I can’t remember my first introduction to Pinter, but over the course of my Gap Year I devoured his plays and entered Uni with him as my favourite play-wright. Thanks to some ace tutors who were experts in the area, I spent a good few modules unpacking Pinter’s famous pauses.
What was it about Pinter I loved? As a language boff, I loved how power games are played using only words, and little action. I loved his political undertones, and how in later years his political activism was a beacon for writers and artists everywhere to not only write about, but grapple with, right-ring and tyrannical systems.
In The Caretaker, the figure of Davies is problematic in 2016 as a scrounger. He’s a down-and-out, his he’s a shirker and manipulator and, sympathetically a lost soul, but it’s also too easy to brand him as lazy against the brothers Aston and Mick. Worrisome where the government and the press whip up paranoid against the working classes as scroungers (not that many working class folks were in this matinee performance at the Old Vic). Spall at times cartoon-ished the chracrter, playing for laughs and gibbering, compared with David Bradley’s a few years ago who was a more threatening menacing presence. There never seemed much danger on stage, and while it was a very funny production, it has the feel of a sitcom rather than a text from the birth of ‘theatre of menace’.
But I think my favourite aspect of Pinter’s writing is the theory that all his characters exist within the same shared universe, just like the shared universes of DC, Marvel, Star Wars, Quentin Tarintino and theoretically Pixar.
Ben and Gus in The Dumb Waiter work as a pair of hitmen just like Goldberg and McCann act as interrogators and kidnappers in The Birthday Party. There’s no real hint these two are gangsters, or even criminals. They don’t seem to question the legality of their actions, only Gus is challenged by the morality. Police are never mentioned. The organisation is shady, could it be the same organisation that Nicholas works for in One For The Road? Could Stanley in The Birthday Party end up like Victor in OFTR? Are the characters in New World Order, Party Time and Celebration also high-ranking officials? Do their governments institute the camps in Mountain Language? Do they run The Hothouse? Was Aston from The Caretaker in The Hothouse?
The fact is, Pinter loves presenting characters in power, and it would be easy to say that his plays all explore the people pulling the strings, but with the exception of Mountain Language and OFTR, we never really see the characters suffering at the bottom. The inhabitants of the Hothouse are never seen, the to-be-deceased of New World Order have no presence.
Or do we? His world is littered with tramps, from Davies the tramp to Riley in The Room. The Birthday Party’s Stanley is something of a person living off-the-radar, the stranger in A Slight Ache.
But the working classes do suffer a total break-down of language and control. The ruling classes, from day 1, have been twisting language. How can the working class ever change their world when they don’t understand the language of their world?
Victoria Station features the total failure of a simple day-to-day situation, Last To Go shows total disconnection, The Basement a circular piece of combat, A Slight Ache defining and redefining a stranger, Family Voices shows a home without a heart, in The Homecoming the characters are locked in a struggle with their masculinity, in Precisely the speaker has nothing but bitter memories.
Where do the ‘memory play’ characters of A Kind of Alaska and Betrayal fit in? Doctors and publishers. Doctors who define medical conditions, publishers who define text.
No Man’s Land, though Pinter’s most self-referential play and far from my favourite, is perhaps the greatest insight. The two writers. One a great writer, one struggling. Are they happy? Not really, but that’s not unusual for Pinter’s characters. But the world is a No Man’s Land of language. We can’t get anywhere. We have been trapped by powers who rephrase, rework and retool meanings. It constantly shifts, and yet remains the same. Pinter’s locations, characters and plots change, and yet remain the same.
Avoidance. Evasion. Radical. Extremist. Domestic. Contracts. Terms & conditions. Safety. Scrounger. Red Tape. Education. Value. Reform. Ban. Welfare. Unemployed. Modernising. Nimbyism. Markets. Assets. Worker. Disabled. Nationality. Relevant. Quality. Democracy. Who owns, controls and (re)defines these words?
I’d like to make one further interjection.