In the millennium year, Harold Pinter reached his seventieth birthday. Looking back over his achievements (as actor, pacifist, playwright, poet, critic, director, creator-adaptor of scripts that have sensitively translated the artistry of novelists into the medium of film, campaigner for civil liberties and freedom of speech), one is astonished at the sheer range and variety of endeavour to which he has brought a focused and profound commitment. Yeats, whom Pinter has long admired and studied, comes to mind as possessing a similar protean sensibility, which held to the belief that all creativity is both deeply personal and assuredly political. Fittingly there comes to mind the imperative that occurs in one of the many poems, An Acre of Grass, in which Yeats addresses himself as an old man: ‘Myself must I remake’.1 There was to be no quiet putting-out to grass, no cosy retirement for him; rather Yeats envisaged questing after ‘frenzy’, the energetic, satirical rage and insight of Timon, Lear and the elderly William Blake or Michelangelo. It would be a new manifestation of himself and yet one wholly true to old forms; there would be no loss of integrity in this transforming process. To view the four volumes of Pinter’s Plays is to see manifold changes of subject matter, focus, linguistic register, conversational idiom, style and structure; yet the inspiring vision is always and uniquely recognisable as Pinter’s.
Criticism has had to keep pace with those seeming changes of direction: since the late 1950s the plays have variously been claimed as fine examples of absurdism and of Freudian psychological theory applied to drama; they have undergone feminist revisioning and been championed for theirmeta-theatricality; and for the last decade they have been either praised or vilified for their confrontational political incisiveness.2 In consequence there has been a tendency to view the plays as falling into ‘periods’, which can be conveniently labelled: ‘comedies of menace’; ‘the memory plays’; ‘Pinter and politics’.3 Yet, as Michael Billington admirably argues throughout his biography of the dramatist,4 such categorising risks doing a disservice to the complexities of Pinter’s artistry: politics (social, sexual and familial) as powerfully shapes the action of the early plays as One for the Road (1984); and it is absurd to view the Absurdism of The Room (written, 1957), The Dumb Waiter (written, 1957), or The Birthday Party (staged, 1958) as devoid of political insight. Every new play by Pinter causes us to look afresh at all his earlier work; apparent changes in Pinter’s immediate thematic and stylistic preoccupations repeatedly appear on closer study to be developing qualities already present in previous plays; and so revivals are seen by reviewers as rediscoveries, as occasions for re-appraising seemingly familiar works in the light of the new.5 Generally, it may be said, artists need to create the taste by which their work will be enjoyed; but, amusingly in Pinter’s case, he seems continually to reshape the contexts within which his past work will be fully appreciated. Or one could reverse that proposition and claim that Pinter’s plays have always been ahead of their time (and not locked within it, as is fast proving the case with most of the works of his contemporary, John Osborne). Perhaps this is because, as in the art of his admired Yeats, Kafka, Webster and Swift, he can distil a clear-sighted, politicised horror (even at times, disgust) into metaphor, symbol and myth. He can shape a poetry from outrage with no loss in social precision. And that would seem as true of The Room as of Ashes to Ashes (1996). What new perspectives on Pinter’s drama have theatrical and critical contexts through the 1990s fostered? Or, to take the balancing proposition, what seemingly innovatory qualities have those changing contexts shown to be already latent within Pinter’s invention? What in his work has offered itself most recently for discovery and re-appraisal?
The advent of physical theatre and concepts of physicalised performance in the 1990s coincided with (in part was the product of) developing theoretical formulations concerning the colonised and post-colonised body; the gendered, the feminist and the queer body; the politicised body; and the postmodern body. All these have taught us how to read both social and performing bodies and how to discriminate in the process between the performing and the performative; how to be alert to the individual body’s shaping under acculturating influences; how to determine the degree to which that body is constructed by external forces. Much of this theorising has developed to varying degrees from earlier critical preoccupation with the male gaze and its prescription of values by which the female body was to be presented for its pleasure and judgment; theories of the gaze deconstructed what was deemed a socially privileged method of control over women. Control over others, whether private or state-sanctioned, has of course been an on-going theme in Pinter’s work. It may seem perverse to write of the importance of body language in plays that formerly have chiefly been admired for their verbal artistry: their finely judged use of idiom; the disciplined rhythm, the pauses, silences, timing and pacing of lines like musical phrases, which build in such works as Old Times (1971) and No Man’s Land (1975) into structures of an almost symphonic complexity; the equally musical preoccupation with timbre in intimating subtextual complexities. Yet actors’ body language can equally well convey subtextual complexities (and do so in ways quite distinct from what may be read into the spatial relations between performers in a given playing space).6 If Pinter taught audiences in the 1990s to appreciate the importance of body language throughout the range of his plays, it is as much through his choosing to act in and direct revivals of his own earlier works as through new writing. Harold Pinter as actor especially has been a revelation.7
Reading through the collected reviews of his most recent stage performance as Harry in The Collection (directed by Joe Harmston at the Donmar Warehouse, 1998), one is struck by the constant reference to the impact of Pinter’s presence, variously described as ‘massive’, ‘commanding’ and ‘domineering’. 8 This was not an instance of the dramatist asserting privilege in the situation to hog the limelight: Pinter’s making a powerful, enveloping, charismatic figure of Harry was a conscious choice in the process of characterising the role. Pinter has a big-framed physique (the fact was somewhat accentuated by the far slenderer build of the other three actors in the piece, Lia Williams, Douglas Hodge and Colin McFarlane); but the surprise came with the way Pinter offset that bigness with a mannered grace of movement; his Harry had elegance, panache; and this carefully sustained delicacy became a correlative for the super-subtle workings of the character’s mind. Of all the characters, Harry as an ageing homosexual has most to lose if his protégé, Bill, were to leave him. Bill may, or may not, recently have had an adulterous fling with Stella; and he appears to excite hitherto repressed homoerotic yearnings in James, Stella’s husband, when he arrives at Harry’s house, seeking to establish what exactly has happened respecting his wife. How stable on the one hand is Bill’s sexuality and on the other his affection for his mentor? Harry runs a fashion house, specialising in haute couture; James and Stella provide fashionable chic in the rag trade; Bill has privileges and the run of a moneyed household, but only through association with Harry. Pinter the playwright has a wonderful sensitivity to class discriminations and the surprising areas of experience in which they operate. Homosexuality, it is claimed, is often perceived as a threat to Establishment mores because relationships often bridge class divides (Wilde’s case is generally cited by way of example: he, being middle-class and an Oxonian, consorting with both the son of a peer and working class rent boys). Such a bridging of classes operates with Harry and Bill, yet Harry is quick to remind Bill of his origins with ugly directness (‘there’s nothing wrong with slum slugs in their place’9) and of his material good fortune when Harry’s own emotional security is threatened. (The play was a remarkable tour de force of honesty and courage in its negotiating of such territory when staged in 1962, some years before the legalising of homosexual acts in Britain.)
