The Politics of Harold Pinter

By Naomi Garner
2012, Vol. 4 No. 02 | pg. 2/4 |

Though these spaces and structures serve as oppressors, they are paradoxically a source of security and independence within a collective society. The fear of these spaces being penetrated or invaded is met with the vehemence and tenacity with which Bert defends his room against the blind Negro. The Collection’s (1961) Harry is a rigorous defender of the structures of society, from which he is a beneficiary, bestowed with a position of , autonomy and authority.49 Following the collapse of Empire, signalled by Macmillan’s public acknowledgement in ‘The Wind of Change’ speech (1960), definite British social and political principles also appeared to be under threat. Social order, manifest in the rigid and traditional class system- a social hierarchy of power, consequently seemed incompatible and foolish when the overarching structure of Empire itself became a declining power.50 Harry’s acknowledgement of this is to invite the young, socially impotent Bill into his home, to paradoxically secure the status quo to which he is accustomed. His home serves to fortify Bill’s servitude and subordinate position since his decision to take Bill out of the “slum,” is not for Bill’s benefit, but to maintain his own security and ability to determine, control and curtail the extent to which Bill can progress. Harry’s social philosophy, that “there’s nothing wrong with slum slugs in their place,” is threatened by the fact that some “slum slugs,” like Bill “won’t keep his place.”51 His justification for this reactionary attitude is that once “a slum mind gets out of the slum it sometimes persists you see, it rots everything,”52 causing a threat to the prevailing social order and contributing to the fear of the old powers concerning social mobility. Harry’s characterisation of Bill as a “slum slug” who “crawls over the walls of nice houses, leaving slime,” epitomises the repressive imperial attitude that saw the house of pre-war Britain crumbling as the potentially emancipated Bill, “rots everything…leaving slime.”53

Harry’s incense at the changes he perceives is delivered in a thinly veiled, civil and tempered speech, which descends into inarticulate and impotent rage. His naked aggression, indicated by his suggestion that James control his wife by “knock(ing) her over the head with a saucepan,”54 is masked by his general eloquence and gentility. Once this façade of , of the thinly disguised metaphor of a “slum slug” disintegrates, so too does Harry’s civility. Pinter’s poem ‘The Old Days,’ laments a time in “the good old days”55 when violence against political or social dissidents, in this case “lefties,” could be dealt with using good old-fashioned violence, without justification or elaborate rhetoric to support it since it was a solution to achieving peace. Harry’s tirade marks a recognition of the need to elaborate and obfuscate meaning in order to make content more acceptable. His chosen method is to use the metaphor of slug, instead of referring to Bill directly, since violence towards a pest is more acceptable that towards a person. The use of metaphor to mask acts or threats to naked violence is consistent with Orwell’s complaints about the uses of ornamental language devices that are used “to dignify the sordid processes of international politics.”56 Pinter’s attention to the obscuring of language through metaphor is consistent throughout this period, from Edward and Flora’s torture of the wasp, to Burt’s exclamation of “lice!”57 after his brutal murder of the blind Negro.

The use of metaphor extends beyond the confines of language into the role-play that dominates the lives of Sarah and Richard of The Lover (1962).58 Sarah’s affair with Richard, re-branded ‘Max’ under the pretence that he is a different man, is achieved through the changing of clothing which comes to represent the various identities of Richard, Max, Sarah the wife and Sarah the “whore.”59 Richard is differentiated from Max by wearing a “suede jacket and no tie,” as opposed to a “sober suit.”60 Similarly, Sarah demarcates between herself with Richard and her-self with Max by changing from a “crisp, demure dress,” with “low-heeled shoes” 61 to a “very tight, low-cut black dress” with “high-heeled shoes,”62 the wry implication being that men in suits don’t have affairs and women in low-heeled shoes aren’t whores. As such, the metaphor of clothing is far more pervasive since it shapes and shifts identity. On the occasion that Sarah forgets to change her shoes to the appropriate pair for her role, Richard corrects her since these clothes do not fit the identity required for her role as a “whore.” Similarly, Max is careful to address Sarah as a whore since he “hasn’t got a mistress,” but rather is “well-acquainted with a whore.”63 This is not simply semantics but rather crucial to the forging of Sarah’s identity for the purpose of the role which Richard desires. Richard’s control of Sarah’s clothing is therefore indicative of his control of the facets of her identity as a woman. Though the women’s movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s saw “a majority of women…being drawn out of the private sphere of the home into the public sphere of industry,”64 Sarah’s option of work is that of the sex industry, within her own home.65 Max’s decision to identify Sarah as a “whore,” and not as a mistress testifies both to the tawdriness of the role-play and his desire to use her as a commodity. However, the shift is not psychological, but ontological, since the label “whore” changes Sarah’s essential identity. The terms of the affair are stated by Richard using legalistic, official jargon, in order to clarify the “function of a lover,” which is to “express and engender lust with all lust’s cunning,” as the “proper and consistent obligation of the “job.”66 As such, both Sarah’s role and her identity that is consistent with this occupation is contracted and controlled.

