Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter; drawing by David Levine

Harold Pinter started off unluckily. He arrived on the London stage at a time when it was no longer fashionable for playwrights merely to exercise their gifts. They had to apply them, more or less explicitly, to social themes. Among various old theatrical peacocks cawing vainly in protest at the trend, Noel Coward was prominent, and in 1961 he had a celebrated quarrel with Kenneth Tynan over the state of the theater. The most interesting test case was Pinter himself. Coward was a supporter, chiefly on the rather defensive grounds that Pinter was “neither pretentious, pseudointellectual nor self-consciously propagandist.” Producing his favorite word from behind his back with a peacocklike flourish, the Master declared:

The first allegiance of a young playwright should not be to his political convictions, nor to his moral and social conscience, but to his talent.

The spirit of 1961, in the person of Tynan, was not slow to jump on Coward for this. “This wins my medal,” he wrote, “for the false antithesis of the month; for what if the author’s ‘talent’ is inseparable from his conscience and convictions, as in the best writers it is?” Pinter’s talent, Tynan felt, could be separated with notable ease from its moral and social parent body. Indeed, it was a matter of simple surgery; and in a review of a poor production of The Dumb Waiter, Tynan finally lopped off the guilty organ. “Mr. Pinter’s ear,” he judged, “ranks with Jenkins’s and Van Gogh’s among the great ears of history….” After nearly two decades, this is still the accepted wisdom. The healing graft that would have restored Pinter to critical wholeness has yet to be performed: we are still widely encouraged by critics to admire the Ear, while regarding the corpus as a whole with something like contempt.

It would help, I think, if our idea of what a dramatist should be were not still stuck at the 1961 stage. Pinter has already done his best to lean obligingly in the direction of conventional naturalism and commitment by saying, “If you press me for a definition, I’d say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.” It was wise of him not to claim that what he’s doing is poetic: that sort of talk empties theaters. But it is clear that Pinter arrived at drama by way of poetry, and has remained faithful to an instinctive, organic method of composition, letting the voices do the talking and allowing what seems right to stand.

His knowledge of poetry, long before the plays appeared, was already very broad. It is said that two of the subjects in which his knowledge is encyclopaedic are the bus routes of London and the poetry of the Forties, including some of its very minor effusions. He himself wrote a great many poems at that time, and stated, in 1961, that “about a dozen are worth republishing.” In fact, approximately twenty poems have survived from the early and middle Fifties to form part of Pinter’s collected Poems and Prose. Of these, rather more than a dozen are likely to do Dylan Thomas’s reputation more good than Pinter’s. The same vexatious mixture of exaltation and body-rot is on display here; and it is surprising to find Pinter, who has admitted to “a strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea,” still willing to contemplate these adolescent revivals, with their dangerously rich melanges of ripe old lexicographical rarities:

Fabulous in image I walked the Mayworlds,
Equal in favour the concubant winds,
Set by my triangle the sectant sounds….

Over the poem “Chandeliers and Shadows” is set an epigraph from The Duchess of Malfi—“I’le goe hunt the badger by owle-light: ’tis a deed of darknesse”—which further proclaims an affinity with Thomas’s “Altarwise by owl-light” sequence (although with the mischievous side-effect of demonstrating Pinter’s knowledge of where Thomas got his arresting “coinage” from). If we consider the strong flavor of Swansea in these poems, it is perhaps surprising that Pinter’s early dramatic efforts do not have even a tinge of Thomas’s “play for voices” Under Milk Wood lingering on in them; but only in the long passage of double-headed browbeating by Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party is there a possible trace of the orchestrated First Voice/ Second Voice patterns Thomas employed. Goldberg and McCann, in fact, are tiresomely contrapuntal; they weaken, in the end, the sense of threat. It may well have been overarranged dialogues such as this to which Pinter referred when he expressed dissatisfaction with The Birthday Party, on the grounds that there was “too much writing” in it.

The influence that had encouraged Dylan Thomas in his singsong, paradoxically, taught Pinter his sinister restraint. This was Eliot. One of the first to notice that Pinter had so much Eliot in him was Kenneth Tynan. In fact, he pointed out “the source of the Pinter style” with great glee at the end of his ear-cropping review (after listening to The Dumb Waiter, so he says, with “half an ear”—such are the subtle ways of the semiconscious put-down). Tynan goes on to quote, from “Sweeney Agonistes,” fragments of Sweeney and Swarts which, while not a dead ringer for Pinter, do vibrate with a sympathetic tinkle. Better, perhaps, would have been a patch of Doris and Dusty from the opening of Eliot’s same “Aristophanic Melodrama”:


Doris: You can have Pereira.

