Saturday, July 28, 2007

'Through A Glass Darkly'


"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images"
--T.S Eliot, The Waste Land.

Having just finished reading the third volume of Harold Pinter’s Complete Plays I’m probably more or less alone in saying that I don’t like his early work. Not that they don’t have their charms – from The Dumb Waiter up until 1969’s Silence they have a certain obscure power, derived from the arbitrary circumstances, the sudden shifts in character action, the opaque reasoning behind narrative choices. The plays set up sites of potential, a spectacle loaded with menace simply because anything could happen in the next half hour. David Lynch’s work carries the same sparking charge, but obviously on a much larger scale, because of the much wider and deeper possibilities of his medium – he can literally, as in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, construct his own free-floating realities by verity of the camera lens (film being the medium, and Hollywood the place, where the fantastic happens.) Pinter, who hasn’t written a new play for almost twenty years, is now counted as a National Treasure, the sign of a sure creative endgame (Larkin was counted a National Treasure around the time of ‘Aubade’, and never recovered from it) – but those early plays show an explosive route out of the dead-end of both conservative censorship theatre and late ‘50s Angry Young Men-ism, that didn’t resort to the puerile flesh-for-its-own-sake tactics of the hippies and the Tynan set.

By disintegrating the unnecessary aspects of plays – narrative exposition, psychological motivation, the usual comprehensibility to the audience, as if the audience weren’t people on the other side of the footlights but omnipotent spectators – he opens up spaces that hypnotise by themselves; his is a theatre of lacunae. In The Homecoming, the peak of the early plays, the frequent silences, pauses and wordless movements ratchet up the tension; the sudden bursts of violence, venom and desire hang free. The air is humid, dripping with sex and cruelty; each awkward silence opens up another gap between characters, makes the idea of a happy family and ending further and further. The progress is not so much one of narrative as of atmosphere, the pressure of a storm gathering in the accumulation of weight in the silences, lurching from fragment to fragment – things like Lenny’s anecdote about his potential murder victim "falling apart with the pox" or Max’s beating of Joey seem serve no purpose other than to disconcert and worry the audience. Uncertainties are introduced for seemingly no reason – such as whether the question of whether Teddy really is a Professor of Philosophy – other than, I assume, to undermine any sense the audience might have of questions being answered. No-one on the stage is really anything that they appear to be – a Verfremdungseffekt of sorts.
After The Birthday Party, the plays become increasingly abstract; like Beckett, he seemed to be trying to reduce theatre down to the distinctive components: the visual, the aural, the atmospheric. If the application of the theatre was to tell stories, The Homecoming told almost nothing: the synopsis – the eldest son, Teddy, returns home, and the rest of the family convinces his wife to stay with them – is bare, with no ‘message’ translatable by critics and York Notes glossers. This trend culminated the short work Silence: three characters telling stories, repeating phrases and shifting around within their own narratives, apparently not hearing each other, stories which consist of complaints, insults, pointless anecdotes, descriptions of daily routines and vivid images (such as that of Bates watching shadows in the trees: "Maybe it’s a bird, I said, a big bird resting.") By this point, reading over it, Pinter is beginning to look like a charlatan, a man conjuring images with no actual content; a stylist of words making no attempt to make anything solid communicable to an audience. He seemed to be heading down the same dead-end as Beckett: the reduction of media to just the voice rendered – in the case of his prose, Molloy and Malone Dies were obsessed with process, the rendering of the supposed voice, and increasingly obsessed with the epistemological falsity involved in rendering and the act of testimony, to the point where, in The Unnameable, the question of how the voice is rendered, who the speaker is, or even whether the speaker is hang heavy throughout; the move pushed him to temporarily abandon prose, and take up the theatre, a medium in which words could be treated as a secondary element, and allowed to breathe; Pinter, by prioritising the voice and presence of the speaker, rendered the work sterile, mordant, "signifying nothing". This approach changed after a period of writer’s block, to produce the tense but poetic Old Times, and his last great play – and, as far as I’m concerned, best work in total – 1975’s No Man’s Land.

Revolving around Hirst, a hubristic, alcoholic writer (probably a bilious portrait of Pinter himself), the play seems better for the slight concessions to comprehensibility. Like The Homecoming, the characters’ relations are easy to pick up, and their identities relatively stable (the only exception being the apparent double identity of Spooner, may or may not be Hirst’s old school chum, Charles Wetherby.) The discrepancies in the accounts of the characters – which Pinter, by this point, no longer tries to call attention to as he did in the very early plays – are aspects of themselves, the results of growing old, beyond the point where the truth can still be faced without horror. The characters have lost any dignity or existence beyond what they can construct, beyond what they tell us from the stage. The question of whether or not Hirst knows who Spooner is when he wakes from a drunken crawl, or whether Spooner actually does have a wife and children in the country, ultimately don’t matter. The actual characters are spare but incandescent presences, cutting shapes in the semi-blackness that covers the stage most of the time. The occasional use of verbal imagery is spare and foggy, filtered through the cataracts of memory and the uncertainty of dream – searching, searing like lasers, but glimpsed like flames through fog. A good counterpart to this would be some moments in Sam Beckett’s mid-‘50s work: the images in Malone Dies, for example, where he sketches out, in bare words, the gorse fires on the hill he watched as a child (an image excerpted from Beckett’s own memory); the image, precisely because of its bare, befogged nature, forms so powerful a pull on the imagination. (An aside: this is precisely what I love in a lot of music – shoegaze, the calmer, more dubbed-out end of electronica (I’m thinking of Burial, or Porn Sword Tobacco), and some modern classical such as Penderecki, Morton Feldman or Arvo Part. Dean Wareham’s guitar solos on Galaxie 500 classics like ‘Fourth Of July’ and ‘When Will You Come Home’ exert such a magnetic pull precisely of because this contrast between their viscerality and the sea of distancing reverb in which they swim.) It reverses the usual Pinter formula of a threatening presence constructed from fragments like some fucked-up Merz construction: the stage is a yawning void into which the characters stumble, numb with drink, refusing to speak but not being able to face anything else; the silences are now simply the nothingness exploding into sight where it couldn’t be filled, the state of ‘groundlessness’ that Shestov discussed (aph. 17), the momentary acknowledgements that what we see before us is the icy, unchanging no-man’s-land of the title, the sense of tension and terror manifest in the silences making it clear that none of the characters want to be there, and neither want to, nor are able to be, anywhere else.

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