repertory and were produced by companies that all have a longstanding association with Pinter: the Almeida and the Royal Court of London and Colgan's own company, the Gate of Dublin.

This was in many ways an aficionado's festival, with seven of the nine plays not usually studied in “Pinter 101.” Aside from a spectacular production of The Homecoming, directed by Robin Lefevre for the Gate, the festival focused on unusual pairings of Pinter's one-act plays. It featured, for example, a wonderful career sandwiching double bill of Pinter's very first play, The Room (1957), side-by-side with his most recent play, Celebration (2000); a rarely produced work from 1972 called Monologue; two fascinating juxtapositions of the overtly “political” and the more resolutely “metaphysical” plays—double bills of One for the Road (1984) and A Kind of Alaska (1982) and the even more provocative pairing of Mountain Language (1988) and Ashes to Ashes (1996). Rounding out this cross-section of plays was one of Pinter's most lyrical (and exquisitely musical) dove-tailings of “he said / she said” monologues, Landscape (1967).

Some people, including some critics, lamented the absence of their old favorites: The Birthday Party,The Caretaker,The Dumb Waiter,Old Times,No Man's Land. Festival curator Colgan, if asked to defend these omissions, would probably answer with four terse words: “Been there, done that.” For this was in fact the third such Pinter festival Colgan has organized. So there's no getting around the fact that the 2001 Pinter festival wasn't as comprehensive as say, the Samuel Beckett festival (also curated by Colgan) that Lincoln Center produced in 1996. But this year's event offered, by way of compensation, something that ultimately proved revelatory: Pinter's own direct participation as actor, director and public speaker. Pinter himself portrayed the suave but insecure interrogator in One for the Road. He also directed the Almeida's double bill of The Room and Celebration; and he was publicly interviewed by Mel Gussow of the New York Times. Factor in the opportunity to see the exceedingly rare film that Peter Hall made of The Homecoming in 1973, as well as the cinematic version of The Caretaker that Clive Donner directed in 1964, and the stage is set for a major re-evaluation of Pinter's career.

Indeed, the real insights to be gleaned from this event are directly related to the ways in which Pinter's plays have benefited over the years from his deep, ongoing immersion in acting, directing and screenwriting. The logical place to begin this reconsideration is probably with the Almeida's double bill of The Room and Celebration: This way we can hone in on Pinter from both ends of his career simultaneously.

The Room takes place in a seedy cockney bed-sit. A mysterious figure is said to be waiting in the basement, eager to deliver a message to one of the room's inhabitants. His eventual entrance into her space precipitates an act of violence that objectifies the accumulating menace and fear—simmering, subterranean emotions that had previously remained implicit in the character's verbal by-play.

Celebration is set at the other end of the social spectrum: in a chi-chi, obscenely expensive London restaurant whose nouveau riche clientele are periodically interrupted by a cheeky waiter who invariably inquires, “Do you mind if I make an interjection?” Each “interjection” is triggered by the claim that he's just heard them speaking about whatever topic he seems breathlessly eager to address at that moment (e.g., “It's just that I heard you talking about T. S. Eliot a little bit earlier this evening.”)

These pronouncements come as news to both the diners and to those of us in the audience who've been following the characters' every word. But then, seizing the advantage, this (presumably) working-class waiter proceeds to tell a series of hilariously improbable tall tales in which he maintains that his grandfather had tea with Mussolini, played poker with Winston Churchill and palled around with virtually everyone listed in the celebrity register, including Igor Stravinsky, Franz Kafka and the Three Stooges.

As usual, the torrents of language that pour from the mouths of seemingly brazen Pinter characters like this waiter never fully mask the insecurities that prompt them. When his customers drift out of the exclusive dining area later that evening, and the exit door slams shut, the waiter is left behind—painfully alone, looking more than a little lost, isolated in a powerfully resonating silence. Celebration concludes with his turning toward the audience and confessing, “My grandfather introduced me to the mystery of life and I'm still in the middle of it. I can't find the door to get out.”

What, if anything, can we conclude from this bird's-eye overview of Pinter's career to date? If nothing else, between The Room in 1957 and Celebration in 2000, both Pinter and his characters would appear to have “moved up” in the world. But the differences between bacon and eggs (the plat du jour in the first scene of The Room) and osso buco (its culinary equivalent in Celebration) prove much less significant than the “family resemblances” that unite these two works.

In Pinter's first play, the room was invaded from the outside. In his most recent one-act, the room itself becomes a trap, an enveloping maze that blocks the characters' access to the outside world. But in both instances, the action is set (or contained) within the sort of room that would seem to link Pinter more to 19th-century realism than to the tradition of “the theatre of the absurd” (which reaches its aesthetic apogee in the plays of Pinter's great friend and mentor, Samuel Beckett). The “room”—as things turn out—isn't just the title of Pinter's earliest play, it's the Ur-setting for many of Pinter's most durable works.

Indeed, the walls of “the room” are nowhere more confining—and nowhere more solid—than in Pinter's masterwork from 1965, The Homecoming. Whether on page or on stage, the first thing one notices about The Homecoming is its setting: Here's the way Pinter describes it in his stage directions:

An old house in North London. A large room, extending the width of the stage. The back wall, which contained the door, has been removed. A square arch shape remains. Beyond it, the hall. In the hall a staircase, ascending U.L., well in view

Indeed, in this vast room, everything (and everyone) is well in view. The open (but walled-in) setting leaves no place to hide: a perfect space for the excavation of deep, dark family secrets. When Teddy, the son who's “escaped” to America, returns home for the purpose of introducing his wife to the all-male clan that inhabits its this room (his father, his uncle and two brothers), he proudly describes his “ancestral” home in the following passage:

What do you think of the room? Big, isn't it? It's a big house. I mean, it's a fine room, don't you think? Actually there was a wall, across there … with a door. We knocked it down … years ago … to make an open living area. The structure wasn't affected, you see. My mother was dead.

This is surely one of the strangest—and most mysteriously reverberant—linkages between character and setting in all of dramatic literature. And it tells us a great deal about what makes Pinter Pinter.

Neither The Room (an early and imperfect work, but one that provides a revealing glimpse of Pinter-in-the-making) nor Celebration (for all its incidental pleasures, probably Pinter-past-his-prime) is set in quite so unusual a room. The quality these two one-acts share, though, with his masterpiece The Homecoming (as well as with many of his greatest plays, including The Birthday Party,The Caretaker and Old Times) is a stylistic commitment to what might be called theatrical neo-realism. In the world of Harold Pinter, it often seems that the more solid the walls, the more solid the plays.

And this in turn leads to a question that cuts to the very heart of Pinter's originality: Wasn't modernist drama (prior to Pinter) supposed to have liberated the theatre from precisely this sort of confined space, a box set in which the typical “well-made play” was housed during the 19th century? One of the great achievements of the late plays of both Ibsen and Strindberg, for example, was to have imagined their way beyond the claustrophobic confines of the fourth wall. Indeed, the visionary modernist stage designer Robert Edmund Jones once referred derisively to all those “tasteful, well-furnished rooms with one wall missing.”

Certainly, Samuel Beckett would never have set a play in as, shall we say, “realistic” a setting as that which accommodates the Gate Theatre's Homecoming. And there's nothing in Pinter's dramaturgy as overtly metaphorical as the ash cans inhabited by Nagg and Nell in Endgame, the growing mound of sand that envelops Winnie in Happy Days, the pinspot of light which isolates the mouth of the single speaker in Not I—not to mention the madly proliferating chairs in Ionesco's The Chairs or the mirrored brothel, the hall of illusions, in Genet's The Balcony.

So, yes—Pinter does indeed return the art of serious playwriting to the sort of “room” that serious playwriting (prior to Pinter) was supposed to have outgrown. Yet, in the final analysis, Pinter's room is a room with a difference, a room with a secret. His confined spaces appear—at least initially—to welcome us back from the black abyss of modernism to a sense of security and familiarity promised by solid walls (i.e., the room as surrogate womb). But the essence of Pinter's strategy might be paraphrased as follows: If you really want to tug the rug out from under your audience's preconceptions, it helps to begin with a real rug. For Pinter knows that the deepest terrors, the profoundest mysteries, hover in and around the most realist-looking of details.

Pinter's practice of theatrical neo-realism is a far cry from the onstage world that most absurdist plays occupy, but an equally far cry from 19th-century realism. In fact, Pinter's plays are what “realism” looks like after Beckett, after the intervention of the tradition of “the absurd.”

The closest aesthetic parallel is probably the emergence of “photo-realist” painters like Richard Estes in the late 1960s and early '70s. Photo-realism is painting's attempt to re-connect with “the real world” after a half-century of abstraction. The art critic Linda Nochlin, in the 1971 essay “Realism Now,” wrote:

New Realism, far from being an aberration or a throwback in contemporary art, is a major innovating impulse. Its precise quality of novelty … lies more in its connection with photography … the film or even with the advanced novel, than its relation to traditional realist painting.

Many of the paintings Nochlin refers to can initially be mistaken for photographs. Then, upon closer examination, one realizes that they are in fact instances of paint-on-canvas. But often what the painter used as his “model” was not the real world per se, but a photograph of the real world. Thus the artist's connection to this outside world is unabashedly mediated and subjective, much less straightforward than that of the 19th-century realist who often believed that he or she had directly transcribed “the thing itself.” To the neo-realist, a philosophically fraught word like “reality” can only be uttered when placed in quotation marks. The same can be said for Pinter's neo-realism. Needless to say, it is by no means an unselfconscious throwback to the days of Emile Zola.

The history of every art form can be viewed as the swing of a pendulum back and forth between the claims of observation and imagination. Thus all forms of realism—even the most sophisticated mode of neo-realism—are motivated primarily by a felt need to move art back in the general direction of observed experience. Or in the case of an artist like Pinter, this impulse can refer as much or more to overheard experience. No playwright has ever possessed a better ear for the way people actually speak than Harold Pinter.

Again, the most instructive comparison is with Beckett. In the early stages of their development, Beckett's manuscripts sometimes contained marginal notes suggesting that the situation be “vaugened” (one of Beckett's Joycean coinages which meant in effect: Move away from the observed particular toward a more fully imagined and universal metaphor). By contrast, as Michael Billington notes in his marvelous biographical study, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, “It has always been assumed that [Pinter's] plays sprang more or less fully formed from his imagination and were largely divorced from private circumstance. The more I discovered about the plays, however, the more they seem to be connected to Pinter's recollections of his own experience.”

