Pinter Land

Complete Works: Volumes One, Two, and Three

by Harold Pinter
Grove Press, 256, 249, 247 pp., $3.95 each (paper)

Betrayal

by Harold Pinter, directed by Peter Hall
at the Lyttelton Theatre (London)

Harold Pinter started off unluckily. He arrived on the London stage at a time when it was no longer fashionable for playwrights merely to exercise their gifts. They had to apply them, more or less explicitly, to social themes. Among various old theatrical peacocks cawing vainly in protest at the trend, Noel Coward was prominent, and in 1961 he had a celebrated quarrel with Kenneth Tynan over the state of the theater. The most interesting test case was Pinter himself. Coward was a supporter, chiefly on the rather defensive grounds that Pinter was “neither pretentious, pseudointellectual nor self-consciously propagandist.” Producing his favorite word from behind his back with a peacocklike flourish, the Master declared:

The first allegiance of a young playwright should not be to his political convictions, nor to his moral and social conscience, but to his talent.

The spirit of 1961, in the person of Tynan, was not slow to jump on Coward for this. “This wins my medal,” he wrote, “for the false antithesis of the month; for what if the author’s ‘talent’ is inseparable from his conscience and convictions, as in the best writers it is?” Pinter’s talent, Tynan felt, could be separated with notable ease from its moral and social parent body. Indeed, it was a matter of simple surgery; and in a review of a poor production of The Dumb Waiter, Tynan finally lopped off the guilty organ. “Mr. Pinter’s ear,” he judged, “ranks with Jenkins’s and Van Gogh’s among the great ears of history….” After nearly two decades, this is still the accepted wisdom. The healing graft that would have restored Pinter to critical wholeness has yet to be performed: we are still widely encouraged by critics to admire the Ear, while regarding the corpus as a whole with something like contempt.

It would help, I think, if our idea of what a dramatist should be were not still stuck at the 1961 stage. Pinter has already done his best to lean obligingly in the direction of conventional naturalism and commitment by saying, “If you press me for a definition, I’d say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.” It was wise of him not to claim that what he’s doing is poetic: that sort of talk empties theaters. But it is clear that Pinter arrived at drama by way of poetry, and has remained faithful to an instinctive, organic method of composition, letting the voices do the talking and allowing what seems right to stand.

His knowledge of poetry, long before the plays appeared, was already very broad. It is said that two of the subjects in which his knowledge is encyclopaedic are the bus routes of London and the poetry of the Forties, including some of its very minor effusions. He himself wrote a great many poems at that time, and stated, in 1961, that “about a dozen are worth republishing.” In fact, approximately …

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