In early-seventeenth-century England, in the midst of what was supposed to be a golden age, young playwrights sounded a note of harsh discord. Against the myth of Elizabethan glory, they placed increasingly violent images of torture, of the abuse of power, and of profound psychological and political disturbance. Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, and others combined melodramatic action with brilliantly concentrated language, familiar issues with exotic settings, lurid plots with a fierce intensity of emotion and characterization. For a long time, critics could not decide whether their work was, on the one hand, utterly decadent or, on the other, profoundly moral.
The uncertainty was largely a matter of tone. In plays like Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy or Webster’s The White Devil, it is often impossible to separate horror from comedy. Tourneur’s play, for example, begins with Vindice holding the skull of his dead lover, who has been murdered by the duke. Toward the end of his speech, he thrusts the skull at the audience:
…Be merry, merry,
Advance thee, O thou terror to fat folks,
To have their costly three-piled flesh worn off
As bare as this…
The joke is menacing, the horror almost farcical. In The White Devil, Webster’s Flamineo makes the fusion of torment and laughter quite explicit:
And sometimes, when my face was full of smiles
Have felt the maze of conscience in my breast.
Oft gay and honour’d robes those tortures try,
We think cag’d birds sing, when indeed they cry.
With Tourneur and Webster, you never quite know whether the speaker is singing or crying, whether the author is smiling at us or guiding us through the maze of conscience. Absurd farce and extreme violence coexist, often at the same moment. The stage is a world to itself: the characters have no past lives and their motives, when they have any, never offer more than partial explanations for their actions. Their moods shift with such waywardness that they seem to be many different people. The “motiveless malignity” that Coleridge attributed to Shakespeare’s Iago becomes almost universal. Language becomes at once mesmerizing and treacherous. High rhetoric is often mere parody. Formal speech shifts suddenly into flat colloquialism. People often speak in a broken, staccato utterance, and the lines of dialogue on the page are littered with dashes to indicate the jerky stop-start rhythms which shape them. Almost all attempts at communication are defeated. A cry for help is assumed to be a cunning trick. Misunderstandings abound. Altogether, the plays reflect, as the English critic Nicholas Brooke has put it, “a disturbed recognition that the Elizabethan golden world was a myth and not a reality.” They are, in other words, very like the plays of Harold Pinter.
Harold Pinter was born in the working-class East End of London in 1930 and began to write plays in the midst of what desperate British optimists were calling the “New Elizabethan Age” of the 1950s. At the time, a popular book on …