Of course, Beckett's plays may, at their point of origin, be just as rooted in private, observed experience. But what I want to argue is that Pinter's finished plays retain a deeper connection to “life-as-lived” than do Beckett's. And as a result, the plays of Pinter offer us a better solution than do Beckett's to one of the biggest dilemmas the theatre faces in the age of the cinema—a dilemma, I might add, that has only deepened during the so-called “postmodern era” of recent years, a period increasingly impatient with (perhaps even suspicious of) the achievements of a high modernist like Beckett (whose work comes to feel a bit too insular, too rarefied, too far removed from life as lived in the “real world”). Although the genesis of this argument can be found in the writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet (and in Susan Sontag's essay “Against Interpretation”), it's my belief that no one has articulated this particular dilemma—and its relation to the theatre—more clearly than the film critic David Denby in his 1985 essay “Stranger in a Strange Land” (subtitled “a moviegoer at the theatre”). Denby is attempting to account for the basic uneasiness he almost always feels at the theatre. “For a moviegoer like myself,” he writes:

… the theatre seems caught in a gigantic double-bind. The closer it comes to realistic representation, the more it betrays how inadequate it is next to the cinema; the further away from representation it moves, the more it loses contact with what interests us in the world and becomes preoccupied with the means of its own existence.

By this he means a variety of meta-theatre, an exercise in “self-reflexive modernism” that ultimately focuses its attention on the metaphysics of the medium itself rather than zooming in on “what interests us in the world.” In other words—according to Denby—the theatre's only alternative to a hopelessly naïve form of realistic representation is an anti-illusionistic examination of its own means and materials. “Illusion” (the illusion of conventional realism), observes Denby:

… has become the province of the intellectually timid, because the only thing “real” in the theatre is the actors holding the stage and the audience watching them. Isn't that why almost every clever modern play seems to be about the theatre itself? What else can a smart modern play be about?

But what of the deeply theatrical metaphors of a playwright like Beckett? Don't they pose an acceptable alternative to naïve realism? Part of the problem is that metaphor—which we usually think of as the raison d'etre of serious, non-illusionistic theatre—is itself a principal source of Denby's discomfort:

In the theatre almost everything … is a metaphor. … A sole chair on an empty stage, precisely because it is yanked out of its normal relationship with other chairs or a table or a sideboard, is a portentous symbol. … Well, so what? Aren't there good metaphors and bad? And isn't there good staging and bad? Good acting and bad? Yes, of course, but what I'm trying to get at is the basic uneasiness that some of us feel in the theatre, and I think some of our pain may derive from an unacknowledged notion of the proper relation of representation to metaphor and symbol. In the movies if you turn on the camera, you can photograph trees, or city streets, or the grimy stacks of a steel mill, and all these things are blessedly free of any extra significance …

Hence the double bind, the apparent no-win situation for the theatre in the age of the cinema on the one hand and a kind of “metaphor fatigue” on the other.

The pretext for Denby's article was an overview of the 1985 New York theatre season, an experience that pretty much lived down to his lowest expectations. Significantly though, Denby's one moment of unqualified enthusiasm came in response to the Broadway production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. That play, he writes, “is a moviegoer's play: it has the hard, cool, non-symbolic quality, the violence, the fullness of a great American movie.” No other major playwright owes as great a debt to Harold Pinter as does David Mamet, and it's no coincidence that Mamet and Pinter are the two late 20th-century playwrights most deeply involved with—and influenced by—the cinema. Both have found a way of infusing their stage productions with “that hard, cool non-symbolic quality” that Denby associates with the world of the screen. It's my belief that Pinter's neo-realism is the best antidote we have for “the double bind” that Denby articulates.

More than any other contemporary writer, Pinter restores to the stage the proper relation (or at least, a more proper relation) of representation to metaphor and symbol. What I'm getting at is the unique relationship between sound and meaning (in the language) and surface and symbol (in the decor and properties) that we find in a great Pinter production.

The metaphors, the symbolic reverberations, when they arise, never displace or disperse this primary sense of physical concreteness. Pinter has written about this suspicion of metaphor—however allusively—in countless speeches: For example, Ruth in The Homecoming responds to the airy, bloodless, pseudo-philosophical banter of her husband and brother-in-law with the following plea:

You've forgotten something. Look at me. I … move my leg. That's all it is. But I wear … underwear … which moves with me … it … captures your attention. Perhaps you misinterpret. The action is simple. It's a leg … moving. My lips move. Why don't you restrict … your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant … than the words which come through them. You must bear that … possibility … in mind.

Earlier, I spoke of the unique relationship between character and décor in a play like The Homecoming. One of the reasons that Denby tends to prefer the movies to the theatre is that he finds in the cinema a fundamentally different relation between the actor and his inanimate surroundings:

In the movies the actor doesn't have to carry as heavy a burden as he does on stage; a large part of the drama is derived from his relation to his surroundings. The actor matters, but so do the particular clouds passing overhead, the wide-beamed floor, the cars parked on the street. This is why the argument always used in favor of the theatre and against cinema—“the presence of the live actor”—is a little beside the point. In the movies, many things are “present,” and all these things, large and small, animate and inanimate, exist on an equal plane.

Significantly, Denby could here be describing the relationship between actors and objects in the Gate's production of The Homecoming. The glass of water and the ashtray that Ruth and Lenny manipulate as strategically as chess pieces are—for all practical purposes—characters. And at the same time, a character like Ruth often seems to possess the utter opacity of an inanimate object.

The original production of The Homecoming featured a now-legendary setting by John Bury that was inspired by the paintings of Magritte. But—consistent with Pinter's neo-realism—the aspect of surrealism it exploited was not the painter's imaginative distortions of the real world, but rather his “super-realism,” his high-contrast, pseudo-photographic surfaces designed to lend his dreamy visions the solidity of things that can be photographed in the real world.

Indeed, The Homecoming has much in common with the world of a Magritte painting. The scenes in which Ruth engages in sexual foreplay with Lenny and Joey while her husband merely looks on would probably strike most 19th-century realists as some sort of “dream sequence.” (Surely this must be an act of wish fulfillment, they might say. It can't really be happening … can it?) But it is happening, within the neo-realist world Pinter creates on stage. Martin Esslin has written brilliantly about this aspect of the play: “It is my conviction that The Homecoming, while being a poetic image of a basic human situation, can also stand up to the most meticulous examination as a piece of realistic theatre, and that, indeed, its achievement is the perfect fusion of extreme realism with the quality of an archetypal dream image of wish fulfillment.”

For example, the sequences in which the patriarch Max is divested of his chair (or symbolically, his throne) are simultaneously “realistic,” and yet strangely ritualized—as physically palpable as that glass of water, yet mysteriously reverberant (evoking distant echoes of both Lear and Oedipus). In fact, in the Gate's production, when Max collapsed beside his chair and begged Ruth for the sort of sexual attention she had already begun to bestow on his sons, he emitted a howl of anguish worthy of Lear in the final scene of Shakespeare's play.

Both the Oedipal and the Shakespearean dimensions of this production surely owed something to the fact that Max was being played by the incomparable Ian Holm, who recently portrayed Lear in a very fine production of Shakespeare's tragedy at the Royal National in London. (Parenthetically, Holm's last appearance in New York was back in 1967 when he created the role of Lenny in the original production of The Homecoming. So the Gate's production was, among other things, a true Holm-coming. And in what is surely one of the ultimate plays about fathers and sons, it must be a very strange experience indeed to portray your own father 34 years after having originated the role of his son.)

But a good production of Pinter's masterwork doesn't require these extra sources of association in order to create an utterly distinctive relationship between surface (with its “cool, hard non-symbolic quality”) and subterranean reverberations that feel both ancient and mythic.

And it's Pinter's highly original use of “the room” that enables him to achieve what Denby might recognize as a perfect relationship between representation and metaphor. The vast room in which The Homecoming takes places comes to feel as ancient, primitive and patriarchal as a Paleolithic cave. But it never becomes a conventional “symbol” for a cave—or anything else, for that matter. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, Pinter's room is a room is a room. Of course, on some level(s), it's also a womb and a tomb (even a cave); but unlike the overly symbolic spaces of earlier absurdist drama, when you get there, there is a there there. And that, more than anything else, is what I mean when I call Pinter a neo-realist.

There's a lovely passage in Landscape that tells us a great deal about Pinter's style of neo-realism. The subject is figure drawing, but it also seems to describe the way Pinter draws the contours of his world on stage:

I remembered always, in drawing, the basic principles of shadow and light. Objects intercepting the light cast shadows. Shadow is deprivation of light. The shape of the shadow is determined by that of the objects. But not always. Not always directly. Sometimes it is only indirectly affected by it. Sometimes the cause of the shadow cannot be found.
But I always bore in mind the basic principles of drawing.
So that I never lost track. Or heart.

No one knows better than Harold Pinter that “sometimes the cause of the shadow cannot be found.” And yet he insists on following “the basic principles of drawing.” It's Pinter's way of making sure that he never loses track. Or heart.

Harold Pinter and Carey Perloff (interview date October 2001)

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SOURCE: Pinter, Harold, and Carey Perloff. “My Lunches with Harold.” American Theatre 18, no. 8 (October 2001): 24-6.

[In the following interview, Pinter discusses his work with Carey Perloff, a director of several of Pinter's plays.]

Harold Pinter is telling me about the characters in his extraordinary new satire Celebration. “I don't know what you'd call their particular accent, but I do know they all enjoy words and using words. They love it, and that's it.” Pause. He grins. “One also has to remember, of course—and this is all a question of balance and degree—that they're all very drunk.”

Pinter and I are sharing a long, late-July lunch in New York, not far from Lincoln Center, where a critically acclaimed festival of his work is underway. Pinter has intersected with my life at crucial moments: He was the writer that first inspired me to choose a career in the theatre, and he was the writer with whom I collaborated, two weeks after my daughter was born, on a play about a political prisoner and the infant he has been forbidden to see. So when I think about Harold, certain events in my life loom large.

In this case, I am preparing to direct the first American production of Celebration—it's scheduled for a Sept. 13-Oct. 14 run at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, in tandem with Pinter's earliest play, The Room—and listening to him revel in the crudity and beauty of his new characters' speech is invigorating. I ask him a question about the fantasy-spinning Waiter who interrupts the action in Celebration with wild disquisitions about his grandfather's exotic life. “Is he making it all up?” I wonder. “I think he is,” Pinter replies. “He's a wonderful improviser, isn't he? But I think the crucial point is that the Waiter himself is in love with literature.”

