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Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter
Edited by
Michael J. Meyer
Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter
Edited by
Mary F. Brewer
Amsterdam - New York, NY 2009
Cover Design: Pier Post Cover Image: Dan Grigsby The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of “ISO 9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents Requirements for permanence”. ISBN: 978-90-420-2556-1 ©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2009 Printed in the Netherlands
Contents General Editor’s Preface
Introduction: The Dumb Waiter -- A different kind of theater Mary F. Brewer
A Realist-Naturalist Pinter Revisited Naoko Yagi
The Dumb Waiter: Realism and Metaphor Radmila Nasti0002
(Re)Thinking Harold Pinter’s Comedy of Menace Basil Chiasson
Feeding Power: Pinter, Bakhtin, and Inverted Carnival David Pattie
Return of the Referent Varun Begley
“Disorder … in a Darkened Room:” the Juridico-Political Space of The Dumb Waiter Juliet Rufford
High Art or Popular Culture: Traumatic conflicts of representation and postmodernism in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter Catherine Rees 111 Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter: Negotiating the boundary between “high” and “low” culture Michael Patterson
“The Ironic Con Game” Revisited: Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, a Key to Courage Penelope Prentice
The “Other” Within Us: the Rubin’s Vase of Class in The Dumb Waiter Jonathan Shandell
Anti-ritual, Critical Domestication and Representational Precision in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter Lance Norman 173 “Mixed feelings about words:” Language, politics and the ethics of inter-subjectivity in The Dumb Waiter Mary F. Brewer 189 Unpacking the Pinteresque in The Dumb Waiter and Beyond Marc E. Shaw
The First Last Look in the Shadows: Pinter and the Pinteresque Anne Luyat 231 Essay Abstracts
About the Authors
General Editor’s Preface The original concept for Rodopi’s new series entitled Dialogue grew out of two very personal experiences of the general editor. In 1985, having just finished my dissertation on John Steinbeck and attained my doctoral degree, I was surprised to receive an invitation from Steinbeck biographer, Jackson J. Benson, to submit an essay for a book he was working on. I was unpublished at the time and unsure and hesitant about my writing talent, but I realized that I had nothing to lose. It was truly the “opportunity of a lifetime.” I revised and shortened a chapter of my dissertation on Steinbeck’s The Pearl and sent it off to California. Two months later, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my essay had been accepted and would appear in Duke University Press’s The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (1990). Surprisingly, my good fortune continued when several months after the book appeared, Tetsumaro Hayashi, a renowned Steinbeck scholar, asked me to serve as one of the three assistant editors of The Steinbeck Quarterly, then being published at Ball State University. Quite naïve at the time about publishing, I did not realize how fortunate I had been to have such opportunities present themselves without any struggle on my part to attain them. After finding my writing voice and editing several volumes on my own, I discovered in 2002 that despite my positive experiences, there was a real prejudice against newer “emerging” scholars when it came to inclusion in collections or acceptance in journals. As the designated editor of a Steinbeck centenary collection, I found myself roundly questioned about the essays I had chosen for inclusion in the book. Specifically, I was asked why I had not selected several prestigious names whose recognition power would have spurred the book’s success on the market. My choices of lesser known but quality essays seemed unacceptable. New voices were unwelcome; it was the tried and true that were greeted with open arms. Yet these scholars had no need for further publications and often offered few original insights into the Steinbeck canon. Sadly, the originality of the lesser-known essayists met with hostility; the doors were closed, perhaps even locked tight, against their innovative approaches. Readings that took issue with scholars whose authority
Harold Pinter’s Dumb Waiter
and expertise had long been unquestioned were rejected in favor of the tried and true. Angered, I withdrew as editor of the volume and began to think of ways to rectify what I considered a serious flaw in academe. My goal was to open discussions between experienced scholars and those who were just beginning their academic careers and had not yet broken through the publication barriers. Dialogue would be fostered rather than discouraged. Having previously served as an editor for several volumes in Rodopi’s Perspective of Modern Literature series under the general editorship of David Bevan, I sent a proposal to Fred Van der Zee advocating a new series that would be entitled Dialogue, one that would examine the controversies within classic canonical texts and would emphasize an interchange between established voices and those whose ideas had never reached the academic community because their names were unknown. Happily, the press was willing to give the concept a try and gave me a wide scope in determining not only the texts to be covered but also in deciding who would edit the individual volumes. The Dumb Waiter volume that appears here is the sixth attempt at this unique approach to criticism. It features several wellknown Pinter experts and several other essayists whose reputation is not so widespread but whose keen insights skillfully inform the text. It will soon be followed by volumes on Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. It is my hope that as more new titles appear, the Dialogue series will foster not only renewed interest in the chosen works but that each volume will bring forth new ideas as well as fresh interpretations from heretofore silenced voices. In this atmosphere, a healthy interchange of criticism can develop, one that will allow even dissent and opposite viewpoints to be expressed without fear that such stances may be seen as negative or counter-productive.
General Editor’s Preface
My thanks to Rodopi and its editorial board for its support of this “radical” concept. May you, the reader, discover much to value in these new approaches to issues that have fascinated readers for decades and to books that have long stimulated our imaginations and our critical discourse Michael J. Meyer 2009
Introduction: The Dumb Waiter -- A different kind of theater Mary F. Brewer Writing in the 1960s, the critic Eric Bentley spoke of the need for a different kind of modern theater, one of “purity:” a theater characterized by “simplicity and sincerity.” Elaborating on this concept of purity, he called for plays that “replaced the equivocations of popular prejudice with consistent and responsible attitudes” (xiii), which he found to be sadly lacking in the “unreal” realism of so much 1960s theater. It is odd, therefore, that in a book of criticism spanning the stages of Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Marcel Marceau, and Martha Graham that Bentley does not address the work of Harold Pinter, for Pinter’s drama encapsulates more than most the “artistic delights” married to “a theater of statements” to which Bentley would have modern playwrights aspire: For a statement is a fine, clear, human thing, and shines by contrast in a world of pseudostatement -- a world of slogans, doubletalk, jargon, cant. (xiv)
What this volume of essays attempts is to illuminate more precisely how one of Pinter’s best known plays, The Dumb Waiter, rises above the world of pseudo-statements and achieves, through its unique blend of absurdity, farce, and surface realism, a profoundly moving statement about the modern human condition. Written in 1957, The Dumb Waiter premièred at the Hampstead Theater Club on January 21, 1960. Since then, it has enjoyed numerous professional and student revivals in the UK and across the world. In 2007, Pinter celebrated 50 years working in the theater, as actor, director, and of course, as one of the most innovative and influential British playwrights of the twentieth century. In commemoration of this milestone, Harry Burton launched a critically acclaimed 50th-anniversary production of The Dumb Waiter at
Mary Brewer
Trafalgar Studios in London (February-March 2007). While Pinter’s later writing or dramas continue to produce radical and testing material both for live performance and the screen, the Trafalgar Studios’ production was indicative of how his early work remains relevant; hence, it continues to generate substantial interest and critical debate among scholars as well as theater practitioners. The Dumb Waiter has achieved also the rare distinction for a modern play of being adapted for popular TV. In 1987, ABC television produced a star-studded adaptation of The Dumb Waiter featuring John Travolta and Tom Conti. In addition to an early BBC television version, which appeared in 1961, the play was again featured as part of the Pinter at the BBC season in 2002. That The Dumb Waiter continues to inspire creative interest is evidenced by the amount of material posted to the Web featuring productions by student and amateur dramatic groups, and by innovative responses to the play such as the animated short by Daniel Grigsby, from which the cover for this volume is taken. When awarding Pinter the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, the Academy explained that Pinter is an artist whose work 'uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms.' Few individual critics have better summed up the matter at the heart of The Dumb Waiter; for an audience to gaze into Ben and Gus’ closed basement room and overhear their “everyday prattle” is to gain insight into what Penelope Prentice calls the play’s “terrifying vision of the dominant-subservient battle for power,” a battle in which societies and individuals engage as a part of daily existence. Thus, by focusing on The Dumb Waiter, the essays in this collection engage not only with one of Pinter’s most popular plays, but also with one of the most challenging, provocative, and politically engaging works in his canon. Despite its concentrated focus, however, the book speaks to a range of significant issues current in Pinter studies and which are applicable beyond a single text. Indeed, a number of contributors use The Dumb Waiter as a lens through which to interpret Pinter’s more recent work, while at the same time exploring how later developments in his dramatic practice reveal hitherto unrecognized or underexplored meanings in this early play. As part of the Rodopi Dialogue series, the guiding principle of the book is to match emerging scholars within studies of modern drama and literature with established experts, the aim being to re-examine a landmark text’s most critical
and controversial elements. As such, the essays engage the previous history of Pinter criticism surrounding The Dumb Waiter, as well as evolving theoretical, cultural and political contexts for the play. Given its place in the British dramatic canon, The Dumb Waiter is regularly encountered by students as a literary as well as a dramatic text. Accordingly, several of the essays included here analyze the play within a comparative disciplinary context, that is, from both a literary and theatrical perspective, making the book of equal significance to those encountering Pinter within the context of English Studies, drama, and performance. Another of the book’s strengths lies in its accessibility. Pinter is not an easy dramatist in any sense of the word, yet each essay shares a commitment to exploring a host of challenging subjects in a language that is reader-friendly but never reductive. Thus, the book should prove of interest and value to a wide range of readers, from undergraduates to postgraduates and specialist researchers. The order of the chapters follows a thematic trajectory. One of the enduring questions about the play refers to categorization. The first two essays by Naoko Yagi and Radmila Nasti0002 explore The Dumb Waiter within the context of genre studies, exploring why it has been received as an example of Absurdist drama. Yagi offers a major reformulation of The Dumb Waiter’s relation to naturalism and realism by discussing Ben and Gus’ room within the framework of the Anglo-European novel and Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope. Nasti0002, in contrast, emphasizes the play’s metaphorical elements, analyzing the symbolic features of Ben and Gus’ situation. Another issue that has intrigued critics relates to categorization, but involves a further emphasis on periodization within Pinter’s oeuvre. Employing a focus on the descriptive phrase “comedy of menace.,” Basil Chiasson takes on the question of what connects Pinter’s many and diverse creative outputs. In contrast, David Pattie draws upon Chiasson’s reconsideration of the play as a “comedy of menace,” and in particular the point he makes about The Dumb Waiter’s visceral impact upon the spectator, in order to locate the play and its meanings within Bakhtin’s concept of the Carnivalesque. Catherine Rees and Michael Patterson address Pinter in terms of “popular” versus “high culture,” using Varun Begley’s recent provocative book Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism as a benchmark for interrogating the relation of The Dumb Waiter to
Mary Brewer
modernist and postmodernist impulses. Jonathan Shandell considers the question of political and personal victimization, addressing how the play constructs and interrogates the category of the “other.” Penelope Prentice picks up Shandell’s theme of “self” and “other” but broadens the discussion to an analysis of how Pinter’s biography impacts on his creative work, and she addresses The Dumb Waiter within the context of Pinter’s human rights activism. As someone who has known and worked closely with Pinter for many years, Prentice’s essay offers an unusual, personal insight into the beliefs and experiences that underlie Pinter’s artistic production and this play in particular. The essays by Varun Begley and Juliet Rufford revisit the politics of The Dumb Waiter. Begley addresses the play within the context of critical theoretical debates among key New Left writers, as well as using Lacanian psychoanalysis to open the text. Via Giorgio Agamben’s theories of juridico-political orders, Rufford offers a compelling thesis about the politics of space, demonstrating the relevance of Agamben’s notion of “states of exception” to the politics of Pinter’s play. My contribution and that of Lance Norman reengage the critical debate about how Pinter chooses to end the play. Norman considers the play’s ambiguities within the larger question of whether any regime of representation may signify precisely, while my analysis discusses The Dumb Waiter in terms of narrative and discourse theory, centering on Bakhtin’s theory of dialogics. Finally, Marc E. Shaw and Anne Luyat analyze the idea of the Pinteresque, a shorthand description for Pinter’s work that often seems to say both everything and nothing much about a play. Shaw and Luyat evaluate in depth some of the ideas that critics have in mind when they use this term to describe a play, either by Pinter or others. Luyat’s essay illuminates how qualities deemed Pinteresque have a literary history that pre-dates Pinter, with elements of the Pinteresque found in the work of writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. Shaw takes the debate in another direction by demonstrating the range of Pinter’s influence, revealing elements of the Pinteresque in the work of contemporary playwrights such as Patrick Marber and Mark Ravenhill. Shaw’s essay is particularly apposite at the present time, as shortly before the publication of this book, Pinter died on December 24, 2008, and his continued “absent presence” in contemporary theater by virtue of his influence upon current and future playwrights may
gain increasing importance in how we understand Pinter’s own plays. As The Times’ obituary stated, Pinter, “arguably the most important and original playwright” of the twentieth century, holds a unique place among contemporary dramatists, for “[f]ew, if any, have so lastingly and profoundly influenced fellow playwrights -- not just in Britain but also beyond (1, 2). The essays in this collection offer a small tribute to Pinter’s dramatic legacy. As the person who has been privileged to facilitate the rich dialogue among the contributors featured here, what I hope will emerge from this book is a flow of fresh insights into and questions about one of the seminal texts of modern British theater, and that the dialogue here engendered will spur future revivals of The Dumb Waiter. Mary F. Brewer, Loughborough University Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Michael J. Meyer for the opportunity to serve as editor of this collection, for his astute critical observations on the work, and for his general support. Esther Roth at Rodopi provided invaluable technical assistance in preparing the manuscript for publication, and I am grateful to Daniel Grigsby for granting permission to reproduce his artwork on the cover.
Notes 1
For a history of its production, see (Consulted 18 August 2008).
Bibliography Bentley, Eric. “Preface” in What is Theater. London: Methuen, 1969. (ix-xvi) Harold Pinter: The Times’ Obituary. ece (consulted 7 January 2009)
A Realist-Naturalist Pinter Revisited Naoko Yagi 1. Introduction In an interview in 1966, when Harold Pinter described himself as “not a very inventive writer;” he had Brechtian “technical devices” in mind, stating, “I can’t use the stage the way he [Brecht] does.” Moreover, Pinter admitted in a rather self-deprecating manner that such “devices” hardly featured in his work since he lacked “that kind of imagination” (1966, 20). We might put it differently today: the power of Pinter’s imagination lay, as it still does, in what we would call the “room.” While imagination of this kind cannot but be obvious to any readers of Pinter’s plays from The Room to Celebration, it often seems, in Pinter criticism, that discussion of a Pinteresque room stops short of going beyond the confines of mise en scène, by which I mean here simply the room as being specified in a play-text and/or as a three-dimensional structure on the stage. If we choose to put Pinter’s “room” in a larger context of Anglo-European literature, what we find is a striking parallel between the manner in which Pinter takes advantage of the vast potential of a “room” on stage and how the concept of “room” is defined, developed, and manipulated in the realist and naturalist novel. In this respect, The Dumb Waiter proves one of the most pertinent of all Pinter’s plays, in whose stage directions “rooms” are specified fairly clearly, including words describing furniture and props. Mainly for its hard-to-ignore spookiness and untidiness, the room in The Dumb Waiter is visibly “naturalistic;” on the other hand, it retains a kind of “realist” temperance, or even elegance, which comes primarily from the quasi-symmetrical arrangement of the beds and the doors with the “dumb waiter” as a centerpiece. Visual aspects, of course, are only part of the story; more importantly, the room in The Dumb Waiter functions so that it allows the characters Ben and Gus to talk and behave as if they are, albeit in a rather contrived sense of the term, descended from characters of the realist and naturalist novel. This essay examines ways in which Ben and Gus may be regarded as
Naoko Yagi
such figures. The discussion will center on Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “chronotope,” which has much to do with his theory of literary genre, and the way chronotope explains the “room” as we see it in Pinter’s Dumb Waiter. Granted that chronotope, according to Bakhtin, is essentially a means of our reading and analyzing novels,1 the argument that follows will draw upon such comments on his theory as Sue Vice’s contention that the term “[chronotope] can be used to analyse local effects in a text, such as the asylum in Jane Eyre; it can be used to discuss a whole genre, such as film noir” (207-08). If chronotope helps a film scholar in her/his critique of a cinematic genre, it should be just as viable for us to turn to chronotope as we read a Pinter play and consider its generic underpinning. Since The Dumb Waiter premiered in 1960, a quick look at the Theater of the Absurd may be in order. Critics and scholars in the 1960s writing about the then newly-minted plays by Pinter referred to the Theater of the Absurd “with great frequency” (King 247), which nevertheless was far from a cut-and-dried phase in the critical trend. Virtually in competition for the best variation on the theme by Martin Esslin, every critic and scholar concerned had her or his own version of the Absurd in mind. Moreover, already during the 1960s, Esslin started revising his initial definition of the Theater of the Absurd, which Pinter critics and scholars promptly took up for yet further analysis.2 By the late 1960s, the discussion had become as much about how Pinter’s plays questioned the validity of critics/scholars’ desire to define the Absurd as about how his plays epitomized whatever a critic/scholar believed was the Absurd. Despite Arnold P. Hinchliffe’s recognition, as early as 1967, that for Pinter “the plays are their own justification” (37), many critics and scholars eagerly measured their analyses of Pinter’s plays against what someone had already called the Absurd, and this certainly pushed Pinter criticism forward. Of particular relevance to the discussion of The Dumb Waiter is a passage in Katherine H. Burkman’s comprehensive review of Esslin and the Theater of the Absurd: The point is that Pinter’s characters lead him continually to the very rhythmic structures which have informed great dramatic works since drama’s origin in primitive ritual. Rather than focusing on lack of communication, Pinter concerns himself with the way people fail to avoid that communication from which they wish to run. While other absurdist writers often allow their characters to succeed in avoiding communication, Pinter’s
A Realist-Naturalist Pinter
dramatic world is one of action in the old Aristotelian sense of the word. (8)
If Burkman’s conclusion still holds, then a closer analysis of her premise is required, an examination which will affirm that Aristotelian “action” is intrinsic to a Pinter play like The Dumb Waiter. 2. Birmingham “In the literary artistic chronotope,” writes Bakhtin, “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole” (1981, 84). We might attempt an analysis of The Dumb Waiter not by plunging into the “room” first and then starting to think about it, but by gradually zooming in for a more careful look at the function of the “room.” As Michael Billington puts it, The Dumb Waiter is “a kind of Godot in Birmingham” (89). If, for the sake of argument, we simply take the Pinter play as a post-Waiting for Godot piece, what indeed makes it possible that Ben and Gus find themselves in Birmingham, a city which, in the strongly London-oriented geography of the Pinter canon, would easily be regarded as an anomaly and therefore some kind of marker? Before trying to answer the question, we should remember that the place-name Birmingham does not always appear in the same mode in published texts of the play. The Samuel French edition of The Dumb Waiter, for example, refers to Birmingham in the stage directions (1), whereas in the Faber edition of the play, it is not until Ben utters the place-name in one of his lines that we are informed of his and Gus’s “room” being located in Birmingham (121). In the latter version, we can either trust what the characters say at face value or interpret their mentioning the place-name as yet another of the factors that contribute to the here-and-nowhere ambience that permeates the play; our speculation is doubly “enhanced” by Gus’s reaction to Ben revealing their alleged whereabouts: GUS. What town are we in? I’ve forgotten. BEN. I’ve told you. Birmingham. GUS. Go on! He looks with interest about the room. That’s in the Midlands. The second biggest city in Great Britain. I’d never have guessed. (121)
Naoko Yagi
