Pinter and Shakespeare
The production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal that is now on Broadway restores your trust in theater that is other than Shakespeare--who, not at all by the way, has five plays on Broadway this season: Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Richard III. It couldn't be that only kids who have school assignments go. Four hundred years later, Shakespeare still has a way with an audience. My only problem is that these plays are mostly unsuitable for my twelve year old granddaughter. They are to be X rated either for violence or sex. The total evil of Richard III is just too scary for a not completely formed soul to contemplate; Romeo and Juliet is just too dirty; Twelfth Night is too complicated. Macbeth might do because the violence becomes context for the question of what is happening to the souls of Macbeth and his wife. There is also the pleasing ironic justice that results from the working of superstition, the woods moving in to take their revenge. That is an unsettling idea if you bother to think about it: an audience gets justice only if it is gullible enough to be superstitious. Maybe my best choice will be either the Broadway version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Met’s version of Benjamin Britten's operatic rendering of the play. The high showmanship of a tableau concerning Olympian gods and goddesses is worthy of MGM in its heyday, one with, let us say, Norma Shearer as Titania and Mickey Rooney as Puck, and that stately procession is set off against a low brow comedy about the theatre arts. Everything is a play, all right. A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminds me of Kiss Me Kate and is more than enough to keep occupied the emotions and intellect of a twelve year old as well as me. (I leave out the ABT production this season of The Tempest. Ballet may not be beyond Emma’s ken, but it is beyond mine.)
Back to Pinter. Mike Nichols, who directed the new production, stole my idea that Betrayal should be played as a comedy--not as a farce, mind you, but as a deft comedy of manners, with heart, sort of like Plautus or, more up to date, Much Ado About Nothing, my favorite Shakespeare comedy, or even more up to date...and I can’t come up a really worthwhile American Broadway comedy (as opposed to The Honeymooners or Some Like It Hot, neither of which are Broadway and, anyway, both of them are farces.) To be truthful about the matter, I stole the idea about doing Pinter as comedy from Bert Lahr, who said, when first having read the script for Waiting For Godot, in a quote I love to cite: "This is funny." I remember earlier productions of Betrayal which were all gloom and doom, the silences filling and referring to existential spaces. Agony, agony, rather than people caught up in their lives.
Confounding that conventional way of doing Pinter, Nichols doesn’t just use a few lines as laugh lines to lighten up a drama for a Broadway audience. He uses comic timing to deliver key declarations. There is the “you knew I didn’t know” gambit which is used in the play to allow the cuckolder to treat himself as the one who has been betrayed. That is read as funny absurd rather than as either abject failure or defensive rant, not that those are the only two alternatives. Also, the long speech in which the former best man (that same cuckolder) declares his love for the once bride is delivered as over the top bumbling rather than, again to cite only one other possibility, as a devious allusion to the forbidden. He fumbles because it is hard to get the words out all at once and to declare passions that are so deep. Yes, he does not know how to be spontaneous, but anyone caught in that situation might also step out of his skin before crawling back into it. Think of Malvolio—or of the other side of that, the same dramatic moment played for tragedy rather than comedy. Hamlet says terrible things to Ophelia, words that drive her to suicide, when he turns to her as the only one he can talk to, now that he has killed her father, and so abuses her because that is what he is feeling towards the world at that moment. Shakespeare can do it either way.
It is worth noting that Nichols did not render what might originally have been a laugh line or close to it as such. The husband declares that he and his wife hit one another occasionally. That could be read as a way to acknowledge that ordinary marriages are not perfect, and the reading would have made sense in the Seventies. But times have changed. Everybody scorns any hint of domestic violence. And so Nichols has the husband swallow the line, as if this were a regional theatre where double entendres had to be wrung out of the script. Some things, these days, are too sensitive for humor.
Comedy is always more sensitive to the moment because comedy shows a person leading their ordinary life, which means that sometimes there is sunlight even if there is often also gloom. Lady Bracknell, in The Importance of Being Ernest, is very perceptive, as she is about most things, knowing that wealth has shifted from land to stocks. That makes comedy more familiar in the sense of being more like what life appears to be than is tragedy, which is about when we are the best or worst stereotypes of our selves and so tragedy is about eternal circumstances rather than the ins and outs of a particular culture. Comedy shows people being free while tragedy shows how they are constrained. In Ernest, you can find your pedigree in a book. It is that easy; it is that possible. Dr. Johnson preferred Shakespeare’s comedies to his tragedies, and William Hazlitt, my second favorite critic, preferred the tragedies, and nobody I am aware of prefers the melodramas and I still think that Dr. Johnson got it right, despite two hundred years of people following adopting the Hazlitt point of view. Comedy frees an audience, and that is why Pinter gains from being treated as a comedy. People decide to sleep around and that is funny, even ludicrous, even if it is also very sad.
