As a theater student in college during the 1960s, nothing excited my classmates and me as much as a new play by Harold Pinter.
When we found a new Grove Press copy of the latest Pinter play, we would gather on the steps of the theater building, randomly assign roles, and begin a reading. The Ph D candidate and novelist Alexander Theroux, then the university’s Shubert Playwright in Residence, centered the event. His own plays would come to bear the label “Pinteresque”, due to the use of “pause” and ‘silence” to heighten the tension of what would come known as called Pinter’s Theater of Menace. And in a four-year period almost all of Pinter’s major published works found their way to the university’s stage –The Caretaker, The Homecoming, The Dumbwaiter, The Birthday Party.
The template for Pinter’s’ plays seemed to be his first play The Room (1957). The Room introduced all of the features of “Pinteresque:” menaced, and uneasy, characters having anxious conversations about absolutely nothing in particular; mysterious subtexts of the conversations usually suggesting danger.
A knock on the door could often be a cause for panic. Whoever entered was deemed suspicious and regarded as a danger.
As with the Biblical story of Abraham and the three strangers who enter his house, a guest provides a Pinter host with an opportunity to reveal the kind of hospitality he can offer, and thereby the kind of person he or she is. The most generous hosts are rewarded, like Abraham, whose visitors had been God himself in disguise, testing the host’s attitude toward strangers.
The aging poet Hirst already has two house guests, who have come over time to serve as Hirst’s caretakers, guardians, and nurses. Foster, played superbly by Samuel Roukin, claims to be Hirst’s son – Foster-son. Briggs, played with nuanced menage by Jon Hudson Odom, the is called various names by Hirst, as he seems to battle dementia throughout the play.
Hirst admits to his latest guest, Spooner, that he is in the last lap of a race…I had long forgotten.” He may be dying and Spooner may be there to help with the process and evaluate Hirst for his eventual final and eternal placement. Are Foster, Briggs, and Spooner Abraham’s three angels in contemporary garb? Are they preparing Hirst for death? At the end of the play Hirst finds that he is entering a no man’s land of “which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.”
With Pinter there is always more going on than meets the eye or ear. And by the end of the play what happened, and why, are usually still a mystery.
By 1976 I had left graduate school and found myself working within striking distance of New York City where Harold Pinter’s new play, No Man’s Land was playing at the Longacre Theater in a production directed by Peter Hall of the Royal National Theatre and staring the two great lions of the British stage, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.
The play had the expected mystery and menace, but was even more opaque than the previous plays. So indefinite were the facts of the situation that all I can recall after forty-six years is the beautifully humble curtain calls given by Gielgud and Richardson. The most stunning such calls I have even seen.
The play remains a mystery to me after all these years. Even after seeing, acting in, and directing many, if not all, of Harold Pinter’s plays. Not even the comments by the original director, Peter Hall, offer any useful insights:
“What it is about – opposites. Genius against lack of talent, success against failure, drink against sobriety, smoothness against roughness,, politeness against violence.”[i]
Richard Christiansen, the Tribune’s critic for Steppenwolf’s 1981 production directed by John Malkovich and starring Chicago’s lions of the stage, Francis Guinan and John Mahoney, came up with a clarifying analysis of the basic situation:
“The terrain is both familiar and famous. It is the heartland of Pinter’s dramatic territory: a closed room, sealed off from the outside world and inhabited by a small group of people gathered together by mysterious coincidence and under threatening conditions.”
The World War One inspired title “No Man’s Land. It describes “the room as a trap, a dead end, a maze, a wasteland. However ordinary or comfortable it might look, it is rigged with booby traps.”[ii]
What then is the cause of the with the almost hypnotic fascination with the play in performance?
As with all Pinter characters, Hirst and Spooner’s recollections cannot be trusted. Alcohol and dementia and old age and memories come and go, often distorted or misplaced, or incorrect. The audience is left to try to sort fact from fiction, as they puzzle the backstories of the two men. Hovering In the background is the location of Hampstead Heath, a notorious area for gay men to “cruise” for partners. Are Hirst and Spooner gay men? Does it matter? No, Like many of Pinter’s details, it is a rabbit hole set to lure the audience’s imagination.
In 1978, master actor Jeff Perry, the current production’s Hirst, explained the magic Pinter weaves:
One moment doesn’t always tie to the next. Whereas in almost every other writing I had worked on you are piecing together a story out of moments, with Pinter the moment was king. His art comes out of a belief that we are ultimately unknowable to each other, and the sometimes confusing amount of detail and verification that people give about themselves or their history is at one time both really telling about themselves and at other times pure disguise. Pinter has said that his dialogue is often a smokescreen to hide what is really going on in his world. When I began to realize as an actor that there was a kind of a life in Pinter that had nothing to do with linear or understandable or justifiable motivation in the ways I had understood motivation up to that point, it was a gigantic eye-opener for me; I felt liberated from the need to convey a conclusion of justification or of ultimate understanding, for myself or for the audience.”[iii]
Mr. Perry’s Hirst is the most stunning and compelling of the three Hirsts I have seen. Since the other two were Ralph Richardson and Patrick Stewart, that is some tribute to the Chicagoan’s abilities. His Hirst of Act One is in the full throws of drunkenness and dementia, in Act Two Perry offers Hirst on one of his “good days”. Mr. Perry is a master’s the role, almost daring the audience to find anything obscure in Pinter’s mysterious character. It was a tour de force, of the first magnitude.
His partner as Spooner was the understudy Mark David Kaplan, whose fine performance remained but an outlined next to the full-bodies, nuanced performances of the regulars who had mined the text through rehearsal and performance. Nevertheless ,the ploy points were brilliantly in dispute as they dues over women- especially Emily, Stella, and Arabella-,and their disparity literary achievements.
Director Les Waters highlighted Spooners’ four refrains;
“I have known this before. The exit through the door, by way of belly and floor”
“I have known this before. Morning. A locked door. A house of silence and strangers.”
“I have known this before. The door unlocked. The entrance of a stranger. The offer of alms. The shark in the harbour.”
“I have known this before. The voice unheard. A listener. The command from an upper floor.”
The Biblical cadence of the delivery both echoes that of Job’s famous “I only have escaped alone to tell thee” and suggests Spooner regularly plays this role.
So fine is Mr. Waters direction that I almost thought I understood what was going on. But its was a beautiful illusion. Lighting designer Yi Zhao, costume designer Janice Pytel, and scenic designer Andrew Boyce combined to create a breathtaking planair maze of the theatre.
[i] Hall, Peter, Peter Hall Rehearsal Diaries, New York: Harper and Row, 1981, p. 147,
[ii] Christiansen, Richard, Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1981, p. B8.
[iii] Mayer, John. Steppenwolf Theare Company of Chicago. In Their Own Words. London: Bloomsbury Drama, 2006, p. 31.