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Back catalogue: Harold Pinter

Pinter and the Pinteresque: An Author Trapped by His Own Image? by Lia Ghilardi and Aleks Sierz (1997)

'But don't you remember the word games we all used to play?' asks Maria in Harold Pinter's Moonlight. (1) At such theatrical moments, the author is reminded by one of his creations of the infinite intertextual nexus in which his play is located, while, at another level, he is also sending out a cue to the audience, an invitation for them to call to mind the image they have of his work. Is this a case of self-reflexivity and/or of self-parody? Could it be that Pinter has become trapped by the Pinteresque? And who needs the Pinteresque, anyway? Discussions of intertextuality often focus on the recognition that the text is a system which produces meaning, not by reflecting 'reality' but by its relationship to other texts. This raises the question of the positioning of the work in relation to the subject, and asks what kind of 'author' or 'reader' it constructs. Developed by, among others, Julia Kristeva from her translation of Bakhtin's concept of dialogism - 'the necessary relation of any utterance to other utterances' - intertextuality typically involves a 'mosaic of citations', a palimpsest of traces, a locus where other texts may be read. Meaning, a critic such as Umberto Eco would argue, comes from the diverse series of intertextual frames invoked in the 'reader', frames which authorize and orient interpretation, which fill in the gaps in the text, and guide the 'reader's' inferences about the text. For systematizers such as Gerard Genette, intertextuality - 'the effective co-presence of two texts' - is just one element in transtextuality, which refers to all that puts one text in relation to all other texts. Transtextuality also includes paratextuality (the relation between text and paratext, such as prefaces, dedications and book jackets), metatextuality (the critical relation between one text and another), architextuality (the generic taxonomies suggested by the title of a text), hypertextuality (the relation between one text and a previous text which it transforms). (2)

Self-allusion, parody and pastiche, unconscious echo, direct quotation, structural parallelism are all devices which commonly make up intertextuality in literature. They constitute a two-dimensional system in which texts talk to other texts. Theatre, however, is by its nature a three-dimensional intertextual system, which makes it hard to separate out its various elements: 'The presence of a multiplicity of signs verbal, visual and audio forces the spectator to follow the whole performance simultaneously. During a performance (as opposed to an act of reading) the spectator must accept an imposed pace.' (3) To construct meaning, the audience has to master the 'rules of the game', the decodification of one drama depending on familiarity with other drama. While each new play is necessarily related to other plays - whether because an author is influenced by other work, or because a director turns it into their own style or because an actor gives the character a slant which is typically theirs - intertextual relations are not just confined to other plays. The theatrical frame is never 'pure' (how could it be?): any performance draws on any number of cultural references. Despite an apparent passivity, the members of the audience are actively making meaning out of what happens on stage.

For the audience, drama is a complex cultural experience: 'The language of theatre is possibly even more extensive than that normally ascribed to cinema. For not only must the text, mise-en-scene, lighting, performances, casting, music, effects, placing on the stage all be taken into account [...] but also the nature of the audience, the nature, social, geographical and physical, of the venue, the price of tickets, the availability of tickets, the nature and placing of the pre-publicity, where the nearest pub is [...] For when we discuss theatre, we are discussing a social event.' (4)

If the image of the author results from a distillation of such intertextual relations, in Pinter's case the image has been subsumed by the idea of the Pinteresque, his name having passed into everyday language (as well as Pinteresque, the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary also cites Pinterian and Pinterish). Regarded, since the death of Samuel Beckett, as 'Britain's greatest living playwright', Pinter's public image has been refracted through widely shared ideas about his work, which is often seen as composed of pauses, enigmas and menace. The notion of the Pinteresque applies to work that uses silences, inconclusive dialogue, ambiguous memory games and threatening visitations. The reiteration of cliches and the use of words as evasion is recognized as Pinteresque even by people who have never seen a Pinter play. But what the category of the Pinteresque conceals, however, are the differences in Pinter's dialogue between the early plays and the later work, with an associated tendency to reduce the idea of the Pinteresque to language, when it properly applies to the Weltanschauung embodied in his plays.

