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Fall 2009 41 From Pleasure to Menace: Noel Coward, Harold Pinter, and Critical Narratives Jackson F. Ayres For many, if not most, scholars of twentieth century British drama, the playwrights Noel Coward and Harold Pinter belong in entirely separate categories: Coward, a traditional, “drawing room dramatist,” and Pinter, an angry revolutionary redefining British theatre. In short, Coward is often used to describe what Pinter is not. Yet, this strict differentiation is curious when one considers how the two playwrights viewed each other’s work. Coward frequently praised Pinter, going so far as to christen him as his successor in the use of language on the British stage. Likewise, Pinter has publicly stated his admiration of Coward, even directing a 1976 production of Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941). Still, regardless of their mutual respect, the placement of Coward and Pinter within a shared theatrical lineage is, at the very least, uncommon in the current critical status quo. Resistance may reside in their lack of overt similarities, but likely also in the seemingly impenetrable dividing line created by the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger on May 8, 1956. In his book, 1956 and All That (1999), Dan Rebellato convincingly argues that Osborne’s play created such a critical sensation that eventually “1956 becomes year zero, and time seems to flow both forward and backward from it,” giving the impression that “modern British theatre divides into two eras.”1 Coward contributed to this partially generational divide by frequently railing against so-called New Movement authors, particularly Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, for being self-important and tedious. Despite these criticisms, however, he was generous to other young playwrights, especially Pinter. Although initially unimpressed with Pinter’s work, after seeing The Caretaker in May 1960 Coward began to “think [he was] on to Pinter’s wavelength.”2 In return, Pinter—in addition to directing Blithe Spirit—has frequently commented upon his admiration for Coward, and even initiated a written correspondence with Coward in 1962. Pinter’s original letter was a funding request for Caretaker Films, a collective of which he was a member, but subsequent letters were less formal. In a letter dated 6 August 1965, Pinter expresses gratitude for Coward’s kind words about his work, then adding, in a charming Coward-esque way, “I would love to talk to you. Perhaps one day I shall descend by parachute on to your mountain stronghold.”3 In an enthusiastic response, Coward proclaims, JacksonAyres is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University ofArkansas. His research interests include 20th century American & British literature, drama, film, the political novel, the role of the intellectual and public intellectualism, and popular culture. 42 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism “Your writing absolutely fascinates me. It is entirely unlike anyone else’s. You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in, except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second.”4 Coward and Pinter’s effusive mutual respect suggests that not all (if any) established dramatists were wholly resistant to newer, experimental plays, and that younger writers did not altogether reject the theatrical establishment. The two playwrights’high regard for each other’s work prompts us to reevaluate their plays in comparison, and challenge the conventional assumptions of many drama critics and scholars. Indeed, since critics tend to either place Pinter’s work as social realism, or follow Martin Esslin’s designation of him as an Absurdist,5 in opposition to Coward’s “stylish [comedies] of manners . . . designed to reassure the self-applauding middle-class patrons,”6 there has been relatively little research seriously examining connections between them. By no means do all critics deny or entirely ignore the Coward-Pinter relationship. In fact, Barry Day claims, with respect to Coward and Pinter’s correspondence, that “[i]n the years that followed more and more commentators came to understand the unlikely professional rapport between the two writers.” 7 Day’s comment is to a certain extent true, as “commentators” including Christopher Innes, Sheriden Morley, Francesca Coppa, and Peter Hall have indeed recognized the connection; however, Day’s observation is also a bit overstated, as few...


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