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.
It says much for the contrarian spirit of both men, however, that they allowed their explicit political commitments to emerge as a part of their public personae only in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the once-pervasive leftism of the theatrical culture had gone out of fashion. Beckett, of course, did so with his play Catastrophe, written in 1982 as a direct response to the persecution of Václav Havel, to whom it is dedicated. In that play, the protagonist’s appearance—whitened face and gray pajamas—deliberately recalls images of concentration camp inmates, while the direct reference to Havel’s plight implicates the entire spirit of Stalinism. Yet the received wisdom about Beckett’s apolitical or even antipolitical position was so strong that even the play’s final gesture of defiance, in which the tormented protagonist raises his head and asserts the survival of his independent will, was described in reviews as “ambiguous.” Beckett complained angrily to his biographer James Knowlson: “There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying ‘you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.”‘5 And if Catastrophe has an unambiguous political implication, why should we assume that, for example, the image of the master and slave, Pozzo and Lucky, in Waiting for Godot is any less directly political, or that the postapocalyptic landscapes of Endgame or Happy Days do not emerge directly from the nightmares of the nuclear age? Beckett’s political gesture in Catastrophe, in other words, has to alter the way in which his previous work is seen.
This is equally true of Pinter’s political turn. At one level, his emergence as a fervent campaigner can be seen as a reaction to the very particular circumstances of the Reagan-Thatcher era. In a 1996 interview published in Various Voices, Pinter reflects on the antipolitical mood of the 1980s and his own gut reaction against it:
We are in a terrible dip at the moment, a kind of abyss, because the assumption is that politics are all over. That’s what the propaganda says. But I don’t believe the propaganda. I believe that politics, our political consciousness and our political intelligence are not all over, because if they are, we are really doomed. I can’t myself live like this. I’ve been told so often that I live in a free country, I’m damn well going to be free. By which I mean I’m going to retain my independence of mind and spirit, and I think that’s what is obligatory upon all of us.
But there is a great deal more at work in Pinter’s emergence as a passionately committed political writer than mere contrariness. What has happened is partly that Pinter has become much more explicitly political, but partly, too, that the central concerns of politics have become much more explicitly Pinteresque. The politics of the left have focused much more clearly on cruelty, violence, arbitrary power, and torture. As the abstract and schematic utopianism of the 1960s has wilted, the brute facts of what people do to other people’s minds and bodies have taken their place at the center of political concern. And those facts are and always have been Pinter’s territory. It became clear, in other words, that what used to be called the Theater of the Absurd is sheer realism. It has less to do with existentialism or the death of God than with the pervasiveness of political terror.
Pinter has remarked that “my awareness of the facts of torture and states of affairs that exist in the world I take very personally indeed.”6 That notion of taking torture and the state of the world personally is the key to understanding the apparent contradiction between the early Pinter’s avowed lack of interest in politics and his later emergence as a passionate political campaigner. For what can’t be avoided is the simple fact that Pinter is a Jew who grew up during the Holocaust and the Second World War. When I interviewed him in 1994, he recalled, as an adolescent, being sharply aware of the Holocaust and seeing photographs and newsreels of the concentration camps.
By the time the war ended I was fifteen and a half. I wasn’t a child anymore. And then immediately the war ended, on top of that, the fascists came out again in London, which again is not a fact that is generally acknowledged. So I ran into them straight away between the ages of sixteen and seventeen. Once again the taunt “Jewboy” came up and related itself to what had just happened in Europe.7
Politics, in the largest and most profound sense, were not, then, a matter of abstract, external issues. He had before him a direct, immediate link between what was happening in his own life and what had happened in the wider world.
But how do these formative experiences relate directly to Pinter’s early plays? It might seem obvious that his first professionally performed play, The Birthday Party, in which a man is abducted by two sinister outsiders, is shaped not just by Hemingway’s story “The Killers,” which has long been acknowledged as an inspiration, but by the specter of the Gestapo. That this was in fact by no means obvious is due, in part, to Pinter’s own efforts to throw directors, audiences, and critics off the scent. He did this, most obviously, by making one of the killers, McCann, an Irishman and the other, Goldberg, an archetypal Jew. He did it, too, by insisting on the self-enclosed nature of the play. In a letter to the director Peter Wood, written just before the start of rehearsals in April 1958 and published for the first time in Various Voices, he resists any notion that the play might refer to anything outside itself:
I take it you would like me to insert a clarification or moral judgement or author’s angle on it, straight from the horse’s mouth. I appreciate your desire for this but I can’t do it…. The curtain goes up and comes down. Something has happened. Right? Cockeyed, brutish, absurd, with no comment. Where is the comment, the slant, the explanatory note? In the play. Everything to do with the play is in the play.