Dusty: What about Pereira?

Doris: He’s no gentleman, Pereira: You can’t trust him!

Dusty: Well, that’s true….

Doris: No it wouldn’t do to be too nice to Pereira.

and so on. To note that the inconsequential jangliness of this has echoes in Pinter is only fair to Eliot; but it is hardly fair to pin the badge of Eliot on him without crediting him at the same time with having known what to do with this tradition when he got hold of it. The Birthday Party is very rich in post-Eliot experimentation, most of it, in effect, replacing the disembodied ghostliness of Eliot’s wan voices with a warm and rather repulsive collusion. The result is a kind of vaudeville crosstalk, crawling with innuendo, yet retaining some of Eliot’s formal, bell-like antiphony:

McCann: That’s a great compliment, Nat, coming from a man in your position.

Goldberg: Well, I’ve got a position, I won’t deny it.

McCann: You certainly have.

Goldberg: I would never deny that I had a position.

McCann: And what a position!

Goldberg: It’s not a thing I would deny.

McCann: Yes, it’s true, you’ve done a lot for me. I appreciate it.

Goldberg: Say no more.

McCann: You’ve always been a true Christian.

Goldberg: In a way.

McCann: No, I just thought I’d tell you that I appreciate it.

Goldberg: It’s unnecessary to recapitulate.

Unnecessary, but stylistically satisfying. Commentators are still fond of remarking that Pinter characters “fail to communicate,” but it’s a hard charge to back up when so many of them take a positive delight in collaborating to limit the scope of conversation, reveling in the ambitionlessness of the topic, conspiring (like Stanley and Meg in their exchange about “succulent” fried bread) to exercise their techniques of insinuation. Eliot’s objectification of emptiness becomes in Pinter, at times, a gloating celebration of it.

Accepting that some of the early Eliot passed into early Pinter, one should probably not be amazed to find that the famous ear was not deaf to the suave later Eliot either. The Cocktail Party was one of those interesting failures where the overall design is grandly defective but where Eliot’s poetry (even when in the mode Philip Rahv once understandably derided as “so ‘unobtrusive’ as to be virtually nonexistent”) does manage to give to the dull conventions of drawing room behavior a strange suggestiveness to which they seem to have no right—a very familiar feeling in Pinter’s plays. Here is Eliot’s Unidentified Guest beginning to expand into his surroundings:


This is an occasion.

May I take another drink?






Anything in it?


Nothing but water.

And I recommend you the same prescription…

Let me prepare it for you, if I may…

Strong…but sip it slowly…and drink it sitting down.

Breathe deeply, and adopt a relaxed position.

There we are. Now for a few questions.

How long married?

The repetition of the drink ritual, three times in a few pages of text; the way the invitee (a psychiatrist) takes charge of the host; the figure of the Unidentified Guest himself (it is a short step from the Unidentified to the Unidentifiable and Uninvited); all these—and even the pause-dictating punctuation—prefigure Pinter’s own explorations of the parts of occupant and invader. The whole passage could very snugly take its place in Pinter’s latterday No Man’s Land, parts of which seem to visit Eliot’s drawing room with a parodistic delight: a possibility which Sir John Gielgud’s mellifluousness of recitation did nothing to disguise in the original production. Here he, as Spooner, the named but by no means stably identified guest, makes himself at home:


Would you like some hot refreshment?


That would be dangerous. I’ll stick to your Scotch, if I may?


Help yourself.


Thank you.


I’ll take a whisky with you, if you would be so kind.


With pleasure. Weren’t you drinking vodka?


I’ll be happy to join you in a whisky.



You’ll take it as it is, as it comes?


Oh, absolutely as it comes.

The passage is delicately sealed off by the last two lines, the first of which has the air of a cadence from some sad (and possibly suggestive) popular ballad, while the second is its regretful echo. It is a tiny moment of resolution in the texture of the writing, saluted by the two characters in a toast. A minute and subliminal satisfaction for most audiences, admittedly, but satisfying nonetheless—especially to those listening with half Kenneth Tynan’s ear—and one reason why even a viewer perplexed or angered by what is going on is held by the flow. A poetic flow, of sounds circling around a meaning.