We cover a great deal of ground during that lunch, from politics to plays and back, but one thing stays with me afterwards with particular potency: For a man who has built a career out of highly charged silences. Pinter is a man deeply in love with the English language. At the age of 70 he still finds words fascinating, surprising, dangerous, elusive. “I once sat next to Ralph Richardson's wife at a dinner,” he remembers that day. “She had wonderful stories about Vivien Leigh. At one point she lowered her voice and said to me, ‘You know that Vivien was very interested in sex.’ And I was stopped dead by that use of the word interested. Interested in what way? What did it mean? I used the word just as I'd heard it in Celebration.” (Sonia, the hostess, says, “Yes, it's funny you should say that. I met a man from Morocco once and he was very interested in sex.”)

There are words that lie flat when they come out of the mouths of ordinary people but that sit up and cry out for attention when they are uttered by Harold Pinter. His plays are filled with moments in which a simple gesture or phrase suddenly detonates and explodes in the silent atmosphere. Perhaps this is why his work has not dated; his very first theatrical expressions feel as startling and muscular today as they did in 1957.

That was the year that audiences first encountered Pinter in The Room, a heartbreaking work about a woman named Rose in a cheap bed-sit terrified by the strange band of individuals who invade her room and threaten to take over her cherished home. My decision to embark on the venture of directing the Celebration/Room double bill came about more than a year ago, in July 2000—as has often been the case with Pinter, over an astonishingly good lunch. I was in London and I rang Pinter to see whether we could meet. We had stayed in close touch ever since I directed The Birthday Party at New York's Classic Stage Company in 1988 with David Strathairn, Jean Stapleton and Peter Riegert, and then staged the American premiere of Mountain Language the following year with the same cast. I was wrestling with the fact that the 2001-02 season would be my 10th anniversary at ACT (a thought that filled me with both pleasure and apprehension, as anniversaries often do) as well as the company's 35th year in San Francisco. So when I had met Harold on a hot London day at a chic restaurant called La Caprice, I was agonizing about the passage of time and how to mark it in some celebratory way.

Five minutes after we sat down, he said, “I have a play for you, and it's called Celebration.” I had missed its debut in London under Pinter's own direction, but as I listened at that earlier lunch to Pinter describing the savagery and vicious wit of three rich couples celebrating a wedding anniversary in a trendy restaurant being catered to by three very intimate, rather bizarre “servers,” I knew that I had found the perfect way to mark the ACT occasion. Reading Celebration back at my hotel, I realized it was yet again a new step for Pinter, fiercer and more satiric than his recent work and yet unmistakably part of the same landscape as classics like The Homecoming. It was also dangerous, sexy and mean.

A year later in New York, over lunch again, Pinter and I dissect Celebration and The Room. Pinter is absolutely precise about his work, which is an enormous relief to a director. He never theorizes or generalizes. Take Riley, the mysterious blind black man who arrives at the end of The Room and asks Rose to come home with him. Who is he? Years ago in an interview with Mel Gussow, Pinter had described Riley as Rose's savior, arriving to release her from her imprisonment with Bert. “Do you remember saying this?” I ask. “No,” he replies. “I think that's probably what I did say, but it must be about, you know, 50 years ago. Actually, I understand what I was talking about. I don't want to make any great claims about Riley. Riley is Riley. I prefer to keep it on a very concrete level. Riley comes in and says, ‘Your father wants you to come home,’ and calls her by a name, ‘Sal,’ that clearly was once hers, that strikes a very profound chord in her that she finds irresistible. I think releasing her from imprisonment is right, but it's an imprisonment she doesn't know she's enduring.”

I am struck again by how Pinter the actor intersects with Pinter the writer. He talks about his characters with great respect and interest, but without omniscience. He never claims to know what they are thinking or feeling any more than he claims to know what real people he knows are thinking or feeling; he simply observes their behavior, with clarity and acuity, and then gleans some clues. Nor does he use his characters' behavior as evidence of some larger symbolic or metaphoric gesture. He is interested in conflict that is precise, visceral and real.

Memory has always played a central role in Pinter's work—often it becomes a weapon used in the present moment to control someone else's hold on the past, or to rewrite the past in order to make sense of the present. (In Old Times, the teasing impossibility of ever verifying the past becomes the central theme of the play.) What has always fascinated me about Pinter, however, is that for someone who is notoriously wary about the truth of any given memory, he has acute memories of his own—memories that clearly inform his work in precise and vivid ways. When we return to a conversation about the hilarious Waiter in Celebration, he suddenly says: “You know what happened to me when I was a waiter?” “No,” I reply. “I knew you were an actor, but I didn't know you were a waiter.” He laughs. “Oh, I was a waiter—this has been a long career, you know.”

Then he tells the following story: “I was out of work as an actor, so I did a bit of waiting at the National Liberal Club—it's a fitness club in London. This was the early '50s. I actually heard two men having lunch and talking about Kafka and the publication date of The Trial and The Castle. I stopped at the table and said, ‘No, no, The Trial was published in 1922,’ or whatever the date was, and they said, ‘Really? Was it? We thought it was later than that!’ I said, ‘No, you'll find I am right.’ They said, ‘What about The Castle?’ and I gave them the date. They said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and I went back into the kitchen and was fired on the spot for talking to customers. That was my experience as a waiter. So in a sense, I think the Waiter in Celebration might have come from that.”

Pinter recounts this event as if it had happened yesterday, with the same detached fascination that he might bring to events that overtake his own characters. And it occurred to me that in many ways he is his own most interesting character, that he observes the events that happen to him with an objectivity that allows them to retain their mystery in such a way that they become, in his imagination, immediately concrete and dramatic.

Pinter goes on to describe with glee his decision to put beautiful Lindsay Duncan in The Room in a dowdy turban, covering real curlers that came off at intermission to reveal her glorious head of blonde curls in Celebration. He loves the devices of theatre, the tricks that hold it together, the transformations actors must undergo to travel from one theatrical world to another. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this double bill of one-acts is the opportunity it affords to a company of actors to transform utterly from the impoverished denizens of The Room to the vicious consumerists of Celebration. As such, it will provide the perfect vehicle for ACT's new core company of actors, who will be appearing in contrasting roles in both plays, in a true celebration of the transformative art of acting.

I realize as I listen to Pinter over the course of our lunch that, among other things, the double bill of his first and most recent plays is its own form of celebration, that of a fiercely individual writer who has stayed the course for more than 40 years and is still creating. Then he says, quietly, that he thinks Celebration will be his last play.

“I've written 29 plays, for god's sake. I think it's enough.” But something in me can see that the writing itch, the urge to celebrate journeys into another country, is still very present. The moment he pronounces his writing career over, his eyes are darting around the room, watching, observing, listening. His energy is coiled. He's ready for the next discovery.

Daniel Mendelsohn (review date 4 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Harold Pinter's Celebration.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 15 (4 October 2001): 28-32.

[In the following review, Mendelsohn provides an overview of theater festivals paying tribute to Pinter, asserting that the Harold Pinter Festival ultimately “exposed Pinter's weaknesses and pretensions as much as it did his strengths.” Mendelsohn applauds Pinter's most recent work, Celebration, as both the funniest play he's ever written and his first “deeply and movingly political” play.]


At the climax of the 1990 Paul Schrader film The Comfort of Strangers, a young Englishwoman is forced to witness the murder of her lover. The attractive young couple, Mary and Colin (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett), are in Venice for a restful, sexy change of scenery. One evening, after getting lost while looking for a restaurant, they encounter Robert, a wealthy local who scoops them up and takes them to dinner at his favorite out-of-the-way eatery, where he laughingly plies them with drink and tells them a lot of weirdly inappropriate stories about his private life. Most people, of course, would take the first decent opportunity to flee at the sight of Christopher Walken in a white suit, even if he weren't always repeating lines that, like Robert himself, are ostensibly harmless yet somehow deeply sinister. (“My father was a very big man.”) But part of the film's macabre joke is that Mary and Robert are English, and hence diffident and accommodating to the point of self-destructiveness; more important, they're characters in a film written by Harold Pinter, in whose work everyday situations often devolve, with the irreversible momentum of nightmares, into horror. And so the couple get more and more involved with Robert and his equally unsettling, if overtly more sympathetic, wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), who moves around their opulent palazzo gingerly clutching various body parts in pain, as if she's just been beaten. She probably has.

The younger couple continue to socialize with their older, worldly counterparts, despite the unwholesome vibes that Robert and Caroline are giving off, and despite certain other incidents, for instance the moment, fairly early on in their joint socializing, when Robert suddenly punches Colin in the gut, viciously but smilingly, as if merely checking to see how the handsome young man would react. Then, just as Mary and Robert begin to pull away from their hosts, the bizarre and yet somehow logical climax: while paying a goodbye visit to Caroline, Mary is given a drug that renders her immobile and speechless, and as she sits in her hostess's sumptuous salon, making inarticulate noises and rolling her eyes in an attempt to warn him, Colin is brought in, like some kind of sacrificial victim, and Robert slashes his throat before her wide and terrified eyes.

Even if the story isn't by Pinter—the film was adapted from a 1981 novel by Ian McEwan—The Comfort of Strangers is emblematic of the British playwright's work in a number of ways. The darkness lurking under vacuous everyday exchanges; the oppressive sense of impending disaster haunting a quotidian scene (going to a restaurant, say, or sightseeing); sudden and apparently unmotivated acts of violence; relationships between sadistically bullying men and passive, helpless women; the unsettling feeling that some larger, explanatory narrative has been repressed or stripped away, leaving behind the discrete, apparently unrelated actions and the flatly conventional talk; the way in which that talk can become terribly menacing: all these have characterized Pinter's output, in one way or another, since his first play, The Room, was produced in 1957.

That output was celebrated in July during an ambitious festival of Pinter's work, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival 2001 and featuring productions imported from Dublin's Gate Theatre and London's Almeida and Royal Court Theatres. (Concurrent with these productions was a tribute to Pinter the screenwriter, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.) Pinter has written twenty-nine plays; the nine presented in New York were enough to remind you of the idiosyncrasies of the playwright's style and, indeed, the almost obsessive narrowness of his themes. All of Pinter's work is, in some way or another, about violence—whether expressed in the corrosive interactions among family members (The Homecoming), the hurtful and confusing silences between couples (The Room, Landscape,Ashes to Ashes,Betrayal, many others), or in repressive and cruel actions on the part of the State against individuals (The Birthday Party,One for the Road,Mountain Language,Party Time). Over the years, Pinter has won a dedicated audience who have found a curious comfort in his bleak dramatizations of the ways in which our unwillingness or inability to make connections, to communicate meaningfully (here you think of those famous Pinteresque silences and pauses), lead to disasters both private and public.

