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Entries in harold pinter (4)


In Which Harold Pinter Changes Marcel Proust

Judge of Proust


Proust is completely detached from all moral considerations. There is no right or wrong in Proust nor in his world.

- Samuel Beckett

When Harold Pinter's screenplay of Proust's In Search of Lost Time was published in 1978, the playwright's lifetime ignorance of his critics softened. He paid attention to what they wrote because what he made was not entirely his own, and since Proust was no longer living to judge his adaptation, he was prepared to be crucified by the man's inheritors.

1972 had been a year of reading and writing in fits and starts. He worked with Beckett's mistress/scholar/translator Barbara Bray, whose knowledge of Proust's opus far exceeded his own. Pinter had only read Swann's Way, so the first idea to adapt the novel to the screen consisted of Swann's Way as the entire movie, with allusions to a larger whole. Pinter and Bray rejected this limitation immediately, and his dismissal of Swann's Way was wise many of the events of the book simply don't revolve enough around Marcel for a drama.

with Vaclav Havel a year before the Velvet Revolution

For the most part, Pinter views In Search of Lost Time as a comedy. In The Guermantes Way Proust recalls his visit to the home of Charlus, an emotional scene where the comic aspect is largely ironic. Pinter brings it out into the open:


Charlus, in a Chinese dressing gown, throat bare, is lying on a sofa.

The Valet shows Marcel into the room and withdraws.

A tall hat, its top flashing in the light, sits on a cap on a chair.

Charlus stares at Marcel in silence.

MARCEL: Good evening.

No reply. The stare is implacable.

May I sit down? Silence.

CHARLUS: Take the Louis Quatorze chair. Marcel sits abruptly in a Directoire chair beside him. Ah! So that is what you call a Louis Quatorze chair! I can see you have been well educated. One of these days you'll take Madame de Villeparisis' lap for a lavatory and goodness knows what you'll do in it. Pause. Sir, this interview which I have condescended to grant you will mark the end of our relationship. He stretches an arm along the back of the sofa. Since I was everything and you were nothing, since I, if I may state it plainly, am a prodigious personage and you in comparison a microbe, it was naturally I who took the first steps towards you. You have made an imbecilic reply to what it is not for me to describe as an act of greatness. In short, you have lied about me to others. You have repeated calumnies against me to others. Therefore these are the last words we shall exchange on this earth.


MARCEL: Never, sir. I have never spoken about you to anyone.

CHARLUS: You left unanswered the proposal I made to you here in Paris. The idea did not attract you. There is no more to be said about that. But that you did not take the trouble to write to me shows that you lack not only breeding, good manners, sensibility, but common or garden intelligence. Instead, you prove yourself despicable in speaking of me disrespectfully to the world at large.

MARCEL: Sir, I swear to you that I have said nothing to anyone that could insult you.

CHARLUS (with extreme violence): Insult me? Who says that I am insulted? Do you suppose it is within your power to insult me? You evidently do not realize to whom you are speaking. Do you imagine that the envenomed spittle of five hundred little gentlemen of your type, heaped one upon the other, would succeed in slobbering so much as the tips of my august toes?

Marcel stares at him, jumps up, seizes the Baron's silk hat, throws it down, tramples it, picks it up, wrenches off the brim, tears the crown in two.

CHARLUS: What in heaven's name are you doing? Have you gone mad?

Marcel rushes to the door and opens it. Two footmen are standing outside. They move slowly away. Marcel walks quickly past them, followed by Charlus, who bars his way.

CHARLUS: There, there, don't be childish. Come back for a minute. He that loveth well chasteneth well. I have chastened you well because I love you well. He draws Marcel back into the room.

CHARLUS (to footman): Take away the hat and bring me a new one.

MARCEL: I would like to know the name of your informer, sir.

CHARLUS: I have given a promise of secrecy to my informant. I do not intend to betray that promise.

MARCEL: You insult me, sir. I have already sworn to you that I have said nothing.

CHARLUS (thunderously): Are you calling me a liar?

MARCEL: You have been misinformed.

CHARLUS: It is quite possible. Generally speaking, a remark repeated at second hand is rarely true. But true or false, the remark has done its work. Pause.

MARCEL: I had better go.

CHARLUS: I agree. Or, if you feel too tired, I have plenty of beds here.

MARCEL: Thank you. I am not too tired.

CHARLUS: It is true that my affection for you is dead. Nothing can revive it. As Victor Hugo's Boaz said, "I am widowed, alone, and the dark gathers o'er me."


Charlus and Marcel walking through the green room. Music is heard from another floor. A Beethoven romance. Charlus points at two portraits.

CHARLUS: My uncles. The King of Poland and the King of England.


The carriage waits. Charlus and Marcel look up at the night sky.

CHARLUS: What a superb moon. I think I shall talk a walk in the Bois.

Marcel does not respond to this.

CHARLUS: It would be pleasant to walk in the Bois under the moon with someone like yourself. For you're charming, really, quite charming. When I met you first I must confess I found you quite insignificant.

He takes Marcel to his carriage. Marcel gets in.

CHARLUS: Remember this. Affection is precious. Do not neglect it. Thank you for coming. Good night.

Unlike Victor Hugo, Pinter's own plays and prose are obscured and difficult, the very opposite of Hugo's pandering. During many moments in The Proust Screenplay, he thrives by keeping the audience in darkness. Pinter uses a honed dramatic convention of setting up a variety of concurrent mysteries and having some of them answer others. The world of Proust, like any drama, is a lot better if you are excited to find out what happens next.

