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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai
DUMB BUT ELOQUENT
THE VOICE OF HAROLD PINTER IN AN INDIAN CONTEXT
Vijay K. Sunwani, Ph.D.
Drama had been a very important pursuit of talented writers in Indian languages. Natya Sastra, for example, is a very interesting treatise that focused on the inter-relationship between social values, literary values, and forms of drama. Kalidasa and many other ancient writers wrote a variety of dramas with innovative techniques, plots, characters, and stories. And our Folk Theatre is still surviving, entertaining millions in the rural parts of India. Unfortunately, Indian drama is overshadowed now by Indian cinema. We need to revive our popular interest in plays. A Nobel Prize for a playwright is a good occasion for us to review the state of art in drama in India at least briefly.
In this paper I attempt a brief review of Harold Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Short recaps, then I discuss some of his well-known plays: in terms of setting, characters and dialogues. Finally, I hear and look at the dialogues, the language that Pinter has used in his plays, concluding with a comparison of Pinter with some Indian writers and the use and meaning of silence, which is the essence of Pinter.
Perhaps Harold Pinter had decided his vocation early in life. He trained for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Drama. During this period, he performed roles of a waiter, a dishwasher, and a door-to-door salesman, realizing that the experience could be cashed somewhere, sometime, since an author primarily, is a great observer of what Moliere calls the Human Comedy, but to Pinter it was "comedy of menace" according to David Campton. Having tried his hand earlier at poems, novels, essays, radio plays, Pinter finally took to the drama, the theatre and the stage.
With The Dwarfs Pinter began his career as a playwright in 1957, when he was just 27 years old. His first full-length play The Birthday Party met with partial commercial success. With a faltering start and hiccoughs, Pinter stuck steadfast to his art. with a play such as The Dumb Waiter, he built up an international reputation for himself, placing him as a leader of contemporary English dramatists.
THE AWARD - UNCOVERING THE PRECIPICE THAT WAS HIDDEN
Pinter's consisten work has led him to success. It is in 2005 by being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature that Harold Pinter gained world wide recognition. The citation says that the award was for one 'who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms.' He stimulated in critics and theatre goers alike, a major reassessment of the relationship between dramatist, play and audience. 'Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles,' the Academy said. Until Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature on 13 October 2005, only three playwrights writing in English had won this honour: George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill and, in 1969, the man whom Pinter often referred to as his major influence: Samuel Beckett. Heavyweight company, indeed! Pinter is the first Briton to win the award since V.S. Naipaul won it in 2001, and is the 11th playwright to win it since its beginning in 1901.
A SINGULAR STYLE
Like Beckett, whose plays could be mistaken for no one else's, Pinter has created a singular style. In classics as The Caretaker, The Homecoming, The Collection, Betrayal and No Man's Land -- paranoid chamber dramas as noted for their pregnant pauses for what is left unsaid as for their terse, insinuating dialogue -- Pinter gave us chillingly thrilling glimpses of human relationships as a nasty game of psychological one-upmanship.
In London, Pinter told reportersthat he was overwhelmed. 'I had absolutely no idea. ... I was speechless,' he said. 'I have to stop being speechless when I get to Stockholm.' In its citation, the Academy said the playwright whose works also include The Dumb Waiter and his breakthrough work, The Caretaker, was a writer who returned theatre to its bare-bones form.
A UNIQUE HONOR
Dr. Frank Gillen of the University of Tampa Press has been publishing the Pinter Review since its inception in 1987. "It's a very happy day," Gillen said with joy, 'I feel like my faith and the University's faith in Pinter have been acknowledged.' The University has always supported us. I'll always be very grateful for that. There is no other university in the world that publishes a journal devoted specifically to the works of Harold Pinter. Gillen also founded the Pinter Society with Dr. Steven Gale of Kentucky State University. Gale is co-editor of The Pinter Review, journal representing the latest thinking about Pinter's work. It is the official publication authorized by Pinter.
SOME PLAYS OF PINTER
The Room is Pinter's first play: remarkable because the dialogue is masterly; each character has his own style of speech and the wittily observed vernacular with its rambling syntax and tautologies is brilliantly modulated into the intensity of the poetic climax between Rose and Riley. The suddenness of the brutal ending, which comes as a complete surprise, also has a tremendous impact.
