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Writhing on the Floor

By (February 1, 2009) No Comment

No Man’s Land

By Harold Pinter
Performed at the Duke of York’s, London
Directed by Rupert Goold

Harold Pinter is dead. He has gone not long after his great friend and collaborator Simon Gray. Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in his honor, and David Hare said something to the press about how, until this day, everyone would have known the answer to the question “Who is the greatest living British playwright?” So now we don’t know the answer to that question, unless we pause and think about it, and it might take a pause as long as one of Pinter’s before we come up with a satisfactory answer.

Pinter left running a performance of his play No Man’s Land at the Duke of York’s in London. I happened to have a ticket, so I went along, although I’d already missed the real drama according to the newspapers, a funeral service that Pinter had carefully orchestrated, and a speech from the play that took on a whole new poignancy in the context of a cemetery.

The play’s aptness doesn’t end with a single speech however. It has an elegiac tenor throughout, as if Pinter were reprising his famous preoccupations along with the tics of his stagecraft. And there is even a very big pause, so obvious it might as well be announced with a placard. The verbose ‘Mr Friend’ or Spooner (played by David Bailey), who Hirst (played by Michael Gambon) seems to have picked up on his walk, delivers a fawning speech suggesting that he take over as the poet’s factotum. This speech goes on and on, while the other three men on the stage listen impassively. Finally there is a pause. No one is inclined to respond to Spooner’s proposal. The pause becomes agonized, and is eventually broken by Spooner himself, who says “Before you reply…”

Michael Gambon, David Bradley and Nick Dunning in No Man’s Land

The playwright was laid to rest in a North London cemetery just after Christmas, and he had apparently organized the funeral meticulously. A lot of theatre people, including Tom Stoppard, were present. Stoppard was overheard to remark that you could have cut the grief with a knife. There were no priests in sight, as they would have imparted the wrong kind of theatricality altogether. Pinter’s wife was present, but not his estranged son Daniel from the first marriage with Vivien Merchant, who never forgave his father for the alcoholic wife he left behind. It’s pure speculation how much that estrangement had to do with the choice of oration.

A very literary funeral then, with no outward trappings of sanctimony, which had nonetheless an element of the supernatural. It was Pinter who put these words into the mouth of one of his favorite living actors, Michael Gambon, and it might well be his own ghost he was describing. Hirst is offering to show his photograph album to Spooner:

You might see faces of others in shadow or cheeks of others turning or jaws or backs of necks or eyes, dark under hats, which might remind you of others that you once knew, who you thought long dead but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance if you can face the good ghost.

Allow the love of the good ghost. They possess all that emotion trapped. Bow to it. It will assuredly never release them but who knows what relief it might give to them, who knows how they may quicken in their chains, in their glass jars…

And so I say to you, tender the dead as you would yourself be tendered, now, in what you would describe as your life.

The word ‘tender’ here has a strange incongruity. It’s as if it’s an amalgam of tenderness, tendering (as in one’s resignation) and tending, as in tending the plot of the deceased, making sure the whole thing’s kept tidy. There is also the possibility of attend. The words ‘what you would describe as your life’ take us all the way back to the early influence of Kafka on Pinter’s imagination, and the existential vacuum (it was a favorite word) in Webber’s life, revealed by the interrogators in the Birthday Party. So what is Pinter asking us to do?

Maybe nothing more than to let our thoughts tend towards him, now that he’s gone. The speech is as mysterious in its context as it must have seemed – in a draughty London cemetery – out of it.

Typically the language of the play is spare, but the two main characters are given occasional flights of rhetoric. Spooner is pretentiously, often comically, verbose. The other two have the familiar Pinter laconism, vague menace underlying their dim exchanges, though the menace never comes to anything. Briggs at one point calls Foster a ‘cunt,’ but the anger quickly peters out.

There is no such trapping of emotion in the case of Hirst, however. He acts it out before the others with complete lack of embarrassment. Falling on the floor in twitching despair, or suddenly cavorting like a twenty year old, he does the full range of emotions. And Gambon was the best man to act as mouthpiece for the playwright’s ghost, since Pinter had himself become less constrained in his utterances as time went by. He was a Nobel prize winner, writer of numerous plays and screenplays, and in later life he seemed to compensate for the enigmatic silences or hidden agendas of his characters by speaking out very directly against the injustice of war. But would he have considered that the good part of his legacy? I doubt it. He was also a poet, but there is no point pretending that the directness of the lyric voice came easily.