The very publication of this letter marks a definite change in Pinter’s attitude, for back in 1971, when Pinter was interviewed by Mel Gussow for The New York Times, he complained bitterly about the publication of a letter he had written to the director of a German production of Landscape and Silence: “I was extremely angry…. It’s not public, that business. I was talking, practically, to my director…. I’m not interested in helping people to understand it.”8 What is not reflected in this letter, or anywhere in Various Voices, however, is that Pinter’s deflection of questions about the political implications of the play was designed actively to mislead. As he told me in 1994:
I think The Birthday Party is certainly shaped by persecution…. There’s a man being persecuted. It’s very, very simple, the actual structure, the focus of it, I remember feeling when I was asked once or twice what the hell does The Birthday Party mean? where do these two men come from? It always surprised me then, the fact that people seemed to have forgotten the Gestapo had been knocking on people’s doors not too long ago. And people have been knocking on people’s doors for centuries in fact. The Birthday Party doesn’t express anything unusual, it expresses something that is actually common…. I think the forces that had been present in the war and were still present in 1957 did go into my bones, and were in my bones…. I have to be quite clear here and say that I always knew that particularly The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter and The Hothouse, which I didn’t produce for many years, were all political plays. I knew that at the time. I must say I tended, when asked, on the rare occasions when I was asked, to deny this. I’ve thought back and wondered why I, in effect, lied on those occasions. I really do believe it was because I didn’t want to make great claims, or be pretentious in any way. I thought they spoke for themselves already.
A key part of Pinter’s deliberate playing down of politics in his early career was his suppression of The Hothouse. In the Paris Review interview quoted earlier, Pinter dismissed The Hothouse as “quite useless” because he was “trying to make a point.” He had, he claimed, “discarded it at once” after writing it in 1958. Yet, in 1979, when he had become more comfortable with “making a point,” he admitted to Mel Gussow that “I didn’t discard it. I held on to it.” At that time, coinciding with the start of the Reagan-Thatcher era and with Pinter’s explicitly political turn, he made some cuts in the text of The Hothouse, but released it for production largely as it was originally written. As Karen Kohlhaas’s fine recent New York production showed, the suppression of The Hothouse for over twenty years is an extraordinary example of a writer censoring his own work in order to maintain an inaccurate public perception of his central concerns. On stage, it is vivid, chilling, marvelously energetic, and grotesquely funny. It is also nakedly political.
The play is set in a state-owned mental institution or sanitarium run by brutal and corrupt staff. The patients, whom we never meet, are referred to only by numbers. A reign of terror, including torture by electric shock, is conducted under the guise of benevolent paternalism. A guard, for example, reports on his conversation with the mother of a patient who has died of heart failure, presumably under torture:
You can rest assured that if your son was moved from here to another place it was in his best interests, and only after the most extensive research into his case, the wealth and weight of all the expert opinion in this establishment, where some of the leading brains in this country are concentrated; after a world of time, care, gathering and accumulating of mass upon mass upon mass of relevant evidence, document, affidavit, tape recordings, played both backwards and forwards, deep into the depth of the night…. I also pointed out that we had carte blanche from the Ministry. She left much moved by my recital.9
Given that it was written in 1958, when very little was known in the West about the Soviet psychiatric prisons, the play’s absurd faithfulness to real events seems quite eerie and its author’s conclusion that it was “useless” seems all the more baffling. How many writers, after all, have taken a desire not to be pigeonholed to the extreme of actually suppressing a successful piece of work? And what can explain the decision of a man who obviously burns with political passion to present himself as a man uninterested in politics? The place to look for an answer is, as it usually is with writers, in the form of the work itself.