Samuel Beckett was Pinter's guide in this, and all things. He never refuted his mentor, and took every word from the man's lips as the gospel. It was Beckett's inspiration, primarily, to orient the film version around Le Temps retrouvé, the final volume in the book and the one most near and dear to scholars and critics. The adaptation is also structured around the idea of Proust preparing to write In Search of Lost Time, of the experiences that most revolve around the glimmering possibility of becoming the writer he wished to be.

a Japanese production of "The Caretaker"

It is impossible not to feel some of the doubts Pinter himself felt as a young writer in Marcel's story, and the reflections of his most famous play, Betrayal, in Marcel's scenes with Albertine.


Marcel and Albertine enter the room. He closes the door. She speaks at once.

ALBERTINE: What have you got against me?

Marcel walks to the window, turns from it, sits, looks at her gravely.

MARCEL: Do you really want me to tell you the truth?


He speaks quietly.

MARCEL: I admire Andrée... greatly. I always have. There you are. That's the truth. You and I can be friends, I hope, but nothing more. Once, I was on the point of falling in love with you, but that time... can't be recaptured. I'm sorry to be so frank. The truth is always unpleasant - for someone. I love Andrée.

ALBERTINE: I see. I don't mind your frankness. I see. But I'd just like to know what I've done.

MARCEL: Done? You haven't done anything. I've just explained it to you.

ALBERTINE: Yes, I have. Or you think I have.

MARCEL: Why can't you listen?

ALBERTINE: Why can't you tell me? Silence.

MARCEL: I've heard reports. She gazes at him.

MARCEL: Reports...about your way of life.

ALBERTINE: My way of life?

MARCEL: I have a profound disgust for women... tainted with that vice. Pause. You see, I have heard that your...accomplice...is Andrée, and since Andrée is the woman I love, you can understand my grief.

Albertine looks at him steadily.

ALBERTINE: Who told you this rubbish?

MARCEL: I can't tell you.

ALBERTINE: Andrée and I both detest that sort of thing. We find it revolting.

MARCEL: You're saying it's not true?

ALBERTINE: If it were true I would tell you. I would be quite honest with you. Why not? But I'm telling you it's absolutely untrue.

MARCEL: Do you swear it?

ALBERTINE: I swear it. She walks to him and sits by him on the sofa. I swear it. She takes his hand. You are silly. She strokes his hand. All those stories about Andrée... She touches his face. You are silly. I'm your Albertine. She strokes his face. Aren't you glad I'm here...sitting next to you?

MARCEL: Yes. She attempts to kiss him. His mouth is shut. She passes her tongue over his lips.

ALBERTINE: Open your mouth. Open your mouth, you great bear. She forces his mouth open, kisses him, forcing him down on the sofa.

as bassanio in "The Merchant of Venice"


Marcel and Mother sitting in deck chairs.

MOTHER: I think you should know that Albertine's aunt believes you are going to marry Albertine.


MOTHER: You're spending a great deal of money on her. They naturally think it would be a very good marriage, from her point of view. Pause.

MARCEL: What do you think of her yourself?

MOTHER: Albertine? Well, it's not that I will be marrying her, is it? I don't think your grandmother would have liked me to influence you. But if she can make you happy...

MARCEL: She bores me. I have no intention of marrying her.

MOTHER: In that case I should see less of her.

performing in a production of his play "The Hothouse"

The collaboration between Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey on an adaptation of L.P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between convinced producer Nicole Stéphane the duo were capable of properly distilling source material this voluminous. Before The Go-Between was a hit at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, Stéphane and her lover Susan Sontag had brainstormed possible directors: at times François Truffaut, René Clément and Luchino Visconti were all attached to the project, with Visconti going so far as to scout locations and commission a rough script modeled on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Pinter was 21 years Losey's junior, and he respected the filmmaker immensely: he never imagined The Proust Screenplay without him. Pinter's two other films with Losey The Servant and Accident share a similar haunting tone and perspective on class boundaries, so it was not surprising that he desired a director with whom he shared both kinship and confidence. Ironically, his devotion to Losey was what doomed the project. The once blacklisted director's films never did well in America, and he was considered box office poison.

Jacqueline Sassard and Dirk Bogarde in 1967's amazing "Accident"

Just as Pinter's plays are dark and sometimes frightening, so were Losey's menacing adaptations of his screenwriting. I don't know how they thought these sort of films would appear to a mass audience. Some scenes are heavy with dialogue, others extremely dependent on Losey's masterful editing. In refusing to decide between being stage plays or art films, they used the most exciting conventions of both genres and managed to appeal to neither audience.

In The Proust Screenplay Pinter is more accessible than in any of his stage works, taking a familiar story and never shying from a crowd-pleasing line or innuendo. It is his broadest masterpiece.

When biographer Michael Billington asked Pinter why another director was never approached, he said, "Nobody ever suggested that to me. It would have been quite pointless to say that to me. They may have suggested it to Barbara. Nobody did to me because I wouldn't have given it house-room." He values loyalty in a way Marcel does not.

Pinter with Liv Ullman in a revival of his "Old Times"


The pond, seen through a gap in the hedge.

A fishing line rests by the side of the pond, the float bobbing in the water.

Marcel and Gilberte appear and walk to the side of the pond. They are both aged thirty-five and both dressed in mourning.

GILBERTE: Two days after Robert was killed I received a package sent anonymously. It contained his Croix de Guerre. There was no note of explanation, nothing. The package was posted in Paris. Pause. Isn't that strange?


GILBERTE: He never mentioned, in any letter, that it had been lost, or stolen.

in his acting days, after a performance of Lady Windermere's Fan


Marcel and Gilberte stand by the windows.

GILBERTE: I loved him. But we had grown unhappy. He had another woman, or other women, I don't know.

MARCEL: Other women?

GILBERTE: Yes. He had some secret life, which he never confessed to me, but I know he found it irresistible.

with Julie Christie on the set of "The Go-Between"


Marcel and Gilberte walking.

GILBERTE: Do you remember your childhood at Combray?

MARCEL: Not really.

GILBERTE: How long is it since you've been back?

MARCEL: Oh, a very long time. It's changed.

GILBERTE: The war has changed everything.

MARCEL: No, it's nothing to do with the war.

GILBERTE: But are you saying that these paths, these woods, the village, excite nothing in you?

MARCEL: Nothing. They mean nothing to me. It's all dead. I remember almost nothing of it. Pause. I remember seeing you, through the hedge. I adored you.

GILBERTE: Did you? I wish you'd told me at the time. I thought you were delicious.

Marcel stares at her.


GILBERTE: I longed for you. Of course I was quite precocious, I suppose, then. I used to go some ruins - at Roussainville - with some girls and boys, from the village, in the dark. We were quite wicked. I longed for you to come there. I remember, that moment through the hedge, I tried to let you know how much I wanted you, but I don't think you understood. He laughs.

GILBERTE: Why are you laughing?

MARCEL: Because I didn't understand. I've understood very little. I've been too... preoccupied... with other matters... To be honest, I have wasted my life.

with Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal

Pinter largely ignores the portrayal of Jews in In Search of Lost Time. Marcel hears gossiping about the Dreyfus affair but that it is all his Jewish friends and acquaintances have vanished like Marcel's familiar madeleine cookie. Pinter's people were a band of North London Jews; Pinter's paternal grandfather fled from a Russian pogrom. Passover was a big event in his house as a child, but like many European Jews, he rejected the religious dogmatism of his parents. He was concerned with "world affairs" and considered himself a man of Earth.

Proust is not concerned with morality, but like all self-righteous atheists, Pinter is obsessed with it. Primacy to his own experience was Marcel's ideal, Pinter's is primacy to his own moral code. In every scene of The Proust Screenplay, he casts his own judgment over the proceedings. The challenge to Losey is huge. Although he lists shots, so much is left off, can only be hinted at:

Pinter's adaptation of Proust requires another creative mind to infiltrate his own, and find the perspective justified, confirm his suspicions about the characters and events. Because The Proust Screenplay is only a script, we are given this interpretive task as readers. Even in the work's harshest and most mind-rending moments, it is the thrall of being correct and therefore superior, the rationalization following our primal emotions, that lies closer to Harold's heart. He is watching these people and telling us how to live with what they said and did. He writes,

Proust wrote Swann's Way first and Time Regained, the last volume, second. He then wrote the rest. The relationship between the first volume and the last seemed to us the crucial one. The whole book is, as it were, contained in the last volume. When Marcel in Time Regained says that he is now able to start his work, he has already written it. We have just read it. Somehow the remarkable conception had to be found again in another form. We knew we could in no sense rival the work. But could we be true to it?

Every adaptation is a moral act; imagine Proust trying to do to In Search of Lost Time what Pinter did to it. He would never, and he would wonder why it needed to be done.

with joseph losey and james fox (left)

In 1930, Samuel Beckett related his view of Proust in his bizarre and brilliant monograph on the author, a piece hellbent on serving its author more than its ostensible subject. (Beckett was perhaps overly critical of his younger self when he later wrote, "I have written my book in cheap flashy philosophical jargon.") It was Beckett's mature view of À la recherche du temps perdu that informed every step of Pinter's process.

There is no more exciting interaction of two European masters except possibly in Freud and Jung. Beckett's view is necessarily bleaker it is the contrast between the two similar styles that keeps Pinter's work hopeful enough to survive in the theater. For in Pinter's drama, joy never comes easy.

The cinematic image, then, becomes home to the explosive feelings he can't handle through speech. Proust's constant exposition and narrative meandering is anathema to a playwright; instead of representing them literally, as he is loathe to do, Pinter places them in the stage directions for Losey to visualize. (Ever watched a director during his own screening?) Later, he plans to silently and morbidly screen the final product with the director he called Joe, obsessing in the same fashion others view old photos of lost friends. Because The Proust Screenplay never received the elaborate production it deserves before his death, Pinter was denied the feeling disconsolate or euphoric of witnessing himself.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Jim Henson and Sesame Street.

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"Children" - The Rapture (mp3)

"Roller Coaster" - The Rapture (mp3)

"In The Grace Of Your Love" - The Rapture (mp3)

The new album from The Rapture In The Grace Of Your Love comes out on September 6th.


In Which We Keep The Fire High And The Wolves Away

"We're Losing You, Darling"


The Broadway season really got exciting with the October 3rd opening of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. Pinter, born in London in 1930, has been called "the best and most important young playwright now alive." The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, was done in London in 1958, where it died within the week, leaving Pinter just another out of work actor for awhile.

As everyone knows, Bench changed all that. Bench, written for BBC television, proved his first overwhelming success. Many people feel that Kenneth Tynan's lengthy essay on Bench in The Observer did as much for Pinter as Tynan's review of Look Back In Anger had done four years previously for John Osborne.

Bench, of course, is a 50-minute play, all of it taking place, as the title suggests, on a lonely seaside bench in an (unnamed) English resort town. The play, a series of seemingly disconnected encounters between men occupying the bench, comes to a climax in the famous scene reprinted below.

on the set of "The Go-Between"

(The two characters in the scene have, if anyone has forgotten, appeared in the play once before, but not together; this is the only time in the play that anyone returns to the bench for a second visit.) It might be advisable here to give the scene a glance again, along with some of what Mr. Tynan wrote about it, to see what light it sheds on Pinter in general, and The Birthday Party in particular.





What'd you say - what'd you say?







The roses...


What'd you say — what'd you say?


I said the roses.


The roses what? Get on with it - the roses what?


(pause, then rises, stands over the bigger man)

You know what.


I do, do I?



You know and Frankie knows.

(long pause)

Frankie knows better than you know.


But you know.


All I did was say hello.


You denied the roses!


Keep your damn roses.


(longest pause)

I intend to, mate. Tell that to Frankie. Tell him the roses are ... are ...


Are what?



Bloody well mine...



The following is excerpted from Tynan's Observer article of November 27, 1960. "...as good as the play is, and certainly for a television play it has been extraordinary, it is not until the terminal confrontation between Teddy and Stan that one realizes that one is not only in the presence of an artist, but incredibly (the man has just turned thirty) an artist already at the peaks of his powers.

"I know of no other modern dramaturgy as compressed as this: 16 speeches, 85 words, and (most significantly) 8 pauses. At first, when the two men are seated 'knee to knee,' it seems we are to witness the most wearisome of modern theatrical clichés, the 'deviate pickup scene.' But very soon it is clear that what we are watching is, for Pinter, the ultimate violence: the announcement of a future murder. (A lesser artist would never be content with the indication of violence; he would have to show the crime.) Pinter hints at it, conveys it, then leaves it, and at the same time leaves us sick with frustration. For surely Stan is going to die. And surely we cannot save him.

"What is Stan's crime? Clearly he is not the least ashamed of it; no man ashamed would hurl a charge the way Stan hurls 'You denied the roses!' at Teddy. And that of course is Stan's crime: he is not ashamed. For he is Man and not ashamed of it, and for that he must die; for that, Teddy, tremendous Teddy, must kill him. Stan is Man. (Is the rhyme a hint? Probably. Pinter need not have done that.) Man: virile, proud of his red blood. Teddy is, of course, homosexual, which is why Stan sits knee to knee to him - a taunt. Stan is man unafraid, no matter how great the odds or how tremendous the enemy.

"Frankie, referred to twice — some think mysteriously — is not mysterious at all. He is, of course, St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, all this clearly indicated by the fact that the Franciscans have split into three orders, just as the human race is split into thirds: men, women and homosexuals such as Teddy.

"What Bench is then, finally, is a heterosexual outcry against the modern world. Telling, moving, painful in its honesty, brilliant in its conception, it is pure Pinter. One finale note: some critics have wondered why, since Bench is concerned with the world being in thirds — men, women and deviates — there are no women characters. The obvious Freudian reply would be that Woman is indeed present: the Great Woman herself; the Sea.

"But Pinter is far past Freud, and the final answer is his alone, for his art is not really menace or fear. It is the God-given ability to infuse universal meaning through the use of secrets. And if you tell what your secrets mean, well, they would hardly be secrets any more, now would they?"

With Tynan's analysis in mind, let us proceed to The Birthday Party. American critics had a terrible time with it. John Chapman of the New York Daily News called it a "whatzit." Clive Barnes of the Times thought it was incomporably one of the two most interesting plays to appear on Broadway in some seasons, the other being Pinter's Tony-award winner from the previous year, The Homecoming. Richard Watts of the Post was in between, finding it both cryptic and dramatically artful.

The television critics were similarly in disarray; one of them felt that it started slowly but really picked up speed as it went along, while another thought it had a terrific beginning but bogged down toward the end. Pinter, of course, is famous for leaving certain things unsaid, and this annoyed The New Yorker critic, who felt it would have been all right had Pinter been forced "to be mysterious because of political pressure or the like," while Time felt his "unwillingness to communicate is his central theme" and therefore crucial to his work. The Newsweek man felt....there's really no telling what the Newsweek man felt, because he kept putting these strange words down one after the other. The following strange words occur after a plot synopsis: "Into this orchestration of rock-bottom behavior and starkly pungent language, Pinter builds a polyphony of hints, insinuations, metaphysical tips and touts that add up, not to 'meaning', but to a visitation of portentous activity."

Never mind what The Birthday Party's about, what's Newsweek about?

Alan Schneider, who directed the production, has a notion what The Birthday Party is about: "Somebody is after somebody else and gets 'em." Schneider, a Tony-award winner for his work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is probably the busiest drama director on Broadway. Schneider is fifty, looks a lot less, and is enormously articulate, which is interesting only insofar as most of his best known work has been with playwrights who tend to defy articulation — Albee, Samuel Beckett and Pinter. "I've done a lot of plays that seem to have no meaning — The Trial is my favorite novel — I have a drive toward the thing that isn't defined. I'm Russian, maybe that's why."

Schneider had been with The Birthday Party a long time. "Since 1958. I arrived in England the week it closed and happened to see the Sunday reviews. I thought it sounded interesting, but I couldn't find the play. I was casting understudies, and somebody said, 'Please take a look at this actor friend of mine; he desperately needs the work.' And this guy and his wife came in, and it was Pinter, using his actor's name, I think. Later, when we got know each other, he said, 'I've got this play I wish you'd look at,' and it was The Birthday Party.

"It's gone through three stages since then. I wanted to do it and I brought it home with me, but it was impossible for anyone to read it at that time — Beckett and the rest of them hadn't happened yet. Yale said no to it; the Actors' Studio said no to it; I just put it aside. Then Harold became respectable with The Caretaker, and there were lots of offers to do it off-Broadway, using The Caretaker as an example of why it shouldn't be done on Broadway, since The Caretaker failed financially. But Harold said 'No.' Finally, with The Homecoming. Harold is now commercial. So, after — what is it? — almost ten years, it's being done."

To understand just what was so difficult about The Birthday Party, a summary of the plot might be in order. A piano player is living as the lone boarder with an elderly couple in a house at the English seaside. Two men, a Jew and an Irishman, come to take rooms, and the piano player is upset. The landlady tells the two men that it is the piano player's birthday, and a party is arranged, a neighboring girl being among those invited. Before the party, the two men savagely interrogate the piano player, accuse him of leaving the "organization." At this point violence would probably erupt if the landlady didn't appear dressed for the party. The party begins, and during a game of blindman's bluff, the lights go out. In the darkness there is confusion, and as the Jew and the Irishman advance with flashlights toward the piano players, he retreats, giggling wildly. In the third act, the piano player, now nearly catatonic, is taken away by the strangers to face someone named Monty.