Pinter demonstrates a progression between the construction and contracting of Sarah as a wife and a “whore,” and The Homecoming’s (1964) 67 Ruth, who in his own words, “is the nearest to a free woman that I’ve ever written, a free and independent mind.”68 Though the linear development of Ruth’s situation, from her introduction by the epithet “a wonderful wife and mother…a very popular women,”69 to her degeneration (in conventional society’s terms) into a prostitute, may seem to contradict this assertion, it is her individual choice that designates her as an independent woman. Unlike Sarah, Ruth’s role as a prostitute is contracted according to her own requirements, with the “agreement and conditions of employment” suited to her own needs. She asserts a need for a flat with, “at least three rooms and a bathroom…a dressing-room, a rest room, and a bedroom,” without explanation or justification, but simply from personal inclination and the need to be “content.”70 Though The Lover’s Sarah is free to indulge in sexual role-play, it is ultimately Richard who decided the terms on which the affair is carried out. Sarah’s lover is a bi-product of Richard’s desire to simulate an affair;- it is his desire that drives the terms of the arrangement, whilst Sarah’s requirements of the affair should retain as much dignity as possible, whilst allowing Richard’s charade to continue.

Ruth’s decision to become a prostitute is not a reflection of her “confused state…in a particular social situation”71- the situation being a dissatisfaction with the status quo with the unusual suggestion for change, but rather, an informed an independent choice as a means of “dealing with threats to (her) independence.”72 Though the decision to reject her husband and family for a life of prostitution is problematic in terms of a second-wave feminist critique ruptured by the Feminist Sex Wars, the emphasis on the choice of the individual is the crucial element to understanding this decision. Ruth’s decision is the product of both consideration and circumstance, causing the particulars of the method of attaining independence i.e. becoming a prostitute, to be limited. Ruth’s decision to become a prostitute naturally invokes a question of sexual liberation, which is also an informed element, given her contemporary, informed and practical, prerequisite of “protection” before sexual contact.73 The decision to use birth control liberates Ruth from becoming pregnant, since she does not want any more children, and as such bestows her with both sexual and economic freedom. Though there is a practical component to Ruth’s action, given her limited choices, the catalyst for her decision to reject her family and become a prostitute is her own need and desire for power in her own independence. This desire for personal power is manifest sexually in the baiting of Teddy’s brothers and in the desire for her own space and economic independence.

This personal and self-determining desire is “revolutionary in its essence,” since “no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude and hierarchy being compromised.”74 As such, the desire exhibited by Sarah is of no consequence to her material, individual or social situation since it is enacted within the structure of marriage and she remains “just a bloody woman,”75 subject to her husband’s capriciousness. However, Ruth’s desire overrides the structure of Foucault’s first cell of a fascist society, “the nuclear family.” This fascism, which “causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us,”76 is, for Ruth, that same nuclear family that determined her societal role of wife and mother.

