Ronald Harwood David Mayer - Essay

David Mayer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That [The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold] ultimately fails as a play is in no way a fault of any performance nor of … [the] direction. Nor can all the blame be laid at the door of Ronald Harwood who adapted Waugh's penultimate novel, though Harwood is open to criticism both in the manner of his adapting and for failing to recognise the sharply confining limitations of his source. Waugh himself is the culprit, both as a novelist and a scenarist, for although he had lost none of his adeptness as a prose stylist and story-teller, Waugh as usual projected himself in lightly disguised form to the centre of his novel…. But unlike his previous novels, where the Waugh personae are a part of a variegated bustle, Waugh as Pinfold is solitary star, almost the sole performer…. The 'real' characters of Pinfold are as shadowy and intangible as the hallucinations that visit Waugh's stand-in. Translated to the stage and given voice and body, they remain indefinite and, worse, uninteresting. Pinfold alone feeds our astonishment, and that in steadily diminishing quantities.

Harwood labours with the text to mixed effect. In some instances, the author's third-person voice has been translated into the first-person but without a corresponding change from narrative to dramatic action. And there are more troubling distortions: an episode devised by Waugh to show Pinfold as a species of tatty staked bear failing to fight off a snapping mongrel pack of interviewers from the BBC Radio is reversed into a triumph, a truculent Nabokovian don making mincemeat of his interrogators. On the few occasions that Harwood trusts his own powers as a dramatist and turns a mere suggestion into a scene, as he does when Pinfold arrogantly boasts of his political connections to his fellow diners, Pinfold's self-destructive urges and the forces behind his irrational fears are agonisingly visible. Harwood solves the problems of giving credibility to ethereal voices and creating characters whose identities slip back and forth between the worlds of substance and fantasy, but the author has not made these interesting, at least not for very long.

David Mayer, in a review of "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold," in Plays and Players, Vol. 2, No. 25, November, 1977, p. 25.