The Dumb Waiter also in one act, uses the same basic situation. We are in a room enclosed by a dark, mysterious world outside. The people in the room are watching, in dreadful suspense, a door that is certain to open. Moreover, in this case we are, from quite an early point in the play, made aware of the fact that whoever it will be who enters by the door will have to die. Because the two people in the room are professional killers, Ben and Gus by name, working-class Cockneys. They are working for a mysterious organization.
A play like The Birthday Party can only be understood as a complex poetic image. Such an image exists simultaneously on a multitude of levels. A complex pattern of association and allusion is assembled to express a complex emotional state; what the poet tries to communicate by such an image is, ultimately, the totality of his own existential anxiety. The chief agent of this anxiety is Goldberg, the dominant partner in the team of terrorists. He might be more than merely the agent of the evil power pursuing Stanley; he might be that power itself. So, Goldberg and another character McCann are concrete men of weight and time, skin and bone, and yet they are also essentially Thoughts. This ambivalence between the concrete reality of his characters and their simultaneous force as dream images, symbols, and thoughts, is of the essence of Pinter's poetic personality; and it is very clearly stated here.
Pinter originally wrote The Hothouse in 1958, but it was not performed until 1980. The Hothouse is set in a state institution during Christmas and to the audience it is unclear what kind of an institution it is.
Students who worked for and acted in the play felt great doing it. The first month we were like 'Ah, we can do that later.' The second month we said 'Ah, we can do that later, but it needs to done soon.' 'Now we are doing everything, we all stayed here over break and worked. Even now we are not quite ready to go.' It was a great learning experience they felt. Budgeting the time on hand proved to be the biggest problem for the directors.
Pinter's plays are known for themes of nameless menace, erotic fantasy, family hatred and mental disturbance. Benedict Nightingale referred to the original production of The Hothouse as progressing with 'the eccentric logic of a nightmare, and one concocted by a decidedly original dreamer.'
Originally a television play, The Lover was successful when transferred to the stage as The Collection with which it is frequently linked. The Lover develops the notion of the erotic wish-fulfillment fantasy and shows its function in a happy marriage. In The Lover a suburban couple deliberately bridge the gulf between illusion and reality. A husband who leaves for work in the morning regularly returns in the afternoon to visit his wife in the guise of a lover while she acts the part of a casual pickup. The play ends with the apparent suppression of the couple's life as husband and wife in favour of the fantasy roles.
Of all Pinter's writings Silence is the most lyrical, but also the most mysterious and difficult. In Silence, the characters are also - except in the flashback dialogues - physically separated. The stage direction is extremely laconic:
A chair in each area.
So also do the three characters seem to live apart, each in his own room.
The stage directions are equally dumb. Stage Direction: Silence.
That this is not just the usual pause that punctuates Pinter's dialogues is clear from the fact that the stage direction "Pause" also occurs in the text. Here the "Silence" which gives the play its title has a doubtlessly far greater significance. It marks the end of a chapter. But it also has a dramatic meaning of its own.
The characters find it pleasant to be alone; in fact some of them show their dismay and anger at living next door to young people who make noisy music, and noisy love. Silence is an attempt to tell a story by a technique which breaks the chronological sequence more decisively than is usually done even in intricately woven patterns of flashback.
THE SETTING IN PINTER'S PLAYS
The basic setting in Pinter is a room with a door. The room is of great significance, for, in it one is protected, sheltered, and safe. Outside, and through the door is cold, the unknown, the scary. A warm room surrounded by a cold and hostile world is in itself a very dangerous situation. Somebody will be pushed from the warmth of the room out into the cold. The room is warm and light; outside it is winter, cold and dark. Generally the people, the man and the woman (often older than the man), do not say anything to each other. Questions of one go unanswered by the other. As it is the characters have a kind of ambiguity, uncertainty about their own selves and when a reply is forced from one of them it adds to the existing, existential tension that Pinter has captured, though he himself never said so.
