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Our Own Jacobean

Ashes to Ashes

a play by Harold Pinter, directed by Karel Reisz. at the Gramercy Theater, New York, January 19-April 25, 1999.
Grove, 96 pp., $10.00 (paper)

The Hothouse

a play by Harold Pinter, directed by Karen Kohlhaas. at the Atlantic Theater, New York, February 25-March 27, 1999.
Grove, 160 pp., $12.00 (paper)


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.”1 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 British youth by Philip Gibbs was called The New Elizabethans. Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana, specially commissioned to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, made the analogy with the first Elizabeth even more explicit. Apart from the superficial coincidence of having a Queen Elizabeth on the throne, the parallel with the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was founded on a few broad similarities. England, as it had done at the time of the Spanish Armada, had defied a major threat of invasion and emerged victorious in a fierce continental war. It was aligned with an ideology that was thought to be beleaguered (Protestantism then, anticommunism now). And it was experiencing rapid economic growth. The same year, 1957, in which Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, the prime minister Harold Macmillan famously told the British that “most of our people have never had it so good.”

If there was a new Elizabethan age, however, it was appropriate that there should also be a new John Webster to insist that this golden world was a myth. Harold Pinter’s imagination was shaped to a large extent by Shakespeare, Beckett, Joyce, and Kafka. But in a speech delivered in 1995 and published now in Various Voices, a collection of his essays, interviews, short stories, and poems, he recalls the schoolteacher with whom he went for long walks in the 1940s and 1950s:

Shakespeare dominated our lives at that time (I mean the lives of my friends and me) but the revelation which Joe Brearley brought with him was John Webster. On our walks, we would declare into the wind, at the passing trolley-buses or indeed to the passers-by, nuggets of Webster….

He goes on to quote, as if from memory, lines from The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil like “What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut/ With diamonds?”; “There’s a plumber laying pipes in my guts”; “My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,/Is driven I know not whither”; “I have caught/ An everlasting cold. I have lost my voice/Most irrecoverably.” And, of course, “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” He adds, “That language made me dizzy.” In its forlorn cadences, bleak mockery, hard-edged ruefulness, and luxurious violence, he caught a tone that echoes through his own work and makes audiences dizzy with elusive but powerful disturbance.


In June 1996, armed police surrounded the Kurdish community center in Haringey, north London. As a helicopter hovered overhead, marksmen on the rooftops trained their rifles on the entrances and exits. Anyone emerging from the building was seized, handcuffed, and forbidden to communicate in Kurdish or Turkish. After an hour, the police smashed down the doors and stormed inside. There they found props and scripts for Harold Pinter’s play about torture and repression, Mountain Language. The armed and masked men whom worried residents had reported entering the building were the actors. Their guns were plastic imitations. As Pinter remarks in a news report from The Guardian reprinted in Various Voices, “The line between fiction and reality sometimes becomes very blurred.”

It has certainly become increasingly blurred in Pinter’s own plays. For a long time, the dark, strange, apparently enclosed fictions of his theater seemed utterly distant from public political realities. Their characters, as the audience experiences them, are inventing not just stories, but selves. They have no offstage lives. They are nothing more than what they say and do on stage. They have no interest in convincing us of their own reality, let alone of any particular proposition about the real world. Yet in Various Voices there are passionate essays and articles from the 1980s and 1990s denouncing American interventions in Nicaragua and El Salvador, attacking Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing policies, mocking Clinton’s stance on Cuba, declaring Pinter’s allegiance to socialism, and excoriating what he sees as Tony Blair’s collusion with American power politics. How do we explain the apparent contradiction between the plays and their author?

In part, the turn toward overt politics in Pinter’s work is pure contrariness. In the early 1960s, when political plays were in fashion, he declared himself an apolitical writer. When, for example, the magazine Encounter surveyed British artists to ask them whether it was advisable for Britain to join the Common Market (the embryonic European Union), Pinter’s reply was the shortest received: “I have no interest in the matter and do not care what happens.” The director Bill Gaskill recalled taking part in a mass demonstration for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1980s with many of the younger writers of the day. Pinter, whom Gaskill regarded as “politically uncommitted,” “watched us from his flat in the Chiswick High Road but didn’t join the march.”2 In 1966, Pinter told The Paris Review, “I don’t think I’ve got any kind of social function that’s of any value, and politically, there’s no question of my getting involved because the issues are by no means simple—to be a politician you have to be able to present a simple picture even if you don’t see things that way…. Ultimately politics do bore me, though I recognise that they are responsible for a good deal of suffering…. I don’t feel threatened by any political body or activity at all…. I don’t care about political structures….”3

For the older generation of committed left-wing playwrights like Sean O’Casey, who in 1964 attacked him almost with his dying breath in the last article he ever wrote, Pinter’s strange dialogue (“like the hammering of a woodpecker’s beak against the trunk of a tree”) and apparent refusal of public meanings seemed like decadence.4 He derided Pinter in the same way that another left-wing Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, had once scorned John Webster’s “insane and hideous rhetoric” and “plays that have no ray of noble feeling, no touch of faith, beauty, or even common kindness in them from beginning to end.” If socialist theater was defined by its nobility, faith, and beauty, Pinter could not be part of it.

Nor, for that matter, could Pinter’s acknowledged mentor Samuel Beckett, hailed in a brief piece from 1954 in Various Voices as “the most courageous, remorseless writer going.” As late as 1977, when Beckett’s Shades and Not I were screened on BBC television, the leading English antiestablishment TV dramatist Dennis Potter attacked what he saw as their obscurantism and their apparent irrelevance in the face of the human disasters of the gulags and the concentration camps.

Would Solzhenitsyn have understood? Would the Jews on the way to the gas chamber? Question: Is this the art which is the response to the despair and pity of our age, or is it made of the kind of futility which helped such desecrations of the spirit, such filth of ideologies come into being?

Those same rhetorical questions could have been directed at Pinter. And yet how misplaced they now seem. For nothing seems more obvious than the fierce political sensibility that drives so much of both Beckett’s and Pinter’s work.

It is not, of course, that all of Pinter’s work is primarily political. For him, as for Beckett, Marcel Proust’s experiments with time and memory are as urgent and intriguing as any contemporary public issue. The relationship of memory to reality has long been a particular concern of his. As early as 1962, Pinter was writing, in an essay included in Various Voices, of “the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past.” Anna in his 1970 play Old Times utters the essentially Proustian thought that “there are things I remember that may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” And Pinter spent almost all of 1972 working on a magnificent screen adaptation of A la recherche du temps perdu for a film that Joseph Losey hoped to make. In the introduction to the published version, he writes, “Working on A la recherche du temps perdu was the best working year of my life,” a statement which suggests the attractions for him of becoming absorbed in relatively abstract questions of form. Yet it is striking that even under the pressure of attempting to distill the essence of Proust’s huge text to a workable cinematic length, Pinter still gives prominence to the surrounding political atmosphere of the Dreyfus case and to the conjunction of sinister political power with sadomasochistic desires in the figure of the Baron de Charlus. Striking, too, that the method of the screenplay, in which memory and reality gradually merge, could be a template for a later, extremely political Pinter play, Ashes to Ashes. Just as Beckett’s fascination with Proust ultimately fed into his political vision, so too did Pinter’s.

  1. 1

    Nicholas Brooke, Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy (London: Barnes and Noble, 1979), p. 11.

  2. 2

    William Gaskill, A Sense of Direction (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), pp. 34-35.

  3. 3

    Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Penguin, 1972), p. 307.

  4. 4

    Sean O’Casey, Blasts and Benedictions (St. Martin’s, 1967), p. 71.

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