Weasels at the Wake
December 26, 2008
Someone asked me what my work was ‘about.’ I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of inquiry: ‘The weasel under the cocktail cabinet.’ That was a great mistake. Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my work. But for me the remark meant precisely nothing. . . . What am I writing about? Not the weasel under the cocktail cabinet . . . I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.
-- Harold Pinter (10 October 1930 – 24 December 2008)
If only because of his Nobel Prize in Literature, Harold Pinter will be most remembered as a writer, but it bears emphasis that he was an all-round man of the theater: an extraordinary writer, yes, but also a director and, from the outset of his career, a gifted actor, as he demonstrates in the short pieces embedded below.
Pinter was strongly influenced by Samuel Beckett. His core accomplishment, particularly in the plays that made his name, may have been to bring Beckett's world in to ours: neither Beckett's nor Pinter's plays are "realistic" in the standard sense, but Pinter took Beckett's bleak and frightful attitude, his darkest of the dark humor, and his precision with language that seems to say so little but carries so much, and imported them in to settings and human conversations that in other hands could be the stuff of old fashioned drama of the "kitchen sink"/"angry young man" school. Even though people don't actually speak to one another as they do in Pinter, it is easy to believe they do, and the shifts and thrusts and dangers in characters' relations to one another are always clear, even when they lie hidden in the infamous Pinter pauses or beneath such mundane actions as moving a knick-knack or tearing strips of newspaper.
Here is a Beckett-Pinter linkage made manifest. This clip presents, in its entirety, Beckett's late short piece "Catastrophe," in which Pinter plays The Director, Rebecca Pigeon is The Assistant, and John Gielgud, a few weeks prior to his own death, is the silent Protagonist. David Mamet, who knows a few things himself about precise and freighted language, directed this version for the Beckett on Film project.
Catastrophe by Samuel Beckett  with Harold Pinter, Rebecca Pigeon and John Gielgud, directed by David Mamet
Via the BBC, here are Pinter and Rupert Graves in 2006 having a run at Pinter's own very brief but pitch perfect sketch, "Apart From That," which derives in part from the author's laudable aversion to mobile telephones:
("Apart From That" comes at the very end of a June 2006 BBC Newsnight Review interview, viewable in full here. The discussion of mobile phones begins at around 25:10.)
Some of the best writing about Pinter in the past several years has appeared on the weblogs (Superfluities and now Superfluities Redux) of New York playwright George Hunka. His memorial post features a photo of Pinter in the title role in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, and emphasizes the links between the two Nobel winners. The archived Pinter posts on Superfluities also deserve your time.
- Pinter Patter (October 2005, on the occasion of Pinter's Nobel)
- "Is the Number 846 Necessary or Possible?" (December 2006, concerning The Birthday Party)
- It is the Best of Times, It is the Versed of Times (A miscellany post from December 2005, the last item of which features "Horrid Planet," the Star Wars sequel Pinter could have written, but didn't.)