Television, Theatre, and the uses of Resonance and Frequency in the work of Harold Pinter
(PINTER AT THE BBC – BFI, January 2019)
‘I never disown a resonance…’
Harold Pinter in conversation with Benedict Nightingale
(Disc 1 extra: Pinter at the BBC BFI/ICA)
I: The Hand on the Door
At a time when British Television seems to be going through either a tastelessly infused adolescence or an increasingly befuddled senility, in which easy resolution or a sense of unearned ambiguity is key to unlocking a door that only leads to the financial requirements of sequelisation, the notion of both an authoritative and artful dramatic voice is – regardless of the chosen form of which I speak – more novel than ever. The recent DVD Box set release from the BFI, PINTER AT THE BBC is a status shattering revival of both a time and practise when television drama in this country was capable of both education in terms of style and meaning; elucidation in relation to what it is possible to achieve in the television play format; and cultural advancement itself, in regards to both form, atmosphere and approach. This newly released collection of productions birthed in the last century, ably transcend their often crude technical aspects to showcase a clarity of practise and intention that will go on to instruct anyone interested in understanding the potentials of dramatic expression.
The charge and power necessary to engender the frame has been channelled through it, in order to rearrange and to startle our view.
Born in 1930, Harold Pinter was a member of the last generation to grow up without television as part of their consciousness, or everyday environment. Both he and a surrounding coterie of groundbreaking contemporaries, including Dennis Potter, David Mercer, John Hopkins, Troy Kennedy Martin and the formative works of playwrights such as Peter Nichols and Simon Gray, mastered a range of still developing techniques to make active hand-grenades of meaning and expression from a new form, which they then cast through the electrical current, straight into the still pulsating hearts of the attendant audience.
Unlike the forementioned writers, Pinter’s early work was never directly concerned with the immediate needs of the society and environment which housed him. His teenage stance of conscientious objection in light of the developing cold war proved otherwise, but this realisation took some years to achieve focus in the plays themselves. His later work as an independent political activist and speaker rippled and coursed its way through the chemical strains of his previous writing, like a photograph emerging from developing fluid, from within those first pieces, attaining both a sharpness and vibrancy in practise and reflection. As new works appeared throughout the 1960s, the plays and poems always seemed more in thrall to the impulse behind the choices and decisions we find ourselves confronted with, than they were with the result. Like all great art, Pinter worked for the why as opposed to the what.
That he never provided easy answers or solutions only enforced the crucial fact that art, if it has any active or positive use at all, is, and can only be concerned with defining the questions that, if they do nothing else, both allow for, and all too often provide the context within which humanity currently defines its strengths and limitations. At the current time of writing I cannot think or indeed cite one original drama that successfully honours that singular aim. There are of course worthy new plays and series that deal with chosen issues; James Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War. is a prime example of this, along with his general cornering of contemporary political practise, but they do little more that depict what has gone on, being – no pun intended – acts of journalism rather than journeys in the creative sense, while other newer writers point their pens towards smaller, specific or singular topics, all serving the continued need to provide feted actors with protagonist defined genre series or appearances. On the country’s stages, the relative lack of ambition or theatricality leads to a troubling crossover in forms, evidenced in work such as Mark Ravenhill’s recent play The Cane., or Steve Waters overview of the Occupy movement. Each highlight their chosen targets, of course, but to my way of thinking never come close to equalling the pre-laser like accuracy of Pinter’s writing, mastering the universal through the microcosm of inference and absence.
Modern playwrights like Martin Crimp who come after the post Pinter/Bond generation of Brenton, Hare, Griffiths, Barker and Churchill, often declare, or overstate their own all too apparent desires for universality, while masters of shock and sensation like Anthony Neilson move ever more frequently towards the gothic. Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh, younger practitioners still, seem more concerned with the cinema and the quickly formed reverence for their writing and the status it provides them than with the preservation of any form of artistic standard, often drawing attention to their process and result through the undeniable flash and masterfulness of their language and style. McDonagh’ s A Very Very Very Dark Matter is an obvious demonstration of this point. After a sustained period of regard on stage and screen, McDonagh seems in this piece, to be taunting his captive audience with inflated or perhaps deflated notions of what they want and expect a play to be. The resultant work is as shocking as it is lazy in terms of its choice of content, not to mention its approach and arrogance over actual innovation ratio, evidenced by how one sequence gives way to another in an almost haphazard manner, balancing its conceits on the back of its frequent irreverence and barefaced provocation. This is not an objectionable stance in an age where art and the craft behind it has lost pertinence in terms of where the culture currently resides, and it may indeed have value and resonance, as McDonagh plays Ornette Coleman to Alan Bennett’s Yehudi Menuhin at The Bridge Theatre, London, but it still sets a dangerous precedent. Butterworth’s The Ferryman is an epic and impressive re-constitution of his wonderful Jerusalem; but its mix of folkloric elements, social conscience, political relevance and a firebrand patriarch/protagonist, offers more in variation than it does in advancement. Substituting Paddy Considine for Mark Rylance, (both superlative actors) in their respective original castings, nevertheless serves to make the same sort of statement. Pinter too, used and consorted with famously celebrated actors, but at a time when the work remained at the core of everyone’s attention. The constraints of the media and its subservient culture are not the fault of McDonagh or Butterworth, of course, but the change in sensibility doubtlessly weakens the work, or the way that the work is perceived.
An example of this lack of real advance in favour of aspects of prominence, can also be seen in Butterworth’s recent Sky TV Series Brittania, which bewilderingly forgoes the chance to capture the clash of legend and magic with the invading forces at the time he is writing about by using a dialect for both Romans and vanquished Britons that has more in common with contemporary Bermondsey, than it does with the lost fields of Penda that the writer David Rudkin once captured so evocatively. It is not so much a question of dumbing down, as it is about the avoidance of challenge. Nor is my point primarily to do with a certain level of po-faced purity. The issue is more concerned with the fact that unlike Pinter at the peak of his command and prestige, today’s popular and celebrated dramatists do not wish to advance the form in the same way or to the same extent that their predecessors did. What they seek to advance is their own base of operations in what seems to me to be an ever weakening system, no doubt as a means of encouraging new standards, albeit ones that do not measure upto those that preceeded them. This renders the new creative generation as mere figureheads for ships that prefer sailing further than their own familiar harbours. Adventurers leaving the path of transformation, for the touch of trees that would grace them with the easy regard of the leaves. If I were to extend this Olde England analogy slightly further, I would then argue, that the stance taken by the two leading and most celebrated theatrical writers of the current time, casts them as competing (or, perhaps commercially jousting) Launcelots to Harold Pinter’s subdued Merlin, making Samuel Beckett behind him, not the ancient King in attendance, but something far more akin to the surrounding mists of a forgotten Albion.
As far as any reader’s eyes and ears could detect, Pinter placed language, and the mysteries behind it at the very core of the discussion. While I critique Brittania as a kind of front runner of representation for current practise it must be stated that Pinter never wrote a truly historical drama, venturing no further back than his own previous century. His period adaptations,The Dreaming Child, The Go-Between, Langrishe, Go Down, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and the majesterial but unfilmed screenplay for Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu resonated strongly with his own concerns to do with the nature of time and memory and of course the individual’s role within the society in which they find themselves, and what they can then do to resist it. At the time of his death he had mentioned in interview the completion of an adaptation of King Lear for the actor and director Tim Roth, in which hehad shaped the text with an eye on concision, while the other eye kept keen watch on the political relevances still pertinent today. Sadly, this remains unrealised, but the trimming down, the concision is evident in what remains his last completed dramatic work, the screenplay for Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Shaffer and Mankiewicz’s classic film Sleuth, in which the bare bones of Michael Caine and Laurence’s Olivier’s cojoined skeleton is given slick new flesh by Jude Law and the now older Caine. Life’s twists and turns are captured effortlessly in this sleek new panther of a film, replacing the former Lion, and given extra dimension by the fact that while Caine has now played both roles in Sleuth, he also played the ominous Mr Hudd in Pinter’s first play, The Room in 1957 and here completes the circle fifty years later in what proved to be Pinter’s last. A film that both echoes and apes a stageplay in terns of its construction and resonance.
As is revealed continually, time in Pinter provides the key to truth. It’s subsequent passing alters the notions and definitions of that truth considerably, as memory fails an events realign. To, Pinter then, a historic or period drama is still an act of imagination tied to an authenticity of thought and response in the characters and to some extent, the location itself, in a different way than contemporary efforts.
The rearrangement of principles and sources is where the art lays, as opposed to a straightforward rebranding and, it has to be said, conquest of the past and its constituent factors. Pinter achieves this by going deeper, not in an indulgent sense, but through a combination of instinctive intelligence and poetic foresight. The Go–Between is a classic example. The film does not date back as far as Brittania does, but the feeling and attitudes of England in the immediate post Victorian era are felt, captured and demonstrated not just in Director Joseph Losey’s approach and mise-en-scene, but in the eerie silences captured within Pinter’s evocation of english restraint and repression, and in his specific choices of language and style. Reading the screenplay of this film demonstrates these points perfectly. Everything you need to know, see and feel, is on the page. And as accomplished as Losey was as a Film maker of immense experience and versatility, it is Pinter who is the film’s true auteur. As indeed he was in all of the films he scripted.
Of course, the obvious benefits of the modern trends in drama lay in their contemporary pertinence and ease of reflection and containment. Today’s smaller scope (as opposed to scale) plays connect to a greater or lesser extent with their somewhat distracted audience, granted the illusion of democracy in an age in which the truly democratic state, as defined by the current brace of graceless politicians no longer seems to exist. But they do not challenge in the same way that the work of Pinter, Potter and Mercer once did. Television has changed of course, and sensibility and even sensitivity along with it. There are plays in this collection which would never be broadcast or even commissioned now, something that Pinter in his last years was all too aware of. He had in the last eight years of his life placed plays if not behind him, then firmly to the side, preferring the directness of poetry and polemicism. He detailed the plight of the people in his various articles and speeches delivered in the rich, dark chocolate burn of his voice and exposed the foibles of the ruling masters and classes in the theatre work that continued to spread around the world like a virus that only served to highlight the threats placed against the captive nerve. Mountain Language, Precisely, Party Time, the isolationism of Moonlight, The New World Order, Ashes to Ashes, Celebration, Press Conference and the recently discovered The Pres and an Officer are coruscatingly accurate accounts of the beligerances and despotism under which we currently labour. They are also entirely new forms in one sense, that combine each expressive medium (from poem to play to polemic to graphic image to music) in their very directness. While sometimes courting the restrictions of resonance and affect that can be present in Agit-Prop pieces, these later plays are in fact, Agit-Poem; statements on survival that utilise the power and force Pinter was able to gather over fifty years professional writing, combined with the skill and grace of a true master. In short, these play-poems for the mind and the stage/screen of the eye are lights sent and sabred through the very darkest of days. Those days darken still and that is why we still need him. And in this new collection of older work, we are continually reminded why.
What has been lost in the ten years since his death is the primary concern with, or study of, the predatory nature of human consciousness, the very aspect that both connects and isolates us from and to each other. This was Pinter’s chosen course of study, his module if you like – to put it in the terms of an academic approach that has sought to house him, since Martin Esslin first coined the phrase, ‘The Theatre of the Absurd.’ Now that death has sadly prevented Pinter’s ongoing practise, the humour and uniqueness of so much of his work has been sacrificed for overly earnest interpretation. As I write these words, I am doubly conscious that my own attempt on these pages is a form of laying crumbs for the infamous ‘weasel underneath the cocktail cabinet’, an epiphet once used and coined by Harold Pinter in order to encapsulate the expectations and impositions of unwanted interpretation and/or deconstructionism, but I can in this instance only adopt a still deeper level of cliché and state that ‘I come not to bury Caeser, but to praise him,’ and do so with as much self awareness as I can muster, unattached as I am to any current house or seat of learning.
