‘The Hothouse’ and the epiphany of Harold Pinter


Ronald Knowles



In an interview with Lawrence Bensky Pinter severely criticized The Hothouse:


I have occasionally out of irritation thought about writing a play with a satirical point. I once did actually, a play that no-one knows about. A full length play written after (sic) The Caretaker. Wrote the whole damn thing in three drafts. It was called The Hothouse and was about an institution in which patients were kept: all that was presented was the hierarchy, the people who ran the institution: one never knew what happened to the patients or what they were there for or who they were. It was heavily satirical and it was quite useless. I never began to like any of the characters, they really didn’t live at all. So I discarded the play at once. The characters were so purely cardboard. I was intentionally - for the only time, I think - trying to make a point, an explicit point, that these were nasty people and I disapproved of them. And therefore they didn’t begin to live. Where­as in other plays of mine every single character, even a bastard like Goldberg in The Birthday Party, I care for.1


However, years later, Pinter was less severely critical and allowed the play to be produced. The Hothouse, previously known only by way of Martin Esslin’s remarks in The Peopled Wound, was successfully directed by the author, enjoying a West End transfer and eventual publication. Superficially the play bears the marks of an acknowledged influence, Samuel Beckett. Lamb’s duties as lock inspector resemble those of Murphy in the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, and his ignorance concerning his predecessor is like that of Watt. More importantly, Pinter wrote The Hothouse in the winter of 1958, that is, just after the first productions and publications of Endgame in French and English (1957­58). In fact the New York production came to London in October 1958 just before Pinter began writing. The increasing heat from the radiators in The Hothouse reverses the notorious occurrence in the first Paris production of Endgame when the theatre radiators were accidentally switched off. As things are running out in Endgame, so things are malfunctioning in The Hothouse - the typewriters, the intercom. Just occasionally Roote’s utterances remind us of the humour of Hamm (‘I was brought up to expect respect, and by Christ I’ll get it’ p. 85). Gibbs’ monosyllabic catalogue of the slaughtered signalizes a young writer eager to acknowledge influence and affinity: ‘Lush, Hogg, Beck, Budd, Tuck, Dodds, Tate and Pett, sir, were hanged and strangled, variously.’ (p. 150). Of greater fundamental influence is the function of the sketch. This essay will examine the form and content of The Hothouse in relation to Pinter’s early plays. Consid­eration of the latter will show how Pinter controlled sketch materials and dramatically realized a primary aesthetic-the role of the revue sketch as an existential epiphany.


Roote, the controller of the institution in The Hothouse, illustrates Pinter’s early and continuing preoccupation with the combination of power, domination, sentimentality and breakdown. Roote has a madness and bluntness licensed by age, disposition and authority, whereas his chief assistant Gibb is an almost Dickensian model of the deferential, circums­pect and punctilious. After possibly killing one patient and certainly seducing another the bureaucratic bully has withdrawn, abstracted from time, into the protective seclusion of his office. Gibbs, who always has the ultimately superior power by virtue of an executive command of detail, even has to point out that it is Christmas day. Clearly Roote is related to Ben (The Dumb Waiter), Goldberg (The Birthday Party), Disson (Tea Party) and Edward (A Slight Ache).2 Each needs power deriving from authority which, in varying degrees, they cannot sustain without relapse or breakdown.


Ben criticizes Gus, ‘You don’t want to get slack on your job’ (p. 58). Roote comments ‘Things are getting much too slack around here, (p. 28). Both exercise delegated powers of command against potentially insubordinate assistants. Roote actually overcomes Lush by punching him to the floor, proclaiming’I AM AUTHORISED’ (p. 133). Roote and Ben are at opposite ends of a chain of command. The Goldberg of The Birthday Party is somewhere nearer the middle and in Roote Pinter portrayed a kind of pukka counterpart. In both cases Pinter exploits the comic possibilities of mixed speech registers varying from formal officialese to colloquial idiom. On learning of a birth in the institution Roote declares:


I don’t mind the men dipping their wicks on occasion. It can’t be avoided. It’s got to go somewhere. Besides that, it’s in the interests of science. If a member of the staff decides that for the good of a female patient some degree of copulation is necessary, then two birds are killed with one stone! It does no harm to either party. At least, that’s how I’ve found it in my experience. (With great emphasis) But we all know the rule! Never ride barebacked. Always take precautions. Otherwise complications set in. Never ride barebacked and always send in a report. After all the reactions of the patient have to be tabulated, compared with others, filed, stamped, and if possible verified! (p. 43).


