A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter at seventy is indisputably Britain’s greatest living playwright, and he was celebrated in July 2001 at a Pinter Festival in New York at Lincoln Center, with productions of nine of his plays and eight films. The play series began with “One for the Road,” whose cast included the playwright, and “A Kind of Alaska, directed by Karel Reisz and offered by the Dublin Gate Theatre, which also presented “The Homecoming” and “Landscape.”  Henry Woolf appeared in “Monologue,” produced by London’s Almeida Theatre, which offered as well their recent double bill of Pinter’s first play, “The Room,” and the premiere of “Celebration.”   A double bill of “Mountain Language,” and “Ashes to Ashes” was produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre.

“Mountain Language” (1988) is Pinter’s harrowing distillation of the horrors inflicted by war upon ordinary people – mothers, daughters, fathers, sons.  In twenty minutes and four short, sharp scenes ushered in by the sounds of barking dogs, helicopter drones and metallic clashes, he contrasts the victorious bullies, led by a sergeant, and the vanquished mountain people, women huddled in a line outside the prison where they have been waiting for eight hours in the snow to see their prisoner husbands.  In the visitors room, an elderly mother attempts to speak to her imprisoned son, but is prevented by the guard because her mountain language is forbidden.  In a second visit, the rules have been reversed; she is permitted to speak but cannot, at the sight of her bleeding, tortured son. As the only language the sergeant understands is sexual, a nameless young woman uses it to speak for the group. The play was inspired by the past Turkish treatment of the Kurds, but the outrages continue, as nightly television worldwide reports testify. 

“Ashes to Ashes” (1996) is the longer work on the double bill and here the horrors of war are no less effective because they are described.  We are in a conventional living room with Rebecca (Anastasia Hille) and her husband Devlin (Neil Dudgeon), who is interrogating her about a former lover.  As her dream-like recollections take shape, piecemeal, the affair she recounts seems to be as conventional as the setting, except for touches of brutality in lovemaking.  Then there is a shocking revelation, that this man “used to go to the local railway station and walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers.”  When we learn that he also commanded a factory of slave workers, fascist terror takes shape in a series of verbal images.  Finally, Rebecca identifies with a mother fleeing the Nazis, and giving up her baby.  Under the expert direction of Katie Mitchell, the actors brilliantly interpret Pinter’s nuances, inflections, and silences that reveal as much about the characters as does the content of their speeches.  In an atmosphere of increasing tension, Ms. Hille changes from dreamy to assertive to guilt ridden, while Mr. Dudgeon reveals Devlin’s instability, pain, and finally, cruelty.    

“A Kind of Alaska” was suggested by Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings in which patients afflicted with encephalitis lethargica were rescued from their long sleep by the drug L-DOPA.  Patient Deborah (Penelope Wilton) awakens after 29 years, believing she is still sixteen, the age at which she fell asleep.  Her interests center upon her parents, her dog, her boyfriend, and sex.  At first she cannot believe she is a pasty-faced, gray haired woman. Bewildered, she recalls some of her subconscious past, like being confined in a series of glass halls, hearing water dripping, and endlessly dancing. With masterful economy,  Pinter contrasts the joy and carefree hopes of youth with the concerns of age, wondering where lost years have gone .  Helped by her middle-aged sister (Brid Brennan), Deborah accepts the present: “I think I have the matter in perspective.  Thank you.”

“One for the Road” is a much darker play.  Lasting only 45 minutes, it concerns an interrogation by whiskey-drinking Nicholas (Harold Pinter), the brutal head of the secret police in an unnamed country, which could be anywhere.  “The voice of God speaks through me,” proclaims the ruthless Nicholas, determined “to keep the world clean for God.”  He betrays little emotion as he interviews his hapless victims who are tortured offstage: ironically-named Victor (Stephen Brennan), wife Gila (Brid Brennan), and child Nicky.   The horror, suggests Pinter is ongoing, as indicated in the daily press.