To proceed cautiously, then, let me state the belief that Pinter’s concern in all of his work across forms and mediums was to do with the enlightenment of image; the spark, or perhaps big bang of action and behaviour occuring not on a cosmic scale but on a metaphysical one. The ten plays in this collection are each vibrantly effective and affecting examples of this approach, and while they are a mixture of original television pieces and stage plays adapted for the small screen, the camera’s focusing on the thoughts behind the faces makes a scene of each silence and a new character for each pause. A sense of expansion occurs within the frame that would focus and bind the watching eye of true alertness and realisation to the stricken or short sighted one, whether it is Stanley Webber’s fact denying despair hidden behind the cracked spectacles worn by Kenneth Cranham in The Birthday Party, or Leo McKern’s aching ocular predicament in the rarely seen Tea Party, one of the many revelations in this stunning audio-visual library of intent.
The primary feature that shines through all of this corrupted glass is that Pinter is allowing us to look at what motivates human action (and inaction) with a clarity that is only defined by drawing attention to what also mists and obscures it. It is his preoccupation with the barrier that gives us the taste and inclination for freedom, which only occurs after a long struggle. The supposed mystification of his work is a simple reflection of all of the aspects that we do our utmost to avoid, either through ignorance or a lack of committment. We are afraid of the absence of answer as that renders us without purpose, but do not really know how to form the question. It is only when we accept the nebulous or unverified that we come closest to defining our captive state. The glass is mere construct. We are the reasons it breaks.
II: Tea for All
Tea Party is the first play on offer in the PINTER AT THE BBC collection, and a much awaited one. Rarely seen since its initial broadast in 1965, it was Pinter’s first real television play with its own clearly defined visual sense. A Night Out, that also appears in this collection in a second production from 1967, was very much a televised play, that worked very easily on stage and on radio, due to its perfectly timed and structured scenes, as indeed, did previous pieces including The Collection, The Lover (whose final twist would have a huge effect when one is left with the voice of the actor playing Richard/Max) and the much neglected Night School . But here, Pinter was able to utilise some of the techniques he had picked up from his work with Joseph Losey and Jack Gold in cinema on The Servant and The Pumpkin Eater, respectively, thereby enabling the director Charles Jarrott to push the still primal video technology required for this production to its furthermost limits.
Pinter later expressed dislike for the play due to its protagonist, Disson, the CEO of a large sanitary equipment company being ‘a marked man’ from the start, as the play details his rapid descent from commercial and corporate success to what would later be described in his play Betrayal, as ‘the state of catatonia,’ but it’s worth is more than proved by the sheer strangeness on offer in terms of choice, style and summation of the human character, or apparent lack thereof.
Jarrott’s ‘Wellesian’ tracking shots – as described by Guardian Theatre Critic and Pinter’s biographer, Michael Billington in the BFI’s accompanying booklet, encourage the viewer from the off to consider this story in more expansive terms, a prime example of the type of observation often missed by popular criticism; chiefly that the way a production is shot tells us a great deal about how it is to be interpreted. This may seem trite, but style is rarely understood in the current parlance, and seen today simply in terms of directorial flair or signature. At the time of making Tea Party, the choice of angle and content within the frame was as important as the words and situations themselves and Pinter’s unique choices, called for an equally unique handling.
A hidden sense or sensation is heightened and raised from the very start of the play, as indeed, sensations are said to be just before the point of cessation, or collapse, and this unsettling technique is evident in the camera framing and in the words that prescribe it. As Disson interviews a new secretary, Wendy, played here by Pinter’s first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, low angled shots focusing on her legs and therefore, her incandescent sexuality threaten to overwhelm him. The slight scratchiness of the tape – a result of its age and condition – in this context actually serves to suggest an early disruption to Disson’s apparent hold on reality. It is as if the air and his viewpoint itself, and indeed, the very frequency on which he is broadcasting his existence has been corrupted. This is unintentional of course and my own interpretative response fired more by instinct than it is by intellect, but I am just attempting to describe the effect of the work, the sheer unease of it, filtered through a conventional alignment of forces, to create an equally charged and/or heightened level of response.
Outside of Pinter’s work, for whom she essayed the original interpretations of all of his vital female characters, Merchant, after a distinguished stage career, was known in television and film for playing slightly dowdy or eccentric women, such as the abortion seeking housewife in Bill Naughton and Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie, the trotter fixated wife of Alec McCowen’s Police Detective in Anthony Shaffer and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, or the betrayed Queen in the Richard Chamberlain remake of The Man in the Iron Mask, but in her husband’s work, the depiction of her voluptuousness and allure is often breathtaking. It is as if she saved the powder bomb of her deeply sexual charge for Pinter alone, as a kind of gift, one never freely shared with anyone before or since, a token perhaps of the intensity of their union that surely contributed to the sadness that claimed the end of their relationship and her very rapid decline. Merchant’s infusion of herself as woman and actress into Pinter’s work is one of the most marked acts of communion between writer and performer. She is never cheap, obvious or even accessible in these roles, as other popular actresses forced to follow the prevailing trends of the day, with its favouring of what used to be called ‘Dollybirds’ might have been. What she does more than anything else is physically embody the writing in a way that goes beyond sheer performance. The slow husk of her voice, the deep void of her eyes, the crests and contours of her body are all placed at the disposal of the words and the silent panoramas they engender. Her Prostitute in the original 1960 version of A Night Out (directed by Philip Saville) is never brazen. In fact she is doom laden, resigned to combating the void of loneliness with the remaining sad pleasures of her body little more than a rapidly fading consolation. Through her portrayal, she becomes an emblem for the fear of intimacy and of being known that Pinter defines in his Face to Face interview with Jeremy Isaacs (included on disc 5 of this collection), and which runs through Albert Stokes like shit through a sewer. Merchant’s Ruth in The Homecoming is of course both desirable and terrifying at the same time, a black widow whose husband has no true role left in life, his former sense of self sucked out and drained by his wife’s strength and voracity . In Tea Party. the velvet smoked resonance of Merchant’s voice and movement – which serves her physicality with every breath and step – seems to be a comment on the nature of fantasy itself and on the notion of sexual personification beyond it. If Disson is marked then it is Wendy that does the marking as her insinuations and provocations to do with her availability and situation invite nothing less than complete and utter surrender to a figure that excites, as Billington has observed, ‘from the nylon rasp of her stockings as her legs slide across each other’, to the tips of her positively Wagnerian brassiere, as she twists, teeters and cavorts through the room. The opening shot of an ascending lift shaft taking her towards Disson’s office is its own form of erection and as its cracking hydraulics transport her, they stir the wheels of the video cartridge into action, with the accompanying sound as a heartbeat that signals attack.
This playfulness of style, approach and technique extends with every shot and sequence. Rising from working class origins (as Pinter himself did in pre-war Hackney) , the widower Disson re-marries into near aristocracy, with the radiant Diana, as played by a luminous Jennifer Wright, and her wily, salamander like brother, Willy, deliciously essayed by the equally reptilian actor, Charles Gray. Employing Willy as his second in command sees an uneasy unification of home and the workplace and an early game of ping-pong that Disson intends to use as demonstration of his (small scale) natural skill and hard won dominance goes badly awry, when a returning ball is seen to go in two directions at once. This neatly phrased pre-quantum stroke displays Disson’s displacement. A kind of visual alliteration also occurs through the game being witnessed and indeed adjudicated by Disson’s twin sons from his former marriage, Tom and John, exuberantly played by Peter and Robert Bartlett, with chilling precocity. Indeed, their ever present sardonicism only adds to their father’s growing sense of insecurity and paranoia. Disson can clearly find no place in the world he has set about creating and his unease with this feeling is represented by an intensification of a pain in his eyes, that soon needs soothing with the careful placement of Wendy’s chiffon scarf over them, as a soothing balm or bandage. The fact that this material replacement for the laying on of hands soon becomes a kind of psychological tourniquet, blocking his viewpoint on reality as easily as blood flow, is quickly apparent. Unfortunately, by that time, this binding and denial is all that Disson has left in order to forestall or obscure the disaster he feels rising from within his loins, soul and temperament.
As Wendy receives a business call intended for Disson, he vigorously gropes and caresses her breasts and body. Merchant’s cool and indeed wilful acceptance of this act of intrusion and flesh fuelled vandalism goes beyond the politics of gender and enters the realm of the damned. Wendy is a succubus for Disson, an image or vision, releasing the long buried demons in his own conflicted consciousness. She is in effect – and this observation comes more from the framing and choice of shots than it does as an assumption or statement on Pinter’s intention – the stimulus for a masturbatory aspect that moves beyond sexual impulse and the simple notions of temptation, to take in a compete scouring, or emptying of the soul; an ejaculation of both bone and fluid, catching the core of the man. This is played to such an extent and with such precision, that it is clear that were he to fully submit to Wendy’s charms, Disson would never recover.
The hidden impulse for conquest is all consuming, resulting in a situation in which the perceived rapist or abuser would be subsumed as soon as committing the crime.
One one level, the notion of Disson’s failing sight is of nominal importance despite the fact that his condition worsens as his paranoia intensifies. His fast, true and lasting defeat is a complete spiritual and psychological breakdown, with the eyes as literal portals to a broken perception, as well as acting as direct connection to the original short story- also called Tea Party – from which the play was adapted. When Willy buzzes through the intercom at one point to request Wendy’s secretarial assistance for five minutes, she moves through the connecting door to enter a world of orgiastic enchantment, perceived through the indulgent laughter that Disson all too quickly overhears. As he gropes for the second time, at the breastless air, flailing blindly before the absence of pleasure, in order to move closer to the door to Willy’s office, he is met by an imperious Diana, who working as Willy’s secretary in contravention of Disson’s approval, was thought to have gone home. Instead, she stands there, a figure of stark judgement, threatening Disson’s fat fingered hold on the day he no longer seems able to recognise.
As if bidden, the horrors gather: Wendy seeks admiration for a new dress, leading to a fast jump cut in which Disson planes a long piece of phallic timber in the presence of his sons, a last attempt to honour the codes that a successful provider is defined by, the resultant fact simply revealing a reinforcement of Disson’s inherent weakness. The scene occurs at the literal halfway point in the drama, when asking one of the boys to hold the wood still, but the saw is precariously close to the child’s fingers. Thus, the potential sacrifice of a son is seen as worthy recompense for the chance of continued sexual encounters with Wendy. The guilt and negligence of responsibility in this interchange allows the two boys to become ironic commentators of their father’s decline and in one of the many summations that run beneath and through this play like blood along the vein, modern psychology as defined by Freud, is succinctly conveyed. When Disley, Disson’s Optometrist, played with a genteel diabolism by John Le Mesurier, applies the final bandage that he hopes will soothe his occular distress , Leo McKern’s fear stung Disson is fatally packaged for death, mummified by a coffin of gauze, and ready for his last journey away from the world of men, and more importantly, women.
The closely defined eyesight metaphor loses its sense of permanence, once removed from its origins as prose and transformed into drama to become a mere signifier of malaise. Perception is Disson’s problem, but occurs on all levels of reality and existence, from what surrounds to what makes us, and the fire of drama, allows the flames of intent to burn their way through metaphor in order to achieve a deeper sense of resonance.
The tea party intended to mark the first anniversary of Disson and Diana’s marriage becomes the stage for Disson’s paniced reversion to paralysis, after a jump cut fugue like attack from within. Blindfolded and seemingly rooted to his chair he falls backward, having witnessed a bizarre image of both Wendy and Diana laying down in quiet supplication for an eager and – it has to be said – waiting Willy. The sheer, alien strangeness of this image, the studied stylisation of it, shows how far Pinter has cast his dice from the skirting boards of Clapton, Mortlake and Hammersmith, revealing a new level of experimentation. This playing with form, content and style was sustained throughout his following work, but took on other, more linguistic guises, such as the writing style of the plays Landscape, Silence, Old Times, No Man’s Land and his masterful control of time in his film adaptations of chosen novels such as Accident, The Go-Between and The Proust Screenplay.