Such a highly charged public image weighs heavily on the author. In December 1971, Pinter said: 'Harold Pinter sits on my damn back.' Then he answered the question: 'Who is Harold Pinter?' with: 'He's not me. He's someone else's creation.' (5) Yet Pinter's relationship with his own self-image has been more ambiguous than such a simple denial suggests. Could he be said to be a victim of his own image? When commentators tried to put him into the kitchen-sink school, he said in 1961: 'What goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I'm doing is not realism.' (6) And although he may well have tired of reading that his plays were comedies of menace, you don't have to take his account of his own contribution to the image of the Pinteresque too literally: 'Someone asked me what my work was "about". I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of enquiry: "The weasel under the cocktail cabinet." That was a great mistake. Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns [...] But for me the remark meant precisely nothing.' (7) His use of such a poetic image, however, is remarkably ambiguous because while deflecting inquiry, it paradoxically feeds back into a cliched image of the Pinteresque. Today, on the other hand, even his good-humoured reaction to the word Pinteresque suggests the weary consciousness of an author resigned to his own self-image: '"Oh, this dread word Pinteresque," Pinter complains, self-mockingly. "It makes people reach for their guns. Or behave as if they were going to church. It's highly regrettable."' (8)

When Pinter's Moonlight opened at the Almeida theatre, north London, on 7 September 1993, questions which derive from public perceptions of his image occupied much of the discourse about it. In the play, the stage is divided into three areas, each of which is a room belonging to a different house: in one, Andy, an ex-civil servant, lies dying in bed, his wife, Bel, beside him; in another, also with a bed, are his sons, Jake and Fred; in a third space above them, there is their sister, Bridget, who is probably dead and has a ghost-like appearance. (9) While Andy and Bel are unable to bring their sons to their father's death bed, the couple are visited by old friends Ralph and Maria. In ambiguous passages which call up memories, Andy seems to have had an affair with Maria, who may have had an affair with Bel, who might possibly have been intimate with Ralph. Moonlight is framed by a prologue and epilogue delivered by Bridget, while the whole stage is bathed in moonlight.

Because Moonlight is seen as a play by a 'difficult' author - being a work that doesn't yield all of its meanings easily or lightly (especially insofar as the epistemological status of Bridget is concerned) - the role of the critic is that of an essential mediator between the play and its audience. As the play's first interpreters, the critics were divided along the lines of whether they were enthusiasts or detractors. Not only did they use a range of intertextual devices (the favourite of the detractors being parody), but they also generally tried to elucidate the way this 'difficult' play was a drama-on-drama. The detractors were lead by the Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh. Starting with a put-down that attempted to mimic Pinter's terseness - 'Listen. It is the sound of Harold Pinter scraping the barrel...' - de Jongh argued that 'the play's themes recall many of Pinter's yesterdays: here is the old crisis of failed communications; people do not speak; they run talkative circles around each other; family life is a cluster of tensions and schisms; an erotic triangle is lyrically remembered; memory seems just a game people play' (8 September 1993). The sheer banality of this elucidation of Pinter's intertextuality is a direct result of de Jongh's belief that Pinter's newest play is but a 'laboured imitation of his old great self'.

Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph used another typical strategy - he accused the drama-on-drama in Moonlight of being self-parody. Pinter 'seems to be offering a deliberate send up of his own reputation for baffling an audience' (9 September 1993). In the Independent, meanwhile, David Lister began his review by using the mocking style beloved of Pinter's detractors, pointing out that Moonlight was 75 minutes long, rather than the 17, 8 or 40 minutes of his previous works. He finished his attack by using a phrase from the play as a summary of his reactions: '"What is being said? What is being said here?... What finally is being said?"' (8 September 1993). For a more down-market audience, Martin Hoyle of the Mail on Sunday served up the myth that Pinter had been suffering from writer's block, saying that his was 'a blocked talent going through the motions', capable only of producing 'a collection of Pinterisms to order: evasive gentility, shock four-letter words, mysterious codified exchanges' (12 September 1993).

By using such obviously rhetorical devices, these critics tried to persuade their readers to join in a tired scepticism about Pinter that leaves the familiar image of the author largely untouched. His new play is located intertextually with his other work, but its difficulties and differences are ignored in favour of mockery, with the resulting assumption being that the author has nothing new to say. The critics who appreciated the play had a harder task than that of the detractors. They had to show how the appearance of Moonlight forces us to reconsider established cliches about Pinter's career.

