Harold Pinter Festival
The Spaces Between the Words: A Tribute to Harold Pinter
A Kind of Alaska
At the climax of the 1990 Paul Schrader film The Comfort of Strangers, a young Englishwoman is forced to witness the murder of her lover. The attractive young couple, Mary and Colin (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett), are in Venice for a restful, sexy change of scenery. One evening, after getting lost while looking for a restaurant, they encounter Robert, a wealthy local who scoops them up and takes them to dinner at his favorite out-of-the-way eatery, where he laughingly plies them with drink and tells them a lot of weirdly inappropriate stories about his private life. Most people, of course, would take the first decent opportunity to flee at the sight of Christopher Walken in a white suit, even if he weren’t always repeating lines that, like Robert himself, are ostensibly harmless yet somehow deeply sinister. (“My father was a very big man.”) But part of the film’s macabre joke is that Mary and Robert are English, and hence diffident and accommodating to the point of self-destructiveness; more important, they’re characters in a film written by Harold Pinter, in whose work everyday situations often devolve, with the irreversible momentum of nightmares, into horror. And so the couple get more and more involved with Robert and his equally unsettling, if overtly more sympathetic, wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), who moves around their opulent palazzo gingerly clutching various body parts in pain, as if she’s just been beaten. She probably has.
The younger couple continue to socialize with their older, worldly counterparts, despite the unwholesome vibes that Robert and Caroline are giving off, and despite certain other incidents, for instance the moment, fairly early on in their joint socializing, when Robert suddenly punches Colin in the gut, viciously but smilingly, as if merely checking to see how the handsome young man would react. Then, just as Mary and Robert begin to pull away from their hosts, the bizarre and yet somehow logical climax: while paying a goodbye visit to Caroline, Mary is given a drug that renders her immobile and speechless, and as she sits in her hostess’s sumptuous salon, making inarticulate noises and rolling her eyes in an attempt to warn him, Colin is brought in, like some kind of sacrificial victim, and Robert slashes his throat before her wide and terrified eyes.
Even if the story isn’t by Pinter—the film was adapted from a 1981 novel by Ian McEwan—The Comfort of Strangers is emblematic of the British playwright’s work in a number of ways. The darkness lurking under vacuous everyday exchanges; the oppressive sense of impending disaster haunting a quotidian scene (going to a restaurant, say, or sightseeing); sudden and apparently unmotivated acts of violence; relationships between sadistically bullying men and passive, helpless women; the unsettling feeling that some larger, explanatory narrative has been repressed or stripped away, leaving behind the discrete, apparently unrelated actions and the flatly conventional talk; the way in which that talk can become terribly menacing: all these have characterized Pinter’s output, in one way or another, since his first play, The Room, was produced in 1957.
That output was celebrated in July during an ambitious festival of Pinter’s work, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival 2001 and featuring productions imported from Dublin’s Gate Theatre and London’s Almeida and Royal Court Theatres. (Concurrent with these productions was a tribute to Pinter the screenwriter, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.) Pinter has written twenty-nine plays; the nine presented in New York were enough to remind you of the idiosyncrasies of the playwright’s style and, indeed, the almost obsessive narrowness of his themes. All of Pinter’s work is, in some way or another, about violence—whether expressed in the corrosive interactions among family members (The Homecoming), the hurtful and confusing silences between couples (The Room, Landscape, Ashes to Ashes, Betrayal, many others), or in repressive and cruel actions on the part of the State against individuals (The Birthday Party, One for the Road, Mountain Language, Party Time). Over the years, Pinter has won a dedicated audience who have found a curious comfort in his bleak dramatizations of the ways in which our unwillingness or inability to make connections, to communicate meaningfully (here you think of those famous Pinteresque silences and pauses), lead to disasters both private and public.
And yet because it allowed you to absorb a good amount of Pinter in a short amount of time, the festival also reminded you that Pinter has remained within the same narrow artistic topography for much of his career; with one splendid exception (the American première of his latest play), the nine plays presented suggested a playwright who has stuck with the same thematic and stylistic formulae that first made him famous, reusing them in play after play with, often, diminishing intensity of inspiration. The once-stimulating idiosyncrasies—the silences, the pauses, the hesitations—have in too many cases devolved into tics; worse, the showily “disturbing” exteriors of these works too often failed to hide the fact that the plays don’t really illuminate, in any profound way, the dark forces that have always interested Pinter. Indeed, the festival suggested that The Company of Strangers may be emblematic of the playwright’s work in more ways than one. For it revealed a playwright who is implicated, one might say, in the aggression and unreason he wants to indict, an author who, like so many of his villains—like Robert—is more interested in making you feel pain than in explaining what the pain might mean.
The festival began with a double bill of two short works, A Kind of Alaska (1982) and One for the Road (1984). This was a canny pairing, for these plays represent not only Pinter’s two basic theatrical modes of expression—small people engaged in quiet, futile conversations that go nowhere, and loud, angry men doing cruel things to helpless victims—but his two main, interrelated themes: the failure of language as a vehicle for human connection, and the violent abuse of power.