And yet because it allowed you to absorb a good amount of Pinter in a short amount of time, the festival also reminded you that Pinter has remained within the same narrow artistic topography for much of his career; with one splendid exception (the American première of his latest play), the nine plays presented suggested a playwright who has stuck with the same thematic and stylistic formulae that first made him famous, reusing them in play after play with, often, diminishing intensity of inspiration. The once-stimulating idiosyncrasies—the silences, the pauses, the hesitations—have in too many cases devolved into tics; worse, the showily “disturbing” exteriors of these works too often failed to hide the fact that the plays don't really illuminate, in any profound way, the dark forces that have always interested Pinter. Indeed, the festival suggested that The Company of Strangers may be emblematic of the playwright's work in more ways than one. For it revealed a playwright who is implicated, one might say, in the aggression and unreason he wants to indict, an author who, like so many of his villains—like Robert—is more interested in making you feel pain than in explaining what the pain might mean.


The festival began with a double bill of two short works, A Kind of Alaska (1982) and One for the Road (1984). This was a canny pairing, for these plays represent not only Pinter's two basic theatrical modes of expression—small people engaged in quiet, futile conversations that go nowhere, and loud, angry men doing cruel things to helpless victims—but his two main, interrelated themes: the failure of language as a vehicle for human connection, and the violent abuse of power.

A Kind of Alaska, which received a starkly effective production, is based (like the 1990 Robin Williams film Awakenings) on Oliver Sacks's book Awakenings, which first appeared in 1973. Pinter's play is about a woman, excellently played by Penelope Wilton with just the right mix of anxious humor and desperate pathos, who awakens from a twenty-nine-year-long coma; as she gradually, incredulously realizes what's happened, she tries to reconcile what's inside her mind—a bright, terrified sixteen-year-old girl—and what the world around her has become. “Do you know me?” she asks and then: “Are you speaking?”; “I sound … out of tune”; “I've been nowhere.” The lines suggest the extent to which Sacks's story is an ideal vehicle for Pinter's obsession with linguistic and emotional alienation, an obsession that also shapes The Homecoming,Landscape,Monologue, and The Room.

The other play in the opening double bill was One for the Road, a product of the playwright's “political” period, which began about twenty years ago, at the onset of the Reagan-Thatcher era. First published in these pages in 1984, this twenty-minute-long mini-drama is a brief visit with a sadistic, if exaggeratedly civil, torturer in some nameless police state. A man called Victor, wanted for some reason by the State, is brought before the well-dressed, benevolent-seeming Nicolas (played with great relish, in the Lincoln Center Festival performances, by Pinter himself); there follows some chitchat that suggests why Pinter found in McEwen's sinister Robert a kindred spirit. (Like Robert, Nicolas oscillates between arch politesse and sinister inappropriateness: “You're a civilized man and so am I,” he tells the terrified Victor, and then goes on to talk about his penis.) Victor is then dragged offstage, where something terrible is done to his tongue, as is made clear when he reappears onstage, unable to speak clearly. Then his wife appears, and she's interrogated, too, only to be taken off to be used as a sex toy by the police; then their child, Nicky, comes on, is asked a few questions, and he's taken off, too, to be killed. One for the Road prepared audiences for the brutalities of Pinter's angry political works, a group that includes Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes, which were also performed during the festival.

A perhaps unintended consequence of presenting A Kind of Alaska and One for the Road together was that audiences could see the extent to which these works are suggestive rather than fully discursive—moody sketches for plays, which provoke unpleasant feelings without being rigorously thought-provoking. This almost semaphoric quality should not come as a surprise. From the start, as he himself has said many times, Pinter has been a playwright who finds inspiration for his dramas in striking or disturbing images he's noticed: in the case of The Room, for instance, it was a glimpse, during a party he'd been attending, of a dithering man—it turned out to be Quentin Crisp—talking nonstop as he served eggs to an unresponsive oaf; in that of The Caretaker, it was a couple of threatening-looking men he saw in a building he once lived in. As the playwright likes to explain it, these images start him writing; quite often, he acknowledges, he himself doesn't know in advance where an image will lead him. The “formal construction,” he told Mireia Aragay and Ramon Simó at the University of Barcelona during a 1996 interview, “is in the course of the work on the play.”1

Pinter has, indeed, always liked to characterize himself as an “intuitive” writer, and enjoys expressing a kind of bemusement about what he does and, sometimes, downright incomprehension about how he does it. In a 1957 letter to his former English teacher, Joseph Brearly, a portion of which was reprinted in the Stagebill program for the festival, he wrote, “I have written three plays this year. I don't quite know how, or why, but I have.” And again, in April 1958, in a letter to Peter Wood, who would be directing The Birthday Party: “The thing germinated and bred itself. It proceeded according to its own logic. What did I do? I followed the indications, I kept a sharp eye on the clues I found myself dropping.”2 This emphasis on an odd kind of passivity in the face of his inspiration is something you'd be tempted to write off as youthful diffidence, or pretentiousness, were it not for the fact that Pinter continues today to work in much the same way, and indeed likes to emphasize that he begins with the concrete image and then waits to see what comes next. “I've never written from an abstract idea at all,” he told his Spanish interviewers.

The lack of ideological foundations, the want of a comforting, overarching theory or abstraction to organize the concrete images and words you see and hear onstage, is what lies behind the menacing emptiness you feel in Pinter's plays. At the beginning of his career, the absence of explanations of the conventional variety (psychology, plot) for the unsettling actions and tableaux that Pinter liked to stage was striking, and original; it seemed to be the point. In quasi-political plays like The Birthday Party and in domestic dramas (for lack of a better word) like The Room and The Homecoming, the hermetic quality of the works, the disorienting lack of obvious connection between the concreteness of his surfaces—the action, the dialogue—and any kind of subtext; the plays' famous refusal, or apparent refusal, to be “political”: all this, while angering some critics, seemed to others, and certainly to audiences, an apt theatrical analog for many of the anxieties of the postwar world. The existential dread and moral emptiness that were the byproducts of the cold war at its height, the debasement of serious political discourse by cynical and self-congratulatory democracies that acted tyrannically, the fragility and tentativeness of meaningful human communication—all these seemed to be what Pinter's work was somehow “about,” even if the playwright himself avoided claims to any kind of organizing theory or ideology. In this, he was very much in the tradition of post-Beckettian drama. (Pinter has often and rightly acknowledged his debt to Beckett, and there are indeed many similarities, with one crucial exception: you feel that Beckett likes the human race, whereas Pinter doesn't.)

The selection of works presented during the Lincoln Center Festival suggested that, however original the writer's tone, theatrical gestures, and modes of presentation once were, there's been surprisingly little sign of significant artistic growth or experimentation since then. (The inclusion of Pinter's adultery drama, Betrayal, in more than just its film version, would have helped to dispel this impression, perhaps; it's one of his rare works about emotions more complex than either abjection or rage.) An early work like The Room can still unsettle you, as it did in a taut production at Lincoln Center featuring the superb Lindsay Duncan as the harried, desperate, disoriented Rose, whose endless chatter is meant less to be heard than to insulate herself from the terrifying reality of the world around her. But its epigones now seem, at best, exercises in mood but not meaning. This was true of Monologue, that one-sided dialogue between a lonely man and an absent friend with whom he may or may not have quarreled over a woman, which, at Lincoln Center, was unfocused and without urgency, as if merely to have staged it was enough; and true, too, of Landscape, which in its Lincoln Center incarnation was almost embarrassingly mannered, with its fussily choreographed exchanges and precious, Masterpiece Theatre enunciation of the fruitless dialogue between its dreamy female lead and her clunky, earthbound husband—that recurrent Pinteresque duo. He talks about beer while she rhapsodizes about love.

And it was certainly true of Ashes to Ashes, which yet again pairs a dreamily nostalgic woman and a hard-nosed man in a fruitless dialogue. But this time, the woman's erotic reveries, out of which the man keeps trying to rouse her, are about a man much like Nicolas in One for the Road: he's a figure of some kind of sinister authority who sexually humiliated her—“Kiss my fist,” she recalls him ordering her—and was, it turns out, responsible for the death of her baby. This makes for some creepy moments. But while the sinister surface hints at a connection between eros and violence and oppression, it's hard to cash out just what it is that connects them, or what that might mean, because there's nothing really there apart from the sinister surface. (In Pinter's works about torture and totalitarianism you find yourself wishing for the moral subtlety and emotional complexity of Jacobo Timerman.)

It may be that the superficiality and unpersuasiveness of this and so much else of what was presented at Lincoln Center have to do with the fact that the times have caught up with Pinter. The silences, pauses, hesitations, disorientations, the subtle indictments of talk without signification and action without effect, of the inadequacy of traditional personal and political narratives, which once seemed ground-breaking and new, have been so internalized by postmodern, post-political culture that many of the plays seem almost like period pieces. These extremely reverent productions only emphasized that impression; if anything, the productions seemed to outweigh the plays themselves.

It would be hard to think of a better symbol for the way in which Pinter's work has devolved into showy displays of “Pinteresque” style than the Lincoln Center performances of The Homecoming. As it happened, the 1973 film version of this work, which reunited some of the stars of the original 1964 stage production, was shown during the festival, and hence offered a record, however imperfect, of the play as originally presented—and, to some degree, experienced.

The Homecoming, generally considered the cornerstone of the playwright's oeuvre, is a gruesome domestic tragicomedy about a man and his sons, a kind of scarily bipolar Death of a Salesman. Set in an old house in North London, the play follows the acidic interactions between the elderly Max (Ian Holm, who played the role of the son Lenny in the original production) and his three grown sons: the seedy underworld entrepreneur Lenny (Ian Hart), the dumb would-be boxer Joey, and the refined Teddy, who's left home for the States years before to become a philosophy professor, and who's now returning with his wife, Ruth, for a visit. As Max interacts with his three “boys” (each of whom can be thought of as representing a different component of the human character: intellect, cunning, brute strength), strange tensions, buried hurts, and a characteristically Pinteresque blend of eros and violence become discernible. By the end of the play, Ruth has engaged in erotic play with all three brothers, and decides to stay on in London, partly as a kind of den mother to these men, partly as a prostitute working for Lenny in order to pay her way.

Of all of Pinter's plays, The Homecoming is the most successful in its attempt to fashion a dramatic world in which people say and do everyday things—talk about the past, fix meals, drink glasses of water—and yet, because of the hidden internal logic, the result is anything but everyday. (Critics like to point to Pinter's influence on young contemporary playwrights; Michael Billington, partaking in The New York Times's lavish, adulatory coverage of the festival, listed Joe Orton, David Mamet, Neil LaBute, Sarah Kane, and Patrick Marber as the inheritors of the older playwright's “enduring legacy.”3 But Pinter's real heir may well be the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, whose work is also distinguished by the sense it gives you of a hermetic world whose coherences you must trust in, even if you're not sure what they mean.) In order for the piece to have its proper impact, to produce that characteristic tension between quotidian surfaces and submerged menace, the surfaces have to be quotidian; few other playwrights have been so intent on, or successful at, conveying the feel and rhythms of everyday talk and movements, however bizarre or unexpected the eventual result of those words and actions may be.