To repeat director Schneider's words: "Somebody is after somebody else and gets 'em." Nothing is particularly difficult about the skeletal plot. It's really a 1930s gangster movie: John Garfield is hiding out, having left the Mafia, and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet come and drag him back to face Edward G. Robinson.

Except there are a lot of things that Pinter doesn't ever say. For example, it isn't the Mafia — oh, it might be, or it might be the American Dental Association. He never specifies. The reference is only to the "organization." And the big boss, Monty: that's all we ever know about him, his name. We don't really know that he's the big boss; we only know that the piano player is being taken to see Monty. We don't even know if the piano player is a piano player; he tells us about a concert he played, but the circumstances are so strange, and so is he, that it all might be a figment. And, of course, it isn't his birthday. His landlady says it is, but he tells us it isn't.

The New York Times has called Pinterism "maximum tension through minimum information," and it was just this frustrating lack of facts that infuriated the Wednesday matinee ladies at The Birthday Party. Now these were good women, doing their damnedest to keep up. Before the first act curtain, two of them were talking about the problems with their teenage sons.


I put on the Lovin' Spoonful; Simon and Garfunkel I tried.


Good for you.


"Explain it to me," I said to him. "I would like to know."


What did he say?


Nothing. Nothing. I practically begged. "Help me," I said. "I don't understand. Does my needle need changing?"

Clearly, they were trying, these two. At the first act intermission, they walked silently up the aisles. Finally, one of them spoke.


It's about the terrors of everyday life.


I don't get that too much.

The second act of the play contains the birthday party itself, which ends in semidarkness. One of the final moments before the curtain has the piano player on top of the neighbor girl, who is spread-eagled and motionless. The whole theatre was buzzing as the ladies moved to smoke. "It's always like this," an usher said. "This jabbering. Always." In the lobby, half a dozen women were inhaling angrily.


Why? That's all I wanna know - just why?


Why what?


Why does he do this? If I were an artist, I would want to communicate. That's my job. I'm an artist. I'm supposed to communicate. Something. It shouldn't just have form — form's not enough — gotta be content — anything to communicate. What's with this Pinter? Why?

I talked to Pinter about it. He said, "It's a bloody big bore when they can't accept a thing for what happens on stage. On the whole, the what's-it-all-about business is more pronounced over here. It's about what the people do on the stage. Otherwise you could just put a poster up on stage, couldn't you? 'This scene is about...the next scene is about...' I'm not a sociologist; I'm just a writer. And I don't conceptualize very much. Never before and never after.

"The original idea was the domestic situation: someone upstairs sleeping in a house, a boarder. The lodger eventually comes down. The domestic situation by the seaside, that was the start of it. The other characters didn't arrive till later. One day, about 20 pages in, Goldberg and McCann turned up. I didn't know anything about them until they appeared.

"This what's-it-about business - one regrets it. I'm doing a play now; it's my first in three years, and it means a great deal to me. I've done less and less writing for the stage. Writing becomes more difficult the older you get, at least it does for me. I found some 1950 poems of mine recently; I was astonished by the freedom I had, the energy, a complete uncaringness about form. I can't write that way anymore. I'm thirty-seven now. I feel as if I'm eighty."

He sounded very tired as he spoke. He was in America for a few days, and there were at least 50 requests for interviews. Every radio station wanted him, most of the TV, many of the newspapers, the magazines. Everybody wondering what it was all about.


It's got a lot to do with menace, that much I can tell you.


Oh, yes, very much. Menace and terror, yes.

They moved down the aisles, and the third act started. Halfway through, a "buzz-buzz-buzz" of wonder burst across the theatre: Lulu, the neighbor girl who had been motionless and spread-eagled at the second act curtain, made her entrance, and the ladies had to get it straight.


What is this? I thought she was dead.


She was dead.


Don't tell me dead, she's standing there.


She's a symbol.

The street was stuffed with children. December: 60 degrees, 11:15 in the morning, and it's raining. They stand there, waiting. Above them, teachers hold umbrellas as they hem the children in toward the building line, doing their best to keep the sidewalk at least partially clear.

11:20, and the children are quiet, but now they are beginning to hop up and down in place, hop, hop, staring toward the front of the line which begins at the entrance to Loew's Eighty-sixth Street movie theatre on Third Avenue.

Inside the theatre lobby the ushers are getting ready for the onslaught. There are 3,000 kids already seated in the theatre, jamming it, but the special Christmas play is ending, and they have to be cleared before the 3,000 kids outside can come in for the second show.

11:25, and it's as if some giant vacuum cleaner is sucking the first-show audience toward the exit doors. Ffffft, and they're going, going, and in the lobby the ushers are looking at each other, getting ready, making last-minute checks with the teachers standing outside in the rain.

11:30, and in they come! Not slowly, no trickle, just whoosh! and then the flood —

— this way —

— no no no this way —

— follow Irving everybody —

Out of the rain they come, silent, and maybe four feet tall on average, all colors, shapes, you name it, and gloriously wet and —

— up the stairs —

— hit it kids —

now don't move — (This from a tough Italian teacher to part of his group, who froze on the word move, while he went off after some others. An usher came up to them and said, "Go in, children," but they weren't budging, so the usher said, "Please, children, you're blocking things." But they had been given the word, and the word was don't move. So finally, one of them raised an arm and pointed to the Italian, and the usher ran over to him and explained, and the Italian nodded, that's all, just as quick nod, but his boys knew an order when it was given and now, alive again, they filed down into the theatre and sat.)