In Tea Party, the deconstruction of sight is simply the first barrier that falls before the total shutdown of character takes place. It is a very sixties style piece, if you like, a kind of Pinter on acid, a forerunner in some ways to the work of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg in the cinema along with other artists beyond accepted forms such as Conrad (Chappaqua) Rooks and to some extent the Alejandro Jodorowski of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. But beyond that, the play reveals just how rich the seam was that ran beneath all of Pinter’s work across the forms. Tea Party is a study of class and the demands placed on those seeking ascension and reformation, just as much as it is a study of the private and public image. It is about sexuality as defined by a changing age and about the limits and levels of rebellion. It is, in essence an ur text for any practitioner or for that matter, viewer eager to extend their remit and to look beyond the expected. The collision of the words tea and party are also instructive. When we let go and express ourselves freely we move away from the accepted codes of convention. When the tea has been brewed the leaves tell our fortune. But what they resemble are ashes; dark marks or smears on the cup.
III: As Below, so Above
The notion of convention is further challenged in the second play/film of the collection, The Basement. Directed again by Charles Jarrott and featuring a defining performance from Pinter himself, the piece takes the notion of an ur or defining text for an entire body of work to its maximum level of both potential and possibility.
When Pinter was 19, he wrote a short but utterly seismic playlet, Kullus . that was concerned with the subsumation and transference of territory. This prose-play-poem is astonishing both for its level of accomplishment in one so young, and because it seems to contain all of the work that followed it for the next sixty years. The idea that a writer can produce a work of such richness and density – evidenced in its writing style – that both includes, bridges and transcends the forms of poetry, narrative and drama is extraordinary, coupled to the fact that such a brief work doesn’t give way to a life of shallow concerns, but rather one that deepens and stretches further than conscious intellect can allow. Kullus is a kind of worm hole, or black hole; a folded star, leading towards renewed light and taking both writer and reader across an instantly defined terrain. It is a poem written for the soul to appreciate, if the soul is the essence and means of definition for both the responses it gives way to and the existence it engenders. Kullus is a clenched, forbidding and yet mesmerising work, something that one cannot imagine being written today, or at least not in this country, still obsessed with its own ill defined sense of provincialism, which is itself, the enemy of scale.
It would be inaccurate to state the writing of this text has anything to do with Pinter’s antecedents in either Portugal, Russia, or Poland, dependent on which source, you believe, but regardless of that, its connection to European, or even eastern airs is self evident. Pinter would have been skirting around Kafka at this time, but that isn’t the crucial point. Elements of terrorism and territory are the key to understanding what is going on here and the intrusions of the second world war would have been enough to have stirred the young man’s thinking. What invasion and conquest are, in terms of direct affect and ongoing resonance would also feature heavily, seeded here, to be fully plucked and tasted when Pinter’s direct engagement with the forces of political and personal repression in places like Chile and Turkey was in full flow. These three pages, then, make an unknowing and yet completely original chrysalis that unfolds like a kind of vapour. As fast as its mists obscure viewpoint and preclude interpretation further questions follow and from those questions an instinctive level of fear and confrontation. The Basement is a resetting of Kullus, as well as an expansion and adaptation, but also a positive and fruitful act of return for Pinter when responding to a commission for a joint european film project that would also have included screenplays from Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. The Basement was the only script completed and its subsequent lack of commission led to a solicitation of Pinter’s own past and his core experiences and understanding of his own personal, if unremarked state of metaphysics.
An unnamed narrator relates the story of the character/figure of Kullus who appears at his door one night: (I let him in/There was a brisk moon.) and proceeds through the closing of lights to claim the space as his own. Accompanied by an anonymous girl, a demonic act of transference occurs across three pages, in a manner as bewildering as it is inevitable. Kullus appeared later as the subject of a short story called The Examination., written by Pinter in 1955, two years before he started writing plays under the instigation of his friend, the actor, writer, director and professor of Drama, Henry Woolf. That story details the internment of what appears to be a political and spiritual prisoner and how he is quickly able to turn not only the tables, but the door, walls, ceiling and floor on his interrogator. As a piece it is clearly fired by the spirit of resistance that Pinter adopted for the two trials and tribunals he faced as a 17 year old Conscientious Objector, with the eventual fine paid twice by his hard working tailor father, Jack. That act of objection to the cold war, before the embers of the hot one had sufficiently cooled, stands as a unique image for Pinter’s stance as man and writer. He may have preferred a stance separate to politics early on in his career as his style and status formed around him, but the division between individual and state is ever present, from the Thomas/Tzara fused exuberance of the early poems through The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party, right until his final breath. He was a truly independent man, whose vibrant opinions, whether countenanced or not, remained undimmed.
The filming of The Basement is more conventionally cinematic than the jarring extravagances of Tea Party and reveals how in the context of the television play format as defined and developed in the 1960s, a play could easily encompass theatrical and filmic elements to make something unique. That particular sense of definition has been lost today, despite the fact that television is undergoing a much hyped renaissance in terms of effectiveness and popularity, especially in high end American TV Drama like, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Deuce and The Affair, as the style and form of these pieces have much more to do with cinematic modes and resonances than with purely dramatic ones. The examples convince their multitudinous audiences as the writing rises to the fore, as it did in other classic series that preceeded them such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men, as some of these new series and seasons were created by the same people. However, while they establish new precedents of influence and aspiration, they seem to do so within increasingly tighter constraints,fighting for dominance in the realm of the marketplace, rather than that of the mind. Today, economics rules all and so greater expressions of character either remain within a tight bracket, or fall at the first hurdle, as in the work of writer/producer, David Milcher, post Deadwood, in his series’ Luck and John from Cincanatti, each one an attempt to dig deeper and exert a wider range of affecting forces on those watching. Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under was a notable success, while using similar sensibilities. It was only when moving deeper into specific genres, such as the gothic interplay of True Blood, that stunning poetics of human behaviour and intent were sacrificed for the sake of sensation and lost their hard won sense of revelation.
It should of course be noted that these productions come from a quite different sensibility. It was British Television drama of the late 1950s and 60s that previously set the standards for what can now be seen as true textural and visual innovation. Mastery and evolution of form runs through Pinter, Potter, Mercer like joy through Milly, Molly and perhaps Mandy and follows on from other great advances such as Anthony Newley’s groundbreaking series The Strange World of Gurney Slade and the collected works of Nigel Kneale, from Quatermass to The Clinch. And so The Basement like Potter’s Stand Up Nigel Barton, and Mercer’s In Two Minds and Morgan: A suitable case for treatment forges an artful evolution of the world of the word, lending it a unique and hitherto unforeseen power, capable of resonating even at a point of literal absence.
In the piece, the spoken dialogue is sparseness itself. If Pinter’s writing was known for its precision and economy, here the bone beneath the skin has been chiselled down even further. The relaying of meaning occurs almost solely through action, inference and image. The rain soaked figure of Stott at the start, is balanced by that of Law at the end, with Kika Markham’s now named femme fatale, Jane, seeking the same shelter under a small and corrugated alcove.
An establishing dolly shot that circles around the sated, reading figure of Law (as played by a stentorian Derek Godfrey) reveal the location in all of its shadow laced glory. Its comfort and sumptousness are much to be desired when counterbalanced by a relentless rain battering the waiting figures and city beyond them, and so we, as viewer standing/sitting at their shoulder are called into an immediate act of empathy, seeking entrance as much as the outsiders. When Stott does finally knock, he is warmly welcomed by Law, for whom Stott offers a ‘Hello, Jimmy,’ despite Law being referred to as Tim for the rest of the film. Here then is one of many deliberate discrepencies that occur throughout Pinter’s work when misinformation casts aspersions on the accuracy of factual perception. These indications – which achieve their fullest expression in the play Old Times, also part of this collection – are one of several games that Pinter plays, from the rhyming of images and visual connections in Tea Party to the books that Law and Stott read at the start and the end of the piece, with A Persian Manual of Love giving rise to the sexual variations that are about to occur and a James Thurber selection read by Stott at the end, perhaps hinting that what we have in fact been watching is a highly sophisticated and darkly humourous examination of the human condition and its need for belonging and place.
Stott settles quickly, with Pinter’s black eyed charisma exuding through a handsome face that takes in all details and ramifications at once, before emitting what was once described by the writer Simon Gray as a ‘devilish and unsettling leer’. His delay in asking for Jane’s admittance is the next point of crisis for us as spectators. It reveals instantly that what we are watching is a series of strategems artfully designed and unveiled. Jane’s readiness to wait and her apparent lack of discomfort are equally as startling as Stott’s prevarication, but within a moment, she has entered, dried her hair with the briefest of applications, removed her clothes and climbed into Law’s bed, ready for Stott to join her, where she, as stated in Kullus: ‘closes the lamps to the room’ and ‘hustles his coat to the floor..’ What is more shocking is Law’s easy, if slightly bewildered acceptance of this. He is naturally entranced by the naked girl who clearly allows his gaze and after the briefest of expositions in which we learn of Stott and Law’s previous friendship, seems merely to be renewing a former set of standards and rules, in line with those adopted by co-habiting batchelors who, to quote an old phrase, enjoy ‘taking their turns on the tiles. ‘ As Jane submits to sex with Stott, evidenced by an offscreen sigh, Law settles down to a night with the Persian Love Manual, his proximity to them deepening a further instance of near masturbatory reflection and detachment.
It was Simon Gray again who once refered in his wonderful book,The Smoking Diaries, when discussing the sexual bargaining of The Homecoming, that Pinter would ‘never dream of sharing a woman with another man,’ as that ran against his grain entirely. It would also of course denude the notion of fighting for territory and the home as defined or represented by a woman, not in sexist terms, but simply to do with notions of authority and ownership. Left to their own devices men in a room, will cause nothing but trouble and disarray, as can be seen in Pinter’s plays,The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter, No Man’s Land, Silence, Landscape, Moonlight and indeed, all of the works in which battles for dominance are established.
It is for this reason that Jane’s gradual withdrawal from Stott towards Law, once they have as good as made the Basement apartment their own, creates a new level for the understanding and interpretation of events as they transpire. She is the life force that these two ransacked souls seek to claim and honour, and it is for her blessing that they enter into a series of confrontations that strive to ascertain who holds the most worth for her. The Basement itself is the prize, but Jane is the process and this is nowhere more evident than in the sequence when the two men attempt a short sprint across a bumpy field to see who is the fitter and more deserving of her favour. Her boredom as she waits for them to strut and preen in readiness is a charming and revealing subtlety, that the small screen frames more easily of course than a word. Stott in a strike for supremacy fools Law into running, but it is his last clear moment of success, as from that moment on, all becomes as muddied as the field they stand in, with Jane as the rain at their heels.
The details covered so far seem necessary when discussing this collection and Pinter’s work as a whole. Both Tea Party and The Basement are the only pieces specifically written for a visual medium. The remaining eight selections are filmed stage plays, or rather, they are plays that either originated on stage or have had an active life on them. Monologue written for Henry Woolf was indeed premiered on television but its eerie resonance works just as well, if not moreso on radio or in a shared theatrical space of observation. A Night Out too, originated on TV, but has the feel and structure of a particularly tense one act theatre play. In Tea Party and The Basement, the framing structure is artfully interwoven with the written instructions for character action and decision. And it is this uniqueness that makes them undeniably powerful and striking contributions to the Pinter canon.
