Some years ago, the actor Donald Madden and I spent an evening with Robert Shaw and Mary Ure after a performance of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” in which they were starring on Broadway. During the conversation, Madden brought up the subject of the famous “Pinter pauses,” wondering if, during rehearsals, there were protracted discussions of the meaning of each one. “Oh no!” chirped Miss Ure, “if you ask, he’ll tell you to walk down stage left, count to eight, turn around, and punch home your laugh. That’s it. No rubbish. All very theatrical.” In this book, David T. Thompson fully explores this theatricality, and finds it shot through the very essence of Pinter’s plays, in which he believes it is epiphanized into great drama, against such critics as Bernard Levin, Clive James and Nigel Dennis, who find the plays simply meretricious displays of theatrical techniques.
Thompson examines Pinter’s career as an actor in provincial English repertory theaters, where he appeared in about 100 plays in 11 years. From actor-managers Anew McMaster and Donald Wolfit, he learned how to create and maximize theatrical effects; from the recent West-end chestnuts like “Ring for Catty,” “The Uninvited Guest” and “Doctor Jo,” he absorbed characters, plots and bits of staging; from music hall comedians like Max Miller, he picked up stylized speech patterns and learned about the comic uses of props and costumes.
Thompson establishes beyond question that Pinter transformed all the theatrical commonplaces he found in his acting career into the strange new artifacts and techniques of his unique theatrical world. This is a world in which, as Ralph Richardson said, “There isn’t any plot . . . and the characters are never really rounded off. They don’t quite know who they are.” And in which, as Mr. Thompson says, “Reality is negotiated through dialogues between characters, through verbal stratagems, and the adoption of different personae.” The found objects of Pinter’s acting career are skewed, their edges blurred, to accommodate Pinter’s basic idea, that “there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.”
As I read through this book, I thought it was focused on the wrong things. What Thompson keeps showing us about Pinter is theatricality and innovation, when what is in question here is profundity. One gets to the end of this book seeing the brilliance of much of Pinter’s construction (Stanley and the drum in “The Birthday Party,” Ruth and the glass of water in “The Homecoming”), and knowing what a clever man he was to have contrived it; but the question of whether or not Pinter’s world of negotiated unknowable reality is interesting and profound, or truncated and shallow, is never really engaged.
Do we see in Pinter’s plays the kaleidoscopic permutations of a great dramatic imagination, or the sleight-of-hand tricks of a basically simple and jejune mind, perhaps the most over-inflated Johnny One Note of the modern theater? Donald Madden thought such plays as “The Caretaker” and “The Homecoming” were slicked-up half-hour vaudeville rags, with little to say and dressed up as “art” dragged out to eternity.
I disagree, but Thompson would have to do more than show that these plays are steeped in the theatrical background of a playwright as unique and original as he is seasoned, to refute Pinter’s critics. To do that, he would have to show that the plays are made of a dense, seamless fabric of character and dialogue, plot and theme, and thus are possessed of great economy of artistic means. This he has not done. It is as if he took the trouble to build a fine, sturdy pedestal, then forgot to put a statue on it.