University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
Uncovering the Precipice
In his Nobel Address, entitled Art, Truth and Politics (2005), Harold Pinter stated that while the artistic exploration of reality produces results that are both true and false, it is the responsibility of the citizen to account for what is true and what is false in order to guard against the implementation of oppressive political regimes. It is therefore striking that so many of Pinter’s later, more politically oriented plays specifically concern language. For instance, Mountain Language (1988) details how an oppressive military regime outlaws the language of a community that it subjugates, whereas Ashes to Ashes (1996) concludes as the main character ultimately disavows knowledge of the traumatic event that her testimony represented throughout the play. While Pinter scholars frequently read each of these plays as commentaries on specific instances of politically motivated violence—the Kurdish-Turkish conflict frequently functions as the frame of reference for interpreting Mountain Language, whereas the Shoah constantly serves as the event that determines readings of Ashes to Ashes—I will argue that Pinter abstracts something more universal from such particular historical atrocities as these plays investigate trauma’s impact on language itself. I therefore suggest that the problem that Pinter’s later plays pose is extremely pressing: if traumatic violence can deprive one of the words to define or identify truth, then how can one speak of those truly violent actions that strip life of its dignity. To address this issue, I propose an alternative approach to reading Pinter’s political plays, which focuses on how these plays facilitate the capacity to listen to and for affect in the survivor’s testimony. In this regard, Pinter’s later plays provide resources for the type of attention that is necessary to embody a political vision that restores dignity to human life.
Rice University, USA
American Receptions of Pinter’s Plays
There is always some problem of cultural transliteration, even among English-speaking countries. Given the United States’ romanticizing of organized crime and its media’s mode of representing political power as a perpetual reproduction of cold war Russia, American imaginaries tend to discern references to covert sites of power as some version of either the mafia or the Soviet Union. In the United States, both theatre audiences and students in classrooms generally (though, of course, not uniformly) interpret the absent powers that lurk in such plays as One for the Road (1984), The Birthday Party (1957), and The Dumb Waiter (1957) as being some version of a popular culture imaginary from either The Godfather (1969/72) or the cold war. (Even though most younger Americans don’t recall the cold war, the specific covertness imagined as Soviet lingers). Behind-the-scenes criminals bound by omerta or political devotion operate via threats, extortions, and offings. When Pinter’s plays hint at these obscure bosses, henchmen, and/or some lurking but unspecified background power (as in One for the Road and TheNew World Order (1991)), American consumers interpret this unseen force as a mafia, urging such plays as The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party towards a set of Scorsese-like connotations that elicit a plethora of American popular-cultural associations to animate the plays’ off-stage mysteries. When the plays evince an absent but powerful political force, as in Mountain Language, the unseen force connotes Russia, again focusing the plays’ dynamics inadvertently on a specific historical imaginary. Although Pinter’s plays may offer similar power dynamics as these differing points of cultural reference, having some imaginary notion of the power operating behind the scenes, as American consumers tend to do, alters the plays’ feelings of trepidation, generalized terror, and fearsome uncanniness. This literalization reduces the plays’ more dislocated angst that points not to a specific force, but to a power disparity that unsettles everyone everywhere. Does this generally unacknowledged transliteration have a material effect on critical interpretations of Pinter’s plays? Does it influence the choice of texts for classroom curricula? What does it mean when the referent is always backstage?
University of Birmingham, UK
‘A Shop Window for Outrage’: Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, In-Yer Face Theatre & the Royal Court’s 1996 West End Season
Drawing on archival materials from the Royal Court and the Harold Pinter collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library, this chapter will look at Pinter’s 1996 play Ashes to Ashes and its place as the inaugural event for the English Stage Company’s (ESC) lease of two theatres in the West End while its Sloane Square home underwent major renovation. The residency, lasting from September 1996 until February 2000, coincided with the high water mark of both ‘Cool Britannia’ and In-Yer-Face Theatre in which work including Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996), Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1998) and Crave (1998) and Martin McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy (1996-97) shared close associations with the ESC.
Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes played in repertoire with Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking and this relationship becomes the basis for the paper’s interest in looking at how the ESC saw itself as a rebellious presence, proclaiming ‘there goes the neighbourhood’ in its publicity and marketing materials. However, the ESC’s relationship with the West End, marked in this instance through the sometimes fractious relationship between the company and Pinter, challenged some of the ESC’s cherished principles, and compromises some of the founding myths of In-Yer-Face theatre itself.
The paper will also seek to reassess and further explore Pinter’s relationship to the dramatists associated with In-Yer-Face drama, especially Kane. Drawing on correspondence between the pair, in particular Kane’s own responses to Ashes to Ashes, sheds new light on how we might understand some of Aleks Sierz’s early definitions of the term he coined.
University of Reading, UK
Next of Kin: Harold Pinter, John Hopkins, Theatre and Television
This paper presents a relational study of Harold Pinter and John Hopkins, two dramatists of the 1960s and 1970s, and the mediums of stage and television drama. Both Pinter and Hopkins were hailed as great dramatic originiators of their time, with Hopkins holding equivalent status within the field of British television drama to Pinter’s theatrical standing, particularly for his 1966 BBC serial Talking to a Stranger, acclaimed as “the first authentic masterpiece written directly for television”. There are many parallels between the two writers’ plays, with both preoccupied with mental illness and family trauma, and working in a register that is simultaneously demotic and opaque. Both worked beyond their primary disciplines, with Pinter writing two plays (Tea Party, 1965, and The Basement, 1967) as ‘pure’ television dramas, wholly intended for the medium, while Hopkins had plays produced theatrically, starting with This Story of Yours at the Royal Court (1968).
This paper will concentrate on the one occasion when both men worked together, Hopkins’ 1974 National Theatre play, Next of Kin, directed by Pinter. One of only four plays produced by the National never to have had its script published, Next of Kin is a forgotten moment in histories of both Pinter and the National Theatre. Through research into contemporary reception, Pinter’s correspondence with Hopkins, the National Theatre prompt copy and the British Library sound recording of the play in performance, the paper will attempt to learn new understanding into Pinter’s own dramatic practice through tracing his interpretation of Next of Kin.
University of Leeds, UK
‘Didn’t He Ramble?’ – The Drafting of Ashes to Ashes
It is commonly accepted that the composition of Pinter penultimate play Ashes to Ashes (1996) is in part the result of an extended period of research and focus on narratives of or connected to the Holocaust: TheRemains of the Day (1989), Reunion (1971), An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 (English trans. 2002), Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides (1995), Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995). The sequence of drafts of the manuscript, from early hand-written scenes to final annotated typescripts, are all available for viewing in the British Library archive of Pinter’s work. In this paper, I intend to consider the process of drafting the play against our broader understanding of Pinter’s writing process, starting with a point of inspiration, or an image, and ‘creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence’, unwelcome by the characters, resisted by them, and following where they dictate. I aim to try to understand where the characters were leading Pinter as he became acquainted with them, and to distinguish between that pursuit of a narrative via seemingly autonomous characters and the clear decisions and interventions of a writer, the points of starting and stopping, the compilation of earlier-drafted segments, the selection and rejection. In doing so, I seek to understand Ashes to Ashes as a play that struggles to avoid a Holocaust narrative while being irresistibly permeated with that history and the obligation to express it.
University of Antwerp, Belgium
From ‘Fragments’ to Family Voices: The Genesis of Pinter’s Radio Play
While much of Harold Pinter’s work from the 1950s and 1960s is driven by transmedial strategies, allowing a particular text to function, through minimal adjustments, on the stage and the radio as well as on television, his work from the late 60s onwards maintains a stricter sense of genre division. For example, when the Head of BBC Drama in 1968, Martin Esslin, read the script of Landscape to explore the possibility of broadcast in light of the Lord Chamberlain’s refusal to grant the play a licence for theatre performance, he felt it would make ‘splendid radio’ due to its foregrounding of voice. Pinter, by contrast, was not convinced, insisting that the visual element was of prime importance for him and that he had written the play specifically for the stage, wanting to see how the physical stillness of the actors would go together with the words. This is an aesthetic that Pinter went on to explore in plays that would follow, most notably Silence (1968), Old Times (1970) and No Man’s Land (1974). (No Man’s Land would never be done on radio, Old Times not until 1990 and Silence only once, in 1969). So, when in 1977 BBC Script Editor Richard Imison asked Pinter if radio still had something to offer him that other media could not, Pinter set out to explore that question in what became known as Family Voices (1981). In addition to building on material at the BBC WAC, this paper traces the genetic history of Pinter’s radio play, from its earliest notes and typescripts to its production script and related correspondence preserved at the British Library. The main question that it seeks to answer is how Pinter gradually cohered his loose ‘Fragments’ – the working title of the script – into Family Voices and how his medium-specific thinking evolved in the successive versions.
