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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.)
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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 our being. (pp. 14-15)
[Pinter], as he consciously or unconsciously traces basic ritual patterns in his dramatic world, is reaching back over the centuries to archaic rhythms which have always dominated drama at its best. He is also treating those rhythms in a highly individual, even unique, way and is moving at the same time in the mainstream of much in modern literature which has already gained the stature of the classic and which is pressingly and seriously relevant to our times. (p. 17)
Even though Pinter, contrary to Yeats, does not desire a "mysterious art," he has, nevertheless, achieved it. The mysterious and prophetic quality of his drama results, though, from an almost scientific attempt at dispassionate observation. When asked if he tried to make Barrett a sympathetic character in his film version of The Servant, Pinter did not consider such a task his concern. He said, "I am just concerned with what people are, with accuracy." (p. 131)
In dealing with his characters so accurately, Pinter has looked far beneath the surface of life, not only to the psychological depths of his characters' existence, but to their primitive archetypal nature. His characters and the actions of his plays remain mysterious, not because he withholds psychological explanation, but because he has sensed a deeper strand of reality than the particular psychology of a character. This other reality is of a ritual nature, the characters grouping to enact those ancient rites that imitate nature and insure and celebrate life's persistence and renewal.
Ritual functions in Pinter's dramatic world much as Jane Ellen Harrison suggests it functions in religion to keep the individual fenced-in soul open—"to other souls, other separate lives, and to the apprehension of other forms of life." The daily rituals that protect man from such openness and awareness are constantly undermined in Pinter's dramas by those sacrificial rites that impinge upon them and force contact. Goldberg and McCann disturb the breakfast rituals of The Birthday Party to conduct their own ritual party at which Stanley is sacrificed; and Petey can no longer hide behind his paper when the strips of it which McCann has torn during the party fall out to remind him of Stanley's victimization. In The Room Rose can no longer hide behind her ritual breakfasts with her husband when Riley appears from the basement and involves her in his fate…. As much as his characters evade communication, Pinter involves them in an eventual confrontation. The structure is Aristotelian, the imitation of an action, and the impact of the characters upon one another, even in their silent exchanges, is as final and irrevocable as the impact of character on character in Greek tragedy. (pp. 132-33)
The struggle in the dramas is very often conceived of in Oedipal terms. Father-and-son competition is evident in Pinter's three major plays with the mother-wife the focus of the battle in The Homecoming. The sexual relationship is ritualized, however, so that the focus is not on neurotic relationships or Oedipus complexes so much as it is on the archetypal relationships of man and woman faced with the universal dilemma of Oedipal conflicts. Woman is often seen in these conflicts as mother, wife and whore—the over-possessive mother of A Night Out, for example, whom Albert identifies with a whore he picks up on the street. In The Party women are intiially divided as wife and secretary (whore), but by the end of the play the dying Disson sees them both as one and the same, whores catering to his usurping brother-in-law.
In The Lover, The Collection, and The Homecoming—plays that make a similar identification of the woman—Pinter is highly sympathetic with them. This sympathetic treatment seems to stem partly from a perception of the woman's ritual role in the transfer of power from dying god to the new god. Woman is not allowed the role of faithful wife if she is to preside at the ritual renewal of life and embrace and welcome the new god when he arrives. Ruth, the most complex of these divided women, is portrayed as the suffering victim of the power struggle that she loses and wins, the fertility goddess who says "yes" to life on whatever harsh terms it is offered.
The dramas move, then, beyond the particular psychological attributes of the battling characters to their archetypal roles in the ritual patterns in which they move. Pinter once remarked in an interview that a sameness of behavior "is rife in the world. As someone said 'we're all the same upside down.'" In a sense his dramatic world stresses that sameness as well as the patterns in which we all appear to move. (pp. 135-36)
Katherine H. Burkman, in her The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual (copyright © 1971 by the Ohio State University Press; all rights reserved), Ohio State University Press, 1971, 171 p.
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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.
To demonstrate that Harold Pinter's radio plays work in this way is, I think, to conclude that they are performed under ideal conditions only in the medium for which they were written—that is, on the radio.
As a playwright, Pinter possesses several easily identifiable characteristics. One is that he prefers to work with a small cast and a single setting. Most of the plays are set in rooms creating a claustrophobic effect. Whether created by sound or visually, the setting is invariably naturalistic in detail. Against this setting the characters act out inexplicable events. In radio, what information Pinter consents to give depends largely on cues like accent and idiom which reveal the speaker's class, geographical roots, and ethnic origin. Like many traditional playwrights, he also gives cues to interpretation through rhythm—the tell-tale repetitions, hesitations, incomplete sentences, phatic noises, and silences on which much of the subtext rests.
Pinter's predilection for claustrophobic atmosphere, naturalistic setting, and small casts is also ideal for radio. For a listener, it is easier to keep track of a few voices rather than a large number. Technically, one atmospheric location is easier to handle. Acting out Pinter's series of inexplicable situations in front of a naturalistic set creates uneasiness in an audience—a sense of threat. Radio can also work this way when naturalistic sound effects are the prelude and backdrop to surrealistic events. However, radio has an added advantage in that the naturalistic context can be faded out from the listener's consciousness and the world of the mind can take over.
The radio plays cover roughly the same range of themes dealt with in his stage plays. In A Slight Ache, as in The Caretaker and The Homecoming, a stranger attempts to break into a closed circle of people. Davies fails. The Matchseller and Ruth succeed. The triple nature of woman—wife, mother, whore—is one of the central themes in A Night Out, and A Slight Ache as well as Landscape, The Homecoming, and The Lover. The complex relations between victim and tormentor recur almost like an obsession in The Dwarfs, as well as The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. The unbreakable stranglehold of power exercised through blood ties, position, passivity or sexuality is another theme running through these plays.
The only theme unique to Pinter's radio work, as distinct from his stage work, also reflects the nature of the medium and that is the complete disintegration of a man's identity. This focus appears only in The Dwarfs where the radio convention of interior monologue, a form capable of fully evoking Len's hallucinations, is the core of the play. (pp. 403-04)
A Slight Ache contains many of the patterns evident in other early Pinter: an ambiguous, menacing intruder; an inexplicable struggle for power in which an apparently strong character, Edward, progressively weakens until he is replaced by another, the Matchseller; a whore/mother/wife figure who is middle-aged, sexually unsatisfied, who dreams of her youth and who transfers her allegiance from her husband to another man. Using these themes and characters, A Slight Ache looks back to The Room and The Birthday Party and forward to The Caretaker and even Ruth in The Homecoming. Flora's long soliloquy on her rape … also reminds one of Beth recalling her love affair in the dunes in Landscape. The same tone of passivity and of sensually savouring one's memories is common to both characters.
The symbolism in A Slight Ache is as concrete and explicit in meaning as the dumbwaiter, or Davies' papers in Sidcup. Edward's esoteric essays are obviously infertile and incomplete mental exercises symbolic of his sterile existence. His developing blindness is an old metaphor for waning prowess, mental and physical. The drawn-out death by scalding of the wasp trapped in the jam-pot works both as a piece of characterization (Edward's aggressive cruelty to an intruder), and as a paradigm of Edward's own destiny. The compulsively ordered and polished house and the lush, sunlit garden place the play in a firmly middle-class setting.
These motifs are worth noting as evidence of good playwriting, but they are of more interest to us as demonstrations of radio technique. References to the faculty of sight carry added emotional weight in radio, the blind medium. The opening sequence of the wasp works particularly well in sound since the noise of a wasp can be unbearably irritating. Pinter wakens the listener's senses through violent contrasts of glaring sunlight and heat and the deep shade of the scullery and the study which hide Edward. He chooses the most sensuous and musical names for his flowers: convolvulus, japonica, clematis, honeysuckle.
The Matchseller is also presented with the same highly charged physical detail. He smells…. He is a lump, a mouldering heap…. (p. 405)
And yet he changes before their eyes, from old to young, diseased to solid, nameless to named—all transformations which obviously occur in the minds of Edward and Flora but which may also be happening to the Matchseller. The radio version indicates that this process is actual with the lines: "You're getting up … you're moving … of your own volition … taking off your balaclava." followed by "You look younger."…
A Night Out belongs to a far more realistic tradition of playwriting. With the exception of Albert's abortive blow, the play does not particularly exploit the medium of sound—and yet the play's impact depends partly on the old-fashioned element of a surprise plot twist. We discover that Albert hasn't killed his mother after all and his brief moment of glory, already fading in the encounter with the prostitute is extinguished. For that part of the play to work, her appearance, alive and well, must come as a shock—and that is technically very difficult to achieve in the theatre, as a comparison of stage directions will show.
