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Death and the pregnant pause


The profoundly influential English playwright Harold Pinter died of cancer this Christmas Eve at the age of 78. Theatergoers and critics continue to praise him for his dark, often hilarious, and always menacing plays. Pinter built his legacy on tense pauses, latent violence, and language that never communicated so much as it conspicuously failed to bridge the rifts between people.  

Over the past half-century, many of Pinter’s plays have become modern classics, including The Birthday Party (1958), The Homecoming (1964), Old Times (1971), and Betrayal (1978). These works have influenced drama of the latter half of the 20th century so forcefully that critics such as Martin Esslin speak Pinter’s name in the company of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet. Along with these pillars of postwar European drama (all of whom he outlived), Pinter helped revolutionize the medium, using the stage to reveal the failures and absurdities of contemporary culture. Through his formal innovations, Pinter also interrogated the structures of power relations and psychological brutality. This interrogation remained a structural tendency in his early work but became overtly political in more recent plays such as One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), and The Celebration (2000).   

While Pinter’s own style transformed from his ambiguous early work to increasingly polemical plays toward the end, his legacy spawned a generation of English and American playwrights who took unearthing the cruelty and inanity of everyday life for granted. From Tom Stoppard, Howard Barker, and Sarah Kane in the U.K. to Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet in the U.S., late 20th- and early 21st-century drama has internalized Pinter’s failed language, tense pauses, and pessimism toward human relations. Pinter helped create a generation that would leave behind the genteel comedies of Noel Coward and Philip Barry for darker stuff. For this, Pinter was a spearhead parodied almost as often as emulated. 

The term “Pinteresque” has come to describe a vaguely threatening atmosphere laced with ominous terror and imminent danger. Perhaps the most imitated and recognizably “Pinteresque” feature of this legacy is the Pinter Pause. A Pinter play’s atmosphere depends for its affect neither on visually striking images nor on expressive dialogue, but rather on the gaps between words, on silences dripping with venom and unknowable intentions. What language Pinter does afford his characters usually deconstructs in its own clichés, in its own emptiness as means of communication. In this sense, Pinter’s most important contribution as a playwright was not in what he wrote but rather in what he did not.  

Pinter’s combination of deliberately baffling verbal gymnastics and pregnant pauses led Esslin to consider him part of the “Theatre of the Absurd,” along with Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, and Arthur Adamov. Esslin coined the term "Theatre of the Absurd" to describe what he saw in these playwrights as a dramatization of the philosopher Albert Camus’ sense of life as essentially “absurd” and without definitive meaning. Drawing from nonsensical precedents in Dada, Surrealism, and the intellectual tradition of Existentialism, the Absurdists, according to Esslin, reflected the senselessness of life through plays that themselves often made little linear or logical sense. Along with his friend and mentor Beckett, Pinter often defied traditional linear plots but also expressed discomfort with Esslin’s categorization. Both he and Beckett shared something that the other so-called Absurdists lacked: a rigorously bleak attention to silence. 

Toward the end of his life, Pinter got a chance to explore Beckett’s silences first-hand as he played Krapp in the Royal Court Theatre’s 2006 production of Beckett’s one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape. Beckett’s play concerns an old man who listens repeatedly to tapes he made as a younger man. During long pauses, Krapp thinks, eats bananas, drinks, rewinds the old tapes, and makes a new one (his last). This performance allowed Pinter to play a part perfectly suited to his own reflection about the past as his health and voice rapidly declined from cancer of the esophagus. It also brought Pinter closer than ever to the words of Beckett. Beckett’s plays all staged the futility of being alive with a heavy reliance on silences, a reliance that certainly influenced Pinter.  

But Beckett’s silences differ from Pinter’s in a fundamental way. In his book Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, Bert States writes that whereas Beckett’s silences descend from Chekhov, Pinter’s descend from Ibsen. States’ point is that in Beckett, as in Chekhov, a pause is empty; it allows the audience to recognize the void, the fundamental aloneness of the human figure. In Pinter, on the other hand, we have a more intensified version of the kind of pause we get with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as she flirts destructively with her old flame Lovborg: a silence filled up, laden with expectation, and suggestive of a vast subterranean world of unspoken conflicts and resentments. 

While Pinter along with Beckett helped reestablish theatre as more than a mere reproduction of reality, this lineage to Ibsen is important to acknowledge. Ibsen is widely credited with the birth of domestic bourgeois realism in the theatre. Pinter himself repeatedly claimed that his plays were fundamentally realistic, that the terror boiling beneath the surface was not fanciful but rather directly reflective of the reality of human relationships. Indeed, many of Pinter’s plays take place in realistic living rooms and concern themselves with plausible relationships and their difficulties: matters of dominance and submission, the gnawing resentments of adultery, and the fragile veil of civility.

While exploring the uncertainty of reality and the unreliability of memory with a sharpness of focus to rival Beckett, Pinter did so from within the world of the real. “There are some things one remembers even though they never happened,” his character Anna says in his most beautifully enigmatic play, Old Times, as she tries to wrap her mind around her past relationships with Kate and Deeley. “There are things I remember which may have never happened but as I recall them they take place.” Old Times epitomizes Pinter’s knack for creating drawing-room comedies without exposition. Instead of clues and answers, Pinter offers his particular version of realism as a kind of reality-in-the-making, true only insofar as it unfolds before the audience.

In many ways, Pinter’s singular contribution to theatre history was to bring the philosophically intense experiments of the avant-garde back to the closed rooms of realism, to infuse the everyday with the invisible forces that attract, repel, destroy and baffle us all. Pinter found in realism’s interiors and fraught relations a space for renewed engagement with the dark side of the social world — a vortex that justified misanthropy.  

Pinter himself was notoriously misanthropic. Directors reported that he was frequently abrasive and unpleasant. Sometimes his disregard for social decorum allowed him an effective political stage, as, for example, when he used his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to condemn the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. At other times, his political opinions (particularly with regard to Slobodan Milosevic) seemed questionable at best. Many theatre artists and scholars agree that Pinter’s late plays reveal a glibness and overt political orientation that had enjoyed a more nuanced and formally based manifestation in his early work’s pregnant silences. Even in his late work, though, Pinter remained committed to staging people’s inabilities to communicate. With Pinter’s death, theatre has lost one of its most articulately inarticulate pessimists. 

Pinter’s death is also more than Pinter’s death. He was the last of a certain breed — call them Absurdists, or pessimists, or philosopher-playwrights, or what you will. With Pinter dies a moment of theatre history wherein the absurdities and contradictions of everyday life were brought to light by remaining in darkness, wherein the sound of violence buzzed in silence, wherein the question of Being took center stage while never literally appearing. This Christmas Eve, Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd lost the last of its original Mohicans (even Esslin himself has passed). What remains? What of Pinter’s legacy persists in Stoppard and Albee? 

The rest, as Hamlet said, is silence. 

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