Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pinter as a Playwright

That Pinter is the greatest British playwright since Shaw cannot be seriously doubted. Like Shaw's, his surname has been turned into an adjective in his own lifetime: "His work is so singular that the world ‘Pinteresque' has entered the language to describe those situations fraught with menacing ambiguity which are the hallmark of his plays."
The play which first brought Pinteresque ambiguity to the public's attention was The Birthday Party, but it was a spectacular flop when it was put on in London in May 1958 after a brief provincial try-out in Cambridge. Any apparent ambiguity resolved itself once one realised that Pinter was Jewish. As a Jew-Sinclair pointed out—Pinter was acutely conscious of the reality of persecution, so Stanley is duly persecuted in the play. Sinclair Goldberg was doing as the persecutor of the Gentile Stanley: should it not rather, I wondered innocently, have been the other way round? It was only much later that I realised how characteristic Sinclair's near 'explanation' of the play was of much Pinter criticism: a flawed solution to a puzzle which existed only in the critic's mind.
For Pinter is at once a more mysterious and a more straightforward person than is commonly realised. In many respects he is "a very traditional dramatist...[whose] plays are conceived for an orthodox proscenium stage; they are conventionally based on speech and dialogue with only a marginal inference of physical action", and the text is fully written out, living no scope whatever for improvisation, a theatrical fad which Pinter views with distaste. His setting are concrete, firmly located in time and place (mid-century London for the most part), and the social milieu is precisely defined (British middle or lower-middle class society, exclusively). His mentors are Chekhov, Pirandello and Beckett, all dead masters, avant-grade perhaps in their own day, but established classics of the stage now. Moreover, much of his dialogue is straight out of Noel Coward, who was hardly avant-grade when alive; and that most conservative of institutions, the British stand-up comic, provides him with the inspiration for much of his patter. Ken Dodd, for example:
I had a marvellous childhood, yes, a marvellous childhood. We never stopped laughing, my brother and sister, my mother and father. We were a very funny, very laughter-conscious sort of family. My father was probably the funniest man that I have ever known. He was a very, very funny man.
The professional comedian's patter which Pinter steeped himself in when he trod the boards of seaside theatres in the 1950s, with its repetitions and reformulations within a severely restricted lexis and range of idea, is here exemplified by one of its greatest living practitioners, the hugely successful Ken Dodd. But the interesting thing about this quotation from the self-styled King of the Diddymen is that it comes not from a live act but from an interview. As the interviewer Russell Miller points out, the protestation about Dodd's childhood does not ring quite true: "behind the facade of the ebullient, fast-talking comedian, the 'master of mirth', [is] and enigmatic, lonely, vulnerable, almost tragic figure, still living in the ramshackle house where he was born, measuring his success by bundles of money hoarded in the attic...." Almost a Pinter character, in fact.
Pinter's Mental Universe
Moreover, Pinter's mental universe seems largely innocent of Marx and Freud, let alone of Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray or of other currently fashionable mattres a penser of whom he has probable never heard. In this too he is very British: "I'm not a theorist," he unashamedly confessed as long ago as 1962 to an audience of students, and he has frequently repeated the disclaimer in interviews since. But this anti-theorist is not anti-intellectual: far from it. He discovered Beckett long before the great Irishman became culturally respectable. He adapted Proust to the screen without hope or prospect of seeing the film made (The Proust Screenplay, 1978). He read and was moved by the study of Oliver Sacks MD on encephalitis lethargica, a kind of sleeping sickness, and in 1982 wrote A Kind of Alaska about it. And if Pinter is a close reader of Noel Coward, he is an equally devoted student of Franz Kafka, so that his well-made plays a la Coward are just as nightmarish as the labyrinthine rat-runs of the unquiet mind explored so obsessively by the God-tormented genius of Prague
It is this extraordinary amalgam of Coward and Kafka which characterises Pinter's best work. He not only has, like Coward, a finely-tuned ear for what people actually say—a prerequisite in any competent writer for the stage—he also picks up what is not being said, in other works the Kafkaesque dimension of social intercourse. "So often," he points out, "below the word spoken, is the thing is being said," and he goes on: "we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid,... what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves." This makes Pinter's plays hyper-realistic, to borrow a term from art criticism, where it is applied to works that copy reality so effectively that they can be confused with it (an example would be the life-size figure of male cleaner in the Milwaukee Museum of Modern Art). "We have to react to Pinter play more as we have to react to real life than as we do with conventional drama," writes Anthony Suter; "the audience is forced to see a total area of experience and, as in life, to have only exterior signs of behaviour (language in all its forms) as interpretative guide-lines." This is the source of the famous 'menace' which is universally recognised as Pinter's hallmark: what we hear spoken is bound to sound threatening if we simultaneously intuit a subtext which fails to square with what is explicitly state. The locus classicus of this is the well-known moment in The Caretaker when Aston says that he cannot drink Guinness from a thick mug, whereas what really troubles him is the fear that he will be recalled to mental hospital to undergo electroconvulsive therapy once again.
