"Moving among words, sorting them out, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out ... the bulk of it stale dead terminology; ideas endlessly repeated and permuted become platitudinous, trite, meaningless."
I think that Harold Pinter is amongst the most maligned of modern authors. If you read something more recent you might not see the most prominent of Britain's Angry Young Men
as being much to celebrate. Problem is, he's great, at least, he was
. Actually, this guy has things of real import to say about language
. Sadly, once he runs out of things to say, he didn't shut up. So buy Plays: 1
, and love them, but stop there, for volumes 2-4 chart his sad descent from artistry
. Perhaps Pinter would do well to heed his own words (above) and stop his endless permutations.
What I've done in this essay is provided a possible exegesis
of his earlier plays with reference to a key speech he gave back in 1962
to a drama festival. I think it explains pretty comprehensively what (I think) this hot cat's all about
. Usual qualifications apply here
. If you can't be bothered with the whole thing
, scroll down to the final quotation and extrapolate
Pinter opens The Birthday Party
, and other plays, like Night School
, The Room and The Dumb Waiter
, with what John Russell Brown calls "microscopic naturalism", using which he captures with great acuity the rhythms, repetitions and of colloquial speech
, and the subtleties of interplay between people that they ostensibly conceal
. Take the first scenes from The Birthday Party, which show Meg
and Petey over breakfast. Pinter perceptively characterises each character and the nature of their relationship in the opening lines.
"Meg: Is that You, Petey?
(pause) Petey, is that you?
Meg: Is that you?
Petey: Yes, it"s me.
Meg: What? (her face appears) Are you back?
Meg continues to be as persistently infantile as this through the whole play: her childish self-centredness manifests itself in her demands for Petey's attention. Having heard Petey
enter and sit down in the room in which the play"s action takes place and made his cornflakes, Meg insists on affirming three times that he has returned, once, when her face appears, she can actually see him. Petey, five of whose next seven speeches are essentially "Yes" or "Very nice", illustrates himself and his relationship with his wife by his measured and submissive
acquiescence to her demanding inanity. Pinter peppers Meg's speech with interrogatives to each one of which she demands an affirmative in a parody of conversation that serves only to satisfy her needy immaturity; she remains oblivious to anything said to her, as is shown by her later fumbled recapitulation of Stanley's concert
to Goldberg. Those instances of her speech that are direct statements read more like an interrupted monologue than one half of a conversation. Through the partial disconnection this entails ("Petey: I don"t think you know her. / Meg: What"s her name? / Petey: Lady Mary Splatt. / Meg: I don"t know her.") Pinter has skilfully captured exactly the dialogue of two elderly people talking, but not listening.
Pinter brings this early exchange into sharp relief at the close of the play when Meg
gets up to make Petey breakfast in what she considers an identical repetition of the previous day's routine. What is shown is not the familiar model of a dominant Meg and an acquiescent
Petey, but a Petey who controls information in such a way as to manage his wife as he sees fit to do:
"Meg: Is Stan down yet, Petey?
Petey: No ... he's ...
Meg: Is he still asleep?
Petey: Yes, he's ... still asleep.
Meg: Still? He"ll be late for his breakfast.
Petey: Let him ... sleep."
Pinter here acutely
shows Petey preserving his wife"s unawareness by imitating the formulaic course their conversations typically take and manipulating its mantric
nature to maintain her obliviousness.
Another function of Pinter's naturalistic
dialogue is that it allows him to frame, narratively, the events of his plays. The Birthday Party
opens and closes with passages of domestic banality
Stanley: What's it like out today?
Petey: Very nice.
Petey: Well, there"s a good breeze blowing.
Petey: No, no, I wouldn't say it was cold.
Meg: What are the cornflakes like, Stan?
The function of such a passage can be nothing more than incidental
: all that can be drawn from it is an instance of Stan's antagonism toward Meg, and some information about the weather. Yet through the passages like this that open and close the play, we have a frame of reference for sections of lesser mundanity, like this;
Goldberg: Webber, what were you doing yesterday?
