Master Harold: Two New Books Make the Case for Pinter in Performance as Opposed to Pinter as Literature

By Hunka, George | American Theatre, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Master Harold: Two New Books Make the Case for Pinter in Performance as Opposed to Pinter as Literature


Hunka, George, American Theatre


HAROLD PINTER: THE THEATRE OF POWER

By Robert Gordon.

University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2012.

226 pp., $49.50 cloth.

HAROLD PINTER HAS BECOME THAT MOST forbidding of writers, the "contemporary classic"--so classic, in fact, that he has contributed a new word to the language, "Pinteresque." And, like most artists who've attained this dubious distinction, he runs the danger of being dipped in amber and made suitable for framing. The common consensus is that he is a postmodern Hitchcock, all clues and MacGuffins, but no solutions. The extraordinary anger that drives his final political plays may complicate this kind of idolatrous preservation, but the risk remains, nonetheless.

In the years since his death in 2008, the appeal of Pinter's plays has shown no signs of abating. Both his early and his late work are continuously revived around the world, not only in traditional mainstream theatres but also through interpretations shaped by post-dramatic experimentalist groups, most famously the Belarus Free Theatre's Being Harold Pinter, which visited New York in 2011.

The secondary literature that his plays have engendered continues to grow as well, and two recent books point to a new generation of Pinter criticism, promising that, like the plays of his immediate aesthetic predecessor Samuel Beckett, Pinter's dramas have not exhausted their power to fascinate and intrigue--or to resist any kind of critical closure.

Both books acknowledge a debt to Martin Esslin's pioneering study of Pinter's plays, The Peopled Wound, first published in 1970 and subsequently updated on several occasions. At the same time, both books also acknowledge that study's limitations; Robert Gordon's Harold Pinter makes the boldest attempt to bring Esslin's work up to date. Like Esslin, Gordon traverses Pinter's career chronologically, offering new critical perspectives on nearly all of Pinter's major and minor plays. Unlike Esslin, he points to the particularly theatrical and performative challenges that the plays present, and he de-emphasizes the kind of close reading Esslin attempted when discussing the plays as literature.

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THE EXPERIMENTAL PLAYS OF HAROLD PINTER

By Hanna Scolnicov.

University of Delaware Press, Newark, 2012.

206 pp., $70 cloth.

As his subtitle, "The Theatre of Power," suggests, Gordon is particularly interested in how Pinter's plays manifest the tendency of familial, social, existential and especially political structures to devolve into power struggles involving domination and possession. This is by no means a new way of approaching Pinter's work, but Gordon perceives a particularly theatrical, rather than literary, perspective for the interpretation of Pinter's concerns.

"Speech and behavior enhance the stage image by complementing or contradicting the visual image to enable the construction of character ... and the further elaboration and patterning of action," Gordon writes, stressing the plays' status as texts for performance rather than literature for reading a la Esslin. "Action ... and therefore meaning ... might unfold in performance, preventing [the audience] from privileging abstract or conceptual language over the 'language' of stage action in tracing the genesis of each play's felt significance in time."

Gordon's play-by-play traversal is straightforward, though when it comes to the later plays he often discusses broader, overarching themes rather than the scene-by-scene schematic approach he takes toward the more familiar early work. Gordon has the most interesting things to say about less frequently revived plays such as Old Times and No Man's Land. He plumbs the deeper mysteries of this latter play, especially, carefully exploring its challenges for both performer and audience while avoiding final interpretations. …

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