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from Pinter - The Playwright by Martin Esslin

Having acquired a reputation for his handling of low vernacular English with a series of plays which, with the solitary exception of A Slight Ache, involved working-class or lower middle-class people, Pinter moved into the West End of London and into a more elegant and sophisticated milieu with The Collection. The four characters in this play - originally written for television but since frequently performed on the stage - all come from the world of the rag trade. Harry Kane is a successful middle-aged man in the wholesale clothing business who lives in what is clearly a homosexual m6nage, with a young designer, Bill Lloyd, whom he has discovered. The peace of their household is disturbed by the intrusion of James Horne, who runs a boutique with his wife Stella; James has been told by Stella that she had been unfaithful to him with Bill - during a visit to Leeds, where the season's collections were being shown. According to Stella's story Bill, who was staying at the same hotel, had followed her to her room and, taking advantage of her loneliness, more or less raped her.

Is Stella's story true? Can it be true? And can anyone not directly involved ever know, ever verify, whether it is true or not? The basic situation is reminiscent of Pirandello's Cosi (se vi pare) - Right You Are (If You Think You Are) - where two, and eventually three, incompatible stories confront each other without hope of verification. The difference is that in Pirandello's play either one, two or all three of the characters involved may be mad and therefore unable to realize the true situation. In The Collection it is not a matter of madness but of subtle conscious or subconscious motivations. At first sight Bill, who has been shown as a member of a homosexual m6nage, seems most unlikely to have committed so brazen a heterosexual act of aggression. And, indeed, when confronted with James, he denies the whole story. After a bout of rough treatment by the wronged husband however, he tells him another version of the incident:

The truth ... is that it never happened All that happened was... you were right, actually, about going up in the lift ... we... got out of the lift, and then suddenly she was in my arms. Really wasn't my fault, nothing was further from my mind, biggest surprise of my life, must have found me terribly attractive quite suddenly, I don't know . . . but I . . . I didn't refuse. Anyway, we just kissed a bit, only a few minutes, by the lift, no one about, and that was that - she went to her room. The rest of it just didn't happen. I mean, I wouldn't do that sort of thing. I mean that sort of thing ... it's just meaningless.

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And yet, immediately afterwards, when James tries to substantiate his story by bringing in the further detail that while he, James, phoned Stella, Bill was sitting on her bed, Bill corrects him:

Not sitting. Lying.

So he is teasing James? And by outdoing James's more lurid details, throwing doubts on his own earlier, partial, admissions ?

Harry, Bill's middle-aged flat-mate, who clearly has extremely possessive feelings about the young man, has become suspicious by the mysterious telephone calls and traces of secret visitors in his flat. James, the wronged husband, on the other hand, is becoming fascinated with Bill: he tells Stella that he wants to co and see him again; that he had dinner with him the previous evening (which we, the audience know is not true, or at least not entirely: this gives us a means of gauging the readiness of the characters involved to make up stories by enlarging and elaborating minor details). He begins to praise Bill:

... I've come across a man I can respect. It isn't often that you can do that, that that happens, and really I suppose I've got you to thank .... Thanks.

While this may well be the irony of the injured party and a way to rub salt in the wife's wounds, there is also an element of genuine feeling behind it:

I mean, you couldn't say he wasn't a man of taste. He's brimming over with it. Well, I suppose he must have struck you the same way. No, really, I think I should thank you, rather than anything else. After two years of marriage it looks as though, by accident, you've opened up a whole new world for me.

While James goes back to visit Bill once again, Harry comes to see Stella. When confronted with James's persecution of Bill, Stella denies the whole story:

I mean, Mr. Lloyd was in Leeds, but I hardly saw him, even though we were staying at the same hotel. I never met him or spoke to him ... and then my husband suddenly accused me of ... it's really been very distressing.

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In the meantime James and Bill are engaged in a highly ambivalent confrontation which oscillates between extreme friendliness and sudden outbursts of hatred; it culminates in a sort of duel with knives. When Bill tries to catch a knife thrown against his face by James, he cuts his hand. At this moment Harry, who has been watching them from the background, enters the conversation. He tells James that he has it from his wife's own mouth that the whole story of marital infidelity was pure invention. And when James points out that Bill, after all, confirmed Stella's story, Harry launches into a savage attack on Bill:

Bill's a slum boy, you see, he's got a slum sense of humour. That's why I never take him along with me to parties. Because he's got a slum mind.