Goldberg’s speech, one recalls, is characterized by his East End Jewish background but he also adopts the bureaucratic register at requisite moments. For example, in reassuring McCann’s qualms about the ‘job’ we hear ‘in a quiet, ‘fluent, official tone’:


The main issue is a singular issue and quite distinct from your previous work. Certain elements, however, might well approximate in points of procedure to some of your other activities. All is dependent on the attitude of our subject... (p. 30)


Yet bureaucratic control is, in both men, undermined by personal breakdown. Throughout The Hothouse Roote seems to be in doubtful control of himself and others, whereas Ben and Goldberg, though undergoing some shaky moments, regain composure. Goldberg revives with McCann’s burlesque of the divine afflatus (The Birthday Party, p. 79). Ben finds direction with orders, at last (The Dumb Waiter, p. 10). While Roote attempts to cover his desperation in the relative control of delivering the formal Christmas speech (pp. 143-145). Roote’s break­down is more akin to that of Disson and Edward, but without their psychic blindness.


Edward’s dominance in A Slight Ache is everything but bureaucratic. He affects a domestic intellectual superiority which is increasingly weakened by the matchseller’s presence. To keep the overwhelming reality of what is happening to him at bay Edward talks and talks, fearful of the symbolic silence of the matchseller which reflects his own essential emptiness. In contrast Roote’s bluster, which dominates the play, culminates in the Christmas speech’s catalogue of cliché, the automatic speech of a mind seizing up. In Tea Party, Disson is initially in a position of strength as the highly successful business man. His proprietorial power is partly man­ifested in formal bureaucratic language:


. . .A man’s job is to assess his powers coolly and correctly and equally the powers of others. Having done this, he can proceed to establish a balanced and reasonable relationship with his fellows. In my view, living is a matter of active and willing participation, So is work... (p. 19).


Excluding Ben, all these characters have recourse to a distorting sentimental recall to compensate, to some extent, for the collapse of the present. Goldberg has his childhood, his mother, his wife, his uncle; Edward recalls former idyllic states; Disson recalls old drinking pals; while Roote recalls quintessential Christmases:


I remember the day my walls used to be hung with Christmas cards, I used to walk knee deep in presents, all my aunties and uncles popping in for a drink, a log fire in the grate, bells on the Christmas tree, garlands, flowers, floral decoration, music, flowers . . . (p. 126).


Another aspect of mental breakdown in The Hothouse, the patients themselves, prompted reviewers into immediately recognizing its rela­tionship to The Caretaker. The Hothouse provided an obvious backdrop, so to speak, for the experiences related by Aston. In The Hothouse we see Lamb undergoing ‘voluntary’ electric shock treatment and interroga­tion (a scene extrapolated and amended to make the revue sketch ‘Applicant’). Pinter recently revealed, for the first time publicly, that he himself had, as a young man, volunteered for such treatment, at ‘ten bob a time.3 Presumably part of this experience went into the scene in which Stanley is interrogated in The Birthday Party. In an interview with Mel Gussow Pinter recognized that certain features of The Hothouse, mainly Lush’s long speeches, were ‘outpourings of wild bravura, speeches which remind me vaguely of Mick in The Caretaker.’4


There are many other points of comparison both major (the preoccupa­tion with names and naming found throughout Pinter’s work) and minor (the observation of an empty landscape, ‘Not a soul,’ p. 81 - compare The Room p. 7, The Dumb Waiter p. 51, and Landscape, p. 13). Indeed Miss Cutts could be related to Lulu in The Birthday Party and to Sally in Night School in the way she combines the romantic self-exposure of the former and the social distance of the latter. In general, however, The Hothouse lacks the balance and rhythm of speech and tone, movement and utterance, the comic and the serious, found in a play like The Caretaker. It is seriously unbalanced by what Pinter came to disparage as the ‘cabaret turns’5 of his early work, the compensatory impulse towards the violent and sensational in stage terms. It is as if the immodest noise and extraordinary actions were a kind of compensatory defence pre­empting critics attacking him for the very plainness of the quiet still thing at the heart of his writing - ordinary existence. Though Pinter knew how to use the ‘theatrical’ (conventions, routines, clichés, jokes, comic plays etc) to disturb a single realistic focus, The Hothouse almost caves in under the weight of its theatricality. It even has an exploding cigar. The play is also seriously flawed formally, being little more than a series of unassimilated sketch materials. Ironically, it was precisely out of such materials, as will be shown, that Pinter fashioned an aesthetic foundation for his art.