University of Reading, UK
The Style and the Impact of Joan Kemp-Welch’s Four Productions of Pinter Plays (Associated-Rediffusion for ITV, 1960-63)
Joan Kemp-Welch, one of the first women television producers, developed her practice from 1955 by taking responsibility for the live transmission on ITV’s first night, producing scores of editions of a women’s magazine-style programme, devising the pop-music-focused Cool for Cats (1956-61), for which she received a BAFTA Television Light Entertainment award, and directing outside broadcasts from the Hammersmith Palais. By 1959, she had earned sufficient industry respect to be permitted to work on drama, drawing on her three prior decades of work as an actor and director in theatre and film.
The plays she produced for Associated-Rediffusion included work written especially for television and new and established pieces from the theatrical repertoire. Her drama productions were held in high esteem: in 1961, her Laudes Evangelii received a prize at the Monte Carlo television festival; her 1963 production of Pinter’s The Lover (1962) won the Prix Italia; and she was awarded the Desmond Davis Award for the most outstanding creative work in television in 1964 (the first woman and ITV person to receive it).
Before The Lover, she had produced three other Pinter plays for Associated-Rediffusion—namely, the landmark television realisation of The Birthday Party (1960), plus Night School (1960) and The Collection (1961). Drawing on extant recordings and the Associated-Rediffusion and Joan Kemp-Welch papers held in the BFI’s collections, this paper will analyse the distinctive characteristics of Kemp-Welch’s approach to putting Pinter on screen—such as her innovative visual sense, frequent use of extended shots and attention to significant detail. The paper will also examine evidence for how domestic viewers and television critics engaged with her four Pinter productions in order to evaluate her contribution to Pinter’s growing reputation in the 1960s and his onward, creative legacy.
Tel Aviv University, Israel
Theatre Reviewers as Compromised Historians: Revivals of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party
This paper engages with the London press reviews of six revivals of Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party (1957) from 1975 to 2018. It focuses in particular on the critics’ reactions to these revivals, and the narrative that emerges from their reviews.
Of particular relevance in the present context of critics reacting to a revival of a play, is that they might temporarily assume the role of (quasi-)historians, not only responding to the production at hand but also relating to past productions of the play and accounting for possible changes in its reception. The case of The Birthday Party is especially useful here, having provided several revivals whose reviews reflect the gradual consolidation over time of an apparent historical narrative of the play’s trajectory in the context of Pinter’s career. This narrative revolves around a change – the transformation in the critical reception of The Birthday Party from initial rejection to later acceptance, as reflected too in the change in the playwright’s career from failure to success.
In their historical narrative, the critics provide explanations for the transformed perception of the play. This narrative, I argue, raises a number of irresolvable questions, making the critics’ historical account puzzling and unsatisfactory. Most striking in their historical account is that almost all of them disregard the 1964 production – the first revival of the play – which received highly favourable notices, and therefore could have been perceived as establishing the grounds for the transformed critical perception of the play. Thus, in ignoring this favourably received (first) revival, the critics also overlook a major and distinctive phase in Pinter’s process of critical acceptance.
Examining the critics’ responses to the play’s revivals, I shall demonstrate the consolidation over time of the narrative emergent of their reviews, while also showing its deficiencies as an historical account of both the play’s trajectory and Pinter’s evolving career.
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