Goldberg: And the day before. What did you do the day before that?
Stanley: What do you mean?
Goldberg: Why are you wasting everybody"s time, Webber? Why are you getting in everybody"s way?
Stanley: Me? What are you –"
The diction and register of speech have changed, and the tone used is more aggressive
, and less colloquial. The interrogatory format of the exchange indicates the lack of certainty in the conversation, as does the almost complete absence of concrete reference points: nothing truly tangible, physically or mentally, is under discussion
whilst paradoxically the significance of the words being spoken is far greater for that intangibility. Goldberg
is the dominant partner in the scene; there is no sense of equilibrium to the dialogue as there is in Petey and Stanley's good-natured questioning. Where previously Petey and Stanley communicated freely and easily while discussing nothing at all, when Stanley has genuine questions put to him, he cannot communicate, and all he can do is ask for clarifications and explanations, automatically feeding interrogat
ives back to Goldberg having been reduced to a infantile
state of uncomprehending bewilderment relative to Goldberg's patriarchal and highly admonitory tone.
The relativism that Pinter has created with this contrast in tone is extended when Goldberg and McCann
reach their most aggressive stage of their attack on Stanley, where the dialogue has transcended naturalism or even the dramaticised tension exemplified in the previous extract. What Pinter now writes is fully a surreal and fantastical grotesque of speech, removed from what anchors
the previous two extracts, and indeed genuine idiom, that being consequentiality between speakers.
Goldberg: Why did you kill your wife?
Stanley: What wife?
McCann: How did you kill her?
Goldberg: How did you kill her?
McCann: You throttled her.
Goldberg: With arsenic.
McCann: There"s your man!
Goldberg: Where's your old mum?
Stanley: In the Sanatorium.
Stanley's mother is not mentioned before or after this episode, neither is the sanatorium, or arsenic, nor is Stanley's bride
, real or imaginary, ever alluded to again. Goldberg and McCann's dominance here is total, and Stanley's role has become that of an incidental interjector, just a target for vitriol, which as wholly stripped as it is of absolutes and definable meaning, has become proportionately more meaningful and menacing by its unknown nature. The discommunication propagated by the Jew
and the Irishman
is more genuinely communicative
that what has gone before.
Thus, the grating naturalism that begins and ends the play's narrative arc not only serves to contrast tone and subject matter with other interchanges
, but in addition provide the dramatic tension that they release and thus make them possible. Without tension there can be no release, and so the extravagance of Goldberg and McCann is only made effective by the supply of its antithesis to achieve dramatic equilibrium.
Opposed to the curt monosyllabalism which characterises all of these extracts is the loquacious extravagance with which Pinter imbues many of his characters, in two distinct strands. The more common is that of Goldberg in The Birthday Party, or of Edward in The Hothouse
, dubbed by Pinter in his 1962 speech to the National Student Drama Festival "a torrent of language". Classed by Pinter as "a kind of silence"
, these displays of verbosity usually only draw the thinnest of veils over the character in question's vacancy
or moral bankruptcy
In The Caretaker, the absurdity to which Mick, whose spiritual nullity is later crude
ly signified by his smashing of the Buddha
, descends when addressing Davies at the start of Act Two signifies in its meaninglessness how little Mick actually has to say. Emphasising this bathetically for comic effect, Pinter illustrates the same idea immediately afterward in one sentence:
Mick: You remind me of my uncle's brother. He was always on the move that man. ... Bit of an athlete. ... He had a habit of demonstrating different run-ups in the drawing-room round about Christmas time. Had a penchant for nuts... Couldn"t eat enough of them. ... Had a funny habit of carrying his fiddle on his back. Like a papoose. ... It was a funny business. Your spitting image was. He ended up marrying a Chinaman and went to Jamaica.
