The early Harold Pinter play that speaks volumes about our current moment
It’s a refreshing change these days to tune into a livestream play and not feel coerced to fall in line with a playwright’s ideology.
Harold Pinter, dead British Nobel Laureate, was a dramatist with strident political views. I once heard him deliver a harangue on American foreign policy at Princeton University that I feared might get him permanently barred by the State Department. Age didn’t mellow him. His letters to the editor, fired on a hair trigger, left a trail of gun smoke.
After dispensing with the subject of writing in his Nobel lecture, Pinter used the occasion to arraign U.S. leadership for war crimes. But in his plays, as the Old Vic’s production of “The Dumb Waiter” bore out, Pinter let his art do the talking. Don’t get me wrong: He’s still political even in his plays that don’t explicitly seem to be. But his politics are wholly embodied in the dramatic situation.
Sermonizing had no place in his playwriting. A dramatist who understood himself as a poet, he placed the language of human conflict under a microscope to expose our territorial natures. Characters in Pinter tussle in hilariously banal terms, often over the meaning of a turn of phrase. But the battle of semantics is a cover for a turf war that involves not just place but memory and reality. No modern playwright would have understood Donald Trump’s assault on truth better than Pinter.
In “The Dumb Waiter,” an early one-act that premiered in 1960, Pinter is still honing what will become his trademark style. The setup is one he returned to throughout his career: Two characters are holed up in a room, uneasily coexisting as they wait for the inevitable knock on the door that will shatter their precarious equilibrium.
Here, the outside menacingly makes itself known through a disused dumb waiter. Two hitmen, Ben (David Thewlis) and Gus (Daniel Mays), are in a windowless basement apartment awaiting instructions for their next job. Ben, sprawled on one of the beds with a newspaper, clucks in disbelief at outrageous tabloid stories — an old man is crushed after crawling under a truck, a girl kills a cat.
Gus, more domestically oriented, expresses discontent at the lack of creature comforts at their latest lair. The sheets aren’t fresh, the toilet doesn’t work properly, and there’s no change for the gas meter. How is he expected to knock someone off without his cup of tea?
Haunted by their last victim, a girl, Gus can’t shake the memory of the “mess” that was left behind. “Who clears up after we’re gone?” he nervously wonders.
“You mutt,” Ben, the senior of the two, replies. “Do you think we’re the only branch of this organization? ... They got departments for everything.”
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Martin Esslin included Pinter in his influential book “The Theatre of the Absurd,” and an irrational comic streak runs through “The Dumb Waiter.” But the Ionesco-tinged high jinks are imbued with a Kafkaesque threat. History lurks in the background — unobtrusive yet unmistakable.
An envelope of loose matches, unnervingly shoved under the door, is the first contact with the nefarious authority lurking on the other side. This special delivery rattles Ben and Gus: Is the boss sending some kind of coded message? Well, they’ll no doubt come in handy, even if Gus won’t be able to “light the kettle,” an expression whose imprecision brings the men almost to fisticuffs.
This short play hits its stride when the dumb waiter starts moaning and inside they find an order for food: “Two braised steak and chips. Two sago puddings. Two teas without sugar.”
“We’d better send something up,” says Ben. Gus immediately starts taking inventory of the snacks he has secreted in his bag. They send what they have: biscuits, a bar of chocolate, half a pint of milk, a packet of tea, an Eccles cake and a bag of chips.
Discovering the dumb waiter’s speaking tube, they apologize for the empty state of the larder. Ben hears complaints about the staleness of the cake, the sourness of the milk and the moldiness of the biscuits. A little later another food order arrives, followed by yet another, this one for scampi — a perfect Pinter punchline.
The demented logic, once set in motion, is unstoppable. The playwrights categorized in Esslin’s “theater of the absurd” are a disparate crew, diverging as much in style as in substance. No one would ever confuse a play by Beckett for one by Genet. But they are united in their commitment to communicating through stage metaphors that are not reducible to single interpretations.
The meaning of the plays, whether political or existential, is not paraphrasable. Their form is inseparable from their content. I’m not inclined to make an inflated case for “The Dumb Waiter,” though its influence vividly lives on in Martin McDonagh’s memorable film “In Bruges.” But experiencing this one-act again, I’m reminded of what set Pinter apart from his contemporaries.
“The Dumb Waiter” lampoons the subservience to authoritarian power by focusing on the behavior of the stooges. Pinter humorously captures their moral rationalizations, their willingness to answer even the most nonsensical of demands, the way their own brutality suffuses them with fear.
This livestream production, part of the “Old Vic: In Camera” series, had a brief run last weekend. The staging by Jeremy Herrin was straightforward. The setting had the feeling of a prison cell. There was no attempt to update the period or underscore the work’s topicality.
It was clear from the way Thewlis’ Ben made the room quake with his silences that he had the upper hand in the power dynamics. The frenzied chatter and restlessness of Mays’ Gus hinted at his targeted vulnerability. The performers stayed true to the laughable ordinariness of their characters.
Pinter would more fully realize his dramatic vision in “The Caretaker” and “The Homecoming,” but “The Dumb Waiter” is more than a sketch. Shorter than an hour long, the play reminds us of what theater can do when luring us into an autonomous world that resonates with our own but exists under the jurisdiction of art.
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