What impressed about Pinter’s performance was the way the commanding stance and the physical urbanity were offset by a constant wariness, indicated by a sudden but subtle turn or angling of the head (this sugar daddy was alert to every gesture or word that hinted at his losing his toy boy). The need for and the cost of this meticulous control were sensed on but two occasions when the ‘cool’ front relaxed: one, when – in the words of the Observer reviewer – he signalled ‘his allegiance to his partner merely by a casual, practised massage of the neck’;10 the other when he (hilariously) wrestled and wrenched at a newspaper in sheer desperation at Bill’s refusal to ‘come clean’ over the issue of Stella and James. These moments registered as more than conventional stage business because, isolated and unexpected in being in marked contrast to this Harry’s prevailing restraint, they took on the status of physicalised metaphors: both indicated a depth of affection, although the first had an ambiguity (there was a certain take-him-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck quality to the gesture that hinted at mastery) and the second a manic energy, both of which were at once touching and sinister. It would be easy to caricature the role, given a certain bitchiness in Harry’s representation (his petulance about the ill-fitting stair-rod and the wrong placing of his juice on the breakfast tray), and to overlay the performance with a wealth of camp or effeminate mannerisms. Pinter in playing the role resisted this possibility; he chose instead to deploy the physical attributes of his performance to focus an audience’s attention on the uneasy power-structuring within the relationship between Harry and Bill. In this it exactly parallels the condition of the ‘straight’ marriage between James and Stella. The possibility of a one-night fling between Stella and Bill, whether genuine or imagined, gives those two seemingly subordinate partners access to a degree of freedom within their respective committed relationships to equalise the power balance. Both find the weak spots in their partner’s possessiveness and end the play in positions of advantage. Pinter’s performance was wholly attuned to this inner psychological dynamic in the production; and it was his subtle physicalising of the role that gave an audience imaginative access to that subtextual life of the drama. The rich sonorities of Pinter’s voice were familiar from his playing earlier in the decade as Hirst in No Man’s Land (Almeida, 1992) and Roote in The Hothouse (Chichester and the Comedy Theatre, 1995); the revelation in this revival of The Collection was the telling degree to which Pinter the actor was a joy to watch.11
This reading of Pinter’s performance as Harry was considerably influenced by the physicality of the acting style Pinter himself educed from his actors in the revival of The Caretaker, which he directed at the Comedy Theatre in 1991.12 Body language contributed extensively to shape further implications to what was spoken. The use of the actors’ hands was particularly noticeable. Aston’s seemed bony and contorted and they were continually held in positions that drew attention to their angularities, especially an odd placing of them on the knees, which intimated much about the character’s past in a mental institution before he chose to reveal such facts in confidence to Davies (Donald Pleasence). The whole image conveyed by Colin Firth’s body and Pinter’s constant positioning of Aston on the peripheries of the acting space, as if seeking the comforting proximity of a wall or solid piece of furniture, suggested a troubled, insecure individual, prone to self-consciousness and a fear of making connections with others. Davies’s hands by contrast were invariably clenched into fists that made short, stabbing, pugilistic gestures randomly into the air about him to accentuate his speech. Life for this man was a seemingly endless fight against circumstance; consciousness and stance were almost permanently alert to the need to be self-protective. There were moments when the guard slackened (as with the gift of the tobacco and then the smoking jacket) when a relaxed expansiveness suffused his whole person, suggesting a growing ease and security with Aston, with the room, with his new-found position as ‘caretaker’; the whole body expressed rapture with this sudden access to a long-hoped-for sense of sheer bliss; but with this consummate ease of being, Davies’s nastier prejudices began to flourish; mind and body were alarmingly at variance. Mick (Peter Howitt) rarely showed his hands: they were generally tucked into the side pockets of his leather jacket, giving him a confident swagger; instead he used his head and shoulders to emphasise his words, project an idea, challenge a listener. Howitt’s positioning of his head was sinuously flexible; there was nothing bullish about the stance or overall body-image.
Equally potent in this production were the postures suggestive of concentrated watching. Mick established this visual theme in our awareness at the very start of the performance. When we first saw him he was seated studying and appraising the contents of the room; a door without banged to, and his body was at once caught up into a position of alert attentiveness; hearing voices, he rose and moved stealthily to the door, which he closed with silent precision behind him. The play opened with a protracted sequence of mime. Pinter and his actor had the confidence to allow this to run for a considerable amount of playing time, as Howitt drew the audience’s attention to all important elements of the setting (the disposition of the two beds, the bucket, the Buddha) and in the process invited them to engage imaginatively with his role. However naturalistically done, silent mime requires an audience to focus on body language: to observe and, in observing, to read and to interpret. What we observe in this instance is a character who is himself watching and listening, activities which begin to carry disturbingly sinister connotations, given the feline grace of Mick’s movements.
