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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

The Lincoln Center Festival 2001:
Harold Pinter--Yet Again July 10-July 29, 2001
Various Venues
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden August 1, 2001

The Lincoln Center Festival of the Arts closed July 29th with-- you guessed it--more Harold Pinter plays. As I noted in my last piece, Harold Pinter was the supreme star of the Festival. Every performance of his plays sold out, and, at the final showing, people lined the street hoping for returns. On the one hand, it was gratifying that interest in serious theater was so high; on the other, most of his plays, especially his recent ones, were disappointing.

His very first play "The Room" (1957) was paired with "Celebration" his most recent work (1999). And what a contrast. "The Room," a Beckett-like work that made Pinter famous and influenced many young writers, is full of ambiguity and mystery, full of surprises and riddles. A woman, unidentifiable except for her seedy clothes which place her in the lower class, makes breakfast, presumably for her husband, who sits at a table reading the newspaper while being served, and utters not a word; his wife, however, rambles on. When he goes off, several strangers--unannounced--visit her. A young couple claim they came to rent the room, and are searching for the landlord, who had also appeared after the husband left, but is now out of sight. Finally a strange, blind man comes to call, and begs the woman "to return home." Who these people are, what they wanted, what they symbolized remain one of the Pinter puzzles. The woman (played by Lindsay Duncn) is non-identified; the couple who have come into her room uninvited, talk double talk; the landlord appears and disappears and speaks with peculiar logic; and the woman screaming at everyone for explanations of the mysterious intrusions, gets nowhere; she is as perplexed as the audience. At the end, the husband returns from work, sees the blind man, who had almost bonded with his wife, beats up the helpless man or kills him? End.

One supposes that the room is a metaphor for the world where people are disengaged and incomprehensible: they talk in riddles and hide their real emotions in stupid conversation. Finally no room is safe from the evil, menacing intrusions that linger beyond the room. For a first play, by a unknown playwright, it foreshadowed Pinter's future work and codified his style-- the eerie, baffling presence of threatening forces, the fractured speech, the messy equilibrium of the characters, and the total ambiguity of the story line. "The Room" is a good example of the basic Pinter construct.

"Celebration" is Pinter's latest work (1999), and there we have a new Pinter. Three couples are in a restaurant. Couple one is celebrating their wedding anniversary with couple two. Couple three sits at another table; maybe they are married, or the woman has just been picked up. True to the dinner party play format -- we have seen quite a few recently--the event, whether a celebration or a social occasion, is sure to expose the worst in people. In Pinter's "Celebration" the couples, decadent bourgeois types and loud mouth vulgarians, are stupid, coarse, and just plain evil. During the course of the play, everyone gets drunk and long forgotten secrets are exposed. Apparently all plays set at dinner parties stick to a format: hate, hostility and violence always lurk beneath the surface. Why Pinter, one of our most original playwrights, selected a cliche metaphor for his latest work, is another Pinter mystery.

The political Pinter was represented by two short plays that seemed like radio scripts. "Mountain Language" takes place in a (nameless) Fascist country. A group of people are lined up, and held under arrest by a brutal army. An old woman is being interrogated but cannot speak. She is repeatedly told that her language is forbidden, and that her use of it would invite torture or death. One of the inmates, a young woman, begs to see her husband, only to find him tortured. The old woman who never speaks, watches her son die. That is the story.

The brevity of the script, the limited dialogue, the ghostly atmosphere, and superior acting did add a particular tension and compelling force to the production. But the shortness of the play diminished the emotional impact. As one begins to be involved, the play is over (it is a half hour) so that the entire experience had a propagandistic feel similar to the agit-prop "message" plays of the thirties. As usual, the characters are generic, so are the time and place. We can figure it all out for ourselves, Pinter is saying. True, we can, but had Pinter developed the characters and given us more information to chew on, perhaps our response to the play would have been greater.

"Ashes to Ashes" (1996), shown as a companion piece to "Mountain Language," depicts a woman who sits on a couch, never gets up, and relates a bizarre story to her husband--about her lover--a story she mixes up with other inconsequential matters. After a while she talks about a train ride with a baby who was snatched from her hands presumably by fascist thugs (Sophie's Choice?). After relating this gruesome tale, she refutes the whole story and denies that the event ever happened. Curtain. Once again, who is this woman? What is her mumbo-jumbo tale about? Why is she telling her husband this story about a lover. Did all this happen to her or doesn't it matter? Is she traumatized, or is she actually recovering from a brutal incident? Why all this mystery? That one of our most famous playwrights takes an ethical position in the world is gratifying, but fine intentions do not make a great play. Nevertheless, audiences did come out for Harold Pinter. And many enjoyed the work despite some critical grumbling. It was certainly refreshing that people were anxious once again to see serious plays. Thanks to the Festival which has become a great force in New York City. One hopes it will be around for years to come. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir"In the Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys" (Continuum Publishing). Her pieces on theater appear frequently here and in the pages of the "New York Times."

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