It is natural to hope to find, somewhere, a Pinter who actually lands on a meaning, fairly and squarely; and the most natural place to look is in the early prose pieces. Unfortunately, there are only three of these included in Poems and Prose. But in them is contained—to put it optimistically—what one most needs to know about Pinter’s subject matter.

The simplest of the three to understand is a fragment called “The Black and White,” a monologue in what it is easy to think of, looking away from the text, as broad Cockney, but which on re-examination proves to signal its dialect origins only in the merest ellipses (“They only shut hour and a half”). The speaker is a vagrant woman who spends her time in London walking, or on buses, or looking at buses, or in the “Black and White,” a cheap late-late café.

Monologues of this kind were not a rarity in the mid-Fifties: there were Revue actresses who specialized in them, and, indeed, Pinter’s fragment later became a Revue sketch. But it has more than stage-pathos and Cockney “character.” Or, rather, less—it has the sharp pain of neutrality. Its touch in such tiny matters as the preference for a definite over an indefinite article is very sure. When Pinter writes “They give you the slice of bread,” and not “a slice,” he cuts out from the phrase all social sense of the gesture. The dumb institutional act remains, frozen in habit. If it did not sound preachy, you could call Pinter, already, a virtuoso in the art of reproducing the authentic voice of the dispossessed.

He is certainly interested in that voice, and has gone on using it in many disguises. In No Man’s Land it even became the feverish cultured purr of Gielgud. It is at its most famously garrulous in Davies, the tramp in The Caretaker, who, like the woman in “The Black and White” and many another Pinter character, “geographizes” the sprawl and collapse of his identity (his “papers” down in Sidcup; the loss of a shoe “just past Hendon” on the North Circular Road, etc.).

Names of London localities have a peculiar meaning for Pinter, and he makes sure they are always pronounced either with bravado or its obverse, fear. Mick in The Caretaker, on meeting Davies, immediately sets about persecuting him with an agitating mental tour of inner London districts:

You know, believe it or not, you’ve got a funny kind of resemblance to a bloke I once knew in Shoreditch. Actually he lived in Aldgate. I was staying with a cousin in Camden Town. This chap, he used to have a pitch in Finsbury Park, just by the bus depot. When I got to know him, I found out he was brought up in Putney…

and so forth. This whirring gabble is a kind of nervous notional masturbation for Mick, but for Davies, who consists only of his movements, it is an experience equivalent to being badly knocked about.

A parallel example, though with a more flashily absurd flavor, is the long speech in Act II of No Man’s Land, where Spooner, who is eating a meal, is treated, in lieu of silence, to a rambling (literally) and shamelessly inauthentic anecdote (“I should tell you he’ll deny this account”) by the bodyguard/manservant Briggs. It tells of the instructions Briggs might or might not have given to a motorist attempting to reach Bolsover Street, a thoroughfare legendarily isolated within a tangle of oneway traffic systems. Pinter has spoken of two kinds of silence: “One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it.” Briggs’s affable attempt to entertain Spooner while his mouth is full is evidently speech of this latter kind. It is a sort of extended insult; it warns the genteel old scrounger off; and, in case Spooner or the audience should be in a literal-minded mood, it also speaks of the horrors of entrapment.

The spirit that takes Pinter over in these dramatically situated monologues is unmistakably Beckett—not the Beckett of the plays, but of the novels. The speech-that-is-silence seems to fall naturally, for Pinter, into the formalities of Irish solipsism. Even as early a figure as Goldberg occasionally withheld his cascade of sickly bonhomie and issued a warning in officialese:

The main issue is a singular issue and quite distinct from your previous work. Certain elements, however, might well approximate in points of procedure to some of your other activities…. At all events, McCann, I can assure you that the assignment will be carried out and the mission accomplished with no excessive aggravation to you or myself. Satisfied?

Which is to say, “Shut up, McCann, or else.” The later plays were more subtle. Lenny’s snow-clearing speech in The Homecoming already suggests violence long before Lenny arrives at the subject; it is already implicit in the primly formal way his egocentricity expresses itself: “I didn’t have to do this snow-clearing—I mean I wasn’t financially embarrassed in any way—it just appealed to me, it appealed to something inside me. What I anticipated with a good deal of pleasure was the brisk cold bite in the air in the early morning….” For the voice of a character talking about himself, Pinter adds a delicate touch of literary elaboration (momentarily overruling, incidentally, his ear). Lenny would not say “What I anticipated” any more than Briggs would really say “I should tell you he’ll deny this account”; but the silence these characters are “bespeaking” imposes on them a language tinged with small, betraying stains of inauthenticity. The motto for almost any Pinter character who talks long enough to begin hearing his own voice can be found in Beckett’s Malone Dies: “I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?”

