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Mar 2009 Journal

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Harold Pinter: Words and silences

Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve, was one of the most remarkable literary talents to emerge from Anglo-Jewry and a strong candidate for the title of greatest British playwright of the twentieth century (admittedly in a thin field). His early plays, especially The Caretaker (1960) and The Birthday Party (1958), electrified the British stage with their astonishing ability to render the everyday speech rhythms of lower-class British urban life into poetic and dramatic cadences. Nearly 50 years later, I can still hear in my mind’s ear the intonations with which Donald Pleasence, as the tramp Davies, and Alan Bates, as the unpredictably violent Mick, brought their rambling, apparently incoherent exchanges in The Caretaker to dramatic life at the Duchess Theatre.

Pinter’s texts brought the best out of his actors. The film of The Birthday Party (screenplay by Pinter) features unforgettable performances from Robert Shaw as Stanley, the hunted lodger in his shabby seaside digs, from Sydney Tafler and Patrick Magee as Goldberg and McCann, the sinister pair who come for him, and from Dandy Nicholls as Meg, the half-suspecting landlady too lost in a make-believe world of feather-brained contentedness to act on her suspicions.

In the drumbeat duet between Goldberg, the East End Jew dripping with sentimentality, and McCann, the Irish thug, as they subject Stanley to an interrogation so laced with barely controlled violence that it unhinges his mind, Pinter created one of the nearest equivalents on stage to the nightmare interrogation scenes in George Orwell’s 1984 or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. But in Pinter’s play the indefinable menace of a motiveless persecution haunts the drab, humdrum realm of the seaside boarding houses familiar to Pinter from his days as a repertory actor. It is as if the absurd, unfathomable world of the plays of Samuel Beckett had been transferred from the sphere of high existential significance to the mean streets of down-at-heel English cityscapes, where conflicts that defy rational explanation are played out over cooked breakfasts and pairs of old shoes.

Admittedly, Pinter mined a narrow seam. Already in the plays of his middle period, like The Homecoming (1969) and Old Times (1971), one senses a certain repetitiveness, a mannered quality in the dialogue and a diminishing of dramatic power. This was evident in the recent revival of No Man’s Land (1975), which, despite a marvellously blank-faced performance from Michael Gambon as the writer Hirst, never quite caught fire. Even the detailed rendering of a chunk of London’s street map, that favourite set-piece of Pinter’s, works less effectively in No Man’s Land’s convoluted directions to Bolsover Street than do the Islington bus routes that feature so memorably in The Caretaker. The plays of Pinter’s last years scarcely bear comparison with his early work, while his politics forms a chapter apart. But his best-known works, with their trademark use of silences, have left a permanent legacy to the British theatre.
 

 

Anthony Grenville

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