(Pause) I hope you slept well last night.
logues such as this, which neither advance the plot nor characterise the speaker , but which do characterise the scene, occur frequently in Pinter's plays, as for example Rose's speech at the start of The Room
, which tells us little about her, but a lot about her and her husband, whose role is best depicted by his conspicuous silence. Rose speaks, uninterrupted save by her own actions as she busies herself trivially, for four whole pages, before her landlord Mr. Kidd comes in. In truth, her speech has been "silent" in its contentlessness. Frequently, when nothing comes to mind, Rose is forced to pause. The discomfort this causes both her and the audience is what Pinter refers to when he writes:
The speech which we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear ... When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.
One such glaring nakedness is that of Goldberg in The Birthday Party, whose oily fluency easily holds its empty way chez Boles
. Such is his moral nullity, and Pinter suggests by extension that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the values
he espouses – the sacred values of family, class, healthy work ethics, prudence, and proportion – that he has three different Christian names. As Pinter wrote to Peter Wood, the director of the first production of The Birthday Party;
Goldberg and McCann? Dying, rotting, scabrous, the decayed spiders, the flower of our society. They know their way around. Our mentors. Our ancestors. Fuck'em.
Trying in act three to impart to McCann his philosophy, Goldberg says:
"Goldberg:… And you"ll find – that what I say is true.
Because I believe that the world ... (Vacant)
Because I believe that the world ... (Desperate)
BECAUSE I BELIEVE THAT THE WORLD ... (Lost) …"
Struggling to articulate something concrete through the morass of cliches that have preceded this, Goldberg has nothing to say, and he stumbles into a silence deeply significant of his state of a-gnosis. Struggling to recover, he instead resorts to a clearly bogus and banal conception of heritage in his questing for personal significance and validation: "Who came before your father? His father. And who came before him? ... Who came before your father's father but your father's father's mother! Your great-gran-granny."
Other than the passages of empty bombast
which are invested in characters are the monologues which are genuinely spoken, regardless of their veracity. Though crucial to characterisation as these speeches are, as with Flora's depiction of her rape in A Slight Ache, and with Aston's of his electric-shock therapy at the close of act two
of The Caretaker
, such irrevocable and immutable statements are tangential to the plot, as here with Stanley"s reminiscence on his failed piano career:
"I had a unique touch…They came up to me and they said they were grateful. Champagne we had that night, the lot. (Pause) My father nearly came down to hear me. Well, I dropped him a card, anyway. But I don"t think he could make it. No, I – I lost the address, that was it. ... Then after that, you know what they did? They carved me up. Carved me up."
d desperation to be accepted by his father casts only an indirect light on the movements of the play itself, with reference to Goldberg's paternalism, and its status as speech is questionable, being more a vocalised internal monologue than part of a dialogue between himself and Meg. Stanley's speech is directed by Pinter to be (to himself), and certainly during the business of revelation itself neither Aston nor Flora acknowledge their supposed interlocutors. Regardless of the context in which these monologues take place, the universal lack of the pronoun 'you' in them creates their internalised, confession
Pinter's creations of dramatic tension in The Birthday Party and in The Hothouse work in parallel, in each instance using a pair of interrogators to attempt to break a victim. In The Birthday Party, Goldberg and McCann allude to what they perceive Stanley's failings to be, both sexually and financially
, to break him down. Cutts and Gibbss interrogation of Lamb
in The Hothouse is much more explicitly sexualised, but the dramatic principle underlying the process – that of successive questions gathering momentum until their accumulative weight is too great for the subject – remains the same. Stanley crumbles beneath the power of the process whereas Lamb, following his own questioning, remains upbeat, asking for more questions. Stanley's symbolic resort to physic
ality when he attacks Goldberg releases the dramatic tension that has been created, whereas Lamb's reaction is a frustration
by Pinter of the expectation that he has created in the audience, which anticipates a collapse in the subject.
