Review : ‘Harold Pinter and die Problematik des Absurden Theaters’

by Peter Münder (Lang, Berne and Frankfurt/a. M., 1976, 256 pp. 54.40 DM).


Review: ‘Harold Pinter. Ein Beitrag zur Typologie des neuen englischen Dramas’

by Karl-Heinz Stoll. (Bagel, Dusseldorf, 1977. 277 pp. 34.00 DM).


Rüdiger Imhof


In a laudatory note of 1954, Pinter praised Beckett for ‘[leaving] no stone unturned and no maggot lonely’ (repr. Beckett at sixty, 86). After twenty years in top gear and with no end in sight, Pinter criticism may be said to have been operating along those Beckettian lines; the word maggot would have to be replaced by weasel to make Pinter’s comment into an apt characterization of the critical efforts devoted to his own work; for following Pinter’s casual remark that his plays were ‘about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet,’ a considerable number of critics have spent a good deal of their time crawling under cabinets to explore the nature of the nimble reddish-brown quadruped. Whether the phrase still has the same laudatory quality when applied to the Pinter industry is a question that would raise more than just a critical eyebrow in many.


Of the two recent Pinter studies under review, Dr. Münder’s is unquestionably the more perceptive and rewarding. Together with A.E. Quigley’s judicious book, it may be classed as one of the few indispensable works on the playwright. In Dr. Münder’s view, estrangement and the feeling of being dehumanized are the maladies of our modern society; they are ‘reproduced’ in interhuman relationships, as is revealed by the communicational activities of the characters; the extent to which they evade communication betrays the degree of estrangement and identity weakness that they experience. Through a critical analysis of the plays in terms of communicational interactions, Dr. Münder convincingly demonstrates that the alleged lack of coherence in plot and of casual determination, the seemingly incomprehensible motivation of behaviour on the part of the dramatis personae, as well as their presumed inability to communicate, must not be regarded as evidence of the plays’ concern with what has come to be apostrophized, as the absurd conditio humana. Different strategies to evade communication, verbal bickering, cross-examination, and defects in the conversational interactions are skillfully interpreted as a haggling over the terms of exchange of social rewards (G.J. McCall& J.L. Simmons), showing identity weakness and ontological insecurity. From The homecoming onwards, these interactional devices constitute a ‘symmetrical escalation’ (Watzlawick) in territorial struggles. In his balanced assessment of the studies of Taylor, Malpas, Kerr, Lahr, and Free, Dr. Münder takes these critics to task for their unreflected theoretical premises, arguing that, although they fail to take ‘extra-aesthetic’ criteria into account and neglect to examine the defective relationship of the characters to their social environment, they, paradoxically, want the plays to be understood as valid comments on the present situation of man.


The brilliance of the study is, regrettably, overshadowed by three major shortcomings: the first results from Dr. Münder’s contention that the battles for positions can only be resolved through verbal strategies (90) and that silence is used as a tactical means to gain dominance only in ‘The Examination’ and A slight ache (92). With astonishing regularity, the battles are brought to their crises and resolutions in wordless games, where they erupt from the subtextual level on which they are fought for most of the time onto the textual plane. Or the jockeying for dominance is ended by physical violence. It is a recurrent feature of the battles in almost all Pinter plays that the character who manages to keep silent, and, by doing so, provokes his opponent to go on talking, is the winner (cf. Stella in The collection, Kate in Old times, Hirst in No man’s land, the silent imagined opponent in Monologue). The second shortcoming involves Dr. Münder’s harangue, early in the book, on the failure of most critics to question their theoretical positions and their epistomological interests resulting from them; for Dr. Münder himself falls victim to his own criticism. Nowhere does he question the validity of his postulate that the evasion of communication finds its cause in the modern socio-economic problems of estrangement and the dehumanization of man, and that, of necessity, it must be regarded as evidencing identity weakness. This contention evolves from a well-known school of thinking, and it is one to be either taken or left. There would be little use in pointing to, say, psychological reasons why characters evade communication, because the other side would most certainly retort by bringing in Adorno’s view—albeit revised, even refuted, later on—that there is no such discipline as psychology, this being part of sociology. Or they may insist on the socio-economic causes for all psychological problems. Perhaps it is permissible to argue against limiting the significance of the evasion of communication by regarding it, unhistorically, as a phenomenon of the late twentieth century. This type of interactional behaviour can be traced in the works of, for instance, Sheridan, Wilde, and, above all, Strindberg—authors, that is, whom one would not readily relate to the themes of estrangement and the dehumanization of man. The third shortcoming likewise arises from Dr. Münder’s neglecting to consider his own theoretical stance critically. The title of the study promises a discussion of the problematic nature of absurd drama as a genre. Dr. Münder is immensely informative about the inappropriateness of classing Pinter as an absurdist, by comparing compositional devices, the construction of plot, and the use of dialogue in Pinter with the respective features in Beckett and Ionesco. Yet he has nothing to say on whether the two alleged prototypes of absurdists are, in fact, rightly associated with this particular dramatic category, or on whether the theatre of absurd as a critical concept makes any sense at all.