The Dublin Gate Theatre presented “The Homecoming,” directed by Robin Lefevre. First produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1965, the play then moved to Broadway and earned acclaim for Pinter, already known in the States because of the successful Broadway run of “The Caretaker.”  Like Pinter’s early play “The Birthday Party,” his work about a homecoming celebrates a familiar event by casting it in an unfamiliar light.  Arriving home from America for a visit with his North London working-class family, son Teddy, now a college professor accompanied by his wife, Ruth, joins his family of father, uncle, and two brothers.

Far from your typical father and sons, Dad (Ian Holm) is a blustering (though insecure) retired butcher and son Joey a dimwitted demolition worker/part-time boxer, while Lenny is a gangster and pimp (played by Mr. Holm in the original production). Dad Max, preoccupied with death, plagued by loss of virility, and gnawed by doubt, ends in a near-childlike state.  Violence is just below the surface with bragging, tough-seeming Lenny, but Ruth (Lia Williams) reveals where the real power lies.

The men earmark her as a victim, keeping house, serving their sexual inclinations, and earning money as a prostitute.  But she assumes the advantage and the power, and sets the terms of her agreement to remain with them when her husband returns to the U.S.  There will be a contract to cover her new, spacious accommodations, clothing, and living expenses  The final tableau is unforgettable, as Ruth sits in Max’s former chair, with Joey at her feet, Lenny hovering, and Max crawling towards her doglike, begging for attention.

Pinter can make an ordinary object threatening, like the drum in “The Birthday Party,” and here, a glass of water.  When Lenny encounters Ruth, the sexual power struggle is centered in a glass of water.  Silence is as effective as speech, when Ruth, crossing her legs, conveys her victory with the line, “You take the water, and I’ll take you.” Acclaimed at the festival by the New York critics, this production of “The Homecoming” subsequently opened in London.

Shown at the Festival were films of Harold Pinter’s cinematic works, including those written or adapted for screen or television, including “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964) with Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch, based on the novel by Penelope Mortimer; “The Go-Between” (1971), with Julie Christie and Alan Bates; “The Servant” (1963) with  Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, and Sarah Miles; “The Quiller Memorandum” (1966), with Alec Guinness; “The Caretaker” (1964) with Alan Bates, Robert Shaw, and Donald Pleasence;  ”The Homecoming” (1973) with Paul Rogers, Vivien Merchant, and Ian Holm.  Additional films include “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons (1981), “Betrayal,” based on his play (1982), and Kafka’s “The Trial” (1990).

London’s Almeida Theatre presented at the Festival their successful double-bill, directed by Pinter, of “The Room” (Pinter’s first play, 1957) and the American premiere of  “Celebration” (2000) The longer of the two plays,  “Celebration” takes place in a restaurant, with two couples seated at one table and one couple at a smaller table.  The two couples, well-to-do gangster types, are celebrating a wedding anniversary of one of the men, who are brothers.  But this is not your average celebration, any more than was the homecoming in the play of that name.  As they drink, unpleasant truths and hostility emerge. At the smaller table, a banker and his wife are at cross purposes, taunting each other about their infidelities.  A waiter intrudes on the comfortable retreat and insularity of the restaurant’s customers by offering a catalog of 20th century celebrities who were friends of his grandfather’s.  It is his ruminations that conclude the play.

In “The Room,” despite an uncommunicative husband, Rose takes comfort in their small apartment. But her security is shattered by a visit from a young couple who claim the talkative landlord has rented the premises to them.  Riley, a mysterious blind black man, appears, and summons Rose to come home. Members of the Almeida cast included Lindsay Duncan as Rose, Lia Williams as the banker’s wife Suki, and Danny Dyer as the young waiter.