Act II, Scene iii of the stage version has this stage direction:
Albert lunges to the table, picks up the clock and violently raises it over his head. A stifled scream from the Mother.
Obviously this is followed by a very swift blackout as he raises it. One second's mistiming on the part of the lighting-board operator and the climax of the play, the mother's appearance unharmed in the last scene, is lost. (p. 406)
A Night Out suffers comparatively little from a stage performance, given an intimate performing space and fluid staging conventions. It is a play that could comfortably join a television double bill with The Collection or The Lover. A Slight Ache suffers much more loss of immediate sensory and emotional impact and much of its prismatic puzzling complexity of point of view when it is staged. But the chief casualty of theatrical adaptation is The Dwarfs, Pinter's last and most interesting play for radio. (p. 407)
The Dwarfs is not like any of the other plays that Pinter wrote. In the first place, nothing happens—even at the minimal level of plot used in Pinter's other plays. Len simply exists with Pete, with Mark, by himself, in his room or in the hospital. Nothing that Pete or Mark do or say seems to cause the changes in his head. One of Len's random remarks causes open conflict between Pete and Mark, but that is an ancillary event to the central development of the play, Len's descent into insanity. His progressive isolation is presented as a completely internal thing and it is never clear whether he cuts them off or they cut him off. It is true that in Pinter's stage plays Pinter often excludes decisive action from the stage action. We never know why Ben is ordered to kill Gus or whether Mick and Aston agree to kick Davies out of the flat, but we do see the results of these decisions in on-stage conflict. In The Dwarfs even that kind of action is abandoned. Len goes deeper into terror and emptiness without obvious external pressures of any kind.
The other characteristic of The Dwarfs which distinguishes it from Pinter's other work is that the dialogue presents a far more dense texture of symbolism and metaphor. (pp. 407-08)
[The original radio play of The Dwarfs can be read or perceived simply as a successful invitation to participate in a period in one man's life when his sanity is dissolving. But there is no author's point-of-view toward this experience, no attitude imposed on the audience. The subjective nature of the medium permits the audience to perceive events through Len's senses, his memory and his hallucinations. As the layers of ambiguity open up, the listener makes of it what he can.
The fluidity and intimacy of radio requires imagination, concentration, and active, continuous interpretation from the listener. More important, because a radio play is, by nature of its sensory limitations, open-ended, the listener himself has active control over what he takes away. Because radio is not as compulsive a medium as television or the stage, the listener exercises extensive powers of consent to his own participation in the emotions and ideas of a radio play. When Pinter chose to write Dwarfs for radio he exploited these questions to create a more fascinating, many-sided protagonist, and to raise more complex and interesting questions about human consciousness than could ever be explored in the stage versions.
The Dwarfs is a classic of its kind—and its kind is radio. When it is transformed from print into performance, it should be heard, not seen—presented to an audience who listens. (p. 411)
Mary Jane Miller, "Pinter As a Radio Dramatist," in Modern Drama (copyright Modern Drama, University of Toronto), Vol. XVII, No. 4, December, 1974, pp. 403-12.
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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 composition, letting the voices do the talking and allowing what seems right to stand.
His knowledge of poetry, long before the plays appeared, was already very broad. It is said that two of the subjects in which his knowledge is encyclopaedic are the bus routes of London and the poetry of the Forties, including some of its very minor effusions. He himself wrote a great many poems at that time…. [Approximately] twenty poems have survived from the early and middle Fifties to form part of Pinter's collected Poems and Prose. Of these, rather more than a dozen are likely to do Dylan Thomas's reputation more good than Pinter's. The same vexatious mixture of exaltation and body-rot is on display here; and it is surprising to find Pinter, who has admitted to "a strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea," still willing to contemplate these adolescent revivals, with their dangerously rich melanges of ripe old lexicographical rarities….
Over the poem "Chandeliers and Shadows" is set an epigraph from The Duchess of Malfi—"I'le goe hunt the badger by owle-light: 'tis a deed of darknesse"—which further proclaims an affinity with Thomas's "Altarwise by owl-light" sequence (although with the mischievous side-effect of demonstrating Pinter's knowledge of where Thomas got his arresting "coinage" from). If we consider the strong flavor of Swansea in these poems, it is perhaps surprising that Pinter's early dramatic efforts do not have even a tinge of Thomas's "play for voices" Under Milk Wood lingering on in them; but only in the long passage of double-headed browbeating by Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party is there a possible trace of the orchestrated First Voice/Second Voice patterns Thomas employed. Goldberg and McCann, in fact, are tiresomely contrapuntal; they weaken, in the end, the sense of threat. It may well have been overarranged dialogues such as this to which Pinter referred when he expressed dissatisfaction with The Birthday Party, on the grounds that there was "too much writing" in it.
The influence that had encouraged Dylan Thomas in his singsong, paradoxically, taught Pinter his sinister restraint. This was Eliot. One of the first to notice that Pinter had so much Eliot in him was Kenneth Tynan. In fact, he pointed out "the source of the Pinter style" with great glee at the end of his ear-cropping review (after listening to The Dumb Waiter, so he says, with "half an ear"—such are the subtle ways of the semiconscious put-down). Tynan goes on to quote, from "Sweeney Agonistes," fragments of Sweeney and Swarts which, while not a dead ringer for Pinter, do vibrate with a sympathetic tinkle. Better, perhaps, would have been a patch of Doris and Dusty from the opening of Eliot's same "Aristophanic Melodrama":
Doris: You can have Pereira.
Dusty: What about Pereira?
Doris: He's no gentleman, Pereira: You can't trust him!
Dusty: Well, that's true….
Doris: No it wouldn't do to be too nice to Pereira.
and so on. To note that the inconsequential jangliness of this has echoes in Pinter is only fair to Eliot; but it is hardly fair to pin the badge of Eliot on him without crediting him at the same time with having known what to do with this tradition when he got hold of it. The Birthday Party is very rich in post-Eliot experimentation, most of it, in effect, replacing the disembodied ghostliness of Eliot's wan voices with a warm and rather repulsive collusion. The result is a kind of vaudeville crosstalk, crawling with innuendo, yet retaining some of Eliot's formal, bell-like antiphony….
Commentators are still fond of remarking that Pinter characters "fail to communicate," but it's a hard charge to back up when so many of them take a positive delight in collaborating to limit the scope of conversation, reveling in the ambitionlessness of the topic, conspiring (like Stanley and Meg in their exchange about "succulent" fried bread) to exercise their techniques of insinuation. Eliot's objectification of emptiness becomes in Pinter, at times, a gloating celebration of it. (p. 22)
It is natural to hope to find, somewhere, a Pinter who actually lands on a meaning, fairly and squarely; and the most natural place to look is in the early prose pieces. Unfortunately, there are only three of these included in Poems and Prose. But in them is contained—to put it optimistically—what one most needs to know about Pinter's subject matter.
The simplest of the three to understand is a fragment called "The Black and White," a monologue in what it is easy to think of, looking away from the text, as broad Cockney, but which on re-examination proves to signal its dialect origins only in the merest ellipses ("They only shut hour and a half"). The speaker is a vagrant woman who spends her time in London walking, or on buses, or looking at buses, or in the "Black and White," a cheap late-late café.
Monologues of this kind were not a rarity in the mid-Fifties: there were Revue actresses who specialized in them, and, indeed, Pinter's fragment later became a Revue sketch. But it has more than stage-pathos and Cockney "character." Or, rather, less—it has the sharp pain of neutrality. Its touch in such tiny matters as the preference for a definite over an indefinite article is very sure. When Pinter writes "They give you the slice of bread," and not "a slice," he cuts out from the phrase all social sense of the gesture. The dumb institutional act remains, frozen in habit. If it did not sound preachy, you could call Pinter, already, a virtuoso in the art of reproducing the authentic voice of the dispossessed.
He is certainly interested in that voice, and has gone on using it in many disguises. In No Man's Land it even became the feverish cultured purr of Gielgud. It is at its most famously garrulous in Davies, the tramp in The Caretaker, who, like the woman in "The Black and White" and many another Pinter character, "geographizes" the sprawl and collapse of his identity (his "papers" down in Sidcup; the loss of a shoe "just past Hendon" on the North Circular Road, etc.). (p. 23)
The motto for almost any Pinter character who talks long enough to begin hearing his own voice can be found in Beckett's Malone Dies: "I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?"
