Click here to start
WoK homepage
Online Texts
Discussion Questions
Study Questions
Writing Resources
Course Policies
Self Evaluations

A Commentary by Dr.Tom Markus, Professor of Theatre, University of Utah

From his text: How to Read a Play, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co, Dubuque Iowa (p.622-626)



Harold Pinter's way of writing is unique, and the phrase a "Pinter play" is so familiar a description that it shows up in newspaper stories, politicians' speeches, and even in a song lyric from the popular musical Company. You will be better prepared to read The Collection if you recognize the major traits of a "Pinter play," so I will try to identify them for you.

Pinter's plays are set in recognizable locations, take place in the present time, and are peopled with characters who dress, speak, and behave in familiar ways. Pinter's plays seem, at first glance, to be entirely Realistic. At second glance, they are more difficult to classify. His earliest plays like The Room and The Dumb Waiter dealt with characters near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder (criminals, beggars, and bums) and were set in rooms that are recognizable (bedrooms in boarding houses and basements of old apartment buildings). In later plays like No Man's Land and Betrayal, his characters are more affluent (rich businessmen and university graduates) and the rooms are in elegant homes. But all his plays have in common the fact that they are about characters we accept as drawn from life as we understand it, and they take place in rooms we believe could exist. The Collection, for example, is about upper-middle-class people who live in attractive flats and speak as though they are well educated. One couple runs a boutique that sells fashionable clothes; the other couple includes a designer and a manufacturer of women's wear.

Many of Pinter's plays begin with the same situation-a character believes he is safe and secure in a room, and he is then terrified when an unknown, mysterious, and potentially dangerous intruder enters. This is the basic action of Pinter's first play, The Room, and this menacing situation recurs in most of his works. In The Collection, you will discover that James brings the threat of violence with him when he enters Harry and Bill's home. Indeed, the play opens with James telephoning in the middle of the night, so his voice violates the tranquility of their security before he arrives in person, and it introduces the threat which will later become palpable.

A third trait is that the playscript includes no exposition. Pinter doesn't provide us with the background of his characters or with a description of the events which precede the beginning of the play. We are placed in the same situation as the characters, meeting new characters for the first time and knowing nothing about them, experiencing events and not knowing why they are happening, being cheered or frustrated or terrified by things that happen without the ability to understand them. Pinter does not write well-made plays in which the omniscient author provides the audience with the tools needed to understand the action and the characters' motivations. He does not write rationally organized plots that can be summed up in a particular moral, and his plays cannot be mistaken for essays conceived in dialogue. Instead, he writes plays that are experienced pretty much the way we experience everything else in life.

A fourth trait is the characters' intense quest for verification-they want to know what's going on, who they are, and what is true. In Pinter's plays, unexpected events happen and characters say things that terrify other characters, and all the characters are desperate to know what is going on and what the mysterious events and speeches mean. They sense it is a matter of life and death for them to know the truth, and they do everything they can think of to verify who they are and what's happening. In The Collection, James and Harry are desperate to learn if their respective mates have had an illicit affair. Their quest for the truth, for verification of what has happened, who their mates really are, and what is happening in their relationships is the central action of the play.

The fifth and the most celebrated trait of a Pinter play is the dialogue. His characters speak in everyday vocabulary, but his dialogue is very far from what you'd hear if you tape-recorded everyday speech. Pinter has selected his words and arranged his syntax with great care, so that his dialogue has a very particular rhythm and so that we in the audience share the characters' sensitivity to a meaning underlying the words. Pinter appears to have been influenced by Chekhov, the first modem playwright to recognize that spoken language is only the tip of the iceberg of meaning, and that characters frequently mean more or mean differently from what they say out loud. Pinter is a very gifted poet, and he understands that the melody and rhythm of speech communicate meaning as much as the content of what is said. He achieves his effects by introducing pauses and silences into the dialogue that make us aware there is more being meant than is being said. As a result we have the same unsettling experience as the characters in his plays, and we become agitated and nervously aware of a ferocious and unnerving disjointedness about the dialogue.*

The "Pinter pause" is the most immediately recognizable trait of a Pinter play. When you read one of his playscripts, you will find the words "pause" and "silence" used often. When you attend one of his plays in a theatre, you will feel the suspense and rhythm which these short and long pauses create. Another trait of Pinter's dialogue is that his characters use language as a weapon. Sometimes characters are nearly bludgeoned with a torrent of words, as happens in The Collection when Harry attacks Bill for being a "slum slug," and more frequently they are intimidated by their inability to follow the leaps of logic and the seeming non-sequiturs in another character's dialogue. You'll find many examples of this in The Collection. This unique way of writing dialogue is Pinter's technique for showing that we use speech to avoid communicating with one another. Unlike traditional Realistic dialogue of the kind found in the plays of Ibsen and Hansberry, dialogue in which the characters say what they mean and what the playwright wants the audience to hear-Pinter's dialogue more honestly imitates the way people truly speak. Consciously or not, we hide what we mean from the people we talk to, and so do Pinter's characters. In The Collection, the characters speak of olives, but we sense the true subject they're talking about, and we feel the menace underneath the surface of their polite chatter.


