Robert Pinget Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Martin Esslin includes Robert Pinget among the playwrights examined in The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), Pinget himself claimed that he more accurately belongs to the “theater of the ear.” In a 1962 interview he replied to the question “What am I trying to do?” by stating that he sought “to translate into the language of today the problems of today.” Elsewhere, he talked of his efforts to capture the proper tone that will reify his characters. “Only the manner of speaking interests me,” he observed in a lecture in Philadelphia (May 7, 1964).

Consequently, there is little action on the stage. Instead, all the emotion and energy are concentrated into highly evocative, often poetic language, which is itself one of the chief concerns of these works. How can people communicate? Can people communicate? While rejecting the antiliterary bias of many contemporary playwrights, Pinget shared their interest in the pitfalls that seem hidden within words.

For Pinget, language was the only means to recapture the past, know the present, establish a personality, and bond with others. Yet because this language is so elusive, characters often are isolated from their own history and identity, divided from relatives and associates. An existential anxiety pervades Pinget’s writing, as each person fails to understand himself or make himself understood to others. Clope’s groping for his past in the darkness at the beginning of the second act of Clope represents the universal plight of mankind. At the same time, Pinget found much humor and even occasional glimmers of hope in this struggle for sense in what may be a meaningless world.

In 1968, frustrated by the inability of language to retain or convey meaning, Pinget vowed to stop writing. The fascination with the quest for the magical “two or three key words,” however, drove him back to his desk to explore the central dilemma of the age. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955), Albert Camus observed that in the modern world man has become “an exile because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come.” At the end of Clope, Pierrot and Clope embark on an actual quest for that land, in which Madame Flan also believes. More often in Pinget’s works, the search is verbal. Always, though, the conclusion, whether more or less promising, remains open-ended, the answer still unfound, and Pinget’s characters seem condemned, like Sisyphus, to continue the never-ending search for meaning and fulfillment in a world that may not contain either.

Dead Letter

Like the dramas to follow, Pinget’s first play, Dead Letter, derived from a novel, in this case No Answer. In the first act, set in a bar, Edward Levert talks about his son, who has left him, as a waiter listens to this story that he has heard many times before. The second act resembles the first, except that the setting is a post office. Levert again speaks of his son, while a clerk, who is the bartender in another guise, half-heartedly listens. This repetition highlights the futility of Levert’s quest, indicating that it will be repeated in various settings but never achieve a successful resolution.

Pinget further emphasized the hopelessness of the situation by introducing a play-within-a-play. Toward the end of the first act, Fred and Lili enter the bar and perform part of a piece they have just finished, The Prodigal Son. In this conventional play, the father’s letters succeed in winning back his son, but Pinget implies that such happy endings occur only in artificially contrived dramas. In the real world that his work represents, such happy resolutions are unlikely if not impossible.

The father’s failure to reach his son with his letters represents language’s inability to connect people, for the son never responds. The bartender/clerk, despite his irritation with Levert and his oft-told tale, tries to be comforting, but his words, too, become in effect dead letters. At the end of the first act he can offer only the cliché, “Oh, you know how it is.” The second act concludes even less satisfactorily, as he tells Levert, “Letters don’t matter. What matters is. . . . What matters is. . . . What matters.”

The play raises questions about identity as well as about language. The bartender metamorphoses into a postal clerk, and he may be Levert’s missing son, too. In the first act his title is garçon, meaning either waiter or boy. The bartender’s father, like Levert, owns a villa on the Mediterranean, and the bartender, like Levert’s son, never writes letters to his father. Physically, too, there seems to be some similarity; at least Levert tells the man, “You’re like my son.”

Other incidents raise further questions about who is who. Fred and Lili’s fellow actors have names like theirs—Bed and Quiqui—and in the bar, Fred and Lili assume their colleagues’ roles. In the second act, the clerk and Levert watch the funeral of a girl whose history mirrors that of the clerk’s sister. The clerk tells Levert of a man who used to come in looking for a letter from Heaven; that man may have been Levert.

As Levert observes, “We never know anyone.” He does not know the history of the bartender, he cannot even be sure who the bartender is. In an attempt to learn more about him, he asks the man to strip himself, and he offers to undress also, but the bartender tells him that the mystery of existence lies deeper than the skin. The quest for truth must therefore proceed in a bewildering universe...

(The entire section is 2329 words.)