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About this book

This Reader's Guide synthesises the key criticism on Pinter's work over the last half century. Andrew Wyllie and Catherine Rees examine critical approaches and reactions to the major plays, charting the controversies which have arisen in response to Pinter's critiques of political and sexual issues.

They consider criticism from the press and academics, on the themes of Absurdism, politics and gender identity. By placing this criticism in its historical context, this guide illustrates a transition from bewilderment and outrage to affection, fascination - and more outrage.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
There can be no doubt that the plays of Harold Pinter represent a major phenomenon in the histor of modern British theatre. Born in 1930, Pinter’s adolescence was shaped by the experience of the Second World War, a shaping made all the more intense by his Jewish identity, and there is thus a case for regarding his voice as representative of some of the most significant events of early to mid twentiethcentury Britain. These influences combined with an extraordinarily fertile intellectual environment at his school, Hackney Downs Grammar, to generate a formidable commitment to literature – especially to dramatic literature – and arguably the seeds of a later commitment to progressive politics and an anti-totalitarian and anti-racist outlook. Pinter’s theatrical development combines a similarly powerful complex of influences: his alienation from the the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London (RADA), placed him outside the mainstream, while the remarkable fact of his having worked with first Anew McMaster and then Donald Wolfit – two of the grandest representatives of a now largely extinct tradition of enrapturing and histrionic acting – surely seeded in Pinter a romantic attachment to the stage as well as significant skills as an actor.
Andrew Wyllie, Catherine Rees

Chapter One. Pinter and the Papers

Abstract
Notoriously, the London production of The Birthday Party at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958 received some perplexed and hostile reviews, while Harold Hobson’s very positive review in The Sunday Times appeared too late to save the day – the decision had already been taken to close the run early. These events were exemplary of the newspaper critics’ inability to assess adequately what was before them when confronted with new writing whose content and style lay beyond the bounds of their horizon of expectations. The reactions to Pinter’s plays altered rapidly, to such an extent that he was within a few years viewed by critics as part of a new mainstream and indeed as canonical. However, the responses of the newspaper reviewers remained remarkably polarised when it came to their reception of each new Pinter play. By the time of his death, Pinter was obituarised and memorialised very extensively in the press. Along the way, he had confounded critical expectations, and it is perhaps as a consequence of that that he provoked an exasperated response from newspaper reviewers at various times.
Andrew Wyllie, Catherine Rees

Chapter Two. Pinter the Absurdist

Abstract
As we have seen in the previous chapter, the critical reception of Pinter’s work has often, initially at least, been unappreciative, questioning and even hostile. Reactions, most famously to The Birthday Party, saw the play written off as incomprehensible nonsense and an unsuccessful attempt to ape that other obscure tragi-comedy, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). However, it was due to this comparison with Beckett that Pinter was eventually to be accepted and lionised by the critics, as he was adopted by Martin Esslin as a leading practitioner of The Theatre of the Absurd, included in his seminal 1961 text of this title as an additional playwright and given more prominence in the third edition as a key dramatist. This classification of Pinter as an Absurdist remains, however, highly contentious: critics still debate whether or not his plays adhere to the definitions set out by Esslin. Other critics argue that any such classification is an artificial and reductive way to discuss theatre.
Andrew Wyllie, Catherine Rees

Chapter Four. Political Pinter

Abstract
One for the Road, Mountain Language and Party Time all deal with overtly political content and all have been grouped together as being more distinctly “political” than Pinter’s earlier “Pinteresque” plays. This chapter will explore the extent to which the political plays have been seen to be an exclusive grouping and whether the overt political content has been viewed as pushing any more broadly metaphysical content into latency. Pinter’s own comments in his Nobel acceptance speech and as quoted in Various Voices (1998) form an important starting point here. Aspects to be considered include the relationship between language and identity in Mountain Language; the oppressor as victim in One for the Road; and concealment of the truth of oppression as itself an act of oppression in Party Time. There is then the matter of the implied politics of the earlier Pinteresque plays to be considered, for example the politics of conformity and non-conformity in The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, the politics of alienation in The Caretaker and the politics of gender throughout the plays (dealt with largely in Chapter 5 of this Guide, “Pinter, Gender and Sexuality”).
Andrew Wyllie, Catherine Rees

Chapter Four. Pinter, Place and Psychogeography

Abstract
Both physical and psychological spaces are important features of Pinter’s plays and of the critical record. In this chapter, I will consider spatial matters under three main headings as indicated below. Sets and Settings: this is concerned with the physical sets and their relationship to the broader settings of the plays, with particular regard to sanctuary and intrusion; psychology and the interior/exterior; and their evocation in terms of set design and symbolism. Evocations of Place: Pinter often makes great play of the details of geography, especially of London, and this is considered with regard to London’s topographical detail and geographical knowledge as psychological weaponry, with especial regard to the use of precision and haziness of location in London and elsewhere. Psychogeography: there are two principal strands to the relationship between physical topography and mind, and I have categorised these as internal and external, broadly speaking considering the latter with regard to Bourdieu and Sinclair and the former with regard to Esslin’s “inscape of the mind” (see “Psychogeography” section below).
Andrew Wyllie, Catherine Rees

Chapter Five. Pinter, Gender and Sexuality

Abstract
There are three principal themes (as subheadings) that I will explore in this chapter, together with a short coda under the title Heteropower. First, I start with Pinter’s women: there is a complex genealogy of Pinter’s leading female characters, from the apparently oppressed and futile Rose in The Room and Meg in The Birthday Party through the radically ambiguous Ruth in The Homecoming, arguably reprised in the person of Rebecca in Ashes to Ashes, and finally to the cynicism of the women in Celebration. Feminist – or at least female – critics have tended to find Pinter on the whole a positive force in the field of gender politics. He can be seen to be taking a stance critical of his own male characters and strongly in favour of the disconcerting impact of his female characters. Second, I discuss Masculinity on stage: The half-century from the first production of The Room in 1957 to Pinter’s death in 2008 was a period of profound re-evaluation of gender roles in the West, and British drama constituted a major forum within which that re-evaluation took place.
Andrew Wyllie, Catherine Rees

Chapter Six. Pinter Off Stage: Radio, TV and Film

Abstract
While Pinter has traditionally been celebrated as a theatre dramatist, and this is perhaps how he is most commonly remembered, a surprising amount of his work either had its origins as a television or radio script or has been adapted for film. He was also a prolific screenwriter and adaptor himself, demonstrating an eclectic approach to dramatic and cinematic mediums and a willingness to see the inherent flexibility and transgressive quality of these writing disciplines. This chapter seeks to explore the plays by Pinter that are not always performed on the stage. First, I will address plays that were first performed on BBC television, and then received a stage transfer. Second, the chapter will explore the inverse action – plays that were first performed on the stage but were then adapted into film. Each section will address two specific case studies: A Night Out (1960) and The Basement (1967) and then The Birthday Party (1958) and Betrayal (1978). Although the style and structure of these plays is radically different, each can be explored as an adaptation in form from one mode of delivery to another.
Andrew Wyllie, Catherine Rees
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