For example, John Peter's thoughtful appreciation in the Sunday Times had the most space in which to do this. Perceptively, he began by relating Moonlight to other Pinter plays which take place at night, a time of 'peculiar, brooding intensity'. 'Night is when paths cross, when threats are made, when memories are most vivid but least reliable'. Comparing Andy of Moonlight to Deeley of Old Times, he elucidated the play's use of 'conversation as evasion'. But Peter also pointed out what was new in Moonlight: 'People are no longer seeking admittance, craving security or protecting their strongholds. This is a play about departure, about barely holding on, about letting go.' In the end, despite the evident pleasure he derived from the performance, even Peter could not resist damning with faint praise: 'This dark, elegiac play, studded with brutally and swaggeringly funny jokes, is one of Pinter's most haunting minor works.' That 'minor' reads like a stab in the guts (12 September 1993).

Pinter's official biographer, Michael Billington of the Guardian, began his review by saying that Moonlight 'will come as a shock to those who have lately pigeonholed him as a writer of bruising polemic'. Although it 'carries echoes of earlier Pinter plays, including The Homecoming and No Man's Land', it also breaks new ground and 'stirs the heart' with its 'direct confrontation with mortality' and its account of the gulf between parents and children. Billington pointed out that the director, David Leveaux, 'combines the concrete and the mysterious: the classic Pinter mix'. 'What makes this an extraordinary play is that Pinter both corrals his familiar themes - the subjectiveness of memory, the unknowability of one's lifelong partner, the gap between the certain present and the uncertain past - and extends his territory' (8 September 1993). The use of the word 'territory' is particularly apt, referring as it does to the characteristic territorial struggles of Pinter's previous work, such as The Caretaker and No Man's Land.

Benedict Nightingale of The Times was at first less generous. Although he welcomed Moonlight because it was about 'personal matters' and not about 'politics', he couldn't resist sneering at Pinter's political commitment. Pointing out that Ian Holm, who plays Andy in the play, was Lenny in the 1965 version of The Homecoming, he interpreted Moonlight as being about Pinter 'coming home to The Homecoming', while equating Andy with the earlier play's Max. After finally appreciating both the text and production, Nightingale concluded that Moonlight 'marks a genuine return to form' (8 September 1993).

In arguing that the new play represents a return to a 'theatre theatrical', the Spectator's Sheridan Morley said that Moonlight has 'all the ingredients of the Pinteresque: menace with mirth, the weasel under the cocktail cabinet, the roll-calls of long-forgotten names that may once have had some significance but are now used as an escape from dangerous conversation' (18 September 1993). Another critic, Clive Hirschorn of the Sunday Express, commented that the play's humour starts with the title, which is 'ironic' (12 September 1993). It was finally left to John Gross of the Sunday Telegraph to point out another aspect of drama-on-drama which is characteristic of Pinter, the many instances of 'vaudeville-style humour. The man who "didn't hide his blushes under a barrel"; the man who "never missed a day at night school"' (12 September 1993).

Critics can, of course, act as reporters of what goes on outside the theatrical frame. Paul Taylor in the Independent claimed that 'few people emerging from the theatre professed to have fully understood' Moonlight before quoting representatives of the arts establishment such as broadcaster Melvyn Bragg: '"I'm still trying to work it out, but it was terrific, very good"' (9 September 1993). By contrast, Mark Amory in the Independent on Sunday gave plenty of clues on how to interpret the play's intertextual references: 'You get a stream of cliches, references, quotations (including one from Hamlet) and proper names [...] It's impossible to take it all in as you watch; one day, probably very soon, scholars will sort it out. Sometimes phrases seem all allusion and rhythm, bereft of sense - "gemless in Wall Street" may echo "Eyeless in Gaza" but stands for nothing' (12 September 1993). Significantly, in an interview, Pinter used the same quotation from Moonlight to emphasize his awareness of intertextual games, saying: 'I'm well aware that my work is packed with literary references.' (10)

