It is a cold, wintry twilight when Harold Pinterâ€™s The Room opens; soon it will be dark. That is the typical mood and setting of early Pinter. The Room was his very first play, produced originally in 1957. On the same bill at the Atlantic Theatre Company is Celebration, his latest play to be produced (2000), with a totally different setting and ambiance: a bright, chic London restaurant with well-dressed revelers. Does this conjunction of early and late work tell us something meaningful about Pinterâ€™s vision and the journey he has taken in his brilliant fifty-year theatre career?
Back in the late fifties, when he was spellbinding experimental theatregoers, the word most commonly used to describe his work was â€œmenace.â€ Pinter had a way of making the stage vibrate with mystery and menace in such early works as The Room, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, and The Caretaker. We didnâ€™t know who the characters were, why they felt paranoid (as Rose does in The Room), or what forces were potentially going to force them out of their only marginally safe places into a frightening world. Pinterâ€™s early work often involves invasions of personal space, outsiders demanding answers to questions that deeply terrify the inhabitants of shabby rented rooms. Before her space is invaded, Rose is chattering to her husband about the weather, the darkness, the coziness of their room while he remains sullenly silent. The more she talks, the more we recognize her anxiety. Pinter has claimed, â€œOne way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant strategem to cover nakedness.â€
But over forty years later, when he wrote Celebration, Pinter was famous and decades older. His focus had switched from private terrors to public pleasures, although, being Pinter, the pleasures are pretty acerbic. The happy, noisy diners eating their high-end cuisine are not so happy as their roaring laughter might suggest. A vast emptiness lies at the tinny heart of their pleasure. They have been co-opted by their wealth (both the vulgarly nouveau riche table and the more sedate and established couple); theyâ€™re no longer the spunky Londoners of only a decade or so after the Blitz. They are expense-account fat cats whose highest aspirations seem to be a fine meal and a little randy sex on the side. The most moving character on stage is the waiter who is compelled to tell bizarre and clearly fictive stories about his own lineage in a frenzy of name-dropping. He is both humorous and sad, with a touch of Chekhov in his final monologueâ€”like old Firs dying alone on stage at the end of The Cherry Orchard.
Returning to my original question, about the pairing of these two plays, I would suggest:
1) Pinterâ€™s interest has switched from private dramas of fear and betrayal to public scenes of postmodern capitalists playing games. And in this Atlantic production, the recent play is both more entertaining and less deep than the earlier one. Celebration is all about surfaces, with both the customers and the staff playing their roles to perfection (and then beyond, with that edgy absurdism that has always marked Pinterâ€™s work).
2) It is interesting that in this latest play--and he has put none other out there in the last five years, choosing to spend more time on political discourse, as he indicated this fall in his Nobel Prize speech--Pinter gives us a comic, satiric view of the great public entertainment of the late twentieth century: dining out. Here is our contemporary arena of pleasure, power, and prestige--the upscale restaurant having replaced both the home and the boardroom as the preferred location for making deals, celebrating occasions, planning strategy.
3) Both plays reveal human frailty and avoidance of human connection: the first with its working class characters stuck in a gloomy rented room, the second with its wealthy, partying restaurant patrons involved in various ploys to dominate the scene. In these as in his other plays, what is spoken is not necessarily the truth, for as Pinter wrote in explanation of his art back in 1962: â€œI think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion. . . . Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone elseâ€™s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.â€
4) If Celebration turns out to be his farewell-to-the-stage play, then he seems to be saying, itâ€™s all a bit of a joke. Weâ€™re too superficial to have any idea what our lives mean. While the world goes to hell in a basket, we laugh and order the best wine. Weâ€™re more interested in who we had sex with twenty years ago than anything going on in any other part of the world. We ignore starvation, genocidal wars, and natural disasters as long as theyâ€™re at a distance. Itâ€™s the kind of hard-nosed perception that makes Pinter such a difficult guest for Charlie Rose to handle. Pinter tells it as it is while Charlie dithers.
As to the present production by Neil Pepe on West Twentieth Street, the group seems to have a firmer grasp on the contemporary material (and performs it with real bravado) than the fifties piece, which never comes quite fully alive. But Pinterâ€™s work is certainly well worth seeing. In light of the Patriot Act, someone should produce The Birthday Party, set it in Detroit, and make Stanley a man of Arab background. Although Pinter generally does not write his plays with an overt political agenda, the mood of sinister interrogation that shapes a number of them would be spot-on in the United States today. And, no doubt, around the world as well: Think Abu Ghraib. - Victoria Sullivan
Atlantic Theatre Company
336 West 20th Street (between 8th and 9th Aves.)
New York, NY
Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.