As a seven-year-old I was mad about birthday parties, as most small children are. My parents happened to have Pinter Vol. 1 on a shelf within my reach, with The Birthday Party listed on the front. One day when their attention was otherwise engaged, I read it. It was not at all what I had expected, and though at that age I didn’t understand it all —which was a good thing— it certainly made me a bit less keen on birthday parties.
At the time I noticed that reading a Pinter play is an odd experience, what with all those pauses. It is only when you see the plays performed, whether live or on TV, that you appreciate his weaponising of silence, and how many different silences there actually are: menacing, embarrassed, wistful, tormented, sad. Indeed, he sometimes achieves the apparently impossible, deploying silence in a lightning strike. In other cases he allows it to crackle and spark inexorably in a toe-curling war of attrition. Capturing micro-aggressions deftly before we had a commonly accepted word for them, Pinter pins much that is awkward and ugly about modern English social life to a card and forces the audience to watch it flutter there, in what can sometimes feel like a theatre of subtle cruelty. There are occasional moments of non-corrosive humour, of course, and even of warmth, but they are few and far between. “The ones that keep silent are the best off,” says the protagonist in Monologue, and after digesting this set of plays mostly concerned with either the general impossibility or the dangers of human communication, this reviewer is tempted to agree.
In fact, a certain agnosticism about language itself seems to linger in some of the plays. It may be that the landlady and her husband who run the seaside boarding house in The Birthday Party are so contented because they do not communicate using language —the nonsensical opening conversation about cornflakes shows a mutual affection that has transcended the merely verbal (though the chicken-and-egg question with which Goldberg and McCann later torment Stanley may apply here). Similarly, in Pinter’s later, political play Mountain Language, the protagonists transmit their thoughts to one another on a wavelength of love and familiarity, despite having been forbidden to speak their native tongue. In Monologue, the protagonist talks at length to an empty chair, a simple but remarkably effective and unsettling device, in a small masterpiece containing a tragic twist at the end. The height of the playwright’s scepticism about interpersonal verbal communication is to be found in Landscape, however, featuring a married couple in a two-hander in which the hands, so to speak, never touch. The irony of the line “We’re together. That’s what matters” is too obvious here, like the symbolism of the wasp in the marmalade jar in A Slight Ache. The version of Landscape on this set contains an extraordinarily beautiful performance by Dorothy Tutin, recalling dreamlike romantic encounters on the beach, which her husband does not hear, just as she does not hear his reminiscences of a pub altercation. The play is about the couple’s failure to find a common register and, as is not uncommon in Pinter’s plays, they appear to be stymied by different class backgrounds.
The plays on this set are patchy, and this is not explained entirely by the acting, which is sometimes very stagy. The great weakness of Pinter (at least on this showing) is what occasionally feels like an overwhelming misanthropy, resulting in far less light and shade than that conjured by Stoppard or even —it could be argued— Beckett. This is very evident in A Night Out, for example, in which an innocent young man is wrongly accused of assault at a party and persecuted by his colleagues, eventually finding himself at the flat of a pretentious and neurotic prostitute who provokes him into revealing the loathsomeness of his own character, before he returns home to his nightmarish mother. Perhaps Pinter’s strong political inclinations were responsible for exaggerating the characters' verbal aggression well past the believability threshold: the personal is of course political, but not usually to this extent. Goldberg’s buffeting of his interlocutors with verbiage in The Birthday Party (“Certain elements, however, might well approximate in points of procedure to some of your other activities”) remains just this side of overdone, probably because his register is very varied and also includes a great deal of phoney homespun reminiscence. An analogous speech in The Hothouse, by contrast, passes the point of no return by consisting of too much meaningless but aggressively deployed technocratic jargon, and fatally undermines the audience’s suspension of disbelief. In many of Pinter’s plays the language escalates in a similar way, so that the narrative suddenly seems to capsize. Peter Raby in The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter notes that Pinter often deliberately uses false language, in the sense that he makes English characters speak in a completely inappropriate way. This can be a very effective device, but it is the degree to which he uses it that creates the problem in some of his plays. The effect goes beyond simple disturbance and alienation and scuppers the whole enterprise.
Pinter was very much a playwright of the twentieth century, and his plays are haunted and to an extent limited in imaginative scope by its particularly horrendous realities. The menace which surfaces in most of his plays is explicable in terms of this --probably deriving partly from his experiences as a Jewish East Ender growing up during the Blitz in a community threatened before and after the war by fascist organisations-- while the loneliness may have to do with his experiences as an evacuee. (While reviewing this set I was often reminded of Chariots of Fire’s acute remark on English anti-Semitism, that you sense it “on the edge of a remark,” and wondered whether his background gave Pinter particularly sensitive antennae for the ostensibly innocuous comment which, when unwrapped, discloses a serrated blade.) While the First World War suddenly makes its presence known in No Man’s Land, not included on this set (No Man's Land “never moves [...] never changes [...] never grows older, but remains forever, icy and silent”) it is the Second that seems to overshadow this collection of plays highlighting anomie, isolation, and the fragility of social bonds in modern England.
