Nice Guy

Michael Wood

  • The Life and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington
    Faber, 414 pp, £20.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 571 17103 6

Rehearsing his part in a production of The Birthday Party at Scarborough, the young Alan Ayckbourn asked Harold Pinter for a little more information about the fictional character. Pinter said: ‘Mind your own fucking business. Concentrate on what’s there.’ It’s a good answer, and Ayckbourn no doubt took it kindly and got the point. But it bothers Michael Billington, who can’t tell the story without cleaning it up, indeed turning it into a testimonial. ‘That was not brusqueness or rudeness – Ayckbourn testifies that Pinter was an extremely nice guy – but simply an absolute belief in the self sufficiency of the text.’

There’s not much hope for a biography whose subject can’t be brusque or rude, and Billington’s relish for stereotypes doesn’t help us much either. This is a world of bedrocks and watersheds, where people stay the course and stick to each other through thick and thin. Shocks are seismic, memories photographic, deaths sad, suicides tragic. If anyone creates it’s at white heat. ‘Pinter’s openings are always good,’ Billington writes; ‘this one is no exception.’ Spot on.

Billington gives a coherent account of Pinter’s career, from his early days in Jewish Hackney through Hackney Downs Grammar School, Rada and an acting job with a touring Shakespeare company in Ireland, a job with Donald Wolfit, a few years in rep, attention as a playwright for The Room (1957), and The Birthday Party (1958), sudden and extravagant fame for The Caretaker (1960). Pinter married the actress Vivien Merchant in 1956; they had a son, Daniel, in 1958. Pinter wrote short plays for radio and television, a novel, several screenplays, notably for Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963). The Homecoming (1965) is widely regarded as Pinter’s masterpiece. Among his later plays are Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975), Mountain Language (1988), Moonlight (1993) and Ashes to Ashes, which opened at the Royal Court in September of this year. Pinter divorced Vivien Merchant in 1980 (she died two years later of alcoholic poisoning) and married Antonia Fraser. During the Sixties, Pinter had, we now learn, an affair with TV presenter Joan Bakewell, which Billington, before finally coming clean, presents to us with remarkable coyness. We are first told that Pinter ‘began a serious extra-marital relationship that was to last for seven years’; then that he had ‘an ongoing affair with a prominent TV journalist’; then that he and Joan Bakewell were ‘close’; finally that they had ‘an affair’: what a relief.

Billington is informative about the reception of Pinter’s plays and often perceptive about the plays themselves. He has a particularly good chapter on Pinter’s still unfilmed Proust Screenplay, one of the greatest imaginary movies ever written. But Billington’s piety about Pinter is all but crippling, turning what might have been a portrait into a long obeisance. When Pinter writes a truly dire poem about the Gulf War, the sort of rant you would have to turn down for the school magazine, and which was refused by the Independent, the Observer, the Guardian, the New York Review of Books and (surely not) the London Review of Books, Billington not only prints and defends the poem, he is entirely convinced that its rejection ‘offers melancholy proof that hypocrisy is not confined to governments and politicians’. And not, for instance, the more cheerful proof that the mere name of Harold Pinter doesn’t destroy critical faculties everywhere. When Pinter is challenged to name two Nicaraguan poets and does so, Billington regards this as a complete vindication of Pinter’s knowledge of Central American culture, not pausing to ask whether knowing two names, or even the work of two poets, is quite enough to put the real question to rest.

Billington is very anxious indeed that we shouldn’t get the wrong idea about Pinter; think he might be angry or arrogant or something. And since Pinter’s anger is too well documented to be denied, Billington has a problem. He is fertile in solutions, though. One is to question the whole concept, and speak only of Pinter’s ‘supposed irascibility’. Another is to acknowledge the problem but reach quickly for the excuse: ‘Pinter’s new-found domestic happiness with Antonia was often accompanied by a short fuse in public. In mitigation, one can only say that he had just gone through an extremely trying time with the divorce from Vivien.’ Another solution is to substitute Pinter’s version of an occasion for whatever other interpretation is on offer, so that John Bayley’s claim that Pinter was ‘crimson with rage’ at a dinner in Oxford can be replaced by the simple truth that Pinter was just having a mild-mannered discussion about Israel. Billington doesn’t ask why John Bayley would want to lie about this. Pinter is said to have bellowed at a journalist who asked if he had a message for the Londoner’s Diary column of the Evening Standard. Quite wrong. Pinter ‘whispered quietly’ – always the best way to whisper. He said: ‘Tell it to go fuck itself and you go with it.’ Billington finds this ‘a not unreasonable response, given the Diary’s endless tittle-tattle about Pinter’s private life’. I’m inclined to agree, but whispering isn’t less angry than bellowing, only more elegant. Still another of Billington’s solutions is to justify Pinter’s anger by reference to its ‘source – the hypocrisy and injustice of the world around us’, and from there it’s easy enough to turn the short fuse into a noble virtue: ‘But what he really dislikes, I suspect, is people who don’t stick to their principles or who use words casually or thoughtlessly. What others classify as rudeness or ferocity is really an aspect of Pinter’s impassioned integrity.’