Pinter’s notion of identity in these early, societal plays is never certain nor fixed since the factors that determine and constitute an identity are not limited to the agency of the individual. The fluidity of identity is especially apparent in The Caretaker, where the homeless Davies cannot carve a place for himself in Mick and Aston’s room, or elsewhere in the wider public space, since he has no tangible identity of his own. Davies’ fixation on determining and categorising the identity of others is derived from his need for self-identification, which can only be achieved through negatively differentiating others from himself. His constant reference to the supposed “Blacks making noises, coming up through the walls,”77 to “Poles, Greeks,”78 and “Irish hooligans,”79 is a product of his other-ing of these people in order to consolidate his own identity. His readiness to set himself apart from these people he perceives as different, based on negative and prejudiced national and ethnic identities, is so compulsive that he does not recognise the distinction between a “family of Indians,” and the “Blacks,”80 who he perceives have dominated the building. His essential requirement is that he is recognised as different and, as such, he too fails to accredit these people with any sense of individual identity and simply categorises them based on broad and immaterial characteristics. Davies’ need for the verification of himself becomes focused on the need to obtain his “papers” from someone in Sidcup, since “they prove who I am. They tell who I am.”81 His need for the identification and verification is born contextually of a period in which ID cards remained until 1952, however his ontological need to know himself and prove “everything,” is also achieved through arbitrary and inconsequential papers. Even Davies’ name is of no significance or substance since he goes by the names of “Mac Davies” and “Bernard Jenkins,”82 which are in origin, contradictory, Bernard being a name of German origin and Jenkins being of Welsh. Even nominally, Davies cannot be designated as belonging to one definite group or another. Pinter undermines Davies’ fixation on definitive identity through introducing Mick, who in contrast to Davies affords no importance to establishing a set identity for anyone. Mick’s provocation is premised on his obscuring of one person with another, especially in relation to Davies, who he says reminds him both of his “uncle’s brother,” and “a bloke I once knew in Shoreditch.”83 Mick discredits Davies’ individuality by making his identity interchangeable with another’s, and ridicules the rigid categorisations by which he separates and divides people through likening Davies to a man who had “a bit of Red Indian in him…married a Chinaman and went to Jamaica.”84 To Davies “the way we are unalike matters,”85 and since Mick denies him this, Davies’ self of sense becomes worryingly ambiguous. His insistence that he is not a foreigner, but “born and bred in the British isles,”86 is of no consequence to Mick and is essentially immaterial to himself since he has not benefited from this identity that he so zealously defends. Davies cannot see beyond his Britishness to his fundamental displacement within British society.

Mick and Aston’s room represents a state of flux between the “kitchen sink, lawn mower, coal bucket, shopping trolley, gas stove, Buddha, blow lamp, clothes horse, electric fire, electric toaster, Electrolux,”87 and the aspiration of “an off-white pile linen rug, a table in…in afromosia teak veneer, sideboard with matt black drawers, curved chairs with cushioned seats, armchairs in oatmeal tweed.”88 The room is filled with consumer goods designed to facilitate a “qualitative leap in the working class standard of living,”89 which instead clutter the apartment and bring no recognisable benefit to either of the room’s occupiers. Mick’s ambition is to diversity, with the room being decorated with fine furniture sourced from exotic materials, in contrast to the East End “clobber,” and “old iron.” His attitude contrasts completely with Davies’ reactionary belief in a return to the East End “caff,” since “they’re trying to do away with these foreigners, you see, in catering.”90 Given the rapid growth of Indian restaurants in particular in South and East London during the 1950’s and 1960’s, Davies’ claim is both desperate and deluded.91 Pinter surmises Davies’ attempt to find a place for himself in an unfamiliar but recognisable society with the ironic statement that people “want an Englishman to pour their tea.”92 This pitiful and humorous statement represents Pinter’s dark comedy that punctuates vulnerable moments in his work, and prevents either sympathising or moralising.

Davies’ continual and sustained polemic against “the Irish hooligan, “that Scotch git,” “them Blacks (who) dirty all the banisters,”93 in fact, “the lot of them, all them aliens,”94 in turn, creates a criteria for exclusion, which according to Mick, Davies himself does not satisfy. Mick’s complaints that Davies is “stinking the place out,” that he is “violent, erratic, unpredictable,” and cannot produce “references”95 to validate who he is, are therefore just reasons for Davies’ expulsion from the room. These personal beliefs are consistent with those residual imperial exclusionary social philosophies that have resulted in the unfavourable position in which Davies has found himself. His protest that “I got my rights…I might have been on the road, but nobody’s got more rights than me,”96 are a desperate plea to a variety of universalization synonymous with the vast notions of , liberty and , that has dissolved the needs of the individual to the requirements of greater structures.97 The simple requirements of obtaining a room and income through self-identification have become addled with vast, abstract and bureaucratic notions of identification “papers” and “rights” that in fact perpetuate exclusion and social displacement and ultimately lose sight of the individual within the abstract mechanisms of society.