A few pages earlier in the same book, Malone can be heard considering his situation. "Present state. This room seems to be mine. I can find no other explanation to my being left in it…. Unless it be at the behest of one of the powers that be … I enquire no further in any case." This could hardly be closer in spirit to Pinter. It takes us right back to his remaining two early prose pieces: the two versions of the Kullus incident.
The first, dated 1949, is a gnomic sketch/poem (developed as The Basement later on) in which Kullus and his girl take over the narrator's room; this makes the narrator the outsider, and thus, in turn, the usurper. In The Examination, a narrative conducted in language not unlike that of a psychiatrist's report (though it is not clear what kind of "examination" is going on), the writer records how he formerly dictated the terms on which time shared with Kullus was passed, only to discover that Kullus—significantly expert in controlling silence—had begun to take over the "dominance." "For we were now in Kullus's room." (The date of this piece is 1954/1955. If not influenced by the French edition of 1950, Pinter must have been mightily encouraged to develop his theme when Beckett's 1955 translation of Molloy was published. It begins, "I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now.")
If we really understood what Pinter had put of himself into the Kullus pieces—which really only tantalize with the impression they give of intense importance to their author—we would probably be happy to reunite the playwright with his ear and salute the pair of them. But then, if Pinter felt able to open Kullus up to that kind of inspection, he might well have no wish to write plays. As it is, practically everything he has written flows from the impulse first recorded in Kullus. Paranoia, class, desire to dominate and be dominated, sex (the pivotal role of women), the exchange of identities: these are not themes so much as mysterious stages in the process by which A Room becomes Someone's Room. (pp. 23-4)
[Betrayal] works up very little of the familiar atmosphere of puzzlement and dread. It takes a rather frigid, formal pleasure in working backward through time, starting its story of adultery amid the polite, uneasy epilogues of the affair in 1977, and tracing it all gradually back to its first hot, drunken moment of something-like-truth in 1968. "Nice sometimes to think back, isn't it?" is the punning clue; and though with Pinter, naturally enough, it isn't nice—the exchange of social and sexual hypocrisies has a morose and cynical edge, as of Feydeau farce taken apart and ground out in a sarcastically slow reverse gear—the play is comforting in the sense that its characters, and their guilt, are of a relatively familiar kind.
A publisher, a literary agent, a pretty wife who runs a gallery: far feebler talents than Pinter's have quarried such types for their deep-lying desire to sneer the world, and themselves, to extinction. Betrayal is by no means the least elegant of hatchet jobs on London's bookmen and their reputation-mongering (a memorable character in the play is a reputation called Casey, who never appears); but like its own stately, revolving stage set, it is unmistakably part of a world seen in terms of La Ronde. This is Pinter moving in "art circles," rather than getting trapped in his accustomed cube. And his new professional-class characters, so much more recognizable in their smugness than the old, are in the same degree more abstract too. It remains to be seen whether these figures are merely, in Eliot's words,
Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
and whether an instinctive life will burst in again on this upper story, reclaiming it for Pinter's old, insulting, implicating passions. (p. 24)
Russell Davies, "Pinter Land," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXV, Nos. 21 & 22, January 25, 1979, pp. 22-4.
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[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 against 30 for The Room, 40 for The Dumb Waiter, 80 for The Caretaker and 90 for The Birthday Party. It looks as if the play had not undergone the process of elimination and concentration that has led to the enigmatic compactness of the rest of his plays.
In spite of a number of loose ends there is a fairly complete and intelligible plot. The chief of what is a cross between a hospital, a mental home and a prison is gradually revealed to be a criminal, and the main members of his staff turn out to be not much better. After he has exasperated the so-called patients by a hypocritical Christmas address, composed of all the available platitudes and clichés, they break out of their cells and kill the whole staff with two exceptions, one of them the man who can carry the tale to the official in the Ministry and who seems to have engineered the whole catastrophe in order to become the successor of his liquidated chief. Thus a fairly well constructed crime story is neatly resolved in a concluding scene, and we are left with fewer questions to ponder than we have learnt to expect at the end of a Pinter play. Taking the author's hint we may read it as an experimental excursion into Ben Jonson's ferocious mode of satire and as a reaction to the reception of The Birthday Party by critics and audiences, many of whom had loudly complained of the young author's opacity.
We realize what the targets of his satire are right at the start of the performance…. The rules of the institution demand that the patients be deprived of their names and given numbers instead. The system does not seem to work too well since the chief himself is mixing up two numbers, one belonging to a patient that has died, the other to one who has given birth to a boy…. The whole system we encounter is depersonalized, rigid, resisting change, and it is strictly hierarchical. Roote is the top man, Gibbs is his inferior, Lush is Gibb's inferior, and far down on the ladder stands Lamb, the unfortunate novice on the staff. (pp. 291-92)
As the play proceeds we realize that hot passions are lurking under the frozen surface of the hierarchical system: rivalry, envy, hatred, and that almost the whole staff is hardly better than a pack of wolves ready to jump at each other's throats and eventually destroyed by the most cunning specimen, the enigmatic Gibbs…. [There] is little information concerning the so-called patients. Roote and Lush intermittently indulge in plenty of double-talk concerning the benefits enjoyed by them, but a number of hard facts come to light and give away the brutality of the institution. The death of number 6457 was caused by Roote if we can trust Gibbs's final report, and we can trust it once we have discovered that he knows much more about his superior's devious ways than Roote, in his desperate isolation, imagines. Roote is also the cause of the birth the report of which shocks him so deeply, and how the patients feel about it all appears in the final massacre of the staff, the account of which is received quite calmly by Lobb, the representative of the ministry, who seems aware—to use a phrase of T. S. Eliot's—that this sort of thing has occurred before, and invites Gibbs to take over.
Pinter's satire is aimed at the libido dominandi; he has constructed a model of a vicious circle of power; we witness the fall of the tyrannical top man and are left with the certainty that his successor will be worse and that the wheel will continue to turn without alteration. In a play of this type there is hardly any room for characterization in the traditional sense. We cannot trust what a figure says about himself or what other figures say about him. The information we get this way is mostly deceptions and lies. In his list of characters the author merely offers monosyllabic names and an age indication. In the case of Cutts the name is preceded by 'Miss'. Age and sex, like birth and death, are indubitable facts, for the rest we are referred to the behaviour of the figures and invited to draw our own conclusions. The main members of the gang show a remarkable family likeness. Their identity depends upon their place in the power game. Unless they have reached the top, they cringe to their superiors, whom they secretly hope to replace. In their dealings with inferiors they develop the very vices that disgust them in those they want to replace. Everybody is suspicious and ill at ease. Miss Cutts, the only female specimen, keeps harping on her femininity and is ready to sleep with all and sundry.
There is an extraordinary difference between seeing or reading this play for the first time and a second and third experience of it. The first viewing should be a treat for people who know their way about detective stories. But even they will not be able to catch all the clues to which we readily respond once we have seen the second act with its revelations and catastrophe. Then we have also gained an insight into the author's utterly pessimistic use of language. His figures cannot communicate through language. It is a weapon for them in their struggle for dominance, an instrument permitting them to disguise or hide their emotions and intentions. As a result of this the play moves on two different levels from beginning to end: the level of language, which is most deceptive when most florid, and the level below it, full of dark passions, plots, and secrets. In order to grasp what is going on down here we have got to listen and observe very carefully: an incoherence, a contradiction, a mere hesitation, a strange inflexion may be an important pointer. Pinter is following Freud where he turns lapses into the most revealing elements of speech.
An example of a telltale hesitation: in his account of how he worked his way up to his present position Roote mentions his predecessor: 'When my predecessor … retired … I was invited to take over his position.' When we come to the passage with a knowledge of the whole play, the three stops before and after 'retired' are full of sinister implications. His difficulty in finding the right word may hint that he had been responsible for his predecessor's death just as Gibbs will be responsible for Roote's death. The preceding sentence 'I didn't bribe anyone to get where I am', becomes overshadowed by a dark meaning, too, the negative statement calling for the positive complement 'but I had someone murdered to get where I am'. (pp. 293-94)
Together with the sometimes unaccountable pauses and the frequent staring of the interlocutors at one another the gestures unmask their deceitful language and help to create a sense of dubiety, of rottenness, and doom. In the second act the strains behind the correct relationship of Roote, Gibbs, and Lush lead to open outbreaks of hostility. The air is charged with violence.