If one of the functions of reviews is to set out the terms of discourse about a production, the wide disparity of views about Moonlight indicates that there is more to the critics' disagreement than just a divergence in personal taste. The suspicion arises that this could be evidence of a fundamental split about how to locate Pinter's most recent play in relation to the rest of his work, and ultimately to his prevailing image. Most critics seemed unable to accept Moonlight on its own terms, preferring to see it as a self-parody, and its author as trapped inside the Pinteresque. They also attempted to control what was genuinely new in the play by prescribing how audiences should 'read' it. And, quite rightly, they showed how the play is teeming with echoes from Pinter's previous work. In the dialogue between Andy and Bel there are distinct echoes of Old Times, No Man's Land and Betrayal, and the banter between Jake and Fred is a pared down Pinteresque language game. Familiar themes abound, such as the subjectiveness of memory, the impossibility of ever knowing anybody else, the gap between the certain present and the uncertain past, plus the verbal piss-taking humour. Fewer critics adequately grasped the newer elements in Moonlight, such as the gut-wrenching emotions expressed in Andy's anger and terror at approaching death, the presence of death in life, and the poetical, symbolist nature of Bridget's monologues.

A strong cultural image such as the Pinteresque structures, for better or worse, the aesthetic expectations of the audience. This is by no means a new phenomenon. With the original production of Betrayal, for example, people had become so used to regarding Pinter as enigmatic, that the clarity of the play's theme, its love triangle, struck them as banal, despite the sensitivity of the writing. With Moonlight, almost every review mentions mystery or enigma. Yet there is actually very little that is really enigmatic or mysterious about Moonlight, although it is not exactly an 'easy' play.

Near its end, the following exchange is typical:

Andy: 'What's happening? (Pause) What is happening?'

Bel: 'Are you dying?'

Andy: 'Am I?'

Bel: 'Don't you know?'

Andy: 'No. I don't know. I don't know how it feels. How does it feel?'

Bel: 'I don't know.' (Pause) (11)

Not that much mystery here. A man is dying, and is unprepared for death. The rhythm of the exchanges is recognizably Pinteresque and there is a noticeable aggression in both partners. But there is nothing enigmatic here. Instead, this passage conveys a universal human truth (that we are seldom prepared for death) in the clearest language.

One element of Andy's power to move the audience arose from an external intertextual dimension: by casting Ian Holm as Andy, the production chose an actor who had been absent from the stage for 17 years. As the reason for this was reported to be stage-fright, his triumphant stage comeback mirrors Pinter's comeback as a writer of full-length plays. Both were seen as overcoming blocks. (Ian Holm was also to star in the 1994 revival of Landscape, directed by Pinter, at the National Theatre, and broadcast a year later on BBC 2. Here there was a further aspect of drama-on-drama: his wife, Penelope Wilton, was cast as his stage spouse.)

The venue hosting the premiere of Moonlight also sent out significant cultural signals. Very much Pinter's home ground, the Almeida is a sophisticated fringe theatre in Islington, far away from the West End, with a policy of producing a daring mix of classical and new work (including that of 'difficult' authors such as Howard Barker). It also specialized in Pinter. It had already hosted revivals of No Man's Land in 1992 (with Pinter in the role of Hirst), Betrayal and Mountain Language, as well as the premiere of Party Time, all in 1991. With Pinter often spotted drinking at the bar, the first and second press nights of Moonlight had the atmosphere of a private party, with the author acting as host. 'To celebrate the Almeida's association with Harold Pinter', there was an exhibition of photographs by Ivan Kyncl of past Pinter productions in the wine bar - and a selection was reproduced in the programme. Islington is an apt location for Pinter's work: it is often parodied as a left-wing borough, with 'trendy lefty' and 'champagne socialist' residents.

One last locus of intertextuality deserves mention: the published text of Moonlight. Whatever Pinter might have said about the brevity of his directly political work being irrelevant to its appreciation, the blurb on the back of the published text is unambiguous: 'Moonlight is Harold Pinter's first full-length play since Betrayal in 1978.' Surely this couldn't have been published without his authorization. The first edition opens with the briefest of potted biographies: 'Harold Pinter was born in London in 1930. He is married to Antonia Fraser.' Is this a case of self-parody or a gesture of defiance? (Could the establishment forgive an East End Jewish boy marrying into the aristocracy? - the play, like Party Time, is dedicated to his wife.) The same page carried an erratum slip glued in after the work had been printed. It specified that the play's opening line: 'I can't sleep. There's no moon. It's so dark, I' should be changed to 'I can't sleep. There's no moon. It's so dark. I'. In other words, a comma is changed to a full stop, and therefore a pause. Putting this correction on the first page emphasizes the author-Pinter's desire to remain in full control of his work - yet many saw in it a instance of unconscious self-parody, a relapse into the Pinteresque.

