by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - December 4, 2006) There has always been a certain spiritual proximity between Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. They both share a grim pessimism about the human condition and, of course, they had a close personal association that lasted many years. But it is Beckett who, in a sense, came first -- not only because he plumbed the depths somewhat deeper than Pinter, but because many of his insights were subsequently incorporated and reworked into Pinter's plays. It would be too glib to suggest that Beckett spawned Pinter but it would be evasive not to point out that much of the Beckettian world view got dramatically parceled out by Pinter in plays like "No Man's Land" and "The Homecoming."
In confronting the inescapable bleakness of life, Beckett dove headlong into universalities; Pinter meticulously fashioned anecdotal material about friends, drifters, husbands, wives, and personal relationships; these were characters who got enveloped in a realm where nothing was ever concrete and every complication was traced back, not to a verifiable source but to an enigma. In a sense, Pinter wrote "mystery plays" where the crime was never unraveled or the guilty parties brought to justice. He concerned himself with characters who quested after territorial rights and the power that stemmed from acquiring them, and dramatized the way we subtly or overtly colonize one another. In so doing, he hit upon a disturbing universal truth: that certain primitive machinations still pulsate beneath our civilized exteriors. Both writers utilized the tools of black comedy and both produced the kind of laughter, which after it crests, leaves a bitter taste behind.
"The Collection," recently performed in English by "That Theatre Company" in Copenhagen, is a good example of a mystery that remains disturbingly unsolved. It is as if Agatha Christie, having woven a harrowing plot filled with crimes and deceptions, decides to withhold the final scene in which the deductive Inspector from Scotland Yard reveals neither the perpetrator nor the motivation of the guilty party. It is a mystery play which is strangely redolent of the Mystery Plays of medieval Europe, except for the fact that it is secular rather than religious, but still inhabited by a sense of "other worldliness."
The play in Copenhagen should be sought out if for no other reason than because it possesses a perfectly balanced central performance by a mysterious and beguiling Danish/British actress named Sira Stampe, which is redolent of the kind of work Vivien Merchant used to turn out in the early Pinter plays. (Merchant was the first Mrs. Harold Pinter.) Stampe, a recent graduate of the Webber-Douglas Academy in London, casts a palpable aura over "The Collection" producing precisely that kind of enigmatic allure that deeply-rooted Pinterian female characters must have if their ambiguity is to be both spellbinding and perplexing.
The play itself concerns a one-night stand that may or may not have taken place between a wife and a rough-hewn, bisexual lover who cohabits with an overprotective male dress-designer. After all its slithery permutations, it ends on a deceptive cadence with the husband believing that no assignation actually took place while Sira Stampe's Mona Lisa smile nudges us to determine whether she is lying or not. A typical Pinterian shadow play in which everything is implied but nothing concrete supplied. The audience leaves with a disquieting suspicion that, in personal relationships, nothing is ever conclusively knowable.
In the 1970s, as Pinter's own social status escalated, his subject matter changed discernibly. No longer dealing with marginal figures like the unkempt wanderer from Sidcup in "The Caretaker," he explored the guiles and life styles of middle-class characters that in subtle ways reflected the new life he was leading with his second wife Lady Antonia Fraser (a character who would seem to be utterly alien in Pinterland). Some of these later plays like "Betrayal" and "Old Times," dealing with upwardly mobile characters, felt a little like Pinterized versions of works by Somerset Maugham or William Douglas-Home and gave the impression of a poor boy from Hackney gate-crashing a swank party in the higher reaches of Mayfair. A writer must grow and adapt to the changes in his own life, but somehow the haut monde wasn't as conducive to the murky social settings in which Pinterism was first spawned.
In terms of commercial success, Pinter has done very much better than Beckett. His plays have often been West End successes and he has had major productions mounted by companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company where, during Peter Hall's reign, he could often be seen exercising on the inside track. There was also a fruitful screenwriting career with films such as "The Go-Between," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "The Handmaid's Tale," "The Trial," "The Quiller Memorandum," and "The Last Tycoon." Before he became iconic, Pinter had become fashionable. He took a certain odd pride in being on the list of The Best Dressed Men in England. But in the 1970s, there were criticisms that in the theatre, frequently imitated by lesser playwrights, he was becoming over familiar. He seemed sometimes to be guying the style of a fashionable playwright named Harold Pinter.
After a lengthy writing block, he emerged with a few short works and a surprising social conscience. I say "surprising" because I can recall that in the 1960s, when playwrights and other arts practitioners were asked their view on England entering the Common Market, Pinter's brief reply was that he couldn't care less one way or the other and had given the subject no consideration whatsoever. A very different social animal from the man who bitterly attacked George W. Bush and the American government's policies in Iraq.
In 1958, "The Birthday Party" opened and was savaged by virtually every reviewer save one (Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times) and closed within a week. I and other champions of the playwright associated with Encore Magazine felt a heinous act of injustice had been committed. Under the aegis of Encore, we decided to publish the disparaged play, which both kept Pinter's spirit uplifted and his name before the public.
Two years later, when all of the West End was abuzz with the forthcoming production of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" directed by Orson Welles and starring Sir Laurence Olivier, "The Caretaker" opened without fanfare at the small-scale Arts Theatre. Those who had trumpeted his arrival in the ill-fated "Birthday Party" had cause to celebrate and, ironically, the highly-touted Orson Welles-Laurence Olivier production frittered away while England volubly reappraised the merits of the boy from Hackney.
At this point I had better suspend this quasi-objective profile of the man and confess that I knew him well in the earliest days of his career in England and therefore cannot be impartial.
I remember a meeting with Pinter before "The Caretaker" opened during the bleak period after "The Birthday Party" when he was still in Nowheresville. He had just finished the new play and was recounting its storyline to me. I casually asked him what it was really about. (This was before direct questions like that were verboten to someone as closed-mouth and inexplicit as Harold Pinter.) "What do you mean?" he replied as if inquiring about the meaning of a play was like requesting a printout of one's biopsy report. "It's about love," he said hammering home the Obviously Self-Evident so forcibly that it made me feel like the class dunce. I quickly changed the subject. After seeing the play -- and even now when I attend revivals of it -- I try to reconcile his reply with the moods, motions, and material that make up "The Caretaker." I suppose with great interpretative ingenuity one can reconcile the point of any play with almost any large, all-embracing generality, but I have to confess that after all these years, I still cannot tally Harold's summation with the nature of the play he wrote.
Despite his taciturn temperment, Pinter became readily available -- both to the public and the press during the 1970s and '80s. Becket, in comparison, remained remote and inaccessible to the end of his life. He never personally forsook the isolationism which shroud plays like "Krapp's Last Tape" and "End Game." Pinter functioned successfully in a larger public arena dealing with characters and situations with whom we could easily identify and shifting moods of doubt and malice that are familiar to all of us.
There are those, like Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, who acrimoniously believe Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature because of his outspoken political views on the US debacle in Iraq. The greater truth here is that a playwright who started his career scrutinizing the evils that swarm in the lives of ordinary people naturally developed into an artist who was able to extrapolate those insights into the larger society from which they sprang. Those characteristic pauses that perforate so much of his work are the human depths from which Harold Pinter postulated his understanding of the shortcomings of modern civilization.
Isn't that what "literature" is supposed to be about?
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