Most plays begin, from the point of view of the audience, with a total ignorance that is gradually reduced. Pinter’s begin with a total ignorance that is gradually increased. Instead of moving toward knowledge—who these people are, what they think and feel, why they do what they do, how they end up—we move deeper into mystery. The people on stage decline to do what characters in the theater usually do for the audience—fill in the gaps in our knowledge, impart information, construct a story. We know nothing about them except what they say from moment to moment. We come to understand that the words they use are designed not to communicate with us or with each other but to avoid communication. They do not ask for our sympathy or our understanding and we have little opportunity for empathy. They do not offer enlightenment or uplift.
Watching a Pinter play for the first time is rather like the moment in mathematics class in school when the teacher introduces the idea that numbers can be minus as well as plus. It seems at first a ridiculous notion—how can anything be less than zero?—but because this absurdity follows all the forms and rules that you have been taught to expect, you learn to accept it. Pinter’s plays work the same way—starting with next to nothing and working down. But because they do so with perfect logical precision, you find, as a member of the audience, that they have shape and coherence. Pinter’s genius was to construct his plays as if they were of the usual sort, as if all the familiar rules still applied. The outward form of naturalistic theater is maintained, even though its inner core—cause and effect—has been removed. The plays are, in this, strongly reminiscent of M.C. Bradbrook’s description of the action of Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy: “always just logically possible, like a detective story, though impossible by any other standards.”10 They have the shape and feel of well-made plays in which every effect has a cause and every action produces a reaction. But the things they describe—violence, terror, disintegration—are usually dark and irrational.
Stripped as they are of so many of the things that normally make theater interesting, all the force of Pinter’s plays lies in what is not said, in what remains, beyond the confines of the room where the action takes place, unseen and unheard. What he has done, at one level, is to take a commonplace of twentieth-century theatrical technique—the idea of subtext—and push it to new extremes. Since the Second World War, almost every trained actor has learned the principles of Constantin Stanislavski and in particular the notion of creating an entire life for the character beyond and below what is actually said on stage. In Building a Character, Stanislavski enjoins his actors to create an “inner stream of images, fed by all sorts of fictional inventions” which will form the “basis for everything the character does, his ambitions, thoughts, feelings….” 11 If an actor in a play has to tell another actor that it is cold outside, she ought to run a film in her mind of the icy streets, the people with hunched shoulders wrapped up in scarves, her breath crystallizing in the air, so that the simple words “It’s cold” emerge from a deep well of sensations and emotions. This technique is central to the psychological realism of mainstream drama since the war, and Pinter, broadly speaking, belongs to that tradition.
There is, however, a crucial difference in his approach to this familiar idea of subtext. In Stanislavski’s formulation, the subtext is there to support and enrich the text. The actor’s fictional inventions are at the service of the greater invention of the play. Pinter, however, broke the connection. In his plays, the unstated subtext doesn’t support the explicit statements that are on the surface; it attacks them. It doesn’t add to their meaning, but drains away the meaning they seem to have. So much so that, as the director Peter Hall has pointed out, a Pinter play is not really a single thing:
You have to direct two plays each time you direct a Pinter play. And I think the achievement of a Pinter production must be that the two plays meet. Because what stirs the audience is not the mask, not the control, but what is underneath it: that’s what upsets them, that’s what terrifies and moves them. In that sense Pinter’s is a new form of theatre.12
Pinter’s originality, in other words, lies in the extent to which the subtext diverges from the dialogue. The spoken words have the flat, impenetrable feel of an Andy Warhol picture, the sense of a surface unsupported by any volume, because the images and emotions that ought to give them depth exist on a completely different plane. They are outside the room and they have to stay outside, for if they became explicit they would lose their force. The vast reality of the Holocaust may be the subtext of The Birthday Party, but if it were referred to even indirectly, the play would become an appallingly banal reduction of an immense catastrophe to an odd little incident. It can be allowed to enter only as a silence. And in Pinter, there is often a silence even when people are speaking. As he put it in a speech delivered in 1962 and included in Various Voices:
There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.
The method of plays like The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker, and The Homecoming is precisely one of necessary avoidance. Just as the plays of Webster and Tourneur gather their political force from the absolute insistence that the terrible world they depict is not England, making that absence insinuate itself into our minds, so Pinter makes the political horrors of his day obvious by the way the plays pretend such complete ignorance of them. To acknowledge in public that he was a political playwright and these were political plays would have been to give the game away. And Pinter is not, in any case, a great polemicist. When he engages directly in political argument, the passion of his convictions is not matched by subtlety of thought or brilliance of expression. A polemical poem from Various Voices like “American Football: A Reflection upon the Gulf War” hardly bears comparison with the discretion and mastery of Pinter’s theatrical writing:
We blew the shit out of them.