Speakers throughout the play have a need of listeners, and listeners in this production were also shrewd and physically intent watchers. Aston watched Davies, ever hesitant over talking about himself, since to talk is to reveal, which is to render the self vulnerable to another; only late in the play do we learn why he is so fearful. (Time and again in this production the performance invited one extensively to interpret the significance of what one saw, before offering an explanation to confirm or challenge what one had extrapolated from one’s perceptions.) When eventually Aston talked, trying to share with Davies the pain, the obscene loss of dignity he suffered while undergoing shock treatment, Firth’s Aston let his whole posture steadily slump downwards as if it were retreating into itself; and never once did he look at Davies eye-to- eye. Aston may have hoped for fellow feeling, but Davies watched him here as elsewhere only with an eye to the main chance. As Aston reached the end of his revelations about his past, Davies’s whole posture was transformed into that of a stealthy predator poised for the attack. The published text here asks for a gradual fading of the light till ‘by the close of the speech only Aston can be seen clearly. Davies and all the other objects are in the shadow.’13 In Pinter’s production the physical collapse of Aston was marked by a seeming growth in stature of Davies, seen largely in silhouette but, nonetheless, an unmistakable presence, rather than a figure disappearing steadily into shadow. That image, held briefly to allow an audience time to read the implications of the body language before a blackout signals the end of Act Two, gave a powerful impetus to the final episodes. Howitt’s Mick seemed always to be watching others in the way of studying and appraising them, just as he had observed the room at the start of the play; his eyes seemed half-hooded by the lids and brows, but the pupils were diamond sharp; ‘eagle-eyed’ would be the fitting metaphor. Meticulously he watched the effect of everything he did on Davies; the forms of taunting were less horseplay than tactical strategies; a brilliant intelligence was watching events closely the better to plan the next move.
When The Caretaker was first staged in 1960, reviewers commented on the rare combination of the witty and the sinister. In Pinter’s own revival these elements were certainly in place, but were offset by an exploration of the text for a counter-theme to do with taking care. The complexities of care and of caring(the moral challenges and imperatives, the burden of responsibility entailed, the potential for intricate forms of emotional and psychological blackmail) inspired a range of plays from Pinter throughout the 1980s: A Kind of Alaska (1982), Family Voices (1981) and even One for the Road, where Nicolas, the torturer, repeatedly excuses what he is doing on the grounds that it is all for the future well-being of his victims in society. Mick seems to be taking care after his own brusque fashion of his brother, Aston, who has been ‘in care’; and Aston, for a short time, proffers care to Davies. Aston in this production was definitely progressing towards mental health, after his traumatic experiences when institutionalised; his very invitation to Davies to come home with him appeared a significant step in his rehabilitation. All would doubtless be well, were Davies tenderly sensitive to Aston’s state of mind: Aston needs delicate handling; but Davies is dangerous in his brutishness, his truculence, his self-obsessions and prejudices, as Mick’s strategies quickly expose:
Mick: Now come on, why did you tell me all this dirt about you being an interior decorator?
Davies: I didn’t tell you nothing! Won’t you listen to what I’m saying?
It was him who told you. It was your brother who must have told you. He’s nutty! He’d tell you anything, out of spite, he’s nutty, he’s half way gone, it was him who told you.
Mick walks slowly to him.
Mick: What did you call my brother?
Mick: He’s what?
Davies: I … now get this straight …
Mick: Nutty? Who’s nutty?
Did you call my brother nutty? My brother. That’s a bit of … that’s a bit of an impertinent thing to say, isn’t it?
Davies: But he says so himself!
Mick walks slowly round davies’ figure, regarding him, once. He circles him, once.
Mick: What a strange man you are.14
Cornered by Mick, physically and psychologically, Davies tries to recover some vestige of status by damning his benefactor. But as the Sermon on the Mount admirably advises: judge not, lest ye be judged. It would be too easy to interpret Mick’s closing in on Davies and then his slow circling about the man as menacing; it was in Howitt’s performance more an act of judgment and of shaming; a long, last, searching scrutiny to detect if any redeeming features were apparent. Retribution comes quickly as Mick curtly dismisses Davies from his ‘caretaking work’, tossing a half-crown at his feet by way of recompense (thirty pence, old-style: an ironic and derisory parallel with the treacherous Judas’s fee). When a stunned Davies tries to remonstrate, Mick picks up the statue of Buddha, which has throughout perched incongruously on the stove amidst Aston’s things, and shatters it: a Buddha, the symbolic representation of endless patience. Aston, on entering shortly afterwards, seemed in this production wholly unperturbed by the breakage; facing his brother, he sustained a direct and unwavering eye-contact for the first time in the play; and a faint smile suffused each of their faces. This is an enigmatic series of reversals, in which the most perplexing (on a reading of the text) is the breaking of the statue. The moment is often played as if Mick were regaining his customary self-control by channelling impulses for even greater violence into this one symbolic gesture, an act that is at once a triumphant release of a pent-up anger and a warning to Davies against further provocation. Here, urged by Pinter’s direction to be open to the complex signification of the body in movement and stasis, we responded more to the sequence than the individual incident within the flow of action: the verbal and then the physical ejection (epitomised by the tossed coin with all the biblical resonances that releases), the contained violence, the expression of feeling that intimates a deep bond between the brothers, Mick’s immediate departure. Given the context of caring that this production had steadily built up, Mick’s momentary loss of control and of patience reached beyond violence or menace: it was more an anguished frustration that the longstanding burden of being his brother’s keeper (which he had hoped to pass to Davies, since Aston had elected him to share his life) had inexorably been returned to him now that Davies had proved hopelessly inadequate to the task. There was momentary rage against Davies and against Aston, against circumstance and himself; but it was contained destruction, a burst of anger that in its steely control implied Mick’s acceptance of his lot. The smile was in part the token of that acceptance; but it also intimated new levels of understanding, trust and compatibility between the brothers. It is difficult to convey the impact of that steady gaze, which contrasted so starkly with the evasive or aggressively staring looks which had previously obtained between the characters. In promptly going, Mick generously left Aston to discover the power within himself to determine Davies’s fate.15 In this staging we watched Aston’s slow progress to maturity under his brother’s watchful gaze; Mick was an unobtrusive presence, guiding without directing that progress.16
Pinter’s production brought The Caretaker close to the territory explored in A Kind of Alaska with its awareness of the acute moral and emotional hazards of taking on the care of another; and it did so chiefly by evolving a coherent subtext through the body language deployed by the actors. There is of course a danger in rooting an interpretation in what many would see as the minor signifiers in a theatrical performance. It must be stressed, however, that the physical details described here were not privileged over other important signifiers in the production (vocal timbre, rhythm, spatial relations); overly to have emphasised them would have resulted in crass thematic simplifications. Rather the opening mime for Mick presented the body in stillness and motion as a prime medium of expressive communication and established a mode of reading the subsequent performance, to which the physicality of the actors made a distinct contribution. It could further be argued that this mode of interpretation risks, consciously or unconsciously, ascribing specific intentions to the director, which cannot be fully verified; and that it relies exclusively on one spectator’s perceptions (even though they may have been clarified over several viewings of the production and checked against the responses of contemporary reviewers). Perceptions certainly are relative to the individual spectator. But circumstances make it impossible for a spectator, well versed in Pinter’s work as texts and performances and in the chronology of his creative output, to approach a revival of an early play without bringing to the experience perceptions tutored by an awareness of his more recent writing and a sensibility shaped by current theatrical practice (which frequently does lay stress on the body as a site of cultural reference). And those same influences (biographical and cultural) must to some considerable degree shape Pinter’s approach to directing one of his own early achievements. Rather than being an exercise in nostalgic excavation, his production has to be seen as a spirited re-creation. Over thirty years had passed between the initial production and Pinter’s revival; three decades’ experience cannot be denied (particularly by a writer for whom during that period the elusive nature of the past and the vagaries of memory had exerted an increasingly potent fascination). In the world of fine art, retrospective exhibitions tend to reveal certain paintings as unexpectedly seminal for their place within the artist’s development. Pinter’s staging of The Caretaker, in subtly linking his creative past and present, took on a quality akin to such a retrospective, in which the unexpected feature was the attention paid to body language. This insight seemed to open up a whole new way of engaging with the range of Pinter’s plays in performance, which encounters with the plays as printed texts generally overlook. What levels of signification can be read elsewhere in the canon into hands, mime, physicalised metaphors, contained violence (the forms in which body language shaped spectators’ response to this revival of The Caretaker)?
Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, begins by asking us to imagine a relationship defined only though body language; the focus of the scenario that Rebecca’s words evoke is on a man’s hands: ‘Well… for example… he would stand over me and clench his fist.And then he’d put his other hand on my neck and grip it and bring my head towards him. His fist… grazed my mouth. And he’d say, ‘‘Kiss my fist.”’17 Rebecca is responding to questions from an interlocutor, Devlin; he prompts her to continue and she informs him that she would indeed kiss the man’s fist, which he would then open, offering now the palm to her lips. The scene suggests a display of male dominance but, noticeably, Rebecca’s account is wholly factual (no judgmental language intrudes). She tells how she invited the man to put his hand around her throat, which he did, holding it there ‘very gently, so gently’ (the shift from the loosely descriptive ‘very’ to the precisely qualitative ‘so’ suggests that the delicacy of his touch was sufficiently distinctive for it even at this precise moment to be present to Rebecca’s perceptions through imaginative recall).18 Asked by Devlin whether the man exerted no pressure, Rebecca responds, as if from the depths of memory, revealing how he put just enough pressure so that her head would begin to move backwards ‘gently but truly’, till the movement, by engaging more and more of the spine, caused the whole body to move backwards at the same pace, ‘slowly but truly’.19 Within a style that has till now been so matter-of-fact, the reiterated word ‘truly’ invites attention. Rebecca has admitted that the man ‘adored’ her (thatwas evident to her in the quality of his touch) and ‘truly’ suggests an equally wholehearted response encompassing an absolute trust, a commitment of her total self to him and to her experience of thatmoment in time.Devlin’s imagining of the scene stays resolutely within the bounds of the physiologically factual; having thought through and sensed the consequences of her body’s subtly changing position, he asks: ‘So your legs were opening?’20 Her intimations (implicit within that one word, ‘truly’) of emotional fulfilment are reduced by his question to a lurid image of sexual availability.
The episode demonstrates admirably the creative ambiguities that Pinter can find in body language. In Devlin’s final question we can perceive the decided limits of his imagination; on the other hand, because the phrase is repeated, it cannot be easily dismissed. However the passage evolves, one cannot forget that powerful opening image of the man’s fist and the accompanying command that Rebecca kiss it. The lack of any qualifying epithets leaves one unsure whether this is sadistic display or erotic power game. Only after the image has had time to develop in an audience’s imagination is the idea of Rebecca’s willing compliance introduced. Devlin’s eventual brutishness serves to recall the other man’s potential for brutality as captured in that graphic opening image. How much of that potential was apparent to Rebecca, if she ‘truly’ opened herself to the man? Significantly Devlin’s next question is, on the face of it, a surprising shift of ground: ‘Do you feel you’re being hypnotised?’21 Rebecca is uncertain how to answer (‘When?’), because uncertain of the situation to which the question applies (whether now with Devlin or formerly with the man). The question prompts the audience to read a different interpretation into Rebecca’s scenario from either hers or Devlin’s. The force of that unexpected present tense (‘Do you feel …’) invites one to question whether Rebecca is still under the influence of the man’s seductive power. Later the play shows Rebecca struggling to reconcile her private understanding of her relationship with the man, whom she eventually describes as her ‘lover’, with her increasingly shocked discovery of his fascist behaviour in public life, where his self-aggrandisement and brutality are displayed before her, seemingly for the same approving acquiescence which she brings to their intimacies together. How morally different is such acquiescence from the slavish obsequiousness of the workforce in the man’s factory (‘He told me afterwards it was because they had such great respect for him.… They had total faith in him. They respected his…purity, his…conviction’22)?