Billington wouldn’t have a problem, of course, if he thought a person could have all kinds of faults and still be an interesting writer, even an appealing character. But he is determined to place Pinter’s work in the ‘developing context of his life’, and to find that life pretty much blameless. The result is not only a series of feeble excuses taking the place of what ought to be exploration, but an unbelievably boring hero, a composite of pure platitudes. Pinter, in Billington’s story, is characterised by an ‘absolute refusal to accept handed-down truths’, ‘a lifelong cynicism about politicians and the hypocrisy of government’, ‘an inherent suspicion of any form of structured authority’, ‘a lifelong belief in the right of the individual conscience to resist the demands of the State’. He ‘instinctively sides with the underdog and against any form of authority’. He has always been ‘an independent spirit’, ‘an impassioned outsider and obstinate nonconformist who, even if the world is going to hell in a hand-cart, is determined to cling on to his freedom and independence of thought’. ‘What Pinter hates, above all, is hypocrisy; what he values is truth.’ It’s good to stand up for unpopular values, and you will not be surprised to learn that Pinter voted Conservative in 1979. We can’t blame him for the vapid formulations of course, but some of the truculence must be his, the sense of the solitary traveller who hasn’t noticed the crowd going in his direction. What almost gets lost in all this is the fact that, in 1948, he became a conscientious objector rather than do National Service – an act of difficult courage which suggests something other than the mechanical nonconformism of those quotations.

Fortunately, we can return to Pinter’s advice to Ayckbourn, and mind our own fucking business, which is the writing. The Caretaker remains a wonderful piece of theatre, and all of the other early works are both scary and comic. The Homecoming is grim and haunting and also funny in its dark and violent way, and although the later works are rather mannered, inclined to let portentousness do the work of meaning, all of them have their eerie, telling moments. It’s true that the later Pinter isn’t all that Pinteresque, but he had some great lines.

‘I admire people like you.’
‘So do I.’

And:

I would never use obscene language in the office. Certainly not. I kept my obscene language for the home, where it belongs.

The second gag owes something to Alan Bennett’s vicar in Beyond the Fringe, but it has a nasty edge all its own. Ashes to Ashes is remarkably elliptic and powerful, and must be even better in performance than it seems on the page.

Not every writer becomes an adjective in his or her own lifetime, but the dictionary, as Billington tells us at the beginning of his book, is no great help with Pinter. Pinteresque, it says, ‘of, pertaining to, or characteristic of the British playwright Harold Pinter (b.1930) or his works’. This weak-kneed surrender to tautology is partially redeemed by the fact that it sounds as if it might have been written by a character in almost any Pinter play, and by the quotations offered in illustration. ‘The sort of everyday absurdity, in speech or action, that can now be most easily described as Pinteresque’ (1965). ‘Suddenly everyone ... talked like overheard conversations on buses. They invented a word for it – Pinteresque’ (1974). The dictionary also lists Pinterian, Pinterish, Pinterishness and Pinterism – the last entry defined through quotation as ‘meaningless meaning’ (1971) and ‘relaxed circumambient dialogue with lots of significant spaces between the words’ (1975).

There is something sheepish about all this, though, as if everyday absurdity was undeniable but embarrassing, and only rude and/or pretentious people would devote any attention to it. Pinter broke open this embarrassment, reclaimed our dishevelled ordinariness for us, even if a good bit of our sheepishness remained. Billington argues in his closing pages that ‘Pinter’s faithful reproduction of the repetitions, hesitations and lacunae of everyday speech, alongside the exuberance of street argot, is his single most important contribution to British drama. Post-Pinter we learned to hear plays differently and became impatient with verbal excess.’ An impoverishment, we might argue, and one of the reasons people are always playing Shakespeare as if he was an absurdist hampered by the flowery language of his time. But then surely Pinter didn’t reproduce everyday speech, faithfully or not. He invented it in the way that Dickens invented London fog or Nabokov invented the American motel: took some of what there was and made it seem all there was. It is because of Pinter that we now hear everyday speech as we do, that its deep, comic inconsequentially seems what is most characteristic of it – as if we were not able, even now, to say what we mean sometimes, and to insult each other again and again with fluent and impeccable logic.

