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.)
The selection of works presented during the Lincoln Center Festival suggested that, however original the writer’s tone, theatrical gestures, and modes of presentation once were, there’s been surprisingly little sign of significant artistic growth or experimentation since then. (The inclusion of Pinter’s adultery drama, Betrayal, in more than just its film version, would have helped to dispel this impression, perhaps; it’s one of his rare works about emotions more complex than either abjection or rage.) An early work like The Room can still unsettle you, as it did in a taut production at Lincoln Center featuring the superb Lindsay Duncan as the harried, desperate, disoriented Rose, whose endless chatter is meant less to be heard than to insulate herself from the terrifying reality of the world around her. But its epigones now seem, at best, exercises in mood but not meaning. This was true of Monologue, that one-sided dialogue between a lonely man and an absent friend with whom he may or may not have quarreled over a woman, which, at Lincoln Center, was unfocused and without urgency, as if merely to have staged it was enough; and true, too, of Landscape, which in its Lincoln Center incarnation was almost embarrassingly mannered, with its fussily choreographed exchanges and precious, Masterpiece Theatre enunciation of the fruitless dialogue between its dreamy female lead and her clunky, earthbound husband—that recurrent Pinteresque duo. He talks about beer while she rhapsodizes about love.
And it was certainly true of Ashes to Ashes, which yet again pairs a dreamily nostalgic woman and a hard-nosed man in a fruitless dialogue. But this time, the woman’s erotic reveries, out of which the man keeps trying to rouse her, are about a man much like Nicolas in One for the Road: he’s a figure of some kind of sinister authority who sexually humiliated her—“Kiss my fist,” she recalls him ordering her—and was, it turns out, responsible for the death of her baby. This makes for some creepy moments. But while the sinister surface hints at a connection between eros and violence and oppression, it’s hard to cash out just what it is that connects them, or what that might mean, because there’s nothing really there apart from the sinister surface. (In Pinter’s works about torture and totalitarianism you find yourself wishing for the moral subtlety and emotional complexity of Jacobo Timerman.)
It may be that the superficiality and unpersuasiveness of this and so much else of what was presented at Lincoln Center have to do with the fact that the times have caught up with Pinter. The silences, pauses, hesitations, disorientations, the subtle indictments of talk without signification and action without effect, of the inadequacy of traditional personal and political narratives, which once seemed groundbreaking and new, have been so internalized by postmodern, post-political culture that many of the plays seem almost like period pieces. These extremely reverent productions only emphasized that impression; if anything, the productions seemed to outweigh the plays themselves.
It would be hard to think of a better symbol for the way in which Pinter’s work has devolved into showy displays of “Pinteresque” style than the Lincoln Center performances of The Homecoming. As it happened, the 1973 film version of this work, which reunited some of the stars of the original 1964 stage production, was shown during the festival, and hence offered a record, however imperfect, of the play as originally presented—and, to some degree, experienced.
The Homecoming, generally considered the cornerstone of the playwright’s oeuvre, is a gruesome domestic tragicomedy about a man and his sons, a kind of scarily bipolar Death of a Salesman. Set in an old house in North London, the play follows the acidic interactions between the elderly Max (Ian Holm, who played the role of the son Lenny in the original production) and his three grown sons: the seedy underworld entrepreneur Lenny (Ian Hart), the dumb would-be boxer Joey, and the refined Teddy, who’s left home for the States years before to become a philosophy professor, and who’s now returning with his wife, Ruth, for a visit. As Max interacts with his three “boys” (each of whom can be thought of as representing a different component of the human character: intellect, cunning, brute strength), strange tensions, buried hurts, and a characteristically Pinteresque blend of eros and violence become discernible. By the end of the play, Ruth has engaged in erotic play with all three brothers, and decides to stay on in London, partly as a kind of den mother to these men, partly as a prostitute working for Lenny in order to pay her way.