While we may or may not be ready to take the place-name as part of the “Absurdist” aspect of The Dumb Waiter, the fact remains that, so long as it is mentioned by the characters, “Birmingham” persists in one way or another in our interpretation of the play. Then, why does it have to be Birmingham? In “[t]he pettybourgeois provincial town with its stagnant life,” which proves “a very widespread setting for nineteenth-century novels (both before and after Flaubert),” everything comes in what Bakhtin calls “cyclical” patterns (1981, 247); time in the provincial town, being “viscous and sticky” and only “drag[ging] itself slowly through space,” will not “serve as the primary time of the novel” (1981, 248). When we start paying attention to “Birmingham” in The Dumb Waiter, what the city of Birmingham was like in the real world of the late 1950s is not much of an issue; rather, it is the stereotypical image of a city “in the Midlands,” as quickly pointed out by Gus, that does the trick for the play. We take it that Ben and Gus are in Birmingham only temporarily; still, the kind of routine that the characters are stuck with and the place-name Birmingham seem to complement each other.3 Put differently, while “Birmingham” in The Dumb Waiter may indeed emanate what Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson call “a certain chronotopic aura” (374), it would be more precise for us to say that the aura of Birmingham is highly conspicuous by its very absence from the play: A particular sort of event, or a particular sort of place that usually serves as the locale for such an event, acquires a certain chronotopic aura, which is in fact the “echo of the generic whole” in which the given event typically appears. [. . .] When these events or locales are used in other genres, they may “remember” their past and carry the aura of the earlier genre into the new one; indeed, they may be incorporated for this very reason. (Morson and Emerson 374)
The paradox is crucial since it concerns what Bakhtin calls the “ancillary” (1981, 248) nature of the provincial town. Ben and Gus talk about Tottenham, where they may or may not have been, which indicates that the pull of the London area should not be ignored either by the characters themselves or by the reader/audience. In discussing Pinteresque “topography,” Peter Raby draws our attention to Pinter’s theatrical work and its “power to have resonance for other places and cultures” (63); for example, “London contains the controlling images in The Birthday Party” precisely because the play is set not in London
A Realist-Naturalist Pinter
but in one of the “accessible seaside towns” (63-4). We certainly detect resonance of that kind in The Dumb Waiter. The difference is that the narrative structure of this particular play has less to do with any topographical “center,” in this case London, than with something that for Ben and Gus is palpably and yet inexplicably ubiquitous. The above-mentioned routine is totally and irrevocably broken at the end of the play, which, to come back to Bakhtin, we may interpret as a proof of that “something” having followed a “noncyclical temporal [sequence]” (1981, 248). “Birmingham” in the Pinter play will always have been “ancillary,” whether for the benefit or the demise of Gus and Ben. 3. The Bed-Sitting Room Written in the same period and with only two speaking characters in it, A Slight Ache is often paired with The Dumb Waiter in Pinter criticism, which in fact betrays a curiously semiotic difference between the two plays. We might remember that A Slight Ache first came into being as a piece for radio, a medium which encourages the listener to exercise her or his power of imagination;4 the sets for the stage version of the play include a “suggested” garden of Flora and Edward’s house with an unseen gate (153), indicating subtly but unmistakably a world beyond the immediate environment that is presented to the audience. By contrast, the “basement room” (113) in The Dumb Waiter precludes any possibility for a view and, thus, underlines the kind of self-sufficiency which, for better or worse, a walled-in space has to offer: GUS: [. . .] I wouldn’t mind if you had a window, you could see what it looked like outside. BEN: What do you want a window for? GUS: Well, I like to have a bit of a view, Ben. It whiles away the time. (117-18)
Furthermore, unlike in A Slight Ache, in which different parts of the house are assembled together in a single space “with a minimum of scenery and props” (153), we find that in The Dumb Waiter the room is simply a room: the walls are reliably solid throughout the play and so are the doors, one to the kitchen and the lavatory and the other opening onto the passage; the contrast exists in the fact that, while tables and chairs will come and go in A Slight Ache, the two beds in The Dumb Waiter are as solid as the walls and
Naoko Yagi
the doors. If we regard the layout of the house in A Slight Ache as being overtly theatrical, its counterpart in The Dumb Waiter can be described as being quaintly novelistic for its detailed and life-scale specifications. The play even goes so far as to have Gus mention a meter for the gas, when in fact the meter is invisible to the audience; in a similar vein, Gus spots a photograph of a cricket team on one of the walls, which, in a production, will possibly be too small for the audience to see and recognize. As he describes the “space of parlors and salons (in the broad sense of the word)” in the works of novelists such as Stendhal and Balzac, Bakhtin states that “[f]rom a narrative and compositional point of view, this is the place where encounters occur (no longer emphasizing their specifically random nature as did meetings ‘on the road’ or ‘in an alien world’)” (1981, 246). For characters created by those novelists, rooms shall either be a challenge or a protection, or both. Gina’s extraordinary “encounter” with the Prince in The Charterhouse of Parma, for example, would hardly have left such an indelible mark on the reader if the characters had taken less advantage of the rooms in question: A thunderbolt falling in that salon would not have produced as much astonishment. In the twinkling of an eye, and as the Prince advanced, a silence of amazement fell in these gay and noisy rooms; all eyes, fixed upon the Prince, opened excessively wide. The courtiers seemed disconcerted; only the Duchess showed no surprise. [. . .] [. . .] As she returned through her salons, everyone supposed her at the height of royal favor, and she had just ventured what in the memory of man no one had dared in all of Parma. She made a sign to the Count, who left his whist table and followed her into a little salon that was lighted but empty. “You have done a very bold thing,” he told her [. . .]. (Stendhal 122-23)
The introduction, at this point, of the “little salon” is no less crucial: Gina and Mosca need a moment to themselves. How does all this relate to the room in The Dumb Waiter? Gus and Ben are thrown into spatiotemporal circumstances that allow no leeway for any space behind the scene where the two characters could have a sojourn, and this contrasts with the characters and their situations in other Pinter plays from roughly the same period, for
A Realist-Naturalist Pinter
example, The Collection and The Lover. In other words, Gus and Ben’s room adds a new meaning to the “full significance” (1981, 246) of the parlor/salon for the very fact that the two characters are not supposed to leave the room unattended: as Gus puts it, “[. . .] we’ve got to be on tap though, haven’t we? You can’t move out of the house in case a call comes” (118). Since the call does not come until towards the end of the play, it is inevitable that the room becomes precisely the “place where the major spatial and temporal sequences of the novel [in this case, the play] intersect” (1981, 246). True, one of the doors will take the characters to the kitchen and the lavatory, but it is highly indicative that those off-the-scene spaces do not mean anything other than for the characters to tend to specific businesses, as it were, for a brief moment at a time. Radmila Nasti0002 in “The Dumb Waiter: Realism and Metaphor” points to Gus’s penultimate exit through that door, and not his final exit, as the turning point in the whole play; nevertheless, it may be asserted that Gus’s penultimate exit, a trip to the lavatory, has a much more practical bent, that it initiates one of the most strategic sound effects in The Dumb Waiter: the lavatory does not flush instantly, but it certainly will much later, or, to be more precise, after Gus’s final exit through the door in question and before his re-entrance through the other door. In short, while “[t]he anxieties of the visible room are heightened by the intimation of barbarity beyond the door” (Begley 92), we might say also that the effect of the barbarity/lavatory amounts, at best, to what Varun Begley calls “peripheral humor of an absurdist variety” (92). The Dumb Waiter is structured so as to make the room on stage the only space where, if we turn to Bakhtin again, “dialogues happen” [emphasis omitted (1981, 246)]. At the same time, considering that “dialogues” here refer to what “reveal[s] the character, ‘ideas’ and ‘passions’ of the heroes” (1981, 246), a further twist to the Bakhtinian parlor/salon is evident in The Dumb Waiter. Whatever their ideas or passions may be, Gus and Ben are, after all, typically Pinteresque characters: the lines they utter are never descriptive enough for the reader/audience to grasp exactly what they are talking about. Gus, for example, goes through a soulsearching moment over the “girl,” which does not mean that the actual lines he utters give anything away in terms of precisely why the girl in question ended up in the state that he keeps calling a “mess:” GUS. I was just thinking about that girl, that’s all. [. . .] She wasn’t much to look at, I know, but still. It was a mess though, wasn’t it? What a mess. Honest, I can’t remember a mess like that
Naoko Yagi one. They don’t seem to hold together like men, women. A looser texture, like. Didn’t she spread, eh? She didn’t half spread. Kaw! [. . .]. (130-31)
Judging from his other lines in the play, it is more likely that Gus himself had no background knowledge about the girl. If, as far as Bakhtin is concerned, the gist of the space of parlors/salons should be found in the “weaving of historical and socio-public events together with the personal and even deeply private side of life” (1981, 247), we might assert that in The Dumb Waiter neither “events” nor the equivalents of the “secrets of the boudoir” (1981, 247) will ever produce the kind of lucidity which we would certainly expect from parlors/salons in a Stendhal novel. Lucidity in Pinter is of a different nature; “secrets” are presented explicitly on stage, while it is just as clear that they shall remain indecipherable even to the characters themselves till the very end of the play. However, in Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin, Malcolm V. Jones reminds us: “the association of the chronotope of the salon with the novel of manners does not entail that every scene set in a salon is a pure example of this type” (118). The Bakhtinian parlor/salon shows a rich variation for good reason, which I will explore further in my examination of the Pinter-Dostoyevsky connection. 4. The Threshold While being a Bakhtinian parlor/salon, Gus and Ben’s room in The Dumb Waiter also stands out among other Pinter “rooms,” for example, those in The Caretaker and The Homecoming, in that it embodies what Bakhtin calls the “chronotope of threshold” [emphasis omitted] (1981, 248). According to Bakhtin, it is the kind of chronotope that we find in Dostoyevsky’s work but not in Tolstoy’s (1981, 249-50). Crucially, Bakhtin uses the term “threshold” so that it refers to what is “always metaphorical and symbolic” (1981, 248); he elaborates on this distinction in the following passage: The interior spaces of a house or of rooms, spaces distant from the boundaries, that is from the threshold, are almost never used by Dostoevsky, except of course for scenes of scandals and decrownings, when interior space (the drawing room or the hall) becomes a substitute for the public square. Dostoevsky “leaps over” all that is comfortably habitable, well-arranged and stable,
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all that is far from the threshold, because the life that he portrays does not take place in that sort of place. (1984, 169)
For a blatant example of Bakhtin’s definition of “threshold,” we may turn to chapter 7 in part 1 of Crime and Punishment, in which there is a paragraph that describes Raskolnikov making his escape from the scene of the crimes; here, the staircase in its entirety becomes a “threshold:” He listened for a long time. Somewhere far away, down at the foot of the stairs, probably somewhere in the entrance-way, two voices were shouting loudly and shrilly, arguing and exchanging abuse. “What’s up with them? …” Patiently, he waited. At last the hubbub stopped without warning, as though cut short; they had gone their separate ways. He was on the point of making his exit when suddenly a door opened with a noise on the floor below, and someone began to go downstairs humming some tune or other. “What a noise they’re all making!” was the thought that flashed across his mind. He closed the door again, and waited. At last all sounds had died away, there was not a soul about. He was just about to put his foot on the staircase when he suddenly heard more footsteps, someone else’s this time. (Dostoyevsky 100)
In The Dumb Waiter, the two doors that we see on the stage function quite differently from each other; while one looks innocuously domestic, the other connects the room to what we might call the Great Unknown. It is, of course, through/under this other door that someone pushes the mysterious envelope. The layout of the stage-set is such that, apart from the door itself, no buffer, not even a tiny entrance hall, should be allowed between the characters’ room and the Great Unknown; this, in effect, turns Gus and Ben’s space, the bed-sitting room, into a room-cum-threshold. Moreover, the intrusiveness of the serving hatch not only enhances the “threshold” effect, but also adds a highly idiosyncratic and even magical flourish to it; since neither Gus nor Ben is aware of the existence of the serving hatch until, halfway through the play, it cuts abruptly into the characters’ space with a noisy fanfare, which is frightening enough for Gus and Ben to “grab their revolvers” (131). Indeed, that is precisely the moment when the three-dimensional space on the stage starts looking more like a threshold than the characters’ bed-sitting room. The balance between the two, in other words, is lost forever.
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A Slight Ache, as already demonstrated, is a play which calls for a visually “theatrical” stage; nonetheless, if we concentrate on the temporal aspects of A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, it turns out that the visually novelistic Dumb Waiter is, to borrow Martin S. Regal’s expression, temporally the “more purely theatrical” (30) of the two. As Regal reminds us, “[o]ther than knowing that the action of The Dumb Waiter takes place on a Friday, we have no other specific references to the time of day” (30), while, “[i]n A Slight Ache, we know a good deal more” (30). Curiously enough, the paucity of temporal information in The Dumb Waiter comes hand in hand with what almost seems like a compulsive repetition of the very word “time” in Gus’s and Ben’s lines, the most indicative of such lines being Ben’s “Time’s getting on,” which we hear at the beginning and also towards the end of the play (115, 142). Among others, Galin Tihanov draws our attention to the fact that, despite what it implies terminologically, Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope puts more emphasis on time than on space (156). To Bakhtin, time in the world of the “threshold” can never be straitjacketed in such a way that “people live a biographical life” (1984,169). If typical Tolstoy characters, who more likely than not will reside away from the “threshold” anyway, are “born, [. . .] pass through childhood and youth, [. . .] marry, give birth to children, [and] die,” what we find in the works of Dostoyevsky are “threshold”oriented characters for whom “the only time possible is crisis time” (1984, 169). In other words, as Morson puts it, “Dostoevsky tended to see occasional critical moments allowing for major turning points” (157), whereas “Tolstoy envisaged each ordinary moment as having a small measure of freedom” (157). When it comes to the temporal structure of The Dumb Waiter, in what sense is it distinctively modeled on Dostoyevsky’s novels rather than on Tolstoy’s? According to Bakhtin, “time [for a Dostoyevskian character] is essentially instantaneous; it is as if it has no duration and falls out of the normal course of biographical time” (1981, 248). The Dumb Waiter, while laden with “crisis events” (1981, 248), certainly hints at what Bakhtin calls the “normal” course of time; whenever Gus looks back upon some aspects of the routine, which he could have taken for granted, or as part of his and Ben’s job, it looks as though Gus is on the verge of revealing a fragment of his and Ben’s “biographical life;” for example: GUS. Why did you stop the car this morning, in the middle of that road?
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BEN. (lowering the paper). I thought you were asleep. GUS. I was, but I woke up when you stopped. You did stop, didn’t you? Pause. In the middle of that road. It was still dark, don’t you remember? I looked out. It was all misty. I thought perhaps you wanted to kip, but you were sitting up dead straight, like you were waiting for something. BEN. I wasn’t waiting for anything. (119-20)
The trouble is that Ben reacts promptly in a highly dismissive manner every time Gus starts uttering lines of this kind. Overall, Ben is responsible for negating his and Gus ever living a reasonably “normal” biographical time, which goes to show that, with or without any particular “event,” the Bakhtinian “crisis time” runs through The Dumb Waiter like an undercurrent. If we find the “events” in the play hilarious and stupefying, it should be noted that anything less acute or less aggressive would hardly have the chance of making a mark as a “crisis event.” The most demonstrative, as it were, of all the necessarily over-the-top “events” is the sequence involving the serving hatch with orders for food. Here, time could not be more “instantaneous” for the two characters; significantly, doubts that Gus harbors about the authenticity of the “café” are quickly brushed aside by Ben and the characters almost voluntarily put themselves in a position which is as crisis-oriented as it is ludicrous: Ben and Gus try to comply with each written order on the spot, that is, by giving up the food in their possession. Nasti0002 suggests that plays like The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party would fall under the general heading of what she calls the Theater of the Threshold, a bold but well-founded twist to the Theater of the Absurd. Therefore, the Theater of the Threshold might be seen in a much simpler manner, that is, without overtly and strongly anthropological connotations on which Nasti0002’s nomenclature mainly rests. In so far as the Bakhtinian “threshold” proves to be part and parcel of The Dumb Waiter, I would regard the play as one of the finest of all the would-be examples of the Theater of the Threshold. 5. Gus’s Re-entrance If Ben and Gus’s “room,” in what at least according to Ben is Birmingham, indeed qualifies as a Bakhtinian parlor/salon while
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serving as its “threshold,” at the same time, we find that the dynamic of the chronotope is geared up to a distortedly “high” level in the final two pages of the play-text. What triggers the ultimate surprise, however, is not the “call” itself. The two characters have been waiting for the instructions since the beginning of the play, as have the reader/audience; Ben may look ridiculous with the speaking tube in his hand, but his receiving the call is a logical consequence of the narrative. It is, then, only after Ben “hangs the tube up” (148) that we start sensing the hidden side of the chronotope in The Dumb Waiter: Ben apparently expects Gus to join him shortly, and Gus, who is supposed to be in the kitchen, fails to reappear (148). This prompts us, for the first time since the play began, to have a better, if still innocent, look at the door that leads to the kitchen and the lavatory. In other words, our attention is inadvertently drawn to the invisible area that cannot but be domestic and banal, or so we have been led to believe in the course of the play. A couple of other cues follow immediately. First, with the sound of the lavatory flushing, we might say that our ears are also tuned to what may be happening beyond the door. Second, and more importantly, Ben, whom we would think is getting impatient, makes a distinctive move towards the invisible area: as the stage directions put it, he “goes quickly to the door, left” (148). The “singular” nature of Ben and Gus’s bed-sitting room notwithstanding, it looks as though the characters, Gus first and then Ben, have rediscovered, for what it is worth, the hitherto-neglected de facto “little salon.” Ben, nevertheless, stops short of going into the “little salon;” before he has the chance of doing so, Gus re-enters the bed-sitting room. Had Ben entered the “little salon,” this would have allowed the reader/audience to put their chronotopic perspective back in order, by which I mean the characters’ bed-sitting room would once again have assumed the unique status of a room-cum-threshold. In fact, the peculiar nature of Gus’s reappearance, that he comes in through the other door on stage right (149), begs the question: Is the “little salon” somehow connected to the Great Unknown, bypassing the bed-sitting room? Otherwise, how did Gus manage to “transport” himself from the one to the other so that he would make his re-entrance through the very door which, we might remember, has a lot to answer for regarding the “mysterious envelope” incident?5 Are we to conclude that Gus is the Great Unknown made manifest, even though he was in the bed-sitting room with Ben until shortly before the “call” came? As the two characters “stare at each other” (149), the chronotope in The Dumb Waiter nearly reaches the breaking point: having acted out its
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due, Gus and Ben’s “room” finally begins to show the bare bones of what it inevitably amounts to, namely, a three-dimensional structure on the stage. Put differently, this particular “room” will not decidedly come to fruition in the way parlors/salons and thresholds are perfected in the realist and naturalist novel. “[Pinter’s] characters,” writes Bert O. States, “behave like little authors, or inventors of fiction, in their own rite (or game)” (117); the “pun” rite-right, brings to our attention the kind of “reality on Pinter’s stage” that “seems so often to be an uncanny extension of the ritual of performance itself” (117). Nasti0002, in a similar vein, discerns “traces of dislocated myths” in Pinter’s plays, myths which are “several times removed from the originals.” I find it crucial that, unlike, for example, The Lover and The Collection, in which characters knowingly “perform” through every single line they utter, The Dumb Waiter becomes a game’s game only when Gus fails to come out of the kitchen. Drawing a parallel between the characters’ “room” in The Dumb Waiter and some of the typical rooms in the realist and naturalist novel leads us to the assertion that, if they are to start “behaving like little authors,” Gus and Ben have no choice but to test and feel the limits of the very chronotope of which they have been part. This accounts for Gus making his final entrance through the other door -- a chronotopic improbability. What, then, completes Ben and Gus’s “room?” In order to determine an answer, the interview that Pinter gave in 1966 is most relevant, for it reveals an early Pinter with a penchant for using the “curtain” in a production: “I am a very traditional playwright -- for instance I insist on having a curtain in all my plays. I write curtain lines for that reason! And even when directors like Peter Hall or Claude Régy in Paris want to do away with them, I insist they stay” (36-7). The Dumb Waiter may be regarded as an acutely curtainoriented play. In a sense, Gus and Ben start acting like two actors on the stage floor the moment Gus re-enters the bed-sitting room, which is to say that, facing each other, the characters begin to look more like performers who are ready for the curtain and waiting for it to drop. This is more than a mere “self-conscious” tableau. The curtain duly comes down, saving Ben and Gus from ever having to explain, either in deeds or words, the chronotopic improbability that the reader/audience have just witnessed. Naoko Yagi, Waseda University
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Notes 1
For Bakhtin’s ambivalent attitude to drama, see his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 33-4 and Tihanov, 54. 2 For Esslin’s emendations, see, for example, Hinchliffe, 30-31 and Hollis, 4. 3 Birmingham in the real world of the 2000s is a far cry from the mid-twentiethcentury stereotype. Gus’s comments on the city would bring an additional edge to any new production of the play. 4 I thank Mary Brewer for reminding me of the difference in origin between A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter. 5 We never witness Ben and Gus moving into the room; while the characters could not possibly have entered the room in the first place without using the door on stage right, the fact remains that the curtain goes up to show Gus and Ben already stuck in the parlor/salon. In this way, the mystery beyond that particular door is kept unspoilt until Gus’s re-entrance.