The two-character work “Landscape” (1967), directed by Karel Reisz., was presented by the Dublin Gate Theatre. Stephen Brennan and Penelope Wilton played Duff, a middle-aged husband, and Beth, his wife.  She is the housekeeper and he the ex-cellarman, as they sit in the kitchen of their employer’s mansion. He is robust and outward; she is dreamy, having once loved somebody other than her husband, a memory that nourishes her. As the past is unraveled, the unsuspected is revealed, having colored their lives and determined the present state of their marriage – a desolate landscape. 

Life, Literary Theories, and the “Pinteresque”

Harold Pinter in his seventies is internationally acclaimed as a unique modern playwright who has no peers and few imitators. The adjective “Pinteresque,” which entered the lexicon in the second half of the twentieth century, immediately calls to mind his blend of fear, comic small talk, and significant silences to depict the menace that lurks behind the ordinary, events like a homecoming or a birthday party.  Or as Pinter once said, ”I write about the weasel under the cocktail table.”

In addition to the Lincoln Center Festival, recent revivals include “Betrayal” on Broadway and “The Caretaker” in London, while at the Royal National Theatre,  “Remembrance of Things Past” was based on  Pinter’s unproduced screenplay of  Proust’s epic memoirs, followed by a revival in 2002 of “No Man’s Land.”

Asked about the characters' communication or lack of it in his plays, Pinter replied:  "We communicate only too well...and what takes place is continual evasion, desperate...attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves.  Communication is too alarming."   Regarding his use of silence: "the more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression."

While “Betrayal” was running on Broadway, London reviewers were hailing both the revival of “The Caretaker” with Michael Gambon in the title role, and at the National Theater, “Remembrance of Things Past,” based on  Pinter’s screenplay of Proust’s memoir.  “Betrayal” is a complicated flashback, filled with clues and double-backs, that concerns an adulterous triangle involving a wife (Juliette Binoche), her husband (John Slattery), and his best friend ( Liev Schreiber).  The fascination of this unique view of jealousy and betrayal lies in Pinter’s approach: events begin in the present and then episodically work back in time, so that the tired disillusionment as first viewed unfolds through a web of deceptions to the spirited beginning.

“The Caretaker” was first seen in 1960 and brought international recognition to Pinter.  Although Pinter’s plays are set in England, his characters and themes are universal.  Gambon, as the derelict Davies is the Everyman of the displaced, self- preservation his prime motivation, slyly accommodating one moment and demanding the next, maneuvering a breakup of the two brothers who offer to shelter him.  Family relationships here, as in other Pinter works, are stripped bare.  In a house that is not a home, cluttered with objects no longer of use, the weaknesses of gangster Mick (Rupert Everett) and mentally afflicted Ashton (Douglas Hodge) are exploited by Davies, who connives to achieve power but ends as he began, homeless.

“Remembrance of Things Past” is a new play, based on Pinter’s 1972 unproduced screenplay of Marcel Proust’s epic 3500-page memoir.  Working with director Di Trevis, Pinter whittled his script to a three-hour realistic dream play in which Marcel  (Sebastian Harcombe) is narrator, observer, and player.  Marcel is both fleeing from the past and wishing to reconstruct it, with time intermittently suspended between past and present in a “freeze” frame.  Pinter observes in his introduction to the screenplay that the events move towards both disillusion and revelation “rising to where time that was lost is found and fixed forever in art.”

Like Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,”  “Remembrance”is a revelation of the social scene of the author’s times, with acute observation of the flaws and follies of a decaying aristocracy and rising middle class. Some of the book’s minute details are preserved – like the ringing of the garden gate bell – as well as many of the memorable characters and situations.  The Duchess of Guermantes is too busy to sympathize with Swann, who is dying, but has time to change her footwear when the horrified Duke notices that she is wearing black shoes with a red dress.  The sexually ambivalent Albertine and her relationship with Andree, which Marcel probes after Albertine’s death, is reminiscent of Pinter’s “Old Times.”  Proust’s themes of time and of reality versus illusion are also Pinter’s, which may help to explain why Pinter’s version of “Remembrance of Things Past” is so successful on stage.

