When Harold Pinter’s plays first hit the British stage, they didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome. The 1958 Lyric Opera House premier ofThe Birthday Partywas famously ripped to shreds, as theDaily Telegraphcalled it “one of those plays in which an author wallows in symbols and revels in obscurity.” (Darlington 1958) Its seemingly incomprehensible dialogue and action simply baffled most audience members into boredom. Yet today, Pinter’s plays are considered some of the most pivotal milestones in the movement of modern drama. Critics warmed up to Pinter as they stopped trying to read his plays through an already existent framework (realist, absurdist, etc.) and finally saw the texts for what they really were: revolutionary works of theatre. In a review regarding the 2005 Duchess Theatre production ofThe Birthday Party,Michael Billington states “one problem in the 50s was that critics assumed Pinter was writing in the absurdist vein of Ionesco and NF Simpson. Now it is much easier to see the play for what it is: a rep thriller invented by a man who’s read Kaftka.” (Billington 2005) The point being, the major plays of Harold Pinter can neither be pushed into the categories of realist or absurdist theatre, they belong in a league of their own and need to be looked at through an independent framework.
Although Pinter was clearly influenced by his absurdist and realist forefathers, what he himself was doing in terms of character, setting, and overall rhythm presented an entirely new kind of dramaturgy, pioneering what is now often referred to as the ‘Pinteresque’ style of theatre. Pinter presents characters that are incredibly real, yet resist the cryptic guidelines employed by modern theories of realist acting (including those of Stanislavski and Strasberg). The common Pinteresque setting juxtaposes everyday domesticity with a subtle undercurrent of animalistic violence, breaking down the many existing notions of home and safety. And lastly, Pinter creates a rhythm and tempo which not only mimic the strange patterns of real life dialogue, but allow the terror of his plays to hit home as the spectator fills the Pintereque pause with their own subjective imagination. Through a discussion onThe Birthday Party, the Room, andThe Homecoming,it becomes clear that the Pinteresque style of theatre employs a special kind of hyper-realism in which the stage is stripped of its illusive glamour and slices of real life are milked for all their hidden terror. Pinter’s theatre gets under the spectator’s skin as these plays reveal that life cannot be contained and that safety is a mere illusion. As reviewer Harold Hobson so boldly puts it, “Mr.Pinter has got hold of a primary fact of existence. We live on the verge of disaster.” (Hobson 2008)
Pinter’s characters are famous for resisting the dominant modes of realist characterization. Realist acting was practically defined by the works of Stanislavski and Strasberg who both pioneered individual (yet similar) systems which intended to develop realistic characters for the modern stage. Stanislavski speaks about the ‘objective’ and the ‘super-objective’, which give the actor a mental blueprint for why the character behaves as they do. And although Stanislavski was aware of the fact that human behaviour is not always explainable, this aspect of characterization was of less interest to him. As he says, “It sometimes happens that in the logic of human feelings one will find something illogical; after all in the harmony of music there are occasional dissonances. But on stage it is necessary to be consecutive and logical.” (Stanislavski ,55: 1961) While the realist theatre steers away from these ‘occasional dissonances,’ Pinter seems to be obsessed with them. We see this in characters such as Ruth (TheHomecoming), McCann (The Birthday Party) and Bert (TheRoom).
Although these characters may sometimes seemabsurd, they are better defined as realistic characters in the height of their ‘occasional dissonances.’ Take, for example, the typically Pinteresque character of Ruth. The first time we encounter the ‘dissonance’ in Ruth is during her initial conversation with Lenny. Ruth seems reserved as she modestly tells Lenny about her trip through Europe and then quietly listens to Lenny’s non-stop babbling. Then Lenny asks Ruth for her glass, upon which she suddenly responds with “If you take the glass…I’ll take you.” (Pinter, 50: 1965) While many plays would provide a clearer stimulus for such a line, making it more ‘logical,’ Pinter skips over this process. We expect to later-on come into a closer understanding of Ruth’s character or any evidence which may enrich our perception of her objective/super-objective. But even Ruth’s monologue refuses to follow its conventional structure as there is nothing confessional about it. In this monologue, Ruth vaguely speaks about how she was “a photographic model for the body” (Pinter, 73: 1965) Yet she makes no clear statements as she rambles on about some displaced memory of visiting an old mansion, throwing us further into the mist.
In W.A. Darlington’s review ofThe Birthday Party, Darlington calls all of the characters (in exception to Petey) “mad”. (Darlington 1958) Yet, Pinter’s characters are neither mad nor absurdist, they simply defy the conventional rules of realism, making them the scariest result of Pinter’s hyper-realist stage. Through this style of characterization, Pinter confronts the audience with the fact that real people sometimes behave in unexpected ways for unknown (or simply arbitrary) reasons. It is these ‘dissonances’ which scare us to the core. For in real life, ‘dissonances’ can trigger impulsive acts of violence (think of all the murders that have been committed without a clear cause or objective). We need to either understand these people or label them as “mad” because anything in between is just too terrifying. Hence, it comes to no surprise that many productions of The Homecoming still insist on further defining the character of Ruth. For example, in Peter Hall’s 1965 premiere of The Homecoming by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Vivien Merchant’s performance of Ruth is described as “a tarty bourgeois wife who contemplates promiscuity as evenly as if she were counting her dollies […] She looks on her body rather as a landlord would look on a corner site.” (Gilliatt 1965) This performance clearly feels the need to fill-in the gaps, emphasizing Ruth’s boredom and sensuality as possible explanations for her behaviour. If the dramaturgy remained true to the text, Ruth’s performance would have portrayed her as an ordinary, simple “plain-old-Jill’ kind of character. The kind of woman who could be anyone and no one; the kind that does not reflect her objective in her look. Clearly, the stage’s obsession with containment is simply a reflection of our own fears regarding contamination, fears which Pinter attempts to throw back into our faces.