Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dorfman On Pinter

When Pinter died, I couldn't find anything cogent to say. I enjoyed some of his plays, and others were frankly not that boring--granted, I haven't seen any of them staged (except scenes from Betrayal), but the only one which on the page really sparked my interest was The Birthday Party. Still, my personal interest nonwithstanding, I wouldn't say he's overrated or that he doesn't deserve his position in the Anglo-Saxon canon... just that he's not my cup of tea.

That didn't seem like much worth remarking at the time, but now I mention it because there's a much more fitting eulogy of him that you should read, (via The Playgoer) by Ariel Dorfman who wrote Death And The Maiden:

...all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about -- dare I say the word? -- politics.

From that very first play, I felt that Harold Pinter was unfolding a world that was deeply political. Not in the overt sense (as would happen later, beginning in the early '80s, in several of his dramas) that his creatures were affected by who governed them, whether this or that man controlled the army or gave orders to the police. No, these figments of Pinter's psyche, at least back in the '60s, did not care to dispute the public arena, were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse. They were, on the contrary, sad citizens of intimacy, obsessed only with their own survival.

And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

Two men waiting in a basement to kill somebody [The Dumbwaiter]. An old tramp laying claim to a derelict room [The Caretaker]. A birthday celebration interrupted by intruders [The Birthday Party]. A woman afraid of being evicted [The Room]. A son who comes home to his dysfunctional family accompanied by an enigmatic wife [The Homecoming]. Primal scenes of betrayal that could be transpiring anywhere on our planet, embodiments of a vast and disquieting landscape of dread, the precarious condition inhabited by most of contemporary humanity, the neglected narrative of the 20th century.

What Dorfman (who knows a thing or two about politics, oppression, etc.) is putting his finger on is what I like about The Birthday Party and am less enamored of in his other plays: this incredible sense of necessity in each line. It is very easy to speak; it is difficult to make each word count. Of late, I continually discover the quality of babbling in some of my plays--in many plays--and my most successful playwriting experiences have been when I attempt to write a play with no words (I always fail, but that attempt and failure is what creates only the words which are necessary).

What I went to the Czech Republic to try and find was a theater where every word said and every thought examined was desperate and necessary, because in a country which suffers censorship and oppression, nobody would dare say the words that aren't necessary unless they have the political sanction. So whereas the politically sanctioned theater is babble with nothing in its core, the illegal theater is stripped of everything pointless, and becomes a sharply defined play. It becomes minimalist--not as a thought experiment, but from the necessity of minimalism. Since minimalism is a favorite form of mine to explore, I wanted to see its wellsprings: why someone must be minimalist, and what that world was like.

Unfortunately, the Czech Republic failed to preserve such a state--if such an idyllic minimalist world ever truly existed--and I never worked up the courage to risk a journey into Belarus (the only place in Europe where such a state of oppression can still be found).

The necessary oppression can be found in some of the great minimal works, though. If you read Beckett, you find them in that state of minimalizing oppression: not an oppression due to tyrant (arguably, one might posit Godot in that position, but his absence makes that weak), but an oppression due to circumstance. They are oppressed by Waiting itself. So too are Ham and Clov oppressed by their circumstances in Endgame; and that oppression is in all of Pinter's plays. I'm currently working on expanding my project (at the time titled "The End") for the Experimental Theater Wing, and that was my experiment: the create the oppressive scenario that should stifle all language.

What Pinter discovered, and Dorfman discovered, and Beckett and I discover too is that no matter what the oppression, some spark of life fights that oppressive death until the last moment possible--and that spark of life is what is important, what we're trying to explore, and delve into.