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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 300-301

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Book Review

Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre

Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre. By D. Keith Peacock. Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies, Number 77. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1997; pp. 248. $59.95.

Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre is a good introduction to the career of Pinter, containing lengthy discussions of each play, interspersed with just enough biographical detail to provide a rounded picture of his life in the theatre. A student or non-specialist scholar desiring a brief overview of Pinter's work could do worse than to consult this book.

D. Keith Peacock hits all the important points, using a discussion of Pinter's first play, The Room, to examine what has become known as the Pinteresque. He continues chronologically with the famously disastrous reception of The Birthday Party and the breakthrough of The Caretaker. Peacock registers Pinter's shift from working to middle-class lives in his "Memory Plays" of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Landscape, Old Times, No Man's Land), and his increasingly vocal political concerns--particularly human rights violations--in short plays like One for the Road and New World Order. Finally, he records Pinter's return to full-length [End Page 300] plays with Moonlight. All this provides a background for more in-depth study of Pinter's drama.

Peacock's book does not, however, quite fulfill the promise of its title. It is not about Pinter and the new British theatre; it is mostly about Pinter alone. Exactly what Peacock means by the "New British Theatre" remains a bit vague. The term seems to come from the "New Drama," an epithet given to the drama emerging after Look Back in Anger in 1956 and lasting through the mid-1960s. A book examining Pinter's relationship to this theatre could prove interesting, because Pinter's work always seemed outside the concerns of Angry Young Men like John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, despite sharing their mundane locales and working-class subjects.

Peacock does suggest a way of locating Pinter within the theatre scene of the late 1950s: Pinter "may now, in fact, be seen as the nexus between the postwar European avant-garde and British mainstream theatre" (160). This observation, however, comes at the end of the book and is never fully explored. The connection between the European avant garde, specifically Absurdism, and the British mainstream theatre of the 1960s has been examined by John Bull in Stage Right, but Bull does not focus on Pinter closely so Peacock might have made a contribution to this line of investigation by following through his observation. Pinter could be used to ground a study of the cultural and aesthetic concerns of mainstream theatre much like Stephen Lacey uses Osborne to do this for social realism in British Realist Theatre.

Indeed, despite some interesting connections, such as the similarities between the openings of Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley and The Birthday Party, Peacock's book reads like a narrowly-focused survey of Pinter's plays wearing an editorial mask of cultural studies. This mask sometimes fits awkwardly. In The Birthday Party, Stanley "is welcomed by his oppressors into the world that has now claimed him, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the 'cradle to grave' institutionalism of the welfare state that had been established in Britain in 1947" (67). Discussing the short play, The Dumb Waiter, Peacock claims that the "question of responsibility for causing someone's death, which had recent historical parallels in the Nuremberg War Crime Trials of only eleven years earlier, is the central concern of the play" (71). Only eleven years?

Ironically, the shape of Pinter's career almost guarantees that his historical milieu will enter the story. Never a prolific playwright, Pinter's writing for the theatre slowed during the 1970s and nearly ground to a halt between 1978 and 1993, when he wrote no full-length dramas (Peacock treats his film scripts in a separate appendix). Unwilling to simply skip these years, Peacock is compelled to discuss Pinter...


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