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

An Analysis of Pinter's techniques

Martin Esslin in Pinter-The Playwright

Pinter is not a naturalistic dramatist This is the paradox of his artistic personality. The dialogue and the characters are real, but the over-all effect is one of mystery, of uncertainty, of poetic ambiguity. An understanding of the cause of this strange paradox will go far towards helping us to find the key to Pinter's method and meaning, and the secret of his impact on the stage.

The first deviation from the usual realistically constructed play lies in the element of uncertainty about the motivation of the characters, their background, their very identity. Frequently this has led critics to accuse Pinter of deliberate mystification: is he withholding information from the audience merely to be able to tease them, like a crime writer who deliberately withholds or distorts the clues to the perpetrator of the crime in order to obtain cheap suspense.

Pinter's own reply to such accusations of bad faith is a categorical 'no'. When he received a letter which read:

'Dear Sir, I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play The Birthday Party. These are the points which I do not understand - 1. Who are the two men ? 2. Where did Stanley come from? 3 - Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot fully understand your play',

Pinter is said to have replied as follows:

'Dear Madam, I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your letter. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are you? 2. Where do you come from? 3. Are you supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to your questions I cannot fully understand your letter.'

top of page

. In drama, where the apparent absence of a narrator the apparent objectivity ,of the action presented on the stage, has masked the problem, The omniscient author remained the rule even during the period of naturalism, when the theory underlying the practice of playwrights actually called for total objectivity. Even lbsen and Gerhart Hauptmann felt compelled to motivate their characters totally and to disclose their motivation to the audience.

It is this cocksureness of the playwrights (their claim to be in a position to know all about their characters and what makes them tick) which Pinter, with his radical and uncompromising attitude of total sincerity, not only rejects but regards as a form of intolerable arrogance on the part of the writers concerned. How, in the present state of our knowledge of psychology and the complexity and hidden layers of the human mind, can anyone claim to know what motivates himself, let alone another human being"

We do not know, with any semblance of certainty, what motivates our own wives, parents, our own children - why then should we be furnished with a complete dossier about the motivations of any character we casually encounter on the stage? Hence Pinter's rejection of the conventional exposition in drama, which, in a few bold and clever strokes, purports to introduce the principal characters to us with a hardy do-it-yourself kit to decipher their origin, background, and motivations - all in the first ten minutes of the action.

In the programme brochure of the performance of The Room and The Dumb Waiter at the Royal Court Theatre on 8th March 196o - Pinter's second professional appearance as a dramatist on the London stage - there lay a single, unsigned, printed sheet of paper, clearly Pinter's own attempt to forewarn the audience:

Given a man in a room and he will sooner or later receive a visitor. A visitor entering the room will enter with intent. If two people inhabit the room the visitor will not be the same man for both. A man in a room who receives a visit is likely to be illuminated or horrified by it. The visitor himself might as easily be horrified or illuminated. The men may leave with the visitor or he may leave alone. The visitor may leave alone or stay in the room alone when the man is gone. Or they may both stay together in the room. Whatever the outcome in terms of movement the original condition, in which a man sat alone in a room, will have been subjected to alterations. A man in a room and no one entering lives in expectation of a visit. He will be illuminated or horrified by the absence of a visitor. But however much it is expected, the entrance, when it comes, is unexpected and almost always unwelcome. (He himself, of course, might go out of the door, knock and come in and be his own visitor. It has happened before.)

top of page

We all have our function. The visitor will have his. There is no guarantee, however, that he will possess a visiting card with detailed information as to his last place of residence, last job, next job, number of dependents, etc. Nor, for the comfort of all, in identity card, nor a label on his chest. The desire for verification is understandable but cannot always be satisfied. There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. The thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false. The assumption that to verify what has happened and what is happening presents few problems I take to be inaccurate. A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression. This statement, here reproduced in full, contains the germ of quite a number of Pinter's plays beyond the two which it introduced: certainly The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming are already present in embryo in the permutations of possibilities arising from someone waiting in a room, who may or may not receive a visitor, may or may not stay with him, may or may not leave. One of the earliest texts by Pinter to have been published, 'Kullus', a prose poem in dialogue form dated 1949 (when Pinter was barely more than eighteen years old), already contains this very situation:

I let him in by the back door.

There was a brisk moon.

- Come in.

He stepped inside, slapping his bands, into The room. - Go on, Kullus. Go to the fire.