The film of The Homecoming, photographed in drab browns and grays, looks wilted and ordinary, which is just right. (It must be said that the print shown at the Film Society retrospective was embarrassingly inadequate: pitted, pocked, striated to the point of being nearly unwatchable, with a distracting wobbly green vertical line that refused to budge. If Lincoln Center wants to pay homage to cinematic artists, a good start would be to obtain decent prints of their work.) More important, the performances were perfect: Ian Holm's Lenny had just the right combination of menacing braggadocio and an underlying weakness, and Vivien Merchant (the first Mrs. Pinter) is brilliant as Ruth, the plainness and openness of her broad face making all the more terrifying, somehow, her character's transformation from a self-effacing, carefully well-mannered housewife into a controlling, sexually manipulative siren.

The Lincoln Center Homecoming couldn't have been more different from the film. Fussily directed—choreographed would be a better word—by the Gate Theatre's Robin Lefevre, the action was balletic, artificial, mannered. Ian Holm's Max was excellent; he felt lived-in and shrunken and yet, somehow, still powerful. But the three sons were all, in their way, too attractive, too actor-y. Worst of all was the Ruth of Lia Williams, a model-thin, high-cheekboned blond with a breathy, Marilyn Monroe voice and creamy pastel suits that made her look like a vintage 1960s Barbie—or, perhaps, a first-class stewardess in a 1960s airline ad. Her whippet-like elegance, the anomalous smartness of her costumes, the high stylization of her delivery all warped the play's crucial dynamics. From the minute Ms. Williams entered, smirkingly confident of her allure, there was no doubt in your mind that she'd take control of these angry, inarticulate men. Because there was no doubt, the play lost its tightly wound tension and, ultimately, its point.

So the festival suggested the extent to which one strand of Pinter's output—those self-contained works in which any obvious “meaning” is submerged under the lapidary surfaces and the potent moods and effects they create—can degenerate into increasingly empty exercises in style. As for the works in which there was, unmistakably, “meaning”—One for the Road and its spiritual successor, Mountain Language (1988), which received a noisy, unfocused production—the substance is obvious (police states are bad), and the presentation of it coarse, obtuse, undigested.

The political plays are meant to be indictments of totalitarian repression, of the way that power corrupts, of the fact that, as the playwright said apropos of Party Time, “there are extremely powerful people in apartments in capital cities in all countries who are actually controlling events that are happening on the street in a number of very subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.”4 And so, in these works, the playwright depicts torturers manipulating their subjects, or soldiers abusing innocent old women. It is here, in his attempt to engage in substantive political discourse, that the famous flatness of Pinter's surfaces, their odd texturelessness, his tendency to depict rather than to explicate, become a serious liability. Indeed, it's often hard to sense anything beneath the surface of these works but the author's righteous ire.

In this respect, these overtly political plays—One for the Road,Party Time,Mountain Language, and Ashes to Ashes, the latter of which combines the domestic duologue with the political outrage—resemble the poems that Pinter has written, inspired by his sensitivity to the world's injustices. (However much it's overshadowed by his plays, Pinter's poetry is clearly very important to his sense of himself as a writer. “I'm essentially, shall we say, a poet,” he told Charlie Rose when he was in New York for the festival. His fans agree.” An intuitive rather than a conceptual writer, a poet rather than a peddler of theses,” Michael Billington concurred in the Times.) One clearly political poem is called “The Old Days,” from 1996:

Well, there was no problem,
All the democracies
(all the democracies)
were behind us.
So we had to kill some people.
So what?
Lefties get killed.
This is what we used to say
back in the old days:
your daughter is a lefty
I'll ram this stinking battering-ram
All the way up and up and up and up
Right the way through all the way up
All the way through her lousy left body. …

The political plays, with their heated indictments of tyranny, may be said to be the theatrical analog of this brand of writing. In order to engage seriously with politics, you have to have “peddled” in theses—you need a rigorous and subtle theoretical grasp of what the issues are, and of what's at stake, in order to make valid judgments of complex issues. Pinter's political plays tend to flash angry images of oppression. After you've seen two or three in swift succession, and see how much of a muchness the political work is, it's hard not to wonder whether what they're really about is Pinter, excellently showcasing his anger, his frustration with corrupt democracies, and so on. “I wrote One for the Road in anger,” he told Rose. “It was a catharsis. … I felt better after having written it, certainly.”

The question is, how does the audience feel after seeing it? However admirable his feelings may be, and however urgent his need for catharsis, the catharsis is meaningless, from the point of view of successful art, if it is reserved to the playwright but denied the spectators. Because the characters in these works are rarely more than stick figures—those abusive men and noble, suffering women—your concern for the victims in Pinter's political plays tends to be abstract; you can't be moved to political insight, because you're not moved at all.

So the tendency in these plays is to bully rather than to argue. In his Charlie Rose appearance, the playwright talked primarily about his political convictions, and about the cynicism and corruption of the United States and Great Britain, which he has frequently denounced in interviews and editorial pages, but, significantly, he never really engaged Rose's objections to some of his points. After Pinter dramatically declared, apropos of the NATO-backed bombings in the former Yugoslavia, that Clinton was morally indistinguishable from Milosevic, Rose raised the quite reasonable objection that whereas the two leaders had used force in Yugoslavia, those uses stemmed from distinct political and moral motivations. Rather than responding, however, Pinter changed the subject, and went on to flourish another indictment—as if merely to have denounced were enough. This is appropriate for activists, but not for artists.

But then questions of motivation have never had much allure for Pinter; while this may have made for some striking theater, the failure to come to grips with intent and motivation in forming moral and political judgments is a serious limitation in someone who wants to be taken seriously as a political dramatist. Pinter's convictions can be laudable, and his support for oppressed East Bloc writers such as his friend Václav Havel was admirably fierce; but the “political” plays unhappily reflect the unsubtlety of thought that you saw in the Rose interview. In them, we're much closer to Waiting for Lefty than we are to Waiting for Godot.

There is an irony here. When he was in his early thirties (still in his hermetic, apolitical phase), in his speech to the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol, the newly famous playwright warned against

… the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliché.5

It would be hard to find a better description right now of Pinter and his later, patently political work. However much he may profess to be outraged by them, Pinter has come to resemble his villains. Like the fictional Robert in The Comfort of Strangers, he's a man in a position of considerable power whom you begin by trusting; someone who's pulling all the invisible strings, who lures you with the promise of a rich and enjoyable evening, who will even make you laugh with his stories (few playwrights combine humor and horror as disconcertingly as this one) and yet ends by making you watch images of disturbing, sometimes horrifying actions, without ever explaining them—without, perhaps, being able to explain them, either explicitly or implicitly, because his ultimate concern is his own feelings, his own gratifications. Your only option is to sit there, immobile and mute, and take it.


In view of the way in which the Lincoln Center tribute exposed Pinter's weaknesses and pretensions as much as it did his strengths, it was a gratifying surprise to witness the New York première of his most recent work, Celebration. First presented in London in the grand millennial year of 2000, this, at last, was a work that brought together all of the playwright's well-known preoccupations, modes of expression, and theatrical tropes. Yet it managed to create something very new for him, and for his audiences—something, finally, that was deeply and movingly political.

The play takes place in an upscale restaurant. There are two sets of diners, each of which is spotlighted in turn until the end, when it evolves that they have an uneasy connection to each other and they begin to communicate directly. There's a quiet couple, Matt and Suki, playfully talking about their romance, about sex. The larger, more boisterous group consists of a quartet of sozzled vulgarians out for a celebratory night on the town: two brothers, Lambert and Russell, married to two sisters, Julie and Prue. These four may be wearing expensive (if a tad cheesy) togs, but they're essentially working-class—not all that different, beneath their suits and cocktail dresses, from the grim couple in The Room, which was presented with Celebration as a double bill. Lambert and Julie, Russell and Prue are cheerfully, loudly ignorant (they don't know whether they've just been to the ballet or the opera), coarse (“they don't want their sons to be fucked by other girls,” one of these aging girls cries out while on the subject of mothers-in-law), and wholly unconcerned if everyone else in the restaurant knows it. The men are clearly rich and smug about the success they've snatched from the Nineties glut. (Russell's a banker, and Matt and Lambert are “strategy consultants.”)

Appearing onstage from time to time to disrupt these two groups are three members of the restaurant's staff: the maitre d', who's very solicitous of his customers' pleasure; his assistant, Sonia, a young woman who chats with the two parties and can't help revealing intimate things about herself (she's a hilarious parody of stereotypical British insularity: “You don't have to speak English to enjoy good food,” she says, with some incredulity, after telling a story about a trip abroad); and, finally, a young waiter, who constantly interrupts both parties. “Do you mind if I interject?” he'll ask, each time, and then launch into stories about his now-dead grandfather and all the famous people he'd known and all the world-historical events he'd been grazed by. At one point, it's Hollywood in the Thirties; at another, it's Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the First World War. The sheer, loony excess of these fevered riffs generates its own kind of hilarity:

He knew them all, in fact, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden. C. Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and if you go back a few years he was a bit of a drinking companion of D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, W. B. Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Hardy in his dotage. My grandfather was carving out a niche for himself in politics at the time. Some saw him as a future Chancellor of the Exchequer or at least First Lord of the Admiralty but he decided instead to command a battalion in the Spanish Civil War but as things turned out he spent most of his spare time in the United States where he was a very close pal of Ernest Hemingway—they used to play gin rummy together until the cows came home.

Funny as this almost Homeric name-dropping is, it's the waiter and his heedlessly eager, puppy-dog attempts to interject, to insert himself, however inappropriately, into the proceedings that give the play its tension, poignancy, and meaning. Without him, the interactions among the two sets of diners would constitute a typical Pinter “drama”: their vacuous, self-important chitchat and boasting and flirting would be entertaining—this is by far the funniest play Pinter has written; even if there had been those silences, you'd never have heard them, the audience was laughing so much—without being anything beyond a static parody of the avarice and greed that flourished in the last decade of the century. (Here again you think of Peter Greenaway, with whose The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, that vitriolic send-up of Thatcher-era greed, the new Pinter work shares a certain mood and style.)

