Robert Pinget

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Robert Pinget Drama Analysis

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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...

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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 that holds out little hope for success.

The Old Tune

The Old Tune raises a number of the same issues as Dead Letter, letting the audience eavesdrop on Pommard and Toupin, two old men trying to review their youth. Because this is a piece for radio, the audience would rely on the voices to distinguish the characters, but the two sound alike. Both have cracked voices, both stop for breath even in the middle of a word or sentence, both whistle their sibilants. Moreover, Pommard seems to know Toupin’s past better than Toupin, and the reverse is also true. Hence, their attempt to reestablish a friendship through their conversation leads instead to quarrels. Also, at times they seem not to be paying attention or are unable to hear each other because of the roar of the traffic. The resulting confusion is both humorous and sad. One cannot help laughing as the “happy memories” repeatedly prove false, yet one also realizes that these characters are doomed to fail in their effort to rekindle a former alliance. Symbolic of this failure is their attempt to smoke a cigarette. Neither has a match, nor will any passerby provide one. The cigarettes thus remain unlit, unsmoked, just as their old friendship remains unrevived and cold.

Clope

Clope once more traces this search for union. Clope and Madame Flan live in a railway station kiosk, where she sells newspapers and he tells fortunes with a Tarot deck. While their trades are therefore similar—telling others what is happening in their world—their personalities differ. Madame Flan is the idealist, dreaming of an escape to China or Clysterea. Clope, on the other hand, is the cynic. He tells Madame Flan that a trip to China—or anywhere—would be pointless; he does not believe that life will change for her or anyone else. Hence, he gives everyone the same reading of the cards, and when they return the next week, he repeats that reading yet again.

Devoid of illusions and hope, Clope persuades a would-be traveler, Pierrot, to abandon his intention of seeking a better life elsewhere. Instead, Pierrot builds a second kiosk at the train station and becomes a surrogate son to Clope. As in Dead Letter, though, this son finally goes away, but he does leave hope behind. Clope resolves to pursue him and so embarks on another of Pinget’s quests. As the play ends, each character clings to an expectation: Pierrot thinks that he will find a better life somewhere else, Clope wants to find Pierrot to reestablish their former relationship, and Madame Flan, clutching Clope’s old grammar book, longs for her colleague to return.

Identité

In a poetic sequence opening the second act of Clope, Clope searches for something in his past that will allow him to make sense of his life. This search for self-understanding, already evident in Dead Letter, serves as the central issue of the aptly named Identité. The protagonist, Mortin, had already appeared in The Hypothesis and the radio drama based on it, About Mortin, in which he vainly attempted to determine why a manuscript, perhaps his own, had been tossed into a well. As Identité opens, Mortin, apparently a writer, sits before a stack of papers and urges his physician to leave so that he, Mortin, can get on with his work.

Quickly, however, confusion sets in, for the doctor is not onstage as Mortin makes his request. Two scenes later, at the urging of the maid, Naomi, Mortin reverses his position, but again the doctor does not hear a word of what is being said to him. To add to the confusion, Naomi afterward tells Mortin to send the doctor away, and the doctor threatens to leave the other characters. Just as one is uncertain as to who wants whom to do what, so one cannot tell who is interfering with whose work—assuming that anyone has work to do. Naomi claims that Mortin prevents her from doing her job, Mortin blames the doctor, and the doctor blames Mortin. As Naomi and the doctor say, “One is never sure of anything.”

This lack of certainty results from and is reflected in the slippage of language. When, for example, Mortin speaks of l’analyse (analysis), Naomi hears Anne-Lise and begins a conversation about that woman, sidetracking their discussion about the doctor. Also indicative of the treachery of words is the frequent discussion of an anticipated duck dinner, but in the end Naomi produces only an empty plate. Words have lost their significance; they do not represent real objects, and at times they lose all coherence, as when the doctor and Naomi speak at once, telling two stories by uttering selected phrases from each. The result is gibberish. In the final scene, the audience remains with noise followed by silence, both of which are as meaningful—or meaningless—as the dialogue that has filled the preceding two acts.

Abel and Bela

As an artist, Pinget frequently explored the creative process. The Inquisitory is on one level an examination of how to write a novel, and Mortin in both The Hypothesis and Identité attempts to produce a coherent manuscript. Abel and Bela translates this problem to the stage, as the two title characters discuss a projected play. Initially, they consider a traditional, elegant piece set before World War II and filled with upper-class characters circulating in opulent settings. The first act soon degenerates into an orgy, though, and the projected second and third acts merely repeat the first, indicating that in the contemporary world, one no longer can compose a conventional or traditional work for the theater because life has become too chaotic. Dead Letter, rather than The Prodigal Son, should serve as the playwright’s model.

Abel and Bela therefore propose a psychological examination of their own lives, but they fail again because they realize how dull their existence has been. Because reality lacks the stuff of drama, and since the old forms no longer serve, they next turn to Surrealism, imagining a play about the lives they have not led. Even this idea does not work, though, for their plot becomes too bizarre. Bela imagines himself a nun, Abel a swan. As with Clope, the ending does leave room for hope nevertheless, for as Pinget’s piece ends, the audience sees the beginning of Abel and Bela’s first suggested play.

Like all of Pinget’s other works for the stage, Abel and Bela explores questions of identity and language. The very names of the two characters are virtually identical, as are their accounts of their past. Moreover, Pinget acted in this piece, so he was both writer and a character trying to write. Because the similarities between Abel and Bela are linguistic, however, they can create new lives by saying other words. “Everything is a question of vocabulary,” Abel insists; if they tell other stories about themselves, they can give themselves different, fantastic histories.

In fact, language may change itself and its users. “One word changes and all the rest follow,” Abel insists. When Abel begins to speak of the playwright’s freedom and uses the word “liberty,” Bela immediately adds “fraternity,” one word drawing forth the other. Like Lewis Carroll, Pinget here posed the question every communicator, certainly every writer, must face: Do people control words or do words control people? Abel and Bela implies that the latter is closer to the truth.

Paralchimie

This transforming quality of language provides the title for Paralchimie, a word itself exhibiting linguistic shifts. It can mean “by alchemy” (par alchimie), “word chemistry” (parole chimie), or, by extension, “word alchemy.” For Mortin, who appears yet again, words are the philosopher’s stone that can transform the dross of his life into gold. Despite the abundance of words, though, all the efforts of the first act produce only sleep and silence.

In the second act, Naomi and the doctor return from Identité to continue their shaggy dog stories. Mortin joins them in constructing a fable about a shepherd, but its meaning never becomes clear, nor can they complete their tale. The play concludes with a thunderstorm that leaves Mortin blind and speechless. The quest for the magical “two or three key words” has ended in sound and fury that signify nothing.

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