He was one of the great influences for me in appreciating what live theater was capable of, and in the way I could cope with the world going increasingly mad. His work, when well done, was electric on stage. Both small companies and major productions could make his work either amazing, or confusing. When he was well directed and acted these plays made it clear why live theater is the great communal art. Both actors and audience had to work at understanding and recounting what they saw – which led to arguments and spirited conversations, which is what the best theater should do – not just entertain us but alert us to the world, make us attentive, and demand we talk to one another.
And the way we talk to each other has really changed in the last half century. Pinter’s writing is about that seething subtext of information that has always existed in conversation and relationships, and that it is usual about power.
We needed to see the humor in the perversion and power of language especially as the politics became more nakedly duplicitous. The nadir finally came in a total debasing of language and democratic principle with the intrusion (also the term for a cluster of cockroaches) of Bush/Cheney/Atwater-Rove/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft and their good soldiers like Gonzales and John Yoo. Language was not only less exacting (“It’s totally like, you know -whatever”) – but it became a tool of mass manipulation and a medium for domination. What is “freedom” again? What is “peace”? Mollified and trivialized by our entertainments we were at once were driven to fear and division by the crudest language that pushed the easiest buttons.
In his later plays, Pinter’s rhetoric grew angrier, shorter, and more direct. The last Pinter I saw was “One for the Road” a chilling one-act that merely laid out an interrogation. That was from 1984, when that devil of masquerade Reagan, (mis)led the masses with his soothing rhetoric. How much worse things would become. His anger was justified and his commitment to be admired.
I was lucky this year to also see the wickedly clever No Man’s Land revived by the American Repertory Theater, directed by the Pinter master David Wheeler. It featured the late Paul Benedict, Wheeler’s son Lewis, and a stunner of a performance by Max Wright. It stung and disoriented as the best Pinter always would.
Unlike David Mamet who seems to have devolved more and more into loving the sound of his own writing, and who seems uncommitted as a humanist or politically, Pinter’s language lets the audience do the work and in doing so find the conscience of the play. As much as I have loved and do admire Mamet he sometimes feels overly clever. In my craving for anything resembling Pinter I’ll drive to New York to see Jez Butterworth. The writing is edgy, the subtexts dark, but they just don’t resonate like Pinter. Pillowman did, Albee does, Shanley can, Adam Rapp is wonderfully outrageous. There’s still great theater out there.
But Pinter remains the godfather, not the least reason being his great great sense of humor. Read the monologue about the squash game from Betrayal to be reminded of how delicate and vicious and perfect and great Pinter speech can be. These are great plays to read over and over and ought to be sought out wherever you can.
David Wheeler talks about Pinter here: