A new Pinter play. So what?

The first new stage work by Harold Pinter in three years, 'Ashes to Ashes', opens tomorrow. Some consider him Britain's greatest living playwright, but is he overrated? Paul Vallely explores the legend
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The Independent Online
Two reasons, said Melvyn Bragg, when I asked him to explain the intensity of the fanfare over the new play by Harold Pinter which opens in London tomorrow. "He's a remarkably fine playwright with an amazing command of language, character, rhythm and mystery. And in recent years his new plays have become rarer."

Indeed: it is three years since the last fullish-length Pinter, and there was a full 15-year gap before that - a pause that might be described more as Beckettian than merely Pinteresque. And yet there are those who feel that when it comes to public enjoyment of his work, the man often described as the nation's greatest living playwright is honoured more in the breach than the observance. "I've got a Harold Pinter problem," confesses this newspaper's theatre critic, Paul Taylor. "I wish I felt he was as great a dramatist as I know him to be. But somehow I don't feel it on my pulse."

Such, of course, is not the received wisdom. "He's a great, up there with the best - Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht and Beckett. Wherever you travel you find his major plays are now part of the world repertory," says Michael Billington, chief theatre critic for The Guardian, whose major study, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, is to be published by Faber & Faber in November. "He is quite simply one of the leading playwrights of the century," according to the leading academic critic, Martin Esslin. "His early work in the 60s and 70s was pioneering. It created a new type of theatre. What he's done since may not be as revolutionary but he has maintained an extraordinarily high standard. He's one of the best writers of dialogue in the world."

So why is Pinter today more revered than loved? "His plays are elliptical," says Billington. "They require the audience to use their imagination. He leaves out what other dramatists put in - he omits a lot of the naturalistic background and detail. What he gives you is the poetic essence of a situation and leaves it to the audience to supply the rest."

What they supply can be fiercely inconsistent. Ian Herbert, editor of the critic's bible, Theatre Record, found that to his cost at the first night of Pinter's last play, Moonlight, a work about mortality and death. "I thought it was extraordinarily funny," he recalls. "I was laughing my head off and then I realised that everyone around me wasn't. Everyone else seemed to think it was a tragedy, though I was pleased to see that when it was staged in Germany everyone there thought it was a comedy too."

It is such ambivalence that makes Pinter resonate with theatre-goers around the world. "He speaks to everybody in different ways," says Herbert. "Because he leaves you to fill in the gaps yourself, it is open to everyone to make their own interpretations."

But isn't there a touch of the emperor's new clothes about such a blank screen on which it is possible for everyone to project their own incarnations of reality? Not so, says Martin Esslin, referring back to his seminal work on Pinter and others, The Theatre of the Absurd, published more than two decades ago. "In a previous era and its art, in Dickens for example, it was possible to say, 'this is the bad man, and this is the good'. But all modern art is expressing the impossibility of coming up with answers in today's intellectual situation. The artist creates an image and it's up to the audience to decide what it's all about. Pinter's plays are indeterminate in the sense that their main subject matter is the uncertainty of our existence."

Pinter's strength lies in the immediacy with which he conveys that sense, even to those who could not begin to articulate it. It is a landscape of brooding unease and sullen hints, and pregnant with bleak suggestion. "He has created a world of his own," says Melvyn Bragg. "A friend of mine has just come out of hospital. He described the experience as Pinteresque - the dislocation, the waiting, the sense of death hovering below the surface. It is a world we all recognise."

No other modern literary figure has entered the language with such eponymity. The Pinter pause has become a bar-room gag. Even Pinter has begun to joke about it. Directing one of his own plays he once told an actor he was playing "two dots when the text says three". The dislocation has even become self-deprecation; again directing his own piece he once mischievously told the cast, "of course, we can't be sure of what the author intended here".

A sense of wilful enigma has always surrounded Pinter and his work. Perhaps that is what has maintained him where the more didactic of his youthful contemporaries fell away. John Osborne and Arnold Wesker found it increasingly difficult to get their work staged and John Arden retreated into self-imposed exile. From the outset Pinter was considered the most difficult.

His first major play, The Birthday Party, was a terrible flop lasting only one week at the Lyric Hammersmith and getting the thumbs-down from the critics. It was only after it was done on television that Pinter achieved notice. The Caretaker became a swift West End success, and the comedy of menace was born.

"The first time around many of the plays were cautiously received," recalls Michael Billington. "But by the time they were revived the plays seemed to have grown in stature or the audiences were ready to absorb them. The thing was that Pinter breaks the rules quite often, and first time around people find that disconcerting."