— quiet now —

— patience, Sandra —

— hold hands and here we go and —

— the balcony? — (This last from a Negro teacher with Negro children in reply to an usher who was pointing up, and suddenly you could see it on the Negro teacher's face as she looked around to see if any white children were being sent upstairs, too. "Really," the usher told her, "you'll see better, and the main floor's full." And now the Negro teacher saw it was the truth, that the main floor was pretty full and that all colors were heading up the stairs, so still just least suspiciously she gestured for her flock to follow, and up she trudged, dragging her tails behind her.)

— quickly now —

— shhhhh —

And most of them were in before the first great thing happened (this is all going to make sense in time). As these lines of children charged across the lobby of Loew's Eighty-sixth to get in for the free Christmas show, in this wild confusion, one little kid accidentally splintered off from her group and didn't know it because everybody was running one way or another, and instead of running with one group she was running with another. Her teacher caught sight of her as she was about to disappear, and although the teacher had enough to do shepherding the rest of her babes, she set off across the lobby like Gale Sayers, and at the far entrance managed to grab hold of the girl.

As she spun the kid around, what do you think she said? "I told you to watch where you're going!" No. "Can't you ever listen, what's the matter with you?" Never. Not even close. What she said to the small startled eyes was this, "We're losing you, darling."

...we're losing you, darling... (Remember, this will all make sense in time.)

Inside, the 3,000 were seated, and a Negro group sang, "I Believe," and after the clapping, out went the lights. Then a spot hit him jogging down the aisle, red suit and beard and ho-ho-ho, and when he got to the mike, he said, "Merry Christmas, ho-ho-ho, and stay in your seats 'cause I've got my helpers checking on you, and no eating lunches during the show." Then Santa said, "Now let's all sing 'Jingle Bells' together," and he took a breath and started to sing.

But he was already behind them!

That was the second great thing. Because the minute he suggested "Jingle Bells," they were off, all 3,000; they didn't wait for his word "together," and they didn't need any deep breath. The man said sing, "Jingle Bells," so they sang. Then he said he'd back after the show, and the curtain began to open, and as it did, there was that sound again, the "buzz-buzz-buzz" of wonder.

on the set of the caretakerAnd I couldn't help thinking of the ladies at Pinter and how angry they were because they didn't understand what it was all about; so they resisted. And they wouldn't have sung "Jingle Bells" either. They probably would have had to know who the bells belonged to, and what did the one-horse open sleigh really represent, symbolically speaking.

Now this is very dangerous. Let's take the worst possibility: let's say that you think the Pinter play is all about apples, and it turns out it's about oranges. If you liked the apples, what possible difference does it make? You want to know about Harold Pinter? He is an English stylist, talented as hell, and right now he is cresting for one, and only one, reason: he is appropriately obscure; he allows intellectuals to theorize.

And The Birthday Party, if you really want to know what it's about, is about this: there is no hiding place. Does that make it a better play? Does that make the two hours any more pleasant while you're sitting there? Pinter is also saying, "There is no God." Or maybe he isn't. But in either case, it's pretty cornball, right? Examine any art work done down to bone and you find cliché. That's one of the things that's so painful about graduate school. You take some pretty poem, some poem that really moves you, and you examine it and pore over its imagery and decipher the philosophy, and what do you come up with? Keats is saying, "Love thy neighbor."

So what? That's for us intellectuals. We can argue about it. What you have to worry about is just this: You like the poem? Say so. You don't? Say it's spinach, and say to hell with it. Looking at it logically, what conceivable message could Harold Pinter possibly have that the rest of us don't know or couldn't figure out?

pinter with joseph losey

We intellectuals will lead you down the garden path every goddamned time. Want to know whom we named in the eighteenth century as the three greatest writers of all time? Catch this: Homer, Sophocles and Richardson. Richardson. You know, that great, great writer none of us could live without, Richardson. Richardson we were selling then; today we're pushing Pinter. But no one really knows what's worthy. Oh, we pretend; we make believe there are certain definable academic standards that must be met in order for an artist to be considered valuable, but that's our bag. Telling the masses who is good and who isn't is just our way of keeping the fire high and the wolves away.

But because we pretend to know, everybody gets upset if they don't completely understand something. There is nothing, nothing, you should like because some intellectual tells you to. Did you like the scene from Bench any more because Kenneth Tynan said you should? Did that make it better for you? Would it bother you to know that I wrote them both, the play and the essay? Well, I did, so think about that for a second.

Did you actually believe the part where "Tynan" said the scene was about how Teddy was going to kill Stan and we were helpless to stop it? And what about that St. Francis of Assisi business? Did you believe that? Look at it again now:  "Frankie, referred to twice - some think mysteriously - is not mysterious at all. He is, of course, St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, all this clearly indicated by the fact that the Franciscans have split into three orders, just as the human race is split into thirds: men, women and homosexuals such as Teddy."

This is the kind of bilge you have to look out for. This is how the intellectuals of this world, the bad ones, make their living. And Pinter is their boy now because, being so obscure, he gives them one and all the opportunity to write reams for their little learned journals, and there's enough for everybody. Pinter's like a minor-league James Joyce, and as long as there's a PhD candidate alive, James Joyce will never die.

But even if Pinter had written Bench and Tynan had done the essay, and more than that, even if Tynan were right about Francis, that still wouldn't make it good. Pinter may be a major dramatist some day, but forget about some day, think about now, and what goes on up there on stage and whether it moves you.

The intellectual wants you to take the trip from the Christmas show to the Pinter play; he needs you to take it, because he has you then. The artist wants to keep you at Christmas, ready to sing "Jingle Bells." It's a bone-dry journey that the intellectual wants you to set out on, and don't you do it. But you are, and that's what so crippling to Broadway. You're taking that trip, and it's sad. Because, in the words of that sweet teacher, "We're losing you, darling."

Or are you already lost?

William Goldman is a legendary screenwriter and novelist born in 1931. "We're Losing You, Darling" is from his yearlong chronicle of Broadway, The Season, which you can buy here. You can read an interview with Harold Pinter here.

