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Reviewed by:
  • Harold Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism, and: Print and the Poetics of Modern Drama
  • David Krasner
Harold Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism. By Varun Begley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005; pp. vii + 207. $55.00 cloth.
Print and the Poetics of Modern Drama. By W. B. Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005; pp. xi + 209. $80.00 cloth.

Varun Begley and W. B. Worthen approach modern drama from two sets of essentially overlapping considerations. Begley views Harold Pinter's plays from the standoff between modernism and postmodernism, while Worthen concentrates on the less theoretical but no less controversial standoff notions of print and performance. Challenging what Andreas Huyssen calls the "Great Divide"—a paradigm shift from modernism to postmodernism—Begley maintains that Pinter "blurs the adversarial simplicity of the Great Divide and complicates clear-cut distinctions between the modern and postmodern" (5). Along similar lines Worthen challenges the print / performance schism by linking the way a text is constructed on the page with how its graphics inform performance (and vice versa).

Begley subjects Pinter's plays to literary as well as psychological analysis. His book reveals a blurry fault line between Pinter the postmodernist, creating mere simulacra of an authentic self, and Pinter the modernist, creating characters based on an authentic self. The meaning of Pinter's plays is viewed as reality-based yet opaque. They carry referentiality of sorts, yet clarifying them is like trying to grasp what Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for or acknowledging certainty in Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" Begley sees the plays in terms of what he calls the "tension between self-identity and difference," which illustrates "a desire for the univocal Author (the notion of the Pinteresque is an expression of this desire) even as the variety of his works undercuts any easy recourse to unified authority" (8). Pinter is betwixt and between, "neither sufficiently new nor sufficiently old to find a comfortable home among the avant-garde of theatre theory or the museum guards of theatre history" (31).

Begley contends that Pinter's politics are evident in his dramas by bricole, a "particular mode of committed writing, albeit one more closely aligned with aesthetic autonomy than with direct political engagement" (38). Pinter partakes in politically committed writing, for example in The Birthday Party, by introducing "a genuine disturbance with no point of cultural reference, deprived of any closing gesture of restoration" (42). The Caretaker and The Homecoming also are political dramas that remain unanchored to any identifiable reality. Such "crypto-realism," as Begley calls it, fails to take us "far in unearthing root causes" (49). According to Begley it is clear enough, however, that The Caretaker does indeed probe the anxieties created by capitalism and The Homecoming does in fact locate the family as an ideological institution.

Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, Sight Ache, and Betrayal are for Begley dramas blurring the boundaries between high and low culture, as well as the pleasure of instrumental narrative and the displeasure caused by narrative interruption. Begley considers postmodernism as a movement marked by "aesthetic hybridity," and "growing reflexivity." Its creations "advertise their own constructed-ness" and "often come across as provisional and fragmentary" (134). Ashes to Ashes, Old Times, and No Man's Land exemplify this brand of postmodernism. The musical orchestration of the dialogue, which calls for the well-known Pinteresque pause, creates the impression of an unfinished feeling that can only be intuited but never known. The "undigested, imagistic quality" (137) is marked by language that is "freed from the burdens of referential realism" and reveals a violence that "effectively insinuates coercion in the naked power of speech, independent of meaning or content" (169). By minimizing expository dialogue and suppressing physical intimidation, Pinter's monochromatic effect builds toward an emotional intensity and terrifying hostility largely through innuendo, suggestion, and Pinter's ominous pause. [End Page 524] Begley's book illuminates the way in which Pinter has it both ways: committing to a politically specific agenda while simultaneously utilizing absurdism's miasmic landscape.

Worthen's book follows a recent trend in literary criticism that marks a shift from textual analysis toward the material act of reading...


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pp. 524-526
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