I am not sure, however, that really very good plays can be done either as comedy or tragedy, take your pick. Shakespeare, whose plots and images and characters are so integrated into the kind of thing the play is, that the plays are not easily altered. It isn’t just that some of the characters in a tragedy die at the end. There is something ominous throughout, while comedy enlivens everyone in it. Shakespeare is working either one side of the street or the other or going beyond both or, depending on your tastes, lessening his ambitions when he gives you problem plays, or what I think of as melodramas that explore the dynamics of social class, as in Coriolanus, for example, which is an examination of the pressures that fall on a military man and why an overblown pride in patriotism can lead to a dictatorship. It is not the human condition, but only the intricacies of a particular profession get the protagonist into trouble. That is a far cry from Othello, where the condition of being someone raised above their station and provided with every reward is in part responsible for his downfall, Othello being a Moor is just one part of his overreaching.
Pinter is after high tragedy and whether he accomplishes something more than comedy or melodrama is a good question only if you think that the three forms are part of an order of the forms, farce bringing up the rear. Indeed, it has long been a conceit among literary critics to think of melodrama as failed tragedy and farce as foreshortened comedy. The age old high school question of whether Death of A Salesman rises to being a tragedy persists or whether Marlowe’s Faustus is a comedy rather than merely a farce also persists.
Pinter's technical brilliance with language and with plotting is well accepted. But magazine reviewers like Hilton Als insist on treating his plays as engaged in drawing character portraits, as if he were Tennessee Williams. Als thinks that the female protagonist in Betrayal is based on Pinter’s first wife. So the question becomes why she starts the affair in the first place, and why her husband accepts it by denying to himself that he knows about it, and whether there is something homosexual in the relation of the two men. But the key to Pinter is the language and the plotting; to fall into character analysis is to miss Pinter’s distinctiveness as a playwright. Pinter refuses to reduce a play to the motivations of the people in it. Why they do things is less important than what they do and how they go about hiding what they are doing from themselves and others and how they otherwise work out in their speech and actions the implications of what for some reason or other they set out on doing.
The affair starts because the woman is bowled over by the ardor with which her suitor tells her of his love. He, for a moment, struggles to find words to express feelings and the actor is very good at showing how difficult it is for him to manage to do so, the three people in the play retreating the rest of the time into a language of silences punctuated by allusions to symbols of what is occurring in their lives. Playing squash or not is a symbol of the recognition of betrayal, while going to lunch is about male bonding rather than of betrayal. Catching your cuckolded friend’s child in your arms is a symbol of the deeper connections that for a time seen beyond being betrayed by an affair. Meanwhile, there are enough hints that everybody is carrying on with somebody and so no one is in a position to talk about any one else’s betrayal or to get angry about it. A psychoanalyst I knew once told me about his patients: not much was repressed, but a lot is suppressed.
Everybody in Pinter knows what is going on; they just don’t formulate it in words because it is easier to get on with life that way, though the consequences of behavior are inevitable, the one on stage marriage falling apart by the end (the beginning) of the play, the audience not knowing what is happening in the other marriage while assuming the worst. Behavior rather than motives is the pay dirt of human life. It is what makes things happen and makes meanings happen. People are whatever it is they do.
Maybe that reading of the play is the legacy of my Existentialist youth, that time, the Age of Anxiety, which lasted from 1945-1975, a time after Modernism and one so quickly replaced by Post Modernism. Remember Camus and Cheever and Bellow and Abstract Expressionism? The Age of Anxiety, my title for it taken from Auden and Leonard Bernstein, was thought part of the Modern but is a period all its own. There was a lot of talk about the human condition, both in literature (Albert Camus) and social analysis (as in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition) and what was new under the sun in politics (Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.) The philosophical themes of the movement were set by the popularized Existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre, which yielded, in the Seventies, to the cultivation of pop culture by Andy Warhol. Walter Benjamin, the Modernist, and Edwin Auerbach, a figure from the Age of Anxiety, are quickly replaced by Marshall McLuhan’s Post-Modern idea that the medium is the message. Literary forms in the Age of Anxiety were non-experimental even as artistic forms (think Pollack and Rothko) uncluttered their painting, honing them down to their formal properties. Issues of social class gave way to issues of what it is to be merely human and subject to the metaphysical constraints that hold for everyone.
Pinter is at the tail end of the period. He is formal in his language, cutting it down to the minimal of what has to be said, avoiding the poetic and overblown. Yet his plays are “ordinary” in that they follow a particular stripped down narrative from beginning to end—or end to beginning—because playwriting is thought to be telling the stories of particular people rather than people and circumstances which are grand. No Verdi belongs in the Age of Anxiety. And Pinter’s morals, so to speak, have to do with the universal plight of being essentially isolated from other people and people creating hell for one another. To be sentimental shakes the heavens. People are uncomfortable just being involved, in the case of Betrayal, in a puzzling world where there is such a thing as passion in conflict with loyalty and where people, for some reason, are expected to cleave together rather than just naturally do so. Pinter is Sondheim without the music.