Pinter ensures that this graphic opening sequence of images involving a man’s hands and a woman’s face stays firmly in the spectator’s mind by having Devlin suddenly change his tactic: ‘Look. It would mean a great deal to me if you could define him [the man] more clearly.’23 Rebecca is unsure what this new term, ‘define’, means in the context; and Devlin explains:
Physically. I mean, what did he actually look like? If you see what I mean? Length, breadth … that sort of thing. Height, width. I mean, quite apart from his … disposition, whatever that may have been … or his character … or his spiritual … standing … I just want, well, I need … to have a clearer idea of him…well, not a clearer idea…just an idea, in fact…because I have absolutely no idea … as things stand … of what he looked like.24
The speech with all its hesitations tended to elicit laughter in performance at Devlin’s expense, because those opening images had created so powerful a sense of the man’s presence through his body language that the details Devlin now asks for are rendered redundant and meaningless. The man lives in Rebecca’s imagination and her words have brought him forcefully into the audience’s imagination too (noticeably in the episode it is only Rebecca’s person and body language that live in Devlin’s imagination). It has been a perfectly judged exposition: the audience now know all about the man, or as much as they need to know to engage with the rest of the play. Yet it is an exposition in which we have been invited to visualise body language in response to the simplest words. Ashes to Ashes is to interrogate the relationship between sexuality and power, between private and public codes of behaviour; Pinter has found the means through body language to engage his audience experientially with a disturbing ethical quandary, which the subsequent drama will address.25
Towards the end of Ashes to Ashes Devlin begins to enact the movement patterns described in the opening moments of the play: he presents his fist to Rebecca, grips her neck and brings her head towards it, opens the fist to present now his palm to her lips, places his hand on her throat and begins to tilt her head backwards. Though she is wholly passive, she refuses to join in enacting the scenario, speak her lines or be in any way compliant; instead her consciousness is totally absorbed by a memory of abandoning her child, seemingly to save her own life; and Devlin removes his hand from Rebecca’s throat. There is no explanation; what structures of meaning one may read into this episode to some degree depend on how one till now has chosen to interpret Devlin’s role. Is he perhaps ‘the man’, the one-time ‘lover’, displaced from Rebecca’s affections on account of her growing political awareness of his nature? Is he a new, would-be lover finding it increasingly impossible to touch Rebecca physically or emotionally, because of her fixation with the past, with her old lover and the traumatic consequences of that former relationship? Is he, perhaps, an interrogator from some new regime, trying to prove by some devious tactics her role as collaborator with members of the former political establishment? Or is he a psychiatrist trying by drastic means to break into a patient’s trauma in order to begin to channel her mind’s experience into a process of healing? Because Devlin’s precise identity is not determined, all such interpretations remain possible, allowing the enigmatic body language to take on metaphoric resonances. The indisputably common factor in the various interpretations, however, is Devlin’s gender as male, and the various possible ways of interpreting his role all define forms of male intrusion into a female psyche to control and shape that woman’s future. There is a coherence within the creative ambiguities of this conclusion which makes Ashes to Ashes theatre poetry of the highest order.26
Since The Dumb Waiter several of Pinter’s plays have moved inexorably towards some moment of activity, which seems to take into itself all the implications resonant within the foregoing drama and to resolve them into a potent physicalised image with which the drama then concludes. When Gus stumbles into the room, an utterly broken figure, stripped to his shirt and denuded of his holster and gun, and Ben promptly levels his gun at him, all the nervy tensions of the play and the half-hearted rehearsing of the killers’ normal routine take on new meaning; and the long-held stare between the men on which The Dumb Waiter ends invites us completely to rethink what till then we have reacted to as black comedy. Or consider the concluding moments of No Man’s Land when Hirst, accepting that all four men have ‘changed the subject’ and ‘for the last time’, raises his glass with the words, ‘I’ll drink to that’, and invites the others to join him.27 Pinter’s final lighting instructions are always crucial; and he asks here for a slow fade, in which we view four men with uplifted glasses in a room darkened by the closing of all the curtains. The men’s body language suggests a convivial bonhomie and yet the raising of glasses has occurred with such frequency throughout the action that the gesture now has the status of a tired, automatic routine. We have learned, moreover, the extent to which each of the men is trapped in an obsessive private hell, from which none of their varying cultural or social ambitions will save them and which drink confirms rather than assuages (‘the great malt which wounds’28). Creativity eludes their solipsistic psyches and they drink to compound their misery and vulnerability. That gesture with the raised glass which seems to affirm social concord and elation, we know in that final fading image is to be read as emblematic of futility and self-betrayal. More complex still is the image that concludes The Homecoming (1965). Ruth displaces Max from his seat at the centre of the stage; Joey crosses the space to curl at her feet and lay his head in her lap; Lenny moves to stand behind (but to one side of) them and looks down, watching her; Max collapses then moves subserviently towards her on bended knees; Ruth’s poise is consummate. It is a black parody of the traditional groupings of a Nativity scene or those countless paintings entitled ‘Madonna and Child with Saint and Donor’. There may be solicitude in Ruth’s stroking of Joey’s hair, but we know that gesture comes at a price. Ruth’s action in taking centre-stage has redefined passivity (hitherto expressed in her quiet, feminine elegance) as power and control; she is now the still nucleus around which the men will move at her bidding. Yet is seizing that power a token of her victory or defeat? Has she retained her autonomy or become the embodiment of the men’s erotic fantasies about her? Is she, perhaps, acting, playing with the roles expected of her the better to protect her inner independence? To what extent for Ruth are sex and gender elements of masquerade which she pursues to safeguard a social and financial security? And how can we reconcile any of this, if true, with the sense, accumulating throughout the play, that she possesses an integrity which none of the men can rival? Again: all these interpretations are possible, since none is confirmed. Each presents an equally disturbing insight for audiences into sexual politics within the home and the consequences of strict, traditional constructions of gender. As the actors move into their final positions on stage, we watch a physicalised metaphor come into being.