Power Struggles
The "desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves" which Pinter concentrates on his drama are not mere verbal skirmishes: they frequently become "strategic campaigns in the battle fro positions", in the struggle for 'dominance and subservience' a repeated theme in his plays". In The Caretaker, the intruder Davies is outmanoeuvred by Mick and expelled from the relative Eden of the house into the house into the inhospitable winter weather outside; in Night School Walter forces his aunt's lodger Sally to go so that he may recover his bedroom. No wonder Pinter cannot see "anything very strange" about these plays, which he considers "very straightforward and simple". "What goes on in my plays is realistic," he adds, even if "what I'm doing is not realism." True enough. All human relationships in Pinter are based on power struggles, be they the individual's struggle to appropriate or hold on to a loved one as in The Caretaker (Mick loves his brother Aston; Davies represents a threat to the stability of the relationship), the couple's struggle to exclude rivals/outsiders as in Old Times (where the couple could be lesbian—Kate/ Anna—just as much as it could be the married pair), or the clan's struggle to close ranks, as in The Homecoming. A particularly insistent theme is that of male solidarity against women: in The Lover Max says to Sarah of her husband, "After all, he's a man, like me. We're both men. You're just a bloody woman," and in Betrayal Robert, who married Emma for conventional reasons, actually dislikes women, whom he sees as a threat to male supremacy, and chooses instead to privilege his relationship with her lover Jerry, whom he dominates: he makes sure that it is this union which will survive what he sees as a wilful female's attempt to spite him by taking his friends as her lovers. The cards are laid on the table when Robert launches on a "brutally honest" tirade about male intimacy in the squash courts, a good example of the "mug of Guinness" kind of transparent metaphor alluded to earlier.
Language—as in this example—is used to dominate other people. There is little physical violence in Pinter's plays. Instead, characters browbeat others through linguistic fluency. Once again, the locus classicus is to be found in The Caretaker, where Mick uses the cliches of the glossy magazine home-decorating column to attack Davies at his most vulnerable point, his sensitivity over his vagrant status.
Likewise, the articulate Lenny outflanks the reticent Teddy in The Homecoming and detaches his wife Ruth from him; Anna comes close to taking Kate away from Deeley in Old Times; Hirst outguns Spooner in the decisive verbal engagement in the second act of No Man’s Land; and Robert defeats Emma in the battle of the sexes in Betrayal through his linguistic dominance of Jerry. It is in these verbal tussles that Pinter's music-hall humour is used to best effect, from the funny if coarse "to put the old tin lid on it, you stink from arse-hole to breakfast time", to the groan-provoking rhyme" I killed a man with my own hands, a six foot ten lascar from Madagascar... Alaska? Madagascar!"
The sense of menace is reinforced too by the palpable feeling of suspense Pinter's best plays generate through the use of fades and blackouts. The structure of The Caretaker is articulated around sudden extinction of the lights, and the same device is used at the end of the first act of No Man’s Land. This is what Pinter meant when he said that what goes on in his plays is realistic, but what he is doing is not realism. In looking more closely at the way non-realistic devices like startling blackouts contribute to the heightened realism which is Pinter's hallmark, one should concentrate on the stage plays of his mature 'Vivien Merchant period', although it needs to be borne in mind that Pinter has written more for radio, television and cinema than for the theatre; nevertheless, his finest as well as his most substantial works (The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times and Betrayal) were written for the live medium.
