Well, that ruined Christmas Day. Round about 3.00 in the afternoon, the news flashed up that Harold Pinter had died the day before. Harold Pinter was my first love (dramaturgically speaking). I was about ten when I got a book about theatre because I was in the ‘drama club’ at school. This weird book had excerpts from (a variety of) plays and advice on how to direct a show. It included the interrogation scene from The Birthday Party, a virtuoso piece of 1950s surrealism that was both comically absurd and very uncomfortable in its hazing bombardment:
GOLDBERG. When did you last wash a cup?
STANLEY. The Christmas before last.
STANLEY. Lyons Corner House.
GOLDBERG. Which one?
STANLEY. Marble Arch.
GOLDBERG. Where was your wife?
STANLEY. In —
STANLEY. What wife?
GOLDBERG. What have you done with your wife?
MCCANN. He’s killed his wife!
GOLDBERG. Why did you kill your wife?
It later disintegrates into something close to a pure semiotic barrage:
MCCANN. You’re a traitor to the cloth.
GOLDBERG. What do you use for pyjamas?
STANLEY. You verminate the sheet of your birth.
MCANN. What about the Albigensenist heresy?
GOLDBERG. Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?
MCCANN. What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?
GOLDBERG. Speak up, Webber.
This kind of absurdism was stunning to me, but looking back I can see that was delighted me was both that it was new to see language being used so wierdly in theatre (our school plays were limited to nativities and dull kids plays) but also that it resonated with stuff I was hearing around me, in particular things like Monty Python: I’d already got tapes of Monty Python records and was able to repeat verbatim ‘The Cheese Shop’, ‘Argument’, ‘French Taunter’, all of which have similar torrential verbal qualities.
And that’s the thing. Harold Pinter is the most influential and important playwright writing in English since Shakespeare, but from where we are now it’s hard to see that, because the lessons he taught us have so completely permeated our theatre that people coming to Pinter anew often don’t see what all the fuss is about. David Hare has said that Pinter ‘cleaned the gutters of the language’, which is an artful way of both complimenting and belittling Pinter’s influence. Pinter didn’t just clean the gutters, he rebuilt the city. The landscape we walk on theatrically is the landscape he made. He’s kind of like The Beatles: popular music before and after The Beatles is like day and night; Pinter took theatrical language, reshaped it and taught us all how to write plays in a new way.
What does that involve? Technically – and boringly – his language is fiercely performative. It’s not what people are saying it’s that they are saying it and what they are doing by saying it. Theatrical language in mid-century theatre could be very sophisticated and elegant and witty (from opposite corners, Noel Coward and T. S. Eliot wrote some terrific dialogue – and both influenced Pinter) but the dialogue was often what we sometimes call ‘on the nose’. People often just said what they were thinking. Theatrically this tends to flatten scenes out, make them seem shallow, a little unengaging, sometimes a bit tubthumping or banal. (American playwrights often still write like this…) In other words, Pinter reinvented subtext. The great actor Michael Gambon says that the great thing about playing Pinter is that you have ‘six miles of subtext under you’. The language is action and it’s very rich.
But it’s also very simple. The Blessed Oliver Plunkett aside, Pinter took language back to basics. In the 20th century there was a long-running and somewhat futile attempt to revive poetic drama. In the first decade of the century, Stephen Phillips – an almost completely forgotten playwright – had three poetic dramas running simultaneously in the West End. A decade later, James Elroy Flecker had a smash hit with Hassan. In the 1930s, T S Eliot, armed with his dodgy and reactionary historical thesis about the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ tried to reconnect theatre and poetry with his intermittently successful Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot’s idea was that poetry should be sneaked into the theatre, through loose three-stressed lines, the poetic rhythm functioning as a kind of subterranean drumbeat, connecting the froth of the stage with the primeval sonority of verse. In the 1940s, Christopher Fry had a string of West End hits with plays like The Lady’s Not For Burning, which tacked in the opposite direction, relishing the lavish excess of poetry, building his speeches by piling metaphor upon metaphor, all in a cod-Shakespearean verse-lines (“Where in this small-talking world can I find a longitude with no platitude?” asks one of the characters).
But it never took. There were intermittent flashes of poetic drama but no full-scale revival. Until Pinter came along. Rather than insinuating poetry into the plays like a Trojan Horse (Eliot) or using it as gorgeous cake decoration (Fry), Pinter found a poetry in the patterns of everyday speech, and in the disposition of characters on a stage. Some of the greatest exchanges in Pinter’s plays are nothing on the page:
TEDDY. How’s the old man?
LENNY. He’s in the pink.
Doesn’t look like much does it? But on stage, it’s funny, creepy, surreal, a hint at abuse, a threat and a promise of violence to come. And of course there’s the pause. Many stupid things have been written about the pauses; Pinter used pauses in two ways – to control the rhythm of dialogue, and also as a line of dialogue: he wrote the moments where people are unable or choose not to speak. And they always do wonderful things to the dialogue around them. Look at the ending of The Birthday Party:
MEG. I was the belle of the ball.
PETEY. Were you?
MEG. Oh yes. They all said I was.
PETEY. I bet you were too.
MEG. Oh, it’s true. I was.
I know I was.
That pause is lethal. It adds a moment of reflection, a hesitation; it insinuates doubt into Meg’s speech, a crushing moment of perception that perhaps something had not gone quite right the night before – and then the curtain falls. It looks like nothing, but it’s a revolution in stage language.
Pinter’s originality was to synthesise a whole raft of strands of British drama: poetic drama found its way into the artful repetitions of his dialogue; his settings slotted him into a long tradition of working class realism; his refusal to explain and his touches of surrealism linked him to the absurdists; and some of his plays have aspects of menace and threat that come straight from the popular stage thrillers that he played in as an actor in the early 1950s.
The great influence on Pinter was Beckett. Beckett is often described as the greater writer; perhaps he was. But the difference between them is that Beckett reminded us that the theatre could have the status of great art; Pinter reminded us that great art could also be great theatre. Beckett very quickly headed off into the direction of brilliant but increasingly minuscule theatrical experiments. Pinter created a whole theatrical language in which a thousand or more plays have been written.
In fact, Pinter’s everywhere. Playwrights, even if they don’t know Pinter, are influenced by him. He’s in the bloodstream. We ship with Harold Pinter already loaded onto our hard drives. He remade the land and we walk on that land.
I get quite star-struck with famous writers. (I can barely meet Adam Roberts’s gaze, for instance…) About two years ago, I was cycling out of the British Library and I passed an old man with a Dylan cap walking slowly, with a stick. As I glanced at his profile, I recognised him as Harold Pinter. I came to a sudden stop. It was probably not intentional. I just hit the brakes. Are you Harold Pinter? I asked. He looked at me and nodded. I said the first thing that came into my head.
I love your plays, I said, you mean so much to me.
Again, he looked at me, appraisingly. Pinter is known to be ‘difficult’, sometimes rude, aggressive. He suffers fools particularly ungladly. Had I said something foolish? He moved his stick from his right hand to his left and extended his hand for a shake. I shook his hand and said thank you. Then I cycled away.
Thank you, Harold, and good bye.