Characteristics of Pinter's work
"That [Harold Pinter] occupies a position as a modern classic is illustrated by his name entering the language as an adjective used to describe a particular atmosphere and environment in drama: 'Pinteresque' "–placing him in the company of authors considered unique or influential enough to elicit eponymous adjectives. Susan Harris Smith observes: "The term 'Pinteresque' has had an established place in the English language for almost thirty years. The OED defines it as 'of or relating to the British playwright, Harold Pinter, or his works'; thus, like a snake swallowing its own tail the definition forms the impenetrable logic of a closed circle and begs the tricky question of what the word specifically means" (103). The Online OED (2006) defines Pinteresque more explicitly: "Resembling or characteristic of his plays. … Pinter's plays are typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses." The Swedish Academy defines characteristics of the Pinteresque in greater detail:
Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution. Pinter's drama was first perceived as a variation of absurd theatre, but has later more aptly been characterised as 'comedy of menace', a genre where the writer allows us to eavesdrop on the play of domination and submission hidden in the most mundane of conversations. In a typical Pinter play, we meet people defending themselves against intrusion or their own impulses by entrenching themselves in a reduced and controlled existence. Another principal theme is the volatility and elusiveness of the past.
Over the years Pinter himself has "always been very dismissive when people have talked about languages and silences and situations as being 'Pinteresque'," observes Kirsty Wark in their interview on Newsnight Review broadcast on 23 June 2006; she wonders, "Will you finally acknowledge there is such a thing as a 'Pinteresque' moment?" "No," Pinter replies, "I've no idea what it means. Never have. I really don't.… I can detect where a thing is 'Kafkaesque' or 'Chekhovian' [Wark's examples]," but with respect to the "Pinteresque", he says, "I can't define what it is myself. You use the term 'menace' and so on. I have no explanation of any of that really. What I write is what I write."
"Comedy of menace"
- See main article: Comedy of menace
Once asked what his plays are about, Pinter lobbed back a phrase "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet", which he regrets has been taken seriously and applied in popular criticism:
Once many years ago, I found myself engaged uneasily in a public discussion on theatre. Someone asked me what was my work 'about'. I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of enquiry: 'the weasel under the cocktail cabinet'. This was a great mistake. Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my own work. But for me the remark meant precisely nothing.
Despite Pinter's protestations to the contrary, many reviewers and other critics consider the "remark", though "facetious", an apt description of his plays; for example: "Asked what his plays were about, Harold Pinter once notoriously quipped, 'the weasel under the cocktail cabinet'.… Although Pinter later repudiated this remark as facetious, it does contain an important clue about his relationship to English dramatic tradition" (Sofer 29); "Mr. Pinter … is celebrated for what the critic Irving Wardle has called 'the comedy of menace,' or as Mr. Pinter once joked, 'the weasel under the cocktail cabinet' " (Brantley, "Harold Pinter"; cf. "A Master of Menace" [multimedia presentation]).
In December 1971, in his interview with Pinter about Old Times, Mel Gussow recalled that "After The Homecoming [Pinter] said that [he] 'couldn't any longer stay in the room with this bunch of people who opened doors and came in and went out. Landscape and Silence [the two short poetic memory plays that were written between The Homecoming and Old Times] are in a very different form. There isn't any menace at all.' " Later, he asked Pinter to expand on his view that he had "tired" of "menace", and Pinter added: "when I said that I was tired of menace, I was using a word that I didn't coin. I never thought of menace myself. It was called 'comedy of menace' quite a long time ago. I never stuck categories on myself, or on any of us [playwrights]. But if what I understand the word menace to mean is certain elements that I have employed in the past in the shape of a particular play, then I don't think it's worthy of much more exploration."
"Two silences": a "continual evasion" of "communication"
Among the most-commonly cited of Pinter's comments on his own work are his remarks about two kinds of silence ("two silences"), including his objections to "that tired, grimy phrase 'failure of communication'," as defined in his speech to the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962, incorporated in his published version of the speech entitled "Writing for the Theatre":
There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.
We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase: 'failure of communication' … and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else's life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.
I am not suggesting that no character in a play can never say what he in fact means. Not at all. I have found that there invariably does come a moment when this happens, when he says something, perhaps, which he has never said before. And where this happens, what he says is irrevocable, and can never be taken back.
In his "Presentation Speech" of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature to Harold Pinter, in absentia, Swedish writer Per Wästberg, Member of the Swedish Academy and Chairman of its Nobel Committee, observes: "The abyss under chat, the unwillingness to communicate other than superficially, the need to rule and mislead, the suffocating sensation of accidents bubbling under the quotidian, the nervous perception that a dangerous story has been censored – all this vibrates through Pinter's drama."
Power and turf are always at issue in Pinter. You get to see in his plays how much the anatomy of our emotional entanglements is built on ever-shifting questions of who's up and who's down.
Whether the conflict is over primacy in a Darwinian family struggle ("The Homecoming"), control of the memories of long-ago events ("Old Times") or the psychological upper hand in a metamorphosing love triangle ("Betrayal"), his works are taut battlefields. Unlike Beckett, though, whose seminal plays such as "Waiting for Godot" are placed in barren, metaphysical landscapes, Pinter's tend toward cozier, bourgeois surroundings. In his hands these spaces seem as raw and terrifying as any heath.
Audiences do, at times, engage in head-scratching over Pinter's peculiar rhythms. As noted by Peter Hall, a friend who directed many of his 30 works for the stage, the playwright's eccentric cadences were challenging for actors, too: the long silences, shorter pauses and brief hesitations were ubiquitous features of his scripts. "The actors had to understand why there were these differences," Hall explained in his 1993 autobiography. "They chafed a little, but finally accepted that what was not said often spoke as forcefully as the words themselves."
Over time, Pinter's work became more overtly political, and his vehemence drew controversy. (As a young man, he claimed status as a conscientious objector.) He was outspoken in his outrage at the invasion of Iraq, and described in a speech in 2005 his reaction to the policies of the Bush and Blair administrations as arousing nausea.
Pinter saved his subtlety for his dramatic voice. His blink-of-an-eye 1988 play "Mountain Language" painted in four short scenes the terrors of a regime that stripped a minority population of its freedom, its dignity and finally, in banning the speaking of its language, even its words. To one who used them to such captivating effect, this truly would have seemed a crime against humanity.
In Words and in Silence, a Writer of Rare Power
Harold Pinter, prospector of 24-karat drama in the tension-racked spaces between words, died in London on Wednesday, at age 78. With his death, the pool of contemporary playwrights of international literary stature has been all but drained dry.
Although he expressed the views of a pacifist, Pinter wrote as if he held his finger on the pin of a grenade. In modernist classics such as "The Homecoming," "Old Times" and "No Man's Land," he devised characters who spoke in elliptical asides and enigmatic bursts. Violence of some nature was never out of the realm of possibility, even in his quietest plays. For Pinter was a connoisseur of subtext, of letting a story unfold on a living room set while a more savage one simmered in the crawl spaces of the mind. His characters routinely rattle each other with what never gains utterance.
His stark black-comic sensibility and economical use of language owed much to Samuel Beckett, the father of existential 20th-century drama. It was a debt that Pinter, who got his start as an actor in postwar Britain, readily acknowledged. When the Nobel Academy gave him the prize for literature in 2005, the act affirmed his link to Beckett, who had won it 36 years earlier. That they are among the few English-speaking dramatists to have received the award speaks to the nonpareil influence they both wielded over the style and force of the modern theater.