He stooped to the grate and stretched his fingers.

- You do not welcome warmth, said Kullus.


- There is no meeting. There is separation....

A girl is introduced into the room. Eventually she asks:

...which is your room?

she said.

I am no longer in my room. .

It is the very same situation which, much later, Pinter developed at length in his television play The Basement, but which is present in so many of his other plays.

There is thus a remarkable consistency and continuity in Pinter's basic philosophy. The programmatic statement, here quoted at length, shows the close affinity between Pinter's ideas and those held by the- school of the nouveau roman in France. Like these writers Pinter rejects the author's right to creep inside his characters and to pretend to know what makes then act, even how they feel. All he can do is render a meticulously accurate account of the .movement which takes place, to give a description of the situation at the beginning before the intrusion, and to note the changes that have taken place at the end. But - if the playwright cannot claim to know what his characters feel what makes them act as they do, what then can he communicate to an audience? He can convey his impression of the structure, the pattern of a situation,the movement of its change as it unfolds, again in a pattern, like the movement of a dance; and, on observing this, the author can also communicate his own sense of mystery, of wonder tat this strange world of patterns and structures, of beings that move by mysterious and unpredictable impulses, like fish in a huge aquarium. Is that enough for an author, a playwright to communicate to an audience which has been used to be offered in the theatre, complete accounts, with built-in motivation and full explanation of the actions of well-defined characters?

top of page

In the theatre, complete accounts, with built-in motivation and full explanation of the actions of well-defined characters?

After all, Pinter might argue, we hardly get more than that in real life. We see two people arguing, perhaps starting to fight, in the street. A crowd gathers around them and watches in fascination. It is most unlikely that this crowd could ever get a clear idea about the issues involved in the quarrel, let alone the antecedents and personalities of the two men themselves. And then, after a police car has arrived and taken the two contenders to the police station, the crowd disperses and may never know what the fight was about. And yet that fight had meaning: it communicated something about the stresses, the violence, the heartbreak of life in a big city; and it had something of a poetical validity - as an expression of the mood, the atmosphere of the time, as a metaphor even for all the unhappiness, the tragedy of the human condition. The bystander whose eyes were open, who was sensitive enough to react to the emotional climate of that street incident, could gain an insight, quite a deep insight, into life, a greater awareness, perhaps, of its true nature thin if all the facts, all the motivations could have been offered him on a plate (which in reality they hardly ever could), for after all, the opaqueness, the impenetrability of other people's lives, their feelings, their true motivations, is, precisely, an essential feature of the true quality of the world and of our own experience of it.

top of page

There is nothing very unusual in these considerations if we apply them, not to drama, but to a kindred form of literature poetry. What else is a poem but a pattern, a structure of images, loosely connected, of glimpses of nature, movements, gestures, flashes of insight, snatches of conversation, juxtaposed not to furnish an argument or an explanation, or even a description of the world, but as metaphors for a mood, an intuition of another human being's inner world.

Pinter's first ambition was to write poetry; basically he has remained a lyric poet whose plays are structures of images of the world, very clear and precise and accurate images, which however, and that is the point, never aspire to be arguments, explanations or even coherent stories, aiming to satisfy the audience's craving for vicarious experience through involvement in a nicely rounded incident; instead, Pinter's plays present us with a situation, or a pattern of interlocking situations, designed to coalesce into a lyrical structure of moods and emotional insights.

This, however, does not mean that there is not a great deal of dramatic incident, suspense, witty characterization or pointed dialogue in Pinter's plays. While the overall effect is lyrical, the detail is intensely dramatic. Indeed, the indeterminacy of the characters, the ambiguity of events, heightens the dramatic tension: is the old man in The Caretaker really called Davies, or is he called Jenkins? Why is Stanley in The Birthday Party being pursued by two sinister figures? Has Stella in The Collection been unfaithful to her husband? Why does Ruth in The Homecoming accept the offer to become a prostitute so calmly? These questions are not raised by Pinter to be answered; nor are they, as his critics sometimes suggest raised gratuitously merely to create spurious curiosity and suspense- They are raised as metaphors of the fact that life itself consists of a succession of such questions which cannot or will not be capable of an answer.

top of page

'My characters', Pinter has said 'tell me so much and more, with reference to their experience, their aspiration their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographic data about them and e ambiguity of what they say there is a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore. You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we're inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling But it, is out of these attributes that a Language arises A language ... where, under what is said, another thing is being said.'