The Birthday Party also fits in this context; it can be seen as an image of man's fear of being driven out from his warm place of refuge on earth. The play, would then, like Beckett's Endgame, emerge as a morality about the process of death itself. The use of motionless actors whose speech is not so much an exchange of dialogue but as a series of alternating monologues reflects the influence of Becket's plays. The themes woven into the texture of these exchanges are expressive of the difficultly of communicating a vision of the past. It is a cherished memory form the world of verifiable facts, which were prominent in much of Pinter's previous plays. Pinter's is the 'world of the absurdist' in which we find 'characters incapable of communication', but who nevertheless seem to achieve the impossible by using Pinter's language.
PINTER'S LANGUAGE -- THE PINTERESQUE AND THE PINTERESE
Harold Pinter juxtaposed the brutal and the banal in plays such as The Room and The Birthday Party and made an art form out of spare language and heavy silence. Dark and peopled with unfortunates, Pinter's idiom was so distinctive that he got his own adjective: "Pinteresque." After the presentation of The Birthday Party in 1960 critics 'could hear people in buses and canteens eagerly discussing the play as a maddening but deeply disturbing experience'. 'Pinteresque', entered the English language to describe the kind of situation and more specially, of dialogue mirrored in his plays. Pinter has added a new band of colours to the spectrum of English stage dialogue. Like every great artist, Pinter is very careful with the choice of words.
Also known as Pinterese some of the obvious features of his use of language are the recurrent tautologies on the pattern: "He's old - not young - No, I wouldn't call him young - Not youthful, certainly - elderly, I'd say - I'd call him old.' Notice this short dialogue from The Birthday Party.
Stanley (advancing): They are coming today.
Stanley: They are coming in a van.
Stanley: And do you know what they've got in that van?
Stanley: They've got a wheelbarrow in that van.
Meg (breathlessly): They haven't.
Stanley: Oh yes, they have.
Meg: You're a liar
THE LACONIC MODE
Laconic, and yet we get the meaning, we understand it fully. Pinter is one of the most reticent to talk about his work and his language does not seem to have special poetic qualities. But there certainly is something unique about his language. His language shares some qualities with those of poetic dramatists such as Eliot, Yeats, and Fry who have attracted critical dissection.
Pinter's characters' internal fears and longings, their guilt and difficult sexual drives are set against the neat lives they have constructed in order to survive. Like Thackeray, he follows wherever his characters lead him. In this sense Pinter gives no suggestion of where his drama is leading us, nor does his language. Contrast this with the language of a well-made play and the language of Pinter shows in obvious relief - verbal purpose, straight direction as opposed to apparent ad hoc verbal activity. In a way then Pinter's plays do not end in the conventional sense. They stop, as do the staccato speech acts we are familiar with.
This is truly borne out by the actors who have appeared in Pinter's plays and do not find the language confusing. Waiting for Godot required contemplation by the city folk to comprehend its meaning and value. When staged in the premises of a prison, the convicts had no difficulty understanding it; rather they applauded it warmly. It also illustrates that Pinter's language is written for the actor, it is a kind of a code. Other dramatists such as O'Neill, Arthur Miller, (who passed away recently), do much the same. Pinter is unique in expressing his awareness in this extraordinarily precise way.
A LESSON TO LEARN ON THE FUNCTIONS OF LANGUAGE IN A PLAY
Pinter has given us added insight into - has even discovered - the fact that traditional stage dialogue has always overestimated the degree of logic which governs the use of language, the amount of information which language is actually able to impart on the stage - as in life. Therefore drama dialogue is a form of action: it is the element of action. The interaction between the characters, their reactions to each other, that constitute the truly dramatic element in stage dialogue, is an essential aspect of the context of drama.
On the realistic level Pinter uses refrains like recurrence of whole sentences to show that people in real life do not deliver well thought out speeches but tend to mix various strands of thought that intermingle without any permanent connection. While the structure of written language tends to be logical, that of spoken language is highly associative.
Also, personal inability expresses itself in an inadequacy in coping with and using language. The inability to communicate, and to communicate in the correct terms, is felt by the characters as a mark of inferiority; that is why they tend to dwell upon and to stress the hard or unusual 'educated' words they have overheard and picked up or made efforts to learn. This gives a kind of protected space to the characters as it does to common human beings who take umbrage by using prevalent buzz words to exhibit their nakedness. Silence hides this nakedness.