Dislocated voices: the individual, memory and society

Davies’ need for recognition amongst the anonymous multitudes of society is further developed in Pinter’s ‘memory plays,’ through the concentration of the unique and independent voice of the individual. This voice, suspended in a non-specific or unknown setting, becomes comparatively abstracted from the social contexts apparent in The Caretaker or A Slight Ache.98 Though Landscape (1967) is set in “the kitchen of a country house,”99 it bears no resemblance to the country house of A Slight Ache, since the tangibility of the space is lost to Beth’s recollections of the sea and the beach.100 As such, it is this imagery of “wetness all over the air. Sunny. Trees like feathers,”101 created by the palpability of the language, that is elucidated as the setting of the play. Though Duff is in isolated conversation with Beth, since he “does not appear to hear her voice,” he does refer directly to her, which forces the dialogue to persist as a conversation. Beth, who “never looks at Duff…and does not appear to hear his voice,” never refers to him directly in the use of the pronoun, “you,” and persists, isolated in memory.102 Beth’s is an elected isolation where her voice can express itself in a lyricism not seen in Pinter’s work before the emergence of Landscape and Silence (1968).103 This lyricism, which Pinter describes as “non-specific…indulgent and illegitimate,”104 is essential to the rendering of the voice of the individual, which requires the indulgence of individuality and the non-specificity of subjectivity that has heretofore been incompatible with creating a faithful portrayal of a social landscape. The construction of Beth’s voice requires a perceptibly individual language and expression since the memories recalled pertain only to the individual and therefore cannot be contained in moulds of “rigid linguistic structures.”105 As such, the particulars of Landscape are only intelligible through the narrative voices of Beth and Duff, which do not correspond to each other since they are personal memories rendered in individual voices.106

Duff’s imagery, “someone’s used this pintpot instead of the boghole,”107 is coarse, his language, “a lot of shit all over the place…dogshit, duckshit, all kinds of shit,”108 is brutal and punctuated with reminders of ugliness and violence. Though Duff’s dialogue is directed at Beth, his coarse language cannot penetrate her memories, which, as a result, become a defence against the reality of life with her partner.109 Beth’s recollections are beautiful, gentle and sensual, “I wore a white robe. Underneath I was naked. There wasn’t a soul on the beach-”110 they are the memory of incidents saturated feelings that override objective detail. The softness of her language and the beauty of her memories are subjective and as such form a defence of her individuality. Her ability to recall and express the tenderness of her “true love”111 at the beach is a resistance to the context of an “unfaithful”112 and sexually aggressive partner who doesn’t allow her to experience the same love. It is Beth’s “right to joy” that is an “important political act,”113 since her situation does not encourage or facilitate the same joy found in the day at the beach. Her recollections are private and intimate and elucidate an entirely contrasting character to her character, as depicted by Duff, of a woman being “had in front of the dog.”114 In Beth’s circumstances, collective memory thwarts the rendering of the identity of the individual since it relies on the testimony of others to create something, which is by definition, at the core of a person’s ontological being.

The problem of constructing identity through personal recollection and memory is explored throughout Pinter’s memory plays from the confusion that Old Times’ (1970) Deeley experiences in his failure to differentiate between memories of Kate and Anna to Man of Night (1969) who cannot separate the memories of his courtship of Woman from the memories of his courtship with “another girl.”115 Night demonstrates a variation on the form of Landscape since Man and Woman have entered into a dialogue with each other in an attempt to establish verifiable facts through combining each others’ personal memories.

Though they eventually agree on a feeling of mutual love, the slight discrepancies between the memories of Woman and the memories of Man in constructing the story emphasise the subjectivity of feeling even in rhetorically universal concepts such as love. Though “we will all interpret a common experience differently,”116 since the construction of memory is subject to personal idiosyncrasies, Pinter acknowledges a need to “subscribe to the view that there’s a shared common ground, a known ground.” This desire for a collective memory is demonstrated through Man and Woman’s eventual unstated decision to collaborate their personal memories into a shared memory. The desire that motivates this is the desire for a sense of belonging. It is the same sense of belonging that Davies’ scrambles for in his desire for equality in his rights.

Pinter’s memory plays serve to counter this sense of belonging that strives towards a sense of a common ground, which inevitably leads to exclusionary a sense of belonging, and a known ground, that serves to reinforce the status quo and explains difference as dissidence. The loss of memory of a situation allows the situation to be misinterpreted and accounted for by those arbiters of truth, who can then record the incident according to their own agenda. Thus Meg, “all memory gone,”117 of Stanley’s interrogation by Goldberg and McCann, allows the intimidation to pass, unjustified, unanswered for.118 The preservation of individual memory is thus essential to ensuring a composite, but not collective, version of truth that necessitates rogue elements to ensure clarity and faithfulness. Pinter’s claim that the “desire for verification is understandable but cannot always be satisfied,” since, “there are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false,”119 is epitomised in the motivations of Man and Woman of Night. The presentation of individual memory here highlights that there is no discernable, singular truth to the courtship between Man and Woman, but that both versions of the events can either be true or untrue.

