On the 50th anniversary of Harold Pinter's first play, Mark Taylor-Batty offers a (self-)critical reappraisal
According to Len in Harold Pinter's only novel, The Dwarfs , when literary analysts read poetry, they "never open the door and go in. They bend down and take a squint through the keyhole". With that swipe, the 2005 Nobel laureate dismissed critical appraisal of art as something that stands pointlessly at one dismal remove from the very experience under scrutiny.
Pinter's derision haunts the ongoing academic effort to bridge the gap between poetic expression and its appreciation.
Nevertheless, his works, which include The Caretaker , The Homecoming and Ashes to Ashes , continue to engage scholars. And this month we will mark 50 years since his first play, The Room , was performed in a converted squash court at Bristol University. Since that production, Pinter has charted the human vacillation between detachment from and participation in life's obligations. Academic characters are occasionally employed to illustrate the detached perspective.
Teddy, a philosophy lecturer in The Homecoming , leaves his wife Ruth with his brothers and father to service their needs and earn her keep as a prostitute. He prefers this sacrifice to admitting and displaying any response to their salacious behaviour. Teddy earns little sympathy. Pinter casts him as willingly lost in an academic haze of observing phenomena, berating his family for not being able to perceive "how far you can operate on things not in things". By self-importantly setting himself apart as an observer of life, and not "lost in it", the lecturer's behaviour causes us to invest instead in his wife Ruth.
In Ashes to Ashes , Devlin, another university professor, interrogates his wife over her affair - real or imagined - with a man guilty by association of acts of genocide. Rather than engaging supportively with his wife's clearly disturbed condition, the academic insists on facts, the legitimacy of his questions and the authority by which one might claim to speak of certain matters. "When you live a life of scholarship," he argues, "you can't be bothered with the humorous realities." His failing is finally enacted in a pathetic attempt to reproduce an act of erotic sadism that his wife has described. With this gesture Pinter displays both the academic's emotional vacuity and the unbreachable distance between his petty needs and his wife's suffocating despair.
I once asked Pinter if he found any of the critical material written about his own work enlightening. He said not, but reassured me that he had often found the authors of such works to be "perfectly reasonable human beings".
If academics have nonetheless stood for bad faith and a lack of integrity in Pinter's work, this has more to do with his distrust of the discourses of academic analysis and less with those reasonable human beings who populate universities.
In his poetry and drama, Pinter creates aesthetic experience from language, while tenaciously resisting the inclination that language induces to explain or clarify that experience. But the tendency of the discourses of academic appraisal begins with the premise that the function of language is to facilitate explanation and clarification - the very opposite of Pinter's artistic achievement. Speaking of his admiration for Samuel Beckett's writing, he reveals his distrust of the ideological treachery of language:
"I don't want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, way outs, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement."
Pinter perhaps considers the academic's deployment of language to appraise art to be a surgical anatomising, a steady slaughter of the moment of experience, laying it to rest shrouded in obscurantist vocabulary. He dismisses academics who "never open the door and go in" but rather operate "on" it. He rejects critical discourses that might map out poetic expression but fail to recognise the effects that such expression offers in the moment of utterance.
Rubbishing textual analysis, Len in The Dwarfs criticises those who appraise literature by climbing "from word to word, like steppingstones"
and asks how such academics might analyse "a line with no words in it at all". This is the first self-reference to the famous "Pinter pause", the act of silence that is articulate simply and only through its being experienced.
The door that is to be opened on to that experience is clearly that of the rehearsal room and studio theatre, not that of the library. As a Pinter scholar, I might never be able to reconcile the gap between the potency of a moment on the stage and my ambition to consider it on the page. But Pinter's focus on how we too readily let language fail us offers pause for thought on how best to brandish it.
Mark Taylor-Batty is a senior lecturer in theatre studies at Leeds University.