Harold Pinter has become that most forbidding of writers, the “contemporary classic”—so classic, in fact, that he has contributed a new word to the language, “Pinteresque.” And, like most artists who’ve attained this dubious distinction, he runs the danger of being dipped in amber and made suitable for framing. The common consensus is that he is a postmodern Hitchcock, all clues and MacGuffins, but no solutions. The extraordinary anger that drives his final political plays may complicate this kind of idolatrous preservation, but the risk remains, nonetheless.
In the years since his death in 2008, the appeal of Pinter’s plays has shown no signs of abating. Both his early and his late work are continuously revived around the world, not only in traditional mainstream theatres but also through interpretations shaped by post-dramatic experimentalist groups, most famously the Belarus Free Theatre’s Being Harold Pinter, which visited New York in 2011.
The secondary literature that his plays have engendered continues to grow as well, and two recent books point to a new generation of Pinter criticism, promising that, like the plays of his immediate aesthetic predecessor Samuel Beckett, Pinter’s dramas have not exhausted their power to fascinate and intrigue—or to resist any kind of critical closure.
Both books acknowledge a debt to Martin Esslin’s pioneering study of Pinter’s plays, The Peopled Wound, first published in 1970 and subsequently updated on several occasions. At the same time, both books also acknowledge that study’s limitations; Robert Gordon’s Harold Pinter makes the boldest attempt to bring Esslin’s work up to date. Like Esslin, Gordon traverses Pinter’s career chronologically, offering new critical perspectives on nearly all of Pinter’s major and minor plays. Unlike Esslin, he points to the particularly theatrical and performative challenges that the plays present, and he de-emphasizes the kind of close reading Esslin attempted when discussing the plays as literature.
As his subtitle, “The Theatre of Power,” suggests, Gordon is particularly interested in how Pinter’s plays manifest the tendency of familial, social, existential and especially political structures to devolve into power struggles involving domination and possession. This is by no means a new way of approaching Pinter’s work, but Gordon perceives a particularly theatrical, rather than literary, perspective for the interpretation of Pinter’s concerns.
“Speech and behavior enhance the stage image by complementing or contradicting the visual image to enable the construction of character…and the further elaboration and patterning of action,” Gordon writes, stressing the plays’ status as texts for performance rather than literature for reading á là Esslin. “Action…and therefore meaning…might unfold in performance, preventing [the audience] from privileging abstract or conceptual language over the ‘language’ of stage action in tracing the genesis of each play’s felt significance in time.”
Gordon’s play-by-play traversal is straightforward, though when it comes to the later plays he often discusses broader, overarching themes rather than the scene-by-scene schematic approach he takes toward the more familiar early work. Gordon has the most interesting things to say about less frequently revived plays such as Old Times and No Man’s Land. He plumbs the deeper mysteries of this latter play, especially, carefully exploring its challenges for both performer and audience while avoiding final interpretations.
Would that Gordon, a professor of drama and director of the Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London (a locution that parallels some of Davies’s more ambitious attempts at self-definition in The Caretaker), had been somewhat less challenging in his own locutions—a danger, perhaps, of writing for an academic rather than a popular readership. Otherwise his book bids to be precisely the updated and comprehensive overview that Pinter’s career requires for a new century.
The Experimental Plays of Harold Pinter, by Tel Aviv University professor of theatre studies Hanna Scolnicov, is a more specialized study of Pinter’s career. Scolnicov sees in Pinter’s plays a “hyperrealist” project, which she associates with some visual artists of the historical avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s. Pinter becomes a far more experimental artist in this view, testing the boundaries not of the literary genres of realism or naturalism but of the very form of theatricality itself.
Scolnicov opens the book by describing the challenges to the performer, suggesting that Stanislavskian approaches are frequently of little use in providing a firm basis for successful performance of Pinter’s idiosyncratic texts.
“The kind of acting Pinter had in mind was focused on the technical matter of delivering the text, not on an interpretation of its meaning,” she writes. “Pinter was advocating a hyperrealist delivery, one that would be faithful to the formal qualities of the rhetoric, without looking for a deep psychological inquiry into the particular thinking and motivation behind each pronouncement.” Pinter’s work here becomes more about the interplay of visual and linguistic surfaces—not dissimilar to Gordon’s approach—rather than formal interpretation.
Scolnicov sketches the development of Pinter’s career through a progression of concepts which she draws from the world of visual art, from the hyperrealism explored by painters like Edward Hopper, through minimalism, and finally, in the later political plays, abstract expressionism, Dada and surrealism. It is the kind of interdisciplinary approach which, when it comes to Pinter’s plays, is particularly innovative and revealing. Unlike Gordon, Scolnicov arranges her analysis thematically rather than chronologically, which permits her to draw together strands from Pinter’s early, middle and late periods in often surprising and revealing juxtapositions.
Her reevaluation of Pinter’s career in terms of simultaneous developments in the world of visual art is convincing. One only wishes she had additionally taken a closer look at the relationship of Pinter’s plays to contemporary avant-garde music, especially given that her brief comparison of Pinter’s formal experimentation in theatre to that of John Cage’s in music is particularly cogent.
The study of Pinter seems to be entering a second generation of critical evaluation, just as the study of Samuel Beckett’s plays is entering its third. And, as is the case with Beckett, the continuing reevaluation of Pinter’s career is shifting attention away from literary approaches to a more performance-conscious and interdisciplinary perspective. This perspective opens Pinter’s plays to a new generation of theatre-makers more conscious of the lessons of the avant-garde performance styles of the 1960s and ’70s.
While his plays received their premieres in such bastions of contemporary realistic theatre as the Royal Court and the National Theatre, Pinter emerges through these two books as a dramatist far more challenging to conventional theatrical form than he at first appears. Surprisingly, he may have more in common with Gertrude Stein than with Chekhov, whom Esslin cited as one of Pinter’s most significant progenitors. There is far more to Pinter’s plays than met the eyes of Esslin—and, rather than attracting cobwebs, these classics are offering more riches to the 21st-century theatre than the superficial reader might expect.
Playwright and critic George Hunka comments on theatre at www.superfluitiesredux.com.