Harold Pinter (1930-2008) might be said to have domesticated Samuel Beckett‘s more metaphysical concerns by moving them from an abstract setting into the sitting- and living-rooms of his characters, but this is not quite accurate. It is better to point to Pinter’s consideration of time, space, and memory as weapons among those who wish to dominate others. It is this consideration that ties all of Pinter’s plays together, from the first (The Room) to the last (Celebration), and gives him his own unique place in a new Theatre of Revolt. And — as with Edward Albee — his dialogue, far from being mere recorded naturalistic speech, exhibits lyricism rather than realism, whether it’s the jagged and comic back-and-forth of the petty hoodlums in The Dumbwaiter or the languid reminisces and conversations of the ersatz domestic couple in the melancholy No Man’s Land.
As Pinter’s career progressed and he became more and more a wealthy public intellectual, his characters moved right on up with him. The shabby apartment of The Room later became the middle-class house of The Homecoming; latterly, Betrayal was set among the well-heeled publishing professionals of 1970s London. But after 1978, Pinter became more and more aware of and active in political speech — ironically, this led him formally back to Beckett. Pinter’s final plays are set in unnamed countries, among unnamed torturers and tortured, but retained the same concern with power and dominance. The innocent Rose and Riley of The Room are absent from the high-class restaurant of Celebration, his final play, but (as its premiere pairing with The Room indicates) it’s not that these innocents no longer exist, but they are now off-stage. This final play — a comedy — satirizes the leisure and the hostility of both the capitalist and the criminal classes, as if there were little difference between them; in the meantime, a working-class waiter shuttles back and forth between their tables, serving both classes as he reels off a monologue that consists largely of addled pop-culture confusion, memory soiled by the detritus and garbage of the Culture Industry. And because this is Pinter, after all, the waiter exhibits some of the same hostile and mysterious danger as the other characters.
Pinter’s style has been far more influential than his substance — a misfortune if ever there was one. There are few American or British dramatists who have not been affected by Pinter’s heightened, staccato dialogue; but what his acolytes like David Mamet have lacked has been a broader concern with the ways that power is disseminated, domestically and politically, among the strong and the weak, and how this power emerges through the most intimate as well as the most public of relationships. The cool Martin Crimp is one of the few working dramatists who seems to have most interestingly absorbed both of Pinter’s different formal and political legacies. Still, for many writers, what Pinter wrote about Samuel Beckett stands as a meaningful comment on Pinter’s own plays:
The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, way outs, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden, he’s not slipping me any wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy, he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not, he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.
The four uniform volumes of Pinter’s collected plays from Faber & Faber — that edition most commonly available in the U.K. — have an honest claim to completeness. The four uniform volumes from Grove Press — that edition most commonly available in the U.S. — most certainly do not. This latter edition lacks not only The Hothouse but many of Pinter’s late plays (some, but not all, of which are collected in Death etc.).
The authorized and so-far standard life is Michael Billington’s Harold Pinter (Faber & Faber, second edition 2007). Some of my own previous writings on Pinter can be found here.