Bibliography Primary Texts Bakhtin, M. M. Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Toward a Historical Poetics in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. (84-258) _____. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics translated and edited by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment translated by David McDuff. (Revised edition) London: Penguin, 2003. Pinter, Harold. “The Art of the Theater III,” interview with LawrenceM. Bensky, The Paris Review 39 (1966): 13-37. _____. The Dumb Waiter. London: Samuel French, 1960. _____. The Dumb Waiter in Harold Pinter: Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. (111-49) _____. A Slight Ache in Harold Pinter: Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. (151-84) Stendhal. The Charterhouse of Parma translated by Richard Howard. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
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Secondary Texts Begley, Varun. Harold Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Burkman, Katherine H. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. Hinchliffe, Arnold P. Harold Pinter. New York: St. Martin’s, 1967. Hollis, James R. Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970. Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin: Readings in Dostoyevsky’s Fantastic Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. King, Kimball, with the assistance of Marti Greene. “Harold Pinter’s Achievement and Modern Drama” in Pinter at 70: A Casebook. ed. Lois Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2001. (243-56) Morson, Gary Saul. Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990. Raby, Peter. “Tales of the City: Some Places and Voices in Pinter’s Plays” in The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. ed. Peter Raby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (57-72) Regal, Martin S. Harold Pinter: A Question of Timing. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995. States, Bert O. The Pleasure of the Play. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Tihanov, Galin. The Master and the Slave: Lukács, Bakhtin, and the Ideas of Their Time. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000. Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
The Dumb Waiter: Realism and Metaphor Radmila Nasti0002 Naoko Yagi’s interpretation of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter as a realist-naturalist play comparable to the masterpieces of European realist fiction is a very interesting approach resulting in a subtle analysis of one aspect of Pinter’s art. However, I would like to argue that from the undoubted realism of the setting springs a metaphoric quality in the play comparable to Pinter’s other plays of the same period, as well as to some of the more recent productions of his work. Realistic presentation, writes Martin Esslin, awakens the sense of the mysterious (1982, 10), and this, I will add, gives rise to diverse metaphoric meanings. Though it may seem contradictory, the metaphoric quality of the play’s setting contributes to the portrayal of the realistic context of the play, especially regarding “the job” the two characters perform. This view is common to many Pinter scholars; for example, Michael Billington in his biography of Pinter points out that “the play has a metaphorical openness,” (89) while Bill Naismith is among those interpreters of Pinter who think that the author’s almost photographic realism of the setting in the early plays has a larger significance (4-5). He also points out that Pinter’s persistent obsession with the image of the room could not be accidental, and, in this essay, I will try to define the metaphoric potential of this chronotope in addition to its realistic significance. By focusing on the chronotope of the room, Yagi draws a parallel between Pinter’s play and Bakhtin’s consideration of European novels with provincial settings where sitting-rooms and salons correspond to Pinter’s rooms, both being chronotopes used to analyze local effects in a text. For example, the room in Dostoevsky’s novels relates to the threshold leading to the outside world, represented by the door, the staircase, and the hall, and this threshold points towards drama and crisis. In The Dumb Waiter, Yagi identifies the existence of “the room-cum-threshold” in Birmingham, a
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stereotypical city in the Midlands, and identifies it as the structuring element of the realistic basis of the play. I wish to focus on the symbolism of the threshold first presented in Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage (1909), developed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and applied to theater in Victor Turner’s essay 'Are There Universals of Performance in Myth, Ritual, and Drama?” (1980). All three authors point to the social significance of theater that dramatizes the changed social status of the character. The notion of the threshold appears in the triad called by Campbell departure-initiation-return, or by Turner separation-passage-reunion, Turner’s threshold being represented in dramatic terms. Turner underlines the fact that theater has developed from ritual and is still inherent in socio-cultural life itself, while society in moments of crisis becomes highly dramatic: some of its rituals and ceremonies (maskers, clowns, gender reversals…) contain within themselves a liminal phase, which provides a stage for unique structures of experience detached from everyday life and characterized by the presence of “ambiguous ideas, monstrous images, sacred symbols, ordeals, humiliations, esoteric and paradoxical instructions” (65). This limen, or threshold, dramatized in such rituals is “a noman’s land betwixt-and-between the structural past and the structural future,” often containing symbols expressive of ambiguous identity, combinations of elements drawn from nature and culture, some of them representing “both birth and death, womb and tomb, such as caverns or camps, secluded from everyday eyes” (Ibid. 65). 2. Theater of the Threshold Pinter’s rooms are not far from Turner’s description: the room in The Dumb Waiter is the “womb and the tomb,” the setting of a concise drama enacting human life which, in Campbell’s definition, is a movement “from the tomb of the womb, to the womb of the tomb” (20). Turner’s argument is that social experience is frequently the source of stage drama in which group experiences are “replicated, dismembered, refashioned, and…made meaningful,” even when “in declining cultures, the meaning is that there is no meaning as in some Existentialist Theater” (66). The link that I find between the Existential Theater and Pinter’s early plays including The Dumb Waiter is contained in the discrepancy between the apparently realistic setting and dialogue, and the sudden emergence of the bizarre and the
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grotesque that deconstruct its realism: for instance, the weird orders coming down the dumb waiter have a puzzling effect on Gus who is in the stage of threshold crossing, while for his partner they are merely normal coded messages with business instructions. Turner’s elaboration of ritualized threshold further illuminates Campbell’s theory of ritual initiation, especially his description of the stage of threshold crossing, or the passage. In the stage of passage, writes Campbell, the subject of initiation crosses the threshold of experience, entering into temporal and spatial ambiguity, a stage equivalent to Turner’s no-man’s-land of dreamlike experience with a healing or “redressive” effect. Reunion represents return to the new, favourable position in society. The passage usually concerns a change of setting, but it can be a simple door opening, or ritual threshold crossing. Campbell’s and Turner’s explanations of the notions of departure, threshold, initiation and return throw more light on Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and on some of his other early plays, especially in relation to the nature of the social setting, Ben and Gus’s “job” as hitmen, and the invisible HE who gives orders, this time in Birmingham. The mythical “departure,” according to Campbell, is initiated by a crisis in life and is in essence “the call to adventure” (a herald summons the character either to live or to die). This summons marks “the awakening of the self” (53). The mythical significance has its analogy in psychoanalytic terms: in Freud’s interpretation all moments of anxiety reproduce the painful feelings of the subject’s first separation from the mother, and reflects the crisis of birth. Conversely, all moments of separation and birth produce anxiety. The “herald or announcer” of the adventure is therefore often ugly and terrifying. The call to adventure may be refused, and the subject then loses the power of significant action, becoming a victim who needs to be saved (Ibid. 58). This is the case of Pinter’s Stanley in The Birthday Party, who fails to leave as he originally suggested or to become anything; instead he becomes a scapegoat. But his refusal to depart could also be interpreted as a kind of resistance, for the metaphor of threshold is always charged with multiple meanings. In Stanley’s case, the threshold is not crossed and the passage is arrested as The Birthday Party presents a mock rite of passage that is an implicit commentary on the modern age. In The Dumb Waiter, however, Gus becomes awakened, and he dares to ask questions. The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter belong to the group of plays most closely associated with the European Existential Theater
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or the Theater of the Absurd, which Turner considers to be “liminal,” or, we may say The Theater of the Threshold. The liminality of Pinter’s play is demonstrated through Gus’s repetitively questioning Ben about the job they have to carry out: I want to ask you something (114) Oh, I wanted to ask you something (115) Well, I was going to ask you something (116) Eh, I’ve been meaning to ask you (119) Eh I’ve be meaning to ask you something (127).
Finally, Ben retorts: What’s the matter with you? You’re always asking me questions. What’s the matter with you? You never used to ask me so many damn questions. What’s come over you? (127)
From this, we can conclude that, though Gus has always been inquisitive, he has never before asked so many questions in one day; thus, he now has suddenly reached a kind of awareness of the nature of the life he lives, in which things are “going down the drain.” (120) Even more dangerous is Gus’s wondering “Who it’ll be tonight” (127), repeated in the question “I thought perhaps you -- I mean -have you got any idea -- who it’s going to be tonight?”(128) He has obviously been thinking about “the last one,” “that girl” (130). The previous girl’s murder started him thinking, and he wants to know “What do we do if it’s a girl?” (144). After Ben’s reply, “We do exactly the same,” “Gus rises, and shivers” (144). His exit through the door is not a physical crossing of the threshold, but rather a mental awakening which, to all appearances, will lead to his death. This exit or passage is more important than his final exit, for when he returns, he is “deep in thought,” “He is troubled,” “He stands, thinking” (166). I wish here to make a case for a genre -- Theater of the Threshold -- that has a much longer history than is currently taken to be the case by most critics, including Yagi, few of whom have made connections between Pinter and pre-WWII drama, or indeed post-War theater of this type. To this end, I will introduce comparisons between Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and plays by Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet and David Rabe. Gus can be compared to O’Neill’s protagonist Yank in the 1922 play The Hairy Ape. In one scene, Yank “thinks,” and the author
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mockingly compares him with Rodin’s sculpture. Yank awakens to his humanity after a shock encounter with Mildred, who views him as a strange animal, not a human. This awakening is a starting point for his search for identity, the beginning of his dream of belonging that will be finally defeated in the zoo, where Yank has come to test his belonging to the world of nature and is crushed by a gorilla, and it becomes obvious that he belongs neither to nature nor to culture. Christopher Bigsby considers Yank’s dreams “evidence of a resistant self” (51), which can be understood as an element of initiation. The play is an expression of O’Neill’s poetics of stasis and of his concern “with society caught in a moment of transition”(Ibid. 50). This definition can be applied similarly to Pinter’s plays. In The Hairy Ape, asserts Bigsby, O’Neill dramatizes an individual alienated from himself and thus from his job -- “man as a machine.” Once Yank comes to understand his position, he suffers. Yank is in effect an absurdist figure in Bigsby’s interpretation, stranded in a world to which he cannot relate. For O’Neill’s hero, as later for many of Samuel Beckett’s characters, the “only moment of consonance is the moment of death” (Ibid. 62-3), and the same can be said of Pinter’s Gus.1 Before examining the connections to Mamet and Rabe, it is necessary to revisit Campbell’s interpretation of the mythical passage (which is almost identical to Turner’s description of ritualized threshold as a no-man’s-land) in order to fully explain the central metaphor of the “threshold” in The Dumb Waiter. Crossing the first threshold leads the subject to regions of the unknown, which are but fields of the unconscious. As a matter of fact, instead of passing outwards, the subject goes inwards to be born again, which sometimes means physical death, as we can suppose will befall Gus as the outcome of his audacity. In one sense, we might say that the death resulting from refusal to further participate in crime is another form of existence. With the story of Buddha, Campbell illustrates one possible form of initiation -- illumination that dispels delusions and results in Nirvana, a case that may be applied to Aston in The Caretaker, who identifies himself with the figure of Buddha. Pinter’s text, however, is ironic because Aston’s peace of mind has been achieved by electric shocks. The meaning of Campbell’s mythical threshold-crossing, passage and initiation becomes fully evident upon the completion of the cycle with the final stage of “return,” which is another threshold-
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crossing. The unrealistic world of consciousness and imagination that propelled the subject on his quest (a world that in mythology is often called the “divine”) and the human world are actually one. The unreal world is the forgotten dimension of the world we know, but “from the standpoint of the waking consciousness,” it appears to be ineffective, and the outcome is the “divorce of opportunism from virtue and the resultant degeneration of human existence” (Campbell 188). This last, life-affirmative threshold is most difficult to accept as real. Why bring this world into the plane of reality when it seems easier to be practical? The potential mental traveler in modern times is frequently incapable of implementing the attained awareness to dismal reality, choosing physical death instead, as most probably is the case with the heroes in The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter. The ending of The Dumb Waiter, with Gus facing Ben’s gun without physical resistance, implies that, although he has realized the criminal nature of his job, he will do nothing to persuade, stop, or fight Ben, and will rather die. This last point in Campbell’s interpretation leads us to the nature of the “job” the characters are supposed to carry out and their different attitudes to the “job” (“reliable” and “slack”), as the central point of the plot. “The outlines of myths and tales are subject to damage and obscuration,” writes Campbell, who continues that “imported materials are revised to fit local landscapes, custom, or belief, and always suffer in the process” (213). We may say that in the plays of Pinter and the playwrights of his and younger generations there are traces of dislocated myths, several times removed from the originals, and therefore subjected to subsequent rationalizations. When Francis Gillen writes that modern society is able to “victimize the individual by fracturing the job and individual gain, separating them from any larger meaning” (146), his interpretation is not far from Campbell’s, and is well illustrated in The Dumb Waiter, but also in The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming. Martin Esslin, too, finds mythical elements in Pinter’s work and characterizes them as secularized myths -- “taken from the general, metaphorical, and ultimately poetic plane to a level of the specific and particular, from the contemplative detached embodiment of general truths to short-term calls for action on a practical, almost immediately topical level” (1993, 35). Both the realistic and metaphorical qualities of The Dumb Waiter bring the play into relation with Pinter’s more recent dramas,
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discovering its overt political nature, especially in developing the external context of the room. For example, those “upstairs” that give orders and are invisible in The Dumb Waiter can be seen in Party Time; the women who can be characterized as “looser texture” are present also in Party Time, Ashes to Ashes, Mountain Language, One for the Road, while executioners are more explicitly presented in One for the Road and Mountain Language. A further connection to genre of the Theater of the Threshold can be seen also by comparing The Dumb Waiter with more recent theatrical examples, David Mamet’s American Buffalo and David Rabe’s Those the River Keeps, both of which demonstrate distorted rites of passage similar to those in Pinter’s plays. In Mamet’s play, two characters, Don and Teach, are in an over-stuffed junk-shop resembling the setting of Pinter’s The Caretaker. They plan to rob the flat of the coin dealer who has paid $95 for a buffalo-head coin, steal the coin and sell it again for a higher price, believing that the man cheated them and that the nickel is worth much more. They treat this small crime as business, but never carry it out. There is an outburst of Teach’s hysterical violence instead, in which he smashes the shop and hurts the boy Bobby. Mamet explains that “The play is about the American ethic of business…About how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business” (qtd in Bigsby 268). While trying to justify their crime under the guise of business, the characters refer to American values and myths -- the freedom of the individual “to embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit…In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit” (35). Bigsby comments that this is relevant to American political life in which the Mafia had appropriated the American iconography of the family, the brutalities of Vietnam were defended in terms of recognizable American virtues and in the language whose deep ironies were apparently lost in those who uttered them, and the American President deployed the language of statesman, team leader and patriot to justify his abrogation of the oath of office and his disregard for the law. (263)
Bigsby further observes that Teach, the violent character, carries a gun as “deterrent,” similar to the justification of his country’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. The other character, Don, finally rejects Teach’s methods and gives preference to human solidarity in assisting the injured Bobby, but this gesture is too weak to neutralize
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the preceding brutality, and cannot be considered as thresholdcrossing. Bigsby draws a parallel between Mamet’s play and Beckett in depicting what Yagi calls the chronotope of room, which is both naturalistic and metaphoric. David Rabe wrote his play Hurlyburly in 1984, and then in 1995 he wrote Those the River Keeps to explain the character of Phil, an ex-hitman, who kills himself in the former play. In the preface to the latter play, Rabe writes how he found himself continuing to think about the characters after the production of Hurlyburly on Broadway. “[S]omething in the character of Phil,” writes Rabe, “refused to accept that his story had been told” (vii). The description of the setting of Hurlyburly brings us back to “the room:” “A somewhat spacious living room leading into an open kitchen makes up the entire first floor of the house” (165). Two men, Eddie and Mickey, share the apartment, which is sporadically visited by other characters, who are depressed and lost in varying degrees, and who are also would-be artists and drug-addicts “testing the parameters of the American Dream of oblivion” (275), as Eddie puts it. One occasional visitor is Phil, a completely psychologically disturbed and violent man, with whose suicide and funeral the play ends. For a change, this play has female characters, the “looser texture,” to complicate the situation. They are generally not afraid to go out and come back, and most of them try to force the men into adult relationships leading to procreation and continuation of life. Phil comes out as particularly unsympathetic, but Rabe then went on to write Those the River Keeps to explain his character traits: Phil was married to a young woman who wanted to have a baby, but Phil tried desperately to dissuade her from bringing a child “into a terrible world” (63). The visit of his former partner, Sal, makes clear why: they used to be hired killers for the Mafia, and their last task together was to kill a young couple, rip their stomachs, and throw them into the river. Completely shaken, Phil leaves the job, spends some time in prison and is separated from his first wife and three children, certain that they hate him. The social context of the room in which the characters are stuck is described in Hurlyburly in much more detail than in the plays of Beckett, Pinter and Mamet. Donna, a girl who in the end joins the men in the room, expresses her delight to get off the streets, for “the desperation out there is paranormal” (Hurlyburly 360). Eddie has earlier in the play described the country they live in as a materialistic world without God, ruled by bureaucrats:
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…the Ancients might have had some consolation from a view of the heavens as inhabited by this thoughtful, you know, meditative, maybe a trifle unpredictable and wrathful, but nevertheless UP THERE -- this divine onlooker -- we have bureaucrats who are devoted to the accumulation of incomprehensible data -- we have connoisseurs of graft and the three-martini lunch for whom we vote on the basis of their media consultants. The air’s bad, the ozone’s fucked, the water’s poison, and into whose eyes do we find ourselves staring when we look for providence?... We have emptied out heavens and put oblivion in the hands of a bunch of aging insurance salesmen whose jobs are insecure. (306)
Not that he himself contributes anything to make the world better; on the contrary, in the words of Bonnie, one of three female characters, “it’s no reason to be mean to your friends” (307). The still wider context is a world with a looming bomb: their own country is in possession of a “pure bomb,” the neutron bomb that destroys people but leaves things intact. As a reflection, many other countries have bombs so that “not only are we headed for nuclear devastation if not by the Russians then by some goddamn primitive bunch of Middle Eastern mother fuckers” (183). As a consequence, Eddie is depressed and does not leave the room. Ultimately, the one who leaves it commits suicide. 3. Theater as Threshold Crossing Ben and Gus are one pair among Pinter’s many doubles that represent two sides of the same coin. In The Dumb Waiter, Pinter describes the beginning of their dissociation, which Francesca Coppa discusses through her analysis of humor in the play, especially what she calls “the grave, solemn, and sacred joke” (46). Into this category fall the stories Ben chooses to read aloud, all of which are to illustrate the stupidity or cruelty of his fellow beings, and thus absolve him of his crimes: the stories of the old man who crawled under a lorry and an eight-year old girl who killed a cat introduce potential victims who deserve what befalls them. As Coppa argues: you might need to believe that if you are going to kill effectively: yours is not to question why. Someone else has selected your victim, and presumably for good reason. People are stupid and cruel: they deserve whatever comes to them. (47)
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Gus’s reactions are wrong from the start. This is evident because he has ceased laughing with Ben and thus siding with him, and his questions begin to undermine the legitimacy of their entire enterprise as hitmen. Gus, says Coppa, has failed the test that the joke structure creates; he is failing to bond with Ben at the expense of another, and thus finds himself “on the wrong end of Ben’s gun”(49). Therefore, the ending of the play is a conventional moment of recognition and acceptance of the consequences of one’s choice: there is a long silence, while Ben and Gus stare at each other. Ben’s gun is pointed at Gus, and it appears that Gus is not surprised or frightened, as if he had expected it. (However, one must acknowledge that the scene could be given various interpretations in production). Pinter’s ending of the play brings us back to the realism of the implied social context of the play, and the nature of the “job” Ben and Gus are engaged in: in the world of the play, the job of a hired killer is taken to be an ordinary business affair in the modern world, but one of the killers refuses to go on with it. In this sense, Pinter’s realism in The Dumb Waiter can be compared with Bakhtin’s view of the 19th century novels of Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert: their realism depicted the breaking up of the idyllic world view unfit for the new, capitalist world. On the other hand, the works of these authors did not idealize the capitalist world either, but revealed its inhumanity and the degradation of human relationships -- of love, family, friendship, creative work -- in a money-oriented society (Bakhtin 362). This realistic aspect of The Dumb Waiter is wonderfully illuminated in Yagi’s essay. In a way similar to the manner of the great 19th century realists, Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (and his other plays) disrupts the idyllic world of an English comedy of manners (the artistic expression of the middle-class) within whose structure it is inscribed, and whose “tea and biscuit” manners it parodies in the scenes of Ben and Gus’s bizarre attempts to light the kettle, make the tea, and provide a refreshing snack. In addition, there is a travesty of service symbolized by the bizarre hatch -- the dumb waiter (as dumb as the waiter-killer who receives its orders); there are, moreover, frequent references to “tea and biscuits” in the exchanges between Ben and Gus, but we learn finally that there is not going to be any tea, because this is a place with no tea and no biscuits, and without tea-time – it is not benign at all. On the contrary, as the play draws to its close, we become increasingly aware of the malign nature of the HE who orders
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murders, and who might stand for the driving force of society. Ben has known this all along, which Pinter signals through the different code systems the pair uses, especially evident in the scenes with the tube: Ben’s response to the demands coming though the tube implies that he might have read the orders coming through the hatch in a different way from Gus, especially since his replies and reactions to the demands that Gus finds confusing appear to be cool and rational -- as something he has all along expected. It would be wrong to confuse the realistic and the metaphoric planes of meaning as does Billington who, after characterizing Ben as the contract killer and a “good bourgeois citizen,” concludes that “Gus is the man who questions the agreed system and who is ultimately destroyed by the quest for meaning” (92). I think that Esslin is closer to the truth when he cites correspondence between Pinter and Heidegger, “in whose philosophy the Cartesian definition of being -- I think therefore I am -- is replaced by I fear nonbeing -- therefore I am [emphasis mine] 35). Gus’s, as indeed Yank’s, Don’s and Phil’s refusal to proceed with criminal careers, are signs of their rejection of nonbeing and meaninglessness. I would like to repeat and underline my previous statement that Gus’s comparative calm at the end of the play, when Ben’s gun is pointed at him, signifies that he has refused to further partake in meaningless actions, albeit at the cost of his life. The analogies drawn here between The Dumb Waiter and the work of modern and contemporary playwrights, such as O’Neill, Rabe, and Mamet, demonstrate the significance of Pinter’s play combining both realistic and metaphoric elements. In particular, comparing the metaphors of the threshold in Pinter’s play and in the other works discussed supports Turner’s view that the very notion of experimental theater rests on performing crisis, which, I would add, in itself is a threshold-crossing. If we consider that for Turner experimental theater referred to the work of Grotowski, Beck, Malina, Chaikin, Schechner, and Brook, it becomes clear how Pinter’s play lies half-way between traditional and experimental theaters. Further, because the word experimental derives from “experience,” [its hypothetical Indo-European root being “per” (to dare, to try) while the related Latin “experientia” means an attempt, a trial], we can see how
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The Dumb Waiter, like modern theater itself, represents a thresholdcrossing in which Homo Ludus (playing man) is guided by liminality. Radmila Nasti0002, University of Kragujevac
Notes 1 In O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, we find a story resembling Pinter’s plot in The Dumb Waiter and The Caretaker - a story of two brothers, representing two “warring instincts,” one drawn to the practical world of the fact, the other to the world of imagination.