Lamb’s shock treatment and interrogation became a bizarre interview-­type sketch in ‘Applicant’. Various speeches were excerpted and put together to make ‘Dialogue for Three’. The Hothouse opens with the boss-employee consultation reminiscent of the format which is found in the sketch ‘Trouble in the Works’. In this sketch Pinter exploits the related convention of deriving humour from technical or specialist vocabulary. This is found, for example, in A Slight Ache when Edward offers the matchsetter a drink (p. 25) and in The Hothouse in Lush’s mock eulogy (p. 58).


LUSH: I mean, not only are you a scientist, but you have literary ability, musical ability, knowledge of most schools of phi­losophy, philology, photography, anthropology, cosmology, theology, phytology, phytonomy, phytotomy -

ROOTE: Oh, no, no, not phytotomy.


Almost throughout Pinter’s dialogue as a whole can be felt the vestigial combination of music-hall comic plus straight ‘feed’ man. Tacked on to this sketch pattern of the opening of The Hothouse is the first of three comic sketch routines in which one character is prompted to confirm details of an offstage character, leading to the usual ‘don’t know the man from Adam’- type response. Roote ends the first sequence by defeating the comic expectation, ‘Yes, I remember him well’, thus triumphing over Gibbs as the confirmatory ‘feed’ with superior knowledge (see pp. 23-25). This routine is repeated later in the first act (pp. 40-42) with similar details of much the same kind, this time culminating in the more usual punch-line ‘No - I don’t think I know her’. Pinter takes up the ploy again in act two (pp. 99-101) and on this occasion varies it by having the responses of Gibbs and Lush to Roote’s ‘What sort of man is he?’ vie antagonistically with quite contradictory detail. Part of this reappeared in The Collection (p. 28) as a detail of Harry’s improbable evocation to challenge Bill’s all-too-real visitor-‘What did he look like? Oh . . . lemon hair, nigger brown teeth, wooden leg, bottlegreen eyes and a toupee. Know him?’


In the year immediately following The Hothouse Pinter submitted several sketches for radio and revues of the day.6 In three in particular - ‘The Black and White’, ‘Last to Go’ and ‘All That’ - Pinter intuitively grasped and realized the suitability of the sketch as a dramatic form for rendering an existential epiphany, albeit of a paradoxical kind. In the first published interview he ever gave Pinter discussed these revue sketches and pointed out how they registered his response to what he had observed; he said of the tramp women of ‘The Black and White’ that they ‘fitted naturally into a complete play which just happened to be four minutes long’. Pinter evidently saw himself not as a revue-writer providing more entertainment, but rather as:


a dramatist some of whose work just happens to fit into the framework of a revue. As far as I’m concerned there is no real difference between my sketches and my plays. In both I am interested primarily in people. I want to present living people to the audience, worthy of their interest basically because they are, they exist, not because of any moral the author may draw from them.’7


This ‘presentation’ compounds a four-fold existential encounter - be­tween Pinter the man and those around him: Pinter the artist and his images: character encountering character on stage: the encounter of audience and stage. At each step lives are exposed in process. Particular beings, familiar yet inscrutable, are historically placed by their speech in a given ‘world’ yet have no necessary fixed relationship with it. Their very concreteness resists any sense of them being vehicles of an idea, concept or moral. The authenticity of their realization precludes any reference to dramatic archetypes. From this artistic point of view we may apply Sartre’s famous dictum, ‘existence precedes essence’, but in an ironic way - in these sketches Pinter conflates the two in a heightened dramatic existentialism. The four minute sketches epitomize what lives have become, the routines and repetitions of day, week, month, year. Art extrapolates, shapes and frames to render this essence of existences.8 Pinter’s art here may be compared with the Joycean epiphany.


Stephen Hero, we may recall, catches fragments of dialogue as he wanders around Dublin which prompt him into a kind of recognition. ‘This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself’.9 Substitute ‘existential’ for ‘spiritual’ and we have something close to Pinter’s art in these particular revue sketches. And yet the difference is crucial. ‘A spiritual manifestation’ implies that the object is a vehicle for something else - the artist’s understanding or realization. As S.L. Goldberg puts it, epiphanies are’ . . . the acts of mind, moments of time, coincidences of matter, whereby anything becomes an object of understanding by being understood, or in somewhat different terms, becomes a symbol by being apprehended imaginatively’.10 In contrast Pinter’s existential epiphanies are intuitive apprehensions in which the artist surrenders to the object as externally there, a given, in process. The object is not used intellectually as a register for the artist’s sensibility. In Pinter’s sketches we are confronted by the absolute contingency of pure phenomena realized with a total impersonality. Humour is the modality which prevents us from absorbing the object through unalloyed feeling into the subjectivity of the ‘pathetic’ or the ‘tragic’ etc. As Joyce recognized, the drama (in comparison with the lyric or epic) is the most impersonal of the arts.