A Kind of Alaska, which received a starkly effective production, is based (like the 1990 Robin Williams film Awakenings) on Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings, which first appeared in 1973. Pinter’s play is about a woman, excellently played by Penelope Wilton with just the right mix of anxious humor and desperate pathos, who awakens from a twenty-nine-year-long coma; as she gradually, incredulously realizes what’s happened, she tries to reconcile what’s inside her mind—a bright, terrified sixteen-year-old girl—and what the world around her has become. “Do you know me?” she asks; and then: “Are you speaking?”; “I sound…out of tune”; “I’ve been nowhere.” The lines suggest the extent to which Sacks’s story is an ideal vehicle for Pinter’s obsession with linguistic and emotional alienation, an obsession that also shapes The Homecoming, Landscape, Monologue, and The Room.
The other play in the opening double bill was One for the Road, a product of the playwright’s “political” period, which began about twenty years ago, at the onset of the Reagan-Thatcher era. First published in these pages in 1984, this twenty-minute-long mini-drama is a brief visit with a sadistic, if exaggeratedly civil, torturer in some nameless police state. A man called Victor, wanted for some reason by the State, is brought before the well-dressed, benevolent-seeming Nicolas (played with great relish, in the Lincoln Center Festival performances, by Pinter himself); there follows some chitchat that suggests why Pinter found in McEwen’s sinister Robert a kindred spirit. (Like Robert, Nicolas oscillates between arch politesse and sinister inappropriateness: “You’re a civilized man and so am I,” he tells the terrified Victor, and then goes on to talk about his penis.) Victor is then dragged offstage, where something terrible is done to his tongue, as is made clear when he reappears onstage, unable to speak clearly. Then his wife appears, and she’s interrogated, too, only to be taken off to be used as a sex toy by the police; then their child, Nicky, comes on, is asked a few questions, and he’s taken off, too, to be killed. One for the Road prepared audiences for the brutalities of Pinter’s angry political works, a group that includes Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes, which were also performed during the festival.
A perhaps unintended consequence of presenting A Kind of Alaska and One for the Road together was that audiences could see the extent to which these works are suggestive rather than fully discursive—moody sketches for plays, which provoke unpleasant feelings without being rigorously thought-provoking. This almost semaphoric quality should not come as a surprise. From the start, as he himself has said many times, Pinter has been a playwright who finds inspiration for his dramas in striking or disturbing images he’s noticed: in the case of The Room, for instance, it was a glimpse, during a party he’d been attending, of a dithering man—it turned out to be Quentin Crisp—talking nonstop as he served eggs to an unresponsive oaf; in that of The Caretaker, it was a couple of threatening-looking men he saw in a building he once lived in. As the playwright likes to explain it, these images start him writing; quite often, he acknowledges, he himself doesn’t know in advance where an image will lead him. The “formal construction,” he told Mireia Aragay and Ramon Simó at the University of Barcelona during a 1996 interview, “is in the course of the work on the play.”1
Pinter has, indeed, always liked to characterize himself as an “intuitive” writer, and enjoys expressing a kind of bemusement about what he does and, sometimes, downright incomprehension about how he does it. In a 1957 letter to his former English teacher, Joseph Brearly, a portion of which was reprinted in the Stagebill program for the festival, he wrote, “I have written three plays this year. I don’t quite know how, or why, but I have.” And again, in April 1958, in a letter to Peter Wood, who would be directing The Birthday Party: “The thing germinated and bred itself. It proceeded according to its own logic. What did I do? I followed the indications, I kept a sharp eye on the clues I found myself dropping.”2 This emphasis on an odd kind of passivity in the face of his inspiration is something you’d be tempted to write off as youthful diffidence, or pretentiousness, were it not for the fact that Pinter continues today to work in much the same way, and indeed likes to emphasize that he begins with the concrete image and then waits to see what comes next. “I’ve never written from an abstract idea at all,” he told his Spanish interviewers.
The lack of ideological foundations, the want of a comforting, overarching theory or abstraction to organize the concrete images and words you see and hear onstage, is what lies behind the menacing emptiness you feel in Pinter’s plays. At the beginning of his career, the absence of explanations of the conventional variety (psychology, plot) for the unsettling actions and tableaux that Pinter liked to stage was striking, and original; it seemed to be the point. In quasi-political plays like The Birthday Party and in domestic dramas (for lack of a better word) like The Room and The Homecoming, the hermetic quality of the works, the disorienting lack of obvious connection between the concreteness of his surfaces—the action, the dialogue—and any kind of subtext; the plays’ famous refusal, or apparent refusal, to be “political”: all this, while angering some critics, seemed to others, and certainly to audiences, an apt theatrical analog for many of the anxieties of the postwar world. The existential dread and moral emptiness that were the byproducts of the cold war at its height, the debasement of serious political discourse by cynical and self-congratulatory democracies that acted tyrannically, the fragility and tentativeness of meaningful human communication—all these seemed to be what Pinter’s work was somehow “about,” even if the playwright himself avoided claims to any kind of organizing theory or ideology. In this, he was very much in the tradition of post-Beckettian drama. (Pinter has often and rightly acknowledged his debt to Beckett, and there are indeed many similarities, with one crucial exception: you feel that Beckett likes the human race, whereas Pinter doesn’t.)
Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948–1998 (Grove, 1998), p. 73.↩
Pinter, Various Voices, p. 8.↩