Giving Us Pause

Rose is—or maybe isn't—Mrs. Bert Hudd; the titular room is the one in Mr. Kidd's house where she and her near silent spouse equivalent reside. In Mr. Kidd's house there seem to be many mansions: Nobody's quite sure how many floors there are, and a visiting couple is uncertain whether they've come up the stairs or down them. At some point Rose and Bert seem to have lived in the basement, a concept Rose doesn't relish. The advent of a mysterious figure, a "blind Negro" named Riley who calls Rose "Sal" and says, "Your father wants you to come home," confirms the suspicion that Rose, who never goes out, has something to hide, and that her past—or maybe her unpleasant future—is catching up with her. The room, the coziness of which everyone praises, is her fool's paradise.

Wonderful in itself, the clean, breezy assurance with which Pinter strides past all of naturalism's niggling questions gives the play an astonishing lightness of spirit, for all the dark matters it adumbrates. At the same time, cunningly, he never violates naturalism: Each event we see could happen in an ordinary day; each line we hear could be spoken in its situation. Rose, the embittered expectancy of this unfair state, is a typical banal person; the hidden story that makes her dull day a living terror is also a touch of grace that makes it transcendent. She's the working-class housewife as tragic heroine, without the pumped-up, false dramatics that occur when stories about such people are invented and explained. Pinter's story, left untold, grips the heart, and Duncan, sagging her weary way from teapot to slop bucket, gave the weariness heroic splendor.

The splendor turned to glitter and giddiness in The Room's companion piece, Pinter's latest play, Celebration, a snaggletoothed comedy set in a luxurious restaurant, where two brothers, apparently upscale gangsters, and the two sisters to whom they're married are celebrating one couple's wedding anniversary, though both pairs seem to be bonded only by mutual loathing. At an adjacent table, a young banker, whose business seems to be equally shady but higher-class and less violent, is trying to prod his wife, who seems to have a promiscuous past, into soothing his ego, shattered by some business rebuff about which we hear little. We hear a lot, much of it hilarious, about tangled relations and mutual deceits; the barrage of contradictory revelations is set in a framework of eulogies for a civilization that has lost its meaning, in which no one's role is fixed and culture has no illuminating power. Both parties have been to the opera, which has made no impression; the gangsters think it was the ballet; the banker's wife recalls "a lot of singing."

Keith Allen, Lia Williams, Lindsay Duncan, and Andy de la Tour in Celebration: table frettings
photo: Lincoln Center Festival 2001
Keith Allen, Lia Williams, Lindsay Duncan, and Andy de la Tour in Celebration: table frettings

A young waiter (played with droll pathos by Danny Dyer) continually oversteps his bounds to bore both tables with openly absurd reminiscences of his grandfather, who seems to represent all of world culture, past and present. When the tipsily friendly couples depart, making deals and threats behind each other's backs, he remains, still interjecting his fictive memories into the empty room—a stand-in for the author, or for the theater itself, still maintaining a pose of civility in an uncivil world. Propriety, one sees, has been to Pinter what apartheid was to Fugard—a beloved enemy that could be counted on to produce dynamic tension in the work of those who internalized but resisted it. Without it, he seems to say, there's nothing but a violence that no longer shocks and laughter at the absurdity of being sincere in a void. The ominous pause so characteristic of Pinter, you might say, now arrives at the play's end.

Read other Voice reviews of Harold Pinter's work:
Charles McNulty on The Homecoming, A Kind of Alaska, and One for the Road.
Charles McNulty on Pinter's adaptation of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
Michael Feingold on Ashes to Ashes.
Michael Feingold on Betrayal.
David Finkle on The Hothouse.

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