These episodes deploy body language in the careful shaping of a final tableau. In Old Times (1971) the tableau is preceded by a sequence of extended mime. Superficially, it enacts a situation described earlier in the play by Anna, which she introduces with the gnomic observation: ‘There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.’29 The memory, as she rehearses it, tells the story of a man who was first marginalised and then wholly displaced from the room she once shared with Kate (‘It was as if he had never been’30). Throughout her account Anna preserves the conventional past tense of narrative; Kate, observing this, tersely breaks Anna’s control of the prevailing mood (‘You talk of me as if I were dead’31). Noticeably she again reverts to the subject of death in the long speech which precipitates Kate and Deeley into that final mime: ‘I remember you [Anna] lying dead.’32 She speaks of enacting symbolic death-rituals in turn over each of their bodies. Throughout the ensuing mime Kate stays seated, utterly still, despite any efforts to establish contact with her that Anna and particularly Deeley try to make. Friend and husband enact their displacement from the centrality of Kate’s presence: Kate remains upright, completely self-possessed, Anna is left lying on a divan, while Deeley slumps in a chair. The physical (the body language and positioning) has by the end become the correlative of the psychological, emotional and spiritual conditions of the three characters. What impresses in seeing as distinct from reading this conclusion is that Anna and Deeley are the agents of their own dissolution; Kate plays no directive role in their being marginalised; they are the shapers of their own fates. For much of the play they have sought to impose contesting interpretations on Kate’s identity and past; their increasing urgency in doing this implies a desperate need to shape a role for Kate, which will somehow confirm their own troubling existences. Resisting the intrusive intentions of their intimacy, Kate shows them that their identities are compounded of nothing beyond a will to gain power over her; they have no inner resources whatever, no depth. In that ending, she looks out confidently into a future; but they lie or slouch, eyes unfocused, locked in the past. The lighting intensifies ‘full sharply’ to ‘very bright’ on that final grouping in Pinter’s stage directions, which repeat what must be the final postures of the three performers.33 Interestingly, the text gives no directive for a curtain, fade or blackout.34
Those raised lights seem in performance to etch the final tableau deep in one’s memory till it takes on the status of an icon or what James Joyce would have termed an epiphany, an experience which is startling in its immediacy and profoundly illuminating for its symbolic and psychic relevance. With all the closing tableaux discussed, we are confronted by a similarly powerful, sustained image. It is as if in each of these plays the action reaches a point where words are no longer capable of holding together the intricacies of meaning that are being evolved and the body alone through the language of movement can give due weight to the fullness of experience being represented. The late Martha Graham, the American dancer-choreographer, was fond of reiterating the phrase: ‘Movement never lies.’35 In these plays movement and ensuing stasis create what is sensed as an apt ending but in so physicalised and poetic a form that it resists closure. As enacted symbol or physicalized metaphor, these tableaux hold multiple possibilities for a resolution in a deft poise without endorsing any one as definitive. By bringing audiences to focus their attention on body language and its potentials for significance within the larger stage picture (the closed curtains and array of bottles in No Man’s Land; the disposition of the divans and chair in Old Times; the brilliant lamps in an otherwise darkened space in Ashes to Ashes), Pinter contrives a strategy whereby, in resolving the action into an icon of richly allusive intensity, he opens the play up beyond the performance to the enquiring imagination. A refined use of body language in these instances ensures the plays an after-life for audiences, as subject for debate or what Yeats would term ‘excited reverie’. Movement may never lie, but neither does it conclusively determine meaning.
Relying on the suggestive powers of body language also allows Pinter to contain the representation of violence in his plays. At a time when the presentation of violence on the screens of cinemas and televisions has achieved an unparalleled ferocity, inventiveness and, through camera-trickery, a seeming naturalism, the impulse to contain violence onstage might seem a retrograde, even prissy step. But in the theatre such action is more immediately direct in its impact on an audience’s imagination, because of the actual physical presence of the actors enacting the violence within the same space as the audience. Too literal a representation risks either implicating an audience in voyeuristic responses or inducing nausea in them (these are risks which Edward Bond, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill have notably had difficulty in negotiating at times in their plays). The fundamental issue is what one wishes to achieve creatively through the representation of violence and how one focuses an audience’s awareness on that specific end rather than the means to its achievement. Pinter in a number of his plays deploys body language (as in Stanley’s final appearance in The Birthday Party) as the means to encourage his audience to register horror at the consequences of violence. He controls the experience meticulously so that he can move that audience through shock to psychological, moral and political insight. Jimmy, for example, whose sudden appearance concludes Party Time (1991), has been the victim of unimaginable torture. He is the reality, the product, the true cultural expression of the political elite, whom we see elsewhere in the play vacuously partying to celebrate their supposed superiority and absolute right to rule. Jimmy’s approach is several times signalled during the party by a dimming of the illumination within the room as the light beyond a partially opened door intensifies to blinding proportions. He finally appears like a frail ghost seen (‘thinly dressed’) in silhouette against the burning whiteness of that ‘beyond’, as the door swings fully open. What we see is a man’s shape totally devoid of characterising detail, a body reduced to a point where it is recognisable only by its outline, the exact correlative of his inner condition. Jimmy recalls he once had a name but it is a thing of the past. Now all that his consciousness is aware of is its own processes of closing down till existence coheres for him about a desperate longing for the comfort of darkness:
‘Sometimes a door bangs. I hear voices, then it stops. Everything stops. It all stops. It all closes. It closes down. It shuts. It all shuts. It shuts down. It shuts. I see nothing at any time any more. I sit sucking the dark.’36 Those present tenses are relentless. Consciousness may be shutting down but the shutting off is endlessly protracted through time and the hope for extinction has become the man’s only means of sustenance. The shape framed in the doorway is, nonetheless, recognisably human and speaks out of his abject condition to the humanity he still shares with the audience. This is a powerful visual metaphor for a terrifying situation, but the chosen mode of representation ensures that the audience, while registering the brutality being inflicted on Jimmy, focuses imaginatively on how a sensibility copes with such inhumanity. The outrage is that anyone should be forced so to cope. However degraded Jimmy may be by the regime that governs the world of the play, the character has not lost dignity in Pinter’s representation. Body language is here refined to its simplest, yet Pinter invests it with a disturbing and profound eloquence.
This is similarly the case with the portrayal of the Elderly Woman in Mountain Language (1988). Waiting to see her imprisoned son, she has been harassed by guards and their dogs, one of which has savaged her hand. Finally allowed to see her son, she is prevented from speaking to him, since her mountain language has been officially banned; the son tries to reason with the guard who surveys their encounter, but in vain. When the son claims a common humanity with the guard (by remarking that he too has a family when the guard refers to his ‘wife and three kids’), the soldier promptly summons his superior (‘I thought I should report, Sergeant … I think I’ve got a joker in here’). A blackout followed by a change of scene and of characters ensues after the arrival of the Sergeant, questioning ‘What joker?’37 In Pinter’s production for the National Theatre, when we returned to the cell the disposition of the three figures (Elderly Woman, Prisoner, Guard) exactly paralleled how we first saw them: woman and son sat either side of a bare table, while the guard had his back to them. The table was carefully angled so that the Prisoner’s face was in quarter profile and the mother, opposite him, was all but full-face towards the audience. The differences were subtle (and took time to register) but profound: the son’s spine was held rigid and the head slightly tilted upstage; a thin trickle of blood ran from his temple and ear; the mother’s eyes and features, which formerly registered loving warmth, were now simply blank. Though the prisoner began to tremble and fell eventually to the floor, the mother’s once expressive face sustained a dead stare. We did not need to see the violence done to the Prisoner, we could read every detail in the catatonic state of the woman who had witnessed it all: she had watched her son victimised merely for genially claiming kindred, which gave him a history and an identity other than the neutered category of prisoner. Here the bestiality of an authoritarian system is experienced imaginatively by the audience through observing the consequences of its efforts at control. Instead of staging the violence realistically in action, Pinter elects to offer us a staged image of its outcome, where words in part create a context but where chiefly we read the bodies of the characters for what those bodies reveal of their immediate experience: the son collapsed, the mother witless, the guard indifferent.
