Giving Us Pause

For a brief time and a lucky affluent elite, the New York theater shrugged off its summer doldrums to become what I can't resist calling a Pinter ponder-land. Better planned and containing better-executed productions than in previous summers, the theater component of this year's Lincoln Center Festival actually offered its audiences brain stimulus instead of imported chic. People in the lobbies were really discussing Pinter's plays, or comparing the productions to those they'd seen earlier. It had, in that sense, the feeling of a festival: Harold Pinter—as playwright, director, and actor—was a source of honor, pleasure, and contemplation, not a cheap excuse to jam a bunch of shows into a short time.

And Pinter proved worthy of the attention. Having been out of town, I caught only the two double bills that closed the festival, but the four pieces they contained showed the playwright's power, and his supple technique, as well as his remarkably broad tonal range. Political thriller, psychological drama, social satire, tragic ritual—the four works managed to touch among them most of the basic impulses of theater, moving as they did so from low comedy to a transcendent chill and back again. In the little rooms where people say inexplicable things to each other, their remarks shot through with even less explicable pauses, Pinter can evoke vast realms of human experience. For all the repetition and stasis that famously mark his writing, the effect of his work when taken in bulk is exhilaratingly multicolored.

This proved true even when the play didn't live up to Pinter's best, or when the production didn't live up to the play, both of which occurred in Katie Mitchell's staging of Ashes to Ashes and Mountain Language. I've always felt that there are several Harold Pinters: the genuinely substantive artist; the artist at play, perpetrator of the revue sketches and similar trifles; and—every fourth major play or so—the manufacturer, laboring to squeeze another large work out of a temporarily depleted stock. As at its 1999 New York premiere, Ashes to Ashes still sat there, a showily unsolvable puzzle, in all its smug factitiousness. Mitchell stripped it of ambiguity in performance, and her actors, Anastasia Hille and Neil Dudgeon, played it at top speed.

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

Far from heightening the play's suspense, this haste merely made it seem more arbitrary. A woman and a man about whom we know virtually nothing—they may be lovers, husband and wife, or patient and shrink—tussle verbally over what may or may not be a set of traumatic memories, freighted with Holocaust-like images, from the woman's past. When Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn played it at the Roundabout, she was able to suggest that the horrifying scenes—babies being ripped from their mothers' arms, people with suitcases marching into the sea to drown—belonged to her in some inexplicable way, lodged in her memory either by experience or by imaginative sympathy. Strathairn's mixture of bumbling and brutality, though not on her level, at least established the helpless absurdity of the man's efforts to locate the source of her nightmarish visions.

Hille's rattling straightforwardness, hardly changing tone from banal domesticity to recollected horror, merely suggested that the woman was delusional; Dudgeon's gruff, mechanical interrogation of her conveyed only the impatience of a frustrated husband waiting for the mental-home attendants to haul her away. Dubious as the play is—morally dubious in using its highly charged images as fodder for an intellectual parlor game—it deserves better, and carries more weight, than Mitchell's production conveyed.

Mountain Language (1996), minuscule in size but massively superior to its companion piece in substance, was equally mishandled, with the actors dimly lit, upstaged by a barrage of overamplified sound effects: low-flying helicopters, guard dogs barking, echoing footsteps, clanging metal doors. These obnoxious bits of Art Brut decoration, familiar from every prison movie, came close to burying what the tiny, acutely disturbing work is about—which is, as its title implies, language. At a remote prison camp, women wait in the snow to see their husbands and sons, badgered by the guards and menaced (one old woman has been bitten) by their unseen dogs. The women, we're told, speak a "mountain language" that's forbidden in the prison; the one who doesn't (Hille), and who defends the old woman, appears to be an outsider, an "intellectual." But when finally given permission to speak in their native tongue, the people are silent, and we can see why: The guards' language, like their own, can be a dangerous code. The sentences are simple, but every line poses a new problem of interpretation: Are the women being mocked, menaced, lied to, offered help, shown mercy, threatened, or commiserated with? All are possible at various points, but the slightest wrong guess may prove fatal. Yes, the noise of helicopters and clanging doors is scary too, but we've had that scare before; this scare is one only a Pinter could provide.

The Room, his first produced play, demonstrated that Pinter has known the best ways to scare us all along. How amazing that this perfect—and perfectly terrifying—hour of drama is so rarely produced. I missed its New York premiere in 1964—more fool I; the Rose, who won an Obie, was the superb Frances Sternhagen—and can't ever remember hearing of any other American production. It's hard to imagine one that could improve, though, on Pinter's own staging, with Lindsay Duncan—speaking of superb—as Rose, and diminutive Henry Woolf as the eerily prying landlord, Mr. Kidd, a role he created back in 1957, when he must have looked like the character's infant grandson.

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."

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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