Roote complains more than once that he feels hot, that the room is overheated, and once he adds ominously 'like a crematorium.'… Lush appears over-fond of assuring him that the snow, which is the weather symbol of the first act, has now turned to slush. The playwright seems to enjoy having Lush harp on the slush outside. Whisky is another second act symbol. It is swallowed in increasing quantities, especially by Roote, who begins to act and talk wildly. He throws a whisky in Lush's face; he hits him in the stomach several times in an attempt to convince him that he himself as the chief is delegated, entrusted, appointed and authorized. He accuses Gibbs openly of an intention to murder him and before the final outbreak we see knives in the hands of the antagonists. Roote's speeches grow more and more incoherent as he is getting drunk, but he has his moments of insight, and then his recurrent theme is a gnawing sense of doom.
Sporadically, the rapidly deteriorating situation is saved by a recourse to convention. After all it is Christmas, the day of the exchange of wishes for health and happiness, a day of toasts and gifts. The understaff have their raffle. Tubb, their representative, brings their best wishes and a Christmas cake to Roote, and even pretends that everybody, including the patients, is eager to hear his Christmas address. Roote is delighted to receive the gift of a beautiful cigar from Lush, of all people, but when he lights it and settles down to enjoy it, it explodes. Thus all the Christmas motifs, above all Roote's final address, turn farcical in this world of deception and violence. If Pinter has deprived it of any means of salvation, he has generously equipped it with technical devices. As we have seen they are very much in evidence in the interrogation-and-torture scene; Roote uses an intercom, which renders his human relations more difficult, and there is an amplifier, through which terrifying noises—a sigh, a keen, and a laugh—make themselves heard three times. All this machinery has an important function in creating the appropriate setting for Pinter's dehumanized society.
The play as a whole is planned and executed with the meticulous care which is a mark of Pinter's genius. The author of so many polysemantic plays decided to write a monosemantic one in this case, and he knew how to pursue his one aim relentlessly and successfully. This required a large-scale use of some of his favourite devices, a fact that annoyed him at a time when his passion for the achievement of the intensest effect through the most unobtrusive means was growing. He was well advised when he decided in 1979 that his outcry against an hierarchical, bureaucratic and inhuman organization of society, and against the abuse of language for the contrary of communication, should be no longer left unheard. The most poignant part of his satire concerns Lamb and the why and how he gets absorbed into the dismal system. Beside writing a powerful satire Pinter has succeeded in creating a modern hell, worthy of taking its place beside his purgatory The Birthday Party. (pp. 297-98)
Rudolf Stamm, "'The Hothouse': Harold Pinter's Tribute to Anger," in English Studies (© 1981 by Swets & Zeitlinger B.V.) Vol. 62, No. 3, June, 1981, pp. 290-98.
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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. "Betrayal" is in this context a rather lofty word for such bourgeois and unimaginative infidelities. For Pinter's people in this play only think there is depth to their passions: though their lives are not exactly meaningless, the fact is they are not especially interesting. What is there about this trio, then, that compels us to study in detail every move they make as we reconstruct their sad, sometimes comic, and always ironic chronicle of who-did-what-to-whom, when, where, and under-what-circumstances? To answer these questions we must first take a hard look at some of the dramatic forms Pinter employs so skillfully in this work.
Pinter's drama has for a long time been far more compelling for narration rather than plot. How his story develops is more impressive than the story itself. In Betrayal, moreover, it is practically impossible to separate the two. Every critic, of course, will notice that this particular tale is told (almost) backwards. There are three prominent exceptions to this rule, signified in Scenes Two, Six, and Seven by the simple intrusion of the unexpected stage direction "Later." Let us review for a moment the sequence of the scenes in the order in which we see them performed. Scene One takes place in the Spring of 1977 in a London pub. Emma and Jerry are present. Scene Two takes place later that same spring in the study of Jerry's house. Robert and Jerry are present. Scene Three takes place in the Winter of 1975 at the flat Jerry and Emma have let at #31 Wessex Grove, Kilburn; in this scene, of course, only these two characters are present. Scene Four takes place in the Autumn of 1974 at Robert and Emma's house. This is the first time all three players are on stage at the same time. The scene begins with Robert and Jerry alone (the former summons his wife offstage, who replies, "I'll be down"), and will end with the highly charged emotional impact of Emma in her husband's arms after her lover has departed…. (pp. 503-04)
This is also the place where Pinter specifies an intermission is possible, literally pulling down the curtain on Emma's affair with her husband's "best man." Scene Five takes place in the Summer of 1973 in a hotel room in Venice. Only Robert and Emma are on stage, but Jerry insinuates himself as the crucial offstage presence in the shape of a critical letter which gets into the wrong hands at American Express…. (p. 504)
Scene Six takes place later the same summer back at the flat in Wessex Grove and features another duet for Emma and Jerry. For a moment we are back in Venice again: Emma has brought to the flat a tablecloth purchased there while on holiday. Scene Seven takes place later yet in the Summer of 1973 in an Italian restaurant in London where obligatory posters of Venezia make Emma the key offstage character. Robert and Jerry are on stage, along with the extra who takes the part of the waiter or "his son."… Paintings are difficult to see in the theater, but Pinter's waiter calls our attention to this one: "Venice, signore? Beautiful. A most beautiful place of Italy. You see that painting on the wall? Is Venice…. You know what is none of in Venice?… Traffico."… In Scene Eight we are back for the last time in Emma and Jerry's flat in the Summer of 1971 as the lovers meet again on stage. Scene Nine takes place in the Winter of 1968 in the bedroom of Robert and Emma's house. All three principals appear for the second time, but only in the following order: first Jerry is discovered alone, sitting in the shadows; Emma then comes in, is later joined by Robert; and the scene and play end after Robert leaves the room as Emma and Jerry "stand still, looking at each other."… Shades of T. S. Eliot: in my beginning is my end. In every scene Pinter has made highly efficient use of his offstage character: the "odd man out" is not really out at all. Two-character scenes are really three-character scenes, for the indirect action of each scene concerns the character who is not on stage at all.
The arrangement of scenes in Betrayal is, moreover, deceptively simple. And it is far from being a gimmick. For the three forward movements in time, those that take place in Scenes Two, Six, and Seven, follow two crucial scenes of direct confrontation with "betrayal." In the opening scene of the play Emma betrays Jerry by implying that she has told her husband about their affair only the night before. This provides the dramatic necessity for the first forward movement, Jerry's confrontation with Robert. Jerry's mortification turns to indignation when he realizes that he has been betrayed not only once, but twice. Emma betrays him the night before when she deliberately misleads him, but Robert has betrayed him for four years by never letting on that he knew about their affair since the trip to Venice in 1973…. Scene Five, which stages the next major confrontation with betrayal, precedes the next two forward movements. Pinter uses the old device of a letter to make Robert aware of the fact that he has been betrayed…. The next two scenes move forward in time and show first Emma and Jerry in the flat (Scene Six), followed by Robert and Jerry in the Italian restaurant (Scene Seven). In the first of these two scenes we watch Emma avoid telling Jerry that Robert knows what has been going on…. The irony cuts deep when we next see Jerry telling Emma of his "terrible panic" when her letter from Venice was temporarily lost…. In the next scene Robert similarly avoids telling Jerry what he now knows for certain is an act of betrayal…. In Betrayal, therefore, it is the arrangement of the scenes that makes ironies accumulate and the drama as a whole possible. It is not so much what we know but when we know it that is responsible for the real tension that bristles so ferociously beneath the contained surface of this work. (pp. 504-06)
With its emphasis on visual statement, and especially in its concise arrangement of nine short scenes which move so uninhibitedly back and forth in time, Betrayal shows more clearly than any previous Pinter play the profound effect his work in the movies has had on his dramatic technique. And although Betrayal reads at times like a filmscript, its real originality lies in the way it adapts certain cinematic strategies and makes them functional in terms of theater. Betrayal makes us concerned with the unities and disunities of time, with deception and self-deception, with the past in the present and the present in the past. In order to make these themes work on stage, the play must abandon realism's literal conformity to chronological time for the more representative patterning of temporality normally associated with cinematography and film-editing. (p. 507)
In Betrayal Pinter has selected images for us by translating cinematic capabilities into what is for him a new theatrical idiom. His nine scenes of people talking allow the past to speak for itself. These may not be images for eternity, but they are without question concise momentary images of theatrical presentness. Pinter's characters are still "taking the mickey out of each other," to use Peter Hall's phrase, but his dramatic style now shows them doing it in a decidedly cinematic way. The facts of this betrayal may remain forever ambiguous, but the form in which it takes place on stage could not be more precise. Pinter has gone to the movies, but in a work like Betrayal he comes back, invigorated by his experience, to the theater. (pp. 512-13)
Enoch Brater, "Cinematic Fidelity and the Forms of Pinter's 'Betrayal'," in Modern Drama (copyright Modern Drama, University of Toronto), Vol. XXIV, No. 4, December, 1981, pp. 503-13.
