This is the shine, the powder and blood, and here am I,
Straddled, exile always in one Whitbread Ale town,
Pinter, New Year in the Midlands (1950)
‘[I]n this gaudy, bawd-filled Midlands pub one even wonders if there is a glimpse of Pinter himself in “the clamping/ Red shirted boy ragefull, thudding his cage.”’
Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (1996)
Ahead of the project’s first event at the University of Birmingham in April next year, what connection might there be between Pinter and the Midlands? As the brief but evocative extract from one of his early poems, New Year in the Midlands suggests, Pinter experienced the Midlands first hand during his years as an actor in repertory theatre. For Billington, the carefully crafted language of this early piece is enough to locate the writer in the swirling bustle of a Midlands boozer, the young Pinter perhaps clutching a pint of the then ubiquitous Whitbread Ale. Later, The Dumb Waiter is set in Birmingham and, though now a major international institution, the Royal Shakespeare Company maintains its centre of operations in rural Stratford-upon-Avon.
Uniting Pinter, the Midlands, and the early years of the RSC is the work of another playwright, David Rudkin, and his seminal piece Afore Night Come. Rudkin himself has emphasised the lasting influence that Pinter’s work had on his own practice, explaining how in 1958, ‘a play came to Oxford on its out-of-town try-out, called The Birthday Party and by an unheard-of writer called Harold Pinter, and it simply exploded between my ears. This amazing unknown writer had discovered poetry at the very opposite end of the language spectrum, in the trite and the stunted and the banal.’ (Rudkin, Afore Night Come (2001), n.p.).
Set on a rural Black Country farm in the West Midlands in the early 1960s where casual labourers are hired to pick fruit, Afore Night Come is arguably the most significant production of the RSC’s first season of new works at the New Arts Theatre in 1962 in terms of public notoriety, critical acclaim, and lasting influence on the company. The action takes place over one day, beginning with the arrival of two new workers, Larry and Jeff, who join the crew of regular farm hands. Later in the first Act, an Irish vagrant named Roche arrives at the farm also looking for work and soon his predilection for poetry earns him the nickname ‘Shakespeare’:
ROCHE […] I am a poet. I write, in a way.
SPENS Hear that? Got a poet in the orchard wit us, now. Bloody Shakespeare.
JUMBO What you reckon to Shakespeare, then, Pat [Roche]? Critically speaking.
ROCHE I think him good. Very good.
JEFF I like Macbeth (Afore Night Come, Act I)
As the play progresses, the other labourers become increasingly hostile towards Roche, with the play culminating in a violent confrontation in which Roche is beaten, stabbed and eventually decapitated with a hayfork.
This combination of every day vernacular and extreme violence, for many critics, is the hallmark of Pinter’s influence in Rudkin’s piece. ‘Predictably’, writes Steve Nicholson, as a result of this climatic ending, Rudkin was ‘accused of revelling in violence for its own sake, but the play also carries clear resonances of Pinter (it was famously nicknamed The Peartaker), not least when – in an echo of the attack on Stanley in The Birthday Party – the persecution of the tramp is instigated by the deliberate smashing of his glasses.’ (Nicholson, Modern British Playwriting: the 1960s (2012), p. 49). Ahead of Rufus Norris’s 2001 production for the Young Vic, critics were quick to reaffirm the connection between Rudkin and Pinter’s work once more with Independent critic Paul Taylor compares The Caretaker’s Davies to Rudkin’s Roche, who he describes as ‘blustering with the kind of baseless assumptions about his own superiority that make him first cousin to Pinter’s Davies’ (Taylor, Independent, 27 September 2001).
Following its run at the New Arts Theatre in 1962, Afore Night Come was staged at the Aldwych in 1964 (on the condition that the beheading took place out of sight upstage), alongside Pinter’s The Homecoming, where it became an exemplar of the kind of ‘Dirty Plays’ that theatre impresario and RSC Executive Emile Littler, and members of the public, objected to. It then went on to open the first ever public season at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1974.
Afore Night Come, then, represents a significant moment in the RSC’s history both practically and symbolically. As well as its recurrent programming, it was the first new play to be commissioned by the company set in the present day. Moreover, its location in the Midlands not far from Stratford-upon-Avon and the searing indictment of poetry represented by the pathetic figure of Roche-as-Shakespeare could be read as a confrontation between the theatrical traditions on which the company was founded and the desire to break – in this case violently – from those traditions in the context of the early 1960s. Taking the Midlands as a starting point, in just one brief case study we can begin to trace Pinter’s influence both on the work of fellow writers like Rudkin, as well as the multiple ways in which his work has impacted this particular institution.
To hear a recording of Pinter reading New Year in the Midlands (amongst other works) in New York in 1964, click here