The ‘Dialogue for Three’ is rather different from these existential sketch­es. Demonstrably unlike the conventional revue sketch (eg ‘Interview’ or ‘Trouble in the Works’), it lacks the existential immediacy of ‘The Black and White’, ‘Last to Go’ and ‘All That’. The Hothouse was originally conceived as a radio play and ‘Dialogue for Three’ is clearly more suited to that medium. Indeed performance in any other medium would detract from it by making the speakers visible and tangible there before us. That is, as part of The Hothouse, the speeches that make ‘Dialogue for Three’ have a concrete identity in terms of the characters in the play. In the radio sketch these are disembodied voices merely - 1st Man, 2nd Man, Woman, as the published text tells us. As such they are used by Pinter to explore the intersecting planes of past and present at a point of anecdotal collision and fragmentation. The concrete world of character and environ­ment - public school, the club, the north African army, the bedroom - is atomised, time and space are divided, and the voices are like random radio signals crossing in space, a haunting and memorable image of human isolation. ‘Dialogue for Three’ is in many ways a remarkable experimental piece and clearly foreshadows Landscape and Silence, while the ‘existential’ revue sketches prompt us into recognizing the germination of so many of Pinter’s early plays.


An example of a standard sketch is what might be called the newspaper sketch. This works from the situation in which one or two characters reading a newspaper intermittently engage and/or distract each other by quotation and comment, for comic ends. An example at hand is ‘Budding Genius’ in Monologues and Dialogues for All11 in which a wife reading the newspaper gradually draws in the husband, who is reading a book. Beginning with society page gossip, she gets on to details of child prodigies and this engages the husband concerning their own children, their mutual in-laws etc. The Room, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, A Slight Ache, The Homecoming - all begin like a newspaper sketch. In The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party items of both bizarre and gossip-column news are introduced into the dialogue. Petey’s note that it is Lady Mary Splat who has had the baby is very close to the use of satirical names in the newspaper sketch (in ‘Budding genius’ the mar­riage of ‘AI Buck’ and ‘Gloria Glamour’ and the trial of ‘Basher Caputssi’ are reported). Ben in The Dumb Waiter recounts the reports of the old man crawling under a lorry and a child murder to the incredulous Gus. ‘It’s down here in black and white’ he says. ‘It’s here in black and white’ the wife claims in ‘Budding Genius’ (p. 39). Of course, there is no question of a direct source here, both obviously arise from the genre situation. However, Pinter is clearly working from the sketch basis. The Room, A Slight Ache and The Homecoming all use the newspaper (and magazine) not merely as a prop: it has dramatic function.


Bert in The Room, is not just silent, he is engrossed in his magazine and his food, oblivious to Rose’s oblique pleading that he stay in and not leave her. This implies the relative values of his milieu. Edward’s study of the ‘Telegraph’ at the breakfast table is something which Flora must break by drawing his attention to the garden. It anticipates the issues of the play in which the intellectual Edward is distracted from his studious world and destroyed by what is outside it. The Homecoming begins with Lenny’s consideration of the racing page interrupted by Max. In the ensuing dialogue we find that alternation and combination of insult, rivalry, domesticity, sentimentality, violence, threat and animality which charac­teize the play. Lenny fancies ‘Second Wind for the three-thirty’ but it is Max who has the experienced ‘gift’ of telling ‘a good filly . . . a stayer’ - he confronts her later and indeed she ‘stays’. The Birthday Party also revolves around the use of the newspaper and remains, at the beginning at least, quite close to the sketch covnentions. Petey and Meg, however, use the removed reality of news events as a substitute for the uneventful­ness of their own lives. McCann’s tearing the newspaper into strips clearly symbolizes the inescapable intrusion of threat and violence into the home, while Petey’s final recourse to the newspaper and his deception of Meg indicate a refusal to face up to the reality of what has taken place. In contrast, the protracted opening of The Room defeats the comic expectation of the conventional sketch - that Rose will draw Bert from his magazine or that Bert will quote from the magazine to silence her. In Rose’s monologue, or rather her half-dialogue as in the ‘existen­tial’ sketches, a human history, or rather what a human history has amounted to, is laid bare.


