Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter Plays 1

Pinter's beginnings and the emergence of the "comedy of menace".

Apr 12, 2022
Dimitris Passas

"I'm not a theorist. I'm not an authoritative or reliable commentator on the dramatic scene, the social scene, any scene. I write plays when I can manage it, and that's all".

His work has been hailed by theatre scholars and critics as one of the most influential in the 20th century and he comprised an unretractable part of the canon of world dramaturgy since the 1960s. His death in 2008 elicited the sincere grief of the universe of dramatic arts and his impact on the theatrical phenomenon is still evident in the work of several playwrights of our times. Harold Pinter, a versatile artist who worked as an actor, director, and screenwriter besides being one of the most distinguished British dramatists of the previous one hundred years, is a controversial persona who has been awarded with several highly prestigious awards with the Nobel in Literature in 2005 constituting the capstone achievement of his career as a writer. Furthermore on 18 January, 2007, the French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, offered Pinter the Légion d'honneur, France's most illustrious civil honor, at a ceremony which was held in the French embassy in London. Titles such as The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, Betrayal, and The Dumb Waiter are still points of reference for the theatre writers around the world who often drew their inspiration from Pinter's acerbic, tragicomic dialogues that bring forth the element of the absurd, revealing itself in language and the disruptive communication between humans, as well as the existential agony of his characters who struggle to find their position within a hostile world, devoid of any kind of purpose or meaning.

This is the first volume in a quartet of collections that contain the totality of Pinter's work as a playwright, set in chronological order. The first book features seven plays: The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, A Night Out, The Black and White, and The Examination. These works correspond to the early stage of Pinter's career and they were described by the critics as "comedies of menace". Swedish Academy gives a thorough definition for this type of play delineating it as "a genre where the writer allows us to eavesdrop on the play of domination and submission hidden in the most mundane of conversations. In a typical Pinter play, we meet people defending themselves against intrusion of their own impulses by entrenching themselves in a reduced and controlled existence". Owing its influences to the work of writers such as Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, the comedy of menace balances between dark comedy and heavy existential drama, aiming to expose the primitive human emotions that arise when the individual loses his ability to make a proper distinction between reality and phantasy, between truth and falsehood and sees the world outstripped of the characteristics that the humans ascribe to it in order to make sense of his surroundings. Such examples are the one and only truth of philosophies and religions and the idea of a concrete common ground that constitutes the real world.

In the book's introduction, the reader has the opportunity to read the transcription of a speech that Pinter gave at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962, where the British writer articulates his distrust on the concepts of a commonly accepted realm of the real and he argues that what we call reality is a rather plastic concept, a common ground that resembles quicksand: "A moment is sucked away and distorted, often even at the time of its birth. We will all interpret a common experience quite differently". He is also ambivalent regarding the potential of human language, "a highly ambiguous business", and he views speech as "a constant strategem to cover nakedness". This nakedness refers to the silence which exposes the limitations of language, a predominant theme in Pinter's corpus. That's why he crafts his dialogues in such a manner that the characters retain their independence and autonomy as they are not forced to speak and remain "inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling". What mainly makes Pinter stand out among the rest of playwrights is his use of silence and pause which earned him the supreme honor to "enter the language as an adjective to describe a particular atmosphere and environment in drama: Pinteresque". Gradually, the term broadened to include Pinter's trademark use of enclosed spaces, minimal plots, and unpredictable dialogue that dominate his work as a whole.

During the 1960s, Pinter gained notoriety for his frequent and unique use of pause in his plays, an interruption in the free flow of speech that rings true to the ears of the audience because "human discourse is far from perfect and there are many times that we stop in order to formulate the next word that will come out from our mouths" as Nicolas Ephram Ryan Daniels argues in his article "What are Pinter's Pauses? And Other Pinteresque Devices". This rejection of a superficial perfection of interaction between humans makes Pinter's plays all the more realistic and he further emphasizes on the irrational aspect of human behavior that produces what is defined as "full-on silence" or "pregnant pauses", namely "a dead spot during which no word is uttered because the character has encountered a conflict so absurd that they have nothing to say". This endorsement of the preposterous and illogical proves that Pinter was very close to the writers of the Theatre of the Absurd. In her article "Transforming Dialogue Into Art", which was published in the Irish Times, Eileen Battersby names Pinter as "the heir to Beckett" and argues that it as him who juxtaposed "the surrealist manic absurdity of European theatre with the deadpan, laconic, non-communicative dialogue of living speech". Furthermore, Martin Esslin in his book The Theatre of the Absurd, names Pinter as "one of the most promising exponents of the theatre of the Absurd". The writers of the absurd agree with Pinter in several critical points that eventually shape the form of their artistic creation such as the embracement of a multiplicity of truths within the cosmos and the blurring of the dichotomy between real and imaginary, leading to a more chaotic worldview.

Another element that indicates Pinter's affinity to the representatives of absurdism is the unique employment of the comical aspect that is pervading their works. In their paper "Harold Pinter: The Absurdist-Existentialist Playwright", H. Aliakbari and F. Pourgiv write: "In a world where fantasy and the real are mixed up, tragic and comic are interwoven". Pinter himself had explicitly stated that "even tragedy is funny", however one must not conclude that the aim of his plays is to entertain and provoke the heartfelt laughter from the audience as the comedy in Pinter's universe "is double-edged: one side of which tickles, the other side cuts into the bones". There is nothing light or joyous regarding the themes of Pinter's plays as he probes into the angst of man who experiences profound feelings of discontent that reaches plain despair as he realizes that he is all alone inside a silent world without being able to even count on the others as any form of communication is doomed to fail due to the inherent flaws of human language. The realization by the conscious individual of his impotency and the confines of his own nature are a central theme in another school of thought that definitely affected Pinter's work: the Existentialists. The existential philosophers focus on the intrinsic lack of meaning that leaves the subject all alone and naked, facing his environment which becomes gradually more and more incomprehensible in a hopeless progression that cannot be interrupted unless a system of meaning emerges and save the man from his fateful situation.