In fact, it is the details and visual nuances in these two productions that go some way to explaining or dealing at least with the sense of mystification that critical and academic response often affords Pinter’s work. Whether it is the look of wary contempt that crosses Law’s face as he hangs Stott’s rain sodden coat up at the start, met at once by Stott’s own look of defiant indignation, or the fact that by reporting that they once shared a flat on the Chatsworth Road, Law grants Stott and Jane easy access and shared ownership of his new terrain, the revelatory aspect is quickly conveyed. What is stated as fact at any given moment is not necessarily a truthful statement for any sustained period of permanence. It is merely as aspect that allows for a degree of variation and possibility centred around a chosen moment or event. This ties in neatly with the notion that all of Pinter’s major plays had starting points in his own biography. He was an actor touring round the shabby wastelands of English coastal resorts in the days of rain and wasteage: The Birthday Party. He did live in a house of converted flats and rooms overseen by a non communicative handyman who once gave shelter to a feverishly jabbering tramp: The Caretaker. He did indeed observe an effeminate figure making breakfast for a large sullen and silent workman: The Room. He did work for a day in the factory of a firm specialising in technical components, witnessing the uses of power and the mechanisms of ensnarement, as well as risk the censure of the state: Trouble in the Works/The Hothouse. He did have a long running affair that circulated back on his personal and professional commitments: Betrayal. Critical response did cause him to grapple and contend with the notion of the successful artist and the fake one: No Man’s Land. The list goes on, but the point remains that in adopting the Proustian adage of the transmogrification of life into art, each stimulus achieves fresh life and form with each fresh act of creation. When Law mentions Stott’s array of properties across the globe and his collection of Yachts, one knows at once this is an act of conjecture and fantasy, meant no doubt as a form of passive aggression, a statement of bewildered exasperation at Stott and Jane’s unending tenancy . Enough is enough, he seems to be saying. And yet at the same time he is no further along in asking them to leave. He is playing the game to the same degree as he is observing it, refining its rules and claims on both himself and his fellow players. His attraction to Jane and desire for dominance takes uneasy precedent. That his observations are ignored by Jane is entirely the point. Law’s concerns are mere clouds of isolation moving across a sky that in shining without need of feature, no longer has any need for them. The game is afoot, and whomsoever kicks hardest is not necessarily the winner, as the boundaries are moved ever further along an ever developing field.
Whether Stott and Law are two sides of the same person or not is also irrelevant. What they seem to represent regardless of that assumption, is both the need to belong and the exploitation of that deficiency. As their friendship diminishes and Law allows Jane to assist his betrayal of an old friend he essays an Iago like approach to Stott’s brooding Othello, dismantling his previous strength, while hatching his own small scale war of accusation and intent.
What fascinates in conventional terms, is if Stott and Law have in fact contrived this betrayal in order to gain control of the room. This would certainly seem to be the case, as Stott observes an early beach centred tryst from a neighbouring cliff-face and later assents to a more brazen demonstration when he walks in on a torrid embrace. Separate to human feeling and emotion, the terrain is all that matters. The landscape in which these strategems occur is an endless and unyielding one, a private truth connecting a conflicted public. The home ground or, to extend the analogy further, the planet that we all skitter and collide across is the only thing that truly matters as the ownership and definition of borders provides the means by which history measures the world.
This expansiveness is further explored in the play as the battle led bartering between the two men escalates. Once the separation from Jane has been finalised, Stott seizes the chance to actively participate in a new sporting challenge. Suddenly the character of the basement has changed. Previous changes in climate have revealed the obvious passage of time, but here the orgasm of ownership that both men have indulged in results in a regal sized and ornately furnished chamber, in which Stott reclines on a golden throne, while Law, as impish jester plays a full size concert recorder to aggravating effect. Building on the boredom of the untested race across the field and a previous the clash and entrapment in an Indian restaurant, Jane acts as handmaiden to the two men, proffering a roman styled bowl of fruit to a pyjamas clad Stott, who reveals his fast reversion to comfort over challenge through his easy acceptance of it. Silently, he and Law enter into an impromptu game of cricket, in which a plate of marbles and the recorder are used as ball and bat. Both men mark the marble floor of the chamber with their bare feet, as if searching for the mud and thus the reality they have left behind them, and while Stott’s first bowl remains unanswered and breaks the window behind him, Law’s eventual strike shatters a mounted aquarium, releasing a cascading waterfall of fish. As flute beats fish in this freshly imagined realm of comfort and attainment, the scene cuts and reverts to a state in direct opposition to the former opulence. An attempt to force change through the literal and symbolic conflict of extremes as the two men face off in a bare and ruined cellar, their naked torsos sweating as they brandish broken bottles. After sizing and circling, the option of male competitiveness and physical mastery only leads them to grinding the glass in deadlock.
By this point, the metaphysical nature of the struggle between the two men reveals that the eternalised nature of the confrontation is one that houses all of us, commenting to some degree on the constant levels of one-upmanship and competition we are each involved with throughout the course of daily life. There will always be someone or something trying to stop us achieve or attain our desires, whether in the form of an outside person or party,or in terms of our own internal pressures and expectations. The Basement as play housing bodies and film of the soul produces a kind of Pinter equation Intent over Uncertainty to the power of Territory Equals Dominance Divided by Fact. This somewhat facetious observation is simply a means of showing that however you try to capture Pinter’s work, it will always prove elusive. It has through its use of language and the music of thought and intention the same permanence and resonance as the sound bombs that capture the soul. The final reversal enforces the notion of Kullus as an ur text and seminal source for the entirety of Pinter’s output. It is his equation, if you like, or if not that, then the curriculum constructed around the work as a whole. Who is Kullus? He’s The Prisoner’s Number 1. And we all know who that turned out to be.
The transition from play into film is an interesting aspect to consider in the light of this. The later works of the great British Director, Alan Clarke, such as Road and Elephant .moved the lines between forms that previously stood and were used to define them, with the latter especially becoming a wordless poem of violence, endlessly re-iterating and enhancing the horrors of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland, and by consequence all forms of contemporary genocide. By forsaking language in this way, or to the extent that Pinter does here, the arrangement of event and attitude into action becomes something more pervasive and ultimately more affecting. It is a musical resonance that gives way to a new frequency; one in which the eye and the ear must be alert to an entirely new set of consequences.
Ten years into his professional career as a playwright and screen writer Pinter had advanced the form in which he was working to such an extent that each new creation would need to hold or consider some new innovatory aspect. This did not necessarily need to have anything to do with technique, or structure, but had everything to do with resonance, frequency – in terms of how it is received and understood – and the ways and means with which dramatic expression as a whole, can be countered. That he went on to write Landscape, the much feared Silence, Old Times, Proust, Monologue and No Man’s Land is proof of the point I am trying to make. Pinter was starting to broadcast whether wittingly or not, on an exciting and uncharted new frequency. From something long buried, the scale of fresh skies were defined.
IV: The Beast in his Cage
Christopher Morahan’s direction of A Slight Ache and A Night Out were the first and second parts of the BBC’s Theatre 625 mini Pinter season in 1967. Of the two, A Night Out is the most perfunctory. It adds little more than a certain level of fluidity to Saville’s original production, which had the charge at least, of Pinter playing the character of Seeley to Tom Bell’s edgy and dangerous Albert Stokes. Essaying a kind of morose satanicism, Pinter looked very much as he did on the back cover photographs of his old Methuen playscript editions, once described by the actor Antony Sher in his book Year of the King, ‘as if Pinter was rushing past the camera, keen to avoid its gaze, or inspection’. Pinter, like the production around him, had swagger, which Morahans’ does not. If anything, its just too tidy a treatment of the story and situation, with George Selby’s Stokes too obviously uncomfortable from the start, his strength and bulk at real odds with the nerve shredded Albert pushed ever closer to psychosis by the inaccurate assumption of social wrong doing, the brittle fanaticism of the prostitute he encounters on a lonely walk home and the near oedipal attentions of his mother.
A Night Out is the closest Pinter ever came to a conventional ‘well made’ play. It has a central plot point around which all is focused and character background, detail and exposition are conveyed effectively and unobtrusively. It is therefore his least interesting, and the fire that infused it previously, casts no further claim or illumination, with the ending particularly adding nothing to the resonance that the first two pieces so viscerally conveyed.
This gives rise to a crucial aspect when discussing Pinter’s work; chiefly its delivery and how effectively that delivery serves and honours the text. The recent Pinter at the Pinter season in London’s West End has marked the tenth anniversary of his passing by mounting star studded productions of all of his one act plays and performance pieces at a time when the actual work plays second place to those performing it. All theatres need their seats filled of course and if we have returned to a time when the performers are the true celebrities to cherish, (as Opera Singers once were in previous centuries) as opposed to sportsmen or God forbid, Statesmen of all genders, then there is little I can say or do to sway the tide. But the point I will make is that what singles Pinter’s work out above practically all others in modern theatre is the fact that everything needed to be felt and understood by those interpreting it, remains within it and requires no extraneous promotion either in how it is approached in the general sense or marketed in the direct one. This is not the fault of the actors of course, simply the context within which they now operate. Everything is fused or seen in terms of their status in the public consciousness. Work of this quality needs to presented to the audience as the true prize, and not just the price that has to be paid to get close to the stars of increasingly generic vehicles, in order to see what it is (or isn’t) that they have to offer.
It was often stated by him, that time and time again in productions on stage and screen, Pinter as observant author and frequent director, urged actors to just say the words and let the play do the work for them, and time and time again he was proved correct. You cannot normalise something that exists beyond every day interpretation or for that matter, expectation. The famous anecdote about Alan Ayckbourn’s questioning of Pinter when he was playing Stanley in a revival of The Birthday Party in Scarborough in 1960 was evidence of this, in which after asking for a key to Stanley’s motivation, he was told by his author/director to ‘,mind his own fucking business.’ This is the stuff of theatrical legend, but the fact remains; with no easy answers there can be no accurate question. Open yourself up to a certain level of conjecture and exploration and perhaps you come close to the contradictions not only in the text, but within us, each one a pale fire, scorching our souls as we sleep.
Pinter’s 1963 play, The Lover, written for television but not included here as it was made for Associated Rediffusion, is a perfect example of the point I am trying to make. The play opens with a well to do upper middle class businessman about to leave for work in the morning. As he is goes to exit, he turns to his wife and asks; ‘Is your lover coming today?’ to which his wife answers. ’Mmn.’ The sheer overload of meaning and intention necessary to comprehend both the nature of the relationship as well as the existant power play between them, with Richard’s unsettling insouciance and Stella’s all to brief consignment of pleasure, over the provision of any kind of confirmation, is mind boggling. Indeed, the range of questions one has to entertain in order to come to terms with just this opening moment denudes the whole notion of drama schools and actor training as a whole, as there is nothing you can learn or go through that can effectively prepare you for this. Instead, what you must do as both performer and indeed, audience is be willing to entertain all options, at once, while at the same time be prepared for both the changes and charges to come.
The Lover, which is even more powerful on the stage, is therefore an example of dramatic writing that makes the playing and receiving of it a thoroughly creative act and provides a strong contrast to the easy ambiguity of recent times, with their insipid need for the assorted speculations to do with the demands of franchises and their stronghold on the public imagination. With language this well executed, interpretation, obfuscation and even intonation are already present in the line. It is a matter of poetics, the fuse within words that allows particular combinations and contrasts to achieve their own form of majesty.
Today’s actors and the culture that surrounds them seek only to draw attention to themselves; ’I chose this role because I’ve always wanted to play a polish transgender mercenary who believes that the repression of artistic tendency in all white slave traders has never been fully explored..and also because despite the children and animals he/she/it interferes with, they’re awfully good to their mother.’ or words to that affect is one of a ceaseless pattern of variations and refrains hoisted across a red carpet tramping, blu-ray extra watching audience. Every script or play speaks to them like no other, especially when they receive so many; and yet once in a while… and so the litany goes on. When Pinter was first writing plays, the word was King and he in particular was both moat and castle. Directors sought new forms to serve the text each time, As Joseph Losey did with his three films with Pinter, or Alan Clarke in all of his productions for film and television. Morahan, the exemplar of the British journeyman director, serves but rarely seeks and therefore misses the pitch of strangeness beneath the central relationships within A Night Out and its general impetus; why and how has Albert allowed this to go on and just what are his means of escape? The inference in the 1960 production was that Stokes would go on to murder his mother, rendering him without any conceivable option, but regardless of the outcome, or lack of it, it was the work that led the way; the voice from within as opposed to the one at the front as any victim would be against their transgressor. Fear is the key here and this production is devoid of it. The false accusation at the work party that singles Albert out as a potential groper is little more than mildly comic, as opposed to the side spearing spoke that slips free of the wheel in Saville’s version. There, the nail in Albert or his mother’s coffin is well and truly hammered. In this version, it is simply clipped, scratching nothing and therefore leaving us nothing to feel. Morahan and Pinter worked together many times, but the real point here is not one of ignorance or insipient laziness, as much as it is one about perception, instinct and the stated frequency and resonance. As either an actor or director, or for that matter, designer, you cannot treat Pinter’s work as you would any another modern British playwright of his generation.class and background The sensibility that informs the work is entirely different, as are the engendered concerns. Each detail needs examination and each moment scrutiny. To play Pinter’s work is to do so with all of the skills of a musician, alive to the pitch and resonance of each sound and silence; as this is the duet you’re in the business of serving, as they chorus out across the world’s orchestras.
