Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter; drawing by David Levine

The question, What are Harold Pinter’s plays really about? has been a constant puzzle to Harold Pinter. Again and again he has done his best to explain himself to himself, but it has never come to much and there is little hope that it ever will. “I only formulate conclusions after I’ve written the plays,” he has said. “I’ve no idea what I’m obsessed with—just so pleased to see the words on paper.”

Such a man stands in need of critical assistance. Some older man with gifts of sympathy and understanding must appear from somewhere and do for the author what the author cannot hope to do for himself. Not that sympathy and understanding are enough: the ardent helper must also be a trained man with a professional vocabulary at his elbow. He must know all the words and expressions that appear to mean something to the educated public, and he must use them in an inspired and vigorous way, so that people will be convinced that he not only knows exactly what they mean but has even given them some thought.

Martin Esslin has all these virtues. After years of studying and expounding the plays of Brecht, he has moved in on Pinter as remorselessly as one Pinter character moves in on another Pinter character. As one might put it in dramatic terms, there is the puzzled playwright sitting half-naked on his iron bed wondering what on earth it is that he’s obsessed with, when, suddenly, the door handle is seen to turn—and there stands Mr. Esslin. In the long silence that follows, we know instinctively that both Mr. Pinter and his dreary room are going to experience some striking illuminations. A strong febrile shiver trembles up the spine.

And yet, of all Mr. Pinter’s visitors, Mr. Esslin is the kindest and gentlest. The long, scrutinizing look he gives to the perplexed playwright on making his entry is like a powerful beam of sympathy: “We’ll soon have you up and about again,” he seems to say—and then, suddenly pointing his finger: “Listen, Pinter! Everything’s all right! I can explain everything. You may wonder who you are, but I don’t. You said once in a speech: ‘I’m speaking knowing that there are at least twenty-four possible aspects of any single statement, depending on where you’re standing at the time or on what the weather is like.’ Well, believe me, my boy, I’m standing right here and the weather’s fine. So let’s begin by glancing at those aspects.”

Life, Mr. Esslin assures us, is aspects, aspects all the way. “How can we know who we are,” he asks, “how can we verify what is real and what is fantasy, how can we know what we are saying, what is being said to us?” These are pregnant questions, but we know very well that Mr. Esslin has no intention of being puzzled by them. He has come to deliver the goods, and, like the rest of us, has a perfectly good practical grasp of what the dinner bell is saying when it rings and how to verify a pork chop. He only raises these questions in order to persuade us that any vagueness in Mr. Pinter’s work must be seen as a profound expression of life as we actually experience it—in fact, the vaguer the statement, the more impressive it is likely to be.

Mr. Esslin agrees readily that Mr. Pinter was not the first author to include the vagaries of existence in his work. Chekhov, Pirandello, Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco were all in the field before Mr. Pinter; indeed, one might suggest that all the really heavy thinking, as well as the “oblique” dialogue, was done for Mr. Pinter by others. But for Waiting for Godot, there could be no Caretaker, but for Kafka, no struggle of the unidentifiable to reach the unattainable. But the debts are too many to enumerate: the really interesting question is whether Mr. Pinter has thought over the material before reusing it—whether he has given it characteristics that it never knew before and added intentions of his own to those of his predecessors.

The good Mr. Esslin has no doubt that he has done so. Taking the plays one by one, he analyzes them and finds in each a highly characteristic and personal conception of the profundities of life. Why, he asks, of The Homecoming, “should a woman, the mother of three children and the wife of an American College professor, calmly accept an offer to have herself set up as a prostitute?” Because, he answers, this is “a poetic image of a basic human situation” and “the perfect fusion of extreme realism with the quality of an archetypal dream image of wish-fulfillment.”


So much for the American academic life. Now, what about the following lines from The Caretaker?

“[He] had a penchant for nuts. That’s what it was. Nothing else but a penchant. Couldn’t eat enough of them. Peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, monkey nuts, wouldn’t touch a piece of fruitcake.”

