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Harold Pinter belongs to the representatives of the young generation of playwrights following the footsteps of the pioneers of the Theater of the Absurd. He has reached the status of a major figure in contemporary theater. Pinter has started to write poetry when he was a teenager, and his works were printed in small magazines. He studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama as well as played under the pseudonym “David Baron” in Shakespeare Company in Ireland. In 1957, Harold Pinter began to write plays. It is difficult to determine the genre of his works since one play can contain the elements of comedy and tragedy, mystery and farce. The viewers can observe the continuous dialogues between the characters who sometimes make sarcastic remarks but soon, everything gets balanced, and talks are resumed. Pinter says that he cannot describe the content of any of his plays. The viewers watch every play by Pinter with the expectation of sudden events. It is impossible to anticipate which surprises the author has prepared. Plays by Pinter are focused on the topics of solitude, separateness, and pretense. The viewer does not see violence in the foreground but the chance that it can occur is present in the background. Through his characters, the playwright talks about the humiliation of a person, which is composed of a combination of many factors including poverty, dependence, and misunderstanding among others. People in Pinter's works are usually depicted as indecisive and miserable individuals who cannot manage their lives. Most of his plays convincingly convey a sense of impending horror that, in general, is typical for late drama of the absurd. It particularly applies to such plays by Pinter as The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. This paper aims to analyze these famous plays by Harold Pinter from the literary and theatrical points of view.
The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party is the first full-length play by Pinter set in London in a professional theater. It was premiered on April 28, 1958 in Cambridge in the Art Theatre. In May, The Birthday Party was moved to Lyric, Hammersmith. The play did not have great success at first. In January 1959, Pinter himself staged it in Birmingham. That year, the play got positive reviews due to the brilliant performance of Tavistock Players in the Tower Theatre, Canonbury. Millions of English viewers saw amazing spectacle on the screen in 1960. Strange and requiring responses play has made strong impression on people causing passionate arguments, irritation, and, at the same time, deep concern.
The main character is Stanley. He is a new character, previously not introduced in the plays by Pinter. Stanley is in his late thirties. He is lethargic, lazy, and apathetic; he has found a place at Meg's boarding house, which has not had guests for years. Although Stanley, being a musician, dreams of a world tour, it is clear that he hides from the hostile world in a miserable house. Then, as in the two previous plays, a door opens. Two threatening visitors, Goldberg and McCann, want to rent a room at Meg’s guest house. Soon, it becomes clear that they have come to take Stanley. As in all plays by Pinter, there is an intrigue. The viewer wonders who these people are: the emissaries of a secret organization, people from a madhouse or the messengers from another world. There is no answer to this question. The party is being prepared in honor of Stanley's birthday but he refuses to celebrate. Then, the absurd and inane actions occur: horrific brainwashing with cross-questioning, Stanley’s attempt to strangle Meg, and the moment when the sinister guests push the main character down the stairs. Next, Goldberg and McCann seat Stanley in a huge black car. He is silent like a puppet and has memory failure. Meg does not understand what has happened.
The Birthday Party can be interpreted as an allegory of the suppression and the conversion of a pianist into a conformist. The emissaries of the bourgeois world have forced the man to be respectable putting the striped trousers on him. The play can be also perceived as an allegory of death: a man is expelled from the house; he is deprived of warmth and love personified by Meg who combines maternal feelings and sexual harassment; the black angels ask him the question concerning what came first, a chicken or an egg. The interpretation of this kind confuses the viewers; the plays of this type explore the situations, which contain compelling and truthful poetic images. The proposed play openly tells the story of the hopeless seek for protection by an individual, the secret fears and anxieties, terrorism and fanatical brutality of modern world so often manifested as feigned kindness as well as the tragedy that arises from the lack of understanding between people. Stanley does not feel Meg’s love since he despises her for untidiness and stupidity. On the other hand, the heartiness and affection of Meg’s tongue-tied husband Petey remains unclaimed and deeply hidden. The allegorical interpretation of the play would have been possible if it was written with a certain idea. Pinter denies this way of working arguing that it is impossible for him to start writing a play from an abstract idea. He always imagines the situation and certain characters first. If these people are not real, it is impossible to write a play for him.
Pinter sees no contradiction between the desire for realism and basic absurdity of a situation. Just like Ionesco, he believes that absurdity of life is ridiculous to the certain extent. Everything is funny in a play at the beginning: excessive seriousness and even tragedy. The author tries to show recognizable reality of the absurdity of people's actions, behavior, and conversations. Everything is ridiculous till the moment the real horror of a situation becomes clear. Life is funny since it is based on the illusions and self-deception, like Stanley’s fantasy of a world tour; it is built on the absurd overestimation of person’s opportunities. In real world, everything is uncertain, and nothing is permanent. It leads to the fact that suspense makes people take the next step.
Harold Pinter is called a master of silence or pause, and critics sometimes define a genre of his plays as a comedy of menace. In confined space, his characters slowly find the bottomless wells of aggression, fear, and guilt. At the same time, Martin Esslin and other critics refer one of his first plays, The Birthday Party, to the Theater of the Absurd while Pinter is compared with Beckett. However, despite this fact, in the final dialogue between Meg and Petey in The Birthday Party, the theme of lost illusions appears. Concerning the dramatic dialogues in Pinter's early plays and The Birthday Party in particular, the playwright builds them to enhance the sense of unknown threats or pressure, which is achieved by the fact that the audience does not know what the characters do: their words as well as actions often seem illogical, incomprehensible, and devoid of causation. However, through barely perceptible hints scattered through the absurd dialogues the viewers can see that previously, Stanley participated in punitive troops organized in Ireland during the Civil War. One more thing is that during the questioning of the protagonist, in the mixture of absurd replicas devoid of any meaning, the most important question appears: “Why did you betray our organization?”. Thus, the specificity of Pinter's dialogues helps the viewers to see not only the weakness of a man who is the subject to the circumstances but also a person who is somehow responsible for the choice made in the past. Stanley is not a man without the past as it may seem at first glance.