Bibliography Primary Texts Mamet, David. American Buffalo in American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Duck Variations: Three Plays. London: Methuen, 1978. O’Neill, Eugene. The Hairy Ape in Anna Christie/The Emperor Jones/The Hairy Ape. [1922] New York: Vintage, 1971. Pinter, Harold. [1960] The Dumb Waiter in Harold Pinter: Plays One. London: Faber & Faber, 1996. _____. The Birthday Party in Harold Pinter: Plays One. [1957] London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Rabe, David. Hurlyburly and Those the River Keeps. New York: Grove, 1995. Turner, Victor. 'Are There Universals of Performance in Myth, Ritual, and Drama?” in Modern Theories of Drama, A Selection of Writings on Drama and Theater, 1840-1990 ed. George Brandt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. (62-8) Secondary Texts Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
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Bigsby, C.W.E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Playwrights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Billington, Michael. Harold Pinter (Revised edition). London: Faber and Faber, 2007. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London: Abacus, 1975. Coppa, Fransesca. “The sacred joke: comedy and politics in Pinter’s plays” in The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. ed. Peter Raby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (44-56) Esslin, Martin. “Preface” in Pinter’s Five Plays. (Serbian edition) Belgrade: Nolit, 1982. _____. “Harold Pinter’s Theater of Cruelty” in Pinter at Sixty. eds K. H. Burkman and J.L. Kundert-Gibbs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. (27-36) Gillen, Francis. 'From Novel to Film: Harold Pinter's Adaptation of the Trial', in Pinter at Sixty. eds K. H. Burkhman 0003nd J. L. Kundert-Gibbs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. (137-48) Naismith, Bill. Harold Pinter, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming: Faber Critical Guides. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.
(Re)Thinking Harold Pinter’s Comedy of Menace Basil Chiasson 1. Introduction This essay argues for a re-thinking of the descriptive phrase “comedy of menace” as it relates to Harold Pinter’s work and that critical uses of the phrase and understandings of its dramatic articulations need to be expanded. By revisiting and clarifying first menace and then comedy, sundering the two terms only for purposes of review and interrogation, I hope to demonstrate how comedy and menace are necessarily bound up, and are thus mutually empowering. The general sentiment is that Pinter’s earliest plays can be characterized as comedies of menace and, moreover, his later and more precisely political plays break with that aesthetic or tradition. To the contrary, in this essay, I argue that the comedy of menace aesthetic is dramatically crucial to the later political plays as well, albeit they have undergone a transmutation in the way of content, form, and effect. Despite and in fact because of such a transmutation, certain family resemblances between Pinter’s earliest and more recent plays come forth, inviting a re-imagining of Pinter’s “original” comedy of menace, and suggesting that this term can be stretched over the playwright’s entire oeuvre. To utter the phrase comedy of menace is, for many, tantamount to saying Harold Pinter’s name. However, one of the several ways in which the conflation of Pinter’s name and comedy of menace can appear as ironic is that Pinter did not coin the phrase, nor was he the first playwright with whom it was associated.1 The phrase and its corresponding dramatic aesthetic derives from David Campton’s 1958 play The Lunatic View, whose subtitle characterized the play as A Comedy of Menace. Yet, despite comedy of menace being Campton’s “birthright,” it was theater reviewer Irving Wardle who linked the phrase to Pinter in his glowing appraisal of the author’s 1958 play The Birthday Party.
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From the article, itself entitled “Comedy of Menace,” here is Wardle’s most quoted description of Pinter’s aesthetic formulation: Destiny handled in this way -- not as an austere exercise in classicism, but as an incurable disease which one forgets about most of the time and whose lethal reminders may take the form of a joke --is an apt dramatic motif for an age of conditioned behavior in which orthodox man is a willing collaborator in his own destruction. (33)
In portraying not Campton but Pinter as the bellwether of this emergent theatrical aesthetic, Wardle began to fashion Campton’s subtitle into a concept and a critical tool, which represents one of the more significant contributions to Pinter scholarship. It would seem, however, that Wardle’s assertion that Pinter delivers all things menacing in joke form gives short shrift to Pinter’s aestheticization of comedy. Wardle inspired a way of speaking about Pinter’s work that would have lasting consequences. For it was he who set the stage for Pinter criticism to routinely attend more to the menace than to the comedy, often discussing the two as if they were wholly separable. Walter Kerr suggested as much when nine years later he insisted that “‘Menacing’ is the adjective most often used to describe the events in a Pinter play” (14). 2. On Menace Pinter himself once insisted that “Menace is everywhere. There is plenty of menace in this very room, at this very moment, you know. You can’t avoid it; you can’t get away from it” (qtd in Sakellaridou 1999, 97). Culling from myriad descriptions of what constitutes “menace,” I offer the following modest overview of how it figures in Pinter’s work. What is often referred to as “the infamous Pinter pause” (Batty 19) is the obvious and indeed best point of departure for any discussion of the elements commonly thought to represent, engender, or perpetrate menace in Pinter’s plays. Although its function throughout the playwright’s oeuvre is by no means uniform, the Pinter pause is typically analyzed on the basis of its dramatic virtues, which is to say that as a device it orients us to the performative character of speech more so than to the characters’ (and the author’s) desire or capacity to convey information.2 The Pinter pause’s lack of lexical content is precisely what makes the device inextricable from and
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instrumental to a great deal of the speech that issues forth from Pinter’s characters. A principal weapon or tool in the arsenal of every Pinter character, the pause can function to either empower or dismantle statements and entire conversations, rendering speech suggestive, ironic, suspect, and so on. Facilitating the performative character of language, the pause only underscores how in Pinter’s world “it is impossible to detach what is said from the way in which it is said” (Wardle 30) and, moreover, how language does not solely signify and thus “mean”-- it resonates deep within the body, in and across its many folds and thresholds. On the one hand, “The alternation of language and pause in Pinter can define the nature of the communication” (Randisi 63).3 This is to say that the aesthetic structure of the pause and spoken words (affecting what might be thought of as a rhythm) can invite qualifications as to the kind of relationship that is shaping up between characters. On the other hand, it can appear that “The pause is the pause because of what has just happened in the minds and guts of the characters” (Gale 273) and that “intense [yet indiscernible] thought processes are continuing” (Esslin 220). This is exemplified by the following early exchange between Ben and Gus in The Dumb Waiter: BEN: You know what you’re trouble is? GUS: What? BEN: You haven’t got any interests. GUS: I’ve got interests. BEN: What? Tell me one of you’re interests. Pause. GUS: I’ve got interests. (118)
Even though the pause is devoid of linguistic meaning proper, it effectively produces another form of “meaning,” which Alice N. Benston gestures towards in her assertion that “Throughout his work, Pinter has used pauses to make the point that the command of language is a question of power” (123). Perhaps nearly as infamous as the Pinter pause is his strategic use of silence, which in the plays can function as yet another potent theatrical device, an equal if not heightened means to intersperse and thus punctuate the cascades of speech that Pinter’s characters use as everyday weapons on each other. Consider, for example, how even before the first sounds and words issue forth in The Dumb Waiter, the play’s stage directions posit three uses of silence, no doubt as a means
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to generate a specific dramatic atmosphere (113). Although the silence’s and the pause’s respective duration and dramatic application are contingent to dramatic context4, both devices converge in so far as they can be implicated in producing identifiable dramatic “meaning” of the type Benston observes (the circulation or exchange of power as a theme), and also of the nature that pertains to creating specific kinds of experiences for audience members. While Pinter’s characters, furthermore, perform varying degrees of reticence or even silence, the impact of such linguistic “absences” can often derive much of its power from a forceful, even overwhelming loquacity. In conjunction with all else contributing to the tension mounting in the Birmingham basement flat in The Dumb Waiter, Gus’s unrelenting questions and banter, for example, significantly provoke not only Ben but also the audience. The problem, however, is that the overly talkative characters present their interlocutors, and us, the audience, with a form of speech that is quite shy of truth claims. We are exposed to statements and actions/behavior that are contradictory as well as private anecdotes that are dragged up from the past, a semiology that forms a cryptic language whose many claims cannot be corroborated and judged for truth values. The dramatic irony that other theatrical experiences might offer audiences is, at best, fractured, and, at worst, wholly denied, replaced with something like that which Elin Diamond calls a “thickening atmosphere” (102). Different, moreover, but not unrelated to both pause and silence is Pinter’s absenting of character motivation as a means to create ambiguity. Particularly in his early comedies of menace, Pinter writes characters such that their inner lives and thought processes are obfuscated or even elided, which leaves the audience to speculate on and imagine what lies beneath and at least partially motivates the characters’ highly performative and, thus, potentially meaningful demeanor and speech. This aesthetic feature has led critics such as Robert Conklin to characterize the structural composition of Pinter’s plays and the experience of interfacing with them as akin to taking a Rorschach test (20). Pinter’s aestheticization of menace in his earlier plays involves, but is not limited to, other devices and mechanisms such as: the staging of situations of intrusion, intermingling aggression or even violence with verbal and physical comedy, speech that is riddled with non- sequiturs; characters who incessantly pose questions (on this
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point, one curiously finds the appearance of no less than twenty-eight questions by the time Ben and Gus begin to quarrel over the basement toilet’s deficient ballcock); characters who refuse to answer other characters’ questions, or, similarly, characters who suffer auditory lapses. While this particular “disability” is perhaps most evident in The Room’s landlord Mr. Kidd, it is arguable that the dumb waiter apparatus itself suffers from a similar affliction, its inexorable demands and general inattentiveness to the characters’ protestations suggesting as much. Menace in Pinter is also developed through a tenuous causal physics whereby onstage causes are either vaguely linked to or effectively sundered from effects,5 through characters that produce haphazard or continually faltering “narratives;” by a form of temporal mapping: characters whose vague histories infect their identities and relationships in the present, or those whose interactions in the present plunge them into the mental landscape of their pasts and, thus, foment social breakdown. Menace can also derive from characters having to negotiate the threat of change or, conversely, the threat of stasis (Klein 195); from problems of miscommunication that become menacing in their “circular effect” (Gale 20); from the creation of specific and overall regimes of body movement onstage (Counsell 155), which at various levels can signify and/or produce menace; and lastly, but certainly not exhaustively, menace can be engineered through allusions to Pinter’s own work and to the work of others. Consider how Ben and Gus are like shadowy cousins to Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party, and that both pair of intruders “allude to the threatening ‘hit men’ of the gangster film” and “to the comedy cross-talk acts of popular theater, film, and radio” (Peacock 65).6 More than a celebratory nod to his influences, Pinter’s use of allusion can be said to function dramatically, doing so on the terms of a clichés’ original context. In this way, Goldberg and McCann and Gus and Ben perform the same functions as the gangster film and music hall figures with which they are in dialogue: they represent comic and sinister characters, perhaps making us laugh or feel slightly nervous. Yet, Pinter’s treatment of cliché goes somewhat further. According to Gilles Deleuze, exceptional art only begins with “the catastrophic disruption of the actual or the clichéd” (2003, 100). That is, when cliché is invoked or re-instated -- only to be done some sort of aesthetic violence -- the audience can find itself confronted
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with “the emergence of another world -- a non-representative, nonnarrative, non-figurative world.”7 As spectators we might find a certain delight in being bombarded with questions, but the relative lack of control over what we observe (a control that music hall and much comedy affords or even depends upon) edges us from the realm of figuration (a realm that presents coherent and thus “readable” signs) ever-closer to the realm of figurality, where cognition and interpretation is troubled, often stymied. In The Dumb Waiter, the hired killers’ banter appears stilted and illogical as it takes up, but never lingers on, varied topics ranging from morbid news tidbits, the deficient or degenerate state of their temporary accommodation, to how “these places” “change hands overnight” (132), and the possibility that their taskmaster “Wilson” has “probably only rented it” (129) -- yet these comic flourishes dissolve, without ever striving towards any identifiable goal such as a punch line or a conclusion. Rather, the play’s allusions to familiar types from popular film, theater, and radio create a space for the gradual production of anxiety and its emotional derivatives. Remarking on the use of cliché to solicit an investment that becomes variously difficult, Alice Rayner opines that “Pinter has a remarkable capacity to make his plays resist any attempts to re-form the dislocations of his plotting into a story. Yet he maintains a sufficient number of a story’s features to invite such reformations” (483). If anything, Ben’s demand to know “What’s going on here?” and Gus’s reply (preceded by a pause) “What do you mean?” (135) invite us to ask the very questions these characters advance, only on a number of levels that range from Pinter’s various dramatic revitalizations to the play’s production of certain interpretive and physiological-emotional consequences, specifically on the part of spectators. Bert O. States once claimed that “in the theater, as in any art, there is always the need to defamiliarize all of the old familiar defamiliarizations” (43), and what takes place in the comedies of menace is a process of aesthetic inversion; in this process, Pinter’s characters borrow from comic and thriller genres only to deploy various tactics (for example, stichomythia and/or interrogation) to an effect that typically gets qualified as menacing. Another way in which Pinter’s comedies of menace revitalize theater by re-imagining familiar clichés involves the interdependency of verbal and physical regimes, the way the actor’s demeanor and body language in any given staging can, and indeed should, operate in league with what is
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spoken and implied, either elucidating or troubling it. Take, for example, the moment after the mysterious speaking tube voice (a voice that signifies menace in that spectators cannot hear and thus confirm it as “actual”) articulates that all the food products were unsatisfactory, and Ben “glares at Gus” (140).8 Here, in the characters’ gazes, we find an aesthetic site that is crucial to the production of menace in The Dumb Waiter. As Rayner says, “Pinter manifests the power of an absolute in moments of non-verbal gaze between characters, moments that mark the instance of danger and fascination when one is captured and overpowered while gazing” (496-7). Similarly, Joseph Hines observes how menace may “be present in the dialogue or the physical arrangement -- as in The Dumb Waiter” (5). Yet, perhaps Hines verges on constructing too rigid a binary between speech and body movement. Consider how any given speech act and gesture can be either synchronous or temporally staggered and still betray a mutual dramatic dependency and/or reciprocal empowerment. I would suggest further that most speech acts and bodily gestures are bound up with all others in the production of dramatic effect such that what is said and done at the beginning of The Dumb Waiter, for example, can profoundly intersect with what is said and performed at other, distant junctures in the play. Thus, Gus’s exit to the lavatory and re-entry while Ben reclines on the bed with a newspaper in the play’s first moments foreshadows The Dumb Waiter’s shocking conclusion. The fact that the physical arrangement of the play’s final moment is, in its earlier incarnation, bounded by dialogue, and, in the last instance, by silence marks the trajectory of Ben’s and Gus’s relationship. Their relationship alters from that of putative colleagues to predator and quarry, while all interceding moments of petty conflict throughout the play strive towards and bolster this final scene. Although Ben and Gus effectively stage and perform menacing scenarios and then putatively experience menace at the level of the stage, in the process they also produce something involved in menace that registers within the audience and is, therefore, operative at a physiological level: the level of the spectator’s material body. This recognition requires that we look beyond how Pinter’s aesthetic of menace may be regarded as a mimesis of menace, and approached predominantly with a view to what menace means in the context of the stage space and the characters, that is, how menace is represented
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there. To acknowledge that the aestheticization of menace is also a physiological issue is to direct our attention away from the spectator’s gaze, and thus away from what might be called the politics of representation, to a concern with how “the visual experience of the [theatrical] encounter impinges upon the materiality of the viewer”(Barbara Kennedy 16).9 Hence, in order to edge away from a strict discussion of the mimesis of menace and ever-towards menace’s physiological character and possibility, I offer Batty’s more general remarks on “seeing” a play: A theatrical experience […] is seldom one that can readily be “made sense” of. Its communicative power is the kind that is felt and recognized at a less than conscious level, and one that often belies articulation […] What a play might be “about” is more often than not only one part of a formula that might make that play a significant piece of theater. The dramatic manipulation of that “subject matter” is the more relevant part of the formula. This, after all, is the element that works upon our feelings and nerves when watching any performance. (2, my emphasis)
These remarks are informed by the way in which characters such as Gus and Ben solicit both intellectual and emotional responses from the audience, only to do and say things that repeatedly trouble spectators’ intellectual-emotional processes and paths. Whether, for example, Gus and Ben’s apparent showdown in The Dumb Waiter’s final tableau solicits alarm, horror, or, as Penelope Prentice understands, “audience sympathy for [both] characters” (19), or, whether it invites derisive laughter, and thus our judgment and condescension, the characters are constant in the various and unpredictable ways in which they initiate audience interest only as a means to frustrate it. While Ben and Gus themselves effectively stage and perform menacing scenarios at the level of the stage, in the process, they also produce a menace that circulates throughout the audience. As Hines observes: “Pinter makes us uneasy […] because he gets us in the guts, where he implies we live” (13). 3. On Comedy Despite critics’ tendency to focus on menace in Pinter’s work, there are indeed some notable exceptions. As examples consider Lois G. Gordon, who asserts that “The comic element in Pinter predominates”
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(6); Elin Diamond, who has thus far produced the only monograph to take up Pinter’s aestheticization of comedy; and Bernard Dukore, who observes that “From The Room to No Man’s Land, a span of almost twenty years, all but a very few of Pinter’s plays are tragicomedies” and as such are “Associated initially and primarily with comedy” (72). However much these and other critics’ characterizations of Pinter’s comic play differ, one finds that irony and parody are central. For example, in reference to the crop of music hall-inspired exchanges in The Dumb Waiter, not least of which is Ben and Gus’s rumpus over an acceptable signifier with which to refer to boiling water for tea, Gordon identifies how Pinter “lampoons the banal clichéd banter revered in the word-games played in the lives of the educated and uneducated, as well as those of the rich and poor [and] brings to life the everyday silliness of Everyman and in so doing is uncannily funny” (6).10 In reading The Dumb Waiter, Gordon looks specifically to the staging of that which is intended to be or is in fact funny, attending to the meaning of the signifiers that generate irony and parody. Like many critics, she constructs herself vis-à-vis art as a subject observing an object of study (the play) from a distance, watching and interpreting Ben and Gus’s every move and speech act in an attempt to interpret and ultimately explain the play’s various meanings, or perhaps even its entire representational economy. The tendency to understand how comedy is and should be interpreted effectively privileges language’s locutionary capacity -- truly a demonstration of how we often think of language predominantly “as a vehicle for messages among speakers” (Colebrook 109). As a compliment to this manner of proceeding critically, I propose a consideration of laughter’s visceral quality. The immediate and forceful reality of laughter’s healing and its painful effects alike emphasizes the fact that the theatrical experience is about more than intellection. From State’s claim that humor in the theater is “incomplete without the audience” (173), I suggest that we might glean not simply the obvious, that humor and a play needs an audience, but more specifically that there are experiential contingencies beyond our simply understanding and appreciating Pinter’s dramatic “jokes.” The critical consequence of looking beyond a hermeneutics of meaning is to engage with or even work through how Pinter’s comedy can operate on us by resonating within us, doing so by evoking audience responses, some of these being within descriptive reach,
