Harold Pinter's plays still enjoy an aura of profundity. But, says Herb Greer, it is time the critics recognise them for what they really are-delicately crafted toshby Herb Greer / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The trouble with Harold Pinter is his public image: the insufferably pompous, sanctimonious, philistine, humourless, politically sciolistic, intellectually suburban, ex-adulterer, who writes pretentious and empty rubbish which complaisant companies such as the Royal Court encourage him to foist on audiences, for whom he appears to have total contempt.
I am assured by a mutual acquaintance that the real Harold Pinter is a warm, amusing, bright, compassionate man with a delightful sense of humour, who creates profound works for the theatre. For all I know this is the truth, but Pinter does not help himself with remarks about “shit-stained centuries of tradition.” Quotes like that inspire unkind jokes, like the one about Pinter taking a handful of his used toilet paper to the Royal Court where it is eagerly staged under the title of Exit with strained pauses, drawing earnest reviews from Michael Billington, John Casey and John Peter.
Pinter’s new play, Ashes to Ashes, is not quite that bad. I will come to just how bad it is, but first I want to discuss the real virtues of Pin-ter’s work, and try to show how he can, and does, please an audience.
In the good old “shit-stained centuries of tradition” theatrical illusion was about a live audience responding to live players. Under the influence of cinema and television this type of interaction has become a sort of period phenomenon, like asides. Around the mid-1950s a process of change began in the theatre. In the programme for Ashes to Ashes this is described as bringing “serious writing” to the stage and the Royal Court takes the credit for it. This displays a rather patronising attitude toward earlier playwrights, not to mention audiences. (Incidentally, pace the Royal Court, Look Back in Anger did not “force British theatre into the modern age.” This over-praised work became fashionable through a televisual accident, in a way that other more serious, and earlier works by writers such as Nigel Dennis did not.)
In this new atmosphere of serious chic the Royal Court and too many young playwrights began to se faire des id?es. The playwright and the director in the subsidised sector were no longer employees of the audience, bound to please and entertain them. They were now a cultural branch of authority. Their duty was no longer to make people laugh or cry, but to make the audience “think,” by forced obscenity if necessary; in practice by being as ?patant as possible. The interval discussion in the bar and, of course, the reviews in the papers after the show, took over the new subsidised theatre’s centre of gravity. Briefly, the theatre was no longer interactive. The playwright was concerned to do something to the audience.
It was at this point in postwar British theatre that the career of Harold Pinter began. A production of two one-act plays in a Hampstead hall showed him to be a theatrically ingenious new talent. Like many young people in the theatre, he had not been to university, but he made brilliant use of what education and imagination he had. Probably through trial and error (I am not privy to his working methods) he began to develop a theatrical game which also depended on illusion, but illusion of a new kind.
Before I describe this game, it should be said that the much-vaunted mystery about the content of some Pinter plays is pure gas. What happens in “mysterious” plays such as The Birthday Party or The Caretaker is no mystery to anyone who has ever visited a zoo and paid attention to groups of animals tacitly courting, jockeying for dominance or oppressing weaker individuals. To theatre critics who were used to the spelling out of such basic activities, Pinter’s unexplained action was exasperating. Naturally they declared that his plays had no content, that the emperor hailed by their “progressive” colleagues had no clothes. But this was not true. The plays simply lacked a certain verbal dimension which had until then been the norm. It was the gambit of a shrewd, technically gifted writer making excellent use of limited resources.
Pinter’s discovery, leading to his new game, was that banal conversation can be given an unsettling quality by the interpolation of pauses, forced upon the audience in the ritual situation of a staged play. That-really no more than a form of bad manners-is all there is to the so-called “menace” of which so much has been made by sententious critics such as Martin Esslin. It is simply a theatrical stunt. In the words of Peter de Vries, deep down, it is shallow. As to Pinter’s famous use of repetition, this was not new; the Americans had invented and refined that stylistic trick many years before Pinter picked it up.
In the atmosphere of Royal Court-inspired seriousness, fed by the gaudy pretensions of critics such as Ken Tynan, Pinter’s work was indeed doing something to the audience. He had found his way to a species of theatrical manipulation for which critics, even friendly critics, had no vocabulary or explanation. None of them appears to have considered anything like a straightforward observation of what was going on. Hence all the portentous rhetoric about menace and the inexplicability of people.
