Harold Pinter, winner of the Nobel Prize, passed away on Wednesday. He revolutionized the way stage dialogue is used, something obvious when the terms ‘Pinteresque’ and ‘the Pinter Pause’ come up time and time again as one studies contemporary drama. His work influenced not only later playwrights like David Mamet and Sam Shepard, but also the way a young man in Austin, Texas, would feel about the power of drama.
Though in many of Pinter’s scenes, there is little of consequence transmitted verbally, labeling such pieces as uncommunicative completely misses the point. Pinter is far from wanting to say that language is incapable of establishing true communication between human beings, but merely draws our attention to the fact that human beings rarely make use of language for that purpose, as least so far as spoken communication is concerned. People tend to act not so much logically as emotionally through language, and the tone of voice, the emotional color of the words is often far more significant than their exact definitional meanings. For example, the verbal outburst of one persona against another is basically an act of aggression, an assault by verbal blows in which the violence of the emotion behind the words is far more important than their content. What matters most in oral communication through words is more what people are doing to each other through it rather than the conceptual content of what they are saying.
Thus in drama, dialogue is ultimately a form of action. And Pinter found a way to insert the silence into his poetry. The silences in his plays are written into the text, are a part of the dialogue, and are wielded against other characters. If a line of Shakespeare’s verse is like an atom, full of infinite energy if we can just find a way to split it open, then perhaps the same can be said for the silence in Pinter’s plays. They derive their power for suggesting possible answers to questions that the audience thinks could be said, then subverting that expectation with a spoken line that seems less than meaningful. The power in these exchanges derives from the silence, not from what is spoken.
I’ve written several papers about Pinter, but have been most influenced by an essay concerning radio drama by Mamet. His claim is that one could get just as much out of Shakespeare listening to a radio broadcast as one could receive at a staged version because all the power is packed into the language. Yet I imagine that Pinter’s plays could be just as well observed the same way. The power isn’t in the staging at all. It’s the silences that not only we hear, but the characters hear as well. As a person who has written a bit of drama and likely will return to that again, this aspect of Pinter’s style literally changed the way I approach my own work as well as they way I critique the work of others.
Harold Pinter was a revolutionary playwright, taking the Absurdist nature of Samuel Beckett and placing it amongst lovers or a family. His best work is probably The Homecoming, but I’ve found one can’t really go wrong with him. I urge any of you to make an effort to see one of his plays and to find Peter Hall’s BBC version of The Homecoming. Pinter will truly be missed.