Not least in his language. "Pinter is above all a poet," says Billington. "His use of language is distilled, concentrated and manages to make poetry out of demotic speech. We used to think poetry in the theatre was flowery, abundant and packed with metaphor and simile; Pinter showed that poetry exists in the absolute sprung rhythm of everyday speech."

Over the years the work went through three phases: the absurdist style of the early plays which are still his most famous, the memory plays (Landscape, Silence, and No Man's Land) of his middle period and the more overtly political work of more recent times. The latter has not been without its difficulties. Many felt the impact of plays like One for the Road, about the interrogation of a man who is being tortured in some Latin American- style dictatorship, or Mountain Language, about a people persecuted for speaking their native tongue, was diminished by the derision which met his foray into the world of political campaigning.

The shift came as Pinter began to travel around the world for his own productions. About this time he married Lady Antonia Fraser, a member of a family - the Longfords - where politics is discussed avidly. He became a prominent campaigner on human rights issues, injustice and inequality. He gave high-profile support to Charter 88, and became, with others such as John Mortimer, a founder-member of a literary left think-tank called the 20 June group, which the Tory press mocked mercilessly.

Bolstered by the example of writers such as Gunter Grass, Mario Vargas Llosa and his close friend Vaclav Havel, Pinter continued. "Any writer who pops his head over the trenches and dares to speak in this country is placed outside the pale," Pinter said in a rare interview in 1993. "I suppose it stems from the fact that a writer is supposed to be some kind of entertainer. It's true in the United States, too, but this has never been the case in Europe or Latin America."

The derision, insists Billington - "a symptom of the British disease which tells us more about ourselves than him" - only reinforced Pinter's resolve. The fallow period which accompanied his campaigning and the criticism was coincidental. Pinter was not cowed into silence, but was working on a series of screenplays.

Pinter, says Esslin, is a writer of extreme integrity. "He never writes just for the sake of writing. If he hasn't got an idea he won't write anything for 15 years. Because he's always been able to earn his keep as an actor, director and by adapting other people's novels (such as The French Lieutenant's Woman) for the cinema, he has reserved his original creative output for the theatre."

At the age of 60 Pinter began to insist that his early studied ambiguity had been political too. "Plays like The Birthday Party had resonances of secret police and repression," acknowledges Ian Herbert. "In societies that have known oppression they were nakedly political. When you transferred them to an Eastern European context that was clear."

From the beginning Pinter's anti-authoritarian streak had been clear, agrees Billington, whose new book will underscore the playwright's political dimension. He was a conscientious objector as a teenager, refusing to do National Service even though he was threatened with imprisonment. In a letter he spoke of how he hated "the shit-stained centuries of tradition". He turned his back on his background as an East End Jew, rejecting Orthodox Judaism early on. "He was always suspicious of systems," says Billington.

The critic's forthcoming book casts new light on all this. Pinter engaged in extensive conversations with Billington about the background to the plays. "This was not just political but also personal," Billington says. "Often the plays had an autobiographical base. Something happened which forces him to write the play. I think the book will slightly change the way he's seen; he's both a very political and a very personal writer".

Some critics have detected a fourth shift in recent years. With Moonlight he returned to his lyrical phase and his new play, Ashes to Ashes, is in the same mood, according to Esslin. "It's a very enigmatic play - a dialogue between a man and a woman which folds back on itself. It starts with a woman describing a situation as if it's happened to someone else but as the dialogue goes on the situation becomes more and more like what she has been describing. It's a time-loop, very avant-garde. Many people will say it's difficult to understand, but it's a brilliant piece of lyrical writing about memory and the reviewing of life."

It is a mark of Pinter's continuing ambiguity that Michael Billington disagrees utterly. "He's not turning his back on politics. It's a very political play. It's about an equation of private sexual behaviour and fascism of the spirit; he sees a connection between how men behave towards women and how society behaves towards the oppressed. The brutality of the one echoes the other."

Tom Stoppard is looking forward to the new Pinter for very different reasons. "My admiration for him isn't academic, dry or intellectual. I admire him as a theatrical animal. When he acted in a revival of his own play, The Hothouse, recently he gave the funniest performance I'd seen in the West End for some time. People think that Harold, like Samuel Beckett, is an intimidating playwright. But both are much funnier than people realise."

Another distinguished playwright, Alan Bennett, is also an admirer both of Pinter's political stances and his work. Bennett's tribute is more in the style of the man himself: "He keeps going, that's the main thing."