The eccentric behavior and dialogue in Pinter's plays is frequently very funny, and audiences laugh hard and long, yet there is an underlying feeling of danger in his plays, and critics frequently describe them as "comedies of menace." Pinter's technique creates plays that are unsettling for audiences accustomed to dialogue and action that are arranged rationally and that tell us what to know, believe, and learn. Pinter's audiences quickly become agitated because they are put in exactly the same situation as the characters and cannot fully understand what is happening. We have the same need for verification that the characters have, and Pinter artfully makes us experience their uneasiness. His plays are funny, but agitating. The action usually begins as though the play will be a comedy, but somewhere along the way the action turns dark and dangerous, and the plays end without the comforting resolution we expect from comedy.

Accordingly, critics, scholars, and audiences agree that Pinter is the quintessential playwright of modem tragicomedy. His plays make us feel anxiety. The terror his characters feel when the security of their room is violated by the arrival of an unknown and unreasonable intruder is the same terror we feel when we open our eyes to reality wide enough to admit that our very existence could be snuffed out by the random explosion of a terrorist's bomb or the accidental contraction of an incurable disease. The anxiety his characters feel when they cannot verify what is happening to them or even who they are-an anxiety that audiences and readers of The Collection must share is the anxiety all late 20th Century people feel when we confront the uncertainty of our existence in this unsettling world. The frustration his characters feel when the action of the play does not provide them with meaning or closure is the frustration we feel when we admit to ourselves that we cannot understand the irrational nature of our universe. And Pinter's exceptional talent is that he is able to write plays that both reflect these truths of the human condition and which cause us to experience these same truths while we sit in the theatre or turn the page


The Collection

The title is a metaphor with multiple meanings. It alludes to the trade show in the city of Leeds where various fashion designers showed their new line of clothes, their "collection," and where Stella and Bill met and either did or did not spend the night together. Equally, the title refers to the collection of lies, truths, beliefs, and points of view that are revealed in the play.

The play is like a piece of chamber music written for a string quartet. In a sequence of short scenes played by four characters, a small number of themes are introduced, embellished, shown in counterpoint and in reversal, and the play ends without a resolution to the basic dramatic question: did Stella and Bill sleep together? While we join the characters in a quest for the answer, we experience scenes about heterosexual lust, about latent and active homosexual attraction, about deceit and betrayal, about ownership, about jealousy, about repressed rage, about class distinctions, about violence, about paranoia, and about power. Together, these scenes give us a "collection" of images which forge a mosaic of life which we recognize as frustratingly true.

Because the dramatic question remains as unanswered in this play as our most urgent questions remain unanswered in our own lives-is there truly life after death?, can we ever truly know the people we love?, can we ever truly know ourselves?-we learn the fact about the human condition that Pinter most wishes to share with us. To compensate for our inability to learn truths, we humans seek power. Power gives us the comfort we are otherwise denied. We can gain power over others if we have knowledge they don't have. Stella has power over James because he doesn't know what happened in Leeds. James has power over Harry because he knows Bill is attracted to him. Harry has power over Bill because they both know he holds the purse strings. Bill has power over James because he knows what happened between himself and Stella. And so the round dance goes on. The dance of power that creates warfare between individuals, between the sexes, between the races, between political parties and military states and organized religions. Power is the primary human drive, and it is ultimately destructive. Philosophers write essays about this and great playwrights like Harold Pinter help us to learn it experientially.


I wrote above that "Pinter's plays seem, at first glance, to be entirely Realistic. At second glance, they are more difficult to classify." Because they seem so eccentric, so unfamiliar, so unlike the plays that were written in earlier times, many critics and scholars have argued that they are not Realism but should be categorized as examples of the Theatre of the Absurd.

The Theatre of the Absurd is a descriptive phrase that was popularized by the. scholar and critic Martin Esslin when he published an influential book by that title, describing, analyzing, and celebrating the plays and playwrights he believed shared a common view of human existence-no matter how varied their plays might seem on the page or on the stage.* Following World War 11, a number of playwrights in Europe began writing plays of an unusual form and style which asked "big questions" about the meaning of life. The playwrights from this period whose works have endured include Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Eugene lonesco (The Bald Soprano), Edward Albee (The American Dream), and Harold Pinter. Esslin argued that these playwrights were influenced by the philosophy called Existentialism, and particularly the writing of the French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (al-bear ka-moo). As the linchpin for his book, Esslin quotes a celebrated definition of the "absurd" written by Camus:

A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.