A Slight Ache is far more successful. Its smooth transition from stately class fed observation to something close to pornography is revelatory. From the start, the middle aged Edward’s disregard for the flowers in the garden that his wife Flora so studiously cultivates shows us that soon enough he too, will be ripe for the plucking. Through the easy resonance of her name, Flora shows connection and pride in a garden whose very abundance threatens to overwhelm them, and when a new strain grows through, extending that threat in the form of a wretched looking tramp selling damp matches in the country lane beyond the house, she is both aroused and fascinated. Edward’s brutish killing of a wasp trapped in the marmalade is all the proof she needs of his obvious deficiency and her easy post menopausal acceptance of the foul smelling stranger is like the naked girl spirit embracing the earth that formed her.
Morahan captures a play dense with language with a graceful infusion of light and separation. Tracking shots take in the terrain of house and garden, effectively fusing them together as the Matchseller is admitted. There is a sense of pagan style sacrifice and inevitability as events unfold, with Edward’s initial unease about the tramp’s presence soon giving way to an easy bonhomie, that transmutes itself into a form of defiance, outright challenge and eventual surrender.
Maurice Denham, a staple of british television throughout this period gives an expert performance in which no nuance or capturing of invective is passed over. His two lengthy monologues, unanswered by the silent spirit of the tramp are acts of exorcism, not against the intruder, it has to be said, but seemingly against his own long witheld forces. Threatened by the Matchseller, Edward linguistically vomits his existence onto the floor between them, paying the cost of all of his personal transgressions and petty ignorances. The frumpish Flora is transformed through the intensely colourful nature of Hazel Hughes’ rendition into a sexual wildcat, who at one point in the play seems close to performing what used to be called fellatio on the voluminous, sweat caked flesh of Gordon Richardson’s rag swaddled body. Such transformations are the stuff of drama and the fact that they occur within such a short space of time; a one hour play, and are so artfully designed, in terms of their arrival and delivery is proof, if no other were needed that they just can’t, as opposed to don’t make them like that anymore.
It is this ‘transfusion’ of states that makes the plays in this collection so striking. The levels, the strata or storeys in each ‘construction’ are patterned so deeply and so richly and with so much coruscating detail that they become positive art works, each moment bearing the character and permanence of a brushstroke, glistening across light and silence.
If all of this sounds like hyperbole, then I offer no apology. The plays and poetry that Harold Pinter wrote across sixty years are of innumerable interest to actors, audiences and academics, almost as much as they are entirely free of them. Their aspirations, their interests, their atmosphere, aims and resonances call for and transmit across a new frequency, separate to the one that delivers them to us practically. In one sense they are hardly plays at all, as each has the structure and logic of a poem, capturing the essence of a given theme, object or situation in a new way. They extend a certain type of invitation towards us, but we, in receipt of it, will be left to discern the precise location for the party.
When we finally do arrive at the point of revelation, the last thing we must expect is simple entertainment, as we must be ready for experience also, whether that entails the means by which we may defend ourselves against the beast freshly released from his cage who is currently prowling the grounds, or the systematic examination of our natures. We will of course, laugh at the discoveries we are confronted with, to the same extent that we will be shocked orlle enthrad, but we must remain open. Change is coming, snapping at our heels or stinking and slinking its way beneath the cocktail cabinet. The reformation of state and status, the conscientious objection to the petty provinces we have constructed has been exposed and redefined. Harold is the herald, and who now will answer his call?
V: The Voice in the Dark
One man more than able to return both the call and connection was actor, writer, director, theatre professor and lifelong friend of Pinter, Henry Woolf. There is a strong argument for Henry being if not the progenitor for Pinter’s career as a playwright, then certainly the catalyst, as it was on his urging that Pinter’s first play The Room was written in 1957 in order to fill an unheeded cap in a Bristol University production schedule. Henry’s performance as Mr Kidd, the uncertain landlord of the property in which the play takes place is a further piece of stuffing in the comforting pillow of theatrical legend. Seemingly beamed down from the far reaches of an unknown realm entirely, his obfuscation and humour permeate this dense theatrical poem on the questions of ownership, identity and belonging with a rare power, at once combative but also delicate, as he artfully re-points the strains and pathways that the play’s troubled protagonist Rose seeks to perilously navigate.
Monologue, excitingly included in the PINTER AT THE BBC set, has barely been seen since its initial broadcast in 1973. It was written specifically for Woolf, a gift shared between lifelong compatriots, but also stemmed – at least artistically – from the year of work tied to the writing of The Proust Screenplay. Similar issues of identity and connection between two presumably close friends along with shared notions of association form the core of the work as the events, books and culture the unnamed speaker and his equally anonymous communicant discovered together in childhood frame a story of estrangement, that has brought the MAN in Monologue to a point of isolation, soothed only by the presence of tea and an empty chair.
The play is framed conventionally at first. We track in through an open door to see Woolf’s tidy repose in a bare room exposed to a darkening city behind him. He starts slowly, replete with the ease and delicacy his acting has always showed, even while offering a series of sporting challenges. Over the twenty minutes that follow, a studied, but gleeful exuberance soon transmutes into glum introspection, leading to a crest of unbearingly poignant desperation, in which committed to resuming and maintaining a former connection, the Man stakes a claim and appeal on the children of his former friend, with the word uncle invoked as a totem for translated emotion, the last piece of driftwood left bobbing in a cold and expansive sea of familial insularity that entails the brutish rejection of outsiderdom.
The power of this, the resonance, through time, with distance only sharpening the need, is answer to those people who find Pinter’s work cold and divorced of emotion. The emotive response often hides underneath the skin, ‘peopling the wound’ (a phrase used by Pinter in an early letter on Shakespeare, included in his prose and poetry collection Various Voices) that is inflicted on us by others, and only revealing itself once those old scars are exposed.
Woolf’s Man is floating just beyond the bay at the edge of the waves still precariously connected to the shore of sanity. From the distance and across the darkness he declaims and adapts the fact of a former association to such an extent that you begin to distrust the authority of his interest. Observation replaces true connection, finding further distortion in the Man’s assumptions and readings, as in the ‘You should have had a black face..’ section. This sense of disparity and distance from a recognised truth is seen from a variety of angles and shots, enhancing the room’s apparent emptiness and the Man’s own personal sense of absence. The monologue reflects and perhaps refracts our own communications with either God or those who surround us or to whom we become attached, as we search for purpose and a sense of belonging. It is a holy text, in that regard, a necessary function that we all undertake, whether knowingly or not as we go about searching the scraps cast by others for any form of sustenance.
Monologue in many ways is also an echo of The Basement, showing a character akin to either Stott or Law, once truly left to their own devices, after the game has ended and the woman’s eventual desertion, endlessly replaying the ever diminishing circles of possibility. Abandoned in his own frustration and detachment his only recourse it’s a constant realignment of time and event, one of the major points and aspects to be found in Proust, and it is testament to the power and levels in Pinter’s work that a twenty minute monologue seems a fitting thematic summation of a twelve volume novel.
What Pinter and Woolf achieve with a turn of phrase or a crisis avoiding pause is revelatory. It is the communion between performer and text that occurs so rarely in the theatre, and which, when it is accomplished grants an almost alchemical stance. On the English screen it almost never happens, with lines and what the playwright David Mamet has refered to in his book True and False as ‘the illusions of character’ . there to convey event or opposition only, as they enhance long tested themes and resolutions. But here, despite the growing realisation that the Man, whether the connection was true or not, is a fantasist, fuelled by a jealousy running two ways, to both what he could never have had and to what he was perhaps prevented from having, there is still an honouring of a shared and purified experience. As the drama takes its own course, Pinter honours a period of youth and transition that he shared with Woolf and the other members of his coterie, Moishe Wernick and Mick Goldstein. The biographical facts of their own Hackney formed friendship – detailed in Pinter’s long suppressed novel The Drawrfs and the play that came from it – provides context and detail for a much larger story concerned with the problems and fears of intimacy and opposition.
Plays are written for the air, their words carrying like charged looks or spears of sharpened thought and intention shared between those keen to connect. Any stylisation to the language – which watching this makes you realise that it would never be tolerated on today’s television – enhances the poetic nature that lays behind all of Pinter’s writing, across the forms. Monologue is a kind of song, the last call of a corrupted soul, revealing itself through the failing notes in a small aria of decline. The delicacy of form is subtlely served by actor, writer and to a lesser extent director, but can still be regarded as progressive. Christopher Morahan’s visual handling of it is incorrect in seeking a kind of realistic explanation, but it at least allows some space for the ideas to perculate.
As the Man speaks, one is instantly aware that he is obliterating any chance of true connection with the objects of affection he addresses so directly. His intensity damns no matter how clouded it becomes by familiarity. The movement between casual intimacy and poetic despair emphasises this in both the words used and the thoughts and expressions rivering across Woolf’s face. As the isolation increases one can almost see or imagine the slow smouldering of his soul, but the writing still allows for a form of ascension to be inferred. Woolf’s impish charm, saddened as it is, or may be, captures the elusive and undefinable aspect of the writing, while his skills as an actor reveal how weighted down the man has become. It is the emotional resonance of being outside or removed from something that we wanted to define that allows and indeed calls for our sympathy, even if this is sense of detachment is something we cannot or do not easily recognise. The freeness of form combines poetry and the poetics of memory with the more concrete aspects of experience and rejection, building on and enhancing the linguistic interplay of Landscape and Silence, and thereby giving way to all of the plays that followed, from the sheer verbal exuberance of No Man’s Land, to the drink fuelled ecstacy of the last scene of Betrayal with its drunken, dream-like aspirations, all the way through to the riotous conjugations of Victoria Station, A Kind of Alaska and the Waiter’s nearly quadraphonic interjections in Pinter’s final play, the aptly named Celebration.
The captive and defining music, resonance and frequency of Monologue does not occur within, or as part of an easy genre. In detailing one man’s confrontation with his own past and to some extent, future, each note is fuelled by a startling sense of desolation, utilising seemingly conventional trappings to form a haunting and nightmarish ambience. To me at least, it is the mind of the Man singing and appealing to a heart that has already closed ranks against it. The speaker is damned as he waits for the fire to grow. Bearing the wounds of each word, he embraces the burning. Still drawn to the flames, the silence contains him, keeping him in frozen regard, that is ultimately without place, or status. The soul starts to seep, just as the steam rises. And the journey glass shatters, revealing a hell that we all can fall prone to; one that can arise from a moment, forming the last call for something to which we can never return.
Male isolation also figures in a 1983 production of Landscape, (Originally written in 1969) in which Dorothy Tutin’s ghosted affront and riveting sensuality combine with the fiery, guilt ridden defiance of Colin Blakeley. Separated at either ends of a large kitchen table in what resembles an old country house of the grand old English style , this apparently married couple, both domestic servings to the unseen Mr Sykes, cover the terrain of separation engendered by the husband, Duff’s adultery and Beth, the wife’s adoption of fantasy fuelled transference.