Of all of Pinter’s plays, The Homecoming is the most successful in its attempt to fashion a dramatic world in which people say and do everyday things—talk about the past, fix meals, drink glasses of water—and yet, because of the hidden internal logic, the result is anything but everyday. (Critics like to point to Pinter’s influence on young contemporary playwrights; Michael Billington, partaking in The New York Times’s lavish, adulatory coverage of the festival, listed Joe Orton, David Mamet, Neil LaBute, Sarah Kane, and Patrick Marber as the inheritors of the older playwright’s “enduring legacy.”3 But Pinter’s real heir may well be the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, whose work is also distinguished by the sense it gives you of a hermetic world whose coherences you must trust in, even if you’re not sure what they mean.) In order for the piece to have its proper impact, to produce that characteristic tension between quotidian surfaces and submerged menace, the surfaces have to be quotidian; few other playwrights have been so intent on, or successful at, conveying the feel and rhythms of everyday talk and movements, however bizarre or unexpected the eventual result of those words and actions may be.
The film of The Homecoming, photographed in drab browns and grays, looks wilted and ordinary, which is just right. (It must be said that the print shown at the Film Society retrospective was embarrassingly inadequate: pitted, pocked, striated to the point of being nearly unwatchable, with a distracting wobbly green vertical line that refused to budge. If Lincoln Center wants to pay homage to cinematic artists, a good start would be to obtain decent prints of their work.) More important, the performances were perfect: Ian Holm’s Lenny had just the right combination of menacing braggadocio and an underlying weakness, and Vivien Merchant (the first Mrs. Pinter) is brilliant as Ruth, the plainness and openness of her broad face making all the more terrifying, somehow, her character’s transformation from a self-effacing, carefully well-mannered housewife into a controlling, sexually manipulative siren.
The Lincoln Center Homecoming couldn’t have been more different from the film. Fussily directed—choreographed would be a better word—by the Gate Theatre’s Robin Lefevre, the action was balletic, artificial, mannered. Ian Holm’s Max was excellent; he felt lived-in and shrunken and yet, somehow, still powerful. But the three sons were all, in their way, too attractive, too actor-y. Worst of all was the Ruth of Lia Williams, a model-thin, high-cheekboned blond with a breathy, Marilyn Monroe voice and creamy pastel suits that made her look like a vintage 1960s Barbie—or, perhaps, a first-class stewardess in a 1960s airline ad. Her whippet-like elegance, the anomalous smartness of her costumes, the high stylization of her delivery all warped the play’s crucial dynamics. From the minute Ms. Williams entered, smirkingly confident of her allure, there was no doubt in your mind that she’d take control of these angry, inarticulate men. Because there was no doubt, the play lost its tightly wound tension and, ultimately, its point.
So the festival suggested the extent to which one strand of Pinter’s output—those self-contained works in which any obvious “meaning” is submerged under the lapidary surfaces and the potent moods and effects they create—can degenerate into increasingly empty exercises in style. As for the works in which there was, unmistakably, “meaning”—One for the Road and its spiritual successor, Mountain Language (1988), which received a noisy, unfocused production—the substance is obvious (police states are bad), and the presentation of it coarse, obtuse, undigested.
The political plays are meant to be indictments of totalitarian repression, of the way that power corrupts, of the fact that, as the playwright said apropos of Party Time, “there are extremely powerful people in apartments in capital cities in all countries who are actually controlling events that are happening on the street in a number of very subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.”4 And so, in these works, the playwright depicts torturers manipulating their subjects, or soldiers abusing innocent old women. It is here, in his attempt to engage in substantive political discourse, that the famous flatness of Pinter’s surfaces, their odd texturelessness, his tendency to depict rather than to explicate, become a serious liability. Indeed, it’s often hard to sense anything beneath the surface of these works but the author’s righteous ire.
In this respect, these overtly political plays—One for the Road, Party Time, Mountain Language, and Ashes to Ashes, the latter of which combines the domestic duologue with the political outrage—resemble the poems that Pinter has written, inspired by his sensitivity to the world’s injustices. (However much it’s overshadowed by his plays, Pinter’s poetry is clearly very important to his sense of himself as a writer. “I’m essentially, shall we say, a poet,” he told Charlie Rose when he was in New York for the festival. His fans agree. “An intuitive rather than a conceptual writer, a poet rather than a peddler of theses,” Michael Billington concurred in the Times.) One clearly political poem is called “The Old Days,” from 1996:
Well, there was no problem,
All the democracies
(all the democracies)
were behind us.
So we had to kill some people.
Lefties get killed.
This is what we used to say
back in the old days:
your daughter is a lefty
I’ll ram this stinking battering-ram
All the way up and up and up and up
Right the way through all the way up
All the way through her lousy left body….
