Friday, December 26, 2008

R.I.P. Harold Pinter

I'd been thinking about Harold Pinter quite a bit lately, while working on my review of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. To say that David Mamet was influenced by Pinter is an understatement; the line from one to the other -- say, from The Caretaker to American Buffalo -- is direct and easy to discern. They are masters of an approach I can only describe as stylized naturalism. They're hilariously funny, but it's not quite right in most cases to call their plays comedies. And they both use simple dramatic structures to present complex moral (or amoral) landscapes and insights (and, in light of that, both prove surprisingly unsubtle political commentators). This description of Pinter's work, from the Nobel Prize citation (quoted in the AP obituary), could just as easily apply to Mamet:
"Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles," the Nobel Academy said when it announced Pinter's award. "With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution."
I spent a semester studying in London, and my "Modern British Drama" course was fortunate to coincide with a West End revival of The Caretaker starring a splendid Michael Gambon and the National Theatre's staging of Pinter's Remembrance of Things Past. The latter was a heady, intimidating prospect -- Proust and Pinter in one go! -- not to mention fodder for lots of "Summarize Proust Competition" jokes. But the production was more accessible than you might imagine. It was a dreamy, impressionistic play that left me wanting to tackle the original text (which I haven't yet done). On the whole, as I recall, Pinter stayed out of Proust's way.

I loved The Caretaker. We had excellent seats, right up front, and I remember finding Sir Michael Gambon's tramp so convincingly filthy that I kept expecting to be overwhelmed by his odor. Seeing that play was one of those gratifying moments when you encounter a giant and find his reputation for greatness entirely deserved. Sometimes, with the benefit of several decades' innovation standing between you, it's hard to understand why a given artist is considered pioneering or influential. I had no such difficulty with Pinter.

I didn't quite know what to make of The Homecoming when I saw it this year on Broadway (which is one reason there's no Restricted Review). Eve Best was extraordinary; Ian MacShane was arresting; Michael McKean was affecting; and Raul Esparza gave his usual "intense," "look-how-hard I'm-acting" performance. The play was unsettling, which I think is the point. For once it was oddly gratifying, rather than irritating, to experience a play as part of a Wednesday matinee audience (and not just because it gave me the opportunity to sing, "a matinee, a Pinter play!" in my head for a week). It was almost like seeing it for the first time... in the 1960s. Most of the retirees and bewildered tourists around me knew very little about the play and had no clue what to expect, and since I didn't know it either, it made for an especially authentic experience. The people around me literally gasped in shock every few minutes throughout the second act. I think Pinter's plays will be shaking people up for a while yet.

The New York Times obituary is a good holiday read -- the overview of Pinter's career is helpful, and as you might imagine, the details of his personal life are choice and juicy. Farewell, Hal, and thanks for everything.

[Photo by Ivan Kyncl, from]

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