"Absurd" does not mean "silly" or "funny" or "ridiculous," Camus argues. Instead, it describes a world that cannot be explained through reason or logic. The playwrights like lonesco and Pinter who saw that the world had lost its meaning and was careening out of control, who saw that there was no governing authority (no god), and no way of understanding or explaining the irrational things that happen every day, wrote plays that held the mirror up to an absurd universe. Their plays are simultaneously very bleak (because they show no coherence or hope in the world) and very funny (because they show the foolishness of our human endeavors). These writers recognize that ours is a world without order, a world from which God is absent-if, indeed, He was ever anything but a comforting answer invented by frightened children to explain the unexplainable. These playwrights saw our world as unreasonable, irrational: absurd. The plays of the Theatre of the Absurd are "senseless" in that they reflect the playwrights' understanding that our universe is without "sense." The non-logic of what is said and done in these plays induces audiences to laugh, and since we find ourselves laughing at what is essentially bleak and depressing, we also find ourselves crying. When those two emotional responses merge, we are experiencing what you learned early in this book to call "tragicomedy."

You can see from these initial remarks why many critics classify Pinter's plays as examples of the Theatre of the Absurd. From looking at a wide range of plays regularly assigned to this classification, we can identify certain traits these plays have in common, and we can judge if The Collection is such a one.

The first trait is the absence of a cause-and-effect plot. Realistic plays like A Doll's House and ritualistic plays like Oedipus the King have an orderly unfolding of the plot which helps us to understand what is happening and which permits us to deduce the meaning of the play. But a play which reflects a world without logic or meaning reflects chaos instead of order, and so the sequence of events in plays of the Absurd do not present us with a tidy plot from which we can extrapolate a concise moral. When you read The Collection (or any of Pinter's plays) you will quickly find yourself unable to follow the logic of the dialogue; though you will have some vague sense of what's going on, you won't be certain you know why the characters say and do what they say and do. And when you have finished reading the play, you will be hard-pressed to use the system for analyzing a play's theme that this book has introduced you to. You may well find the play to be without a comforting causeand-effect logic and you might be inclined to classify it as Theatre of the Absurd.

A second trait of Absurdist drama is the debasement of language. Playwrights who believe that human experience has no meaning and therefore there is nothing for a playwright to communicate, accept the notion that attempts to communicate are doomed to failure. Accordingly, these playwrights demonstrate how language is banal and unconnected. e repetitions of clich6s and the surprisingly disjointed sequence of their dialogue can make us burst nto laughter. As you read The Collection, you might 11 discover that you laugh and that you find no aning to the devalued language of the dialogue. If o, you will want to join those critics who classify nter as a playwright of the Absurd.

A third trait common to the playwrights called Absurdists" is the use of stereotypical characters- one-dimensional figures who have no complexity to them and who do not grow or change as the play progresses. Absurdist playwrights accept that in a universe without meaning, there is nothing for a character to learn, and therefore no way for a character to grow or change. You may discover while reading The Collection that Pinter's characters cannot be explained terms of modem psychology because Pinter has provided no information about their backgrounds (exposition) and so you have no way of understanding their motivations. They may seem to you to be caricatures of the disgruntled wife, the jealous husband, the over-protective lover, the promiscuous rebel. In respect to this third trait, you might also find justification for describing Collection as an example of the Theatre of the Absurd.

When Pinter first appeared on the theatrical horizon, audiences and critics found his works startling, confusing, and unlike anything they had encountered before, so they were comforted by classifying him as Absurdist. Yet they recognized that his characters seemed very like real people in respect to their dialogue, appearance, and behavior. And they certainly cognized the places in which he set the action of his plays. So while the plays' strangeness made people t to call them Absurdist, their familiarity made same people want to describe them as Realistic. Most people felt his plays would be defined as Realistic only they could understand what was going on them.

Pinter's way of writing was new and unique, and k a while for audiences and critics to understand Many now feel that his plays are the most Realistic ever written. That they do not employ the artificial logic of the Well-Made play is now viewed as a positive endorsement of their replication of verisimilitude, because when we meet people, we have no knowledge of their background and no tools for understanding their actions. Pinter shares the view of the world of the playwrights of the Absurd which is, after all, the view of the world shared by most educated and thinking people of the late 20th Century, but he has enfolded this world view into the conventions of Realistic theatre, and then advanced that style by eliminating the artifices of exposition and logical structure.

So, it is possible to conclude that Pinter's plays are examples of Realism-Realism as it is currently understood and not as it has been misunderstood for the past century.


The published version of the play includes Pinter's directions for a stage production. These may help you understand the three different locations in which the action occurs. They are valuable to you as you VISUALIZE THE STAGE SETNNG. Try to keep the stage directions in mind, as you read

The playscript also describes the actors' "business," the physical actions which the characters do. Read these carefully and imagine them as completely as you can, because they are not random activities.

Pinter includes each direction because it reveals something about the character or because the physical activity is a way the character communicates (or avoids communicating). The "business" is a component of Pinter's language, and these stage directions will help you VISUALIZE THE ACTION.

As you read, you will find Pinter's many directions for the pauses or silences in the dialogue. Imagine these are the equivalents of half or full rests in a musical score. The interruption of speech is an organic part of the language of the text. The rhythm of the dialogue is an essential aspect of Pinter's language, for it guides you to feel the tension of the moment and to guess at the meaning lying menacingly underneath the surface. These guides will help you HEAR THE PLAY.

Lastly, as I suggested in this anthology's title essay, you will appreciate Pinter's play more fully if you will read it aloud, ideally with friends.