On Harold Pinter’s Later Works

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So, readers, it’s been a while–four months to be exact. I can say most of my intellectual efforts the past four (well really eight) months have been geared toward learning all I can about camera and color science, cinematography, and filmmaking gear. All of which I’m sure would not interest the readership I’ve established here. Also I don’t have much that is original to add to that discussion (although I could list some good links).

But it is time to return to Gelassenheit since I have fallen in love with modern literature. This has been a long time coming, a series of isolated experiences that kept adding up until I realized that, as a writer, my literary resonances were highly concentrated among the modernist and existentialist writers of the 20th century. So I began reading them, first Faulker (didn’t get far), then Eliot (whom I loved). But it’s Harold Pinter that drove me back to the blog.

So this is a brief reflection on Pinter’s work, part IV since I just finished the fourth in a series of his collected works. Eventually I’ll go back to one. I chose four for a few reasons, among them that the first play in this anthology, Old Times, has been an inspiration to me ever since seeing it performed wonderfully at the Pinter Theater in London (see above, of course not my picture though). I was on the edge of my seat the whole play. But this is not a study of Pinter’s plays as much as his writing. As plays, they cannot be analyzed apart from performance. I could write another blog on the performance of Old Times, maybe sometime I will. But for now I want to analyze Pinter’s writing, and therefore his works on the page.

I love Pinter’s writing, but there are two things (from the written text, which lacks the physicality that brings his plays to life) which most impress me. The first is his method of changing the subject. Why not take an explicit example from No Man’s Land where, after a particularly tense proposition from Spooner, the three other characters begin analyzing the phrase “changing the subject.”

Let us change the subject…For the last time…What have I said?

You said you’re changing the subject for the last time.

But what does that mean?

It means you’ll never change the subject again.

They continue in a similar manner almost until the end of the play. The content of conversations in Pinter is often hard to follow, but particularly when characters start talking about meaningless details in order to avoid the tenser subjects they should be addressing. This isn’t an uncommon tactic, but Pinter executes it with astounding fluidity and grace.

Lastly, Pinter’s characters are constantly preoccupied with figuring out who they are talking to. At times, they seem to confuse their interlocutor with another person, even using the wrong name. More often, the characters swap stories, later it is called into question if one of the characters was ever at the place and time described. There is a fluidity of identity in Pinter’s work, despite a small cast of characters a number of past events enter the narrative and an equal number of characters with them. To me, this is a brilliant way to get at the way people change in different circles–differing social roles create alternate identities from time to time. It is also an existential theme: character’s unsure of themselves and their relationships, especially as time begins to bury their golden years.

These two themes have parallels in Beckett, and I will address them in greater depth once I finish his trilogy of novels. Today, I simply wanted to reflect on two stylistic elements in Pinter that I find uniquely compelling.

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