But as the waiter keeps trying to catch the attention of his self-important, superficial charges, it's hard not to start noticing which names he drops. The eponymous celebration in this rich play may be an anniversary party—that's what the characters think, at any rate—but it soon becomes clear that what Celebration is celebrating, or at least marking, is the passing of the twentieth century. What this waiter keeps interjecting is, in fact, an endless string of references to gigantic swaths of twentieth-century culture: books, film, the Hollywood studio system, Mitteleuropa, Kafka, the Three Stooges, and so on. It's his third and final speech, with its reference to the assassinated archduke, that clues you in: before your eyes the whole twentieth century passes, from its beginning (the outbreak of World War I), to its middle, and right through to its tawdry end. But of course the diners don't really listen, because they've been blinded to the culture, to the century itself and its meanings, by their own narrow greed—by the kind of success that the century and its culture have, ironically, made possible, if not indeed inevitable.

Most of Pinter's work shows you evil things, and for that reason can upset you in some way, but precisely because he always stacks the dramatic deck, always tries to make up your mind for you, the plays are depressing without being the least bit tragic. What makes Celebration so provocative is the way in which it tantalizes you, as real tragedy does, with the specter of missed opportunities. That its subject—what it is that its characters are talking about, even if they can't hear each other—is world-historical and has a great deal to do with this specific post-millennial, post-ideological moment gives this short, vivid work a deep political gravity that none of the more obtuse “political” plays can match. You feel, for the first time, as if something's at stake here—something, that is, other than the playwright's feelings. In the week and a half of the Pinter festival, with its nine plays and numerous showings of the films, its onstage valentines posing as discussions, all accompanied by the endless drone of ongoing press adulation, you feel that here, at last, was something you were grateful to have the chance to watch.


  1. Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948-1998 (Grove, 1998), p. 73.

  2. Pinter, Various Voices, p. 8.

  3. Michael Billington, “His Genius Is to Find the Drama Between the Words,” The New York Times, July 15, 2001, Section 2, p. 8.

  4. Pinter, Various Voices, p. 74.

  5. Pinter, Various Voices, p. 22.

Ann C. Hall (review date December 2001)

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SOURCE: Hall, Ann C. Review of The Lover, by Harold Pinter. Theatre Journal 53, no. 4 (December 2001): 659-61.

[In the following review, Hall applauds Pinter's The Lover as a comedy of sexual manners.]

Like all theatres across the country, Actor's Theatre of Louisville (ATL) must provide exciting plays and still turn a profit. For many theatres, the choice is simple—avoid the unusual. Given its Humana Festival, it is clear that ATL takes the road less traveled, offering new works every spring. But the artistic staff felt that many theatre classics, those under-produced gems that do not appeal to American audiences, were being ignored. At their prompting, Free Theatre was born in 2000; now once a year ATL produces a classic and charges nothing for the performances. Such an experiment introduces theatre in general, and ATL in particular, to audiences who could not afford regular admission, in itself a laudable goal. But with theatre becoming just another option in an increasing array of entertainment choices, the decision to produce significant but rarely produced works is essential for theatre's survival. Last year's inaugural production was August Strindberg's The Creditors. Free Theatre 2001 presented The Lover and A Slight Ache by Harold Pinter.

As president of the Harold Pinter Society, I was pleased to see the two Pinter one-acts given such a sterling staging, for while the performances are free, they are not cheap. Staged in ATL's 318-seat Bingham theatre and directed by veteran ATL member William McNulty, the two Pinter pieces were given thoroughly professional productions.

The Lover was such a stunning example of the power of theatre that I will focus on this production. Originally produced in 1963, the play is a comedy of sexual manners in which a married couple, Sarah and Richard, live staid middle-class existences by day and night, but their afternoons are filled with illicit affairs. We soon learn, however, that the lovers are the married couple themselves, who have created a sexual game, perhaps to avoid the monotony of monogamy.

The ATL production captured the couple's schizophrenic life beautifully. The set was tasteful and, while it did not scream early 1960s, it did scream compulsive housekeeping. The set was divided into living areas, and furniture gleamed throughout. A large bed appeared starched, and a table covered with a neat tablecloth marked the entryway into the house. Clearly, we were in the domestic arena. The couple met in this same space for their romantic interludes, putting the domestic props to erotic uses. They, for example, never used the bed during their afternoon “sexcapades”; instead, the entryway table served as a love nest to which the couple retreated to complete their mating ritual, and a small, well-placed wastebasket was later used as a drum, a prop during Richard's foreplay.

Costumes also emphasized the double, yet shared, life of the couple. Fastidious care marked their dress in the domestic arena. Like a Jackie O. precursor, Sarah wore a tight suit, sensible shoes, and a French knot. Richard wore the uniform of middle management: a black suit and tie with a white shirt. However, their erotic ensemble included a leather jacket for Richard and for Sarah a tight black dress with four inch heeled shoes.

The most insightful bit of staging was the use of mirrors. A dressing table and long wardrobe mirrors were frequently and cleverly used by McNulty to overcome the challenges of blocking for theatre-in-the-round, but more importantly, the mirrors also emphasized a thematic element in the play. Frequently, the couple would communicate with one another through the mirrors, thereby indicating their discomfort with direct contact—contact without fantasy or illusion.

First-rate performances by Barbara Gulan and Will Bond completed the production. Gulan embodied the role of housewife, joyfully tending to her husband's needs after his long day at the office. Bond, ever the man's man, showed absolutely no emotion when informed that his wife's lover would be around one day. When the couple met in the afternoon, the electricity between Gulan and Bond left little doubt the couple truly enjoyed their compartmentalized existences. Consequently, when Richard proposed to end the meetings, it was clear, from Gulan's desperate and shocked responses, that such a change would alter the dynamics of their entire relationship, not just their sex lives, but their marriage and their identities were at stake.

All in all, ATL should be applauded for its experiments in Free Theatre and its productions of important dramatic works that, for whatever reason, do not result in revenue for contemporary American theatres.

Robert L. King (review date March-April 2002)

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SOURCE: King, Robert L. “New Plays and a Modern Master.” North American Review 287, no. 2 (March-April 2002): 45-9.

[In the following review, King applauds recent productions of Pinter's One for the Road, Mountain Language, and Ashes to Ashes.]

Eve Ensler's Necessary Targets, in its world premiere at Hartford Stage, opened to the thump of helicopter blades followed by the muted complaint of a siren—the sounds of conflict, the first one of violence and the second of potential relief. The lights came up on J. S., a fiftyish psychiatrist, and Melissa, a young journalist working on a book based on the stories of women victimized by war. In the comfort of the older woman's “posh living room,” the two are planning their trip to a refugee camp in Bosnia, the place where fifteen of the play's seventeen scenes are set. Near the end, the uneasy alliance of J. S. and Melissa breaks apart when the journalist moves on to Chechnya for the “final chapter” in her anthology of horrors. In the last scene, J. S. returns, as the play itself does, to her home. Ordinarily, when a drama comes full circle like this, ending where it began, we expect a satisfying sense of resolution from a formal symmetry that rounds off the action and, so, affirms its joy or encloses its pain. Ensler offers no such comfort in Necessary Targets, for at the end J. S. is alone, talking to a tape recorder, the death instrument of dialogue, the research tool of Melissa and the dramatic image of her moral indifference. J. S.'s companions now are the spectral presences of the women victims who in an ironic reversal have taught the psychiatrist to see the limitations of her government-sponsored therapy.

Like other intelligent political plays, Necessary Targets tests the value of language as instrument for knowing a harsh reality and dealing with it insightfully. Melissa wants stories. She needs them for her book, and she gets a vicarious charge from hearing them. Extracting them from the damaged, she argues, may aid healing, but Ensler knows more than she grants her character, for emotional and psychological trauma lives long after the stories and her own play conclude. J. S. comes to admit that her “language of therapy” can cause no meaningful change; it hasn't over the years in New York because the “new psychoterminology” of her field overlooks the soul and the heart. First through Melissa, Ensler draws attention to jargon as a trap, an intellectual black hole. In the opening scene, Melissa explains her role as “trauma counselor” to a puzzled J. S.: “I am not a therapist. I only work with seriously traumatized populations. Oh God, listen to me, ‘seriously traumatized populations.’” Countering Melissa's explanation, J. S. begins plainly with “I am a psychiatrist” but exalts her role with an inappropriate metaphor before concluding with a circular aphorism that denies victims their individuality: “In private practice. I've been involved in a war of sorts, metal skirmishes and attacks. Trauma is trauma.”

Despite correcting herself for “seriously traumatized populations,” Melissa characteristically uses fashionable, cloudy diction. In one speech, she drops a formal, needless adverb (“I am currently writing a book”), talks of “communities of women” in a country so devastated that no true community survives, and, attaching a philosophical term to her project, calls interviewing the women “essential.” Later, she patronizes the women with that word and another hot one: “I think it is essential that we focus here. We need to let Azra finish her story.” Of course, it's Melissa, not some artificial “we,” who needs the finished story for her book, and she pursues her selfish goal when Azra breaks down in tears: “Azra had begun to share her story. I think she should go on.” But, given the chance, Melissa takes stories whole, leaving no “share” for another. Several scenes later, Zlata, a Bosnian MD now without a practice, turns the cant term back upon Melissa: “Maybe everyone doesn't need to share or want to share, Melissa.” The emphasis in the text came through in Diane Venora's measured performance, a clear indication that the character speaks for the playwright. Ensler knows that our “shares” either dominate with their stories or drain empty the people they encourage to tell their own. Melissa's drive is unrelenting despite any human response; she is a “story vulture” to Zlata, feeding off the deadening pain of others. Azra sees that she and the other women would simply be “chapters” in Melissa's book, and she amplifies Azra's resistance to being so categorized. The women have been drinking:

We are not doing well here. I don't think vodka is going to be the ticket, ladies, to get you our of this refugee camp. There is no shortage of alcoholic refugees.
Now we're alcoholics.
Traumatized alcoholic war victims.

Less domineering than Melissa, J. S. nonetheless is unconsciously restricted by her professional strategy of combining apparent personal concern and objective detachment. She asks the leading question, “Is that how you feel?” while ignoring such questions as Zlata's “You never seem to answer.” Before the experience of Bosnia shows her the sterility of her methods, J. S. also uses buzzwords. Like so many politicians and media representatives, she calls a problem by a grander name: “Do you have an issue with comfort?” As she gains insight, she qualifies the bloodless abstraction: “I understand you want to get to issues, Melissa, but there's a natural human process going on here.” In scene six, Seada, having been urged to “talk about” her “feelings,” reveals that she wants the human comfort of sleeping with J. S. Although Seada is making no sexual overture, J. S. becomes “very uptight” and withdraws under the cover of yet another word that contemporary usage has gutted of its moral force: “It's not appropriate, Seada.” Three scenes later, J. S.'s slow awakening to a more humane sensitivity is dramatized in her apology to Melissa for referring to her “intensity”: “I'm sorry, it is a loaded word.”