Professor Stoll’s book is meant to offer a typological investigation into Pinter’s oeuvre together with an attempt at defining Pinter’s originality as well as determining his place in modern English drama by comparing him with Bond, Osborne, Arden, and Wesker. The author’s basic hypothesis is twofold: Pinter’s plays work through their subtexts and they explore the nature of human identity from four significant angles; these angles correlate with the four creative phases in Pinter’s career. The first three plays thematize the destruction of human identity by an anonymous outside force; the following works explore the existence and nature of human identity; the plays of phase three, ending with The homecoming, present a stocktaking of interhuman relational possibilities; the remaining plays are characteristic of long reminiscential monologues intended to fathom the identity of a particular character (e.g. Kate in Old times). These, in very compressed form, are the main arguments of the part which concentrates on Pinter.


For a newcomer to Pinterland, Stoll’s approach may appear to offer interesting, even original, results; but for one who has just read two books on the subject, they represent the undiluted misery of a 230-page long déjà vu experience. A good many of Stoll’s suggestions are open to severe criticism. Consider the following arguments: the common theme of the first three plays is `the threat to the individual by an obscure outside force’; The room treats of ‘the fundamental insecurity and homelessness of man’; The birthday party dramatises the conflict between an individual who seeks refuge from a conformist society and emissaries of this society who have come to claim him; The dumb waiter concerns the futile attempts of an individual to question and overcome the determining influences of an anonymous organization; the plays of the second phase are characterized by the renunciation of deliberate mystification, a replacement of the threat from outside by one from inside, a more reasonable behaviour on the part of the characters—one could continue listing examples which all make the outdatedness of Stoll’s arguments glaringly evident; most of these can be found in Ruby Cohn’s and Bernard Dukore’s early Pinter essays, and to assert that Pinter’s thematic main concern is the nature and existence of human identity brings back the late 60s in Pinter criticism.


Stoll’s summation of the thematic as well as compositional features that account for Pinter’s originality is marred by: 1) fatuous commentary, such as: the difference in opinion stems from the difference in approach critics have adopted toward Pinter (143); 2) a confusion of critical terminology, e.g. the synonymous usage of ‘approach’ and ‘method,’ or the application of the term motif in connection with the constellation of characters; 3) a profound misunderstanding as to how language functions in Pinter; for example, the monologic passages (Mick’s and Lenny’s tirades) are not empty twaddle, but purposeful lingusitic manoeuvres in battles for superiority; likewise, the reminiscential monologues in the later plays do not so much serve to evoke ideal images or nightmarish pictures of existence, rather they are stratagems to cover nakedness and strategies to gain dominance. This misunderstanding results, strangely enough, from the fact that, even though at the beginning of his study Stoll is at pains to argue strongly in favour of approaching Pinter from the angle of the subtext, where a reading of the subtext would help him understand the plays (Landscape, Night, Monologue, Old times, No man’s land), he takes the verbal utterances literally and believes that Anna’s and Deeley’s enumerations of Kate’s characteristics are intended to fathom Kate’s identity. As a matter of fact, these enumerations are employed by the speakers as a means to gain the superior position, as is Mick’s inventory of acquaintances to whom Davies is said to bear a resemblance, which is not really an attempt to come to grips with Davies’s identity, but a strategy to confuse him. Stoll’s typological consideration of Bond, Osborne, Arden, and Wesker offers derivative ideas. It is fairly well known that Bond is preoccupied with the violence, perversity, and brutality in modern society, which he dramatizes by a colourful variety of events in the hope to better man. Equally familiar is the notion of Osborne’s as a type of drama concentrating on one eloquent central character whose psychic and physical state it explores, or that Arden is much concerned with language, with presenting the problems in his plays without committing himself to any point of view, unless one takes the songs as indicators of the opinion Arden wishes his audience to accept. To assess Wesker’s plays in terms of the endeavour to ventilate social criticism and socialist views and, at the same time, to deal with fundamental human problems is more than trite. The final comparison of the five playwrights is even more disappointing. Stoll asserts, as the highpoint of his argument: ‘the most significant difference between Osborne, Wesker, Arden, and Bond, on the one hand, and Pinter, on the other, is the degree of explicitness’ (228), which, in simpler words, just says: Pinter’s plays work subtextually—even though Stoll never manages as, say, Quigley does, to explain how this is achieved—the plays of the other four playwrights do not. To end with the contention that Pinter and Wesker differ as far as ideas are concerned in that Wesker seeks to communicate socialist notions while Pinter dislikes to see the stage used as a substitute for the soap-box; or that his plays lack the richness of events one finds in Bond and Arden; or that Pinter is not interested in a psychoanalytical probing of a central character, as is Osborne—these points are all self-evident.