As a consequence, the personal becomes political since the individual plays a role in the foundation of truth and the dissemination of power and control. The arbitrariness of power, traditionally in notions such as gender, is thereby undermined when the voice of the individual, as an individual, rejects these notions of power. Duff’s arbitrary power, “like a man,” is resisted by the freedom of Beth, not “like a women,” but as an individual.120 It is her individuality, shaped by her independent memories and subjective voice that creates a resistance in itself. As such, even the most violently penetrating images of Duff’s language, “mind you don’t get the scissors up your arse,” cannot punctuate Beth’s independence. The notion of arbitrary power being undermined by the voice of the individual is exemplified at its starkest in Victoria Station (1982), where the simple exchange between Controller and Driver becomes a power struggle between the controller and the driver of the situation.121 The importance of the power of the voice of the individual over physical presence is emphasised by the exchange of conversation over the microphone, and not in person. The physicality of the person becomes less tangible, since it is the voice, and often the absence of the voice, in the form of a ‘pause,’ that facilitates the power struggle. Since Controller has to rely to Driver to explicate events in the taxi, Driver is able to recount events as he sees fit. The stage directions do not indicate that there is a “passenger on board,”122 but since Driver informs Controller that there is, he can chose only to believe or disbelieve this statement based on Driver’s testimony. In a Foucaultian mould, Controller’s inability to observe Driver is crucial to his loss of control. Observation, as a method of restraint has been removed, and as such the will of Driver is unrestrained and unable to be restrained. Driver’s form of control relies on a subtle and complex fusion of dialogue and silence; at times it is the voice of Driver expressed in a ‘pause’ that engenders insecurity and powerlessness in Controller. Controller’s frustration at the impenetrability of Driver’s voice, demonstrated in the cessation and resumption of dialogue, results in aggressive and violent responses, “I’m going to tie you up bollock naked to a butcher’s table and I’m going to flog you to death all the way to Crystal Palace.”123 His lack of control exposes a naked aggression that is verbalised, but relies of physical imagery in order to attempt to gain control. However, physical aggression proves ineffectual since from Controller’s position Driver’s physical form is inaccessible.

Pinter’s demonstration of the power of the resistance of the voice of the individual is more evident once arbitrary power structures have collapsed. The natural example of this is the nuclear family of Family Voices (1980) where the physically absent son’s voice is dislocated from his family and inaccessible to his controlling mother, whose voice flounders impotently outside of the structure of family.124 The familial situation is reminiscent of Albert and his mother in A Night Out;- however the emphasis here shifts to the power of the independent voice of Voice 1, over the physical actions of Albert. Voice 1 can “talk freely”125 to all he inhabitants of the house where he boards;- his voice is strong and independent, strengthened by a space of his own in the house. The play develops the role of the monologue in establishing the independent voice of the individual. Though there is bare structure of conversation between the Voices, this largely serves to reinforce the independence of Voice 1 against the dependence of Voice 2.

The removal of power structures is achieved completely once the individual is wholly isolated from others. A Kind of Alaska’s (1982) Deborah experiences this total and complete isolation since her consciousness is suspended in animation without means of self expression either through action or through voice.126 In this state, before the individual “erupted into life once more,”127 she is in complete isolation but is not independent since she cannot harness her voice to achieve control. Thus isolation and independence are not equal since isolation is not powerful, but rather signifies an absence of another rather than the presence of the self.

The presence of the self, the unremitting voice of the independent individual, is the source of power and control in these plays. The conscious and articulate ability to express and navigate an independent voice is essential to the preservation of the individual against generic and arbitrary discourse that seeks to control and limit independent thought through using language to “keep thought at bay.”128 Pinter’s exploration of language without identity, the dissemination of language whose identity is generic and overwhelming, is the source of the explorations of Pinter’s later plays. These plays struggle to preserve the individual against the culmination of the most dangerous assailant of the independent voice- the language of generic, systematised and inhuman authority.

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