In the penultimate scene, minutes before Necessary Targets ends, Zlata laments the lost harmony of her once beautiful country. Briefly, she describes her parents' murder in detail before alluding to the play's strong undercurrent. Beneath the interplay of characters and their stories—topics I have deliberately slighted—the intellectual sins of false categories and deceptive language have been exposed. Verona's delivery was properly subdued; people who earn their truths, Ensler included, need not shout:

They break in … they chop off the heads of my old parents sitting on their couch. There is blood, lots of it. There is screaming. There are dead, headless bodies. Cruelty is generic. Cruelty is boring, boring into the center of the part of you that goes away. We are dead—all of us—to the suffering. There is too much of it—but remind us of the beauty …

Generic cruelty, all that most of us know at our comfortable distance, is the ultimate category, so common in Bosnia that it is boring and, in a great pun—great for its immediacy and accessibility in performance—it bores away at the very core of one's moral being. Being dead to suffering, Zlata suggests, is worse than beheading. Like her, the women never needed the brand of therapy practiced by J. S. or Melissa; rather, they need to be reminded of a past when “Bosnia was paradise.” In the last scene as J. S. talks into a tape recorder to Melissa, the Bosnian women appear dimly at deep stage. Only live theatre can achieve such a credible secular resurrection; the women are present to J. S. whose “I” shifts to “we,” and as the lights fade, they remain in the conscience of the audience.

Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange won England's Olivier Award for Best New Play; with its cast of three and minimal set, it is likely to appeal to many regional directors here in the US. Like Ensler, Penhall cares about victims and the language that people in power use to control them. His lens narrows to one victim. Christopher, who enters with bouncing enthusiasm because he thinks that he is about to be released from a psychiatric hospital run by the National Health Service. His doctor, Bruce, thinks otherwise but parries with Christopher instead of telling him so. Bruce uses the patronizing “we” of his profession, and he probes with questions that put his patient on the defensive. These men are both in their twenties; Robert, Bruce's superior, is in his fifties. The doctors disagree and then clash over whether Christopher should be released. By the play's end, the only clear winner is the bureaucratic system.

Robert is so openly the technocrat that his circular logic and in-house savvy consistently raise laughter. To him, Christopher's allotted time for treatment, twenty-eight days, is up, so regardless of his condition, he must he released. However sound Bruce's diagnosis may be, Robert doesn't want “a hospital full of long-term chronic, mental patients.” If that happened, he'd “never make Professor” and Bruce, Robert threatens, would miss his promotion too. The younger man is adamant, and the two lob categorical terms back and forth: BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), Neurotic, Psychotic, Aggressive, Nihilistic, Self-destructive, Paranoid. They are, in Bruce's belligerent thrust at Robert, “all the different euphemisms for ‘He's Nuts’ without actually having to admit he's nuts.” With triumphant self-assurance—admirably conveyed by Bill Nighy—Robert caps the exchange: “It's semantics. And right now, doctor, my semantics are better than yours, so I win.”

Robert sets the boundaries for his semantic game. To Penhall, euphemisms and misnomers have undeniable force and harmful consequences, and people in authority can be brazen and smug in drawing on their power:

You know, there is nothing wrong with your patient … He may be a bit jumpy … but hey, maybe that's just what you do where he comes from.
‘Where he comes from’?
His ‘community.’
He comes from Shepherd's Bush. What exactly are you trying to say?
I'm not saying any thing.

In the next act, after Robert has admitted to Bruce that his buzzword means nothing, he shamelessly aims it at the unschooled Christopher to persuade him to leave the hospital: “You have friends. Your community. People who care.” In his hypocrisy, Robert can correct Bruce for saying “black” instead of “Afro-Caribbean,” and when questioned about that label's origin, he pulls rank, “You are my subordinate, and your tone is beginning to sound dangerously insubordinate.”

If, as insubordinate to an upper case Authority, Bruce recommends change, Robert calmly assures him that he will be thought “Mad.” In this psychiatric hospital, the patient is at risk; Christopher shouts to break off badgering between Robert and Bruce: “Just Shut up … You are driving me around the bend.” With similar insight, Christopher's interruption puts a reductive, welcome label on Robert's jargon:

Our Colonial Antecedents are latent and barely suppressed—
What shit!

Later, Bruce applies the same term to Robert's research, but that kind of bluntness leads his superior to threaten him with an investigation. His innocent repetition of Christopher's “uppita nigga” becomes evidence against him, but at the end, Bruce is ready to take aggressive refuge in the grinding system. He asks Robert what the “procedure” is for “lodging a complaint with the Authority,” and the two men “stare at each other.Blue/Orange ends, as it should, in a stalemate. No winners here, only more games at the patients' and the country's expense.

The Acknowledged Master of silences in modern drama, Harold Pinter, creates their disturbing effects through control of cryptic dialogue, language vague in its references and, at the same time, potentially violent in its consequences. In 2001, Pinter himself acted the repressive interrogator in One for the Road in London and New York as part of a season honoring his achievement. His performance illuminated the play's disturbing text. Alone on stage at the opening, the seated Pinter leaned forward with his hands to his temples, getting ready as Nicholas to act his brutal role once again. His posture and gestures signified that the ensuing performance would burden anyone who participates in it—actor, audience, the fictional prisoners and Nicolas too. In the short play, a couple and their seven-year-old son are captives, and Nicolas questions them separately about unnamed offenses in an unnamed country. In an interview, Pinter explained his reason for the namelessness; for ninety percent of the imprisoned around the world, “There's no such thing as an offense … their very life is an offense, as far as the authorities go.” The interrogator's questions, then, aren't designed to extract information about political subversion; in other circumstances, most of them could pass for small talk: “Do you drink whisky?” “When did you meet your husband?” Since the gulf between the urbane Nicolas and the tortured husband and wife stretches so wide, anything resembling social dialogue would be absurd. The victims' silences speak their helplessness; they are no more sure of their place than K is in The Trial. In his brief scene, young Nicky behaves like a boy properly raised to give polite answers, so he admits to kicking the soldiers who confined him. Finally, the father is told “You can go”; his wife, still being raped repeatedly, “will be joining you in about a week.” As for little Nicky, it's clear that he has been killed. No nuances or ambiguities now from the playwright; the obscenity of totalitarian repression surfaces in the play's last words: “Your son? Oh don't worry about him. He was a little prick.” It's hard to applaud after such a curtain line; our momentary silence pays modest tribute to the victims.

As Pinter was appearing on the West End, the Royal Court presented a double-bill of his Mountain Language (1988) and Ashes to Ashes (1996). The chronological gap between their first productions was closed by the casting (Anastasia Hille and Neil Dudgeon were featured in both) and by an artful, ironic interlude: a film of green leaves was projected on a screen above the stage as the soothing sounds of birds filled the half-lit house. Ironic because Mountain Language opens to the loud beat of a helicopter and the jarring rhythms of gunshots. From a line of women refugees, The Young Woman belligerently confronts the Sergeant over the dog bite that The Elderly Woman has suffered. But, since she can't give the name of the dog, no “formal procedure” can operate, and nothing can be done except, of course, to forbid the women the use of their dialect, the mountain language of the title. A “breakdown in administration,” duly apologized for, leads The Young Woman to stumble into the room that holds her tortured husband; he, bloodied and trembling, shakes violently at the final blackout. This play, like Ashes to Ashes and Necessary Targets seems a response to strife in the Balkans. While Pinter's work has nothing like Ensler's specific immediacy and is a long way from a call to action, its disturbing suggestions may be more haunting because Pinter's language and partial disclosures draw us into the plays' mysterious core. We imagine more than we see or hear and, as a result, make wider applications than the specifies of current events allow.

The dialogue between Rebecca and Devlin in Ashes to Ashes works its mysteries beneath the rhythms and patterns of small talk. The couple know each other well enough to speak of family (her little niece is crawling), to keep conversation going with feigned interest (“No, really?”) and to utter trite truisms (“They're very busy people, the police”). As the lights in their room darken, the audience, like the police Devlin characterizes for Rebecca, “keep[s] getting signals, mostly in code.” Words like “factory” and “innocent” are delivered offhand in enigmatic contexts. In a near monotone, Rebecca calls her former lover, if that's what “he” was, a travel agent, “a guide [who] used to go to the local railway station and walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers.” Much later, an all-too-casual line introduces Rebecca's last long speech: “Oh by the way there's something I meant to tell you.” It becomes clear that she herself was part of the transport to God-knows-where and that she has almost certainly lost a baby. Devlin's part in the dialogue is taken over by the echo of Rebecca's voice. A witness to the unspeakable, she cannot control meaning as her own words come back upon her with unwanted freight. She would be indefinite telling of the train's destination, “And we arrived at this place,” but Echo insists on “this place,” the specific one she would like to forget but cannot drive out of memory. Her undirected “I don't have a baby” is both a denial and a literal truth; Echo is again persistent: “a baby.” A “Long silence” follows her last words and the play's final blackout: “I don't have a baby.” In Pinter's artistic control, ambiguity is pointed, and silence is retreat, a lie to memory and to the shared memory that we call history. The ashes of the play's title rose from crematoria. Rebecca can no more forget that than we should.

Events and characters from The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara are recalled in The Lonesome West, the final play of Martin McDonagh's Galway trilogy. At the Súgán Theatre in Boston, Carmel O'Reilly directed a cast of Equity and non-Equity actors so well that only the program notes made distinctions between them. Like the three other McDonagh plays I've noticed in these pages, The Lonesome West draws laughter from violence; while good acting and directing are needed to make that happen, the playwright's talent sets a tone which has appealed to audiences from London to Broadway and to our West Coast. Sean O'Casey first taught us to laugh with and at the patricide; McDonagh kills off a father in Lonesome West and adds a couple of suicides for full measure. Two of the dead never appear as characters on stage, and the third, a failure of a priest, gains sympathy for his tipsy self-awareness. We can laugh at the absent two because we never identify with them, while the news of the priest's death is met with silence. Two brothers scuffle a few times, but in one struggle the greatest damage is inflicted on bags of crisps, and a teenager, Girleen, breaks up the fight. A shotgun is fired—to kill a stove—and one brother's holy figurines are melted into a blob by his vengeful brother. Much of the violence, then, is palatable because it occurs out of view or is directed at mere objects. Beyond making it acceptable, McDonagh makes it funny with odd associations, usually reductive ones that explode normal expectations.

