Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Pinter Play

This past weekend, Joshua and I attended a performance of Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” at Central Square Theater in Cambridge.

It was a last-minute diversion on our part, prompted by the fact that Josh had studied all day Saturday and wanted to get out of the apartment for a few hours on Saturday night.

Over the course of the previous two weekends, we had already seen every other play in Boston we had judged to be worth seeing, leaving “The Caretaker” our only remaining option.

Two weekends ago, we had taken my brother to performances of “Mister Roberts” and “Kiss Me, Kate”. One weekend ago, we had taken my parents to a performance of “The Savannah Disputation”. Over both weekends, we had tried to match guests with plays we believed they might enjoy—and, had the production not been so poor, we might have attended “Kiss Me, Kate” a second time in order that my parents could see it.

My brother had no interest in “The Caretaker”. My parents had seen the play a couple of times and did not want to attend the Boston production. Consequently, “The Caretaker” had not been on our list of events for out-of-town guests the previous two weekends.

Neither Josh nor I had seen the play until Saturday night.

“The Caretaker”, published and first performed in 1960, was the play that made Pinter’s reputation. A menacing tale of two brothers that take in a vagrant, “The Caretaker” is full of the devices that came to typify Pinter’s work: silences, non sequiturs, interruptions, abrupt changes of subject, characters talking past each other, veiled menace constantly lurking beneath the surface. Over time, such devices became clichés.

Some of the dialogue in “The Caretaker” is very, very good—but much of it is not. The text should have been subjected to three or four more revisions in order to eliminate the dead spots, of which there is more than one in each of the three acts.

The play tries to maintain a fine line between tragedy and comedy, but Pinter was unable to find the right balance. The seams show.

Much of “The Caretaker” is borrowed from Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, playwrights that had mastered “absurdist” theater of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s much more effectively than Pinter.

There are pages and pages of early Albee in “The Caretaker”. I would bet my life that Pinter was studying Albee’s early works in excruciating detail at the time he wrote “The Caretaker”, obtaining copies of Albee’s plays straight from the printer even before the ink had dried. Pinter, clearly, had memorized “The Zoo Story”—and Albee should have sued for plagiarism.

“The Caretaker” is stale today, a relic of the 1960’s.

All too obviously, the play is the work of an embittered outsider railing against the establishment—Pinter’s background was decidedly lower-class, and he was a Jew in anti-Semitic Britain, never a good thing—and Pinter mined much the same dull ground John Osborne trod at the very same time (although Pinter camouflaged the dreariness of his dramas in new dressings).

Can “The Caretaker” be successfully revived today? I am not confident it is possible, although I would not use the Boston production as a guide in order to answer that question. The Boston production was not good. A better production might have revealed the play in a better light.

“The Caretaker” must be very hard for actors to perform because much of the dialogue inhibits an actor’s ability to create a rhythm onstage. The Boston actors had a lot of trouble creating and sustaining a rhythm. One of the consequences was that the play did not come off—it did not “play”.

Further, only one of the Boston actors was up to the demands of his role. That particular actor was indeed quite good, but he completely overshadowed the other players.

Over the last thirty years, Pinter’s plays have fallen by the wayside. His final major play, “Betrayal”, was written in 1978, three decades before his death. After “Betrayal”, Pinter was never again to enjoy commercial or critical success.

Pinter’s work is not often revived today—and, when it is, the runs are always of very limited durations. His plays have never caught on with the public.

Moreover, Pinter’s plays have never carried much resonance beyond the times in which they were written. The plays are peculiar artifacts from The Pre-Thatcher Age, the 1960’s and 1970’s, a period during which Britain was quite literally falling apart.

Pinter’s plays are emblematic of, as well as remnants from, those unhappy times. A splash of cold, bracing water—the Thatcher reforms—was to place those two miserable decades into perspective. Similarly, a splash of cold, bracing water reveals self-pity to be at the root of Pinter’s work. Pinter as playwright is, fundamentally, juvenile—and very unpleasant.

In addition to his work as a playwright, Pinter pursued three other lines of work.

One was acting.

Pinter appeared with some frequency, but without much distinction, on stage, on the screen, and on British television.

A second was screenwriting.

Pinter’s work as a screenwriter is impossible to assess at present, as more and more information now arises establishing that screenplays for which Pinter was credited as author had to be rewritten by other hands. There may be little or none of Pinter’s work in the finished screenplays for the films by which Pinter is best known.

Pinter never addressed this particular issue during his lifetime—Pinter was not the most honest or honorable of men—but the authorship of the “Pinter” screenplays is now a wide-open question. Much additional information on this subject is certain to come to light over the next ten and twenty years.

A third was directing for the stage.

With the right material (and within a very narrow range), Pinter was an exceptionally fine stage director. I have attended three plays directed by Pinter, and all three plays received faultless productions. Pinter was a born theater director, perhaps the equal of Peter Hall.

Directing for the stage was Pinter’s true métier. Pinter was a much finer director than playwright.

My brother and I saw Pinter once. We saw him in London in 2004 as we passed the stage door of the Comedy Theatre in the West End. At the time, Pinter had been directing Simon Gray’s “The Old Masters” at the Comedy Theatre, which my brother and I attended during that 2004 trip.

At the time, Pinter was dying of cancer, although he looked perfectly fine (for Pinter) from a distance of eight feet.

I recognized him at once. As soon as we had walked a few yards out of earshot, I turned to my brother and said, “That was Harold Pinter.” My brother was skeptical until he saw Pinter’s photograph in the program booklet a short time later.

In life, Pinter was a loathsome individual. A man utterly without scruples, he was incapable of uttering a truthful word.

He was ungenerous and unkind, even cruel, to those closest to him. He betrayed virtually everyone with whom he came into contact. He was the supreme nihilist, standing against everything but standing for nothing, living life only to please his own base instincts.

Pinter was not an educated or a scholarly or a sophisticated man. He did not possess a first-class mind.

Pinter had received virtually no schooling, and was never offered a place at university. He spent his life attempting to mask those shortcomings, always trying to pass himself off as a public intellectual.

The British fell for it.

His only offspring, a son, did not. The son broke off contact with Pinter in the early 1980’s—and altered his surname. The son explained that he did not want to go through life bearing the same surname as his odious father.

Pinter was never to see his son again.

Pinter died last Christmas Eve.

The son did not attend Pinter’s funeral.


  1. “Pinter camouflaged the dreariness of his dramas in new dressings.”

    That takes me back to your vivisection of Ronald Harwood!

    Opinion about Pinter varies widely. We were subjected to a full week of debate about him over the holidays. The news of his death was broadcast on Christmas morning.

    Someone, I don’t remember who, pointed out that writers of Pinter’s generation were the ones defending him while younger writers were the ones dismissing him. The younger writers kept noting that Pinter was derivative. One called him Beckett-lite. Another said he “lacked a rich endowment”. Another said he was “not so much literary as histrionic”. The most cutting remark: “he confused semi-articulate dissatisfaction with existential profundity”.

    Did you know that Simon Gray died a few weeks before Pinter?

    Calvin and I saw the Simon Gray play you and Alex saw. I had not known you and Alex saw it, too.

    Is it possible we may have been at the same performance?

  2. I suppose it is possible that we were at the same performance, but I think it is unlikely. I recall that the performance we attended was sparsely attended. I also recall that my brother and I sat next to some Germans, who talked to themselves throughout the first act. Happily, they nodded off as soon as the second act began.

    My brother and I liked the play.

    Yes, I was aware that Simon Gray died.