The reason why I devoted so much space explaining Pinter's intellectual affinities to the theatre of the absurd and the Existentialists is that these kinships are more than obvious in the major plays of this first collection of Pinter's work. The Birthday Party, is his first full-length play and one of his most celebrated ones. The British writer uses the three-act-structure to narrate the story of a scared, isolated man, Stanley, who is residing in a secluded boarding house owned by a senior couple, Petey and Meg. Stanley's orderly, peaceful existence will be abruptly upended when two strangers, Goldberg and McCann arrive at the house looking for a shelter to spend a few nights. The arrival of the two visitors is perceived as an external intrusion by Stanley who never ventures out of the house and seems to be scared of the outside world and life in general. Plus, he seems to be reluctant to share details regarding his past, something that deems him suspicious to the eyes of the audience. In Stanley's birthday party, Goldberg and McCann will verbally assault Stanley accusing him for everything under the sun and the result is the young man's collapse as a result of nervous breakdown. In the end the two outsiders take Stanley with him presumably to go to a doctor and Petey chooses to hide the truth from Meg who has grown fond of her tenant during the past few months.

In The Birthday Party, Pinter deals with themes that recur in his plays such as guilt, as Stanley is portrayed as being ridden with remorse, order and chaos, the former manifested in Stanley's tedious everyday life and the latter in the invasion of the two mysterious guests that seem to have a hidden agenda, and finally the problem of ambiguity and meaninglessness that provides the dialogue with a surrealist quality which, in some parts, becomes so paradoxical that tests the patience of the reader. Pinter uses juxtapositions to accentuate the chaotic factor, in a way reminiscent of the works of the absurdist writers such as Ionesco, Adamov, and Genet and as Raymond Miller argues in his analysis of the play "the deliberate absurdity of the play distorts the line between the real world and illusion. It shows pointless existence". In The Room, Pinter follows, more or less, the same recipe and places his characters in an enclosed space, the titular room, which becomes a symbol of refuge, a place where its residents can isolate themselves from the dangers and adversities of the belligerent exterior world. In this play, the writer makes a comment on the unpredictability of life which denies any possibility for security for the individual. The finale is brutal and shocking, leaving the reader in awe, contemplating the heavy symbolism of the play which became the topic of severe criticism because of its overt use by Pinter. The Room was Pinter's debut as a playwright and perhaps some signs of immaturity regarding the subtlety of his style are to be expected when one takes into account his inexperience.

In The Dumb Waiter, Pinter places the only two characters of the play in the confines of a basement room where they sit and wait for the arrival of the man who they are going to kill. The titular dumb waiter refers to the food lift that keeps going up and down delivering food orders to the two protagonists, a purely ironic image that highlights the paradoxical character of the play . Pinter relays a great deal of stage directions compared to the writer's other works and through them the reader grasps crucial aspects concerning the characters' personalities and relationship dynamics even before the first line of dialogue is presented. Ben and Gus have opposing temperaments and their connection is marked by constant, meaningless interactions, with Gus being the one who continuously poses questions to Ben, irritating him and throwing him off course. The chasm between the intellectual level of the two protagonists is glaring as revealed in their conversation that is consumed by trivialities and incoherency. The setting of the play is highly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot, an iconic absurdist text, as in both dramas, the characters engage in trite dialogue while expεcting the arrival of another party who keeps failing to show up. The unexpected and ironic, trademark tools of the Theatre of the Absurd, are ever-present in The Dumb Waiter, a title which can be interpreted in the context of the play if broken down to its two word components. "Dumb" is an immediate reference to the idiotic character of the communication between Gus and Ben, while the word "waiter", if taken literally, implies a man who is waiting for something or someone. The finale is startling and open to various interpretations as it is often the case in Pinter's plays.

Pinter as a person was a man of strong beliefs which he expressed openly, often evoking severe reactions by those offended by his observations and statements. He was outspoken against the foreign policy of the U.S. and it is worth mentioning that in 2005, the year in which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pinter could not attend the ceremony as he was hospitalized. Nevertheless, he videotaped a 46-minute lecture titled "Art, Truth, and Politics" in which he vigorously attacked the government of the United States for a number of issues pertaining to their relations with less powerful countries of the world. He also chastised the American media for their coverage of the American involvement overseas. His lecture became a subject of a frenzied dispute between those who cheered Pinter's boldness and those who thought that he overstepped and talked about matters for which he was, more or less, ignorant. Pinter's polemic stance against every form of oppression and tyranny perhaps emanated from his difficult childhood during which he became the target of scolding due to his Jewish extraction. The early traumatic experiences of young Harold are perhaps to blame for his career as a writer in the sense that he was a man who has experienced first-hand exclusion and feelings of despair. Whatever the case, Harold Pinter is an artist who advanced the dramatic art and created original work that remains topical today and will be considered relevant for the decades to come. For those who are not keen on reading theatrical texts, there are plenty of movie and television adaptations, some of them are available free on Youtube, and perhaps they would be a more fitting starting point for those who wish to get acquainted with Harold Pinter's spirit. For those who are already familiar with the Pinteresque art, this book will give them the chance to trace the beginnings of his career as one of England's most prominent playwrights.


Harold Pinter Plays 1
Complete Works #1
Harold Pinter
Faber and Faber

Join the Discussion