This takes us to the heart of Pinter’s aesthetic, his need for a formal dramatic premise which will discount the necessity of exposition of cause and effect in the presentation of character. He is preoccupied by how it is, not why it is - which he sees as an impertinence on behalf of the dramatist, anyway.12 Given its brevity, a sketch has to be synchronic, evolving in the immediacy of the present moment, eschewing autobiogra­phy. Pinter repeatedly saw this movement as an ‘engendering’.


Of course I can’t remember exactly how a given play developed in my mind. I think that what happens is that I write in a very high state of excitement and frustration. I follow what I see on the paper in front of me - one sentence after another. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a dim, possible overall idea - the image that starts off doesn’t just engender what happens immediately, it engenders the possibility of an overall happening, which carries me through.13


Pinter’s remarks on ‘engendering’ intuitively collate lines from Yeats’s ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Leda and the Swan’, lines absorbed when he was young; ‘Those images that yet/Fresh images beget’, ‘A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall . . .’ All Pinter’s plays started in

imagination as a recollected image or utterance, someone in a room speaking, which remained as the opening of the completed drama. Clearly, as I have shown, the revue sketch was a creative matrix. This is not the sole constituent of Pinter’s early aesthetic, but it is of fundamental importance in the organic growth of his art ‘where image can freely engender image’.14







1In Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays ed. Arthur Ganz, 1972 Englewood Cliffs, N.J., pp 27-28.


2The following plays are referred to in the course of the essay. Where two dates are given the former indicates composition (where known) or production, the latter London publication. The Room and the Dumb Waiter (1957/1960); The Birthday Party (1957/revised ed. 1965); The Hothouse (1958/1980); A Slight Ache (1958/corrected ed. 1968); The Caretaker (1957/revised ed. 1962); Night School (1960); Tea Party 1964; The Basement (1966) (all found in Tea Party and Other Plays (1967); The Collection (1961/1963); The Homecoming (1964/1965); Landscape (1967/1969); Old Times (1970/1971). For full details of chronology and bibliography see Steven H. Gale, Harold Pinter: an annotated bibliography (Boston, 1978).


3 Radio Times 27 March - 2 April 1982, p. 5.


4The New York Times, Sunday, December 30, 1979, p. 7.


5This important reappraisal first occurred in an interview with John Sherwood. Commenting on The Caretaker Pinter remarked ‘I feel it’s a much simpler play, and it doesn’t resort to the cabaret terms which I’ve been inclined to indulge in the past. There are no sudden blackouts, no blind man’s buff, no blind negroes walking about, The Rising Generation, No. 7. A Playwright - Harold Pinter, BBC European Service, 3 March 1960.


6‘The Black and White’ and ‘Trouble in the Works’ were performed in the revue           One to Another, 15 July 1959. ‘Last to Go’, ‘Request Stop’ and ‘Special Offer’ were performed in Pieces of Eight, 23 September 1959. These are available in Pinter Plays: Two, London, 1977. ‘That’s your Trouble’, ‘That’s All’, ‘Applicant’, ‘Interview’ and ‘Dialogue for Three’ were first presented on B.B.C. Radio on the Third Programme between February and March 1964. These are available in Pinter Plays: Three; London, 1978. ‘Night’, written for a later revue Mixed Doubles (1969), is included in this volume


7‘Mr Harold Pinter - Avant-Garde Playwright and Intimate Review’ The Times, 16 November 1959, p. 4.


8Cf Walter Kerr, Harold Pinter, New York, 1967: ‘Harold Pinter seems to me the      only man working in the theatre today who writes existentialist play existentially’ gyp. 3).


9Stephen Hero, London, 1956, p. 216


10 The Classical Temper, London, 1963, p. 34.


11Selected by Frederick George and Gerry Alexander, London, no date but the British Library Catalogue gives 1954.


12A point frequently made in early interviews. I give just one pointed example here from an interview with John Russell Taylor: ‘I do so hate the becauses of drama. Who are we to say that this happens because that happened, that one thing is the consequence of another? How do we know? What reason have we to suppose that life is so neat and tidy... Life is much more mysterious than plays make it out to be. And it is this mystery which fascinates me’, Sight and Sound, vol XXXV, No. 4, August 1966, p. 184.


13Bensky interview, loc cit p. 25.


14’Writing for the Theatre’, Pinter Plays: one, London 1976, p. 14.