April 20, 2000: Pinter, Celebration and The Room

Almeida, evening. Directed by the author

A double bill of Pinter’s first and latest plays — a contrast in almost every way. Pinter specializes in the tawdry and the sordid. He can even make the most posh restaurant in London — the scene of Celebration, in its premier performance here — seem tawdry and sordid, despite the ostentatious glitter. Pinter’s subjects at any rate are always the same: decay, decadence, decline, loss; desperation and despair; and the unknowable other. The Room is still as impenetrable, in certain ways at least, as it must have been in its first performances. Innumerable barriers to communication occur in Pinter’s menacing world, many of them constructed by the characters themselves out of the deep, anxious need for self-protection and survival in an unremittingly hostile world. Talk, as distinct from real communication, is one of the most frequently used ploys to disarm or distract the potential threat. And yet, on a characterological level, all that frenzied activity often issues, ironically, in a compulsive self-revelation, where it is not precipitated by events, or by violent assault. In fact, the sustained threat of assault, as a strategy of survival, is often more powerful (and more practicable) than physical assault itself.

Celebration puts three couples, two at one table and one at the next, in a posh London restaurant, presided over by an unctuous flatterer of a restaurauteur and his slick female accomplice — well, associate. The drink, mostly expensive vintage wine, flows freely; as we move, by way of lighting emphases, from one table to the other. We find out a good bit about the lives and characters of these un-self-reflective people, and even discover that the woman who is half of the solitary couple at one table had an office affair with one of the men at the other table — behind an office filing cabinet, it seems. He is there celebrating his wedding anniversary with his brother and their wives, who are themselves sisters. Close consanguinity somehow becomes a matter for a sort of inbred narcissism, self-congratulatory and self-deluding.

The play is a kind of satire: Pinter is showing us how empty and meaningless the lives of these people really are. The young man who waits on the tables is, in this context, something of a pivotal figure. His bogus tales of his grandfather’s exploits — in one narrative his grandfather is said to have known every writer of importance of his time — Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Spender, Hemingway, etc. This is such an obvious put-on, and so ignorant and gullible are the customers at his tables, that the satirical point becomes unmistakably evident. The young man’s closing monologue, after the guests have departed, seems to throw the play into another key, however. His grand tales of his grandfather’s prowess, introduced by him with a polite “May I interject something here?” Proved to be a self-realizing fantasy: his way of surviving in a hostile world will go on being one of “interjecting” himself into circles from which he is otherwise excluded. And so the play ends with a kind of recapitulation of the characterological premises found in Pinter’s characters from the very start.

Familiar ground, after all, here. The dialogue is sharp, angular, precise, quickly paced and rapid-fire — in short, Pinter at his best. As director, he has effected first-rate performances from his actors. Pinter’s direction is as unexceptionably clear as is his writing as a playwright. Pinter is an actor’s writer, no doubt about it. What his characters say is often if not always unverifiable in an existential way, but as human utterance is exceptionally clear. As in the case of Shakespeare’s dialogue, a careful reading of it, line by line, will reveal all the signs and signals necessary to speak the speech in a way that compels attention. Actors can trust this language unfailingly, even if its semantic freight is ambiguous or occluded by its origins in the unplumbable depths of the heart.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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