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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 out, would give us an infinity. The particular three that we are given, moreover, are naturally not innocent. The narrative presence which is responsible for these manipulations, is in a real sense the book's true hero. Apart from disconcertingly materialising in the guise of a Wilkie-Collins-like villain to align itself with the characters it creates, it constantly interrupts the action to provide a knowing commentary on its own procedures, to document both the Victorian and the contemporary ages, and to act as umpire in a battle of the styles in which the two epochs—those of its subject-matter (1867) and composition (1967–8)—engage, awarding points to each but the game to neither. The garden into which we cannot return, it is made clear, is stylistic as much as socio-historical. (p. 42)
[The film made] from The French Lieutenant's Woman was, from the start, a different proposition. If the problems of adapting its 'stereoscopic vision' seemed even more vexed than those involved in transposing the earlier books, the news that Karel Reisz was directing and Pinter writing the screenplay must have raised expectations high. Besides being a playwright of great distinction Pinter is also a writer of screenplays of notable brilliance and economy. The necessary compression and elision involved in his writing a screenplay deriving from a novel—his screenplay of Robin Maughan's The Servant would be a case in point—often distils an aesthetic pleasure quite as powerful as the book afforded, or more so. The 'fidelity' of the transposition of a novel to the screen must result from the writer's skill at finding analogues in cinematic terms for the novel's qualities, and it is Pinter's strength that he is so unafraid of his own signature. Possibly for this reason so many of his screenplays incorporate a game. The deceptively quiet savagery of the cricket-match in The Go-Between, the ball-game in the stairwell of The Servant, the patrician scrimmage of Accident all come to mind. In The French Lieutenant's Woman he adds a game of Real Tennis (the old 'royal' tennis played on an indoor court) in which Charles and his lawyer Montague are seen playing. Usually the game encapsulates something of Pinter's vision of man as social animal involved in a feral contest for mastery; the lexical play of the language-games of ordinary discourse are mirrored by the equally elaborately encoded games of sport, which, however, display openly—unlike ordinary language—their arbitrary yet tyrannical rules. In the case of the game of real tennis here, even the Victorian-at-play is shown as claustrophiliac, devoted, once more, to the culture of the small room. (pp. 48-9)
Pinter's script tackles the problem of finding equivalences in filmic terms for the self-reflexiveness, multiple endings, and all-pervasive tonal play of the narrative voice of the novel with characteristic nerve and originality. The solution, apparently suggested by the director Karel Reisz, was to set the love-story of Charles and Ernestina within another, the location romance of the actors presented as portraying them. The modern love-affair then acts as an acoustic chamber within which the Victorian affair can resonate, amplifying and ironising some of its meanings. It is a brilliant device. To those who object that the use of such location romances is itself a convention it might be returned that Fowles's interest in the novel, after all, was in exploring exactly such cultural stereotyping, and in the ways the culture of either period refuses easy individuality. (p. 49)
The epistemological drama acted out within the novel by the play of the authorial commentary inevitably disappears. What replaces it in the screenplay is the precise imbrication of the modern and Victorian love-stories. This, however, is significantly reduced in the film. Above all the device of the two stories permits a stunning and ingenious solution to the problem of the endings, as each story can pursue, separately but with increasingly ironic mirroring and doubling, and finally with increasing convergence, its own crisis. The last word of the film (though not, significantly the last shot; and those who wish to protect their ignorance until seeing the film should cease reading here) is spoken by Mike, leaning out of the window of the Lake Windermere house where the story of Charles and Sarah has already ended, and during the unit party staged to celebrate the completion of filming. Anna has left and abandoned Mike just as Sarah had earlier abandoned Charles at Exeter, leaving only the wig in which she plays Sarah and the gunning of her car engine as she drives away. Mike, distraught, leans out of the window. The name that he shouts into the dark is Sarah's, not Anna's: the two stories have merged and become one; or to put it another way, the spatial metaphor by which it seems logical at the start to speak of the modern story 'enclosing' the Victorian one, as a space circumscribes a room, will no longer hold, for the boundary between 'inside' and 'outside' has teasingly disappeared.
That, at least, is how the screenplay reads, for such a moment has been ingeniously prepared for and worked towards in Pinter's crafting of the script. If this coup is somewhat lost on audiences in the cinema, or appears at best as a felicitous Freudian slip on Mike's part, then this must be because the film reworks the screenplay in such a way as to reduce substantially our readiness for it. Fowles may well be an apprentice of reticence, and Pinter is clearly a master, but the ambitious subtleties of his script have apparently not always survived the relentlessly demoticising urgencies of the medium itself. (pp. 50-3)
The film depends upon the useful convention—a quite false and artificial one surely, though perfectly plausible in its context—that a given film is likely to be shot in chronological sequence. Thus the action of both plots can then move from Lyme to Exeter, from Exeter to London, and finally to Lake Windermere, while the tensions between frustration and release, secrecy and revelation echo through and between each story-line. When Sarah disappears after her love-making with Charles at Endicott's hotel in Exeter, Anna disappears to a rendezvous with a French lover. Mike wants to pursue her to London as Charles wishes to pursue Sarah. A party at Mike's London home, staged by him so that he can see Anna, contains some notably Pinteresque moments. It introduces Mike's wife Sonia … about whom 'Mrs. Poulteney' … remarks 'So serene. Of course, she seems so serene, doesn't she, the wife?' That quizzical and comic focus on the repetition and defamiliarisation of a word (serene) which charges and challenges and flattens it, and which both solicits and defeats the attempt at 'interpretation', is reminiscent of Pinter at his best. So is a later exchange about 'envy' between Sonia and Anna, where the equivocation of the signals being given out is rather different. Each of these depends precisely on the gravitational pull we are invited to surmise that the unspoken/unsayable may have on the dialogue; on the power, that is, of a taboo, which renders the uttered phrases always shifty. The possibility of 'depth of meaning' always threatens paradoxically to impoverish and empty what is expressed, making its indeterminacies bland. Such a semantically over-productive censorship, we note, is as much a feature of the 'modern' as of the 'Victorian' dialogue. (pp. 54-5)
For Fowles, in one fiction after another, the feudalising and the modernising of relations between the sexes are shown to be linked and the liaison between two kinds of fantasy—'liberation' and 'courtly love'—is perpetually re-solemnised. The film grants the Victorian love-story a happy ending, then contrives to undercut this by suggesting through its setting—near the cradle of English literary Romanticism—and presentation—deliberately aping a sugary genre painting—that we should perhaps be sceptical about taking this at face-value; and also by immediately cutting to the modern story which achieves its own closure at the unit party in the same house, staged to celebrate the completion of the film-within-the-film. A scene with 'Ernestina' doing a fan-dance in a Victorian corset to an enthusiastic audience, which is in the screenplay, is replaced in the film by a back-view of her, fists clenching, watching wistfully after Mike as he disappears into Anna's dressing-room—the same studio room in which Charles and Sarah at last re-met—hinting at a further modern love-triangle to reflect the Victorian one. The fan-dance might have given too much weight to the patronising assumption that we have, in very truth, now emancipated ourselves, even if Pinter himself is certainly too canny to have meant such a scene to be anything but ironic.
So the prosperous complications of Fowles' novel or Pinter's script do not always survive into the film. The effect that the film leaves you with is appropriately one of having been teased, but without a cunning or a circumspection which can fully satisfy. (pp. 55-6)
Peter J. Conradi, "'The French Lieutenant's Woman': Novel, Screenplay, Film," in Critical Quarterly (reprinted by permission of Manchester University Press), Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 41-57.
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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 amused when commentators labor over the "meaning" of his works, continuing to insist (correctly, in my view) that they mean no more than they say. The trouble is that what they say has grown increasingly precious, as if Pinter's closest pals these days were Bertie Wooster and Sebastian Flyte. His upper-class characters are so frozen and brittle that one wonders if he is satirizing their emotionlessness or actually trying to celebrate their "cool."
