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Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Power by Robert Gordon (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 251-254 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0028

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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...

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