A few pages earlier in the same book, Malone can be heard considering his situation. “Present state. This room seems to be mine. I can find no other explanation to my being left in it…. Unless it be at the behest of one of the powers that be…I enquire no further in any case.” This could hardly be closer in spirit to Pinter. It takes us right back to his remaining two early prose pieces: the two versions of the Kullus incident.

The first, dated 1949, is a gnomic sketch/poem (developed as The Basement later on) in which Kullus and his girl take over the narrator’s room; this makes the narrator the outsider, and thus, in turn, the usurper. In The Examination, a narrative conducted in language not unlike that of a psychiatrist’s report (though it is not clear what kind of “examination” is going on), the writer records how he formerly dictated the terms on which time shared with Kullus was passed, only to discover that Kullus—significantly expert in controlling silence—had begun to take over the “dominance.” “For we were now in Kullus’s room.” (The date of this piece is 1954/1955. If not influenced by the French edition of 1950, Pinter must have been mightily encouraged to develop his theme when Beckett’s 1955 translation of Molloy was published. It begins, “I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now.”)

If we really understood what Pinter had put of himself into the Kullus pieces—which really only tantalize with the impression they give of intense importance to their author—we would probably be happy to reunite the playwright with his ear and salute the pair of them. But then, if Pinter felt able to open Kullus up to that kind of inspection, he might well have no wish to write plays. As it is, practically everything he has written flows from the impulse first recorded in Kullus. Paranoia, class, desire to dominate and be dominated, sex (the pivotal role of women), the exchange of identities: these are not themes so much as mysterious stages in the process by which A Room becomes Someone’s Room.

It is probably useless to speculate on the reasons why Pinter settled into this camerated, indeed cellular fixation: the privacy he may have been denied as a five-year evacuee from wartime London, the depression and strain of shared lodgings in his acting days or even before (there are one or two mysterious years which Pinter spent “roaming about a bit”). The fact remains that the primary disputes in all his major dramas concern the characters’ entitlement, or not, to an environment they might call their own. This is a highly practical matter, but at the same time completely conjectural; for it is not an event taking place in a social world, but a necessary and painful prelude (sometimes inconclusive) to the mere possibility of facing that world.

“Before you manage to adjust yourself to living alone in your room,” Pinter has said, “you are not terribly fit and equipped to go out and fight the battles…which are fought mostly in abstractions in the outside world.” This is the difficulty his audiences face—that of coming in off the street and keeping in mind that the life out there, in Pinter’s view, is that much more abstract than what they are about to see. Pinter does deserve credit for pressing on with this. The temptation must often have been to cease, like Malone, to “enquire further” and to fall silent.

New evidence suggests, however, that recent changes in his domestic circumstances (National Theatre program note: “since 1975 has lived with Antonia Fraser”) may have helped to insulate Pinter for the time being against the threat of the engulfing Kullus. Betrayal, Pinter’s new play, works up very little of the familiar atmosphere of puzzlement and dread. It takes a rather frigid, formal pleasure in working backward through time, starting its story of adultery amid the polite, uneasy epilogues of the affair in 1977, and tracing it all gradually back to its first hot, drunken moment of something-like-truth in 1968. “Nice sometimes to think back, isn’t it?” is the punning clue; and though with Pinter, naturally enough, it isn’t nice—the exchange of social and sexual hypocrisies has a morose and cynical edge, as of Feydeau farce taken apart and ground out in a sarcastically slow reverse gear—the play is comforting in the sense that its characters, and their guilt, are of a relatively familiar kind.

A publisher, a literary agent, a pretty wife who runs a gallery: far feebler talents than Pinter’s have quarried such types for their deep-lying desire to sneer the world, and themselves, to extinction. Betrayal is by no means the least elegant of hatchet jobs on London’s bookmen and their reputation-mongering (a memorable character in the play is a reputation called Casey, who never appears); but like its own stately, revolving stage set, it is unmistakably part of a world seen in terms of La Ronde. This is Pinter moving in “art circles,” rather than getting trapped in his accustomed cube. And his new professional-class characters, so much more recognizable in their smugness than the old, are in the same degree more abstract too. It remains to be seen whether these figures are merely, in Eliot’s words,

Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

and whether an instinctive life will burst in again on this upper story, reclaiming it for Pinter’s old, insulting, implicating passions.

This Issue

January 25, 1979