Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Harold Pinter story

The closest I ever came to Harold Pinter - the plays, that is, not the man - was during my days as a college student in Delhi some years ago, a marvellously happy and carefree time of life. I was a minor member of the college dramatics society, carrying out various kinds of backstage work while my actor friends performed, and ferrying bread pakoras from the college canteen to them while they rehearsed.

This almost daily contact with the world of theatre - watching play texts being performed dozens of times in rehearsal, observing the way actors gave life to their lines and used their bodies, spending a great deal of time in darkness stageside scrabbling around with light controls - made me more interested in drama than in any other form, except perhaps poetry. In addition to all the playwrights on my English degree syllabus - Sophocles, Shakespeare, Congreve, Bernard Shaw, Beckett - I fished around in bookshops and libraries (and there were two excellent ones, the British Council library and the Max Mueller Centre library, just down the road from our flat in Connaught Place, a great privilege) looking for other plays to read. I remember reading and enjoying Marivaux and Moliere, Badal Sarkar's Evam Indrajit, Georg Buchner's hugely powerful Woyzeck, and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.

I even wanted to write plays. It seemed the most prestigious work in the whole world. Imagine writing something and then not just having someone read it, but having a whole band of people, from director to actors to backstage hands, totally give over their lives to it for a month or more, commit to memory its every line and its every pause - there could no honour as grand, as terrific, as this! Inspired by Buchner, I began writing a mightily tragic play called Ilyas, and wrote a grand total of two immensely vivid, powerful scenes - or so they seemed to me then as I paced up and down my room - before, for some unaccountable reason, I gave it up. In a curiously appropriate way that play remained, just like Buchner's, an unfinished fragment.

On one weekend visit to the British Council library, having always heard Pinter spoken of as a giant of British theatre, and finding on the shelf in front of me a long row of small blue volumes of his plays, I borrowed one of these volumes and took it home. I regret to say that I cannot even remember what its name was - it may have been The Birthday Party. The reason I cannot remember its name is that, that night, I began to read the play and found it very different, far more minimal and pared down, and with a less clearly delineated narrative structure, than any play I'd read before. The characters didn't seem to be saying anything very profound, and they seemed to palaver on and on about one inconsequential thing after another. The famous Pinterian pauses seemed to me like just so much emptiness; I wanted words. Feeling faintly bored, I closed the book and fell asleep, and when I picked it up again it was only to return it to the library the next weekend.

And that was as close as I have ever come to the plays of Harold Pinter. On leaving college, I slowly began to also leave behind the world of theatre, which at one point had consumed my days. I began to read more novels than plays, and, just as significantly, I became enraptured by film, which began to seem to me a more powerful medium than theatre, able to capture every grain of reality rather than merely gesture at it as the stage did. I gradually stopped going to see plays. Although I now know a good deal more about Pinter than I did then, and might like him better, I now prefer novels, stories, films, poetry, all of these to drama, not to mention cricket (of which Pinter is also a great fan). I must accept I may never read Pinter again.

And there you are - it's amazing how it's possible to write three or four perfectly good paragraphs about a writer even if one hasn't read any of his work. And now it's time, as always, to call up other voices who have actually read and seen Pinter, and who'll offer you something on all those aspects of Pinter's work that I might have inadvertently missed.

When Pinter's work first appeared on the British stage in the fifties it initially received the same reaction of incomprehension and bewilderment, as Robert McCrum writes in this essay, as it did from me coming to his work for the first time in 1999. Among the insights into the logic of Pinter's drama found in McCrum's piece is this illuminating quote by Pinter himself: "One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." Ben Brantley offers another assessment of Pinter in the New York Times here (registration required). In this piece from 2001 Michael Billington, Pinter's biographer, speaks to him about political theatre. But the most interesting of all the essays on Pinter I've come across, one that is intelligently critical of him, is this one by Theodore Dalrymple, himself one of the finest essayists of his generation. It is called "Reticence or Insincerity, Rattigan or Pinter", and attempts to read changes in British society over the last half-century through a comparison of the work of Pinter and the stalwart of British theatre before him, Terence Rattigan.

Pinter wrote plays, works meant to be performed, so it will not do for us to ignore accounts of how his work comes across in performance. In this piece, the theatre critic Margaret Croydon reports on the experience of watching three Pinter plays at the 2001 Lincoln Festival, one of them starring Pinter himself in the lead role. Like Dalrymple, Croydon is moved by some of Pinter's work but feels less warmly towards other parts of his oeuvre. In this piece from 1993 (registration required) Janet Maslin writes about Pinter's stage adaptation of Kafka's novel The Trial. The director Karel Reisz talks about the experience of working on one of Pinter's plays here, and in this piece several leading lights of the British stage talk about the experience of working with Pinter in different capacities. Pinter's has also done a great deal of work for the cinema, including two dozen screenplays, and in this piece Billington argues that the screenplays constitute "a significant second canon to the plays".

And finally, for a little light entertainment after all that serious reading, let's now turn to this exchange between Pinter and a freelance journalist after Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize. The transcript of the conversation appears here on the Nobel Prize website, and this is how it goes in its entirety. There is something comical about it from the very beginning: one imagines this is how a character in the Pinterian universe might react if he found out he'd won the Nobel Prize:

Harold Pinter – Interview
Telephone interview with Harold Pinter after the announcement of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, October 13, 2005. Interviewer is Marika Griehsel, freelance journalist.
– Hello. Good morning.
– Good morning, good morning, Mr Pinter. Congratulations. I’m calling from the official website of the Nobel Foundation.
– Yes. Well, thank you very much.
– It’s fantastic news for us here; and I would like to hear what your thoughts were when you received the news.
– Well, I’ve ... I’ve been absolutely speechless. I am ... I’m overwhelmed by the news, very deeply moved by the news. But I can’t really articulate what I feel.
– You didn’t have any idea it could come your way, did you?
– No idea whatsoever! No. So I’m just bowled over.
– There’s so much to talk about. But I would like just to ask you what, in your career, you think has been the most important, what has the most ...
– I cannot answer ... I can’t answer these questions.
– No, I understand.
– There’s nothing more I can say, except that I am deeply moved; and, as I say, I have no words at the moment. I shall have words by the time I get to Stockholm.
– You will be coming to Stockholm?
– Oh, yes.
– Okay. Thank you, Sir.
– Okay?
– Thank you.
– Thank you very much.
– Thank you.
"I cannot answer ... I can’t answer these questions" - what a fine example that is of the Pinterian pause, communicating the tumult of strong feelings just as much as the words either side of it.
And that's enough for today; thank you very much...and I'm off now. Thank you.


Riot said...

It's not for nothing that people are hooked to this blog. I meant.. the last line.

AskmeWH said...


I also performed some stage dramas... after read this article, i remember my school days... thanks for sharing dude.