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;…