Review: ‘The Pinter problem’

by Austin E. Quigley (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1975. xix, 294 pp. £ 8.50)


Martin Esslin


Mr Quigley’s book seems to me paradigmatic; hence it deserves somewhat closer scrutiny than it would merit simply on its face value. It is paradigmatic for an approach—I hesitate to call it academic, for using the term in a pejorative sense is very unfair to the hundreds of academics whose work is a genuine contribution to the sum of human knowledge, so perhaps it had better be called ‘dry-as-dust-pseudo-scholarly’—which is only too symptomatic of what pressures to publish at all costs produce, books, that is, which seem to have no raison d’être beyond the fact that they can be added to a curriculum vitae as evidence that their author has burnt the midnight oil with the utmost diligence.


Already, the title gives the game away: is Pinter really a problem? A problem for whom? For the actors who perform his plays? They have no problem with them. They contain splendid parts that can be acted with the utmost impact simply by following the author’s text and stage directions. For the audience who comes to see them? Not really. They may be puzzled by what goes on on the stage, but that is not the problem Mr Quigley has in mind. That is no problem to them. Or is Pinter a problem to Pinter? I happen to know at first hand that that is not so. For whom is Pinter a problem then? For Mr Quigley? I doubt it. The problem consists merely in that Mr Quigley had to have something to write about. So he had to find a problem.


That problem is the nature of Pinter’s use of language. What is Pinteresque language? How does Pinter’s language differ from that of other playwrights? It is a question not without interest, but not a very weighty problem. But Mr Quigley lustily inveighs against all the unfortunate critics—in newspapers, periodicals, monographs on Pinter—who have, as Mr Quigley opines, provided wrong solutions to this weighty problem. As though you had to be condemned to three days on bread and water if you did not provide the correct solution, Mr Quigley lambasts these sinners like a Dickensian schoolmaster. For he, he thinks, is the only one who knows the solution of the problem and has to show his inherent superiority, lest it go unnoticed.


Now, where have these unfortunate dunderheads—and I confess myself to be among them, with due contrition—all gone wrong? By suggesting that more went on in Pinter’s plays than was manifestly evident in the text. Hence they have been tempted to talk about hidden meaning, non-linguistic meanings behind the overt statements, in fact a subtext. ‘The notion of a subtext loses all utility if what it deals with cannot be spoken of as a product of the linguistic data. The meanings referred to are either linguistically specified or they are not there; how else could we divine their existence?’ (14-15). ‘Suggestions that Pinter’s language conveys something other than the meaning of its words, that language can convey what it cannot say, that it is not the words that count but the subtext, that Pinter has transcended the boundaries of language - all are based upon a separation of meaning and use . . .’ (46). Mr Quigley has discovered something which he thinks no one has discovered before him, namely that language has not only an informational function but also an ‘inter- relational’ one. In other words, he has stumbled across the hitherto unheard of truth, that what people say to each other has an effect on their relationships. To buttress this discovery—for a pseudo-scholar of this type cannot make any statement without an authority—he invokes Wittgenstein and J.R. Firth. What he has failed to notice is merely that none of the other critics whom he has consigned to the dungeons for stupidity have never doubted this for a moment, and that in fact the term subtext stands precisely for this aspect of the matter.


In the almost three hundred pages of the book, Mr Quigley gives hardly any evidence that he has ever been to a theatre, has ever seen a play or, indeed, has ever spoken to an actor. Had he done any of these things, he would have found that his problem was, in fact, a pseudo-problem. Any actor could have told him—and Harold Pinter writes from an actor’s standpoint and experience—that, when speaking any lines in a play, one has to be aware not only of the dictionary meaning of the sentence one utters but, above all, what its effect will be on the character to whom it is addressed and what the intention is in which it is addressed. That is what Mr Quigley calls the ‘interrelational aspect of language’ and what actors call the subtext.


This is very clearly stated—I refer to it merely because I know my own work better than that of others—in my monograph on Pinter; but, of course, Mr Quigley, who was merely reading it to find fault, did not notice it because he was not trying to understand what was being said, merely to confirm that his self-made terminology was not being employed. For, having discovered the obvious and having failed to notice that others had not stated the obvious, merely because they felt that stating the obvious was a waste of time, Mr Quigley has constructed himself a terminology for the obvious and then laboriously applies it. Having proved that there is no such thing as a subtext, he then fills a further 200 pages with a detailed explication of the plays, which, as any actor or director could have told him, is merely a very laborious and boring exposition of the subtext of four of Pinter’s plays, The room, The caretaker, The homecoming and Landscape, and at that neither very perceptive, nor even wholly accurate.


Of course, there is more to the fallacy of Mr Quigley’s position than merely a misunderstanding of the nature of the term ‘subtext.’ His conviction that there can be nothing in a play that is not indicated by language, ignores the fact that the theatre is not merely a reading out of a text, but that in performance numerous entirely non-linguistic elements are superimposed on the language: the visual impact of the design and lighting, the erotic appeal of the actors and, above all, their creative contribution. The language furnishes a blue-print. The performance fills it with flesh and blood. The fact that every performance of a play like Hamlet is different bears out this simple truth. The language actually conveys more there than can be expressed in a single performance. That is the richness of the play. But the performance adds elements independent from the language, elements the author could not even have been aware of (such as, for example, the period of the costumes in which a particular performance is set). Any line of text, or indeed, any combination of lines can be spoken in an infinity of different ways and can thus be given an infinity of different meanings. This is as true of Pinter as it is of Shakespeare: anyone who has seen more than one performance of the same play by Pinter can bear this out. Indeed, in Pinter’s case, with the use he makes of ambiguity, understatement and—dare I say it—subtext, the variability from one actor’s performance to that of another is even greater.


Mr Quigley’s problem and that of pseudo-scholarship of his ilk is that it exists in vacuo. No amount of pouring over texts and quoting half-understood Wittgenstein can make up for an awareness of techniques, the accumulated practical wisdom of the institution plays are written for: the theatre, or, indeed, television, cinema, the radio—for all of which Harold Pinter has written most effectively. Scholarly criticism, to be of real value, must contain something that could be of help in the real world, to the performers or to the audience of drama, something that will enhance their response, in the case of the audience, their effectiveness, in the case of the actors. Much real illumination and insight is derived on both sides of the footlights from much genuine scholarly criticism. Discovering the obvious at enormous length, however, is of no use at all.