The device used for one character when used for another gives a different meaning. Repetition, for instance, in The Birthday Party. Meg having served Percy his cornflakes, asks
Meg: Are they nice?
Percy: Very nice.
Meg: I thought they'd be nice.
The emptiness of the dialogue shows the emptiness of the characters' relationship with each other, the stale familiarity of their lives and yet their determination to go on making friendly conversations, which is brought to the fore by the repetitive use of the word nice. On the surface it conveys nothing but on the dramatic level it carries much compact and compressed information: the vain attempt at conversation, the desire to be friendly, into an astonishingly brief space.
Davies, in The Caretaker, talking about his wife's slovenliness, mentions the saucepan in which he found some of her undergarments, repeats himself,
The pan for vegetables, it was. The vegetable pan ... .
The repetition here shows man's struggle to articulate thoughts, to articulate clumsy, painful thoughts, a struggle for the correct word. At times the thought is so complex we do not find the words at all. Even language fails to express that thought. That is exactly what Pinter has done: we see the person's troubled mind - in the very dramatic act of struggling for communication, sometimes succeeding, often failing. And when they have got hold of a formulation, they hold on to it, savour it and repeat it to enjoy their achievement.
A FAITHFUL REPLICATION, AN EVOCATION OF REAL SPEECH
Thus Pinter's language is an evocation of 'real speech' - the way we all speak - half-inarticulate, stumbling, leaving questions completely or half-answered, lacking clarity. Whereas G.B.Shaw is distinctly clear and full, complete, to the extent of being prolix, Pinter seems his total antithesis, with false starts, mumbles, pauses, silence.
Perhaps, much in the manner of Emily Dickinson, silence is Pinter's better forms of experiences. She preferred silence - not the empty or totally passive silence but the one that had been made vivid by energy, energy of restraint.
There is no silence in the earth - so silent
As that endured
Which uttered, would discourage Nature
And haunt the world.
The language of silence in Pinter's plays is not essentially a lack of many things. It is some tremendous excess in a human being which makes them silent, heavy and dumb. Do not extremes of emotion, those of joy or grief, underlie a pregnant silence?
SILENCE - AN ACT AND ITS MEANING
It is not only the complete refusal to speak, but also acts of silence within discourse that are considered meaningful. Here, silence functions as an indirect speech act (Searle 1975), which due to its heavily contextual nature can be misunderstood (Saville-Troike 1985). The ambiguity of such acts of silence is a source of quite different possible meanings. It is the source of various sayings and proverbs, literary inspiration, and everyday misunderstandings. An act of silence never ends a conversation. Sometimes, it is harshly sanctioned.
There is also the self-similarity of the boundary between articulation and non-articulation. Silence is the inner limit of discourse and conversation (Benjamin 1977). At every level of language and with silences of every length, silence has proved to be dependent on speech, and to the same extent, speech to be dependent on silence. Everything that is interesting about language can also be found in silence. As with articulated signs, silence falls under specific norms, as those of articulated signs; the function and meaning of silence depend on its distribution. By itself silence means nothing, it only becomes meaningful in the specific situation and in what comes before and after it in the flow of speech. Silence is neither nothing nor "another language" (Bindeman 1978); it is both the presence and the absence of language. The boundary between the two is complex: it does not stand still, and it is intertwined in itself.
STEINER ON SILENCE
George Steiner advised writers to keep literature literate. Language is used to indicate or to refer to, and, in general terms , to create the dramatic macro and micro contexts. He feels writers are guardians and shapers of speech. Ideally each one of us should have our own private language, but because language has a "socialized conventional nature", the only proper private language is silence. He also suggested that since all the values have been exhausted and since there is nothing new to be said or worth saying, silence is created/adopted (Steiner, 1969). Silence becomes an integral part of speech, since without interspersing it in speech, the speech becomes meaningless, incoherent, monotonous and unanalyzable. Silence then becomes a tool in the hands of speech, it is a handmaid of speech, without whose help speech itself cannot progress. However one notices in Pinter that only really relevant language remains incommunicable or uncommunicated in some for only a short while. Therefore this silence devised by Pinter is made communicable to us, regardless of the fact that the two, public and private languages, continue to pursue their own separate ways.