We could try for a bolder definition of the Pinteresque: fractured, alienated, understated, punctuated by silence, full of dreams of power and intimations of violence, very funny. The -esque ending makes the whole package seem as if it might often come across as an imitation or travesty of itself, and we can hardly miss the echo of ‘picturesque’. Broken everyday language becomes quaint – or we see it as quaint in order to keep it at bay, or in the theatre.

‘Time and again, without the least departure from authenticity, Mr Pinter exposes the vague, repetitive silliness of lower-class conversation. One laughs in recognition, but one’s laughter is tinged with snobbism.’ This is Kenneth Tynan in 1960, quoted by Billington. One’s laughter might be tinged with many things, and vague, repetitive silliness can hardly be confined to one class. But there is no silliness in Pinter’s dialogue, and no real inconsequentiality either. Pinter told Tynan that ‘instead of any inability to communicate there is a deliberate evasion of communication.’ Billington quotes Penelope Gilliatt on the film of The Caretaker (1964), where she notes that to answer the question ‘Where were you born?’ with ‘What do you mean?’ is not gibberish but strategy. ‘The fact that people often talk like this, replying not to the meaning of the speech but to what they can guess about the motives is such a simple and compassionate observation that it is hard to think how so many writers of dialogue have managed without it for so long.’

The most striking thing about Pinter’s characters, it seems to me, is that they are making themselves up as they go along, or are trying to; seeking to live without history, to become simply who they now say they are. This is broadly true of all characters in drama, of course, but we usually take the characters at their word, because there is no mileage in doing otherwise. If Othello says he has done the state some service, he probably has; and if he hasn’t, the play will show us why this false claim is important. In Pinter this rule is never entirely suspended, but it’s always in question, and not only in the cases of the obvious fabulators in plays like The Caretaker, No Man’s Land and Moonlight. Billington quotes Pinter on this subject in relation to The Birthday Party, where Pinter claims to know nothing about his characters’ lives before they enter the room. ‘I know everything about McCann after he walks through that door – I know nothing about him on the other side.’ Pinter adds: ‘That’s the way it is in life. You meet people at parties. What do you know about what they did before they came in the door? Your only knowledge of them is in the room.’ Pinter himself is not always as rigorous as this about extramural knowledge, but his plays are.

Rabid, ancient Max in The Homecoming, apparently the widowed father of three grown sons, suddenly says to one of them: ‘Stop calling me Dad. Just stop all that calling me Dad, do you understand?’ The man called Lenny replies: ‘But I’m your son. You used to tuck me up in bed every night.’ The idiom ‘all that’ and the readymade quality of the tucking up in bed – not that it doesn’t happen, only that it happens more often in cliché than in reality – make you wonder for a moment whether the whole story about the family, and the dead mother, is just a charade, some sort of game these people regularly play. It’s not only that the plot of this play suddenly seems as if it might be the characters’ plot rather than the author’s: it’s that we seem to have left behind a shabby world of history and entered a world of mirrors; the world of Genet, say. Pinter produces this effect again and again.

When Max’s son Teddy arrives from America with his wife Ruth, we have only Teddy’s word for it that he is Max’s son, that he has been in America and that Ruth is his wife. But the others go along, act out the same story, confirm it all along the line. Even Pinter, outside of the play, talks of Ruth as Teddy’s wife and of their living in America, and I’m not suggesting we need an alternative reading, or that the truth or falsehood of Teddy’s claim is a major question; only that a creepy uncertainty about the simplest things is a major mark of the Pinteresque. ‘You must be connected with my brother in some way,’ Lenny says to Ruth. ‘The one who’s been abroad.’ Ruth says, ‘I’m his wife.’ A little later Lenny says: ‘What, you sort of live with him over there, do you?’ Ruth says: ‘We’re married.’ Returning yet again to the subject Lenny asks: ‘You and my brother are newlyweds, are you?’ Ruth says: ‘We’ve been married six years.’ Lenny is probably just needling Ruth, but we can’t reject Lenny’s suspicions without thinking suspiciously about the marriage. It’s not that all stories are false in Pinter, or that there are only stories. It’s that any story could be just a story, and the thought of this possibility is unshakable.