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while others remain beyond articulation and thus have no subjective (verbal or imagistic) content. If we reflect upon how the plays can perform on us to specific ends -- how they might play upon our nervous systems so as to invite, evoke, and provoke responses as well as foment changes in us such that we turn from the text or leave the theater in states remarkably other than how we arrived -- it becomes apparent how deeply related to the menace are the quite varied comic tendencies and the various responses of laughter they stand to evoke. Accommodating the theater audience, Andrew Kennedy insists that we must respond to Pinter’s “violent parody” (182), while Arnold Hinchliffe observes more pointedly that in Pinter “We find a comedy that frightens and causes pain” (38). These remarks, moreover, speak to Dukore’s metaphor and understanding that comedy in Pinter’s plays can effectively serve as a weapon. Citing The Caretaker, Dukore posits that comedy can at times be “savage, for the characters -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly -- taunt each other;” the crux, however, is to be found in his second premise which, like the others, speaks to the issue of audience response: “While [the characters’] mocking amuses the spectator, its underlying destructiveness also shocks him” (43). Just as comedy can in one regard function as a weapon characters wield on stage -- sometimes even literally as when James throws the butter knife at Bill in The Collection -- it can, in constituting another function or order of “meaning,” be fashioned by the playwright as a weapon to be used on the audience. I suggest that we might thus extrapolate from Dukore’s observation of any spectator’s potential journey, from amusement to revulsion or shock, a process that centers on his or her own complicity in the contentious stage events. It would seem, then, that through instrumentalizing laughter and menace, [0]Pinter is seeking to foster in us an awareness of the degree to which we subscribe to certain ideological positions. It is in being staged and then evoked -- for is not our “approval” captured in our laughter? -- that these ideological positions or viewpoints are being obliquely critiqued. And of course, this staging marks a process of alerting us to how ideologies operate through us, how we articulate ideology/ies we might otherwise reject. Hence Francesca Coppa’s interest in laughter’s affective potentialities, specifically those that can inform and manipulate cognition. Rather than seeing a back and forth between comedy and menace, and thus to a certain extent defining the terms as a conceptual binary, Coppa sees comedy as in league with
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menace and asserts that the establishment of “complex personal identifications and motivations” ultimately denies spectators the “easy divisions and easy laughter” that “traditional comedy” typically offers them (55). Characterizing Pinter’s humor as a complexly subversive “Freudian joke triangle,” Coppa insists that “the important jokes” in Pinter “are generally the ones which make the audience stop laughing, which make the audiences [sic] question their own alliance with the aggressive joke-tellers” (55).11 In acknowledging, at one level, Pinter’s subversion of “traditional comedy” and, at another level, the potentially subversive consequences of a spectator’s emotional, psychological, intellectual, and indeed ideological investments, Coppa gestures towards Deleuze’s assertion that the manipulation of cliché can introduce spectators to other realities, those whose economies are extra-discursive, and which involve relations of force, intensities, and blocs of sensation. In line with arguments for laughter’s visceral character and its collusion with menace -- yet even more attuned to the forces at work on both stage characters and spectators -- Batty argues that The Dumb Waiter “is no straightforward comedy. Forces beyond these men’s [Ben and Gus’s] comprehension and control are operating upon them, and their responses take on both farcical and tragic resonances” (16, my emphasis). This observation gestures towards how The Dumb Waiter does not always vacillate between comic and menacing moments but rather imbricates either element such that comedy and menace appear and function as necessary to one another. The observation, however, is most valuable to this discussion for its attention to the physiological contract into which Pinter’s play invites audiences to enter. In effect, the play’s aestheticization of comedy and menace invites intellectual responses and physiological-emotional reactions that are most often rendered thoroughly ambivalent, yet nonetheless experientially intense, and it does so precisely through a process that solicits spectator interest and investment, only to displace and do violence to both. This is perhaps most apparent in the penultimate scene when Ben reads out the final order to be sent up the dumb waiter -“Scampi!,” a scene whose comic flourish does not fade but rather becomes mired in Ben and Gus’s sudden eruption into physical violence, a violence that we are frequently made to anticipate in Pinter’s plays but which so rarely manifests as it does here:
Basil Chiasson He [Ben] crumples the note, picks up the tube, takes out the whistle, blows and speaks. WE’VE GOT NOTHING LEFT! NOTHING! DO YOU UNDERSTAND? Ben seizes the tube and flings Gus away. He follows Gus and slaps him hard, back-handed across the chest. BEN: Stop it! You maniac! GUS: But you heard! BEN: (savagely). That’s enough! I’m warning you! Silence (146).
This scene demonstrates how Pinter’s aesthetic does not involve clearly defined transitions from humorous moments to those that are menacing, but instead a vista in which the possibility and indeed the “reality” of both elements is most often simultaneously in play. Dukore is quite right in observing that “The disparity between the demands for unusual food and Gus’s inadequate substitutes provides a source of comedy, but the sight of Gus emptying all he has in order to satisfy an unseen master […] undercuts the humor” (1920). However, while some may see the humor expressed in the dumb waiter’s demand for “Scampi!” as overwhelmed by the everintensifying submerged violence[0] that erupts into an actual physical confrontation, others might find the humor and menace sustained or even perpetuated in equal measure[0], the complex of both elements due in large part to the indelible and ridiculous image of a dumb waiter apparatus that is hungry for “pretty high class” dishes such as Macaroni Pastitsio and Ormitha Macarounada having to settle for the likes of Smith’s crisps, McVitie treats, a stale Eccles cake, and so on. We must consider that those with a more morbid sense of humor, and who are thus forever niggled by the fact that it was, after all, an inanimate object (the dumb waiter) and “Scampi!” that helped bring about Ben’s savage physical outburst, might see the humor as lingering, perhaps even intensifying. Bringing to mind the old ambivalent expression “not knowing whether to laugh or to cry,” this scene’s collapse of the boundary between that which is ostensibly funny and that which is not instantiates Pinter’s own claim in the speech “Writing for Myself” that “The old categories of comedy and tragedy and farce are irrelevant” (1996, xi).12 Regardless of the “Scampi!” scene’s representational implications, its intermingling of humor, menace, and actual physical violence stands to provoke a complex set of reactions in spectators. Consider how this scene’s dramatic developments shuttle spectators
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from a potential laugh born of ridiculous circumstances that draw on music hall and farce, to an aura of violence, to an infrequently realized physical violence, and finally to a forceful silence. All the while, the entire journey retains the residue of laughter; it was, after all, “Scampi!” that set things in motion and that is implicated in the violence that erupts. With Pinter there is no laughter that does not strive to justify its existence on the basis of menace. Perhaps, then, Gus’s tentative assertion to Ben that “that’s a bit funny isn’t it?” can be read as a rhetorical assertion of comedy’s dramatic need of menace, and vice versa (132); it represents an assertion whose silence suggests that nothing in this play is unequivocally funny, or tragic for that matter. In negotiating an effective staging of The Dumb Waiter, the spectator’s journey is such that he or she is subject to, with great frequency if not at every moment, a complex of physio-sensory shifts brought on by the play’s wholly unpredictable redistributions of comic and menacing tendencies and bursts of actual physical violence. It is only later (post-event) that stimuli in the form of comedy and menace and reactions to it can be qualified as such: in terms of a verbal description of emotional responses. Any descriptive language that derives from our being made to laugh and from our being menaced is preceded by, and entirely contingent to, galvanic bodily activity that begins in visceral registers. What we have here is the production of pre- and non-verbal activity (pre-ideological) as a means to stimulate the sort of cognitive activity that can be called higher-order thinking. In short, we feel Pinter’s plays, at stages ranging from the unconscious to the conscious, then we describe and label the remembered experience, doing so with varying degrees of articulacy. The play’s impact can therefore be defined Page: 43 [0]both by that primary series of responses (and the impact of one response on subsequent ones) and that subsequent attempt to categorize the experience. That the former exists necessarily outside the security of linguistic appropriation that the latter offers, and that the latter represents only an aporia of capture of the former, contributes to any measure of menace within that impact.13 In view of an audience’s visceral, sensory-cognitive, and emotional relationship to scenes such as Gus reading to Ben from his newspaper a litany of harrowing events, the remarkable linguistic agon over whether the kettle or the gas gets lit, the functional vicissitudes of a mysterious and fickle off-stage toilet, and the
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eponymous dumb waiter’s intervention, consider how the play’s variegated sign systems possess an extra-linguistic “other side” beyond representation. I suggest, then, that the complex of menace (in the physiological capacity of anxiety) and comedy (in the equally physiological capacity of laughter) are the affective intensities that Pinter’s comedies of menace (as art) may produce. Simon O’Sullivan tells us that affects, as extra-discursive and extra-textual phenomena, can be described as “moments of intensity,” produced by a virtual “collision” of the spectator’s faculties and senses and the work of art in a decidedly physiological space, as a virtual-material event (2001, 125). As such, the sensations we experience (as given by the play) “are not images perceived by us “outside” of our body, but rather affections localized within the body” (Barbara Kennedy 119). If we conceive of The Dumb Waiter as not so much an object that we look upon as spectators and more so as “a reaction in/on the body at the level of matter,” the play therefore being “immanent to matter” (O’Sullivan 2001, 125), then I suggest that Pinter’s comedy of menace begins to trouble traditional notions of spectatorship and indeed humanist understandings of subjectivity. Given the difficulty, if not impossibility, of articulating the sensible moment and delineating, furthermore, the correspondence between the semiotic complex on stage and its various resonances on the spectator’s nervous system -- best termed an “affective capture” (O’Sullivan 2001, 125) -- such phenomena eludes sufficient verbal qualification. Hence, descriptives along the lines of “I felt anxiety or menaced during scene, moment, or event X in The Dumb Waiter” can appear as a form of question begging. What can be suggested, however, is that the physiological aspect of art with which O’Sullivan is concerned “might still be understood as a sign of sorts,” just not “merely [as] a signifying one” (2006, 163). 4. The Politics of Affect I would suggest that Pinter’s various political plays provide a forum to examine just what we mean by the non-significatory aspects of dramatic signs. One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), The New World Order (1991), Party Time (1991), Ashes to Ashes (1996), Moonlight (1993), and Celebration (2000) respectively stage images of harassment and interrogation, whose force and effect not only appears to be the plight of onstage characters, but also intends to
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act upon and arrest the audience. In soliciting viewers to endure, to enter into this physical forum, these plays underline Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion that “aesthetic composition is the work of sensation” (1991, 192). It might seem that the power struggles and the often repellent stage images in these more recent plays are a long way from the power plays taking place between Pinter’s ambivalently comic and, dare it even be said, likable characters in the comedies of menace. Emphasizing this apparent disparity, Richard Dutton insists that plays such as “One for the Road represent an even greater break with Pinter’s artistic past, with an emphasis on political and human rights issues that would have been out of place in his tragicomedies” (5). However, in the words of that play’s antagonist Nicolas, I suggest that there is more of a link or a bond between Pinter’s artistic past and his recent plays than one might at first suspect. Although we may not, and are as a rule not intended to laugh at theatrical victims whose plight is to endure psychological and physical torture, rape, and the torments of all manner of politicking, the games and the jokes are unmistakably present. Consider Nicolas’s apparent delight at tormenting Victor with questions regarding whether his wife Gila “fucks,” or, moreover, how the game of posing logically unanswerable questions is the lynchpin of Nicolas’s interrogation of all three of the play’s victims. In the first instance, the games and jokes are instrumental to the victimizer in his or her project of breaking victims down.14 However, in the second instance -- an instance which involves our being broken down, as it were -- humor functions to solicit complex emotional reactions from the audience; some of these reactions can be identified and qualified with language, while others evade description due to their resonance at unconscious levels beginning at the viscera and across and within other proprioceptive (stimuli within the organism) regions. Certainly one of the more potent examples of this can be found in the various quips Nicolas makes regarding the execrable realities for which he is responsible, the dramatic function of such quips being to darken and magnetize the audience’s prostration and revulsion. To Gila he says: You’re of no interest to me. I might even let you out of here in due course. But I should think you might entertain us all a little more before you go. Blackout (One for the Road 244).
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Consider, furthermore, how the painful immediacy of Jimmy’s physical presence and euphoric monologue at the close of Party Time in itself provokes an unmediated anxiety in spectators, yet the image is charged by and thus necessarily bound up with a number of snapshots of jovial cocktail banter that precede it: snapshots such as Liz’s preoccupation with “the nymphomaniac slut” and “bigtitted tart” that “raped” her love interest (290); Terry and Dusty’s verbal tête-àtête that ironically conflates the torture and murder of dissidents with married couples (301-02); and Melissa’s overly melodramatic and thus comical toast to the “unshakable, rigorous, fundamental” and “constant” “moral foundation” of “our club” (311). Even though the comedy in these plays is more for certain characters to enjoy, and thus less on offer for spectators (if only tentatively so), the comic element remains operative and in the service of promoting what might be thought of as a new form of menace, where the reactions it stands to produce are arguably much starker. A further example presents itself in the final scene in Mountain Language. In this context, the humor of the remark is specifically intended for the Sergeant and the Guard’s enjoyment; however, the harrowing fact remains that in the play’s final scene the Sergeant’s assertion regarding the Prisoner who is collapsed and “shaking on the floor” is in fact a joke: “Look at this. You go out of your way to give them a helping hand and they fuck it up” (267).15 Pinter uses comedy here to facilitate the emotional violence that the Sergeant’s curtain line attempts to perform on us. And the Sergeant’s remark, according to Batty, “has all the force of a punchline, too -reinforced by the blackout. We have a near Pavlovian response to such structured punchlines -- a self-administered expectation of pleasure from neat surprise -- and here that response is at odds with our ethical faculties. It’s not that we find it funny, but that we recognize that we have been invited to join in a laugh that we simultaneously and instantaneously don’t recognize as funny”[0] (27). Pinter’s most odious characters create tension in the audience by broadcasting familiar conventions through a deeply contentious lens, as they punctuate their dastardly remarks and admissions with wry smiles, ironic quips, and even laughs. Gesturing toward this aesthetics of force, Elizabeth Sakellaridou speaks of a “subterranean effect” that operates in spectators at a cognitive-emotive level, an effect performed on the audience that is bound up with the content of Pinter’s later plays and
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contributing significantly to the political work they do: “If [the political plays’] appeal is emotional because of lack of historical specificity, distancing of audience, narrative and debate, the selection and presentation of images is based on an unmistakable cognitive process which restores the balance and channels the ideological direction of the play” (1989, 45). Sakellaridou’s simultaneous attention to the works’ selection and presentation of images and to their specific ideological direction demonstrates her interest in sighting a politics in the affective potential of the later plays. Following Sakellaridou, I suggest that in seeking to merge content and form, and thus emulate a subject matter dealing with the (ab)use of power and the infliction of psychological torment and physical pain, the form in the political plays must necessarily be made “violent” and thus menace spectators’ psychological, emotional, and physical well-being. A distinctly violent subject matter will require a formal violence that is appropriately matched. While the characters’ performance of speech acts and postures functions as a critique of the very behavior being staged, performed, and fabulated, the by-product that is the audience’s plight is no less a part of the politics. In the words of a playwright most unlike Pinter, yet nonetheless illustrative for the way he seeks to wed ideology and physiology, Howard Barker insists that “Anxiety must be the condition of witnessing drama that takes moral speculation, not social imitation, as its unfaltering objective” (111). As much as we have come to rely on words such as anxiety and menace, the articulation (and reconciliation) of language (signifiers) and of physical experience remains an intellectual quandary. Finding this quandary nonetheless inviting and poignant, Deleuze argues, according to O’Sullivan, that a work of art should be examined with a view to its capacity to generate and deploy forces of intensity, thus operating in the capacity of a machine that acts upon a spectator’s neural-sensory network. Accordingly, art is about experiencing sensations as much as it is about intellection and gleaning meaning(s) (2006, 58). Relationships between spectators and art works can become most notable for the way the forces of any work “act upon the force(s) of our subjectivity” (Ibid. 58) -- this very phenomenon itself constituting a significant form of meaning. If it does not seem too far a stretch to understand both Pinter’s earlier comedies of menace and his more precisely political plays in these terms, in terms of their affective potential that is, then the audience-
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play relationship necessarily presents itself as a matter of relations of force: the play acting upon the spectators, and even spectators acting upon the play, the ideological positions and subjectivities of both audience members and the stage actors “vibrating” under the strain of the work.16 Take the eruptions of “actual” violence in plays such as The Room, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming, along with the comic episodes that bookend and thus embellish them, and then hold them up for consideration alongside the kind of violence the political plays can engineer both on stage and in the audience. It would seem that both eras of Pinter’s work involve the engagement of a similar visceral register -- even despite the different value judgments we might place on the effects of laughter and of anxiety, and however variously we might qualify our physiological and emotional responses to plays from either era. Consider the potential resonance between moments such as when Gus backhands Ben or when Max “hits JOEY in the stomach with all his might” (The Homecoming 42) and when the Sergeant suggests that “Intellectual arses wobble the best” (Mountain Language 257), or when Nicolas uses the past tense at the end of One for the Road to inform Victor that his son “was a little prick” and is thus likely now dead (247). The type of humor (either more accessible to the audience, as in the earlier plays, or egregious such that it remains for the most part hermetically sealed off at the proscenium, as in the political plays) and our engagement with it (either via attitudes and/or feelings of ephemeral delight, ambivalence, or disgust) will differ significantly across Pinter’s oeuvre. However, it is noteworthy that all these plays speak a predominantly visceral language that impacts the audience’s emotions, evoking laughter and anxiety and all their experiential derivatives in such a way as to edge spectators beyond cliché and familiar experience.17 If we consider how Pinter’s earlier comedies of menace manipulate either element in the dramatic aesthetic so as to engender various affects in spectators, it seems impossible to identify where the comedy and the menace respectively begin and end; the effort to process comedy and menace as distinct and separate units of experience remains problematic. That the intensification of both character-audience identification and of laughter is wholly contingent upon the production of menace leads Pinter’s childhood friend Henry Woolf to heartily quip that “Pinter doesn’t work as a menacing playwright unless he’s funny… It’s only really menacing if it’s really
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funny” (Hollis Merritt 126). Woolf’s statement requires adjustment when turning to Pinter’s political plays. In such a context, perhaps Woolf’s remark might then be re-formulated as such: It’s only really menacing if the sociopaths, ideologues, perpetrators of evil, and the morally bankrupt think it is funny. While I fully realize the intellectual peril of suggesting that Pinter’s political plays are comedies of menace, I stand by the aesthetic fact that they possess and exude tendencies of the comedy of menace and can be tentatively wedded by sighting family resemblances in the way that games, jokes, and at times the characters’ own amusement or laughter function. My more general aim in troubling the will to periodization and thus dialoguing Pinter’s “distant” aesthetic past with his more recent past is to suggest how a definition and a concept such as comedy of menace need not be seen as monolithic and static. It is, rather, ever-expandable and open, and can thus be continually developed as a critical tool for engaging with Pinter’s oeuvre. Basil Chiasson, The University of Leeds Notes 1
One other possible irony is the fact that Pinter himself has variously expressed scepticism of categories and labels. And it is arguable that this very scepticism is indirectly realized in the many dynamic and resilient characters featured in the plays, who find themselves confined in and oppressed by various places, individuals, and structures. 2 For a thorough investigation of the Pinter pause’s performative characteristics and functions, and of Pinter’s dramatic language more generally, see Quigley’s The Pinter Problem. 3 Although I have lifted this appraisal from its specific context and reference to Pinter’s screenplay The Quiller Memorandum (1965), I suggest that it nonetheless applies to the plays. 4 In the context of his own drama, Howard Barker observes: “There is silence and silence. Like the colour black, there are colours within silence” (17). I understand this observation to hold for the dramatic pause, especially as Pinter employs it. 5 This aesthetic in particular is by no means the rule, as Alice Rayner’s reading of Pinter’s Betrayal indicates: “The obvious temporal reversal of events in Betrayal lifts the play out of the imitation of real time and places it in a fictional chronology in which imagination, memory, and art turn moments of time into form and deliver an artefact that can be examined from all sides. Pinter’s device is a means of bringing cause and effect into the same room, as it were, but confounds temporal sequence: it underlines the constructed nature of any recapitulation of ‘original’ events” [emphasis mine (484)].
