Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harold Pinter 1930–

English dramatist, scriptwriter, short story writer, poet, director, and actor.

Pinter is widely regarded as one of the foremost living dramatists. His earliest plays, including The Room (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958), display certain theatrical techniques and themes which commentators have described as "Pinteresque." This term generally refers to dramatic scenarios that take place in a fixed setting and involve a few characters whose motivations are obscure, no less to themselves than to the audience, but whose actions plainly illustrate both the subtle and overt violence of human relationships and convey a well-controlled atmosphere of psychological unease. While the ambiguities and enigmas of these "comedies of menace" have been the focus of derogation as well as praise, Pinter's exacting and complex use of language in these works is a major factor in his presently high repute.

The Birthday Party was Pinter's first full-length drama and the first to be professionally produced. It had a short, unprofitable run and received severe abuse from critics, the most extreme of whom viewed the action of the play as obscurity bordering on nonsense. Two years later Pinter's next full-length drama, The Caretaker (1960), became as successful with audiences and reviewers as his first had been unsuccessful, seemingly a response to the greater realism and comic emphasis of the later work, but also as an indication that the "obscurities" of Pinter's writing were now being recognized as integral to his art. With the 1965 presentation of The Homecoming, often considered his most important work, Pinter was discussed as a major English-language dramatist. Since that time he has continued to produce a number of notable works for the stage, cinema, radio, and television, including film adaptations of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (1977), and his own drama Betrayal (1978).

Pinter's early plays were written during the era of the Angry-Young-Man generation of British authors, whose works were typified by a sense of disillusionment, working-class characters, and by bleakly mundane settings that led one critic to describe them as "kitchen sink" dramas. The 1950s were also the years when a number of works appeared, including Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs, that have been grouped under the epithet Theatre of the Absurd and share certain defining traits: philosophical nihilism, unconcern for realistic character psychology, and abandonment of the cause-and-effect type plots of naturalistic drama. While Pinter's works have much in common with these theatrical trends, critics emphasize that it is a combination of the two styles, whether deliberate or unpremeditated on the author's part, that distinguishes his plays.

Unrealistic characters who exchange realistic dialogue and dreamlike sequences acted out in naturalistic settings are identifying features of Pinter's early comedies of menace: The Room, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter (1960), and several radio plays including A Slight Ache (1959) and The Dwarfs (1960). The exact nature of the menace is unspecified and arises from the intrusion of one group of characters upon the enclosed security of another group, usually resulting in the upheaval or destruction of an isolated world within a room. The situation of Stanley, in The Birthday Party, is representative: he is a character with an indeterminate past life who becomes the sole renter at a seaside boardinghouse, where one day two men from an unidentified "organization" arrive, proceed to demoralize Stanley into a state of confused submission, and prepare to take him away for a "rest cure" at the end of the last act. Critics here observe the influence of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, authors for whom Pinter has expressed high admiration. The Hothouse, first produced in 1980 but written around the time of The Birthday Party, has been described by Pinter as a "heavily satirical" play in which he was "trying to make a point, an explicit point." Despite the uncharacteristically explicit theme, this satirization of modern bureaucratic institutions and their dehumanizing effects has been appraised by critics as a worthy and representative example of Pinter's early work.

The Caretaker initiated Pinter's use of characters and backgrounds that are more recognizably realistic, in contrast to the absurdist atmosphere of his earlier plays. While the previous mood of menace is again present in this work, critics have found that Pinter now begins to examine its origins and workings more closely in the various gambits for dominance among the characters. According to its commentators, The Caretaker also introduces a number of themes developed in Pinter's later work, particularly those having to do with power, communication, personal identity, and the unreliability of memory and knowledge. Pinter's two subsequent full-length dramas, The Homecoming (1965) and Old Times (1970), are considered his most effective and artistic presentations of these concerns. The first play is often analyzed as a contest of manipulation in which the characters advance their positions as much by silence as by the multiple meanings of their speech; the second play, like much of Pinter's work, involves an intimate group of characters whose willingness to communicate with one another in the present is as questionable as the accuracy of their knowledge of the past.