MASTERS OF HEAVY PAUSE: CHRIST, BUDDHA, PINTER
The spoken word, however simple, is charged with a tremendous significance because of its intimate relationship with human minds. At the same time silence is Infinity.
In the Christian texts, Mary spoke few words, as far as we can learn from the records, but it seems the quality of her silence is clearly present in the words of her Son. It is not easy to hear this silence or to know its meaning. Yet with it Christ carves truth. Silence is the ground of the Word, silence is the essence of the articulate word.
When Pilate asked Jesus, ``Whence art thou?'' His answer was silence. To the slanderers of His accusers, Jesus answered with silence.
That dumb answer was characteristic of Mary who ``pondered in her heart'' the many sufferings she never put into words.
Perhaps the universal language which could best make divergent groups or individuals understandable to one another is the language of silence. If I cannot sit with you in silence we are not true friends; however much we may talk together or listen to sounds together, we do not understand one another if the stillness embarrasses us.
True Silence leads to Truth by avoiding both wordiness and wordlessness because Silence is Truth.
A philosopher once visited Buddha and asked him: "Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"
Buddha kept silent.
After a while the philosopher rose up gently, made a solemn bow and thanked Buddha saying: "With your loving kindness, I have cleared away all my delusions and entered the true path."
When the philosopher had left, Ananda, a senior disciple of Buddha, enquired: "O, Blessed one, what hath this philosopher attained?" Buddha replied: "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip!"
This anecdote illustrates the manner and method by which Buddha sought to experience and express the truth. Buddha's entire life could be briefly summed up as a relentless search, a revolutionary discovery, and a revealing experience of Truth. Popular legends, endeavour to capture and contain the radical mystique of the persona of Buddha. Generally they present him as a serene, sober, and silent sage. His first disciples and followers also perceived these qualities of serenity, sobriety, and silence as indistinguishable traits of an enlightened personality.
It also shows the importance and the necessity of Silence as an indispensable means towards an interior experience of the Truth. Silence at the interior and exterior levels is a sine qua non condition for both mediation and contemplation. There is this indispensability of silence as a powerful catalyst for meditation.
The word mauna is one of the few terms used commonly by all language and religious groups in India. In religious treatises and traditions, this word has a history of its own. Mauna, from which the noun muni, meaning "sage" or "hermit" is derived, has a meaning wealthier than its English counterpart "silence." Mauna means blissful calmness, joyous recollection, tranquil quietude, and peaceful stillness.
For Buddha, Silence as the inevitable path that leads to the Truth is not distinct from the Truth itself. That is, as the way to the Truth, Silence already contains the reality of the Truth. They are two aspects of the same reality. Even in Christian tradition silence is spoken of as the language of God. In Christian terms, we may say that for Buddha, Silence is the sacrament of the Truth. The fountain of Silence is the sole medium that is capable of delivering the Truth.
PINTER, MOHAN RAKESH AND TAGORE
Harold Pinter, like Mohan Rakesh the Hindi novelist did not make use of the words because of their sounds, but for the dramatics conveyed by the words or the intervening silences, pauses. Pinter, like Mohan Rakesh has used subtle uses of silence and language in his works. Dramatic effect is achieved not only through words and their sounds but also through the silences between the dialogues. The pauses, as if vows of silence, wordlessness, have been taken from sexual innuendoes and other gestures as well. Hence the language of the play Aashad ka ek din in the real sense of the term becomes the language of reality. Similarly, the overt violence of sexual aggression and surrender that marked The Homecoming has been transmuted into a compassionate understanding of male and female psychology.
Similarly, as Rabindra Nath Tagore writes, the world of sound is a tiny bubble in the Silence of the Infinite. The Universe has its language of gesture; it talks in the voice of pictures and dance. Every object in this world proclaims in the dumb signal of lines and colours the fact that it is not a mere logical abstraction or a mere thing for use, but is unique in itself, it carries the miracle of its existence.