The political plays, with their heated indictments of tyranny, may be said to be the theatrical analog of this brand of writing. In order to engage seriously with politics, you have to have “peddled” in theses—you need a rigorous and subtle theoretical grasp of what the issues are, and of what’s at stake, in order to make valid judgments of complex issues. Pinter’s political plays tend to flash angry images of oppression. After you’ve seen two or three in swift succession, and see how much of a muchness the political work is, it’s hard not to wonder whether what they’re really about is Pinter, excellently showcasing his anger, his frustration with corrupt democracies, and so on. “I wrote One for the Road in anger,” he told Rose. “It was a catharsis…. I felt better after having written it, certainly.”
The question is, how does the audience feel after seeing it? However admirable his feelings may be, and however urgent his need for catharsis, the catharsis is meaningless, from the point of view of successful art, if it is reserved to the playwright but denied the spectators. Because the characters in these works are rarely more than stick figures—those abusive men and noble, suffering women—your concern for the victims in Pinter’s political plays tends to be abstract; you can’t be moved to political insight, because you’re not moved at all.
So the tendency in these plays is to bully rather than to argue. In his Charlie Rose appearance, the playwright talked primarily about his political convictions, and about the cynicism and corruption of the United States and Great Britain, which he has frequently denounced in interviews and editorial pages, but, significantly, he never really engaged Rose’s objections to some of his points. After Pinter dramatically declared, apropos of the NATO-backed bombings in the former Yugoslavia, that Clinton was morally indistinguishable from Milosevic, Rose raised the quite reasonable objection that whereas the two leaders had used force in Yugoslavia, those uses stemmed from distinct political and moral motivations. Rather than responding, however, Pinter changed the subject, and went on to flourish another indictment—as if merely to have denounced were enough. This is appropriate for activists, but not for artists.
But then questions of motivation have never had much allure for Pinter; while this may have made for some striking theater, the failure to come to grips with intent and motivation in forming moral and political judgments is a serious limitation in someone who wants to be taken seriously as a political dramatist. Pinter’s convictions can be laudable, and his support for oppressed East Bloc writers such as his friend Václav Havel was admirably fierce; but the “political” plays unhappily reflect the unsubtlety of thought that you saw in the Rose interview. In them, we’re much closer to Waiting for Lefty than we are to Waiting for Godot.
There is an irony here. When he was in his early thirties (still in his hermetic, apolitical phase), in his speech to the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol, the newly famous playwright warned against
…the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliché.5
It would be hard to find a better description right now of Pinter and his later, patently political work. However much he may profess to be outraged by them, Pinter has come to resemble his villains. Like the fictional Robert in The Comfort of Strangers, he’s a man in a position of considerable power whom you begin by trusting; someone who’s pulling all the invisible strings, who lures you with the promise of a rich and enjoyable evening, who will even make you laugh with his stories (few playwrights combine humor and horror as disconcertingly as this one) and yet ends by making you watch images of disturbing, sometimes horrifying actions, without ever explaining them—without, perhaps, being able to explain them, either explicitly or implicitly, because his ultimate concern is his own feelings, his own gratifications. Your only option is to sit there, immobile and mute, and take it.
In view of the way in which the Lincoln Center tribute exposed Pinter’s weaknesses and pretensions as much as it did his strengths, it was a gratifying surprise to witness the New York première of his most recent work, Celebration. First presented in London in the grand millennial year of 2000, this, at last, was a work that brought together all of the playwright’s well-known preoccupations, modes of expression, and theatrical tropes. Yet it managed to create something very new for him, and for his audiences—something, finally, that was deeply and movingly political.
The play takes place in an upscale restaurant. There are two sets of diners, each of which is spotlighted in turn until the end, when it evolves that they have an uneasy connection to each other and they begin to communicate directly. There’s a quiet couple, Matt and Suki, playfully talking about their romance, about sex. The larger, more boisterous group consists of a quartet of sozzled vulgarians out for a celebratory night on the town: two brothers, Lambert and Russell, married to two sisters, Julie and Prue. These four may be wearing expensive (if a tad cheesy) togs, but they’re essentially working-class—not all that different, beneath their suits and cocktail dresses, from the grim couple in The Room, which was presented with Celebration as a double bill. Lambert and Julie, Russell and Prue are cheerfully, loudly ignorant (they don’t know whether they’ve just been to the ballet or the opera), coarse (“they don’t want their sons to be fucked by other girls,” one of these aging girls cries out while on the subject of mothers-in-law), and wholly unconcerned if everyone else in the restaurant knows it. The men are clearly rich and smug about the success they’ve snatched from the Nineties glut. (Russell’s a banker, and Matt and Lambert are “strategy consultants.”)