In the more recent drama and film Betrayal, the truth about its characters is approached by reversing the chronological order—1977 to 1968—in which their actions are viewed, a stratagem that critics find apt, considering Pinter's concern with memory, but not one which brings this drama to the level of his earlier masterpieces. Among Pinter's current works are three short plays grouped under the title Other Places. The most highly praised of these is A Kind of Alaska, based on case histories of coma victims who have been restored to consciousness after spending years in an unconscious state. Examining, in the words of Martin Esslin, "time, reality, and the nature of the self," this work serves as the latest restatement, as well as extension, of "Pinteresque" subjects and the evolving styles in which they are treated.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)

Katherine H. Burkman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though Pinter is distinctly a poetic rather than a problem-solving playwright, he is by his own proud admission in large part a traditionalist. Despite his lack of certain kinds of explicit information about his characters and plot, in form Pinter is not as far from the well-made play of Ibsen as many of his fellow absurdists; he is fond of curtain lines and curtains, and he is ultimately concerned with the shape both of words and of his entire dramatic world. "For me everything has to do with shape, structure, and over-all unity," Pinter noted in an interview—a statement which does not contradict his assertion that his creative process is not conceptual, that he follows his characters whither they lead him.

The point is that Pinter's characters lead him continually to the very rhythmic structures which have informed great dramatic works since drama's origin in primitive ritual. (pp. 7-8)

Just as the primitive rites of ancient religions work their way into the structure of art, in drama as notably as in painting and sculpture, ritual becomes part of Pinter's dramatic world, in which it is used for the playwright's own tragi-comic purposes.

A reading of Pinter's plays in the light of the ritual rhythms which structure them involves an understanding of two distinct kinds of rituals which the playwright sets in counterpoint with each other. On the one hand, the plays abound in those daily habitual activities which have become formalized as ritual and have tended to become empty of meaning, an automatic way of coping with life. These automatic and meaningless activities contrast in the plays with echoes of sacred sacrificial rites which are loaded with meaning and force the characters into an awareness of life from which their daily activities have helped to protect them. My contention is that beneath the daily secular rituals which Pinter weaves into the texture of his plays—"the taking of a toast and tea"—beat the rhythms of ancient fertility rites, which form a significant counterpoint to the surface rituals of the plays and which often lend the dramas their shape and structure. (p. 10)

[The] rituals of daily life are seen at one and the same time as comic and ineffectual, and as tragic and pathetic. Their emptiness is exposed with all the intellectuality of Ionesco's kind of irony, but the effort to sustain them is explored with all the sympathy of Beckett for his two Godot clowns, desperately improvising their routines in a void. (p. 12)

Pinter lends himself to ritual or mythical critical examination more than many of his contemporaries, partly because he focuses continually on the primitive qualities which lurk beneath the civilized veneer of modern life and erupt into that life, and partly because his determination to confront the mysterious, unsolvable regions of man's existence has led him into the realms of myth and ritual. The playwright disclaims any reading knowledge of anthropology, and his myth-making qualities are not the self-conscious ones of the poet Yeats…. He becomes rather the daytime dreamer who is drawn to the same ritual patterns which Northrop Frye suggests have drawn men through the centuries to deal in similar archetypal patterns with the mystery of...

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Mary Jane Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A radio play which uses the qualities of sound and silence to the fullest extent cannot be translated into another medium without damage. If such plays use those attributes of radio which are unique—chiefly its intimacy, flexibility and ability to command not only absolute concentration but also active and continuous participation from the listener—then no visual treatment however fluid or evocative can avoid the problem of being too literal—of lessening both the sensual and the intellectual impact of the play. Successful radio dramatists invariably assume that their listeners possess active imaginations to add the completely personal dimension which makes a good radio play memorable to the audience.


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Russell Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harold Pinter started off unluckily. He arrived on the London stage at a time when it was no longer fashionable for playwrights merely to exercise their gifts. They had to apply them, more or less explicitly, to social themes….

Pinter has already done his best to lean obligingly in the direction of conventional naturalism and commitment by saying, "If you press me for a definition, I'd say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I'm doing is not realism." It was wise of him not to claim that what he's doing is poetic: that sort of talk empties theaters. But it is clear that Pinter arrived at drama by way of poetry, and has remained faithful to an instinctive, organic method of...