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In Which It Was As Important To Me As Anything of Mine

Something To Do With the Sofa

The conversations of the critic Mel Gussow and the playwright Harold Pinter are weird mostly because Pinter is an actor, and accustomed to a certain kind of pretension. He was an actor even before he was a playwright, and he never really liked interviews. Gussow feels the need to pin him down on a number of things, and Pinter acts like a terse little ninja. His ejaculations, elicited by one of his greatest admirers in the theatrical world, contain nuggets of prose as self-centered and yet as enduring as any literature has to offer. - A.C.

MEL GUSSOW: Could you trace the genesis of Old Times?

HAROLD PINTER: I think I wrote it last winter. Yes, last winter. About a year ago. Well, there's nothing I can tell you about that because it was just a very odd thing really. It was one of those times when you think you're never going to write again. I was lying on the sofa reading the paper and something flashed in my mind. It wasn't anything to do with the paper.

MG: Something to do with the sofa?

HP: The sofa perhaps, but certainly not the paper. I rushed upstairs to my room. I live in a very tall house. I usually find great difficulty getting to the top. But, like lightning, I was up.

MG: What was the thought?

HP: I think it was the first couple of lines of the play. I don't know if they were actually the first lines. Two people talking about someone else. But then I really went at it. Incidentally, you did ask me for my "fourth." Actually what it is is reading. I read a great deal of poetry.

MG: What poets?

HP: Recently I rediscovered Pope. I haven't read him since school. Lines and verses are always on my mind. Donne. Gerard Manley Hopkins. "Margaret/ Are you grieving/ over Goldengrove/ unleaving." Modern poetry. Philip Larkin. Yeats and Eliot.

MG: Do you still write poetry — as poetry?

HP: Yes. I've written two poems in the last couple of years. Very short. I wrote one about six months ago, about seven lines, but I remember I did 13 drafts of it.

MG: How many drafts of plays do you usually write?

HP: About three. But that was as important to me as anything of mine - that poem. But you know any poem is — emotionally. I used to write a great deal of poetry a long time ago.

MG: It does seem to me, again about the last three plays, that they're more lyrical. Is that something you're aware of?

HP: Yes, I am aware of it. I think it's very dangerous territory.

MG: Why is it dangerous territory?

HP: You can fall on your arse very easily in attempting to express in, if you like, "lyrical" terms what is actually happening to people. You can over ... I did it, in Silence, but I cut it. I had a passage. It was very very interesting, actually. When I wrote it, I sent the play, as I always do, to Samuel Beckett, whose opinion, to put it mildly, I respect. And... I know him.

MG: Do you always send him your plays?

HP: I began, I think, with The Homecoming. Yes, I do always. And he writes the most succinct observations. He liked Silence very much. He wrote, I remember, one very short remark, something to the effect, 'Suggest you examine or reconsider speech, fourth speech, page five.' Or whatever it was. So I looked at this speech immediately, and thought, well, I don't see anything wrong with that. What do I have to reconsider? It seems to me perfectly in order. But I'll keep it in mind. I will bear this matter in mind. I wrote to him and said, thank you, but about this speech I'll listen to it in rehearsals, and see what I think of it. Rehearsals started, and I heard it, and I thought it was perfectly all right. Then, after about two week's rehearsal, Peter Hall came up to me — I hadn't been around for a few days — and said, 'There's one speech in this play that I do not think is working at all.' And that was that speech. Off I went and heard it properly again and realized that, of course, Beckett was totally right.

with james fox & joseph losey

MG: Why wasn't it working?

HP: Well, because...it simply went over the top in lyricism. The trouble was that it was basically inaccurate and non-specific and, I think, that is the problem trying to use language in this way. It has to be absolutely specific. If it's at all generalized then it's nothing else but indulgence and it's illegitimate. This applies to the use of any kind of language in any kind of context, but particularly the kind of language you were referring to in these latest plays.

MG: Do you feel that you have to guard against emotion?

HP: I don't quite understand you.

MG: Do you not want to get carried away by something you don't control? Something you cannot do with the accuracy you demand? Silence. The idea of lyricism denotes to me a kind of emotion.

HP: What I'm interested in is emotion which is contained, and felt very, very deeply. Jesus, I really don't want to make a categorical statement about this. But, perhaps, it is ultimately inexpressible. Because I think we express our emotions in so many small ways, all over the place - or can't express them in any other way.

MG: This would seem to be a lesson to be learned from Beckett, who without demonstrating obvious emotion can be quite emotional.

HP: Yes, with such simplicity of means.

MG: I remember years ago when you wrote about how much Beckett meant to you, at the time you were referring to his novels. How do you feel about his plays?

HP: What can I say?

MG: Do you feel at all as pupil to master?

HP: No, not as pupil to master. I think he's the most remarkable writer in the world, that's what I feel. I don't feel pupil to master, for a start, because I don't see where I relate to him at all.

performing 'Krapp's Last Tape' 

MG: Some people think you do, particularly in the last three plays.

HP: Well, let them say...this terrible business of categorizing. I don't feel that on just one letter alone, apart from anything else. I feel that his achievements, what he's been able to do in his life, in his writing, are so far beyond my own that I don't see any kind of comparison at all. I think he's a great writer. And I'm certainly not that in the way I understand the term, and I do understand the term. The term has a very clear meaning to me. I can tell you who I think are great writers very simply. They're so evident. They're obvious.

MG: Name some obvious.

HP: Well, Doestoevski. This is in my mind. Joyce, Proust. They haven't got their names for nothing. And Beckett. Silence.

MG: It is something to strive for, isn't it?

HP: I don't see it in those terms. I don't have that kind of ambition. I mean you can't strive to be a Great Writer.

beckett with buster keaton

MG: You can strive to be better.