In One for the Road (1984) we see two victims of torture in periods of respite when they are subject to interrogation. They are a husband and wife; and their body language intimates the nature of what till now has been unremitting physical abuse. Victor’s movements are (in every sense of the word) painfully slow, and by the time we see him in a second scene at the close of the play he has virtually lost control of his body: urged to drink, he can barely hold the glass; when he attempts to sip, the head rolls back. It is hardly surprising from what his body intimates of his treatment that, late in his first interrogation, he begs to be killed. Gila with her torn clothes and bruised skin has, as her answers to Nicolas, the interrogator, confirm, been systematically raped; but, unlike her husband, she is upright, held tightly determined in that position of self-control, we realise, by some inner core of rage through which she preserves a last sense of an inviolate selfhood. Where Victor flinched and cringed back into his seat away from Nicolas’s gesturing with his hands (‘I wave my big finger in front of your eyes. Like this’38), Gila reveals a provocative and confrontational self-possession. But it proves dangerous to reveal anything of one’s inner being before an individual like Nicolas, who takes insidious pleasure in playing a cat-and-mouse game with her, raising her hopes of release only to consign her promptly back to yet more of her recent experiences till she too is fully broken like Victor: ‘You’re of no interest to me. I might even let you out of here, in due course. But I should think you might entertain us all a little more before you go.’39 Given Gila’s physical appearance, the nasty double entendre of ‘entertain’ exactly places Nicolas’s sadism.
Between Victor’s first interview and Gila’s, Nicolas talks with their son, Nicky; he is unmarked physically, curious, wholly open and direct: a beautifully realised portrait of a trusting child. Nicky’s natural behaviour and movement patterns betoken an innocence, a complete correlation between inner and outer selves in him, that contrasts markedly with the compulsive drinking that makes Nicolas’s suave manner so suspect (what repressions in the interests of his job require such constant recourse to the whisky to make them bearable?), Victor’s habitually fearful responses and Gila’s studied control.40 The sheer difference of the child’s body language emphasises the degree to which the torturing of his parents is both a physical and a psychological invasion: Nicolas is seeking to gain absolute mastery of Victor and Gila by controlling their responses, their sensibilities, values, and the ways these inner, cultural qualities are manifest in the body’s motion. He is marking, deconstructing and reshaping them till their bodies are fitting emblems of his power. In Discipline and Punish41 Michel Foucault records how early in the nineteenth century the spectacle of public torture and execution, where the bodies of criminals were literally inscribed with the marks of justice, was largely abandoned in Europe, being deemed barbaric for its display of Law and the Establishment as violent; instead, it was the trial that became the spectacle as public demonstration of an exercise of right reason; and penal ‘correction’ was displaced to the privacy of prisons. In modern society correction (Foucault argues) is an unknown factor experientially; sentences are abstract formulations, which rarely engage the imagination. What Pinter has done in his late plays is to bring torture and correction into the public eye again to reveal them as demonstrations of power not justice. ‘Correction’ implies a bringing into line with some standard, some pattern of behaviour which is deemed correct (or right) by the ones who effect the correcting. Hiding away such politically motivated procedures does not render them any less barbaric, any less shaming for the perpetrators than the dramas on the scaffold in the past; the hiding away is an admission of shame, a fear of judgment (one recalls Nicolas’s compulsive drinking). Pinter in these plays engages with the subject of torture situating it rigorously within the larger context of political ethics; but always the focus of his theatrical representation of this debate is the suffering body, which is the chosen site for these exhibitions of power and control: the victim’s body (Jimmy’s, the Elderly Woman’s, Victor’s, Gila’s) in the process of being reduced to a political cipher becomes paradoxically the most potent of moral signifiers.
Few contemporary theoretical accounts of the politically inscribed body have carried their analysis to the conclusions that Pinter bravely requires an audience to experience in One for the Road. Never more frighteningly than in this play has Pinter demonstrated the extent to which the bodies of his characters carry his meaning. Justly Pinter has been celebrated for his verbal artistry, but that is an artistry that centres on duplicities, evasions, manipulatory strategies. Equally, it could be argued, Pinter deserves to be celebrated for an artistry that centres on the revelatory capacities and poetic immediacy of body language. Movement – in Pinter’s plays, as in Graham’s dances – never lies. The body speaks truths, which the voice would often seek to deny.
Source: The Cambridge Companion To Harold Pinter Second Edition Edited By Peter Raby Cambridge University Press 2009
- W. B.Yeats, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 347. (My emphasis.)
- The volume of criticism on Pinter’s plays is considerable. A representative selection of titles that would illustrate this point would be: Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, rev. edn (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1969) and his The Peopled Wound: The Plays of Harold Pinter (London: Methuen, 1970); Lucina P. Gabbard, The Dream Structure of Pinter’s Plays: A Psychoanalytic Approach (Cranbury and London: Associated University Press, 1976); Margaret Croyden, ‘Pinter’s Hideous Comedy’ in A Casebook on Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming ed. John Lahr (New York: Grove Press, 1971), pp. 45–56; Elizabeth Sakellaridou, Pinter’s Female Portraits (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1988); Katharine Worth, Revolutions in Modern English Drama (London: G.Bell and Sons, 1972); David T. Thompson, Pinter: The Player’s Playwright (London and New York: Macmillan, 1985); , New British Drama in Performance on the London Stage: 1970–1985 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1987); Susan Hollis Merritt, ‘Pinter and Politics’, in Harold Pinter: A Casebook, ed. Lois Gordon (New York and London: Garland, 1990); and the various sections of Katherine H. Burkman and J. L. Kundert-Gibbs (eds.), Pinter at Sixty (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993).
- These are the titles of several chapters within a recent study of Pinter’s drama, (D. Keith Peacock, Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre (Westport, CT:Greenwood Press, 1997).
- Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (London: Faber, 1996).