Fighting for the room is the theme of the second full-length play by Pinter The Caretaker, which brought him even more success. The premiere took place in London in the Arts Theatre Club on April 27, 1960. It consists of three acts and three characters. The room is situated in a dilapidated house, in which Aston, kind but mentally not quite normal young man lives. The play begins with the moment when Aston brings the old tramp Davies whom he has saved from the beating at the cafe where he works. Davies is depicted as a person who has lost not only a place in the society but also the identity. Davies is vain, irritable, and prejudiced against everyone and everything. He could stay with Aston and his younger brother Mick who was the owner of the house and was almost offered the job of a caretaker but he could not resist the temptation to split the relationship between the brothers trying to show his superiority over them. Davies personifies human weaknesses. Undoubtedly, he needs to get his place in the world but he is unable to get used to at least minimum self-discipline in order to live in the society. Mick expels Davies from the house saying that he is a barbarian.
All Pinter’s dramaturgic power is seen in the final scene when Davies unsuccessfully asks for another chance to stay in the house. However, he has showed his insecurity; he does not deserve brothers’ compassion. On the stage, his expulsion from the dirty room, in which he could find a shelter, takes almost cosmic scale of Adam’s expulsion from the paradise. Davies is unfair, intrusive, and not able to show his superiority; in addition, he is under the influence of the primordial human sins: pride, immodesty, and blindness to his own mistakes.
The Caretaker reaches universalism and heights of tragedy without mysterious tricks and violence, which are used in Pinter’s early plays for creating the poetic atmosphere of terror. Even Davies’ myth of the impossibility to reach Sidcup does not go beyond strict realism; it is just a form of self-deception, which is clear to everyone but him. This character is too indulgent to himself to note that he justifies his apathy and inability to adapt fooling only himself. Pinter wanted to use the elements of violence at first. The initial idea was to finish the play with Davies’ violent death but suddenly, he realized that it was not necessary. Unlike his previous works, in this play, cabaret tricks, dramatic darkness, and cries on the stage were not required. Pinter was able to do without these techniques using only the situation in its purest form.
The Caretaker consists of many comic scenes, and long life of this play in the theater is explained to the certain extent by the fact that the source of laughter is the demotic speech of the lower classes. The absurd element is one of the most significant features of The Caretaker but the author did not intend to create ridiculous farce. In this play, in which the comic and the tragic are closely connected, the majority of public will always prefer the comic part, thus, freeing itself from the other side of life. The recognition causes the viewers’ laughter since the audience of the theater hears about the concerns of ordinary people not very often. In the increasingly meaningless world, people seek shelter in the comprehension of the narrowest areas of unnecessary knowledge. Trying to become a master of electrical appliances, Aston is looking for a foothold in reality since the nervous breakdown, due to which he was subjected to shock therapy, has resulted in the loss of contact with reality and people.
The scholars and critics, for example, Bill Naismith consider The Caretaker a tragicomedy, which preserves the elements of the Theatre of the Absurd and realistic basics: the identity crisis and isolation. Pinter's characters in this play are under the influence of different factors, which are beyond their control. They all try to survive in the harsh and depressing circumstances. Pinter's characters are locked in their inner worlds due to their physical or mental inability to contact the external reality and live in accordance with the laws of nature. The cause of their isolation is not the fear of life itself; the characters often demonstrate desperate attempts to overcome the invisible wall. Not without reason, Walter Kerr called Pinter the only playwright who “writes existentialist plays existentially,” and it makes his novels a part of the theater canon. Pinter's playwriting is strictly theatrical. For all its self-sufficiency, his texts are always focused on the staging and require the existence of visual absurd. Absurd is closely connected with existentialism. The existentialists approve it and consider one of the most important concepts. Absurd arises from the collision between a man and the world. The feeling of absurdity is the discord between a person and his/her life.
In the contemporary cultural situation, in which many artistic phenomena are the subjects to rethinking, there is the growing interest in the playwrights whose works have gained the attention of both critics and public despite generally unfavorable time for theater. One of these artists is Harold Pinter. Being a man of the theater, he is also a poet. Therefore, his theater is inherently poetic to the greater extent than the pompous verse drama of some of his contemporaries. In the analyzed plays, which are still present in the repertoire of many theaters, Pinter's characters are depicted in the process of the required adaptation to the world. The question is whether they are able to face the reality or adapt to it completely. Like in the majority of his works, in The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, Pinter proposes the main features of the Theater of the Absurd. Among them, there are human isolation from the outside world, individualism and inability to communicate, inanity of actions, invincibility of evil, and inaccessibility of human goals. In the analyzed works, which have become a part of the theater canon, Pinter's characters are realistic. If modern life is absurd, the fictional dramatization with the clear solutions to the problems creates the illusion that it makes sense and, as a result, leads to simplification and concealment of the main factors. Therefore, the embellished reality turns into fantasy. Thus, of all the major playwrights who used the concept of absurd, Harold Pinter’s works present the most original combination of the avant-garde and traditional elements. He puts his vision into a theatrical form using instant tempo technique and epigrammatic wit of the high masters of the English comedy.