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Pinter Now, And Then

Granta, 9th November 1963

Of all Pinter’s plays only four were originally designed for the theatre; two of these were early works, unquestionably good but still tentative, and the other two his most complete successes - The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. The rest were written for radio or more frequently for television. This emphasis on television is not accidental nor simply a symptom of the search for a wider audience, but is radically concerned with the nature of Pinter’s work; his choice of this medium has had its advantages but has not allowed the full functioning of his talent, which at its best is probably the greatest and most genuinely theatrical in post-war England.

The recent London production of The Lover and The Dwarfs provoked the familiar stream of critical epithets, the repetitive rhythms, the air of concealed menace and the accuracy of conversational nuance were, as ever, noted and taken at their face value. This indicates a superficial understanding of the complexity which puts Pinter in direct line with Chekhov and Beckett. Stanislavski noted in Chekhov’s characters an internal activity which does not necessarily correspond with their external behaviour. On the other hand, Ibsen’s figures reveal themselves as a series of personal statements in which the emotion felt finds an articulate expression designed to reflect it  exactly; their histories (and their assumed destinies) emerge not in their own voices but in Ibsen’s literate comment on them. The loss of realism involved in this process, which turns drama into a series of anonymous confessions, was understood by Chekhov, who knew that personal confession by no means amounted to revelation of character. For instance, we recognise Ivanov’s state of mind not simply because he tells us about it, but because his ceaseless repetition of it itself indicates a static emotional position. Chekhov’s plays are full of confessions; but he understood that people more often reveal themselves in more unconscious and personalised ways - frequently in what they do not say, rather than in what they do. By a lamentable misunderstanding of the nature of theatrical realism, we have in England a more or less obvious Ibsen tradition of the dramatic monologue (also, incidentally, the besetting fault of Eugene O’Neill) but apart from Pinter and Beckett, who in any case belong as much to France, no Chekhov tradition.

Central to Pinter’s work, as to Chekhov’s, is the fluctuating relationship between the form of expression and the thing expressed - a source of comedy and at the same time of great emotional implication. In his first play, The Room, the whole cause of Rose’s terrifying position is the uncertainty of statement - most evident in the contradiction of the scene with Mr. and Mrs. Sands; and the same theme, its urgency reduced to produce an air of rather disengaged puzzlement , is the basis of the much more recent Collection. Continually in his plays a moment of important contact seems imminent, and language becomes correspondingly tauter, only to expand again as the moment is avoided; an overstatement of this results in characteristic parody:

                      Sarah:         But it’s you I love.

                      Richard:     I beg your pardon.

                      Sarah:         But it’s you I love.

                                                         (He stands),

                      Richard:     Let’s have some brandy.

                                                                - The Lover

The results of oblique means of communication and the actual evasion of it are enormous and frightening.they account for the state of desperate insecurity in which Pinter’s main characters so often find themselves - Stanley, Edward in A Slight Ache, Rose, Len in The Dwarfs. His reaction to this wavers between understanding involvement and a neutral reporting habit which implies criticism.  It is important that Pinter recognises human evasion of communication, whereas Beckett actually asserts its impossibility: “The attempt to communicate where no communication is possible is merely a simian vulgarity, or horribly comic, like the madness that holds a conversation with the furniture.” Beckett’s view amounts to an uncompromising negation of the emotional need to go on living, and is thus anti-theatrical; but Pinter accepts the condition of partial and evaded communication and creates within the context of that condition. Between the involvement with the victims of this position and his impartiality towards them is the point at which his work divides; and significantly this point comes between the live theatre and television.

In accordance with his method, Pinter offers a focus on the moment of utterance, whether immediately revealing or not; and for this purpose the necessarily telegraphic nature of television - the special selectivity involved in the use of the camera - would seem eminently suitable. The middle scenes of A Night Out, in the coffee stall and at the party, are excellent documentary; but they are not adequately related to the rest of the play, which is a more personal examination of Albert Stoke’s psychological state - although even in the party scene Gidney’s treatment of Albert contains a streak of homosexual sadism frequently present  in vital relationships in other plays. Still, A Night Out is a denuded play - for instance the mother is a miniature of Meg and Rose - because detail is reported, T.V.-fashion, without the revealing individuation of theatre; the action is separated from the implication through the shifting, artificial nature of the focus. All Pinter’s T.V. And radio plays are unsatisfactory - lack of active development in The Dwarfs, over-emphasis in A Slight Ache, a miniaturist quality in The Collection and The Lover; and it is in his work for the theatre that we find his power of creation at their warmest and most vitally observant - Stanley and Meg in The Birthday Party, Davies and Aston in The Caretaker. His first contact with the theatre led him into overtness and melodrama; Riley in The Room presents Rose’s fear, elsewhere indicated with brilliant implicitness, in far too evident a manner. In the same way as the Matchseller in A Slight Ache silently tells us a great deal about Edward and Flora, though again over-explicitly (and as, incidentally, Lucky tells us about Pozzo in Waiting for Godot), so Riley’s presence reveals something about Rose, but his presentation and Bert’s dealing with him are crude. The same over-explicitness is present in some external details of the otherwise enormously subtle Dumb Waiter, and even in The Birthday Party - Stanley and the drum, McCann and his strips of paper. But in The Caretaker, the creation of a relationship is more mature and more tactful, and nowhere do we find a more moving revelation of a state of mind that in Aston:

 I used to sit in my room. That was when I lived

 with my mother. And my brother. He was

 younger than me. And I laid everything out,

 in order, in my room, all the things I knew were

 mine, but I didn’t die.

Pinter needs the theatre (as it needs him) as the best focus for his special talent, which is connected with the whole basis of theatrical communication. Of all English playwrights today, Pinter is the most rewarding training for actors. His focus, as I have said, is on the moment of utterance - a perpetual present similar to Beckett’s - and his premise is the understanding that the approach to communication is not consistent or even directly reflected in speech and that a vital relationship is rarely revealed satisfactorily by discussion. Pinter’s characters never explain their histories or their understanding of the future; such information as we need, we gather from the manner in which they speak of the most ‘trivial’ things and the accumulated, contradictory evidence of those involved with them. There is no reliable norm for explanation, as is too often, too easily assumed; indeed The Dwarfs is mainly concerned with the completely unknown quality if absolute judgement - “you are the sum if many reflections”. Similarly, the actor’s business is not primarily to establish the history of a character or to demonstrate his idiosyncrasies when he arrives on stage, but to reveal the character through activity - which presupposes an act of assumption which make enormous demands on the actor’s confidence in his own imaginative powers. As it is, most actors spend most of their time in the process of static demonstration of idiosyncrasy; and this adds to at best to a goo representational performance. Pinter demands ultimately the actor’s complete achievement of faith - that by which he is in a position to rely on spontaneous activity as his means of communication. It is highly significant that Pinter’s characters are frequently described as ‘men in their thirties’ - a notoriously difficult age to create. This is an indication of his refusal to lay down a specific history for them, and an invitation to the most spontaneous form of theatrical communication, the fulfilment of a given moment and no moment - the theatrical present tense. For all the advantages of television, acting achievement is always based on the theatre moment, the unique and unrepeatable relationship between live performers and live audience. Pinter has shown in his creation of character that he belongs to this sphere; at the moment, after three consecutive exercises for broadcasting, what is needed from him is a more complete commitment of the medium which best rewards his powers.   

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