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Radical Mimesis: The "Pinter Problem" Revisited David Z. Saltz When Goldberg grills Stanley in The Birthday Party about whether "the number 849" is "possible or necessary,"l or Gus challenges Ben in The Dumbwaiter about whether one should say "light the kettle" instead of "light the gas" (I, 141), or Lenny battles with Ruth in The Homecoming over whether he will "relieve" her of her water glass (III, 49), the objects of the characters' discourse—a number, a figure of speech, a glass—hardly seem to warrant the intense interest the characters invest in them. One might try to explain the objects' significance by positing details of the characters' biographies that Pinter fails to make explicit. Perhaps Lenny's mother used to beat him severely for leaving dirty glasses around the house; perhaps Gus is compiling an English language guide for foreign chefs in his spare time; perhaps Goldberg and Stanley once collaborated on a treatise about mathematical logic. I set to one side the question of whether this kind of exercise might ever be helpful as a rehearsal strategy. As a critical strategy, however , it is patently absurd. An obvious problem is that since such speculations lack textual support, one could generate an indefinite number of equally plausible (or implausible) alternatives . Recognizing this problem, very few critics indulge in such flagrant flights of invention (though more restrained forms of "filling in " are not uncommon) .2 Nonetheless, some critics feel a need for more information than the texts supply to explain the action and so portray Pinter's plays as ineluctably enigmatic, a portrayal that, depending on the critic's sensibility, may be a compliment or a complaint. DAVID Z. SALTZ is Lecturer in Humanities at Stanford University. His articles have appeared in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 218 David Z. Saltz219 Most critics, however, recognize that Lenny may want the glass simply because Ruth currently has it in her possession, and that Gus may object to the expression "light the kettle" simply because Ben uttered it. Much criticism makes the point that in Pinter's plays what the characters are discussing is often a pretext. To understand Pinter is to be sensitive to the language 's impact within the here-and-now of the dramatic moment. Martin Esslin, for example, writes that Pinter draws attention to "what people are doing to each other through" language; John Russell Brown proposes that Pinter "is interested in speech as barriers and as bridges between people, as elements in a social combat"; Bernard Dukore suggests that "present activities, interrelationships , and strategems are more dramatically important than past actions"; Ewald Mengle describes Pinter's drama "as a socio-pathological phenomenon . . . arising immediately from the interactions of people in 'face-to-face' situations"; and Austin Quigley argues that "the language of a Pinter play functions primarily as a means of dictating and reinforcing relationships.'^ This insight recurs like a refrain throughout Pinter criticism, from the earliest to the most recent. Undoubtedly, these critics are underscoring something essential about Pinter's language. To account clearly for what is distinctive about the kind of drama Pinter creates, however, we need a clear account of how the aspect of language that Pinter highlights differs from the one he subordinates. Quigley has felt the importance of this question most urgently and has undertaken the most rigorous attempt so far to answer it. "The barrier to progress" in understanding Pinter's drama, he contends, "is the seeming impossibility of finding a controllable second term with which to contrast what is felt to be characteristic of non-Pinter language" (p. 34). Actually, critics have been surprisingly consistent in their description of this "second term"—that is, in their positive characterization of Pinter's language. Esslin and Brown (whose comments pre-date Quigley's book), Mengle and Dukore (whose comments post-date it), and Quigley himself all agree that in Pinter's texts language first and foremost functions as action within a social context. Quigley's carefully-chosen appellation, "the interrelational function," nicely fits all these depictions of Pinter's language. The real problem, as I see it, is how to define...


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