“No Man’s Land” in its premiere in 1975 starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. In an acclaimed revival in 2002 at the Royal National Theatre in London, it was directed by Pinter, with Corin Redgrave and John Wood in the leads.  Poetic, dreamlike, funny, and threatening, it concerns Hirst (Redgrave), an affluent older alcoholic writer who one night brings home the aging Spooner (Wood).  Each man hopes to dispel the lonely present with fantasies about his past.  Both of them claim to be writers: Hirst now successful but uncreative, shabby Spooner, who might have (or might not have) been a writer attempting to con his way into the comfortable household, jealously guarded by sinister servants Briggs and Foster. 

Prompting Hirst’s anger and rage is his recurring nightmare of a no man’s land, the country beyond, that the old man may soon be entering, as he is plagued by his memories.  Spooner, on the other hand, is anxious to invent a past, based on fantasies, including his triumph as a poet.  The following morning, Hirst is completely changed, as he and Spooner trade reminiscences of their days together at Oxford, and of their sexual rivalry.  Spooner, at first surprised at playing a part in Hirst’s fantasies, gleefully joins in.  When the curtains are drawn at noon, letting in no light, Hirst’s nightmare of No Man’s Land returns. 

Harold  Pinter was born October  10, 1930, in London, the son of a tailor.  As a child he was evacuated from London during the war.  After finishing at Hackney Grammar School, the English equivalent of high school, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for a while, quit, then entered the Central School of Speech and Drama, leaving there as well.  He toured as an actor in Ireland, and then joined the company of Donald Wolfit, a Shakespearean actor of the old, flamboyant school.  Pinter met and married actress Vivien Merchant in 1956.   After her death, he married biographer Antonia Fraser, to whom he is still married.

Pinter’s training as an actor, despite leaving two drama schools, has stood him in good stead. Not only do his characters provide challenging roles for actors, but he is an accomplished actor himself, having appeared in films, on television, and on the stage. Most recently he appeared in “One for the Road” in London and New York and in “Sketches,” a program of his short revue pieces at the Royal National in 2002.  In both he plays a brute who exudes charm but who will brook no dissent.  In the sketch “Press Conference,” he is an overpowering minister of culture (formerly head of secret police) who makes clear to the assembled writers that “critical dissent is acceptable – if it is left at home.”

His first writing was poetry, some of which was published, and he acted on the BBC.  "The Birthday Party,” produced in 1958, was reviled by all the critics except Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times, who called Pinter "the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London."   Two years later, with "The Caretaker," opening in London and successfully transferring to Broadway, Pinter was recognized as a major playwright.  "The Collection" in 1962 and "The Homecoming" (1965) assured his place in the topmost ranks of dramatists.

As is true of works by his friend Samuel Beckett, also poorly received at first,  Pinter's plays are marked by spare dialogue, silences, and a sense of menace lurking  just beyond.  And like Beckett, Pinter refuses to discuss the meaning of his plays.  When John Wood was directing the initial production of "The Birthday Party," Pinter did explain how he began to write the play:  He saw the image of a kitchen and characters in it, he said.  "They sounded in my ears. . . My task was not to damage their consistency." "Meaning begins in the words, the actions, and continues in your head and ends nowhere.  There is no end to meaning,." he wrote Wood on 30 March 1958.  "Meaning which is resolved, parceled, labeled and ready for export is dead, impertinent and meaningless," Pinter observed.

Asked by Wood to give the actor of Stanley (the lodger whose birthday is celebrated) an indication of who he was, Pinter refused: "Stanley cannot perceive what he is -- he knows only to attempt to justify himself by dream, by pretense, and by bluff, through fright." 

The most recent revival of "The Birthday Party" in London, with Prunella Scales as Meg and her husband Timothy West as Goldberg, was the best production I have seen of this oft-produced work. Scales combined the humorous aspects of Meg with an awareness that her single adjective "nice" is her inarticulate way of holding at bay a menace she is unable to describe but fears, symbolized by wheelbarrows that she fantasizes may carry her off.  As Goldberg, West portrayed both the surface bonhomie and the menace that takes over and destroys Stanley.