Old Times in No Man’s Land
In The Caretaker (1960), a grim nightmare (complete with gallows humour) of a play, three people, all to a greater or lesser extent sick in mind, feed off each other's psychological inadequacies. Aston is recovering, slowly and painfully, from electroshock treatment. His way of coming to terms with this is to stress that he likes working with his hands. He fantasises about getting the shed up in the garden (after clearing the ground, since it is completely overgrown) so that he can start work on renovating the house. To that end he compulsively accumulates junk, most of it useless, in The Room. Pinter says he always starts with a room and then peoples it with appropriate characters. Soon Aston adds to his collection a new acquisition: this time it is a human being, a tramp whom he has rescued in a punch—up at the all-night cafe where Davies is employed. Aston is pathetic and gentle, and it is not long before Davies starts taking advantage of him, especially as he imagines that he has an ally in Aston's vicious brother Mick. But, like most cunning people, Davies is in certain key respects obtuse, and so fails to pick up the signals of complicity between the brothers (such as the famous "faint smile" which they exchange). When he attempts to play the one off against the other he alienates his benefactor, and the play ends on a note of great sadness when the gentle Aston turns his back on Davies and forces him to leave. "Thank God they got rid of the bastard" was Pinter's revealing comment to the actor Donald Pleasance at rehearsal, and yet the play is so finely balanced that the audience feels sorry for the foul-mouthed racist who every night suffers from troubled dreams.
It is evident from this summary that the story of the play is perfectly plausible: an outsider is invited in, fails to get on with the occupant, and is asked to leave. The decor is realistic too, even down to the gas-stove which worries Davies so much because he thinks it can come on accidentally. The use of lighting (from the unobtrusive fade-down when Aston is confiding in Davies about the hallucinations which resulted in his hospitalisation, to the sudden blackouts used to indicate nightfall in the middle of each act) is a non-naturalistic device which has however become such a common feature of theatrical shorthand—as well as being widely used in file and television—that its artificiality is no longer remarked. Such visual cliches do not undermine the naturalism; at most they reinforce the theatricality.
Contemporary Reality
So firmly rooted in contemporary reality is Pinter's dramaturgy that a critic has been led to suggest, perfectly seriously, that The Caretaker "could be read as a social, or even a political satire" on the grounds that "Harold Pinter, due both to his experiences as a member of an unpopular ethnic minority and his desire for integration, was more receptive than most to the ambivalent attitudes that the vast majority of British people were only just beginning to discover in themselves" as the first violent clashes in Nottingham and Netting Hill drew their attention to the issue of race. Without going that far, Pinter's relevance is noticed in this way. The 'rootedness' of his best plays becomes, indeed, more evident with the passage of time. A recent revival of The Homecoming (1965) highlighted the fact that "this most cruel of family plays" shows "a Jewish family closing rants against a shicksa (dismissive term for a female Gentile) being brought into the household by the returning successful son" and drew attention to the vein of Jewish comedy that runs through the play, particularly in Max's eulogy of his dead wife at the beginning of Act II. According to Pinter, the play is straightforwardly "about love and lack of love" by which it may imply mean the love binding the Jewish family together and the lack of it cementing the relationship between Ruth and Teddy, which helps explain why the family manages to detach her from him so easily. It is a black comedy constructed along traditional lines: the setting is homely and familiar (a living room complete with sideboard and radiogram) and the action is continuous, Act I taking place before lunch and Act II after it, the (unseen) meal in the interval representing temporary reconciliation and calm before the final struggle in which the details of the deal—that the shicksa shall operate as a call-girl in their employ—are worked out between Ruth and the family to the exclusion of Teddy, who is sent home to America empty-handed. Although this comedy is a lot coarser and less whimsical than Noel Coward, it really is not all that different in essence from Private Lives.