The language that we might think of as ‘Pinteresque’ is that of the plays. His characters are consistently evasive, with a bitter edge to their humorous remarks. They are full of the menace Pinter associated with thugs. Even in No Man’s Land this lingers, again in a sort of self parody, in the characters played by David Walliams and Nick Dunning. There’s a nasty sarcasm that in earlier plays was often enacted in real violence. By No Man’s Land it is more on the level of bitchiness, which is why Walliams had the tone sometimes of the Prime Minister’s gay secretary in Little Britain. Grafted onto this were the more absurdist effects of Gambon’s speeches, the effort to deliver some kind of eternal theme, but it was precisely at this point that the writing flagged, and no amount of writhing on the floor could really convey much of the depths. Maybe that was an area of despair best left to painting and the bleak triptychs of Francis Bacon. Pinter is better on the betrayals between people than the argument with God.

If you want to watch some Pinter at his best there’s The Collection on YouTube, in ten minute segments, a play with a dream cast of Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell and the lately beatified Helen Mirren. I’ve transcribed a short exchange between the cuckolded husband, played by Alan Bates, and his unfaithful wife, to demonstrate the slow, calculated torture Pinter specialized in. The husband claims, to his wife’s astonishment, to have visited the rival and even had dinner with him:

Husband: The grub’s good I can’t deny it. I found him quite charming. He remembered the occasion well, he was perfectly frank, you know, a man’s man, straight from the shoulder. He entirely confirmed your story.

Wife: Did he?

Husband: Hm. Only thing, he rather implied that you’d led him on. Typical masculine thing to say, of course.

Wife: That’s a lie.

Husband: You know what men are. I reminded him that you’d resisted, that you’d hated the whole thing, but that you’d been somehow, how can we say, hypnotized by him. It can happen sometimes, he agreed that it can happen sometimes. He told me he’d been hypnotized once. By a cat. Wouldn’t go into any more details.

Harold Pinter’s The Collection (part 1 of 6)

The fact that the young wife has a cat, or a kitten to be precise, is vaguely relevant. Olivier’s character later compliments her on her kitten. But the precision of the reference is carried by Bates’ look into his wife’s eyes. Cats are feminine. The interloper is a man’s man. He lies about the encounter because it is not manly to admit that one has been seduced. Soon, after this surreal moment with the hypnotic cat, the wife bursts into tears saying she thought he’d understand, to which the husband replies, with cold precision, that he does, both ways, three ways. He understands it all, from every angle. Even this emphasis on angles is cruel.

There’s been a lot of refinement in the methods of extracting truth since the Inquisition used their racks to “relax” their heretics – their word, not mine. Little actual violence occurs in Pinter, but the language has the forensic coldness of steel. At one point Bates throws a cheese knife which the interloper attempts to catch. The trick, as Olivier points out, is to duck.

Nowadays, with the blundering methods employed in the War On Terror, it’s clear that torture is no less than brutal than it ever was, and maybe the campaigning playwright lost some of his subtlety as the new century unfolded, seeing the way America responded to its enemies. Pinter was often stridently anti-American even before these events. And yet, in the enervated speech of No Man’s Land we hear something more nuanced than the public persona could articulate.

Since so little happens in the play, all the emphasis is on the conversation between the characters, and their tone, their interests, their registers even, are so divergent that they hardly manage to ‘converse’ at all. While Spooner, the failed poet, speaks with exaggerated care and pomposity, Hirst is direct and eloquent without pretension. Foster and Briggs are more demotic than the older men. There’s no change of scene, the nearest to any variation is the brief opening of the curtains. Hampstead Heath is mentioned, but the room may as well be the same as Beckett’s in Endgame, with a view across the fields of destruction. The poet has holed himself up with his last companions – two slightly tetchy thugs who make his meals and drinks for him – and his memories. Nothing poetic is said, apart from the words quoted at the funeral, and little happens. In the first act the poet collapses, apparently under the burden of booze. In the second act he mistakes Spooner for an old friend and is transformed into a rejuvenated version of himself. Michael Gambon was superb, and it was one if those moments in theatre you always remember, like something Derek Jacobi did with Yorick’s skull. He made a kick backwards, and capered around, then he sat on his chair like an adolescent, legs hanging over the edge.

If you believe the words of nostalgic old men, then they don’t make them the way they used to. Pinter used this expression in his British Library interview shortly before his death, and he used it of the golden generation of British actors, the triumvirate of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson. It was Michael Gambon he singled out as one of the last of that breed. That’s the trouble with theatre, after all; it’s forever in the process of dying.

I remember when Ted Hughes died and they interrupted a poetry festival in the National to play some tapes of the poet reading his own material at different stages of his career. It was fascinating to hear the words of the dead, sonorous as if from a tomb, and as he got older so Hughes seemed to approach the tomb, his voice becoming more sepulchral with each reading. Maybe the priests should bow to the dramatists more often; there is no one who does morbidity quite like a poet, or an actor, or a dead playwright. Let them do the tendering, whatever that might be.

Bryn Haworth was born in Essex and is working on a book. He resists all negative connotations associated with either of those facts.

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