Chattering Classes: Diners and Waiters Clash in a Star-Studded Reading

By Portillo, Michael | New Statesman (1996), December 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Chattering Classes: Diners and Waiters Clash in a Star-Studded Reading


Portillo, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


A Reading of Celebration

by Harold Pinter

Albery Theatre, London WC2

This month Harold Pinter accepted his Nobel Prize in Literature, although sadly he was too unwell to attend the ceremony in Stockholm. In London, a group of Britain's best-known actors gave three readings of Celebration (1999), to mark the playwright's receipt of that extraordinary honour.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Hearing the play, you might be forgiven for thinking the Nobel Prize had been conferred on Pinter for snobbery rather than literature. It concerns six ghastly people who go out to dinner in a posh restaurant. They are extremely coarse. In their conversation husbands and wives treat each other rudely. The men swear continuously and loudly. The host keeps reminding his guests how expensive the restaurant is. The women are obsessed with sex. Some of them are disagreeable to the restaurant staff. All the diners have been to the opera or ballet, but they cannot distinguish between the two art forms let alone recall the title of what they have seen.

The author seems to ooze disdain for his characters. He invites us to snigger at these people who have got above their station and ventured into elegant surroundings. As though to emphasise that they are out of their depth, a common waiter (not even the restaurant owner or maitresse d'hotel) pretends to have overheard the diners talking of T S Eliot, or of Hollywood in the 1930s. (Nothing is more unlikely than that these uncouth interlopers would have talked of such elevated matters.) The waiter regales them with fantasies about his grandfather's close acquaintance with the great figures of literature, politics and movie-making during the early part of the 20th century. It is funny partly because it is surreal, in a way that Monty Python and Woody Allen later picked up from Pinter: in our daily experience a waiter does not hold forth in this way.

But the scene makes us laugh because it also cruelly exposes the bemused ignorance of the oiks who are at dinner.

It seems an unlikely piece to have come from the pen of a Hackney Downs grammar school boy. Perhaps the point is that working people sacrifice their dignity when they sell out and seek admission to the culinary temples of the rich.

But if so, how could Pinter himself have retained his self-esteem during an adult lifetime mostly spent in high society?

The cast for the reading was almost beyond belief. …

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