As its title suggests, The Hothouse, mercifully, is hot. Compared with Pinter's other play of this period, The Birthday Party, which has not aged well, it is vivid, molten, on fire. The characters are unpressed, no matter how they try to arrange themselves; they are controllers, but out of control. The scene is a mental institution, where the keepers themselves are mad. The invisible patients are identified only by numbers; there are no doctors, only a combative staff of edgy, querulous, ambitious functionaries. Nobody recovers in this institution; the only action involves the power games of the administration….
Pinter's typically clipped, terse, almost stacatto dialogue here is the agent of a strong emotional undercurrent which often breaks out into physical violence; and the play, for all its familiar Pinterian mystery and menace, also possesses a cogent farcical urgency that builds to a remorseless indictment of totalitarian procedures. (p. 26)
The Hothouse shows us a Pinter moved more by a capacity for indignation than by a love of elegance—Pinter as redskin rather than paleface. This is a way of saying that it is animated by a boiling energy he hasn't shown in his work since The Homecoming, and a sense of personal engagement he perhaps has never shown. Resurrecting this work may suggest that, dissatisfied with the wispy attenuations of his Mayfair period, he is preparing to turn volcanic once again. If so, I will look forward to his next play with a good deal more eagerness than I have awaited his works in the past. (p. 27)
Robert Brustein, "Pinter's New Play" (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), in The New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 14, April 7, 1982, pp. 26-7.∗
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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 new style and method.
[Family Voices is] essentially a radio play. It consists mainly of a montage of 'letters', letters that obviously have never been sent nor ever been received, between a young man—not yet 21, says the mother at one point—who has left home and has disappeared from his mother's ken, and the mother. The young man has found refuge in a house, in which he seems at first a lodger, later more like a member of the family. That house in inhabited by a number of people all called Withers who sport various titles, Lady Withers, the Hon Mrs Withers, etc. The young man is subjected to various types of sexual assault, hetero-as well as homosexual from these inmates. He enjoys his new home, yet at the end, when suddenly and unexpectedly the voice of his (perhaps dead?) father intrudes, he expresses a yearning to return home to his mother. There are echoes here of The Birthday Party, The Homecoming even of Pinter's earliest play The Room. But essentially this is a radio play and it is, I think, a mistake to stage it.
After all, the point of the piece is that it takes place within the young man's consciousness: he imagines the letters he might write to his mother, he imagines his mother's possible appeals to him, and in the end it is he who wonders whether his father might now be dead. By putting the son and the mother visibly in front of our eyes—however stylishly silhouetted against brilliantly lit screens—and by letting the father's voice come out of a black region between them, there is a clear indication that the mother and son are more real than the father; there is no more room to wonder whether the mother actually utters these sentiments, or whether they are merely within the son's imagination. (p. 20)
Victoria Station turns out to be, basically, another short radio play. The dialogue between a taxi controller and one of his drivers is conducted entirely through a radio intercom system. But here the fact that the controller is placed in a glass booth high above the stage, and the driver in a cab plunged in total darkness, but with headlights on and an area of light around his face, does at least not interfere with the essential message of the play. Which is that the driver has suddenly plunged out of the routine of his humdrum daily existence to the point that he has even forgotten what and where Victoria Station might be. He is standing by a dark park, perhaps at the Crystal Palace. But he is seeing the Crystal Palace in front of him, in spite of the fact that the Crystal Palace has, as the controller tells him, burned down ages ago, 'in the great fire of London'. The reason for the driver's change of consciousness is that he has fallen in love with his passenger, a beautiful girl now asleep on the backseat of his cab. In the end the controller, who, at the beginning compares himself to God, directing the world from above, realises the sterility of his confined position and announces his determination to come and join the driver.
This sketch is very funny; but also opens philosophical and metaphysical vistas: it contrasts our humdrum, realistic style of existence with a poetical one, the higher consciousness of someone who has fallen in love and lives the life of the imagination. But, in so short a piece, all this is merely hinted at. No doubt Pinter will explore it further in a more substantial form.
A Kind of Alaska touches similar concerns, but in a totally different style…. (pp. 20-1)
The play is very simple: a woman who fell into catatonia at the age of sixteen in the 1940s is waking up 29 years later at the age of 45. The doctor who is at her bedside tried to break the news of her predicament to her gradually; at the end she is confronted by her sister whom she knew as a schoolgirl and who has now become a middle-aged woman. Quite clearly: time, reality, the nature of the self are the themes that run underneath the realistic and soberly told account of this event. Pinter has here chosen a brilliant approach to all these profound problems. It is only gradually that Deborah, the patient, who at first thinks she has merely had a normal night's sleep, becomes aware that she has been imprisoned in a very narrow space; or in vast hall of mirrors; that she has been frozen in a kind of Alaska….
A Kind of Alaska is a brilliant short play. This, it seems to me, is the direction that Harold Pinter will take to develop and surpass his already immense record of achievement. It is a minor masterpiece, foreshadowing, I hope, some major ones. (p. 21)
Martin Esslin, in a review of "Other Places" (© copyright Martin Esslin 1982; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, No. 351, December, 1982, pp. 20-1.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2801
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 fears a man he invites inside. While menace may take the shape of particular characters, it is usually unspecified or unexplained—therefore, more ominous.
Partly because realistic explanations are absent, disturbing questions arise. One is unsure why characters visit others, why they commit inexplicable actions, why the others fear them. Frustrated reviewers or readers accuse Pinter of wilful obfuscation. Yet before he began to write plays, he had acted in conventional works with clear exposition and pat conclusions. The fact that his own, unconventional plays contain neither should alert one to the possibility that other dramatic aspects are more important, that Pinter's refusal to focus on answers to 'Who' and 'Why?' is a deliberate effort to focus on answers to 'What?' and 'How?' To put the matter another way, present activities, interrelationships, and stratagems are more dramatically important than past actions. His drama is not a matter of They have been, therefore they are; but rather, They do, therefore they are.
These early plays conform to the characteristics of the Theatre of the Absurd…. Their effective unsettling quality, with its fusion of realism and nonrealism, distinguishes Pinter's artistic signature from those of other writers of this genre. Because events and actions are unexplained, and apparently illogical or unmotivated, the world seems capricious or malevolent. One can rely upon nothing. What is apparently secure is not secure. A haven does not protect. A weapon vanishes without warning. Linguistic absurdity may suggest the absurdity of the human condition. Fear of a menace may suggest the universal trauma of man in the universe. (pp. 24-5)
The title A Night Out would seem to herald a departure from the interiors of Pinter's first five plays. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the departure probably derives from the medium for which he wrote the work, radio, which permits an easier flow through different locales than the stage does. When writing a play for the stage, in contrast to writing one for another theatrical medium …, Pinter usually thinks in terms of a clearly delineated space. The chief exceptions are the lyric Silence, whose dramaturgy is unique in the Pinter canon, and the multi-scenic Betrayal, whose structure may derive partly from his cinema experience. Furthermore the intrinsic quality of A Night Out suggests an emphasis not on the last word of the title but on the first two. Departure is temporary.
Nevertheless this play, like the two that follow [The Caretaker and Night School], is less enigmatic, mysterious, or unrealistic than Pinter's earlier work. (p. 46)
While the trio of plays … are to some extent enigmatic, their enigmas differ in kind from those of the earlier works. The nature of what is undefined is more specific and whatever mysterious qualities it may possess, the unreal is not among them. In short, these plays move toward greater realism. (p. 47)
In The Room and The Birthday Party characters who hope they have sanctuary try to defend themselves from intruders; in A Night Out a character tries to break out of his soul-stultifying haven. In contrast to all, a character in The Caretaker aims to find sanctuary. Unlike The Room, The Birthday Party, and The Hothouse, no unrealistic elements erupt in The Caretaker; yet, as in The Hothouse, electro-shock treatment in a mental institution figures prominently in it; and, as in A Night Out, its realistic mode is unbroken. (p. 48)
As in The Collection, infidelity is a subject of The Homecoming. As in The Lover, an unanticipated sexual arrangement concludes its action. As in The Basement, a woman's sexual allegiance shifts. As in Tea Party, a character who is unable to cope collapses. As in all these plays, but more savagely, characters in The Homecoming vie for positions of power, don protective masks, and both flippantly and abrasively mock each other.
To an all-male household—Max, a former butcher, his chauffeur brother Sam, and his sons Lenny and Joey, a pimp and a part-time boxer—the oldest son Teddy returns after six years in America, where he teaches philosophy, with his wife Ruth—a surprise to the family who did not know he had married or that he has three sons. At the end of the play the family proposes that Ruth stay, service them, and become a prostitute. After blurting out that Max's late wife Jessie committed adultery with his best friend, Sam collapses. Teddy leaves for America. Ruth remains. (p. 75)
The play disorients. A butcher cooks what one of his sons calls dog food. A young fighter is knocked down by his old father. A philosopher refuses to philosophise. A chauffeur is unable to drive. A pimp takes orders from his whore. The whore does not go all the way with a man. Words disorient, as when Lenny says of Teddy, 'And my goodness we are proud of him here, I can tell you. Doctor of Philosophy and all that … leaves quite an impression'…. The first phrase appropriate to an old woman not a young man, the triteness of the phrase that ends the first sentence, 'and all that' belittling the advanced degree—these disorient, thereby conveying the impression that what is said is not what is meant.
During the opening dialogue Lenny reads the racing section of a newspaper while Max asks for scissors and a cigarette. Although Max wants them, what underlies his requests is a demand for acknowledgement and attention. Lenny's indifference to his reminiscences, questions, insults, and threats indicates that the exchange is commonplace. Usually Lenny says nothing, a suggestion of his superior status (indeed, if he were not dominant, Max would not behave as he does). When Lenny speaks, it is often to assert a prerogative or to silence Max. When he initiates a subject (horseracing), it is to re-establish his status by contradicting Max, and when Max continues on it, Lenny's only response is to request a change of subject. Lenny takes the mickey out of Max who understands what Lenny is doing. When Max loses his temper and threatens to hit Lenny with his walking stick, Lenny mocks him by talking in a childlike manner. Beneath and through the dialogue they struggle for power—demanding recognition of status and self. (pp. 75-6)
In their frequently vicious struggles for power, no character is clearly victorious. Does Teddy intend at the start to let the nature of his family take its course and claim Ruth? If so, or if not, he does not leave the London house unscarred. Is Ruth at the end in the position of Queen Bee? If so, she may for specified periods of time become a worker who supports the drones. (p. 84)
In most of Pinter's plays the past is unclear: Stanley's transgression (The Birthday Party), Aston's experience in the mental asylum (The Caretaker), adultery (The Collection), and so forth. More prominently than before, however, [Landscape, Silence, Night, and Old Times] focus on the past. Usually they are called memory plays.
Landscape has two characters, Beth and Duff, who live in the house of their former employer, apparently deceased. They reminisce. Her memories include the sea, the beach, and a man lying on a sand dune; his, a dog, a park, and a pub. Her memories are gentle and fragile; his, frequently vulgar and aggressive. They do not converse with each other.
Like a painting, Landscape contains no movement. The characters do not leave their chairs, which a kitchen table separates; and they are separated from their background, which is dim. Figuratively the stage picture is an immobile landscape. The vista is distant, in that the audience is unable to penetrate beneath the facades of the reminiscing characters. Despite the clarity of the figures in the foreground, the sketch is faint and shadowy.
What happens, what the audience perceives, is two characters, physically and emotionally separated from each other and their environment, dwelling on their memories. (pp. 85-6)
Two incompatible people, once loving, are isolated from each other, implicitly rejecting each other, uncommunicative in an unchanging landscape. The play's final line, spoken by Beth, is ambiguous. 'Oh my true love I said'… apparently tender, but invoking a past love and thereby rejecting the man presently near her, as his verbal rape had just demeaned her.
As in Landscape, the noncomic Silence situates each of its characters in a chair in a distinct area of the stage—visually symbolic of isolation. Unlike Landscape, a character occasionally moves to another character. What the three personae of Silence remember occurred when Rumsey was forty, Bates in his mid-thirties, and Ellen in her twenties—their ages as they appear on stage. (p. 87)
All three characters, having chosen solitary lives, remember the past when they were together. Silences often separate their mnemonic monologues that decreasingly dovetail each other, until after a long silence that concludes the play, memory seems to fade with the fading lights. Like Landscape, Silence is a verbal construct with minimal action and character interrelations—a recited piece, more poetic than dramatic.
Much shorter than either is Night, another memory play with no movement but, unlike the others, with a conventional story. Also unlike them, it is generally comic and unlike other Pinter plays has a celebratory conclusion. A married couple, both in their forties, have conflicting memories of their first stroll together…. 'Gentle' and 'sweet' are adjectives one does not usually apply to Pinter's plays, but both befit the lovely Night, wherein the past brings nostalgia, not dread. Pinter goes gently into Night.
These atypical works, however, seem to be experiments in craft and strengthenings of thematic concepts to be employed in a major work in which memory is prominent. Pinter's next play is that work, Old Times, written six years after The Homecoming, his last previous full-length play. (pp. 88-9)
In Old Times, Deeley and Kate, married, live on the seacoast. Anna, a former roommate of Kate's, visits them. The women reminisce. Later, Deeley and Anna say they met each other twenty years before. Their rivalry over Kate intensifies. Kate, asserting her dominant position, terminates their sparring. As terms like rivalry and sparring suggest, the stratagems, taunts, and power struggles that characterise plays like The Collection and The Homecoming, where the past is also important, are major factors in this play. (pp. 89-90)
Like Landscape and Silence, Old Times is a memory play, but unlike these plays, Old Times portrays, in terms of dramatic conflict, the past's influence on the present. Unlike Night, which also contains conflict, the resolution of Old Times is devastating—akin, in this respect, to that of the other full-length plays thus far analysed. (p. 98)
[In certain respects], Pinter's most recent plays recapitulate earlier themes and techniques. In other respects …, they move—sometimes provisionally, sometimes boldly—in new directions. With Monologue and No Man's Land, the familiar terrain is more obvious than the new; with Betrayal, the reverse. (p. 99)
Monologue is a monologue. Its meaning inheres in its title. In drama, a monologue refers to a solitary person speaking, but not to himself, as in a soliloquy, and it differs from dialogue. In Monologue, a solitary character talks, but not to himself. The title is also apt in that the play is about isolation, its speaker is alone from start to finish, and no dialogue or response is possible. Because Pinter employs the visual as well as the verbal, Monologue can be effective only when an audience sees the play, not simply hears it recited: the speaker talks to an empty chair. Whereas Eugene Ionesco uses many chairs, in his play The Chairs, to embody nothingness and to suggest the metaphysical void, Pinter in Monologue employs one empty chair to embody absence and to suggest the isolation and loneliness of the play's sole character. The stage picture—a man addressing an empty chair—is a concrete, theatrical metaphor of the subject.
The play's ambience is the subtle, tragicomic movement from friendship to loneliness, as the speaker increasingly reveals the depths of his affection for the man and love for the woman. In losing her, he also lost him, and he pleads for their friendship, offering to die for their children, if they have children. But an empty chair cannot respond. At the end of the play, he fully reveals his true isolation and loneliness. (pp. 99-100)
Although No Man's Land contains more than one character, its opening is almost a monologue by the garrulous Spooner, a down-at-heel, self-styled poet whom Hirst, a famous, prosperous writer, meets and brings home for a drink. Spooner attempts to ingratiate himself with his host and thereby to install himself in Hirst's home, replacing Foster and Briggs who are employed to protect Hirst from outside encroachment. Spooner's efforts fail. (p. 102)
No Man's Land may be the end of a phase in Pinter's writing, for it echoes many of his previous works. The ambience of menace recalls the early plays, and some of the menace is comic. Struggles for power between Spooner and Hirst's aides recall the works that focus on this theme, and as in those plays mockery is sometimes funny, sometimes threatening. (p. 104)
In Betrayal the backward movement, dramatic not narrative, is toward disillusion; the audience, having witnessed the end of the affair and its aftermath, understands how transitory are the lovers' feelings toward each other during the early time of the affair. The forward movement, more intermittent, is toward such revelations as how the husband deals with his friend after he has discovered his wife's infidelity with him. When the affair is about to begin, the audience has already seen how it ends…. [The] beginning that ends Betrayal is clear, and it fixes in art its retrieval of time lost.
The title is what the play is about, its pervading ambience, what happens in every scene. (pp. 107-08)
Despite the different dramaturgy of Betrayal, it uses familiar techniques and themes. Robert, for example, takes the piss out of Jerry, who is unaware of what lies beneath the surface…. Betrayal is also a theme of other plays by Pinter, including The Collection and The Basement. Furthermore, the last/chronologically first scene of Betrayal can be described in terms of the image Pinter employed for his first play: two people are alone in a room.
