Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter

British playwright Harold Pinter succumbed to cancer this past week. I admire many playwrights, but Pinter is beyond category.

Pinter discovered something in drama just as surely as Einstein discovered something in physics. By his own account, it was just an intuition, as it was with Einstein. He was an actor who started a script called "The Room," for which he had only a vision of two characters in a room. The dialogue developed without a backstory, and without a plot. They spoke about nothing in particular, and they paused between lines.

What he had discovered, he later expressed this way: "There are two kinds of silence," he observed. One is the absence of speech; the other is a "torrent" of speech that a person uses to cover up something.

This insight taught me that the actor's most important job is to imagine what's happening between the lines. The insight carries through to real life.

My first reaction to Pinter was revulsion. In Drama 101 at Duke, I had been assigned a part in "The Collector," and I told professor John Clum that I didn't want to do it. My character's behavior just didn't make sense to me. For example, my character -- a good-for-nothing "kept man" -- didn't move when a jealous husband brandished a knife at him, even when the husband stood behind the armchair where my character lounged.  These were disgusting types of people, behaving inscrutably.

Dr. Clum asked if I could think of an animal that was like my character, and suddenly it all made sense: my character was a cat! He was all sensual experience, with no forethought, no loyalty, no goals but pleasure and security.  He was alert to danger, but afraid to move. In a cat's calculations, moving may be riskier than just crouching in an armchair.

Suddenly, the character's behavior was not only real, it was also very funny, without a lessening of the tension. Importantly for me, as a fundamentalist Christian in those days, the characters were in a hell of their own making - so moral judgment was implied.

Once I'd become a fan, I devoured every Pinter script I could find, and I can thus say with some authority that Pinter reached his zenith with his 1978 play BETRAYAL. This tells the story of a wife's affair with the husband's best friend, the discovery of the affair, and the dissolution of the marriage. Pretty standard stuff, but Pinter tells it backwards: the first scene takes place in 1977, in a furtive meeting between ex-lovers. The final scene is at the wedding reception, 1968. We hear the characters' reflections on the past, and then we get a fact check. You laugh and cringe at the same time to see how they've deceived themselves, year before year, reaching all the way back to the wedding.

After BETRAYAL, his plays shortened and veered off in another direction. I loved "A Kind of Alaska," a pretty straight-forward retelling of neurologist Oliver Sacks's account of awakening a middle-aged woman who had been in a virus-induced coma since early adolescence.

I stopped caring about Pinter after I read "Mountain Language." The Pinteresque dialogue here was applied to a stereotyped situation: some government official's interrogation of some innocent indiginous victims. Then I read some of Pinter's pronouncements about America, even leafing through a book of his "poems," which were all polemics. I stopped paying attention.

I find this weekend that I wasn't alone. London TIMES columnist Minette Marin writes, "It wasn’t just that his plays began to seem so much less inspired. He had written so many great ones that nobody could complain if he didn’t have any more arrows left in his quiver... What amazed me, more and more, were his enraged political outbursts. However critical one might be of US policy, his furious anti-Americanism – 'the most dangerous power that has ever existed' – was unworthy of an intelligent man. It is simply silly to compare American foreign policy with Nazi imperialism, as he did, and to insist that western governments are as evil as any of the worst in the world. " Noting other brilliant writers who were crackpots in politics (Tolstoy, Pound, and my favorite anti-American Graham Greene), she looks to the theory of "different intelligences" to explain how artists might produce brilliant stories and still be totally irrational and myopic in their views of the worlds around them.

Tim Walker, in a column for the London TELEGRAPH, acknowledges some truth-telling in Pinter's depiction of life, but dismisses his work in the end as ephemeral, meant only to shock, and already dated: "If one were to take a shorthand note of conversations one happened to overhear in such places as police stations, A&E departments and at the offices of social workers and transcribed every word – and every pause – I suspect it would all sound very Pinteresque indeed... These words may be true to life, but they are also in large measure frustrating, aimless and depressing. There is a dark side to the human psyche, but there is also a lighter, more optimistic and appealing side to it that Pinter chose never to acknowledge."

Not true. Last spring, preparing to see Pinter's re-working of SLEUTH (starring Michael Caine and Jude Law), I read an interview with Pinter in which he confessed that all the tension and hostility on view in his scripts were never present in his real life. For him, marriage (to historian Antonia Frazier), parenthood, friendship, sports, and life had been very happy.

Another critic for the TIMES, John Peter, reflects on Pinter's friendliness in person, his temper regarding slights and criticisms, and forgivingness. Peter reflects: "Like so many of his characters, [Pinter] deployed attack as a means of self-defence and investigation. ...His last theatre appearance was in Samuel Beckett’s one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape. He played it in a wheelchair. The great voice, still undiminished by pain, seemed to shake the walls at the Royal Court. He played Krapp as an angry man: angry at failure and at the passing of years, and grabbing the world by its throat. Pain, endurance and an invincible dignity: this was one of the great theatre experiences of my life."

Pinter used his craft to distill one aspect of universal experience on stage: how every conversation is in some way a competition for dominance -- do it my way, or see it my way, or tell me what I want to know. In the process, he made us cringe, and made us laugh. That's a good thing, and the experience of laughing at it is indeed optimistic. For me, that's better than sitting through "light - hearted" stuff about cute characters who fall in love.

When I was a very young drama teacher, not even a decade older than my students, I directed a group of four students in a full-length production of BETRAYAL. (We did have to turn "f***ing" into "scr**ing" but performed the rest of the script intact). They performed it one time only. The house was packed with family and friends. I recall laughter, and sharp intakes of breath. I recall the slow fade on the final tableau at the wedding reception, as the whole audience took in with horror the final truth that's revealed in Pinter's script. Those students -- Emily Powell, Paul Catherwood, and Thomas Crockett in the principle roles, and the younger actor Bill Hamilton as the waiter -- made an unforgettable night of theatre, thanks to what was real, and artful, and beautiful, in Harold Pinter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you know if Pinter had any cats for pets? Your characterization of cats may go way beyond those of zoologists.