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In a cross-medium analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Alan Brody illustrates how “The outer shell of The Birthday Party is identical to a Hitchcock thriller” (163), and while doing so observes how Goldberg and McCann “are ‘reconstituted’ types from the old Music Hall stage” (172). 7 In quoting Deleuze, I am lifting him from another context in which he engages with Francis Bacon’s painting, its manipulation of cliché, and its aesthetic of asignification. Cf. Modern painting, which, according to Deleuze, embraces “counter-representation as its guiding ambition. Modern painting simply pushes the refusal of representation to its limit. It dismantles the order of cliché, and with it the creatural (organic, narrative, figurative…) order as a whole” (Francis Bacon 111). Also, as an aesthetic development of The Dumb Waiter, consider how The Homecoming’s invocation and then effective manipulation of cliché is an effective illustration of the catastrophic disruption of the clichéd of which Deleuze speaks. On this matter, see Andrew Kennedy who speaks of Pinter’s “determination to avoid cliché and self-repetition” (173), often by means of establishing “patterns of ceremony,” “ritualized language” and “sentimental clichés” (185) -- only to violate them through “counter-images” and “elaborately patterned, and comically violent, speech” (186). See also Kennedy's discussion of Pinter’s “mannerism,” “various exploitations,” “paracitical” aesthetic moves (172-173), and “infolding of language” (190-191). 8 On this point, consider how The Caretaker and a number of other plays begin with openings where audiences are introduced to empty or peopled stages that are silent, and thus loom large until a comic gesture of some sort finally interrupts and then punctuates the imposing and at times unbearable atmospheres they inhabit. Motions to laughter can in fact be regarded as surreptitious provocations of audience emotion, used to intensify a spectator’s vulnerability to menacing moments. Of The Caretaker, Arnold Dukore curiously suggests that “In a silent, prologue-like scene that opens the play, Mick, alone, slowly surveying a room filled with junk, observes each object in it, then sits still. Upon hearing the muffled voices of his brother and Davies, he quickly departs. Anticipatory, the scene is neither comic nor noncomic” (25). Against this, I would suggest that there is scarcely a moment in any Pinter play that is “neither comic nor noncomic,” and thus devoid of signifiers that invite at least some sort of audience response. 9 I am here borrowing Barbara Kennedy’s language, from her discussions in the context of cinema, and doing so without, I am confident, introducing alterations that might be problematic in moving from one medium to another. Of the cinematic experience, Kennedy states: “what emerged was an interesting development away from the politics of representation, to a concern with how the visual experience of the cinematic encounter impinges upon the materiality of the viewer, and how affect and sensation are part of that material engagement. By materiality I mean the biological, molecular and material nature of the body and the perceptions within the brain/mind of that body. The concept materiality is not here used in the Marxist sense of the term. The term ‘body’ is also differently conceived to mean more than just the flesh and blood corporeal body” (16). 10 CF. Andrew Kennedy: “Not only is the dialogue ‘idiomatic,’ it is saturated with idioms ‘played’ to show up their idiocy” (167). 11 Cf. Diamond, who states that “Comic action and character are Pinter’s means of structuring his plays and of controlling audience response to them” (12-13); “Yoking metaphysical terror to comic character and action, Pinter affords us access to his plays
(Re)Thinking Harold Pinter’s Comedy of Menace
-- even as he revises the conventional uses of comedy” (11); “If Harold Pinter’s comedy springs from traditional roots, he undercuts our laughter even as he invites it” (12); and, most relevant to Coppa’s position, “Pinter’s audiences leave the theater haunted by their own laughter. As problematic as the unexplained anxieties of Pinter’s characters is the comic response such anxiety provokes” (11). 12 To be clear, I am not suggesting that Pinter’s plays demonstrate criteria sufficient to the “old” category of comedy in particular, for, in addition to other elements that make for classical-based comedy, they do not provide us with comfortable endings, those in which all problems are reconciled by the time the curtain falls. The case is quite the opposite in fact. As I hope has been evident, I am focussing on the production of humor. 13 I am most grateful to Mark Taylor-Batty for offering, in conversation, this last thought, which is clearly a poignant development of my argument. 14 I am employing both pronouns so as to account for interpretations of the play that cast a female actor in the role of Nicolas. 15 For those in doubt as to the play’s comedic aspects or, moreover, the importance of humor in it, consider the following: “New York director Carey Perloff would report to the conference participants that Pinter did not consider American productions of his plays funny enough, and she shared her own discovery that juxtaposing The Birthday Party with Mountain Language brought out an unexpected humor in the latter, certainly one of Pinter’s harshest plays” (Garner 53). 16 The spectators’ potential as a force acting upon what transpires on stage is an important aspect of this discussion which, for lack of space, I am admittedly passing over. However, for discussions that follow this line, particularly concerning audience “impact” on actors, see Bert O. States’s Great Reckonings in Little Rooms. 17 Although I am not addressing it here, I suggest that when performed, a play such as Ashes to Ashes can elicit more audience laughter than one might expect at first glance, laughter which, according to my argument for comedy and menace’s existential relationship, is instrumental to the play’s overall engenderment of affect. Consider also Celebration, which, I have discovered, has even been referred to as a comedy of menace: “I had had the good fortune to attend a reading, by a particularly glittering cast, of Pinter’s short play Celebration as part of the Gate Theatre’s own celebration of Pinter’s 75th birthday. The play was funny and disturbing in equal measure, perfectly expressing the ‘comedy of menace’ that now defines the Pinteresque;” See Heath.
Bibliography Primary Texts Pinter, Harold. The Dumb Waiter in Harold Pinter: Plays 1. [1960] London: Faber and Faber, 1991. _____. The Birthday Party in Harold Pinter: Plays 1. [1960] London: Faber and Faber, 1991.
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_____. The Room in Harold Pinter: Plays 1. [1960] London: Faber and Faber, 1991. _____. The Collection in Harold Pinter: Plays 2. [1963] London: Faber and Faber, 1996. _____. Mountain Language in Harold Pinter: Plays 4. [1988] London: Faber and Faber, 1996. _____. One for the Road in Harold Pinter: Plays 4. [1984] London: Faber and Faber, 1996. _____. The Homecoming in Harold Pinter: Plays 3. [1965] London: Faber and Faber, 1997. _____. Party Time and The New World Order: Two Plays. [1991] New York: Grove, 2000. Secondary Texts Barker, Howard. Arguments for a Theater (3rd edition). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Batty, Mark. Harold Pinter. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1991. Benston, Alice N. “Chekhov, Beckett, Pinter: The St(r)ain upon the Silence” in Pinter at Sixty. eds Katherine H. Burkman and John L. Kundert-Gibbs. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana, 1993. (111-124) Brody, Alan. “The Gift of Realism: Hitchcock and Pinter” in Journal of Modern Literature 3. 2 (1973) 149-172. Colebrook, Claire. Gilles Deleuze. London: Routledge, 2002. Conklin, Robert. “Old Times and Betrayal as Rorschach Test” in The Pinter Review: Annual Essays 1992 and 1993. eds Francis Gillen and Steven H. Gale. Tampa: Tampa, 1992. (20-30) Coppa, Francesca. “The Sacred Joke: Comedy and Politics in Pinter’s Early Plays” in The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. ed. Peter Raby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (44-56) Counsell, Colin. Signs of Performance: An Introduction to 20th Century Theater. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation translated by Daniel W. Smith. London: Continuum, 2003. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Diamond, Elin. Pinter’s Comic Play. Lewisburg: Bucknell, 1985.
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Dukore, Bernard. Where Laughter Stops: Pinter’s Tragicomedy. Columbia and London: Missouri, 1976. Dutton, Richard. Modern Tragicomedy and the British Tradition: Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard,Albee and Storey. Brighton: Harvester, 1986. Esslin, Martin. The Peopled Wound: The Plays of Harold Pinter. London: Methuen, 1970. Gale, Steven H. Butter’s Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter’s Work. Durham, NC: Duke, 1977. Garner Jr., Stanton B. “Betrayal” in The Pinter Review: Annual Essays 1991. eds Francis Gillen and Steven H. Gale. Tampa: Tampa, 1991. (52-54) Gordon, Lois G. Stratagems to Uncover Nakedness: The Dramas of Harold Pinter. Columbia: Missouri, 1969. Heath, Iona. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2005” in The British Journal of General Practice 1. 55 (2005). Online at: (consulted 29.08.2007). Hinchliffe, Arnold P. Harold Pinter. London: Twayne, 1967. Hines, Joseph. “Pinter and Morality” in The Virginia Quarterly Review 68. 4 (Autumn 1992): 740-52. Hollis Merritt, Susan. “Staging Pinter: From Pregnant Pauses to Political Causes” in The Pinter Review: Collected Essays 2003 and 2004. eds Francis Gillen and Steven H. Gale. Tampa: Tampa 2004. (123-43) Kennedy, Andrew. Six Characters in Search of a Language: Studies in Dramatic Language London: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Kennedy, Barbara M. Deleuze and Cinema: The Aesthetics of Sensation Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Kerr, Walter. Harold Pinter. New York and London: Columbia, 1967. Klein, Joanne. Making Pictures: The Pinter Screenplays. Columbus: Ohio State, 1985. O’Sullivan, Simon. Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought beyond Representation. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. _____. “The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation” in Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities 6:3 (2001): 125-135.
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Peacock, D. Keith. Harold Pinter and the New British Theater. London: Greenwood, 1997. Prentice, Penelope. The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic. New York and London: Garland 1994. Randisi, Jennifer L. “Harold Pinter as Screenwriter” in Harold Pinter: You Never Heard Such Silence. ed. Alan Bold. London: Vision, 1985. (61-73) Rayner, Alice. “Harold Pinter: Narrative and Presence” in Theater Journal 40. 4 (1988): 482-497. Sakellaridou, Elizabeth. “An Interview with Harold Pinter” in The Pinter Review: Collected Essays 1999-2000. eds Francis Gillen and Steven H. Gale. Tampa: Tampa, 1999. (92-102) _____. “The Rhetoric of Evasion as Political Discourse: Some Preliminaries on Pinter’s Political Language” in The Pinter Review: Annual Essays 1989. eds Francis Gillen and Steven H. Gale. Tampa: Tampa, 1989. (43-47) States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. Berkeley: California, 1985. Wardle, Irving. “Comedy of Menace” in Encore Sept.-Oct. (1958): 28-33.
Feeding Power: Pinter, Bakhtin, and Inverted Carnival David Pattie 1. The Dumb Waiters It is difficult to watch a production of The Dumb Waiter without having, at some point, the uncanny sense that there are three characters on stage. Gus and Ben, engaged in their own, tense battle for power and information, have periodically to tear themselves away from the job in hand to satisfy an inanimate object that displays the kind of insistent, unreasonably rapacious appetite that one normally associates with a young child. As Basil Chiasson argues, the dumb waiter’s ambiguous actions seem motivated, even if we are unsure of the nature of that motivation: …[While] some may see the humor expressed in the dumb waiter’s demand for “Scampi!” as overwhelmed by the ever-intensifying submerged violence that erupts into a “real” physical confrontation, others might find the humor and menace sustained or even perpetuated in equal measure, the complex of both elements due in large part to the indelible and ridiculous image of a dumb waiter apparatus that is hungry for “pretty high class” dishes such as Macaroni Pastitsio and Ormitha Macarounada having to settle for the likes of Smith’s crisps, McVitties treats, a stale Eccles cake, and so on.
It makes sense, performatively, to think of the dumb waiter as an active participant; not only does it noisily demand attention on its first entrance, but it is also furnished with the power of speech (via a speaking tube that Gus discovers). Although we never hear the other end of the exchanges, by the end of the play we have realized just how important the dumb waiter has become: it has succeeded in bringing the tensions between Gus and Ben to the point of outright violence, and it delivers the orders that will lead, we might assume, to Gus’ death immediately after the end of the show.
