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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 477-479
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The Harold Pinter Festival
The Harold Pinter Festival. Lincoln Center Festival 2001. New York City. 16-29 July 2001.
Lincoln Center presented a major theatre event in the United States, a Harold Pinter Festival as part of its sixth annual international summer festival. The productions were curated by Michael Cogan of Ireland's Gate Theatre to commemorate Pinter's seventieth birthday. Along with the Gate Theatre, England's Royal Court and Almeida theatres also participated. The nine Pinter works presented on five separate programs spanned time, subject matter, and genre and included both major and lesser works. Symposia with playwrights, directors, actors, and Pinter himself were offered, and Pinter's films were also screened.
Productions included The Room (1957), Pinter's first play, presented on a bill with his most recent work, Celebration (1999), directed by Pinter himself; the double bill of Ashes to Ashes (1996) and Mountain Language (1988), plays with political overtones; A Kind of Alaska (1982; Oliver Sachs' Awakenings is the play's source) on a bill with One for the Road (1984; Pinter acted in the Festival production); Monologue (1972), Landscape (1968), and The Homecoming (1965).
Pinter's plays are most commonly referred to as "plays of menace." He is also considered an "experimental," "naturalistic," or "absurdist" playwright. However, his plays are easy neither to categorize nor to interpret. These qualities have made audiences uncomfortable—particularly in the early part of his career—and they constitute an affect integral to his aesthetic.
Early in the festival, playwrights John Guare, Edward Albee, and Arthur Miller discussed in depth Pinter's place in the contemporary canon, on a panel moderated by Mel Gussow. From their collective perspective, Pinter is, foremost, a naturalistic playwright, whose writing is as much a reflection of observable reality as it is of the interior life or of abstract concepts. Pinter agreed, as he told Gussow in a one-on-one interview the following week.
Reception of Pinter's work is very much influenced by its cultural context, perhaps more so than with some other playwrights. The idioms of British English, apparent in the multiple dialects, in contrast to those of American English, for example, reinforce the sense that the understated dialogue is part and parcel of "normal" everyday conversation, distinguishing social class and attitude, whereas productions with American actors tend to seem absurdist, less a reflection of everyday behavior than of illogical circumstances.
It is, ultimately, language, with its concomitant clamoring silences—Pinter's famous pauses—which Pinter is in love with, and it is the language itself which offers the greatest pleasure in engaging with Pinter's plays, especially given the current emphasis in so much theatre on production at the expense of text. Pinter is a master at conveying so much with so few words.
I saw six of the nine plays presented. The most compelling evening for me, by far, was the double bill of Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes. British director Katie Mitchell's Royal Court production set the two plays as parts of a whole, ingeniously drawing inferences from both that would not have been as apparent if they had been presented separately. The ten-minute Mountain Language (possibly an influence on Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, a play reminiscent of Mountain Language) opened the bill. The action focuses on a woman and her aged mother-in-law who wait on a long line in the freezing cold hoping to visit the old woman's son (the husband of the younger woman), a political prisoner. The old woman has been bitten by a dog, is in pain, and speaks only the mountain language, a forbidden tongue.
The scene next shifts to the prison where the old woman has succeeded in visiting her son. She is punched by the guards when attempting to speak to him in their native language and is therefore forced to remain silent. [End Page 477]
In the following scene, we see the wife once again, as well as a hooded man. Is this the woman's husband? But...