We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.
At the simplest level, Pinter’s avoidance of direct political statement was a recognition of where his own strengths as a writer really lay.
So why, then, could Pinter come out of the political closet in the late 1970s? At least part of the reason must be that Pinter’s method was changing. He was moving toward a style in which the central tension is not that between the explicit surface and the absent subtext but that between two different worlds, each of which is present on stage. His early plays still operated within the conventions of domestic realism. They presented an apparently realistic world beneath which all sorts of other forces were operating.
By moving gradually further from these conventions with plays like No Man’s Land, Betrayal, and A Kind of Alaska, Pinter created the possibility of presenting political realities directly on stage without reducing them to a mundane level. Whereas in the early plays, the banality is apparent and the political passion outside the room, in One for the Road,13 Mountain Language, and Ashes to Ashes, the two share the stage. In One for the Road, the room is obviously the office of a torturer, and the unknown people who enter it are clearly his victims. In Mountain Language, we know from the start that the setting is a prison where people are tortured and that the visitors are the families of the prisoners. But within these recognizable settings, the familiar Pinter devices take on chilling new meanings. The obscure, uncommunicative speeches are reflections of the torturers’ power. The broken, staccato sentences are the frightened responses of their victims. Even the silence is explicitly politicized. The most chilling image in Mountain Language is the old woman’s loss of the power of speech. She is warned that she is not permitted to speak to her son in her own language, the only one she knows. In the end, when the rule is arbitrarily changed, and she is told that she can use her own language after all, she cannot find the words to speak to her son.
Ashes to Ashes, which opened in London in 1996 and in New York this year, pushes even further away from realism and changes the relationship between text and subtext even more radically. In effect, the subtext invades and occupies the realistic surface. The silence that surrounds The Birthday Party—the Holocaust and the experience of persecution—becomes audible. The play begins as if it is a realistic psychological drama: a man and a woman in the sitting room of a country house; the woman, Rebecca, talking of what seems to be a sadomasochistic relationship with a former lover. The man, Devlin, seems at first to be a psychiatrist, then to be her husband. But as she talks, her recollections stray into the field of political nightmare. Her lover brought her to what sounds like a forced-labor factory. She has seen through the window, looking out into the English countryside, groups of people wearing their overcoats and carrying their luggage walk into the sea. She has seen refugees on the city streets. She has seen her lover on a railway platform, tearing babies from their mothers’ arms. By the end of the play, the stories and the reality have merged. Devlin has become the sadistic lover. Rebecca’s memories have moved from the third person to the first. She recalls herself moving toward a train, her baby wrapped in a shawl and carried under her arm in order to hide it from the guards. But the baby cries out and a guard calls her back and takes it from her. The idea, so central to Pinter’s work, of taking torture personally has reached its imaginative conclusion.
With such work, Pinter has kept open the possibility of a political theater that neither sacrifices the essential strange- ness of art to the demands of polemic nor seeks refuge from large responsibilities in the pure play of forms. He has found ways of representing violence and terror without merely reproducing them, and of acknowledging the loss of meaning in the late twentieth century without becoming meaningless. He has, above all, reminded us of the obscenity of regarding as a golden age an era that began in the shadow of the Holocaust and the gulags and that has yet to emerge from that awful darkness.
October 7, 1999
Nicholas Brooke, Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy (London: Barnes and Noble, 1979), p. 11. ↩
William Gaskill, A Sense of Direction (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), pp. 34-35. ↩
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Penguin, 1972), p. 307. ↩
Sean O’Casey, Blasts and Benedictions (St. Martin’s, 1967), p. 71. ↩
James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 680. ↩
Mel Gussow, Conversations with Pinter (Limelight, 1994), p. 121. ↩
This interview was conducted in London in April 1994, for the Irish Times. ↩
Gussow, Conversations with Pinter, p. 42. ↩
Harold Pinter, The Hothouse (Grove, 1980), p. 57. ↩
M.C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, second edition (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 160. ↩
Constantin Stanislavski, Building a Character, translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (Theatre Arts Books, 1981), p. 119. ↩
In an interview with Catherine Itzin and Simon Trussler, Theatre Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 16 (November 1974-January 1975). ↩