Pinter's refusal to release the tension he has created is concurrent with his refutation of con
sequent meaning as dramatically valid. As he wrote in his letter to Peter Wood: "Meaning which is resolved, parcelled, labelled and ready for export is dead, impertinent – and meaningless
." Pinter's rejection of a moral compass
is further supported by his comments to the National Student Drama Festival: "A play is not an essay, nor should a playwright ... inject an apology because we have been brought up to expect, rain or sunshine, a last act "resolution". "To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to be facile, impertinent and dishonest." Pinter's obfuscated endings
are almost ubiquitous: impasse
s close The Room, The Lovers, The Birthday Party, and The Caretaker to name just a few. Pinter denies the dramatic tradition what generically it demands to define itself by refusing the plays what he regards as the trite resolution expected.
In both The Room and A Slight Ache Pinter instead uses the lengthy monologue to create dramatic tension by the wordlessness and implied impotence of the other party. Through this technique, Pinter creates a parallel denial of the dramatic genre. Rose"s excruciating introduction prefigures Mr. Kidd"s entry thirty lines before, which undermined expectation serves to emphasise the stagnancy engendered by her, as she even talks for her husband Bert. Edward's equally vacant
five page long monologue is also delivered to one who holds power over him, as the Matchmaker eventually dispossesses Edward of everything he has, paralleling Bert Hudd"s dominance over Rose as symbolised by his greater mobility and his brutalising diction at the close of The Room: " ... I drove her. (Pause) I sped her. (Pause) I caned her along. She was good." These two characters' ascendancy over their more verb
ose counterparts signifies the concomitant ascendancy Pinter accords to silence as a mode of communication.
In The Birthday Party and in The Caretaker, each victim is reduced to a verbally nonsensical state. Stanley can only grunt, and Davies is, in his confusion and bewilderment
, reduced to a non-verbally communicative endless formation of a question that will never be articulated. Sidcup has slid out of view as his raison d'etre, but nothing has replaced it. With five pauses in his last speech, Davies recognises the total futility of verbal communication
against Aston"s resolve. He is left without any means of expressing himself, or rather; he is compelled to recognise that he has no self to express, that is, that words masked his personal meaninglessness, now laid cruelly bare. This is made clearer in The Birthday Party;
Goldberg: Well, Stanny boy, what do you say, eh?
They watch. He concentrates. His head lowers, his chin draws onto his chest, he crouches.
Stanley: Ug-gughh ... uh-gughhh. …
McCann: What's your opinion, sir?
Stanley: Caaahhh... caaahhh... .
McCann: Mr Webber! What's your opinion?
Stanleys body shudders, relaxes, his head drops, he becomes still again, stooped.
Goldberg: Still the same old Stan. Come with us. Come on, boy.
Goldberg"s "Still the same old Stan" upon Stanley's regression to a mute form of animalism is to imply that Stanley never really communicated anything when he spoke, for all his verbal sparring with his two persecutor
s, and that now he cannot vocalise he communicates in real terms just as much as ever he did, if not more. This chilling recognition of the redundancy of Stanley's powers of speech
exposes his impotency
ever since Goldberg and McCann arrived. Stanley and Davies' collapse into incoherence is mirrored by Rose's "Can't see. I can't see
. I can't see
." in The Room, and by similar patterns in A Night Out and The Collection.
To Conclude, pompously; (if you made it here you did good)
Pinter's choice of drama
– traditionally a mode of expression wholly driven by speech – as a medium through which to communicate this ascendancy of wordlessness and inarticulacy is paradoxically absolutely apposite as, through the audience's acute perception of disappointment, given the frustrated expectations that have been generically engendered, the very frustrations that he has created are emphasised by the fact of their being perceived. Through verbiage, we can only deceive one another and ourselves. Lamb's near-cataleptic silence, which conceals his responsibility for the slaughter
of an asylum's staff
; Stanley's grunts which signify his descent to base sincerity
; The Matchmaker's absolutely silent assumption of power; Davies' stumbling through words he cannot articulate; these are images of victims who have achieved some kind of meaning as approximated by Pinter through their acceptance of silence as a mode of communication. As Pinter wrote;
"I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else's life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility."
Harold Pinter: Plays 1, 2, 3