Although Moonlight is about the certainty of mortality and rage against the dying of the light (a metaphor perhaps for Pinter's fears about his death as an author), its successful opening at the Almeida began a week of activity that could be seen as a triumphal comeback. A few days after the first night, Pinter presented his papers - the manuscripts of 26 plays, 17 screenplays, plus sketches, prose and poetry - on an 'unprecedented' long-term loan to the British Library. By doing so, Pinter laid himself open to the possibility of being 'deconstructed' in terms of his image, making this an act of generosity at the risk of vulnerability. While this could be seen as a celebration of his status as Britain's leading playwright, at the same time he was dispelling the myth of the writer's block: the screenplays provide ample evidence of authorial activity during the time he was meant to be inactive. To crown this momentous week, Pinter attended the first night of the transfer from the Royal Court to the West End of David Mamet's controversial hit Oleanna, which Pinter had directed. (12) Pinter, it is worth remembering, is not just a playwright, he is a director, actor, activist and poet.

But there is more to drama-on-drama than the success or otherwise of one or two productions. Other factors, both biographical and political, come into play. Before the opening of Moonlight, it had been widely assumed that Pinter was suffering from writer's block, that the brevity of his directly political plays (such as Mountain Language and Party Time) was a sign that he was finished as a writer, only capable of 'dispatching curt, angry telegrams to the world's audiences on behalf of Amnesty International'. (13) More than once, Pinter has contested this image, pointing out that in 15 years of so-called writer's block he has produced six short plays (including A Kind of Alaska, One for the Road and Party Time) and eight film scripts (including The French Lieutenant's Woman and work on The Remains of the Day). At the same time, he admits that during the years between Betrayal (1978) and Moonlight, he had 'bumped into a brick wall' whenever he tried to write a full-length play. (14) Whatever the complex truth about Pinter's problems with writing (which are normal for all writers), the myth of his writer's block has been eagerly embraced by those who were unable to accept that politics is an integral part of his work. Because the political plays of the 1980s and early 1990s did not fit in with their image of the Pinteresque, commentators have tended to dismiss them. A rare exception was the Observer's Michael Coveney, who in his review of Moonlight said: 'Heretically, I hankered for the hard, cutting, political edge in the recent shorter plays' (12 September 1993). Whenever Pinter has refused to be constrained by what the public expected of him, and tried to elude the constrictions of the Pinteresque, the establishment employed what he calls 'the established tradition of mockery of the artist in this country'. (15) Indeed, the myth of the 15-year writer's block could be interpreted as a metaphor, a way in which the anti-Harolds expressed disapproval, when so often it was the critics who were blocked, unable to accept his new political persona.

By itself, Moonlight could be viewed as one of several attempts at redefining Pinter's image in the 1990s. Two other productions, both of work from the earliest days of his career, in 1958, also seem to challenge received notions about the Pinteresque, albeit in different ways. Revivals of The Birthday Party at the National Theatre in 1994 and of The Hothouse at the Chichester Festival (transferring to the West End) in 1995 surprised audiences because the plays' comic side now far outweighed the ponderous, 'difficult' quality of menace. This challenge to traditional ideas about the Pinteresque also extends to a reinterpretation of the narrative of his artistic career. Until the 1990s, Pinter's career was divided into an 'early' period of comedies of menace or kitchen-sink absurd drama (The Birthday Party to The Homecoming) followed by a 'middle' period of poetic drama and memory plays (Landscape to Betrayal) followed by a 'late' period of short polemical works (One for the Road to Party Time). This schema usually represented a political as well as aesthetic judgement. An early 'unpolitical' Pinter could be seen as declining into a 'late' propagandist. Or, in the words of Michael Billington's review of The Hothouse: 'Pinter is often thought of, misleadingly, as a pedlar of mystery and menace who only in the 1980s acquired a political conscience. But this exemplary revival proves [...] that he was, from the start, a dramatist with sharp antennae for the insidious corruption of power [...] We need to revise our notion of Pinter' (Country Life, 7 September 1995).