PINTER: POLITICAL ACTIVIST AND POET
In recent years the influential Harold Pinter has become a great critic of the United States and British Prime Minister Tony Blair after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Pinter vehemently opposed Britain's involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2005 Pinter announced his retirement as a playwright to concentrate on politics. But he created a radio play, ``Voices,'' that was broadcast on BBC radio to mark his 75th birthday.
``My energies are going in different directions, certainly into poetry,'' he said in an interview.
``But also, as I think you know, over the last few years I've made a number of political speeches at various locations and ceremonies.''
``I'm using a lot of energy more specifically about political states of affairs, which I think are very, very worrying as things stand.'' In 2003, Pinter published a volume of anti-war poetry about the Iraq conflict.
The bombs go off
The legs go off
The heads go off
The arms go off
The feet go off
The light goes out
The heads go off
The legs go off
The lust is up
The dead are dirt
The lights go out
The dead are dust
A man bows down before another man
And sucks his lust
Harold Pinter through this poem has expressed his disgust for the war, for he is one of the most trenchant voices protesting the invasion of Iraq. Pinter has called Bush a "mass murderer" and Blair a "deluded idiot" and a "hired Christian thug." The poem refers to the US-UK war alliance and the atrocities committed on Iraqi soldiers at Abu Ghraib. He has made a strong plea for human rights and warns against the atrocities committed on prisoners and other human beings all over the globe. Harold Pinter wondered whether the Nobel committee gave him its esteemed prize for literature because of his fierce opposition to the US-led war in Iraq. He felt that the award was given to him for his work and also for his political engagement, which is present in his writing. 'You can't divorce one from the other,' he said .
That drama is alive and kicking, and sensitive to the present day realities needs no underlining. However,the situation in India is rather bleak. There is an urgent need to retrieve drama from the shadow of Indian cinema, and give it the freedom that it needs. Drama in life and on stage a conscience of the people. In modern English literature, Harold Pinter exemplifies this more than anyone else. He is a dramatist who has been watching, portraying and tape recording the society as a prophet. The most recent stage offering Betrayal based on Harold Pinter's play is powerfully unique. It is a very curious character study, told in reverse. We see the end of the affair, then roll back time to the beginning. The way the tale is spun is what makes it unique and excellent.
And so we remember that Pinter, unlike Wordsworth, has kept himself alive to the fax of life, to the nuances of language which this paper attempted to show.
We started with a brief introduction to Harold Pinter and his plays, then critically examined and analyzed his language. Brief comparisons with some Indian authors and other thinkers highlighted the value of silence that Pinter has used so deftly. Taking note of Pinter's present political activism the paper ends on an incomplete note as the following short modern Indian poem, equally relevant to our subject, shows:
And all that ink of the sky.
Unfinished, the sentence.
Unfinished, the desire.
And therefore not only have we modern men and women, "Midnight's Children" as it were, been using Pinteresque language, in a way modern people have been Pinterene in their behaviour as well: reticent, emotionally stirred, yet concealing their emotions, outwardly strong but really frail, eloquent yet dumb.
That is true of a writer because great writers portray not only what they see but what they would like to see and thus often peep into the future. That is what exactly Harold Pinter has done. And therein lies his greatness.
Michael Anderson, et al: A Handbook of Contemporary Drama. Pitman Publishing. London. 1974.
Elam, K. (1980): The semiotics of Theatre and drama. Methuen, London.
Esslin, M.: Pinter - A study of his plays. Methuen, London.1973.
Evans, G.L.: The Language of Modern Drama. Dent. London.1977.
Steiner, G., 1969. Language and Silence. Penguin Books, Hammondsworth.
Sunday Times, Bhubaneswar, 16 October 2005
The Hindu, Chennai
Thirumalai, M. S. Language in Science, Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. 1987.
Walder, D. (ed) (1990): Literature in the Modern World. Critical essays and documents. Oxford University Press.
Keep Media file- Harold Pinter articles
AJV Chandrakanthan: The Silence of Buddha and his contemplation of the truth. Spirituality Today, Summer 1988. Vol. 40. No.2. p.145-156
Rabindra Nath Tagore: A tiny bubble in the silence of the infinite - the universal language of gesture. UNESCO Courier, Oct.1996.
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