The Lonesome West opens with Coleman Connor and Father Welsh entering; Valene Connor soon joins them, the three having come from the funeral of the boys' father. Almost immediately the brothers are at each other in dialogue dotted with “feck” and “fecking.” They are no more sensitive to the priest than to each other, and they have a cocksure authority always at ironic odds with the obvious limitations of their pointless lives in an enclosed world. Welsh's doubts about his priestly qualifications get this consolation from Coleman:

Ah there be a lot worse priests than you, Father, I'm sure. The only thing with you is you're a bit too weedy and you're a terror for the drink and you have doubts about Catholicism. Apart from that you're a fine priest. Number one you don't go abusing poor gasurs [boys], so, sure, doesn't that give you a head-start over half the priests in Ireland?

All the girls on the soccer team coached by Father Welsh are “sent off” for rough play, so the violence is contagious. But, except for the brief allusion to child abuse and to the famine, it is kept at a sanitized distance from present realities and, so, can supply one side of a comic imbalance. Besides the well-made jokes, The Lonesome West is artfully structured as a whole. Laughter may seem to seal a point or cap an exchange only to have a later reference come as a culminating revelation about the action or the characters. The inturning pattern reinforces itself and ideally suits the insular world of the play's title.

The basic form of David Auburn's Proof is more traditional; the first scenes lead up to an Act I curtain line that surprisingly alters our perception of the main character, Catherine. With three monosyllables Auburn makes the intermission hum in anticipation of further twists in the story. But deeper satisfactions linger well after the mechanics of plotting have resolved the play's action and character conflicts, for Auburn cares most about the elements in human equations, the ones that cannot be submitted to mathematical proof. When Catherine challenges Hal about his change of mind toward the proof of the title, Auburn makes her question provocatively ambiguous: “You think you've figured something out?” Whatever certainty he may hold, “It doesn't finish the job. It doesn't prove anything.” What matters are the enduring values that Catherine has lived out in caring for her once brilliant father, a mathematician who drifted from something like Alzheimer's into death. She covers her fear of ending like him by playing the near cynic whose flat delivery conveys indifference, but who needs the kind of love and trust she has exemplified. Proof, a Pulitzer Prize winner, will tour and play regionals for a long time, so I give away nothing of the story. No knowledge of math is required to fully appreciate Auburn's fine play.

Horron Foote's Young Man from Atlanta faded fast after winning the Pulitzer, and his latest, The Carpetbagger's Daughters, should sputter out just as quickly despite being a joint production of three prestigious theatres. Houston's Alley, the Guthrie and Hartford Stage. The title characters make up the cast, three women who address monologues to the audience and hardly connect with each other dramatically. They react to others' lines more to cue a response from the house than to reveal inner depth. As the oldest, Jean Stapleton did well-received takes in the manner of Edith Bunker. All three actors, Foote's daughter included, were burdened by prosaic pointers: “I said … he said … Momma asked.” The play's quirky tales and humor had only momentary effects, for stereotypes in the most detailed of narratives cannot be vehicles for emotional or ethical truths.

In Sorrows and Rejoicings, Athol Fugard returns to subjects that he has dramatized over a long, courageous career: apartheid, its effects on both races, and the role of the artist. Alcoholism, his admitted problem, is touched upon; the master/slave relation gets a nod. In its premiere at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, however, and under the author's direction, the play does not succeed so well as most of his earlier work. In a curious coincidence, it suffers from the same lack of character connection that weakens The Carpetbagger's Daughters. A white woman, Allison; a black, Marta; and a girl, Rebecca, open the play. Allison, David's widow, surveys the room and says, “Nothing has changed.” Marta repeats the line, and we are no doubt hearing a comment on South Africa itself. They have come from the man's funeral: David, who left seventeen years before, at first in enforced exile and then absent by choice from Marta and their child; and Rebecca, conceived on the stage's central prop, a table that Marta has polished over the years with her tears. By turns, the women deliver exposition—from Allison about life in London, from Marta about South Africa's Karoo region. They so consistently explain more than they exchange that when Marta delivered a line directly to Allison (about continuing to hate her), the audience laughed to hear something like dialogue. David appears as present to them; in his last speech, he delivers South African place names to Marta for their poetic resonance, but they did not reverberate in New Jersey. The writer's raw material, so necessary for the legacy he would leave his country, cannot be shaped in exile by David. That material is too rooted in place to travel with the exile; he returns to it only in death. Fugard has reserved a burial plot in his native land.

David Jays (essay date October 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

SOURCE: Jays, David. “Face Off.” Sight and Sound 12, no. 10 (October 2002): 4-5.

[In the following essay, Jays offers a brief overview of Pinter's screenplays.]

“I'll tell you what I am,” snarls Dirk Bogarde. “I'm a gentleman's gentleman. And you're no bloody gentleman!” In his second screenplay The Servant (1963) Harold Pinter introduces an idiom that was to become wholly characteristic of his cinematic career. Pinter, with his startling verbal precision and interest in temporal fuzz, was a perfect match for director Joseph Losey, on the run from McCarthy's America into an oddly antediluvian Britain. And The Servant launched a cinematic body of work as distinctive as his writing for the stage.

Losey was fascinated by the theatricality of British class antagonism, and inspired Pinter to create wonderful meal scenes. Accident (1967) has a seedy Oxbridge Sunday lunch that staggers into supper; The Go-Between (1971) Victorian teas of fearsome formality. In Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1990) Christopher Walken hectors his dinner guests: “First and foremost society has to be protected from perverts.” A rant that segues into, “Talking about fruit, it's time for coffee.” Lushness turned rotten was the point of the movie, adapted from Ian McEwan's novel and filmed with an eye for the way gloss can turn to sickly varnish. The final word is “mascara”, as Walken describes his primping father retouching his moustache. The homoerotics of bullying, the inarticulate yearning to be a weakling, give Pinter's power-play scenarios their tang.

Some projects slipped from his grasp, like Lolita and The Remains of the Day, while he refused Peckinpah's invitation to script Straw Dogs. The dearest lost opportunity was a meditation on À la recherche du temps perdu, written for Losey but never filmed. Yet the bleed of past into present remains a preoccupation, remembered trauma slipping through in The Go-Between and Reunion (1991).

As an adolescent Pinter responded especially to Buñuel (“he was a revelation because he was brutal”) and to “very hard” American films like Double Indemnity. The jagged intrusions in his own work include the bafflingly visceral aristocratic pastimes in Accident (“a communal buggery,” writes Pinter of the straining scrum, like “a bowel with a gut gone”), but also unexpectedly free-wheeling verbal attacks—in The Pumpkin Eater (1964) Yootha Joyce's fawning chat becomes a snarl: “My darling. Anyone ever clawed your skin off? You see these claws? Ever had your skin clawed off?” The flatterer's claws, the bully's mascara: essential items in this wonderfully spare screen oeuvre.

Sheridan Morley (review date 12 May 2003)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Top Hats and No Trousers.” New Statesman 132, no. 4637 (12 May 2003): 46.

[In the following review, Morley comments that the stage adaptation of Pinter's novel The Dwarfs doesn't really work as a play.]

“Farce,” the late Ben Travers once told me, “is all about doors. They have to open and close at embarrassing moments, and the wrong people have to keep coming through them.” Nobody, at least in this country, has ever known more about farce than “Big Ben”. It is therefore courageous of Sam Walters to produce and direct Georges Feydeau's The Game Hunter on the Orange Tree's open stage, without so much as a convenient door—or even cupboard—in sight.

If you sit stage left at this production, you have the added delight of watching Samantha Tagg, the deputy stage manager, making all the right noises of doors opening and closing, and even playing a piano, which on stage is merely mimed. She is surely set for a glorious future as a BBC Radio sound-effects specialist.

When this translation by Richard Cottrell was first staged in 1964, it seemed to me less confident, less hilarious than the two other Feydeau farces that John Mortimer had recently adapted for Laurence Olivier's new National Theatre at the Old Vic. At the time, I was inclined to ascribe this to Mortimer himself being a playwright. But now I am not so sure. Cottrell takes fewer liberties with the original, allowing the marital-infidelity plot to take its time in coming to a climax, in which men wearing top hats but no trousers are obliged to reconsider the survival of both their marriages and their liaisons more-than-dangereuses.

As Groucho Marx once noted, whereas it is enough for comedy to have an actor dressed as an old lady tumble down a steep staircase, for farce you need a real old lady. This is perhaps the only genre of theatre at which the French surpass us, as all those with memories of the Whitehall Theatre in the 1950s and 1960s can testify. To find a series of equally good British farces, you have to go all the way back to the productions that the aforementioned Ben Travers staged at the Aldwych in the late 1920s.

Travers realised that classic farce has to have an element of cruelty. The only moment of cruelty in this production occurs when a smug and self-satisfied poet (Stuart Fox) discovers that his cherished first volume has been used to support a shaky desk leg. Pride has seldom come more injured.

In the same conversation, Travers also referred to the new National Theatre's catastrophic opening production of Carlo Goldoni's Il Campiello. “Surely,” he said, “if they want to open the bloody thing with a really bad play, it should at least be a really bad English play?”

You have to be addicted to Harold Pinter for Kerry Lee Crabbe's adaptation of his only novel, The Dwarfs, to grab you. It is interesting, in a way, to know what Pinter was writing before he became the leading playwright of his generation. And, given that at the time he was the same age as the three young men he was writing about, it is also an opportunity to hunt for clues.

Clues are vital to any amateur Pinter scholar, as he has steadfastly refused to talk about the meaning of his plays. Alan Ayckbourn, as a young actor, appeared in one of them, and asked the playwright to give him some insight into his character. “Mind your own f***ing business,” Pinter replied.

This production is the work of a small group of dedicated actors, an obsessed adaptor, and a fine young director. All the interests that Pinter would later explore are in evidence—friendship, perfidious women, buses, cricket, Hamlet, jealousy and, above all, the subtext beneath the seemingly banal. Despite the dedication that has gone into this production, however, it has to be said that The Dwarfs doesn't really work as a play. Developed at the National Theatre Workshop and then picked up as a film for the big Pinter celebratory year, it consists of short scenes interrupted by rather clunky scene changes. Filmic by nature, it does not lend itself easily to the stage. When a couple refer to themselves as naked, they plainly aren't, and when a character drops a stone into a pond, the effect is heard but not seen.

There is no plot here, no situation really, just three young men—the actor, the tailor-turned-City gent, the writer, all representing some aspect of Pinter—and one young woman, in various permutations, talking.


Pinter, Harold (Vol. 15)


Pinter, Harold (Vol. 27)