In such matters Betrayal recapitulates previous plays by Pinter. More important than similarities are major differences. In Betrayal Pinter provides what he refused to provide in earlier plays: verification. Also Betrayal is his only play in which the audience knows more than the characters do—excepting the first two scenes. Betrayal may be his most accessible play since it provides insight into his distinctive techniques. Because we know what happened or what the characters know before it happens or before they know it, we can perceive their manoeuvres as they evade, don masks, and mock each other. When Robert slyly taunts Jerry by asserting his own greater physical fitness, we understand (as Emma does and Jerry does not) his reference to his knowledge of her affair. When he refers to his folly as a publisher, we understand (as Jerry does not) his allusion to his folly as a trusting husband and friend. Because Pinter verifies actions and motivations, we can attend, without bafflement about the past, to the dramatic present.
Although Pinter has been writing plays for almost a quarter of a century, it seems likely from these recent works that his inventiveness is far from exhausted. To the contrary, he appears to be renewing himself, finding fresh areas and means to express his changing dramatic vision. Extending himself, he also maintains his footing on familiar terrain. His fresh starts are from fixed points, which provide solid technical bases for his dramatic departures. What the unmasked face of Monologue, the personal subject of No Man's Land, or the major dramaturgical departure of Betrayal may forecast is impossible to predict. One looks forward to the next Pinter play with the same eagerness one did ten or twenty years ago. A comparable statement can be made of few other contemporary dramatists. (pp. 114-15)
Bernard F. Dukore, in his Harold Pinter (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; copyright © 1982 by Bernard Dukore), Grove Press, 1982, 139 p.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1567
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 trilogy of novels, Beckett's literary career has involved a paring away, a steady elimination of all embellishments to his central theme. Although Beckett defines social sentiments, in social language, he has, in the end, only one character, and that character is a living ("if you call that living") contradiction: the self who struggles vainly to be the object of its own regard, the ghost which flits before every aspiration. To present this theme, Beckett originally required hallucinatory details, aborted stories, quarrelsome observations, narrated by subjects who fade first into each other, and then into the page. Beckett's subsequent minimalism is a stylistic achievement, an emancipation from redundancies.
Pinter's career has been in a way comparable. The new triptych of short tableaux, Other Places …, when seen in relation to The Birthday Party, or The Caretaker, represents a considerable economy and condensation. But Pinter's minimalism, while influenced by Beckett, is quite unrelated to the style or meaning of Beckett's recent playlets and pamphlets. It proceeds, not from the attempt to whittle down a single experience to its metaphysical pith, but rather from a constant venturing into new realms of experience, so that hesitation and silence take on increasingly masterful forms. Beckett's tone of voice is tetchy, disappointed, a kind of gran rifiuto, in the face of the perpetual elusiveness both of the "thou" and the "I." Pinter's voice has no such universal meaning. While it grows always from the impossible confrontation of human beings and their arbitrary desires, it varies minutely with the situation to which it is applied. Pinter's scenarios are carefully observed and ultrarealistic representations of English society. There has been a marked "upward mobility" over time; but even the most recent pieces remain wedded to actual situations, studied by an author whose ear for ordinary speech is preternaturally fine.
Family Voices (the first of the three tableaux) tells of a house in which characters from all periods of Pinter's career are assembled: a sluttish, good-for-nothing Mrs Withers; an old proletarian Mr Withers; another Mr Withers whose insane theatricality allows Pinter to recapture the setpiece style of the early plays; even a Lady Withers, whose title, however, proves baffling to the adolescent narrator. In this play, as in Landscape, there is no dialogue, only interlocking speech, as one character's voice flows into the silence vacated by the other's. A mother and a son write to each other letters which are never sent, or which, if sent, never arrive at their destination. To their lonely, reaching voices, a third is added, that of the man, husband of the one, father of the other, who has died since contact was lost. The situation deprives Pinter of the device with which he established his tone of voice, the familiar English repartee. The tense atmosphere of The Caretaker depends upon a to-ing and fro-ing of question and answer, from which the set speeches emerge as declarations of a longing comic in its ordinariness, and pathetic in its inability to elicit a response. Family Voices consists of questions which cannot be answered, and answers that wing off into the void in hopeless search for questions that would explain them. Were the mother and son actually to make contact, one feels, the intensity of their communication would be unbearable. But their non-communication is the source of a new comedy and pathos, as each slowly adjusts to the absence of the other.
The connection which is feared and longed for in Family Voices is granted in the sequel, Victoria Station. A cab-driver is contacted by his controller, who speaks from an office upstage, while the driver answers from the illuminated car below…. The controller, who obtains only bizarre, vacant-seeming responses, is at first exasperated, then angry, and then filled with loathing for this 274 who lies like a barrier across the stream of ordinary experience. But the loathing turns to need, and finally to a kind of tenderness; the driver likewise develops a need for the controller, imploring him not to seek the services of any rival. "Don't have anything to do with 135", he cries. "He's not your man. He'll lead you into blind alleys by the dozen. They all will. Don't leave me. I'm your man. I'm the only one you can trust…." And strangely, despite 274's inability to understand the simplest order, his words ring true.
The two characters are in the original Pinter mould: ordinary people suddenly thrown out of orbit by an arbitrary act of communication. But words, cast across the distance between the office and the cab, acquire unpredictable meanings. The characters become increasingly vulnerable with every verbal impact. By the time the scene fades it is clear that their lives have been irreversibly transformed. The controller leaves his office in search of the driver, like a man who turns his back on home and family for the sake of some catastrophic love.
A Kind of Alaska, the final tableau, continues the theme of distance. However, the distance is not of space but of time.
A victim of sleeping sickness (such as described by Oliver Sacks in Awakenings) is brought to life by an injection of L-Dopa, after 29 years of comatose inertia. The play describes her bewildered reaction, a child's soul in a middle-aged body, the fallen face of a ruined aunt, who listens to a voice, her own voice, describing birthdays, boy-friends, and parties. [The protagonist] conveys both the fear of the woman, and the forthright, virtuous cheekiness of the child, as they contend for possession of a body which has lain vacant for a generation. The woman, Deborah, is attended by a doctor, and by the doctor's wife, Deborah's younger sister. The effect of Deborah's illness is captured by the doctor's words: "Your sister was twelve when you were left for dead. When she was twenty I married her. She is a widow. I have lived with you…." The words of the bystanders are succinct, hesitant, overcome, while the sufferer herself rushes into speech, stumbles, retreats, and then impetuously rushes again.
The scene is realistic, and uncompromisingly painful. It perfectly illustrates Pinter's boldness, and his appetite for new material, in which he shows a scrupulous attention to an actual, but uncanny, predicament. Beckett's Cartesian observer could never sustain such concentrated interest. the Beckettian subject lives only in the dark, the limedark of his ruminations. While filled with compassion, it is a compassion inspired by failure, itself born of metaphysical impossibility, to relate to the world or to himself. (pp. 37-9)
The critics have been lavish in praise of A Kind of Alaska. But surely, whatever its merits, it cannot really be described as theatre. Deborah's unmanageable experience obliterates the drama. In the face of it, the subsidiary characters become gauche and frozen. None of the three can obtain a consistent tone of voice; in the nature of the case, every voice is suspect.
When Davies, the caretaker, describes his shoes, saying, "You see, they're gone, they're no good, the good's gone out of them", the idiom leaps out at us, joining us to the cheerful spirit of survival. In Victoria Station, the controller veneers his sentiments with idiom, saving us again from sharing his perplexity. In A Kind of Alaska, however, everything is stark, raw, absolute. The spectator, sensing the impossibility of response, suffers a growing discomfort. The Pinter voice no longer operates…. There is no consolation, no idiom, no normality. The spectator, outraged by sufferings which are without resolution, withdraws his futile sympathy.
Oliver Sacks was deeply disturbed by the effects of the drug L-Dopa. His description of the new miseries that were to confront his patients as they struggled, often in vain, to come to terms with the imperfect consciousness which their illness had left them, is heart-rending. It is hard to imagine a clearer refutation of the myth upon which Beckett has relied in all his writings—the myth of the transcendental spectator who lurks, untouched and untouchable, within the arbitrary folds of human flesh. Pinter has never given twopence for that myth. He rightly perceives that a nothing would do as well as this transcendental something about which nothing can be said. It is the writer's responsibility to study words; human beings exist, not behind, but within their utterance. Deborah is neither more nor less than the words which come from her. The theatre of embarrassment perpetually forces us to discard the illusion that there is an ego hiding behind our words. But this refutation of the ego creates a need for its opposite, for community, for idiom, for the consoling tone of voice which turns the individual into a type, and disaster into comedy. (pp. 39-40)
Roger Scruton, "Pinter's Progress," in Encounter (© 1983 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 37-40.
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