This was wonderful for Pinter, who found himself conferring an illusion of significance. He was bestowing an artist’s wisdom on the audience. The fact that there was no particular profundity or wisdom is beside the point. The situation is rather similar to that in the Kosinski novel/Peter Sellers film Being There, with Pinter in the Peter Sellers role of the simpleton, and sycophantic critics and admirers as the blockheads around him who take the simpleton’s silence for wisdom.
I do not mean that Pinter is really a simpleton, though his political utterances suggest that he is ingenuous-a useful quality in the theatre. He had, after all, helped to create a brilliantly successful and genuine theatrical illusion which audiences and some critics were happy to accept and discuss in the interval bar and in print after the play. Illusion, after all, is what the public pays theatres for, and this one fitted the new atmosphere perfectly.
Some critics, wary of the Christopher Columbus syndrome (from the song which begins “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus…”) did and still do write fence-sitting reviews to protect themselves from the possible mockery of posterity. Many more just accept the claim to profundity. Consider Alistair Macaulay of the Financial Times on Ashes to Ashes: “Much will be said, as always with his work, of what Pinter is saying in this play; and that is right. But it may be important to say that not understanding Pinter is a very great pleasure. To feel the elusiveness of his meaning is, in fact, to come very close to its essence.”
Pinter’s new game succeeded because it needed neither education, intelligence, nor even comprehension, in either playwright or audience. To mount it required only technical flair, as well as the assurance of friendly critics such as Esslin, Billington and Macaulay who appear actually to believe that the illusory wisdom is real. It is an amusing pastime if you like that sort of thing, with the bonus that, because Pinter seems to bestow wisdom on them, some in the audience and some critics, find it flattering.
Pinter has transformed a rather narrow creative talent into an international entertainer’s career, in a way that any fair observer must respect. But to put him in a class with Beckett, Joyce, Henry James, and TS Eliot, as John Casey did in a recent article, is elaborately silly, because those writers are all primarily literary figures. In some of them, like Beckett and Eliot, literature and theatre cross paths. But, as Somerset Maugham (who also worked at both crafts) remarked long ago, the two are not the same, requiring different sensibilities and tools. That is why Joyce and Henry James wrote such terrible plays. As anyone who has read Pinter’s dire poetry and political prose ought to know, he is no litt?rateur.
As the late critic James Agate observed, “the fact that a play is nonsense does not prevent it from being good theatre.” Much of Pinter’s work illustrates that perfectly, but he is unfortunate in one respect. His delicately crafted tosh is now made increasingly irritating by a suffocating atmosphere of critical pretension, rather like the cloud of awe which hangs over the experiments of Peter Brook. On the evidence of Ashes to Ashes Pinter’s talent is choking to death in that atmosphere.
The content of this stingy one-act mouthful, such as it is, consists of elliptic hints about private and public repression and cruelty, uttered by a bland woman who is very, very slowly interrogated for an interminable hour by a bland man who speaks extremely hesitant drivel and might be her husband. They sit in armchairs for most of the hour, getting up once or twice and then sitting down again. One learns nothing about either character except that the woman is some sort of identikit victim. The usual dank pauses make things worse, and so does Pinter’s direction; it forces two normally good performers-Lindsay Duncan and Stephen Rea-into the lugubrious pace of a heavily somniferous Marguerite Duras film I once had to sit through. It is as if Pinter means to suppress theatrical excitement instead of creating it.
Why? I can only guess. In recent years Pinter has taken to the demon politics the way others take to drink. This play feels as though the experience has afflicted him with a fever of the puritanism described by Shaw as a dislike of other people’s comfort. Perhaps Pinter will get over it. Where there’s life…
(Long pause.) What? (Pause.) Where there’s life… (Very long pause.) What does that mean? (Pause.) What? What does what mean? (Long pause.) Not what. Where. What do you mean where? (Very long pause.) Where? (Very, very long pause.) Where what?-If you keep it up long enough it turns into a play.
Hello? Is that the Royal Court? Listen- Ashes to ashes
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors Theatre