Naturalism of Cinematic Kind
Naturalism of a more cinematic kind—and we are reminded that Pinter has written ably for the screen, beginning with his fine script for Joseph Losey's masterpiece The Servant (1962)—marks Old Times (1971). The three characters are all on stage at the outset, but Anna is not involved in the * action for ten minutes or so; she stands, dimly lit, looking out of the window while Kate and Deeley discuss her imminent visit, particularly the dinner they plan to serve her. She then moves centrestage and begins reminiscing about the past as Kate pours coffee and Deeley offers brandy. This jump-cut erasing the meal itself would seem perfectly natural in the cinema. Once again, too, the setting is naturalistic: a converted farmhouse in the country of the sort which the British professional classes began to move into in increasing numbers in the late 1960s. If Harold Pinter is not a reader of the glossy magazine Homes and Gardens he has an uncanny nose for the trendy and the modish in home decoration, as can be seen from Mick's DIY fantasies in The Caretaker, and Deeley's converted farmhouse sounds a tellingly authentic note in this play, especially as there is one-upmanship between him and Anna over her obviously much more luxurious villa above Taormina.
Film construction, particularly the use of short scenes (like 'takes'), is brilliantly used in Betrayal (1978), the other 'triangle' play, although this time the suggestion of a lesbian past between two women is replaced by more conventional adultery between a wife and her husband's best friend. What redeems the play from banality is the 'reverse' construction: we start with The Lovers meeting in one of their old pub haunts in order finally to bury their liaison ("It's all all over," says Emma) and then we move progressively, through all stages of the affair, backwards in time to The Lovers' first embrace with the " the other side of the[e] door nearly ten years earlier. The device is brilliantly effective in rendering both the misery and the ecstasy of illicit love, set against a backdrop of the London of publishers and literary agents sketched in convincingly and with great economy of means. As so often in Pinter, this is a play about loneliness, about love, and about male friendship which goes deeper than love. Of the Sam Spiegel movie version, which he wrote and David Jones directed, with Jeremy Irons brilliantly incarnating The Lover, and Patricia Hodge and Emma who bore a disturbing physical resemblance to (the by then dead) Vivien Merchant, Pinter suggested that the theme was "various different kinds of Betrayal", that it was a story in which all three characters betray one another in separate ways.
Since Betrayal, Pinter has not written anything nearly as good. About his embarrassing attempts at political drama—One for the Road (1984), about torture in Turkish prisons, and Mountain Language (1988), a playlet about a people (the Kurds) forbidden to use their mother tongue—the less said the better. Noting that "something essential went from his work in the 1980s," Benedict Nightingale put the problem of Pinter's latest plays in these terms: "Subtext has become text. Fear, suspicion and anger are out in the open. Troubling strangers and sinister intruders have turned into sadistic policemen and nasty prison guards. Subtle, amorphous dangers have become obvious, political ones, with the result that the 'comedies of menace' and the 'dramas of paranoia'—the post-1960 masterpieces, in other words—"have given way to propaganda for Amnesty International: worthy, no doubt, but far less original." Nevertheless, Nightingale praised Pinter for having in the past "found such striking ways of dramatising some of the deepest human dreads and desires". "As Hirst says in No Man’s Land," I'll drink to that."
The Landscape of Silence
In a tone of mild exasperation, the critic Nigel Andrew recently asked of the characters in a radio adaptation of Betrayal: "Why, come to that can they never finish a sentence, or answer a question, or say what they mean?" This was a surprising question to ask in 1990. A competent undergraduate, set a practical criticism exercise consisting of almost any dozen pages chosen at random, could have told him that Pinter's characters do finish sentences, answer questions, and even say what they mean, provided that the sentences are devoid of emotive charge, the questions uninquisitive, and the avowals of no personal significance. As soon as sentences look like getting them into deep water, they abandon them; and once they are asked a question which they prefer not to answer, they pretend not to have heard it and reply instead to a different one; and when saying what they mean would be to say what they really mean, they take refuge in irrelevance and evasion. (One is entitled to wonder what circles Nigel Andrew moves in: has he never had to deal with a salesman who cannot be pinned down to a delivery date, or a mechanic who is incapable of answering a straight question about a fault in the clutch?) As Almansi and Henderson put it, "One has to reach into the subtext of the unspoken" with Pinter in the same way as one does with Chekhov, "for rarely is there the comfort of stated unequivocal fact" (though they imply that no intelligent spectator has difficulty 'reading' the subtext, completing the unfinished sentences, answering the evaded questions, or divining the concealed meaning).