Different models of a writer's career always carry a hidden political charge. If, in the eyes of Billington and the other Pinterphiles, Pinter has been a political playwright from the start (with the 'early' work being political in a personal or symbolic sense - for how else do we interpret The Room or The Dumb Waiter?) then does this make him somehow more authentic, more radical? If, on the other hand, it is accepted that Pinter has not always been overtly political, and even enjoyed a distinctly non-political 'middle' period, then surely this does not lessen his achievement. Being 'political' does not make you a better writer; surely every writer has an uneven career, a life that defies easy characterizations? A more provocative startegy might be to question the very idea of an individual career. Maybe Pinter should be considered as a writer whose output depended not only on his own will, but also on who he was living with, or in love with. In this perspective, Pinter's career would also have three phases: Vivien Merchant, Joan Bakewell and Antonia Fraser. Writers are not unaffected by the psychological as well as material conditions of their lives. In all of these scenarios, maybe it is the excpetions to the pattern, when a play somehow doesn't fit in, that are the most thought-provoking. And, of coures, Moonlight is one of these subversive exceptions.

The highly acclaimed National Theatre revival of The Birthday Party, directed by Sam Mendes, made use of several intertextual devices to reinterpret the play in an uncommonly light vein. From the first moment of the play, when we hear the 'diddly-diddly' theme tune reminiscent of Housewives' Choice, a 1950s radio series, we are not so much in Pinterland as in a nostalgic location where 'light entertainment' solicits canned laughter. Casting Dora Bryan as Meg added to the nostalgia - she is best know for playing 'silly, old bags' in kitchen-sink dramas in the early 1960s. Amid all the guffaws, some members of the audience were puzzled by the discrepancy between Pinter's reputation and the style of the production. One spectator asked the person next to her: 'Is Pinter meant to be that funny? Strange, somehow I didn't think so.'

Mendes's recipe for this successful revival was his customary clarity. The movement and gestures of the actors are graphic, the dialogue is depleted of Pinteresque pauses and its rhythm has been naturalized in order to cue laughs. Under the bright sunshine of literalism, the sit-com achieves its easy effects, with only one problem: the end of the play. Here, Mendes's recipe threatens to fail - it is difficult to explain what has happened to Stanley and where he has been taken, and, most of all, answer the question: why this is happening? By relying solely on the resources of the sit-com, there has been no build up of ambiguity, no shades of questioning. As James Campbell wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: 'Beneath the surface conviviality there should surely rumble a tremor of menace' (25 March 1994). Instead, the taking away of Stanley by Goldberg and McCann could in this version be justifiably interpreted as a practical joke, at which audiences can laugh, but which has little emotional impact. The proliferation of images-within-images provided by the Mendes production weakens the political core of the play.

If the easy laughter of Mendes's The Birthday Party, while questioning hegemonic notions of the Pinteresque, could be seen as detracting meaning from the play, the revival of The Hothouse, directed by David Jones, proved instead that when Pinter himself questions the Pinteresque, and a new dimension of meaning is acquired. Written in 1958, put aside until 1979, now revived again, The Hothouse was successful chiefly because Pinter played Roote, the colonel in charge of a psychiatric prison. It is worth noting that at the time Pinter wrote the play, very few people had heard of the punitive use of psychiatric prisons, and therefore the play had, from the start, an explicitly political message. (16) With Pinter in the central role, intertextual ironies abound: here is a famous human rights activist playing the role of an abuser of rights; an actor almost upstaging the author (both being the same person); an author famous for his short temper playing a character on the verge of a tantrum. Needless to say, such intertextual meanings depend on audience competence. At the end of the play, one American tourist in the audience asked an usher whether Pinter had played Roote. Clearly, this spectator had grasped only a part of the available meanings. Although they could enjoy the humour, a less than competent audience would be unable to fully appreciate Pinter's latest struggle to free himself from his image.

