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Robert Gordon. Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Power.

Robert Gordon. Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Power. Michigan Modern Dramatists 3. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. Pp. 216. $49.50.

The third volume of the Michigan Modern Dramatists series edited by Enoch Brater, Robert Gordon's Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Power, provides a comprehensive overview of Pinter's stage oeuvre from The Room through Celebration. As the Director of the Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London (where he is also Professor of Drama), Gordon is an eminently qualified guide for such a study, and his book is likely to remain the standard for such volumes for a generation. The four major themes that he establishes early in the introduction will be quite familiar already to Pinter aficionados:

* the territorial imperative, whereby the individual struggles to claim and/ or defend his or her particular space (usually interior) and thus assert and/ or protect his or her identity;

* the exercise of power through the language of authority;

* sex, gender, and the construction of identity; and

* questions of time and memory.

Yet in contrast to those reviewers and scholars who denigrate Pinter's later, shorter plays "as disappointingly didactic political propaganda" (1), Gordon rightly insists that the above themes "are repeatedly recapitulated, rethought, and elaborated in new ways in later plays. Throughout his career, he experimented with new variations of core structural and thematic motifs, whose origin can usually be traced to an initial idea from an earlier play" (2). Accordingly, Pinter's now-complete oeuvre can be assessed with an entirely appropriate emphasis on the later works, which, like Beckett's late-career "dramaticules" tend to edulcorate the decades-earlier full-length works, shortening their form and often perforce removing any semblance of comedy but refining and intensifying the presentation of preoccupations that had actually "been there" all along.

In Gordon's analysis, Pinter's first play, The Room, "establishes the aesthetic terms of Pinter's early theater, which does not aim to communicate an overarching 'meaning' in an allegorical or symbolic manner, but which invites the spectator to 'live through' the experiences of a group of people in a virtual universe that operates in parallel to her or his everyday world. By removing the conventionally logical exposition of a 'well-made' naturalistic play that functions to reassure the spectator that it is possible to piece together all the parts of the dramaturgical puzzle in order to supply a coherently historical rationale for the action, the revelation that there may not ever be a logical explanation for the events of a human life comes as a genuine shock" (23-24). Such a statement is a particularly apposite introduction to No Man's Land, by far Pinter's most notoriously difficult and indeterminate play--by the analysis of which any guidebook to his plays can be judged. By this criterion, Gordon's analysis succeeds admirably--in part by openly admitting at the outset that its "plot is entirely baffling [since t]here is no discernible framework of exposition that might enable a spectator to decipher the many puzzles presented by the fragmentary action being witnessed on stage" (107). The play thus becomes "a highly original experiment ... [in which] the play models for the audience an experience of how it feels to be in a world of bewildering surfaces, rather than supplying a straightforward allegorical meaning" (122). In effect, therefore, Pinter deconstructs the most fundamental premises of naturalistic drama itself; precedents can then easily be found in his earlier works, not least among them the radical indeterminacies of The Homecoming with its often ominous subtexts, its unrelenting one-upsmanship among men who obsessively define and reassert status within the all-male domain of their household, and the indomitability of Ruth, sovereign among them despite the indeterminacies of her past and present life.

Gordon also offers a number of original and often surprising intertextual links to other plays, such as an alleged structural affinity between The Room and Terrence Rattigan's "well-made" one-act The Browning Version, produced in 1947. Less convincingly, perhaps, "the intricate negotiations of the characters in The Homecoming hark back to the cunning social manipulations represented in the tradition of English comedy of manners exemplified at its most complex and savage by William Congreve's The Way of the World (1700)" (82). Genre-related typologies tend to be far less specific, however: The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party are obviously linked to "classic thrillers" whose sinister hit men show up unexpectedly with violence and menace foremost on their minds. More specific precedents could easily have been named from Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and others, though the most important such is arguably Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" (especially if crossed with Waiting for Godot). Though Gordon deftly analyzes the patter between Gus and Ben in The Dumb Waiter and Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party, its origin in the unmistakable rhythm of the pauses, silences, and exasperated "slow burns" perfected by Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel in countless comedies of the 1930s remains oddly unmentioned.

Every critical survey of a complete oeuvre needs at least one startlingly revisionary reassessment, and Gordon's foremost such involves Moonlight (1993), the relatively little-known and rarely produced play that he deems "a late masterpiece, recapitulating motifs from all phases of Pinter's work to create a coherent drama that is innovative in its eschatological meditation on what constitutes a satisfying life--romantic love, desire, family relationships, the value of work, and the inevitability of loss" (161). Its liminal use of stage space to signify the shadowy realm of the afterdeath that Bridget now inhabits seems long familiar to those acquainted with Beckett's later works, as does its final vignette "evoking an apparently endless moment of waiting" (161), which echoes not only Waiting for Godot but especially his later plays and novels set in the similarly tenebrous afterdeath, including Play and The Unnamable. Further, its final "poignant image of her final exclusion from the party, which represents that life is continuing without her," now a "ghostly figure" in moonlight (161), seems reminiscent of the closing paragraphs of James Joyce's "The Dead." Still, Gordon contends that "Moonlight is the fullest articulation of the Pinterian ghost drama in which past and present--the worlds of the living and the dead--co-exist phenomenally in a ceremonious invocation of the continuous present/s of experience/memory" (161).

First produced in 2000, Pinter's final, seemingly anomalous, scathingly caustic comedy Celebration is here granted unexpected praise for having "revealed Pinter at the age of seventy to be as finely attuned to the changing language and values of English society as always" (190): its "aspirational culture of conspicuous consumption" (191) at the turn of the millennium is embodied in crass, vulgar, raucous, and violent members of the not-so-haute bourgeoisie who are dining at an upscale restaurant. Their waiter (no doubt a humanities major in college) compulsively drops the names of major twentieth-century authors, making preposterous claims that they are his own family relations (eventually including a grandfather who "was James Joyce's godmother") (192, quoted from Pinter's Celebration); his hearers, in contrast, cannot even be sure whether the performance they have just attended was an opera, a ballet, or a play. Such caricatures of the middle class are far from new, however: Alan Sillitoe's now long-forgotten play This Foreign Field (1970), later revised and published under the title The Slot Machine (1978), made remarkably similar points using a country picnic as its special occasion, ostensibly conventional middle-class characters who turn out to be criminals, and extraordinary violence shown onstage rather than described. Celebration seems unlikely to be among Pinter's enduring works; its indictment of the crassness, vulgarity, and stupidity of the bourgeoisie has been around for decades (Jarry's Ubu Roi) or, indeed, for centuries (Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme). Celebration adds very little of significance to this long tradition--and, indeed, very little that is worth saying yet again.

Gordon's Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Power cala well be placed beside the recent memorial volume of The Pinter Review (2012) as both commemoration and analysis of one of the twentieth century's most consistently challenging, innovative, outspoken, and courageous playwrights and public intellectuals. It is both a deft homage and a useful guidebook to Pinter's now-complete oeuvre, written by an eminently authoritative, unabashed admirer of the plays. Although some of its assessments of Pinter's lesser-known works may seem more enthusiastic than many readers and theatergoers believe that they deserve, it is a worthy contribution to a book series that will, I hope, produce further volumes for many years to come.


University of Alabama at Birmingham
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Author:Hutchings, William
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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