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Rudolf Stamm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Pinter's note in the 1980 text of The Hothouse] places The Hothouse between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. What may appear surprising in this chronological arrangement is the relation between The Birthday Party and the lately produced play. Without the author's guidance spectators and readers would tend to consider The Hothouse as a preparatory exercise for The Birthday Party. It is a comparatively easy Pinter: his characteristic technique is used less economically and discreetly in it than in the other plays of the same period. One simple consequence of this appears in the length of the text. In the Methuen edition The Hothouse covers about 150 pages as...

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Enoch Brater

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pinter's characters in Betrayal are boring. Preoccupied with children, home, extramarital affairs, tablecloths, and happiness, they recite the lines that have been assigned to them as educated, pampered, polite, moderately cultivated, upper-middle-class Londoners. Even their taste in modern literature is as unexceptional as it is predictable. Though they may occasionally feel obliged to read Yeats on Torcello or to take their summer holidays in the Lake District, what they really enjoy are the mundane little novels about ordinary people much like themselves in "the new Casey or Spinks." Here everything is ordered, fixed, and, above all, contained. Life does not pass these people by; it merely goes on for them....

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Peter J. Conradi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The French Lieutenant's Woman, itself a species of historical romance, albeit an ornately mannered and self-conscious one, [John] Fowles addresses the problem of repression and liberation as aspects both of the evolution of modern ethics, so that its major characters defy social convention, and also of the emancipation of the poetics of his chosen fictional form, so that the revelation and denunciation of the inauthenticities of his hero are accompanied by the attempt to expose the conventions and hypocrisies of the form. The 'liberation' of both novel-characters and readers is the apparent aim, albeit one that can never be achieved. The book may award us three endings: life, as Christopher Ricks pointed...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Hothouse is hardly the best written of Pinter's works or the most exquisitely engineered, but it has a kind of unbuttoned, careening energy I find impossible to resist, and it suggests a road he might have taken had he not chosen to perfect the art of tergiversation. Most of Pinter's plays are not so much suggestive as evasive; his fondness for textual lacunae lays the burden of specificity on the actor. Since actors are hardly reluctant to comply, Pinter's scenes tend to move down instead of forward, tantalizing us with their ciphers and hieroglyphs. It is not to denigrate this playwright's extraordinary craftsmanship to say there may be a lot less in his work than meets the eye. Pinter admits to being...

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Martin Esslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Which way is our leading dramatist going? Is Harold Pinter moving away from the extravagantly 'Pinteresque' situations and language of his earlier style—which he had revived with the re-discovery and exhumation of The Hothouse? or is he developing in the direction of a new, much more subtly searching exploration of his favourite themes of memory, the nature of the self and of reality; a direction in which he had embarked with Betrayal?…

[Other Places] gives an affirmative answer to both alternatives intimated by that question: two of the brief playlets in the triad are vintage Pinter, one, and by far the most interesting and fascinating delves ever more deeply into the...

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Bernard F. Dukore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frequently Pinter's plays begin comically but turn to physical, psychological, or potential violence—sometimes, in varying sequences, to all three. Terror inheres in a statement in The Room that the onstage room, which is occupied, is to let. Although the play turns comic again, it ends on a note of physical violence.

In the early plays menace lurks outside, but it also has psychological roots. The titular room—in which the heroine lives, fearful of an outside force she does not specify—is dark. In The Birthday Party the sheltered young man fears visitors. In The Dumb Waiter outside forces menace a questioning killer. In A Slight Ache a psychologically disturbed man...

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Roger Scruton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Beckett and Pinter have less in common than meets the eye, nevertheless they share a fundamental premise: their characters are raw, vulnerable, dangerously exposed to one another. They speak words carefully, with painful consideration, as though every excess of communication puts their existence at risk. Words are swords to them, but also shields. The characters are ill at ease in company, but alert to language. Hence their utility for the modern theatre-goer, who lives, eats, drinks and breathes embarrassment, and who is never more embarrassed than by his recognition that he has no great message, and no private destiny, to convey.

Since his majestic attempt to "eff the ineffable" in the...

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