The stress on the comic aspects rather than the humourless statuesqueness of some previous productions comes from Pinter's collaboration with David Jones. When they worked together on Betrayal and Old Times in 1983 and 1985, 'It was,' according to Jones, 'interesting for Harold to find that the nature of the beast could change in different productions, that there isn't only the one way to do his work.' (17) Of course, this is not the first time that there have been seismic shifts in the way Pinter has been interpreted on stage: while the early productions of his work, by directors such as Peter Hall, used a style that was influenced, as Pinter himself was, by Beckett, and emphasized the artificial and absurdist elements in his work, later revivals by directors such as Kevin Billington were somewhat more naturalistic. Billington, wrote John Elsom in 1978, 'refused to dwell on what used to be regarded as Pinter's distinctive style - the long ambiguous pauses, the hints of distant menace, "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet."' (18) In The Hothouse, as in other recent revivals of his work, such as No Man's Land in 1992, Pinter's direct participation (whether as actor or director) in the production enables him to handle the elements of self-parody and self-quotation, and to go beyond a mere self-reflexive exercise, in a way that results in new meaning. By declaring war on the 'difficult' side of his own image, he is arguably making his political message clearer. Accessibility is perhaps the quality that best characterises his new persona.

So who needs the Pinteresque? Not, it seems, Pinter himself. For him, the 1990s have proved that, in his own words, 'There is life in the old dog yet'. (19) All of his recent creative output shows a much more pluralistic persona than the old image allows. Do audiences need the Pinteresque? Reactions to his plays in the West End suggest that people are more than ready to accept the unPinteresque productions that foreground humour. Yet, as a study of the reviews of Moonlight shows, it is the critics who, after more than 30 years of Pinter plays, still have the most problems in accepting new variations in the intertextual universe of his work. Perhaps it is the critics who need the Pinteresque much more than Pinter does. As Fred says in Moonlight: 'Any confusion that exists in that area rests entirely in you, old chap.' (20)


Place of publication is London unless otherwise stated.

1 Harold Pinter, Moonlight, Faber 1993, p 16.

2 See M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981; Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984; Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader, Bloomington: Indiana University Press; and Gerard Genette, Palimpsestes: La Literature au Second Degre, Paris: Seuil, 1982.

3 Michael Issacharoff, 'Labiche et l'intertextualite comique', Cahiers de L'Association Internationale des Etudes Francaises, no. 35, May 1983, p 171. Our translation.

4 John McGrath, A Good Night Out, Methuen, 1981, p 5.

5 Mel Gussow, Conversations with Pinter, Nick Hern, 1994, p 25.

6 Harold Pinter, 'Writing for myself' in Plays: Two, Methuen, 1977, p 11.

7 Harold Pinter, Speech on receiving the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize, 1970, quoted in Michael Scott (ed.) The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming: A Casebook, Macmillan, 1986, p 9.

8 Kate Saunders, 'Pause for thought', Sunday Times, 9 July 1995.

9 Gussow, op. cit., p 106. Cf Eckart Voigts-Virchow, 'Pinter still/again Pinteresque? Opacity and Illumination in Moonlight', Centres and Margins: Contemporary Drama in English, vol. 2, Trier: Wissenschafthcher Verlag, 1995, p 121.

10 Gussow, op. cit., pp 124-5.

11 Moonlight, pp 75-6.

12 Gussow, op. cit., p 95.

13 Benedict Nightingale's review of Moonlight in The Times, 8 September 1993.

14 Cf Gussow, op. cit., pp 100, 124, 151. Time Out, 15-22 September 1993.

15 Maria Santacatterina, 'Il cittadino Harold Pinter', Il Manifesto, 5 May 1993. Cf Moonlight, pp 4-5.

16 Gianfranco Capitta and Roberto Canziani, Harold Pinter: Un Ritratto, Milan: Edizioni Anabasi, 1995, p 176.

17 Richard Nelson and David Jones, Making Plays: The Writer-Director Relationship in Theatre Today, Faber, 1995, p 52.

18 Quoted in Ronald Knowles, The Birthday Party and The Caretaker: Text and Performance, Macmillan, p 62.

19 David Sexton, 'Life in the old dog yet', Daily Telegraph, 18 March 1995. Pinter's new persona has also reached more people through the mass media: he appeared on LWT's London Stage '95 on 8 October 1995, and one of his short stories, 'Girls', was given the centre spread of the Sunday Times's book supplement on 1 October 1995).

20 Moonlight, p 43.

© An earlier version of this chapter appeared as 'Pinter and the Pinteresque: An Author Trapped by His Own Image?' by Maria Ghilardi-Santacatterina and Aleks Sierz in Nicole Boireau (ed), Drama on Drama: Dimensions of Theatricality on the Contemporary British Stage, Macmillan, 1997, pp 108-120.

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