It would be an act of easy indulgence (which I have sadly been unable to resist) to find a lasting connection between these two names when we consider that their missing prefix could well have come from the fact that Vivien Merchant was playing Lady Macbeth for the RSC at the time Pinter wrote the play and that his short prose piece, MAC, recalled a time of great romanticism and resonance for him, in detailing his early acting days touring Ireland under the aegis of the actor manager Anew McMaster, during the early 1950s. This period extended the young Pinter’s remit for the world for the first time in a life governed by financial stringency. The indulgence is only excused by the obvious use of the names, as if Pinter were daring us to investigate and find a path through a work written in relation to a new form of density. The combination of poeticism with the everyday reveals the bridges between them. They cover the same seas, rivers and tributaries of expression to form dual sides of viewpoint. In contrasting and combining Duff’s Caliban with Beth’s Prospero/Miranda, the space of the kitchen positively extends to that of a castle, as classical as it is ruined, reflective of another kind of neglected or forgotten landscape, through which love’s ancient and beleaguered story has always travelled. Marriage, or the remains and remnants of it, is the last vestige of the magic that once existed for people and which presumably bound them. When we fail it, as we all inevitably must, due to the compromises and distractions of the barbaric day we are so consumed by we relinquish hold on the purified sources we should have treasured, consigning them, through our weakness and reluctance to successive states of removal.
The separation between the two supposed former intimates is demonstrated with the clarity of the poem this play actually is. Two worlds become one but maintain their singularities, affording Landscape a near quantum aspect. It is indeed ‘Multiversal’ as we may now understand the term, with husband and wife communicating from neighbouring realities, at a point of meeting, somewhere at the midpoint of the large table. Fact and fantasy combine to rage their positive wars of independence, taking either side prisoner at successive moments. Beth’s ethereal and sexualised encounters with a man on the beach to whom she offers both a child and the unsaid poetry of embrace and conciliation contrasts vividly with Duff’s litany of obstacles and event. Different strains of shit complement the fate of ducks in all directions and a later declaration of the secrets associated with stiled bung shrouded beer are positive operas of barely contained hilarity. By using static figures the play is able to move constantly between two poles of being, with said landscape in a constant state of change and renewal. The land shifts and alters while those trapped within cannot move.
There is then, a deeply musical strain to this text as the mixture and clatter of conflicting sounds and the artful reverberations that stem from seemingly unrelated phrases give rise to a new understanding of counterpoint and harmony. Landscape consists of two soloists playing not as a duet but at their full range, taking in the referred other characters of the girl and male lover to make a positive quartet, or darkly gathering orchestra. Beth sets the scene from the start, as her moonlit smeared recollections act as counterpoint and theme to Duff’s discordant chords and glissandos, banged out with ape like intensity. While he looks pointedly at Beth throughout the play, she denies his existence completely, reflecting some of his desperate offerings through her conjuring of figures from a quite different, almost unassailable realm, in which the fruit of one’s desires forms an entirely new tree of knowledge, toxic to someone like Duff, but sweet enough for all of us keen to escape and evolve. Beth’s personal landscape maybe one of dream like urgency, but it is one she has chosen to make her own, even if she was forced to enter it as her only means of preservation and survival.
Duff, in the meantime, batters in from beyond, doing all he can to regain entrance to the sacred chamber of his wife’s body and the housing structure of their relationship. In doing so, he becomes the dog barking outside in the rain, spreading the shit that soon cakes him, while raving away madly at the now locked gate. When he protests that the girl he dallied with meant nothing to him, the all too familiar landscape of male selfishness is revealed, across which the eternal battle of the sexes rages. A woman’s best defence, her greatest weapon against such betrayals and disappointments, is silence; the true sound of denial and rejection. In turning way from the country and world she had previously seemed to share with Duff, she repositions her very essence in a place that he, with all of his base and animalistic desire, could never find, recognise, or even aspire to. As the bird rises, the worm burrows ever deeper into the filth that formed him and in the growing separation between them, we discover a previously unknown geography.
If Duff is to find his way back to Beth, the journey will be as long as it is treacherous and the winds and her will are clearly not set in his favour. The fresh, white silence that now exists within or beneath the colours and flavours of speech and ritualised/recognised conversation is what Pinter captures in this play. It is the point and the process behind it that he dramatises so evocatively, and what strikes the viewer more than anything when watching it in today’s context, is just how far so called mainstream drama has moved from a focus on language as it’s motivational driving force.
The given notes in a piece of music convey it’s true meaning, resonance and affect on us, as does the arrangement of materials in a painting or sculpture. One would have thought that the placing of words, the alignment of inference and image would be of particular and continued delight dramatically, but this has not proved to be the case, as all we now hunger for is sensation and action, regardless of whether the language or what passes for a plot these days has any greater tenancy in our imaginations. Landscape therefore arrives from a truly different time, broadcast on a frequency that only dogs of a certain age may be able to hear and appreciate.
Landscape and the far more difficult play, Silence – in which there seems to be a change in time between each formative exchange – were experiments of course on one level, attempts by Pinter to extend his palette and approach in order to write in a new way, thereby breaking the preconceptions of style, content and approach his work had garnered over the twelve years that preceded it. The fact he could do it so radically, so confidently is one of the many remarkable features that sets his talent apart and above most others. The major achievements are all to do with the placing and displacement of word and thought. As simplistic as that sounds it is nevertheless revolutionary, as how a word or phrase is weighted in relation to what comes before and after it and where and when it occurs contains the key to both its interpretation and means of delivery. This is one of the founding rules of poetry as an art form and for poetics as a whole, from which all communication is constructed. The stillness of this particular landscape transforms both eye and ear to make the play a kind of painting and the room you are watching and hopefully listening to it in, a wholly renewable and resourceful gallery.
In achieving this, Landscape echoes Samuel Beckett’s masterly urn centred psycho drama, Play, in which the revived ashes of a former ménage a trois eternally narrate the various steps that led them towards their moral and physical decline. Pinter’s play revives this theme, or variant thereof, through an illusion of accessibility. The set and setting allow for our connection but do not validate it. A sense of generality and impermanence is maintained as he presents us with an image of what we all fear; condemnation for our mistakes and transgressions, rejections from the very things that ground and define us, and finally, an exile from love. Pinter never details the intricacies of shallow human behaviour for their own sake, but certainly focuses on their effect, showing how memory both distorts and refocuses vision, allowing us to deny and conveniently forget our own indiscretions, or to excuse them in ways that ease our respective consciences. Whatever we do, or for that matter, hide from, the resonance of that guilty, unbidden act, or all encompassing moment, will continue to river through us, pushing us at some point not so far down the stream, towards our own point of crisis, collapse or submersion. The true love that Beth calls to at the end of the piece may well indeed be that of her employer Mr Sykes, or the memory of her husband before he betrayed her, or some other party cloaked in desire and disillusion; it scarcely matters. What is certain now, is that she is so far down the path of enforced separation that she will no longer be able to hear. Even in reconciliation, Duff will receive no comfort. The brutal truth behind all human weakness has been exposed and the brandished weapons of deception, sharpened. What we choose to do to with and to others provides the cause and method of our deconstruction. The politics of the heart is as shattering as those of the land as soon as they are contravened. In Landscape, a nation divides, and the exposed earth between the two halves will only serve as the graveyard for all of the hopes that were lost.
Old Times, included here in a 1975 production by Christopher Morahan, takes the idea of a voice communicating in from the darkness of separation and places it in the literal foreground. It is a play, that again, Morahan fails to capture effectively, but one which will always resist a marred delivery, due to the purity of its intention and the masterfulness of its written construction.
Seemingly concerned with the reunion of two female friends witnessed, if not adjudicated by one’s overly excised husband, Old Times is concerned on one level with the deceptive nature of memory and its easy manipulation of the human response. As Kate is slyly interrogated by Deeley at the start of the play, Anna, the subject of the intended visit and conversation, stands in ‘dim light’, separate to it, but at once, naturally a part of it, even if she is a fictionalised figment of a still forming viewpoint, that seems forged from a plethora of contradiction.
Pinter’s skill as poet comes to the fore as words and impressions gather, the words hanging in the air, as they give way to variance and misinterpretation. When Deeley’s presumption that Anna maybe a vegetarian and thus not be able to eat the casserole Kate has prepared is promptly returned to him as a definitive statement of accusation, we know or feel instinctively, that this is not an ordinary discourse occurring on an easily recognisable level.
Notions of realism and naturalism are always problematical in dramatic statement and often misunderstood and misrepresented. Realism is a state that includes all forms of credible possibility. Naturalism one that only contains momentary behaviour. It is totally believable that someone picking their nose on the toilet can then be abducted by aliens because we have come to accept that form of event as one of a range of possible outcomes, given that enough people over a sufficient length of time and location have reported and indeed, insisted that phenomena of that sort takes place. Similarly, the fact that said nose-picker could believe or have been raised within a tradition of indoctrination that is dedicated to an unseen and unproven deity of any faith and denomination, who could then allow them to keel over and die unexpectedly, is also sanctioned. So, it should therefore be a simple matter of course to accept something that seems to be doing a number of different things at once and in which what is seen as true shifts and alters at each moment, dependent on the evolving viewpoints and perspectives of each participant.
Anna is both there and not there as Kate and Deeley converse, swapping and refining truths, at least as much as she is conjured into being by the descriptions that they exchange. As each one speaks, their decisions and reactions form a new reality, that naturalism with all of its constrictions couldn’t begin to encompass. Pinter was defined as an Absurdist at the start of his career. There is nothing absurd about his work and never has been. Musicals or action movies are the true acts of absurdism in contemporary culture as they extend the possible into and across the borders of the imagined. While people do of course sing and dance and blow things blow up, they do not do so in quite the same way or in the same order, or context. Therefore these forms provide what might call an absurd or elevated service, through their heightened nature and dramatic surrealism. The sense of escapism they offer and the reconstituted elements that shape them is what makes them attractive. Pinter is more concerned with looking at the inner beauty, that which is at once rawer, more riven with detail and therefore, more revealing. He, along with Beckett is the great Realist, able to fuse the pulse and poetic we house.
Anna joins Kate and Deeley at an unbidden moment, breaching time and space in a torrent of memory. Instantly a battle of wills and realities is at stake between her and Deeley and an unspeakable tension is unveiled. The offering of coffee by Kate and brandy by Deeley and the order of its acceptance is crucial to defining which version of truth achieves prominence. Shock raising speeches about looking up skirts and masturbating usherettes find order amongst an impressionistic sing off from snatches of 30s popular song, each effort designed to bring Kate to either Deeley or Anna’s private court of appeal. These tensions are glossed over by Morahan and his cluttered set, which maybe concerned with revealing the accumulation of a lifetime’s baggage that the play seeks escape from, but which as a visible mise-en-scene does nothing to assist the range of meanings and possibilities with which Pinter has decorated the text.
Filmed in tight close ups and midshots, if ever a play needed the space of a long shot, or master shot, this is it. That sense of space, necessary in order to consider the extent and restrictions of this particular realm of truth are vital. As Anna appears from the dark at the start of the play, so that darkness should feature throughout. Light should give way, surrender or be claimed by it in some way, with the shifting sea or countryside beyond it, perhaps giving way to projection of impression of some of the images, events and variations that the character speaks of. Instead, Morahan, like a recent stage revival directed by Ian Rickson and starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell, attempts to normalise the play and frame it in a boringly conventional manner. He forces the play into a box, full of genteel inference and glazed ambiguity, denying the incorporeal nature of memory the chance to filter between the cracks in character, like cigarette smoke. Spirit and coffee steam fuse and phosphoresce throughout this play to the point of fever. Here, they barely break into a sweat.
The fact that these characters may indeed be engaged in an eternal relaying of what actually happened between them in a further echo of Beckett’s Play may allow for that mortally challenged view and explain how the textual variations occur, but it is by no means an accepted fact. The old times of the title may indeed refer to life as was once lived in the general or even cosmic sense, or simply take in the London based existence the two women were said to share; each is as possible as the other, and it is that cohabitation, more important than the assumed and stated one of the characters that completes the issue, while at the same time adding to the mystery. Only the performance of Barry Foster as Deeley, played as a demonic force capable of small scale armageddons of word and inference, in and out of an armchair, captures the precise nature of the dangers on offer. He, too, was an old friend of Pinter’s and his alignment with the illusions and supposed realities he is seeking to present, and the relish with which he does so, shows us how dramatic situations can exist at the furthest reaches of comprehension and still be achieve a form of grace and tenancy. Like Henry Woolf, Leo McKern, Vivien Merchant and Maurice Denham, he allows the writing to lead him to where he needs to go, chasing the moment and the light behind it with an ever darkening regard for his own status within it.
