The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter

by Martin Esslin
Doubleday, 288 pp., $1.45 (paper)

Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence

by James R. Hollis
Southern Illinois University, 160 pp., $4.95

Landscape and Silence

by Harold Pinter
Grove, 61 pp., $1.95 (paper)

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…

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