The Theatre of Harold Pinter
Methuen Drama Critical Companions
London: Bloomsbury, 2014
Paperback. ix + 305 p. ISBN 978-1408175309. £16.99
Reviewed by Eléonore Obis
Université de Paris-Sorbonne
This book belongs to the Critical Companions series published by Bloomsbury along with others on Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp or Tennessee Williams. Mark Taylor-Batty, who is senior lecturer at the University of Leeds and a Pinter expert, wrote another book on Pinter published in 2005 (About Pinter : The Playwright and the Work, Faber & Faber). The purpose of this volume is “to clarify what is distinctive or important about the writing style of the author whose work it is surveying and offer some appreciation of the contours of the legacy it leaves behind” . I can already say that these objectives are largely met. The author also insists on analysing the plays as “dramatic expression that is only alive, meaningful and meaning-generating in the moment of performance”  and often refers to precise productions in the different chapters.
The introduction describes an approach that is both thematic and chronological, which can at first disconcert the reader and made me quite sceptical. Moreover, there is no theory at all in this book. Yet, Mark Taylor-Batty manages to deal with the twenty-nine dramatic works, Pinter’s only novel The Dwarfs, three sketches (Precisely, Press Conference and The New World Order), the screen adaptations, as well as the Nobel Prize lecture, offering us a thorough overview and appreciation of the breadth of Pinter’s work.
The book is divided into seven chapters, following a chronological order (except for Chapter 5 where the early plays are alluded to again in order to address the question of politics) and a thematic approach which encourages us to link works relatively less covered such as Mountain Language (1988) or Party Time (1991) for instance, and by doing so, the author foregrounds the evolution of Pinter’s leitmotivs and major aspects of his style.
Chapter 1, “Invasions and Oppressions”, covers familiar grounds and themes, and the much-written-about plays The Room, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, The Hothouse, A Slight Ache and The Caretaker. The main quality of Mark Taylor-Batty’s style is to be both synthetic and clear here and the neophyte will learn the essential information about these early plays.
In Chapter 2, “The Company of Men and the Place of Women”, the author analyses the questions of male friendships and sexual relationships, as well as the already much-discussed role of women in plays such as The Collection, The Lover or The Homecoming. The pages on Pinter’s novel The Dwarfs are of particular interest [49-53], as well as the study of Pinter’s treatment of archetypes. His adaptations for the screen (The Servant, The Pumpkin Eater and Accident) are also relevantly alluded to at different points of the analysis.
Chapter 3 focuses on the ten-year period that followed the success of The Homecoming, between 1965 and 1975, when Pinter had troubles with his writing – he said himself his creative life had become “constipated”  – and the plays written then (Landscape, Silence, Old Times, No Man’s Land) reflect this sense of stasis. They focus on “failed connections” between characters or in language, and describe how past and present interact, or fail to interact.
Chapter 4 is, I believe, the most engaging of the book – as well as the longest – as it covers ten plays written in the span of nearly thirty years, from Monologue (1972) to Celebration (2000), through the prism of family, its deconstruction and the study of “the forces that put its unity in jeopardy” . In A Kind of Alaska (1982), Mark Taylor-Batty sees the sick character Deborah as “a metaphor”, representing “all that arrests us, all that causes us to fail to engage with one another” , and explores more of “these themes of stagnated emotional states within family”  in Moonlight (1993).
In the next chapter, in order to address “Politics and the artist as citizen”, the author goes back in time to some of the first plays (The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Hothouse) only to demonstrate better how “Pinter’s attention to ‘conditioned behaviour’ and our potential to become ‘a willing collaborator’ is manifest in his oeuvre” (1) . The chapter explores and contextualises the politics of Pinter’s times and their influence on the plays, as well as the connections between life, art and politics. An interesting passage of this chapter focuses on the controversial Nobel Prize lecture given by Pinter on 7 December 2005, and sheds light on Pinter the artist and citizen. The author finds the root of this articulation in a passage of the lecture, and convincingly concludes: “It is at this nexus, between an authentic experience of pain and the linguistic manoeuvres that systematically blur that authenticity, that Pinter both locates his creative stance and the point at which the artist and the citizen become a conjoined entity” . The plays developed in this chapter question how art can meet truth and politics, and I recommend the particularly enlightening pages on Ashes to Ashes [181-85].
The last chapter, entitled “Critical and Performance perspectives”, includes four essays giving us another insight on some of the themes already mentioned in the book. Though presented as a sort of appendix to the volume, it analyses further some aspects already touched upon and provides a different perspective from which to read the plays.
Actor and director Harry Burton’s “The Curse of Pinter” analyses Pinter’s use of structure and its effects on the audience mentioning different plays to illustrate his arguments, expanding some points already alluded to in Chapter 1.
In another essay, Chris Megson analyses “Pinter’s Memory plays of the 70s” and tackles the issue of identity construction mainly in Old Times (1970), No Man’s Land (1974) and Betrayal (1978), further developing some arguments from Chapter 3.
In the third essay, “Revisiting Pinter’s Women”, Ann C. Hall focuses on women characters in three plays, One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988) and Party Time (1991) in order to give an appraisal of Pinter’s language of misogyny, exploring some of the themes touched upon in Chapters 2, 4 and 5.
The last essay, “Pinter’s Political Dramas : Staging Neoliberal Discourse”, written by Basil Chiasson, draws on political discourse in Pinter’s theatre and develops how it can be linked to a neo-liberal agenda that was to be dominant in the playwright’s time. It is a further development of Chapter 5.
To conclude, the approach chosen by Mark Taylor-Batty is very comprehensive, and my only criticisms would be the repetitive presentation of the plays, with characters and plot in each chapter – a difficult exercise – as well as the too rare text analyses, a somewhat surprising lacuna in the case of a playwright such as Pinter, who was obsessed with language, its use and abuse.
In spite of that, the structure of the book underlines how Pinter kept on exploring the same themes (male / female relationships, territorial intrusions, betrayal) and how these are transformed through the years, moving away from the private sphere to explore more explicitly the public and political one at the end of his life. A main strand of The Theatre of Harold Pinter is also to study together the plays, TV plays and adaptations, bringing to the fore some lesser known works and Pinter’s adaptability to different media.
I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Pinter’s works, or anyone who needed to brush up on his oeuvre. More especially, drama students will benefit from its reading as it gives a clear and synthetic appreciation of Pinter’s plays, with a thorough chronology and pertinent footnoting. Last but not least, Mark Taylor-Batty never omits to stress the theatricality of the plays and their effects in performance, a valuable and essential quality in theatre studies – too often neglected.
(1) Mark Taylor-Batty quotes Irving Wardle in his article ‘Comedy of Menace’ in Charles Marowitz, Tom Milne & Owen Hale (eds). The Encore Reader : A Chronicle of the New Drama. London: Methuen, 1965 : 90-91
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