Such cunning on the part of the characters notwithstanding, there 'invariably' does come a moment when a player says something 'irrevocable', something which "he in fact means", and this can then "never be taken back". Examples of this "snatched truth among lies" would be Davies blurting out that he thinks Aston is off his head, Teddy admitting it was he who stole Lenny's cheese roll, thus bringing the unspoken struggle with his brother out in the open, or Emma breaking it to Robert that she and Jerry are lovers. Often a character tests out the reception his/her idea will receive and then repeats the word to hold on to the common ground when it is agreed with; and Pinter is always careful to listen to the particular 'voice' of a character, so that he does not put words into his or her mouth which the character would be unlikely to say. It is incorrect of some critics to suggest that all Pinter's people use the same kind of 'Pinterspeak'. Davies the tramp speaks ungrammatically, for instance, while Teddy the philosophy professor does not; Teddy's father-in-law Max, a retired butcher, has a working-class voice, whereas Anna in Old Times talks exactly like the ex-secretary-who-has-married-well that she is. Similarly, Pinter's famous silences are never incomprehensible, arbitrary pauses but rather moments when words can no longer disguise the real thought or emotion being experienced. They are, not infrequently, moments of real reckoning. One of the most dramatic silences is found right at the end of The Caretaker when Aston refuses to allow Davies to stay. Such a powerful rejection could not have been achieved through words.
No critic fails to note that Pinter's language is at once "banal and bizarre", "pitched somewhere between the comic and the creepy", and the science of linguistics has ways of describing what he does. ‘Illocution' is the technical term used to refer to what is communicated unsaid, that is, the extra meaning conveyed over and above the overt linguistic message (example: "It's very hot in here, isn't it?; is a way of asking "Would you mind if we opened the window ?"): and 'implication' is the implied meaning over and above the purely linguistic message (example: "You weren't born in a barn" is a way of saying "Shut the door"). Illocution and implication explain many of Pinter's finest touches, such as the astonishing casualness of Ruth's farewell to her husband. "Don't become a stranger", where the context turns a polite cliche into a shocking cruelty.
Pinter is a realistic, even a naturalistic writer. In the field of language, where at first he seems so strange, he is careful to stick to the concrete and familiar. Here is a Blackburn tramp, Frank Bennett, talking to Jeremy Seabrook:
From fourteen to seventeen I was buried twice in Clifton pit. I was buried there twice. So I joined the Army for twelve years, and I went all over the world, every country you can mention. I fought for my country and I was a prisoner of war in Italy, in Syria, and I met the best people in the world when I was taken prisoner. I escaped out of the camp, and I come back, and my friend shot himself, a fellow called Tommy Aspic, he shot himself, definitely... [M]y buddy Tommy, one of the best pals in the world, and I'm a real professional—machine-guns, anything. The Germans wanted to kill us, but I killed them, and that was it. And I 'II kill any German that comes on this foreign country, England, because I've fought for it, and I'll die for it again, and I'll say this, and I'll say it again, on my life:...I'm an Englishman, I'm Frankie Bennett, definite, a real tough sergeant...I'm the toughest, roughest boy in the world.
The repetitions are characteristic of Daives's speech, as are the disingenuous evasions (the 'friend' mentioned was probably a homosexual lover), the xenophobia, and the pathetic boastfulness (like Davies, Bennett deludes himself that he is 'tough'). Obviously Pinter shapes and edits what his characters say, whereas Seabrook the sociologist does not; but otherwise Pinter is faithful to the words contemporary British actually speak.
After a truly great playwright drama is never quite the same again. "Pinter's outrage has become the norm of respectability," and what made The Birthday Party a commercial flop in 1958 has become virtually de rigueur in British theatre today. The 'Pinteresque' (words of great banality concealing menace) has become as much part of our cultural consciousness as the 'Kafkaesque' (often used to describe the citizen's impotence in the face of bureaucracy), the 'Proustian' (buried memories resurrected by a chance sight or smell) or the 'Beckettian' (mind and body out of sync). Only the literary genius has this power to so alter our perception of the world, and Pinter is probably a genius. And his masterpieces are: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming and No Man’s Land.

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