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The dumb waiter, then, takes on the attributes of a character; and, as the play progresses, it also does something else. We have heard, in the early dialogue exchanges, of the existence of a shadowy organization for whom Ben and Gus work. However, at the play’s beginning, the members of this organization seem very distant from the action. Ben and Gus, the organization’s representatives, are on their own. The first moment that shakes that perception is the appearance, under the door of the room, of an envelope that contains matches for the kettle -- an oddly mundane detail, rendered unsettling because its appearance has not been anticipated or prepared for. The unprepared entrance of the dumb waiter, in performance, expands on this initial intrusion. It manifests itself as something approaching a character -- muscling its way into the dialogue; but it also and increasingly acts as the conduit between the two protagonists and another character or set of characters, who are positioned elsewhere in the world of the play. Somewhere, above the heads of Gus and Ben, at least one representative of the organization that controls their actions uses the dumb waiter to connect with, to instruct, and to torture them. The ultimate authority exercised through the mechanism of the dumb waiter, exercised without warning on the play’s protagonists, bears a striking similarity to that exercised by Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party. Like the authority figures in Pinter’s first full- length play, the power wielded by The Dumb Waiter’s authorities cannot be turned aside. It is backed up by an organization whose scope is unimaginably great. And it is felt most keenly by those who are apostates -- who flee, like Stanley, or who begin to question its operation, like Gus. Pinter drew a sometimes tense exchange of messages about The Birthday Party’s meaning with Peter Wood, the play’s first director, to a close with the following: “We’ve agreed: the hierarchy, the Establishment, the arbiters, the socio-religious monsters arrive to affect censure and alteration upon a member of the club who has discarded responsibility (that word again) toward himself and others… (qtd in Billington 78). This point can also be made in relation to The Dumb Waiter: in this case, it could be said that Gus has discarded his responsibility to the arbiters (whoever they are) by struggling against his appropriate role -- that of a dumb waiter, someone who simply performs when asked without question. However, there is another connection between the two texts; one which links them to discourse on the nature of power and
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powerlessness that stretches the length of Pinter’s career. Goldberg and McCann do not simply march in to the boarding house and destroy Stanley; like the arresting officers in Kafka’s The Trial, they avail themselves of the various comforts the home provides. Not only this: but Goldberg ingratiates himself to the household further through a matched pair of speeches in which nostalgia, correct behavior, and moral rectitude are linked inextricably to the consumption of food. Goldberg’s rewards for being an irreproachable, respectful suitor, and a loving husband are, respectively, “the nicest piece of gefilte fish” and “the nicest piece of rollmop and pickled cucumber” that such an exemplary citizen could wish to find on a plate (53, 69). In both The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, those in power are those who feel entitled to consume the best dishes that are offered. This brings me back to the point Chiasson makes about the nature of laughter in Pinter’s theater. He is surely correct to suggest that the peculiarly unsettling atmosphere of much of Pinter’s work is tied to the sheer viscerality of the responses it provokes: as he notes, “In negotiating an effective staging of The Dumb Waiter, the spectator’s journey is such that he or she is subject to, with great frequency if not at every moment, a complex of physio-sensory shifts brought on by the play’s wholly unpredictable redistributions of comic and menacing tendencies and bursts of actual physical violence.” Here, I think, Chiasson identifies one of the most striking features of The Dumb Waiter in performance. As the play proceeds, the operations of the powerful forces that surround Ben and Gus become more and more all-pervasive; by the play’s end, even the apparent sanctuary of the basement room has been breached. It could be said, though, that there is another redistribution at work in the play; a redistribution of the meager goods that Ben and Gus bring with them. While Goldberg and McCann might help themselves to anything the boarding house has to offer, Ben and Gus, in their turn, are forced into the role of providers -- even though they have no way of fulfilling the demands the waiter makes. These demands evoke laughter, but they are also profoundly destabilizing; as Chiasson notes, the longestablished description of Pinter’s early work as “comedies of menace” stems from moments like these. There is, though, another type of comedy at work in The Dumb Waiter. This we might term a grotesque black comedy of consumption and liberation, in which the operation of power is displaced on to food, and to the needs of the
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body. In other words (and in terms I will define below) a Carnival: but a Carnival of a peculiarly unsettling kind. 2. Carnival and the Body A useful place to begin an examination of the visceral in The Dumb Waiter is with the work of one of the key theorists of the grotesque body. In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin locates Rabelais’ work in a long-standing tradition of popular performance: the myriad inversions and parodies that comprised the practice of Carnival in the middle ages. The various practices grouped together in Carnival (the parody of coronations and wedding ceremonies, mock fights where food substitutes for weapons, elaborate mock rituals in which the power of religion is mocked) share, for Bakhtin, a common dynamic. They all invert the normal hierarchical structures of society; those who normally rule are dethroned, and those who are ruled are given power -- at least for the duration of the carnival. This inversion, for Bakhtin, is closely tied to the idea of physical over-indulgence. Carnival’s great enemy is Lent: a season which emphasizes the denial of the body’s appetites, and the mortification of desire. In contrast, Carnival is the season when those appetites are celebrated, and when, as the quote above indicates, the denatured asceticism of Lent is countered by what Bakhtin terms the “grotesque body,” which is “[…] a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed: it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world […] (317).” It is the peculiar triumph of Carnival that it places this version of the body above all others. The religion of the time regarded the body as the disposable envelope that housed the soul; in Carnival, the body is liberated, to indulge itself in those simple basic needs that are denied to it (or, at least, frowned upon) for the rest of the year. For Bakhtin, this liberation can be thought of as a levelling down: …[D]ebasement is the fundamental artistic principle of grotesque realism; all that is sacred and exalted is rethought on the level of the material bodily stratum or else combined and mixed with its images. We spoke of the grotesque swing, which brings together heaven and
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earth. But the accent is placed not on the upward movement but on the descent. (370-1)
During Carnival, then, heaven is brought down to the level of the earth; the spiritual is subordinated to the physical. The social implications are clear. For most of the year, the poor are supposed to practice self-denial as a religious duty. The indulgences of Carnival are a way not only of indulging in a small period of sociallysanctioned license. They are also a way of destroying, if only symbolically, an oppressive social order, of denying the power of the socio-religious monsters (in Pinter’s phrase) whose power is otherwise incontestable. Bakhtin’s theories of Carnival and the grotesque have been contested, even by those otherwise supportive of his work.1 These critiques are, it has to be admitted, fair; Bakhtin does give too much weight in his work on Rabelais to the purely liberating aspects of the Carnivalesque, and he does not pay enough attention to the fact that Carnival is a transitory, licensed phenomenon, granting freedoms that can be revoked at the end of the festival. However, these arguments rather miss the point; they ignore the fact that Bakhtin’s theories of the Carnivalesque were, at least in part, a coded intervention in the political debates of his time. Bakhtin was arrested and imprisoned by the Communist authorities; for him, the idea of freedoms that could be revoked had a painful relevance, as Pechey points out: “[…] It doesn’t require much perspicacity to read the supersession of carnivalesque counterculture in a new official culture described in Rabelais and His World as an allegory of the betrayal of the revolution […] (20). Behind the liberation promised by Carnival, therefore, there is its opposite: the re-imposition of Lenten control over the minds, the bodies, the appetites and the desires of the people. Carnival, in Rabelais and his World, is presented in its most utopian aspect, because, in Russia at the time, the victory of the forces of Lent (manifested, in official ideology at least, as self-denial and Stakhanovite physical endeavor in the service of the Revolution)2 was so complete. However, judging by the evidence of The Dumb Waiter, the last thing that can be said of the person, or people, at the other end of the waiter, is that they are in any way self-denying: if anything, quite the opposite. The food requests go from the relatively quotidian [two braised steak and chips; two sago puddings; two teas without
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sugar”(131) to the exotic (macaroni pastitio, ormitha macarounada, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and chicken, Char Siu and bean sprouts (136, 138)]. As noted above, these demands soon exhaust the meager resources of the two hit-men, but even when they communicate this to the unseen diners upstairs, the demands do not stop. In fact, not only is more food requested, but the food that has been sent is dismissed as sub-standard: BEN: ([…] grabs the tube and puts it in his mouth: (Speaking with great deference.) Good evening. I’m sorry to -- bother you, but we just thought we’d better let you know that we haven’t got anything left. We sent up all we had. There’s no more food down here. (He brings the tube slowly to his ear.) What?…No, all we had we sent up…Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that…The Eccles cake was stale…The chocolate was melted…The milk was sour. GUS: What about the crisps? BEN: (listening) The biscuits were mouldy…(139-40)
I have quoted this section at length because, for me, it is one of the key moments of the play. Those placed above Ben and Gus consume every scrap of nourishment they can provide; then, at the play’s end, they order the hit-men to consume each other -- beginning with Gus, the substandard offering. Something Carnivalesque is undoubtedly happening. The requests for food obey the kind of hyperbolic, excessive logic that Bakhtin ascribes to Carnival practices and structures; Gus and Ben are unwillingly dragged into a parodic representation of an everyday activity, and there is no sense that the controlling organizations within the world of the play have any interest in the spiritual, rather than the physical. What we seem to have, in this play, is an inverted Carnival, in which the key indicators of the carnivalesque are still in place, but all the real and implied benefits of Carnival flow up, rather than down. The answer to the question this raises -- to whom do these benefits flow -- is implied in The Dumb Waiter; the same mechanism which conveys impossible demands to the hit men also delivers the final instructions which lead to Gus’ death. It is, however, answered -- and answered fully -- in the plays that Pinter comes to write in the 80s and 90s, plays in which the Carnivalesque operations of the powerful are memorably anatomized.3
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3. Running the Party At the end of The Dumb Waiter, Gus stumbles in, “…stripped of his jacket, waistcoat, tie, holster, and revolver” (149). This is a crucial stage direction; Gus is not only revealed as the target that they have been sent to kill, but also is delivered to his killer in a state that strongly suggests that he has been processed, and that what is left is simply the residue, passed to Ben, for final disposal. It is a strikingly shocking moment, not only because (on a first viewing at least) it is entirely unexpected. It is shocking also because it suggests that the building is peopled -- and has been peopled for the duration of the play -- by powerful, malicious, or at the best, amoral assailants who can deal, quickly and effectively, with one of their own when the need arises. Later in Pinter’s writing career, we revisit these assailants -- or at least their close associates. Gus’ entrance at The Dumb Waiter’s end is echoed, some thirty-four years later, at the end of the 1991 play Party Time. In this later text, a party is held at an expensively furnished London flat: the guests are the rich and the powerful [or those who can provide necessary services to the powerful, and can therefore be declared an ‘honorary member (284) of their class]. As the play progresses, we hear about the activities taking place in the streets outside. We never hear precisely what is going on: however, we are left in little doubt that it is violent, that it is oppressive, and that it is taking place at the behest of the people at the party: CHARLOTTE: There’s something going on in the street. FRED: What? CHARLOTTE: I think there’s something going on in the street. FRED: Leave the street to us. CHARLOTTE: Who’s us? FRED: Oh, just us… you know. (307)
A leitmotif running through the play is provided by Dusty (who is married to Terry -- a man who serves the other characters as an enforcer and trouble shooter; a man who is in much the same position as Ben in The Dumb Waiter). Dusty troubles the other guests by asking repeatedly about her brother, Jimmy, who has disappeared (or, more correctly, who has been disappeared). Jimmy’s disappearance, and the disturbances outside, are unsettling; equally unsettling is a lighting effect which, like the dumb
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waiter, increasingly imposes itself on the world of the play. The main lights dim, and a light ‘burns into the room’ (Party Time 298) from behind a half-opened door. The final moments of the play bring these three elements together: after the final, celebratory speeches, the other characters freeze, the light from the door intensifies, and Jimmy enters, “thinly dressed” (313) as the stage directions have it, and speaksJIMMY: ...What am I? Sometimes a door bangs, I hear voices, then it stops. Everything stops. It all stops. It all closes. It closes down. It shuts. It all shuts. It shuts down. It shuts. I see nothing at any time any more. I sit sucking the dark. It’s what I have. The dark is in my mouth and I suck it. It’s the only thing I have, It’s mine. It’s my own. I suck it. (314)
The processes might be different, but Jimmy and Gus finish their respective plays in much the same state: all but used up, stripped of nearly everything, and empty, both psychically and physically. Jimmy sits in his cell, “sucking the dark.” Gus, at the play’s end, shouts despairingly into the tube “WE’VE GOT NOTHING LEFT! NOTHING! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” (146); when Ben tries to reengage him in conversation, he answers ‘dully’ (147), as though drained of the ability to respond. Both characters’ fates are inextricably linked to apertures that seem to open on to another ambiguously disturbing world, beyond the rooms in which the action is set. These worlds, it could be said, are the polar opposites of the worlds we see on stage; the rooms above in The Dumb Waiter are occupied by the authorities, not their servants, and the door in the set of Party Time opens on to the regime’s torture cells. The dumb waiter is a disregarded hatch, until it jerks into life half-way through the play. In Party Time, the door through which Jimmy enters stands half-open throughout, but is never used. And, finally, both Jimmy and Gus are linked to the authority structures that eventually destroy them; Gus has partnered Ben on an unspecified number of such jobs, and Jimmy is closely related to two of the partygoers. There is, however, another, more pervasive link between the texts, one which explains the treatment meted out to Gus and to Jimmy, and which places that treatment in a wider context. As in The Dumb Waiter, what we have is the image of power as inherently carnivalesque. In The Dumb Waiter, the Carnivalesque exercise of
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power manifests itself in the increasingly bizarre, increasingly intrusive requests for food that travel down it These requests strongly suggest authorities who are used to indulgence, to satisfying the body first and foremost. In the more overtly political plays of the 80s and 90s, those characters who exercise authority do not do so in the service of any particular ideology. They pay lip service to religion (as Nicholas does in One for the Road), to the nation (as the soldiers do in Mountain Language), or to modes of correct behavior (in Party Time). But when they operate, they do so in a manner that links the exercise of power for its own sake with the idea of indulgence and excess: whether it is Nicholas in One for the Road, drinking whisky after whisky; Gavin, rhapsodizing over the hot towels on offer at the club in Party Time; the soldiers, sizing up the arses of the female prisoners in Mountain Language; the dinner guests in Celebration; or Devlin, conflating sexuality and torture in Ashes to Ashes. Furthermore, when these characters talk about power, they do so in terms and images which are drawn, in Bakhtin’s phrase, from the “material bodily stratum (370).” Nicholas in One for the Road: […]I hear you have a lovely house. Lots of books. Someone told me my boys kicked it around a bit. Pissed on the rugs, that sort of thing. I wish they wouldn’t do that […] But you know what it’s like -- they have such responsibilities -- and they feel them -- they are constantly present -- day and night […] and so, sometimes, they piss on a few rugs […]. (228)
Des in The New World Order: You called him a cunt last time. Now you call him a prick. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to learn to define your terms and stick to them. You can’t call him a cunt with one breath and a prick in the next. The terms are mutually contradictory […]. ( 275)
Terry in Party Time: […]You’re getting real catering. You’ve got catering on all levels. You’ve not only got very good catering in itself -- you know, food, that kind of thing -- and napkins -- you know, all that, wonderful, first rate - but you’ve also got artistic catering -- you actually have an atmosphere -- in this club -- which is catering artistically for its clientele. I’m referring to the kind of light, the kind of paint, the kind of music, the club offers. I’m talking about a truly warm and harmonious environment. You won’t find voices raised in our club. People don’t do vulgar and sordid and offensive things. And if they do
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we kick them in the balls and chuck them down the stairs with no trouble at all. (310)
Devlin in Ashes to Ashes: […] When you have a wife you let thought, ideas and reflection take their course. Which means you never let the best man win. Fuck the best man, that’s always been my motto. It’s the man who ducks his head and moves on through no matter what wind or weather who gets there in the end. A man with guts and application. (pause) A man who doesn’t give a shit. A man with a rigid sense of duty. (pause) There is no contradiction between these last two statements. Believe me. (415)
And, indeed, for Devlin and for the characters like him, there is no contradiction. The man who wins is the man who favors his guts and his genitals over his mind and spirit. The man who wields power does so in order to slake his appetites. The man who exercises power does so by countenancing physical assault and degradation. We might say that the exercise of power in these plays is entirely visceral, entirely bound up in the operations of the body. Therefore, power can only be described as sensual excess; and the enforcing of power can only be talked of in terms that are overtly, grossly scatological and sexual. In Bakhtinian carnival, such language is a sign of freedom and of the breaking of bonds that hold the lower classes in place. In Pinter’s work, such language is also a sign of freedom, but the freedom of the rulers, not the freedom of the ruled. In The Dumb Waiter, both Ben and Gus display a similar fascination with the operation of power on the body. For example, the stories read out by Ben at the play’s beginning are stories of violent death: in both cases, the question of who is responsible -- who had the power of life and death, in each case -- is uppermost in both their minds. Even their memories of going to a football match together revolve around a disputed penalty; Ben, convinced that the penalty was awarded correctly, describes the foul with some relish (“Didn’t touch him! What are you talking about? He laid him out flat!” (121). Characters like Devlin, Des and Nicholas talk about power from the perspective of the rulers, happy to describe the operations of power as a graphic assault on the powerless. Located as they are at a different point in the hierarchy, Gus and Ben are, understandably, rather more concerned about who does what to whom; determining exactly where the threat of violence is coming from is, for obvious reasons, of
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pressing concern for the two of them. Moreover violence, when it occurs, is discussed in terms of secretions and waste. Granted, the conventions of the time (and the pressure of theater censorship) militated against strong language; but when Gus wishes to register his disquiet about the type of work he does, he focuses on the physical harm done to the victim -- and he does so in terms which are graphic enough: GUS: I was just thinking about that girl, that’s all…She wasn’t much to look at, I know, but still. It was a mess, though. Honest, I can’t remember a mess like that one. They don’t seem to hold together like men, women. A looser texture, like. Didn’t she spread, eh? She didn’t half spread… .(130-31)
Similarly, their complaints and comments about their immediate location tend to be about the level of comfort (or otherwise) that it provides: about the time the cistern takes to fill, the state of the crockery, the lack of comfort provided by the beds. It is also worth noting that perhaps the most memorable argument that they have is not about the nature of their work, but concerns the correct way to talk about putting the kettle on. In their concern for comfort, their awareness of the damage done by those in power to the human body and the fact that their conversation always circles back to food (or the lack of it), Ben and Gus are recognizably part of the same universe as the characters in Pinter’s later work. They are, however, positioned, literally, at the opposite end of the supply chain. As they note, the place where they wait “probably used to be a café,” (132), and they are most likely located in what used to be the kitchen. They are therefore in the correct physical position to provide sustenance for those higher up the food chain. However, they are in no position to do so in reality, and Gus in particular has the suspicion that those placing the order are already well supplied: […]Who knows what he’s got upstairs? He’s probably got a salad bowl. They must have something up there. They won’t get much from down here. You notice they didn’t ask for any salads? They’ve probably got a salad bowl up there. Cold meat, radishes, cucumbers. Watercress. Roll mops. (pause) Hardboiled eggs. (pause) The lot. They’ve probably got a crate of beer too. Probably eating my crisps with a pint of beer now […] . (141-42)
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The process of stripping Gus of everything he has, it seems, is already well underway before the end of the play: those at the other end of the dumb waiter have already begun the process of consumption that will lead to his eventual death. This process is, moreover, dramatized through what we might call an inversion, a parody, of the “grotesque swing” Bakhtin finds in carnival (371). The process of debasement in these plays is associated with an upward movement, from the disused kitchens inhabited by the likes of Ben and Gus, to the well-stocked, well-appointed rooms inhabited by the characters in Party Time. In these rooms, as Terry reminds us, there is catering at all levels -- except the lowest levels, the ones occupied by Gus and Jimmy, the levels at which you have nothing and where you sit, sucking the dark. 4. Conclusion Pinter, interviewed in 1996, was keen to point out the similarities between his early plays and his later work: My plays are not political discussions. They are living things. They are certainly not debates. They are violent. Violence has always been in my plays, from the very beginning. The Room ends with a sudden, totally gratuitous act of violence on the part of a man who kicks a negro to death. I was quite young at the time, but looking back it doesn’t seem to me to be a wild or bizarre thing. We are brought up every day of our lives in a world of violence. (qtd in Smith 93)
It is the sudden eruption of violence into the world of Pinter’s plays that is largely responsible for their unsettling, visceral impact. As Chiasson notes, the atmosphere that this generates is, once again, remarkably consistent -- not in every play that Pinter wrote, but in a number of works across the span of his career. The term “Comedy of Menace,” as Chiasson argues, deserves a wider application than it is normally given: My more general aim in troubling the will to periodization and thus dialoguing Pinter’s “distant” aesthetic past with his more recent past is to suggest how a definition and a concept such as comedy of menace need not be seen as monolithic and static; it is, rather, ever-expandable and open, and can thus be continually developed as a critical tool for engaging with Pinter’s oeuvre.
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My argument, effectively, runs parallel to Chiasson’s. The violence, and the menacing comedy, of Pinter’s earlier and later work are rendered even more powerfully unsettling in performance, because of the light they cast on the nature of the violent world that we inhabit. Such unpredictable texts cannot be viewed in a spirit of intellectual curiosity; they demand a response from the gut. I would argue, though, that in relation to The Dumb Waiter, the idea of the visceral is linked not only to the profoundly unsettling shifts between comedy and violence Chiasson identifies. The workings of the gut, it could be argued, also dominate the world of Pinter’s play. The Dumb Waiter relies, for much of its unsettling impact, on what might be termed a metaphorical inversion of the viscera. If we think of the waiter itself as a mouth, then the channel that it opens onto becomes, by extension, a throat, and the ultimate destination of Ben and Gus’ offerings is a stomach. It is bound up with the idea of appetite, with consumption (and particularly with overconsumption, and its opposite -- want and starvation). It is given a memorable physical incarnation in the dumb waiter itself -- a maw, placed center-stage, swallowing all the meager rations that Ben and Gus have. As with the Carnival practices that Bakhtin describes, the operation of power in the play manifests itself in excessive consumption; but, unlike the revelers in the medieval marketplace, the act of consumption is not a sign of the heavens brought down to Earth. The direction of travel has been reversed: food is pushed into the gaping mouth of the dumb waiter, and then it ascends. Bakhtin imagines the ever-hungry stomach (a crucial part of the Carnival body) as rooted to the ground; ironically, what we have here is a simple reversal of that image -- the mouth on stage, the stomach suspended somewhere over the heads of Ben and Gus. And it is this image of power-- as consumption, as Carnival excess gone wrong -that provides Pinter with an abiding image of the relation between rulers and ruled, an image which resonates along the length of Pinter’s writing career. David Pattie, University of Chester Notes 1
See for example Gardiner 1992, Holquist 2002, Pechey 2007.
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Alexei Stakhanov was a miner in Stalin’s Russia, whose reputed capacity to work hard was mythologized by the regime; ‘Stakhanovites’ were workers who, according to communist propaganda, were committed to working unselfishly in the service of the Revolution. 3 For a related discussion of the links between Bakhtin and Pinter’s work, see Griffith; for a separate but related discussion of the political links between Pinter’s early and late work, see Luckhurst .
Bibliography Primary Texts Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his world translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana, 1984.
Pinter, Harold. The Dumb Waiter in Harold Pinter: Plays One. [1960] London: Faber and Faber, 1996. _____. The Birthday Party in Harold Pinter: Plays One. [1960] London: Faber and Faber, 1996. _____. Party Time in Harold Pinter: Plays Four. [1991] London: Faber and Faber, 1998. _____. One for the Road in Harold Pinter: Plays Four. [1984] London: Faber and Faber, 1998. _____. Ashes to Ashes in Harold Pinter: Plays Four. [1996] London: Faber and Faber, 1998. _____. The New World Order in Harold Pinter: Plays Four. [1991] London: Faber and Faber, 1998. Secondary Texts
Billington, Michael. Harold Pinter. London: Faber, 2007. Gardiner, Michael. The Dialogics of Critique: M.M. Bakhtin and the theory of ideology. London: Routledge, 1997. Griffith, Peter. “Bakhtin, Foucault, Pinter, Beckett” in The Death of the Playwright: Modern British drama and literary theory. ed. Adrian Page. London: Palgrave, 1992. (97-114)
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Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world. London: Routledge, 2002. Luckhurst, Mary. “Harold Pinter and poetic politics” in Cool Britannia?: British political theater in the 1990s. eds Rebecca D’Monte and Graham Saunders. London: Palgrave, 2007. Pechey, Graham. Mikhail Bakhtin: the word in the world. London: Routledge, 2007. Smith Ian. Pinter in the theater. London: Nick Hern, 2005.