As the play concludes the minimally expressive Kate cuts her two would be possessors off at the pass, as she consigns Anna to a kind of ego death and Deeley to a state of physical banishment, the price he must pay for a lifetime of intrusions and petty tyrannies. A shimmer of politics in the broadest sense resurfaces here, as the very context by which we define and place ourselves is regarded with a highly defined sense of treachery. Why should we matter if the substance from which we are actually made is not properly understood, handled or evenly shared and conveyed between ourselves. Throughout the play, facts are variated, refuted and truncated such as the pivotal misalignment of vegetarianism, or this key exchange, charged as it is by both ignorance, retainment of actual detail and downright obfuscation;
ANNA. I live on a volcanic island.
DEELEY. I know it. I’ve been there
It is, therefore, our very searching for truth and the need for it that shows how little we actually deserve it. Language, the prize is also the prison. And the sentence we’re writing is leading us far from the truth.
Old Times, as a force in itself, is a key to a door we don’t even know how to open. It is stranger than fiction as the facts we assume don’t exist. What lingers to taunt and taint our perception are certain images and resonances; the last calls from a faded country we once thought we were part of, but which we see now, moving slowly away from us. Cast adrift by unrepentant breezes, the chill steals the charm we once knew. Stripped of the protection of illusion, it is the bone that shivers, aware in its own way that flesh will not stave off its final defeat. The play, written in a form we recognise dramatically admits a very different poetic sensibility. It functions with a poem’s intensity and lack of linerality. It is Pinter music in its purest form and any production or reading of it should take that into consideration. Morahan’s treatment resembles an effective run through, but the true performance is there in the mind.
VI: Branding the Word
Pinter’s own 1982 TV production of The Hothouse on disc four of the BFI collection is the jewel in the crown of the new kingdom Pinter had established with his work. The fact that it was written so early in his career, in 1958, between the writing of the commercially challenged The Birthday Party and the universal success of The Caretaker is astounding. Repressed initially because it seemed to be a parody of the style he was quickly establishing, its rediscovery 22 years later prompted a sea change in Pinter’s attitude. He saw at once that it contained the key to the humour that so much early response and criticism had missed, as it surpassed the defining trends and pressures of style in the formal sense in order to reveal the imbalance in all seats of power and authority, thereby rendering each governing system ridiculous. After mounting it on stage at the Hampstead Theatre in 1980, it was screened on the BBC two years later, and its strangeness and ability to convey madness are captivating.
In a series of beautifully staged duologues the staff of a residential home for unruly dissidents of an uncertain stamp reveal themselves to be more prone to emotional and moral disarray than the politicised figures they have been employed to intern. Roote, explosively played by an intimidating and fearsome Derek Newark is the administrator of the complex, and a riotously insane despot, fuelled by a current of electric paranoia and all too keenly aware of the threat lurking behind every shadow. Gibbs, his second in command, played by James Grant, with a voice as smooth and threatening as a glass encrusted serpent leads him through numerous variations of fact, obfuscation and fiction, showing that the dictator’s hold on reality is inviting the all too imminent coup his entire existence is primed to suppress. Rebellion and opposition in its very weakest of forms is represented by Robert East’s sinuous and equally snake like Lush, but it is Angela Pleasence’s Miss Cutts, (marking a kind of continuum in Pinter with her father Donald’s work) who is the object and indeed subject of each man’s desire. She is therefore able to navigate her way through the corridors, cupboards and bedrooms of power, eerily twisting each man around her talon like fingers; a mistress who knows that as the only woman seemingly available, the key chain to the kingdom is hers for the taking.
That the numbered inmates are of both sexes is irrelevant. They are merely there to be murdered or raped as is proved in the cases of 6459 and 6457 respectively. The inference that Roote is the perpetrator in both cases is certainly allowed to filter throughout the drama and this allows for the perception of the play as a kind of totalitarian biography to fully manifest. As Roote raves and fails to get to the heart of his own mental and moral collapse, the confrontations and challenges afforded to him by each character only seek to ensnare and hasten his deterioration. The rhythm and flow of invective is utterly joyous and as director of both the stage and television versions, Pinter reveals how his work should be handled, with that mixture of seriousness and jubilation. When it appears, it is caught like a moth in the hand.
On a visual level, there is space in the frame at all times, allowing the thoughts and language to establish itself along with a slowly changing viewpoint and angle. David Rolinson notes in the DVD booklet, how Pinter’s direction seemed often to be static within the given frame, in that the actors do not move a great deal once they have achieved a new position. This belies Pinter’s primary theatrical directorial experience, but he puts this to effective use, as the camera travels with each character as those positions alter, focusing all the time on what Orson Welles called, ‘the story’; the image or aspect that is of true importance to each shot or sequence and which leads to a general understanding. All of the TV films Pinter directed from Simon Gray’s Butley, through to Channel Four’s Party Time essayed this theatre/film mixture. Pinter directed the camera as he would an actor onstage, limiting to the reaches of human potential. If not completely cinematic, the scope of television gave him all thestyle he needed. By directing us towards what he deemed important, he allowed for the silence and the thoughts within to be photographed, and for the eye and the mind to be trained.
Pinter’s camera captures immaculately what a director more keen to draw attention to themselves as opposed to the given moment, cannot. The adoption of crane, track and dolly are techniques that lead to sensation and spectacle that ultimately distract or draw our attention away from what the drama really is: the ramifications of human behaviour. Dramas on one level are nothing more than lists of decisions. And so Pinter charts them. His direction of actor and instrument are each committed to an effective and affecting view and treatment of the text.
As inference and accusation increase within the Hot House itself, the fact that we never see the patients at any time throughout the play reveals that it is quite likely that this is a completely empty house of detention. For all we know, Roote may have killed them all, fixing his terrified and captive stuff to a state of petrified inaction and denial and offering a cunningly acute comment on all dictators, from Hitler to Pinochet and Mugabe; madmen only fuelled by their desire for mastery over the realm that they alone can perceive. Substitute the current pack of detached and uncaring crypto fascists lined up to lead us into oblivion and you have a prophecy as charged with confrontation as it is with the wildness of human nature at its most viscerally destructive. The poetry in desperation is as pervasive as that of romance.
A concluding sequence of artfully angled locations and partially glimpsed movement suggests a suitably demonic sprite ridden overtaking. Lunacy, both heard in snatches and inferred peripherally, at the edge of the eye and the frame, chills us. The images are riven with fear and madness, with the escalation in tension and invective only serving to make this near final spilling over into what purports to be naked savagery as frightening as it is enthralling, far moreso in fact than the earlier scene in which new recruit, the objectionably guileless Lamb (to the slaughter) is unwittingly experimented on and tortured by Gibbs and Cutts.
When the subsequent deaths of each member of staff is revealed we cut to what is clearly a Government office close to, if not in Whitehall itself, where the character of Lobb, deliciously played by a fruitily voiced and perfectly presented Edward De Souza confronts the one survivor, offering his final report on the tragedy. With this, our murderer is revealed, but not of course in the manner of the death centred thrillers that television now tells us we must be defined by, but with a undeniable sense of inevitability. The true madness lays in what we initially perceive as the normal and accept as reasonable form of both entrance and aspiration. He who allows us to encounter and define the threat does so not for our ends but for his. The person standing behind the despot is the most dangerous. He has his eyes on the dais and the throne he is seeking will not be one we would prize. The Hothouse works on and refers to so many levels, from the heat of officialdom and ceremony that drives Roote to distraction, to the sense of physical confinement, along the wires of electricity that shock Lamb into paralysis, straight to the hell that surrounds us each time we allow others to define our supposed freedom with new forms of restriction. As the pigs begin sweating, the brand meets the fire and we and the bacon both fry.
What The Hothouse implicitly captures is what might be referred to as the ‘Pinter Imperative’: the need to encapsulate and isolate the deficiencies of human behaviour and to excoriate and expose it in all of its unworthy glory.
This line of accusation and enquiry runs straight through the series of confrontations of which the play is comprised but it naturally pulses and/or rivulets through all the work, from the abundant wordplay and pleasure of a young man first riding and then taming language in the early poems and their catalogue of near psychedelic imagery to do with the id staging a series of conquests on the surrounding environment, through the tortures inflicted on Rose and Riley in The Room, Stanley in The Birthday Party, Jimmy in Party Time, and the rebellious ‘worm’ in Press Conference, riotously played by Pinter at the National Theatre, London in 2002.
The gimlet eye is designed to stare down the darkness, in order to peel the pretence from the bone. Its gaze is fixed and unforgiving. More than any other work or body of work dedicated to detailing the processes that would destroy us, Pinter’s weaponry is dedicated to shocking you into some form of action capable of wrestling savagery to the ground. Just as the character of Lamb succumbs to Institute and thusly, state sanctioned torture, so the character of Lush attempts some form of criticism of it in this play, and while more articulate than Petey in The Birthday Party, or more invested in avoiding the disaster as it unfolds than Sam in The Homecoming or Mick in The Caretaker, he ultimately reflects nothing but our own weakness in the face of the kind of threat that both society and government freely sanction. Pinter’s plays form their own barricades against a tide of meaning and invective.
As the ruling factions that suppress us on a daily basis brand their populace with their scalding labels of ownership and confinement, Pinter’s work moves through the smoke of burning flesh, the poetry sparking and fusing through every word and its surrounding silence, to cover the wound with a poison sucking kiss. Startled, we stop, and the imperative teaches. We are what we have become or have learnt to become through their actions. Each scar must inspire. And in depicting our betrayals, his is the kiss that stores pain.
VII: The Task at Hand
Unlike Morahan’s tamer handlings, Kenneth Ives’ 1987 televisation of The Birthday Party is a thoroughly assured capturing of the stageplay. There is a gravitas to his approach that suits the text perfectly with no sense of directorial imposition to his treatment of the source material, just a loyal and graceful embrace of the thorns, spikes, horns and indeed, tentacles on offer. The sophisticated video styled approach to the shooting matches the slight shabbiness of Meg and Petey’s faded interior, producing the perfect early morning effect to a weather stained out of season English coastal resort. Joan Plowright’s mixture of studied eccentricity with a touch or two of coquettish exuberance is intensely appealing, but also essays or introduces the conceit that what really lays at the heart of Meg’s bewildering need for the justification of tiny detail in terms of object, event and happenstance is, or could be, a form of early inset altzheimers, which Robert Lang’s pained and fear studded concern perfectly counterbalances. A tonal jarring occurs with the entrance of Julie Walters overly brassy and sexually garish Lulu, in a performance that draws too much attention to itself, even if what you notice is full of seaside strumpetry and thrill inducing allure, but thanks to the schematics of the text, Walter’s Lulu does not detract to any great extent. She too is a victim of the closeted surroundings, doing all she can in the way of earthy exuberance to free herself from the constrictions of time, place and expectation.
It can therefore be argued that this opening trio of performances showcase how alive Ives was to the stylisations of the text. They complement and combine in their own way to create the kind of Englishness that never truly existed, but has enough resonance with the common consciousness of that societal image to allow Pinter’s vision to broadcast all the more viscerally on its own quietly shocking frequency. When Cranham’s Stanley eventually deigns to descend from his matted enclave, all is unified. He completes a hinge-less cabinet of grotesques, the tarred and oil slicked remnants left beneath the pier once the tide has pulled back its greasy surface in order to reveal the blood and the piss on the stones. Stanley’s disillusion and dissolution are uniquely conveyed through the cracked glasses of Cranham’s ramshackle warrior. He bares the traces of each wound life has caused him to suffer, and while it is clear he no longer has the wherewithal or means to fight, let alone play the piano, he enters the gladitorial arena dragging his suffering like a weight on his back, or a chain around his feet.
