Memory and Structure: The Middle Plays of Harold pinter

When playwright Harold Pinter began a new work, he almost always started with the first image the audience would see onstage. He then began writing dialogue, discovering the characters intuitively.

In his essay “Art, Truth & Politics,” he describes the gestation of his early masterpiece The Homecoming where he suspected that two characters were father and son, but didn’t know until the boy criticized his “dad” for his shabby cooking. At this point, he hadn’t even named the characters, so he referred to them as A and B: “Since B calls A ‘Dad,’ it seemed to me reasonable to assume they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking was not held in high regard. Did this mean there was no mother? I didn’t know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.”

Pinter reversed the process of divination once to create the innovative and unique structure for his 1978 play Betrayal, which begins at the end of an affair. In an interview with critic Mel Gussow, he tells that when he started the play, he saw only “Two people at a pub ... Meeting after some time. They were talking about the past. So, I thought I’d better go back there and see what happened.” The public space of a pub is notable; many of Pinter’s works to that point take place in claustrophobic, private rooms, such as the two plays — Old Times and No Man’s Land — which immediately preceded Betrayal. These three plays, now grouped loosely together as Pinter’s middle period, share a central concern: memory.

“I have a strange kind of memory,” Pinter said. “I think I really look back into a kind of fog most of the time, and things loom out of the fog. Some things I have to force myself to remember. I bring them back by an act of will. It appals me that I’ve actually forgotten things, which at the time meant a great deal to me.” In his 1970 play Old Times, three lovers grapple for power through conflicting memories; they recall different versions of a day where they saw the film Odd Man Out, but Pinter gives no clues to the audience as to whose memory is true or correct. “The fact is it’s terribly difficult to define what happened at any time,” he said in reference to the play. “I think it’s terribly difficult to define what happened yesterday. You know that old Catholic thing, the sin in the head? So much is imagined, and that imagining is as true as real.”

In Pinter’s 1974 play No Man’s Land, for the first act the audience is led to believe that the two main characters do not remember meeting; in the second act, they spontaneously begin talking in highly detailed terms about a series of joint acquaintances and “shared” memories — memory is seen as a struggle for power, a competition where the person who can define the past can control the present.

Pinter drew most directly from his own personal life for Betrayal (many of the details spring from an affair Pinter had with journalist Joan Bakewell). But among his other plays, the inductive process remained constant: “The actual structure of the play seemed to dictate itself. You have two people in a pub and you wonder when they first met.” In the unwinding of Anna, Jerry, and Robert’s story, Pinter narrows in on two essential questions that determine how we experience our lives — what we remember about the past and what we know about the present.

As much as the play’s plot is on the surface about how three people betray each other, Pinter also questions at a deeper level how faulty memory and false perception lead us to betray ourselves.

— Charles Haugland

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