Here, surely, the author’s aim is only to get a laugh on “fruitcake,” in good old music hall style? But Mr. Esslin thinks deeper than that. Note well, he says, “the laying bare of the mechanism of the lie: the false circumstantial detail contained in the associative use of the names of different kinds of nuts.” And watch that “penchant.” It is a claim to “superior education”—and what is that but “equivalent to an act of aggression“? No wonder we feel the chill of goose flesh and realize at last that we are being confronted by “linguistic structures designed to evoke feelings of guilt and terror….”

The farther Mr. Esslin goes, the deeper he drags us. In The Birthday Party, “three possible levels of interpretation” await us, and “there may be many others.” But, “as in all poetic imagery there is a deep and organic connection between the multiple planes on which the layers of ambiguity of the imagery operate.” “The totality of his own existential anxiety”—that is what Mr. Pinter is trying to sum up.

And so it goes. The Dumb Waiter is “no more and no less than the process of alienation to which men are subjected in a highly organized industrial society.” The Room displays “a Rembrandtesque technique of chiaroscuro” in which “the very woolliness of the syntax adds to the atmosphere of horror and fear.” Relentlessly, we are confronted by “archetypes of cosmic significance and illumined areas of knowledge and experience that had up to that moment remained dark and void of significance.”

Can we doubt after all that that Mr. Pinter is a thinker of the first order? James Hollis, who has just brought out a Pinter study too, not only confirms Mr. Esslin’s exuberance but adds some marvelous poetics of his own. Of the college professor’s wife in The Home-coming, he declares: “[She] is the natural end, the uroboros, the omphalos, the world navel and vortex of all beginnings.” As for The Birthday Party, only a fool would think it “a tissue of systematic signification.” Clearly, it can be only “an exfoliation of existential givens.”

When we have finished these two books, we still have our doubts about Mr. Pinter’s intentions, but at least we understand clearly why men like Mr. Esslin and Mr. Hollis have got themselves so deeply involved. “How can we know who we are, how can we verify what is real and what is fantasy, how can we know what we are saying…?” Yes, indeed, how can they? The question, rather, is: Are they making any attempt to find out? All good writers look carefully at their words, in order to know what they are saying—to distinguish between real and fantastic statements, to identify themselves with a certain accuracy, to say the least. They can never be entirely successful, because words always remain open to interpretation, but at least they attain to a certain precision and a fairly clear idea of what they are saying.

But writers like Mr. Esslin and Mr. Hollis are themselves the vagaries about which they write. They give no particular value to any word: when they talk of “deep and organic connections between the multiple planes,” or “the world navel and vortex of all beginnings,” they are using language with the same contempt and ignorance as the illiterate soldier who depends completely on four-letter obscenities. The difference is that the pundits lay claim to a “superior education”: not content with the vice of debauchery, they must be proud of it too. It is impossible therefore, to believe that any valid explanation of Mr. Pinter’s riddles can come from people who are totally ignorant of what they are doing themselves.

Does this mean that Mr. Pinter must remain as enigmatic as before? It would be a pity if this were so, because there is no doubt at all that his plays work—that the puzzles they represent in no way prevent them from being extremely theatrical. But how is this to be explained—and explained in words that really have some meaning?

I would like to suggest that the proof of the pudding is in the acting. Actors are not very intellectual people as a rule, though they are always pleased to hear that the play they are appearing in has intellectual value. But they are hypnotically attracted by Pinter’s plays and dearly love to appear in them. One of Pinter’s first supporters was Noel Coward—the last actor in the world, one would have thought, to appreciate those grimy dens and grimier denizens.


This appeal to actors is due, I think, to the fact that Pinter himself was a professional actor before he took to playwriting—and is still acting when he supposes himself to be writing: this is the nature of the “intuition” of which Mr. Esslin speaks so warmly. Mr. Esslin and Mr. Hollis are convinced that this intuition is guided by some deep understanding of human nature; in fact, the understanding is of nothing but of what an actor can do. Any ideas that are present in a Pinter play are merely secondhand oddments inherited from more thoughtful playwrights: the originality of all the plays lies in the very peculiar scope they offer to the actors in them. All Pinter plays are like elaborations of the drama school exercise, when the student is told (say), “You are alone in a room. Suddenly, the door opens. You see a man standing there…. O.K. Now, you improvise the rest.”