James is ready to leave and to accept his wife's latest version of the story. But at that moment Bill offers to tell the truth:

I never touched her ... we sat ... in the lounge, on a sofa for two hours ... talked we talked about it ... we didn't move from the lounge never went to her room ... just talked about what we would do ... if we did get to her room two hours ... we never touched ... we just talked about it.

James leaves. The last scene of the play is between him and Stella. He repeats Bill's latest story:

He wasn't in your room. You just talked about it, in the lounge. (Pause)

That's the truth, isn't it?


You just sat and talked about what you would do if you went to your room. That's what you did.


Didn't you?


That's the truth ... isn't it ?

(Stella looks at him, neither confirming nor denying. Her face is friendly, sympathetic.)

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Any of the different versions of the incident around which The Collection revolves may be true - or none. The point is that we have an abundance of possible motivations for each possible version. For example: Bill is a homosexual, he is therefore unlikely to have raped Stella. Yet, from Harry's wild outburst about how he found Bill in the slums it is also possible infer that Bill may have been made into a homosexual by older man who offered him social advancement, a good job, life in a middle-class milieu, thus his homosexuality might ha been imposed upon him, he might have adopted that way life against his will or natural inclination. In that case a sudden heterosexual impulse would be understandable as a desperate attempt to escape from Harry's bondage. Or, indeed, not having the courage for a real assault on a lady, Bill might have confined his attempts to break away from the homosexual menage to the world of fantasy, he might just have talked with a woman about the possibility of such an escapade, without ever thinking of actually indulging in it. Conversely: Stella is clearly a somewhat frustrated wife (perhaps because James is a latent homosexual - he certainly gives some indications this direction), she may have invented her story, to make James jealous and activate his interest in her; or, again, being sex-starved she may have provoked and seduced Bill. Moreover, each of the two chief 'culprits' has very good reason why he should tell any particular version of the story at a particular moment. Bill, for example, when first confront by James, may well be revenging himself for the intrusion increasing his suffering through tantalizing details; Stella would obviously deny the whole thing to Harry, a stranger whom she does not regard as qualified to partake of her family secrets. And even the final, most plausible version which Bill tells James at the end, may be a subtle way revenging himself on Harry, who has just castigated him in the most cruel manner about his slum origins. By saying that talked with Stella about lovemaking, Bill is in fact telling Harry that he is dreaming of breaking away from him, returning to a heterosexual life.

The two objects of jealousy in the play are matched again the two sufferers from jealousy: James is jealous of Bill, but Harry is not only jealous of Stella, he is also, and perhaps more so, jealous of the obvious love/hate relationship which seems to be developing between Bill and James. His outburst against Bill for example is clearly directed to James, whom he is warning of the ingratitude and baseness of mind of the slum urchin whom he has raised to his own level.

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But The Collection is more than merely a highly ingenious construction, an equation with three or more unknowns which allows of a multitude of equally valid solutions. It also contains a social comment on the situation in those strata of English middle-class society (and they are, after all, by no means insignificant) where homosexual attitudes among the men play a decisive role in determining the social climate. This aspect of the play became much clearer on the stage than in the original television version. On television the scene shifted between Harry's and James's apartments, on the stage they remained juxtaposed all the time - with a narrow street set, containing the telephone kiosk in the centre. As a result, Stella remained in view during the scenes when the three men squabbled among themselves; she just sat on her sofa, playing with her kitten, terribly alone and neglected. And although Stella has a relatively brief part, measured by the lines she has to speak, she gradually emerged as the true tragic heroine of the piece: she may have been the original bone of contention between the men, yet she is soon lost from sight by them: their very involvement in fighting transforms their relationship into one of intimacy and strong personal concern with each other, a male world of rough and tumble from which the woman is forever excluded and condemned to sit at home, neglected, abandoned, playing with her kitten.