At a run-down seaside bed-and-breakfast house owned by a couple, Meg and Petey, arrive two men, Goldberg and McCann, who ask for Stanley, the only boarder.  Meg is planning a birthday party for Stan, for whom she has a maternal (and probably sexual) fondness.           

Pinter transposes everyday dialogue, situations, events and even objects by revealing their sinister and threatening undersides. The toy drum that is Meg's birthday present for Stanley, because she partly regards him as a son, becomes an object of terror during the party.  Silences between spoken lines are fraught with significance.  "The more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression," explains Pinter.  Realistic dialogue need not be taken at face value: "Language where under what is said, another thing is being said, is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."   What seems a lack of communication between his characters may be a difference in interpretation of what is heard.

Also characteristic of Pinter is the use of intrusion.  Into an interior setting, seemingly secure, outside forces thrust themselves, bringing menace to the fragile stability.   Goldberg and McCann, the strangers who arrive at Meg's boarding house, are examples of the “Pinteresque.”  They could be a pair looking for lodging, but they are wearing business suits in a seaside resort.  McCann's quirkiness is demonstrated by his spending much of his time seated at a table where he tears sheet after sheet of newspaper into five equal strips.   Goldberg seems to be the brains and McCann the brawn as they grill Stanley in short, staccato bursts:

                        Goldberg: When did you last wash up a cup?

                        Stanley: The Christmas before last.

                        Goldberg: Where?        

                        Stanley: Lyons Corner House. . . .

                        Goldberg: Where was your wife? . . .

                        Stanley:  What wife?

                        Goldberg: What have you done with your wife?

                        McCann:  He's killed his wife!

Some of it is humorous, but the menace is always there, lurking.

Responding to the suggestion that his characters fail to communicate, Pinter draws an example from life, "We communicate only too well. . .and what takes place is continual evasion, desperate. . . attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves.  Communication is too alarming."  When communication is attempted, the characters misinterpret, like Meg, who offers a garbled, non sequitur account (which she obviously enjoys more than the truth, even if she were able to recognize the truth) of Stanley's history and of her own childhood: "My father was a very big doctor.  That's why I never had any complaints.  I was cared for."

At the birthday party the lights go out, young Lulu is seduced by Goldberg, and Stanley menaced.  The traditional party game of blind man's buff grows increasingly nightmarish.  The following day a beaten and inarticulate Stanley is hustled away by the two visitors.

"The Collection" (1962) was televised with Laurence Olivier as a wealthy and successful homosexual dress designer whose live-in lower-class boyfriend Bill (Malcolm McDowell) was sent to Leeds to show the collection at a designers' convention.  There he met Stella, played by Helen Mirren, a designer who was showing her collection.  The two may or may not have had a one-night sexual encounter.  Her husband (Alan Bates) and the older designer attempt to learn the truth, but Stella and Bill entertain themselves by inventing changing versions of what happened.  How does one verify the truth?  Or is truth unverifiable?

"Moonlight," which premiered at the Almeida Theater in London in1994,  is another family play like "The Homecoming" and "The Caretaker."  Here Ian Holm  portrayed a dying former civil servant, being visited by a friendly couple whom he dislikes, and speaking on the phone to his n'er do well sons, possibly gangsters, who refuse to visit him.  His wife, Anna Calder-Marshall, attends him at his bedside, while his daughter, who may be dead, appears in an upstairs room, recounting her trip in the moonlight, which seems to represent death.

Recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer, Mr. Pinter nevertheless has maintained a full schedule of work in the theater.  Having completed the direction of “No Man’s Land” at the Royal National Theatre late in 2001, he appeared in February 2002 in his program of short revue sketches.  In “Press Conference” he acted the urbane minister of culture (and former head of the secret police) of a repressive government who cautions the newsmen against liberality in the press.