Appearing onstage from time to time to disrupt these two groups are three members of the restaurant’s staff: the maitre d’, who’s very solicitous of his customers’ pleasure; his assistant, Sonia, a young woman who chats with the two parties and can’t help revealing intimate things about herself (she’s a hilarious parody of stereotypical British insularity: “You don’t have to speak English to enjoy good food,” she says, with some incredulity, after telling a story about a trip abroad); and, finally, a young waiter, who constantly interrupts both parties. “Do you mind if I interject?” he’ll ask, each time, and then launch into stories about his now-dead grandfather and all the famous people he’d known and all the world-historical events he’d been grazed by. At one point, it’s Hollywood in the Thirties; at another, it’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the First World War. The sheer, loony excess of these fevered riffs generates its own kind of hilarity:
He knew them all, in fact, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, C. Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and if you go back a few years he was a bit of a drinking companion of D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, W.B. Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Hardy in his dotage. My grandfather was carving out a niche for himself in politics at the time. Some saw him as a future Chancellor of the Exchequer or at least First Lord of the Admiralty but he decided instead to command a battalion in the Spanish Civil War but as things turned out he spent most of his spare time in the United States where he was a very close pal of Ernest Hemingway—they used to play gin rummy together until the cows came home.
Funny as this almost Homeric name-dropping is, it’s the waiter and his heedlessly eager, puppy-dog attempts to interject, to insert himself, however inappropriately, into the proceedings that give the play its tension, poignancy, and meaning. Without him, the interactions among the two sets of diners would constitute a typical Pinter “drama”: their vacuous, self-important chitchat and boasting and flirting would be entertaining—this is by far the funniest play Pinter has written; even if there had been those silences, you’d never have heard them, the audience was laughing so much—without being anything beyond a static parody of the avarice and greed that flourished in the last decade of the century. (Here again you think of Peter Greenaway, with whose The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, that vitriolic send-up of Thatcher-era greed, the new Pinter work shares a certain mood and style.)
But as the waiter keeps trying to catch the attention of his self-important, superficial charges, it’s hard not to start noticing which names he drops. The eponymous celebration in this rich play may be an anniver-sary party—that’s what the characters think, at any rate—but it soon becomes clear that what Celebration is celebrating, or at least marking, is the passing of the twentieth century. What this waiter keeps interjecting is, in fact, an endless string of references to gigantic swaths of twentieth-century culture: books, film, the Hollywood studio system, Mitteleuropa, Kafka, the Three Stooges, and so on. It’s his third and final speech, with its reference to the assassinated archduke, that clues you in: before your eyes the whole twentieth century passes, from its beginning (the outbreak of World War I), to its middle, and right through to its tawdry end. But of course the diners don’t really listen, because they’ve been blinded to the culture, to the century itself and its meanings, by their own narrow greed—by the kind of success that the century and its culture have, ironically, made possible, if not indeed inevitable.
Most of Pinter’s work shows you evil things, and for that reason can upset you in some way, but precisely because he always stacks the dramatic deck, always tries to make up your mind for you, the plays are depressing without being the least bit tragic. What makes Celebration so provocative is the way in which it tantalizes you, as real tragedy does, with the specter of missed opportunities. That its subject—what it is that its characters are talking about, even if they can’t hear each other—is world-historical and has a great deal to do with this specific post-millennial, post-ideological moment gives this short, vivid work a deep political gravity that none of the more obtuse “political” plays can match. You feel, for the first time, as if something’s at stake here—something, that is, other than the playwright’s feelings. In the week and a half of the Pinter festival, with its nine plays and numerous showings of the films, its onstage valentines posing as discussions, all accompanied by the endless drone of ongoing press adulation, you feel that here, at last, was something you were grateful to have the chance to watch.
October 4, 2001
Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948–1998 (Grove, 1998), p. 73. ↩
Pinter, Various Voices, p. 8. ↩
Michael Billington, “His Genius Is to Find the Drama Between the Words,” The New York Times, July 15, 2001, Section 2, p. 8. ↩
Pinter, Various Voices, p. 74. ↩
Pinter, Various Voices, p. 22. ↩