- The most notorious example of this was the wholesale turnabout effected by many newspaper reviewers, who damned Betrayal when first staged by Peter Hall at the National Theatre in 1978 but totally revised their view when the play was revived by David Leveaux at the Almeida in 1991. Their embarrassment was clearly still rankling in 1998, since most referred to their lapse of judgment when reviewing the play for a third time on its revival by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre.
- David T. Thompson may appear to be embarking on a discussion of body language in the final chapter, entitled ‘Revaluation: Movement and Dialogue’, of his study, Pinter: the Player’s Playwright; but throughout his discussion of movement he is preoccupied only with spatial relations between characters and basic actions such as sitting and standing; and he rather rapidly moves on to discussing the speakability and rhythm of Pinter’s lines, which occupy nineteen of the chapter’s thirty-one pages.
- The reference is to Pinter’s recent work as an actor under his own name and not to his early career, when he adopted the stage name of ‘David Baron’.
- The range of reviews can be found in Theatre Record, 7–20 May 1998, pp. 617–22.
- Harold Pinter, The Collection and The Lover (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 43.
- Theatre Record, 7–20 May 1998, p. 620.
- Pinter had previously played Mick in The Caretaker, Law in The Basement and Deeley in Old Times.
- A longer, differently focused critique of Pinter’s production of The Caretaker is included in my essay, ‘I Sessanta Anni di Pinter degli Anni Novanta’, in Teatro inglese contemporaneo, ed. Carla Dente Baschiera (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 1995) pp. 27–57. I am grateful to the editor for permission to reproduce some of that material here.
- HaroldPinter,The Caretaker (London: Eyre Methuen, 1962, reprinted 1973), p. 54.
- Ibid., p. 73.
- From the page it might seem as if the play ends in a state of stasis with Aston refusing to look at Davies and Davies whingeing desperately in the hope of remaining in the shelter of the room. But Aston has rejected Davies’s plan for changing their beds and his proffered help in putting up the projected shed in the garden; more significantly he has actually faced Davies to utter his final dismissive accusation, ‘You make too much noise’ (ibid., p. 77). Moreover there was in Pinter’s production a marked change in the characters’ body language compared with the close of Act Two: Aston may have had his back to Davies and to the audience but it was his stance now that was confident, whereas it was Davies who seemed to be collapsing into himself. Writing about Pinter’s helpful presence in rehearsals for two of his plays which she directed, Carey Perloff observes how instructive it was for her and her cast when Pinter took to the stage and demonstrated points of acting. Her chosen example is of him showing ‘why…it is potent to act with one’s back to the audience’ (Carey Perloff, ‘Pinter in Rehearsal’, in Pinter at Sixty, ed. Burkman and Gibbs, p. 7. My emphasis.). Given the fact that Davies has recently drawn a knife on Aston, Aston’s positioning himself with his back to Davies argued not only for a new confidence but considerable presence, tenacity and will-power.
- This was a valuable revision of the traditional reading of the role of Mick as decidedly macho. The doctor, Hornby, in A Kind of Alaska (1982) in his lifetime of devoted care of Deborah, possesses a quality that is feminine, even maternal in its concern: ‘I have nourished you, watched over you, for all this time. … I have never let you go.’ (See Harold Pinter, Other Places (London: Methuen, 1982), pp. 34–5.) There is no loss of masculinity in the portrayal. Peter Howitt’s Mick possessed such a quality but without minimising the butch elements in the role.
- Harold Pinter, Ashes to Ashes (London: Faber, 1996), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 11.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Pinter also invites us to imagine body language in relation to qualities of touch in Beth’s account of her visit to the beach with her ‘true love’ in Landscape (1969).
- Pinter has several times referred to the formative influence in his early years of reading John Webster’s plays with his schoolmaster, Joe Brearley (see, for example, his ‘speech of thanks’ on receiving the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995, which is reproduced as the Introduction to Harold Pinter: Plays Four (London: Faber, 1996), pp. ix–xi). This closing section of Ashes to Ashes (written and staged a year after Pinter’s receipt of the Cohen award) deploys an echo effect where a disembodied voice repeats crucial words from Rebecca’s speeches, as if it were the ghost of the abandoned child speaking within her consciousness, or a shocked ‘higher’ self in Jungian terms registering disbelief at her own pragmatic callousness. The technique recurs in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama but is used most memorably in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, where an Echo warns the Duchess’s husband, Antonio, in tones that remind him of his ‘dead wife’svoice’ to ‘fly his fate’, implying certain death if he carries out his plan of trying to meet on peaceful terms with his vicious brothers-in-law. The Duchess has died by strangulation, after being systematically tortured by one of her brothers, Ferdinand. The hands on the throat, the veiled hints of a torture that is administered as somehow for a woman’s ‘good’, the echo, the forcible seizing of a baby from its mother’s arms, these motifs appear in both plays. Webster’s tragedy lies as a significant intertextual echo within Pinter’s play, reminding us that after nearly four hundred years of cultural refinement certain styles of masculinist sadism still obtain in the sexual and political arenas.
- Harold Pinter, No Man’s Land (London: Eyre Methuen, 1975), pp. 93–4.
- Ibid., p. 32.
- Harold Pinter, Old Times (London: Eyre Methuen, 1971), p. 32.
- Ibid., p. 33.
- Ibid., p. 34.
- Ibid., p. 71.
- Ibid., p. 75.
- For a fuller discussion of the closing mime and tableau, see my article, ‘Dance and Stylised Movement as Visual Codes in Drama: A Crisis in Interpretation’, in Verbal and Non-Verbal Codes in European Drama, ed. Marta Gibinska Krakow: Krakow University Press, 1996), pp. 81–105.
- Martha Graham, Blood Memory: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p. 4.
- Harold Pinter, Party Time (London: Faber, 1991), p. 38.
- Harold Pinter, Mountain Language (London: Faber, 1988), pp. 34–5.
- Harold Pinter, One for the Road (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 33. The play was simultaneously published in two formats by Methuen that year: one, in the New Theatrescripts series, contained only the text; the other, a revised edition, also included photographs by Ivan Kyncl of Pinter’s original production and a ‘conversation’ etween Pinter and Nick Hern, entitled ‘A Play and its Politics’. All references here are to the latter edition.