Critical argument about The Homecoming tends to centre on its ending, where Ruth decides to stay with her lamentable in-laws, if that is what they are, and go into prostitution on their behalf, while her husband goes back to America. Is this abjection, or a complicated assumption of power on her part? Depends on the way you play it, is probably the answer, but the very question misses the whiff of rank male fantasy in the whole idea of setting Ruth up in this way. Does Lenny really have ‘a number of flats’ in the Greek Street area, and is any of this more than words?

‘I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t I take her up with me to Greek Street?’

‘You mean put her on the game? (Pause) We’ll put her on the game. That’s a stroke of genius, that’s a marvellous idea. You mean she can earn money herself – on her back?’

‘Yes.’

‘Wonderful. The only thing is, it’ll have to be short hours. We don’t want her out of the house all night.’

‘I can limit the hours.’

‘How many?’

‘Four hours a night.’

‘Is that enough?’

In Ashes to Ashes, a character called Rebecca tells another character called Devlin, who may be her husband, about the man who may be (or may have been) her lover.

He did work for a travel agency. He was a guide. He used to go to the local railway station and walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers.

And a little later:

And my best friend, the man I had given my heart to, the man I knew was the man for me the moment we met, my dear, my most precious companion, I watched him walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers.

Is Rebecca relating a dream or a fantasy, something someone has told her, something she has read? Does the man exist, or is he only part of a story Rebecca needs to tell? We know where the image comes from. Pinter, who wrote this play very quickly early in 1996, had been reading Gita Sereny’s book on Albert Speer, which ‘triggered’, Pinter told Billington, ‘lots of other associations. I’ve always been haunted by the image of the Nazis picking up babies on bayonet spikes and throwing them out of the windows.’ But then we notice that there are no bayonets or even Nazis in Rebbecca’s vision, only a loved man tearing babies from their mothers’ arms. Perhaps Rebecca was reading Sylvia Plath (‘Every woman adores a Fascist’) while Pinter was reading Gita Sereny. At the end of the play Rebecca seems to become one of the women whose babies are being taken away. She says she wrapped her child in a shawl, gave it to a man. Later a woman asks her what happened to her baby. She says: ‘What baby? ... I don’t have a baby ... I don’t know of any baby.’ At another point she says: ‘Nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing has ever happened to any of my friends. I have never suffered. Nor have my friends.’ Is this a truth she needs to compensate for, or a way of denying the truth of her suffering? Is she grieving for the baby she had or the one she didn’t have? Is she grieving at all, or just putting on a play? These two actors will repeat this show at the next performance; are the two characters in the same situation? In all cases, someone’s real pain is at issue; we just don’t know how many displacements it has undergone.

When Billington talks about Pinter’s marriage to Vivien Merchant, he does so almost entirely in terms of theatrical prestige, who’s higher up the ladder. First Vivien, as a leading lady, then Harold, as a star playwright. ‘Life is an endless battle for positions,’ Billington quotes Pinter as saying, and neither of these seems to have doubted this proposition for a-moment. ‘For what Pinter grasps is that life is a series of negotiations for advantage in which everything comes into play.’ Pinter grasps this; doesn’t think it or suggest it. This is the world of Pinter’s plays, and of course the proposition is inherently dramatic, calls out for actors and a stage. It is in this light that Pinter, to Billington’s satisfaction, can think of marriage as ‘a highly political state’. Billington says he has changed his mind about Betrayal (1978), which he had once thought of as obsessed with ‘the stagnant pond of bourgeois-affluent life’. Should that be ‘effluent’? In practice, it seems that Billington has not so much changed his mind as changed his angle: if you can get yourself to see the stagnant pond as political, it’s all right.

I’m not suggesting that marriage isn’t (among other things) political, or that life doesn’t present plenty of battles and negotiations. Only that the eager, exclusive embrace of these claims is not only incompatible with being a nice guy, it makes the very notion of the nice guy untenable. Billington’s book can be read as a raw Pinter play, in which a character invents a world in defiance of the past and the future, resting only on what is in the room, as Pinter said, the book in our hands, the words on the page. ‘Concentrate on what’s there.’ But then Pinter’s work has taught us that concentrating on what’s there opens up the thought of all that’s missing, the unmentioned universe that would wreck our fantasies if we let it in.