The test for the student is to conduct the make-believe that follows with sincerity and conviction. Any text that he or she may improvise is negligible—any words will do provided they supply a motive for moving, or sitting transfixed, for pausing or blustering, for registering emotion, for building an atmosphere. Mr. Hollis has not called his book The Poetics of Silence for nothing, and both he and Mr. Esslin attach huge importance to the famous Pinter pauses, the long stretches of inexplicable silence. They are quite right to do so. Their mistake is to suppose that these have some profound relation to the human condition, when in fact they are related only to the art of acting—“exfoliations of histrionic givens” as Mr. Hollis would, or should, say. All playwrights must think themselves into their characters in order to put life into them, but Mr. Pinter is perhaps the first playwright to think himself exclusively into the actor: it is this that he is “obsessed with.” A dialogue such as the following:

Ellen: Its very dark outside.

Rumsey: Its high up.

Ellen: Does it get darker the higher you get?

Rumsey: No.


is virtually meaningless in thought or intellect, but put two good actors on the stage and see how it will hum—what deep significance, what frightening overtones, what enigmatic images it will produce. It is perfectly legitimate theater, of a childish sort, and it is God’s gift to the acting profession. An actor is not concerned with what something is about; he is only interested in how he can act. In Mr. Pinter he has found a playwright who is equally uninterested in what the work is about: the work is simply the acting thereof.

Those who wish to test this theory for themselves may study Landscape and Silence, Mr. Pinter’s latest volume. It contains three little plays, none of which has any vestige of thought in it but all of which provide their actors with wonderful opportunities to suggest that the wisdom of a lifetime has gone into the writing. The main elements in this delusion may be listed as follows:

Statements Concerning Love, Emotion, Disappointment: There are a great many of these, inspired perhaps by Molly Bloom’s famous interior monologue in the last pages of Ulysses. But their function here is to provide the facial muscles and larynges of the actors with varying plays of supposed feelings: they simply enable the actor to put on an act. The possibilities of varied intonation are numerous: it is as if the playwright were working his way slowly up and down a piano. The changes of expression available to the actors’ faces are equally numerous and may be fortified by simultaneous contractions or expansions of the chest, dragging of the limbs, slumpings and bracings of the whole frame.

Incantations, Evocations, Invocations, and Recollections: These are written entirely for the voice, and though the actor may emote physically in conjunction with their delivery, a sort of stupor, or deadpan, is probably their most effective accompaniment. Spoken well, they would convince most audiences that they were inspired by real emotion.

Unexpected or Pretentious Words: Spotted here and there in what is generally colloquial dialogue, they give the actor unexpected bonuses of range while suggesting unplumbed depths of character. Words such as “spile” and “ullage”; statements like “objects intercepting the light cast shadows,” add tony highlights to plainer directives such as “mind you don’t get the scissors up your arse” and “I would have had you in front of the dog.”

Pauses and Silences: The pregnancies induced by these add hugely to the mounting tensions. The advantage for the actor is that he can play them any way he pleases, himself suggesting the significance that the author has omitted. Those who are interested in this method may wish to compare it to the use of montage in the days of the silent film, when facial exercise was of first importance.

I hope most sincerely that these remarks help to explain why Mr. Pinter finds it impossible to explain his plays and is merely “so pleased to see the words on paper.” I am sure, too, that he should be praised for having made a stage form out of a students’ exercise and thus demonstrated to audiences all over the world what acting really is and how little relation it bears to what writing really is. But I am afraid I really cannot praise Mr. Esslin and Mr. Hollis for any reason at all. They appear to know nothing about the stage, and they certainly know nothing about writing. I hope Mr. Pinter will not take their books seriously: his simple intellect has done him very well so far and any development of it would be disastrous.

This Issue

December 17, 1970