HP: Always strive to be better. One curious element I find in what is called 'literary life' which I notice. I must say particularly in New York — there's an extraordinary competitiveness. But I must say quite honestly that it is something I have never felt remotely. I'm just not an ambitious person.

MG: What first set you to writing plays? Was there something specific that kicked off The Room, your very first play?

HP: Oh, yes. I know the image. I know what happened. I was at a party in a house and I was taken for some reason or other to be introduced to a man who lived on the top floor, or an upper floor, and went into his room. He was a slender, middle-aged man in his bare feet who was walking about the room. Very sociable and pleasant, and he was making bacon and eggs, and cut bread, and poured tea and gave it to this fellow who was reading a comic. And in the meantime he was talking to us - very, very quickly and lightly. We only had about five minutes but something like that remained. I told a friend I'd like to write a play, there's some play here. And then it all happened. I used to write a great deal of prose in the past, when I was young. And a lot of it, including a novel [The Dwarfs] was in dialogue.

MG: To go back, for a minute, what did Beckett say about Old Times?

HP: Well, he was...very much in favor of it. He did have one reservation, one speech. No, I'm not going to tell which one it was.

MG: Is it still in?

HP: It's in.

MG: Same reason?

HP: No, not the same reason. But I stuck with it. I've no alternative but to stick with it.

MG: Peter Hall didn't spot it?

HP: No. Mind you, it hasn't been an easy one. I must confess that.

MG: Does Beckett send you his plays?

HP: He isn't writing any. He sends me his books, but I never - I'm not in the same position at all. In other words, I don't send him back my notes. I'm very happy to have his. I wouldn't dream of it. Anyway, I have no notes, no notes at all.

MG: When did you first meet Beckett?

HP: From about the age of 19 I started to read him, the novels, and I was quite bowled over by those novels. When we did The Caretaker in Paris in 1961, Roger Blin was in it, and one day he said, 'Would you like to meet Beckett?' It was almost too much for me — the thought of such a thing. I had written to him. Eventually. You can imagine. It was 1949 when I started to read Beckett and I didn't manage to write to him until about 1959 — when I wrote him just a short note trying to say what I - something. And got an extremely nice letter back. So then I was in a position of meeting him. The longshot of it is that I came into this hotel and he was very vigorous and chatty and extremely affable and extremely friendly and we spent the whole night together. And that was really...very good. And since then, we've really seen quite a lot of one another.

MG: How do you feel about other playwrights?

HP: Well, my taste is quite catholic. I do enjoy a great deal of writers. I think...Edward Bond is a very good writer...I've always liked Edward Albee's work. I like Heathcote Williams. When you ask me that kind of question, there are people I could tell you but they suddenly slip my mind.

MG: Kafka's on your list with Joyce, Proust, and Doestoevski.

HP: Oh, yes. Definitely. I'd like to have had a drink with Kafka, too.

MG: What novelists?

HP: I don't read many modern novels. I do find my reading goes back to Nazi Germany. I read a lot about Nazi Germany. At the moment I'm reading a biography of Heidegger. It's not my field, but I take an interest. Before that, I read a biography of Wittgenstein, which just came out. Heidegger became a Nazi apologist. He was a Nazi. I think the whole period is probably the worst thing that ever happened.

MG: Reunion is the only time you've dealt even indirectly with the Holocaust?

HP: Yes.

MG: Would you ever write about it?

HP: I don't know. There's something in me that wants to do something about it. It's so difficult.

MG: Do you go to the movies often?

HP: Not often. You know American movies meant an awful lot to me. I was brought up on them. I had a very rich cinematic education, much more than the theatre. I never went to the theatre.

MG: What movies did you see?

HP: I'm talking about the 1940s. I saw all the American black and white gangster films, which were great.

MG: Your next project is writing a screenplay of Kafka's The Trial. Why The Trial at this time?

HP: I read The Trial when I was a lad of 18, in 1948. It's been with me ever since. I don't think anyone who reads The Trial - it ever leaves them, although it can be curiously distorted by time. Speaking to a number of people, who remember having read it when they were young, they look back and think it's a political book. They rather tend to think it's like Arthur Koestler. In my view, it isn't at all. I admire Koestler, but I wouldn't be interested in writing a screenplay of Darkness at Noon, because it's so specifically of its time and place. But The Trial is not that case at all. I find it very difficult to talk about, except that it has been with me for 40 years, and I've had a whale of a time over the last few months entering into Kafka's world. The nightmare of that world is precisely in its ordinariness. That is what is so frightening and strong.

MG: And you are certainly aware of Orson Welles' film.

HP: Yes. Orson Welles was a genius but I think his film was quite wrong because he made it into an incoherent nightmare of spasmodic half-adjusted lines, images, effects in fact. As I said, I don't think Kafka is at all about effect, effect, but about something that happens on Monday, and then on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday and then right through the week. This man in The Trial is arrested one morning in his bed by two people and he is then let out, he goes to his job, a case is taking place. There seems to be a kind of implacable but invisible force and he is finally executed. The important thing about it is that he fights like hell all the way along the line. It reminded me of the shot in John Ford's film The Grapes of Wrath, when the man is protecting his shack when the tractor comes up: 'If you go any further, I'll shoot your head off.' The fellow takes off his goggles and says, 'There's no point doing that because I'm going to knock your house down. I'm getting paid for that and if I don't do it there'll be another guy who will.' He says, 'I'll still knock your head off.' 'Then you'll have to shoot the other guy's head off. you've got to go to the bank in Oklahoma City, and you'll have to shoot all of them. Then you'll have to go to the bank in New York. How many people can you shoot?' He says, 'Get out of my damn way,' and he knocks the house down. One of the most terrible sequences in cinema, in a wonderful film. That's what Kafka's looking at: who do you shoot?

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