One particular theme that creeps up on the viewer in Pinter’s works is the existential angst that can attack a working-class male intellectual at midlife. This is true of the protagonist in Monologue, unfulfilled by Beethoven, cats and cocoa and compensating with an emotionally vibrant fantasy life, and of the husband in Old Friends, who betrays by his accent that he worked his way up in the arts sector. He married accordingly and is now, semi-retired in a quiet coastal town, engaged in subtle hostilities with his posher and unhappy wife, which flare into open warfare when her insidious former flatmate comes for a visit. “How sensible and courageous of you to stay in such a silence,” she remarks to them. (While it is usually bad news to see two people on stage in a Pinter play, three people on stage are reliably very bad news indeed —see not only Stanley, Goldberg, and McCann, but also the exceedingly queasy menage-a-trois in The Basement.) Throughout Old Friends, a strangely literary and old-fashioned turn of phrase is used as a means of inter-class aggression, increasing the sense of distance between the characters. The hammer-fall is telegraphed fairly obviously, but it is nonetheless spine-chillingly vicious and instantly shifts the power dynamics between the trio: alliances shift and reform with startling speed, sexual humiliation and jealousy bubble beneath the surface. Only towards the end of the play does the overheated discourse loose the play from its moorings and evaporate the audience’s belief in the characters.
By contrast, A Slight Ache is not a successful play at any point: the unpleasantness of the two main characters is wildly overdone almost from the very beginning. This maladjusted, middle-class married couple of a certain age are so repulsive in their exploitative, cruel and hysterical ranting at a matchselling tramp (a man totally without agency, completely unlike the better-known figure in The Caretaker) that the play never achieves lift-off and so never crashes.
The jewel on this set in terms of both performances and structure, and the great masterpiece of this collection, is The Birthday Party, and I say this not out of any sort of childhood nostalgia (see above). It poses a fascinating riddle that can never be solved, although Efraim Sicher in his brilliant analysis (Beyond Marginality: Anglo-Jewish Literature After the Holocaust, 1985) comes very close. The context in which Goldberg and McCann operate and their reasons for tormenting Stanley are never revealed. There are various theories as to the identities of the pair, but the production on this set suggests strongly that they are East End thugs out to exact revenge on a former gang member —either that or a music-hall duo gone very badly wrong, on the hunt for their runaway pianist. (Sicher delightfully suggests that they may be an end-of-pier act.) Both characters are consistent with unpleasant ethnic stereotypes. McCann, a tightly-coiled spring, is clearly the heavy brought along to do the rough stuff, while Goldberg is the PR man, deploying his considerable verbal skills and interpersonal charm to deflect the landlady and her husband from the pair’s sinister plans for Stanley. Their target is also Jewish, as is made obvious by Goldberg’s mocking benediction, “Mazel tov, and may we only meet at simchas.” The irony, again, is a bit overdone: this is not a simcha, but a horror show. Ultimately the play seems to be about a sense of generalised existential fear in the postwar era, not only Jewish anxiety (which Goldberg interestingly seems to counter in his unreliable reminiscences of Anglo-Jewish continuity, his perfect childhood and family life and “The nicest piece of gefilte fish you could wish to see on a plate”), but also the psychological pressures of the atomic age, an interpretation supported by Sicher. Goldberg and Stanley both evoke an eternal English suburban order and tranquility (tea at Fuller’s and books from Boots), with Goldberg rhapsodising about waking up in the morning from a death-like state to “the sound of the lawnmower, all the little birds, the smell of the grass, church bells…” It is interesting and suggestive that the owners of the boarding house who look after Stanley remain fairly clueless as to what is going on between him and the other two. Stanley knows very well, but cannot communicate his danger to his protectors.
Pinter, who rejected organised religion as a young man, bafflingly suggested that Goldberg and McCann represent Judaism and Catholicism respectively. Apart from a bit of bludgeoning in the interrogation scene from both of them as to whether Stanley recognises “an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you,” there is very little evidence in the play to suggest that this is what Pinter meant. Goldberg, Sicher points out, seems to have a rather uncertain grasp on Judaism, while it is hinted that McCann has some connection with the IRA, his ‘Catholicism’ a thing of violent sectarian overtones (“That’s a Black and Tan fact”). One could take Pinter’s statement to its logical end point and suggest that, if Goldberg represents Judaism and McCann Catholicism, then the vague old couple with the cornflakes who run the boarding house obviously symbolise the Church of England.
In the production of The Birthday Party featured on this set, Pinter himself plays Goldberg, and it is the best performance in the whole collection. A marvel of perfect timing and inflection, Pinter’s Goldberg is a charming, dapper salesman, though one who never makes clear exactly what he is selling. Strangely, Pinter is far more likeable as Goldberg than as himself in the cold and stiff interview with Jeremy Isaacs that features in the extras. To be fair, however, this may be because Isaacs insinuates, with a judgment discernible just below the surface, that Pinter had difficulties with women, and receives a correspondingly prickly reaction —a conversation that itself is rather Pinteresque.
Overall, then, this is a mixed bag. It is interesting to compare Pinter’s screenplays with his plays: perhaps it is due to the minimalism demanded by film that his scripts do not suffer from the same lack of believability that sometimes confounds the viewer when watching characters verbally self-combust in his plays. The scripts are more restrained, more subtle, and therefore a good deal more disturbing —the extraordinary screenplay for Joseph Losey’s The Servant springs to mind, as do Accident and The Remains of the Day (uncredited, co-written with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). Pinter’s film scripts display a talent always in complete control, in a way that his plays do not. Nevertheless, this brilliant rendering of The Birthday Party alone justifies investing in this set, and all the plays are worth seeing, wrestling with, and pondering.--Isabel Taylor