What the Swedes Read: Harold Pinter

Daniel Handler
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  • LAUREATE: Harold Pinter (2005, Britain)
  • BOOK READ: Ashes to Ashes

If I had to choose, I’d read five bad novels instead of attending one bad night of theater. Scratch that: ten bad novels. Actually, there’s no reason to even concoct some hypothetical choice, because it happens in real life all the time. Not so long ago, I went to see some bad theater, and during intermission, my companion and I were debating whether or not to leave. She mentioned a novel she’d read recently. I said that I didn’t like it, and that’s when we decided to go get a drink and talk about it. Not only do I prefer a bad novel to a bad show, I prefer talking about a bad novel to a bad show.

Why? Well, when I come across a clumsy piece of prose, I can lay the book down for a moment until my mortification passes. But when I’m staring at an actor working himself into a frenzy of epiphany or breakdown that feels flat and ridiculous, I’m trapped. I get the same urge I have when a friend gets too drunk at a party: Please, please, quiet down and come with me. I’ll take you home, you poor, foolish thing. Stop telling me that there’s something loud and unstageable—a battle, say, or a fire—off in the wings. Stop concocting weird excuses to leave—”I think I’ll take a little walk”—at the conclusion of a big scene, so you can leave the other actor onstage to confront somebody else. Stop staring out the window when we all know you’re just looking at some ropes and a burly stagehand. Just stop the whole thing.

That bad show I walked out of? I’m sorry to say it was a play by Harold Pinter. This wasn’t the first Pinter I’d seen on the stage, and each production had been lunkier than the next, not to mention a handful of televised Pinter performances I’d dozed through in high-school English. I never liked it. Sometimes his work seemed like it belonged to the tradition of plays that are for some reason considered “realistic”—you know, where the family stalks around the house in angry pairs, devoting an evening to shouting explosive truths that for some reason they were all able to keep to themselves, while living together, for years and years. Sometimes it looked like he was making fun of such a tradition, with his very stylized dialogue and the occasional burst of nonsense. But the jokey material made the domestic drama distant and abstract, and the domestic drama made the jokey stuff fall flat. The result was always people in unbelievable situations behaving unbelievably, punctuated by the trademark “Pinter pause,” long, blank silences between lines that didn’t feel, to your humble critic fidgety in his expensive seat, suggestive or pregnant or weighty with thematic space. They invariably felt like some actor had forgotten what was supposed to come next. The actors would pause, and stare at each other or into space, and all I could think of was, “Line!”

I realize this is a heretical view, so before I even read the Pinter I’d chosen—Ashes to Ashes, one of the few ­significant works I hadn’t experienced onstage or on videotape—
I asked around. I took a theater person to lunch and had this exchange, which felt like something Pinter had written:

ME: I don’t think I like the work of Harold Pinter.

MY FRIEND: What? Pinter is a genius. Honestly, Daniel, when you say things like that it’s very difficult to be your friend.


MY FRIEND: Of course, he is pretty boring.

So I felt a chill as I approached Harold Pinter for this column, which I suppose is appropriate, because the adjective that invariably comes up in appreciations of Pinter is cold. The Nobel Prize committee sure feels the chill: “The abyss under chat, the unwillingness to communicate other than superficially, the need to rule and mislead, the suffocating sensation of accidents bubbling under the quotidian, the nervous perception that a dangerous story has been censored—all this vibrates through Pinter’s drama.”

Though of course I wasn’t feeling that kind of chill. I was feeling the ordinary chill of reading something I didn’t think I would like, and this is another time when I was wrong. Ashes to Ashes is a great read, quick but lasting, and what lasts is an eerie ambiguity, not unlike a poem that refuses to show you a target but nevertheless hits a bull’s-eye.

The play consists of a conversation between Devlin and Rebecca, who at first have an unclear relationship—is she his patient? his hostage? her one-night stand?—but turn out to be husband and wife. Devlin begins by questioning her—“What did you say? You said what? What did you say?”—about a man who treated her cruelly, perhaps with permission. The conversation, stilted and shrouded, drifts in and out of other topics, from mundane family gossip to Rebecca’s recounting of further circumstances surrounding this other man. The story has elements of the Holocaust, although she’s in her forties, and the 1996 play is set “now,” so there’s no way the story she’s stumbling through is one that happened to her. So the story becomes just that: a story, lingering over the other parts of their conversation. It’s creepy. It’s more than that, actually: Ashes to Ashes, read on the page, is chilling, and every chilling aspect strikes me as one that staging would ruin. There’s this exchange, for instance:

REBECCA: Well, I put my pen on that little coffee table and it rolled off.


REBECCA: It rolled right off, onto the carpet. In front of my eyes.

DEVLIN: Good God.

On the page it has a nice, numbing deadpan, but I cringe to think of it in a theater. When I read “Good God” it sounded quietly mocking, encouragingly exclamatory, and even a little religious, all at once. An actor would have to choose one, and the slight giggle of the lines would be spoiled by the audience, who invariably laugh far too loudly at small jokes. The “Good God” line slowly leads into a rant:

DEVLIN: Be careful how you talk about God. He’s the only God we have. If you let him go he won’t come back… You know what it’ll be like, such a vacuum? It’ll be like England playing Brazil at Wembley and not a soul in the stadium… If you turn away from God it means that the great and noble game of soccer will fall into permanent oblivion.

Reading it my mind wandered away from the staged literalism of two people talking, to a stadium that seemed both crowded and empty, that toned down the late-night dorm-room God-talk so it felt neither too silly nor too arty. It felt true. Everything that ever fell flat in a Pinter performance was dead-on on the page—even a stage direction, “The lamplight has become very bright but does not illumine the room,” has a nice tone in the prose that would just come across to an audience as a dim bulb. I wanted to sit by my own lamplight and read more Pinter. Even on nights—no, especially on nights—when he was being performed across town.

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