All of these elements amount to needful preparation for the arrival of Colin Blakeley’s sustenance ravaged McCann, the beaten dog tethered to the dark madness of Pinter’s villainous, venomous Goldberg.
Harold Pinter’s appearance in this version of the play is one of the great definitive performances of any classic role in any play by any actor. Goldberg is, if not Satan himself, then one of his demonic Generals or at the very least, Lieutenants. As they approach from the white day that greets them, one can virtually see the stain they leave on the sky and smell the sulphur through the screen, mixed as it is with smears of Brylcreem, blood and vaseline. The two men seem to glide through the space as they determine the mission that faces them, almost levitating on a carpet level cloud of ash; a black sea of menace, lapping and formed by their path. I can remember seeing this broadcast not long after I discovered the work and the feeling of cherishing Pinter’s presence and depiction of what could ell be literature’s greatest villain. Pinter infects the screen with an entirely new strain of menace, looking though and beyond us without ever once turning his face in our direction. He would have known the power of what he was serving and representing and also the personal thrill and charge of his own casting. His devilish strain of ‘gentleman’s relish’ is part of the terrifying charm of it, and avoids any sense of brattish indulgence. After his early career as play as cast rep actor in the grand old days of theatrical practise, he exudes the confidence of the actor who knows he has found his ultimate role, the one to define his own career and stimulate those of others. The role that brings words off the page, through the screen, across the air, to then burn deeply into the most protected of souls.
His reaction on first meeting Stanley is like a snake readying its jaws to swallow a cow, or a Lion’s just as it is about to leap. The anticipation of this soul scented meal is almost too much to resist and from that moment on Webber is dressed with condiment after condiment, making him all the more easy to consume, through both confrontation and interrogation. The famous ‘who watered the wicket’ section is not some conglomeration of heightened collage like grabs at popular images, but rather a shredding phrase by phrase of the world and experience that Stanley has come to recognise. He is literally tortured by words, his mind whipped and assailed by the assault and destruction of association. As his sense of self splits his conscious mind begins seeping, through the cracks Goldberg gives him. Stanley is torn like the paper that McCann separates into strips. What play generated for either the stage or television accomplishes such power, resonance and frequency through its positioning of language? It almost makes one almost nostalgic for the brutalities of former dictatorships, severing opposition in a flash, or on a whim, rather than stumbling blindly from one disaster to the next and wreaking revenge on a rubble shrouded population. The dark arts of nature are at play, as Goldberg and McCann play with their victim as a cat might with a doomed and stricken bird.
Through Pinter’s performance and its perfect alignment with the text, we see how the source of something, the uncanny power that it wields can and will resist an adapted format if it is served correctly by both actor and director. In bringing us closer to the action through the expert usage of close up and midshots in this specific context, we see more of the play than we might if sat in row Q seat 27, or indeed, any of the cheap seats. There are no pillars here, only the ones of our own prejudice and expectation. Here, the view opens up. Subtext pixellates through the screen along with the particles of light that house it and the full horror is revealed in all of its stark magnificence.
The Birthday Party is the ultimate statement on the role of the individual fighting against an oppressive society, or within any given structure of repression. The token strands of creativity that Stanley clings to in his speech about playing the piano on the pier are soon snapped along with his already broken glasses, when his tawdry birthday party takes place allowing Goldberg to signal his death fed strokes, securing the rapid submission of his chosen victim. Petey, as the near gagged and ineffectual observer shines the brightest, yet briefest signal of resistance as he sees Stanley carted off by Goldberg and McCann to meet his ‘death by Monty’ (perhaps an obviously subversive corruption of the image of a former and much celebrated wartime hero) when he utters the line: ‘Stanley, don’t let them tell you what to do!’ a phrase that Pinter regarded as his most important and one he continued to set his stall by for the rest of his life.
The simple fact of not toeing or falling into place with the ‘party line’ is enough to warrant your extermination. Issues of resistance and difference come into play immediately, with images of the jews in Nazi Germany, the dissidents under Stalin, the Kurds in Turkey, or any minority or segregated community or affiliation suffering under repressive regimes the world.over. It is important to state that Pinter is not offering or writing his play under the assumption of it becoming a representative flag or banner of those endangered groups and individuals, as he is only concerned with the powerplay of each moment as it develops in relation to the next, but the connection is made and projected into every moment of this production in particular, coming as it does thirty years after the original. By that time what had originally failed commercially was recognised around the world as a classic, one whose commentary on the state of that world was as shocking as it was seismic.
As the play ends with Meg’s seeming denial of the horrors she has witnessed, she becomes in retrospect, a representative of all of those who close their eyes to the realities that challenge and actively question their enforced positions off comfort and ignorance. If she is falling prey to a form of dementia then perhaps it is engendered by the virulent nature of forces she comes up against but has no way or means to countenance. She is little England falling into his own trap of self centred small mindedness, a state that can only lead to collapse and removal. It is an innoculation against reality that the oppressors rely on in order to corrupt and dominate. Meg’s devotion to Stanley as a surrogate son/lover takes in all of human behaviour and psychology. Petey enables and indulges her but his very ineffectuality stops him reaching solution. Lulu is a reminder of the vital forces that Stanley can play no part in. He is simply too unseemly, too untidy. He does not fit either the aesthetic or the aspiration, or the idea of how the ruling factions need their people to be. Like Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial, Stanley Webber’s crime is the simple and unassailable fact of his own existence. He is the current target for those aiming at a clearer, cleaner, and more organised or streamlined world. He is the smear or the germ requiring obliteration. He is the lesson that fascism hungers to teach.
That the prevailing forces succeed is part of the play’s undeniable and unsettling power. Its inherent pessimism is all the more persuasive because of how it channels and communicates its message with such style and vibrancy. Its resonance is a clarion call and its appearance on screen is a kind of summoning, in which threat and shadow achieve shape and form. What the production achieves is the delivery of a total and utter sense of damnation. The play is not entertainment, and yet it laughs for and at us, the force of it pushing all of those who can’t see the black joke in the system all the dark way to their graves.
The notion of defiance in an active sense formed Pinter’s raison d’etre in the last period of his work, in which a direct engagement with politics transformed his plays and poetry, leading to numerous appearances, speeches and polemics that criticised the nominal form of leadership which we have continued to suffer.
Mountain Language represents the pieces that followed, even if it has none of the nuances that One for the Road, Party Time, Ashes to Ashes, and to some extent Press Conference utilise. In this crucial twenty minute play the metaphorical bars are lifted to reveal true ones as the wives, sisters and mothers waiting for news of their imprisoned menfolk gather in the snow stuck grounds where they are harassed by soldiers and bitten by security dogs. Any notion of resistance in an active sense, or even the opportunity for it, has been removed. Here are the hard facts that follow the suppression of an entire people, either in direct relation to the plight of the Kurds in Turkey, or to the legions of political prisoners removed from their beds in Chile, Beirut, Czechoslovakia, America, or for that matter, London on a daily basis. They will be returned to a Hothouse, that has now frozen over, where they will effectively be fossilised while still drawing pained breath.
In dealing with the suppression of public and private expression and language, Pinter bares his own straight down to the bone and uses a directorial style as effective as a cold kick to the ribs, face or gut. Situations and character are artfully, yet carefully framed, to show the full content of what is happening on a moment by moment basis. Each of the four scenes reveals the full horror of what goes on inside the prison where the ruling guards, particularly Michael Gambon’s portly and brutish Sergeant exert an empiric hold on their captives. Brief statements of repressed native phrases pass in voiceover between a hooded man and his subjugated wife as well as between an older prisoner and his elderly mother, when they finally do get to see each other, hinting at a kind of telepathy that can only come from the truly poetic communion forged from love and all of its need for connection. Their language is forbidden preventing connection, and in a final scene when the Prisoner is beaten in front of his mother for daring to state his case she is rendered into further silence, preventing both comfort, reconciliation and the illusion of escape. The invasive force wins as land and life shatter and in the silence the ghosts of day populate.
Now that we live in societies keen only to suppress and alienate, this most austere work achieves a rarified sense of poignancy. Pinter’s work needs this kind of attention paid to it, not to weigh it down and encumber it with overspun theory, but simply to reveal the detail and strata within its rock like surface. The overly earnest and menace by numbers production some of his work has had to endure across the world and over the years, infuriated Pinter as he mentions in the interview extras included in the PINTER AT THE BBC collection, as they often drew away from the real horrors that emerge between us, that it has to be said, are often casual in nature. The tonal severity of Mountain Language actually serves to emphasise the relative ease with which the Third Reich established the final solution, along with the weaknesses of the systems that allowed Pinochets, Mugabes and Trumps to exist. People fear and guard against the world depictd here but do not see quite how easily it has already formed around them. Pinter was quick to act on this observation and used all of his prestige and status to draw attention to it as soon as he became actively involved in the politics of opposition. Seriousness, in all senses, is not to be avoided, and so must be considered in all of its numerous manifestations.
Mountain Language is a scream from a tightened throat. It had to be in order to set up the plays that followed, each one characterised by humour of the bleakest sort; the laugh at the human state of play or condition and at the absurdities practised in the name of political or even social ‘advancement’ . While the disappeared Jimmy in Party Time sits ‘sucking the dark’, his ruling masters cavort across the Osso Bucco in Celebration as stockinged secretaries fuck behind the filing cabinet, and repressed wives kiss the fists of their fascistic and abusive husbands in Ashes to Ashes. This heralding of horrors gives way to an uneasy permanence. To paraphrase another famous phrase, the world is not only darker than we know, it is actually darker than we can imagine. If that isn’t worth the laugh that chokes us, I don’t know what is.
One can I hope see why and how the plays in this collection have fired such a response from me. They and the three interviews with Pinter which are included across the discs are each statements of intent concerned with both the power and resonance of dramatic art as an active resource for a partially informed society. Harold Pinter dared this state of affairs from the very beginning of his run of conscious action, whether brandishing his toothbrush as a seventeen year old primed for conviction, or appearing at the barricades in Turkey, Nicaragua and Westminster. His vital sense of opposition fuelled every word he wrote and went on to utter; and that is why his work retains its power. It defies, resists and survives against all restrictions, whether it is the compromises of Tony Blair’s New Labour government or the truly inept questions put to him by Jeremy Isaacs and Benedict Nightingale in the DVD extras. The task at hand is to honour a body of work that grows more important by the day, not only because it criticises the prevailing status quo, that despite occasional variance never changes sufficiently, or because his template for what is dramatically possible forms a benchmark that is still unsurpassed, but simply because its very nature transcends its given form, which is the purpose of art, if it is to have any use, resonance or frequency at all.
We think of Mozart as a solid body of beauty and brilliance, as we do with Velasquez or Picasso. And so it proves here. There is a way of defining certain playwrights that encapsulates both the function and essence of their work. Caryl Churchill is a genius like Sculptress, writing plays. Arthur Miller, a Carpenter, Beckett a Philosopher and Pinter a Poet. This tightness of form ensures that their work and those of their prized but select contemporaries, will remain to restructure the shaking foundations on which we stand.
The creation of something undeniable is the aim of all expression, and for the voices of resistance to change the day, some form of reformation must occur. Pinter’s work allows for that. It rises; a sea and storm, capable of changing the shore.
As well as providing some of the most enigmatic and therefore appealing parts for actors on the modern stage, his work took the pitfalls of language and made visceral poetry of them; a poetry that will go on to define the need to criticise, understand and communicate with the dark that surrounds us for as long as there is anyone keen to understand where language and its uses can lead us. His work is the wound but also the flesh healing over. Beneath the scar, the line’s written. And the line is a clear one:
This is the way to resist.
We know that the pause is the true line of expression and that silence is crisis, that only mindful recognition can ease.
Harold Pinter gave truth an entirely new understanding.
His work is a poem for which there can be no last word.
The wound is revealed.
Our form of solution won’t save us.
Sensation stalls us.
From the silence; fresh struggle.
Pretence is the problem.
Object, with clear conscience
To see what’s been wrought.
David Erdos, May 19th 2019