Return of the Referent Varun Begley History, then, certainly “enters” the text [...]; but it enters it precisely as ideology, as a presence determined and distorted by its measurable absences. Terry Eagleton (1996, 303) [...] all contemporary works of art [...] have as their underlying impulse -- albeit in what is often distorted and repressed unconscious form -- our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived. Fredric Jameson (2000, 146)
If we imagine that social desire is the raw material of all art, the question of “political art” is reoriented in salutary ways. Indeed, the phrase itself may connote an unfortunate mimetic bias -- social desire is assumed to be visibly present in some artworks, absent in others. Yet cultural theory teaches nothing if not the inescapability of mediation; exposed to such theory, most would probably concede that artworks do not directly reflect social realities or yield historical knowledge in unmediated forms. At most, they exhibit patterns of sense-making and signification; models of subjectivity; ways of seeing and constructing reality; symbolic regimes of power and desire; fantasies of sociality -- in a word, ideologies -- that are themselves complex and variable historical productions. The artwork is then the “production of a production,” in Terry Eagleton’s phrase (1996, 299); the work’s immediate relation is not to History but to Ideology, which, displaced from its practical or “natural” modes of transmission in the social world, is put in play aesthetically. In these terms, political art itself (like realism or modernism) would need to be historicized and considered as an ideology, as an historical outcome or symptom. This shift in emphasis has the advantage of freeing us from certain preconceptions about
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political content and instead focusing attention on more general patterns of signification and social fantasy, if we are to assess the political -- i.e. social and ideological -- significance of a given work. The early plays of Harold Pinter would seem to warrant this sort of approach, particularly in contrast to his more evidently politicized works of the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, it is clear that what is being offered in a play like The Dumb Waiter is not a commentary on some graspable set of social issues, but a dramatization of an alienated relationship to reality itself. In assessing the politics of this 1960 play, I want to argue that The Dumb Waiter partakes of a broader crisis in the ideology of realism, one that cuts across various areas of artistic, intellectual, and social practice. In this, Pinter’s work participates in the ethos of much literary and cultural theory during the 1960s and 1970s -- a set of discourses that point to a crisis of the sign, as we might put it, in which the “natural” or binding relationship between representation and reality was being questioned from a variety of perspectives. What I have in mind is a reading of The Dumb Waiter that argues that the play anticipates the crisis of the referent described by later theory. This reading will suggest that the play works as a reproduction of contemporaneous ideologies concerning labor and sociality; that it organizes a space for utopian desire; that it works -aesthetically and politically -- by negating realism; and that it dramatizes the predicament of the social/psychological subject when confronted by the inaccessible but determining horizon of the Real. This reading assumes a certain perspective on the social function of art and the relationship between aesthetic production and other areas of social reality. Faced with the retreat of the referent, various left-wing critics sought to shore up the basic perception that literary works are first and foremost social texts. Inheriting the skepticism of critical theory, however, it was necessary to argue that literary works do not yield reality directly, but instead signal the Real through modes of disorder that disrupt the text’s dominant patterns and ideologies. The Real is thus an aesthetic category as much as a social one; the term is not identical with “reality,” but instead an expression of the idea that reality exceeds representation. For politically minded critics, this category allows some positive revaluation of the social function of art. If the conservative function of art is to “manage” social anxieties and desires -- by transforming and resolving them at an imaginary level -- it is also true that artworks are
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scarred by gaps, omissions, and inconsistencies. These lacunae make us aware of the non-identity of representation and reality, and the imaginary character of textual “reality.” History resists and belies ideological resolution, and the Real might be described as textual evidence of this resistance. I am drawing here from works by three critics writing out of the crisis-ridden milieu of the 1970s: Fredric Jameson, Richard Dyer, and Terry Eagleton (the latter indebted to Pierre Macherey). In various ways, these critics enlist critical theory in the service of political critique. A work can be considered a dynamic system in which ideologies are put in play -- and to some degree put at risk. Following Eagleton, it is crucial to emphasize that a work is a production of ideology (his analogy is the partly determined, partly variable theatrical production of a script); the work is thus a trans-coding between two symbolic systems, a process rather than a static reflection. Part of the interest of this process lies in the stratagems, displacements, and ruses of the trans-coding, and the extent to which artworks simultaneously reproduce and expose, transmit and disfigure, the ideologies that provide their raw material. Ideology seeks imaginary unification of social contradiction, and, as Macherey’s work suggests, we should be alert to textual dissonances, gaps, and silences that remind us of the suppressed contradictoriness of the ideologies being reproduced. In the wake of Jameson’s influential work, one could say that artworks incorporate at least two registers of ideological contradiction: utopia and the Real. Jameson, Dyer, and others have persuasively shown how the management of utopian desire is a central vocation of ideology; consequently, the Real is best conceived as a text’s method of internally limiting its ideological imagination, its way of marking the horizon that delimits utopian fantasy and ideological machination alike. History, one might say, is aesthetically present only as a necessary limit or absence. Jameson defines the textual Real as “that which resists desire, that bedrock against which the desiring subject knows the breakup of hope and can finally measure everything that refuses its fulfillment [...] [an] absent cause, which is fundamentally unrepresentable and non-narrative, and detectable only in its effects” (1981, 184). Rejecting realism and presupposing a crisis of the referent, this model requires a subtle account of ideological mediation as a
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precondition of political criticism. In his seminal 1976 essay “Towards a Science of the Text,” Eagleton argues: Rather than ‘imaginatively transposing’ the real, the literary work is the production of certain produced representations of the real into an imaginary object. If it distantiates history, it is not because it transmutes it to fantasy, shifting from one ontological gear to another, but because the significations it works into fiction are already representations of reality rather than reality itself. The text is a tissue of meanings, perceptions and responses which inhere in the first place in that imaginary production of the real which is ideology. (305)
Turning now to the play, I want to test Eagleton’s “tissue” hypothesis via the ideology of the gangster in The Dumb Waiter. To say that the play is “about” gangsters is at one level inarguable, but at the same time it also shortchanges those other formal and tonal determinants -- from vaudeville to Beckett -- that already seem to have worked over and estranged the “original” raw material. Gus and Ben are ideological ciphers, and I would suggest that the gangster code camouflages another sort of fantasy material, and that part of the interest of the play is how thoroughly it entwines symbolisms of crime with symbolisms of labor, exposing contradictions in the ideologies surrounding both. Consider the fact that we are dealing with a special kind of gangster, namely the professional killer. The killer is a creature of the division of labor, of specialization and hierarchies, of the decisive split between mental and physical work. The figure of the killer encapsulates a particular kind of cognitive violence inflicted on the specialized laborer, whose efficiency is presumably magnified in proportion to his or her disconnection from, and ignorance of, the whole. As Ben tells Gus, who worries about the cleanup of bodies: “Do you think we’re the only branch of the organization? […] They got departments for everything” (130). The specter of the “organization” alerts us to a key ideological substratum of gangsters in popular culture -- the extent to which preoccupation with gangsters is preoccupation with crime as business, and thus indirectly with business as crime. “What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?” asks Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and the conjuncture of criminality and business allows us to argue that The Dumb Waiter is to a large
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degree about labor and its discontents. This perspective enables us to link two of the play’s key symbolic registers -- the theme of the disgruntled employee and the problem of waiting/temporality. The theme of disgruntlement is conveyed via sporadic remarks that constitute a tonal pattern in the play; a few examples may suffice: GUS: Well, I like to have a bit of a view, Ben. It whiles away the time. […] I mean, you come into a place when it’s still dark, you come into a room you’ve never seen before, you sleep all day, you do your job, and then you go away in the night again. Pause. I like to get a look at the scenery. You never get the chance in this job. BEN: You get your holidays, don’t you? GUS: Only a fortnight. (118) GUS: Well, we have done in the past, haven’t we? Stayed over and watched a game, haven’t we? For a bit of relaxation. BEN: Things have tightened up, mate. They’ve tightened up. (121) GUS: Half the time he doesn’t even bother to put in an appearance, Wilson. BEN: Why should he? He’s a busy man. (129) GUS: How can this be a café? BEN: It used to be a café. GUS: Have you seen the gas stove? BEN: What about it? GUS: It’s only got three rings. BEN: So what? GUS: Well, you couldn’t cook much on three rings, not for a busy place like this. BEN (irritably): That’s why the service is slow! (135)
All these pieces of workplace grumbling ask that we consider the professional killers as somehow ideologically exemplary of workers in general. The killer is a complex figure in this regard -itinerant manual labor, urbanized and denatured, far removed from authority and decision-making, perpetually on call, waiting -- a working life “redeemed” only by intermittent episodes of violence. The question of waiting/temporality is then central, though again overdetermined. Given that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot appeared in English in 1954, we can stipulate the cultural familiarity of waiting as existential metaphor, but given the specificity of the other frames of reference in The Dumb Waiter, I would want to
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consider waiting -- or better, tedium -- as a modern structure of feeling, an outcome of the labor process and accompanying forms of standardization and reification that operate across public and private spaces, in work and leisure as well. Anyone who has worked in an office knows the heartrending gap between the temporality of private fantasy and the official time of business, between the variable rhythms, contours, and modalities of internal experience and the crushing metronome of the social order. Under modern conditions of production, the qualitative variability of time becomes increasingly a purely private, subjective concern, experienced in hope, memory, daydreaming, and fantasy. Falling asleep in an office, say, or the low-level guilt that flows from “wasting” an afternoon at work -- these are trace evidence of the incommensurability of internal and external time, and how assiduously the latter works to stamp the former with its imprint. Time is the medium through which the social order leaves its mark on subjectivity; tedium is the residue of time emptied by external pressure, colored by dim awareness of the fact that the subject no longer knows how to fill it. Tedium is ennui as protest. The two characters take different attitudes towards time and, in doing so, encapsulate different characterological types. Gus is a semi-idealistic junior partner, alternately bored and passionate, while Ben is a capitulated company man, an authoritarian personality menaced by a punishing superego, whose obeisance to the fatherfigure/boss is matched by suppressed resentment that erupts in fits of guilt and misplaced hostility. Ben’s mix of extreme aggressiveness and extreme servility testifies to the incoherence of a patriarchal order that combines a murder bureaucracy with the bourgeois normality of newspapers and football games. Ben suffers from obeying dubious and inconsistent fathers. As a crypto-proletarian, Gus is at least able to complain of having to be perpetually “on tap,” while Ben responds that Gus’s problem is not having “interests.” “I’ve got my woodwork,” Ben says, “I’ve got my model boats. Have you ever seen me idle?” (118). This is reminiscent of Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno’s observation in the 1940s that work and leisure are increasingly interchangeable (137), and of Adorno’s assault on popular music in the same decade, which rests on the idea that such music works as “social cement” (220), enforcing obedience through rhythm and standardization, and serving as a palliative extension of
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the workday by providing the deadened worker with relief from “boredom and effort simultaneously” (219). Gus, by contrast, refuses to fill time in the approved ways, and instead experiences idleness as a sort of fundamental dissonance between subject and world. For example, he says of the toilet, “Have you noticed the time that tank takes to fill?” (117). This deceptively banal remark leads one to wonder about all the innumerable, irrecoverable moments we spend as hostages to the temporality of apparatuses -- waiting for toilets and telephones, cold car engines, stoplights, dryers, stoves. There is a peculiar quality to such dead time, a crypto-masochistic pleasure in the inverted hierarchy of significance, which seems subtly to proclaim something about the commodity-world that we knew to be true all along. There is perhaps small relief in not having to do anything, and having as an alibi the mechanized temporality that structures our bouts of “busy”ness as well. The distinction between empty and filled time is crystallized in the odd vignette about Ben stopping the car in the middle of the road, as Gus sleeps. “I woke up when you stopped,” Gus says, and goes on It was still dark, don’t you remember? I looked out. It was all misty. I thought perhaps you wanted to kip, but you were sitting up dead straight, like you were waiting for something. (119)
Here, through the imagery of nature and sleep, we seem to perceive an un-colonized temporal lacuna from which some less alienated subjective experience might emerge. Idleness presupposes busyness, while this pause in the middle of the road promises the sort of authentic subjective respite for which sleep is the ultimate paradigm. The punch-line, however, is that Ben stopped the car because they were “too early” (120), affirming the ironic fact that the pastoral interlude was intended only to assure complete punctuality. This reading of the play via ideologies of labor and time has a final surprise, one that serves as a reminder of the complexity of the relation between text and ideology (and the even more complex relation between text and history). Overlaid on the symbolic architecture of crime/business is the unexpected activation of the dumb waiter and the consequent stereoscopic shift in which our two killers are transformed into restaurant workers. As bizarre as this
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development undoubtedly is, it extends the movement from crimegenre connotations towards a broader symbolism of labor, as Gus and Ben now appear to be cryptograms of the proletariat in some broad and puzzlingly inter-textual sense. But the restaurant orders and the characters’ inadequate responses to them entwine the ideology of labor with a different sort of production of the ideology of realism. Here I do not mean Jameson’s notion of the Real as absence or negation, but rather realism as a style based on the illusion of presence, on a representational fullness that blinds us to the fact that claims to the real -- premised on notions such as truth, transparency, or nature -- are invariably ideological. Indeed, one of the great contributions of literary/cultural theory in the period was the exposure of the real as something coded and produced by signifying operations -- as an effect, rather than a given, of the text. A key figure here is Roland Barthes, and it is pleasant to be able to turn to a 1968 Barthes essay on realism to clarify a problem in The Dumb Waiter, one that I find in much of Pinter’s other work as well. My sense is that the politics of Pinter's early plays needs to be understood in terms of a broader opposition between realist and modernist impulses. By the former I mean those occasional instances that scream 'social reference!' (racism in The Caretaker, for example), together with general formal adherence to the conventions of dramatic realism. This realist impulse I take as expressive of historical/political desire (which finds a different sort of fulfillment in the 1980s and 1990s plays), a desire to map experience socially and historically according to more-or-less stable coordinates, to establish some full and transparent relation to the referent. Opposed to this, however, is a modernist impulse that assumes the radical inaccessibility of the referent. Through this prism, realist desire is doomed to discover merely more signifiers and codes (the interrogations in The Birthday Party, for example); History, as such, remains out of reach. The dumb waiter activates this opposition in a manner reminiscent of the interrogations in The Birthday Party. The play begins to speak in a food idiom marked by insistent specificity, in contrast to the more generic activities and references in the play (tea, lorries, highways, children, cats, toilets, newspapers, matches, etc.). Again, however, the ideology of labor and class is entwined with the problem of realism, since the food references have quite different
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cultural connotations. On the one hand, we have the dumb waiter’s demands for braised steak and chips, teas without sugar, soup of the day, liver and onions, jam tart, macaroni pastitsio, ormitha macarounada, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and chicken, and char siu and beansprouts. These elaborate demands are set against Gus and Ben’s paltry offerings of McVitie and Price, Lyons Red Label, Smith’s Crisps, Eccles cake, and Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. The two codes certainly could be taken as a class allegory, with the localized authenticity of ethnic cuisine set against the brand names of mass-produced junk food. In the larger context of the play, however, both codes display dismaying mimetic innocence, a confident “pointing” toward known frames of reference. We begin to perceive the outlines of a referential code that runs intermittently through much of Pinter. In contrast to the use of referential detail in naturalism/realism, however, the specificity here feels gratuitous and unearned. The transcribed details of naturalism/realism presuppose a sense of organic totality, an interconnected, metonymic world with binding, meaningful relations between characters and their environments, in which one might perceive something fundamental of a person’s identity from a pocket-watch or piece of furniture. Of course, totality and interconnection are ideological effects rather than facts of nature, and Pinter’s use of the referential code lays bare some of the political implications of the realist enterprise. It is a commonplace that bourgeois realism is a “closed” style, one that works to naturalize a particular hegemonic version of reality. Moreover, realism’s reliance on illusionism is generally understood to disguise the fact that every representation, however ostensibly neutral, smuggles in an ideological perspective, a way of seeing. This closet authoritarianism is further detectable in realism’s preoccupation with “truth” and disclosure, its distrust of ambiguity and alternative possibilities, and the teleological subordination of subject-matter to the end of narrative closure. Realism partly enacts such formal coercion through a particular way of using details. In his essay “The Reality Effect,” Barthes argues that in realistic fiction there exists a species of otherwise gratuitous details whose function is to say no more and no less than “we are the real” (234). Paradoxically, such details are able to fulfill this function in direct proportion to their narrative irrelevance. A detail must conspicuously be shorn of any sense of motivation, of having a meaningful function, if it is to assume its other
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“meaning,” which is to signify the utter contingency, the brute factuality of reality itself. (His example is a barometer on a piano in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.”) Such details signify, in other words, but in an unusual way. The ambition of the reality effect is to transform the tripartite structure of the sign -- signifier/signified/referent -- such that the signified is suppressed and the signifier is felt to be purely coextensive with the referent. Hence, one standard function of referential specificity is to produce reality-effects that tacitly proclaim the existence of reality, making the world appear mythic, natural, and immutable, rather than historical and susceptible to change. Considered in this way, the referential code typically constitutes a sort of glue that binds the depicted social order into an unalterable monolith. One thing exists, so everything else does as well, and it is pointless to contest the society for which the detail is a token. Moreover, realism would have us believe that details are fundamentally interchangeable. What realism wants is a sense of a “very specific real situation” without the unruliness that is part and parcel of what specificity means. Realism does not want specificity, but specificity-ness. At one level, the bizarre and apparently gratuitous food references in The Dumb Waiter would seem to create the aura of dense, unchangeable factuality for which realism strives. At the same time, these references are like a gazetteer without the map; missing are the images of totality, the holistic systems, the ideological edifices that realism builds on the ground of specificity. As Gus pithily puts it: “What town are we in? I’ve forgotten.” When Ben says Birmingham, Gus responds with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy: That’s in the Midlands. Second biggest city in Great Britain. I’d never have guessed (121).
Typically, geographic facts function like reality-effects; their microscopic incontestability serves to naturalize the world order. But in The Dumb Waiter, local facts refuse to serve their ideological function -- if crisps must answer for bamboo shoots, how sure can we be about Birmingham? In The Dumb Waiter, the background awakens and moves to the center, as the types of details that realism asks to be compliant and quiescent -- crockery, toilet, burner, bed sheets, matches, dumb waiter -- become sites of consternation and alarm. Realism entails symbolic
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violence against reality; it guarantees the authenticity of the elements it holds out as exemplary by coercing peripheral reality into meaningless background silence, or at most the low obedient murmur of “we are the real.” In Pinter’s work, the referent returns as a categorical problem, which appears in symbolic recalcitrance and unknowability. These symbolisms are reminders of the non-identity of sign and world, of the gap between ideological systems and the realities they encode and conceal. Utopia, then, is less a wish for a better reality than a wish for any stable reality at all. From writers like Barthes, Jameson, and Dyer, we know that the typical function of ideology in popular culture is not to silence social contradictions, but rather to speak about them, albeit in ways that naturalize existing realities, redirect radical energies, and otherwise benefit the social order. From the standpoint of the social order, however, this process may entail “playing with fire,” in Dyer’s phrase (279). In order to manage discontent, discontent must first be aroused, and, since the symbolization of social problems incarnates a wish that such problems could be resolved, it becomes imperative that such imaginary solutions accord with the existing order; that is, the social order must be seen as capable of resolving the very problems it creates. In Jameson’s words, this model of aesthetic production “allows us to think repression and wish-fulfillment together within the unity of a single mechanism,” one that “strategically arouses fantasy content within careful symbolic containment structures which defuse it” (2000, 138). In The Dumb Waiter, football initially might seem to accord with Dyer’s well-known categorization of utopian problem-solving (277-8). Against the dreariness, tedium, and exhaustion of labor, football provides energetic, intense experience: “Talk about drama,” as Gus says of a remembered Villa match (121). In a world of unseen manipulation and paranoia, football offers stark, legible conflict and unambiguous resolution -- in a word, transparency. And perhaps most significantly, in a society of fragmentation and atomization, football affords temporary membership in a passionate collective and, thus, an experience of community. (Note that these imaginary solutions flow from the leisure-branch of the same society that created the problems, and depend on prettified forms of aggressiveness, integration, and ego-dissolution.) In a different sort of play, Gus and Ben might affectionately recall a shared football experience, and football might conform to the
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utopian model previously described. Here, however, utopia is overwritten by referential crisis, such that Gus and Ben cannot agree whether they were at the same cup tie; whether the match was settled by a “disputed penalty;” whether the penalty was correct or involved “acting;” whether the Villa play an aggressive style; and who the Villa were playing (21). Gus persists in his desire to see another football match as utopian compensation for the upcoming job -- asserting “I’ve always been an ardent football fan” (122) -- but the two cannot settle on a field where the home team is actually playing, leading to Ben’s melancholy summation: “Away. They’re all playing away” (123). Via the vanishing referent, utopia and the Real begin to merge. The Real is always elsewhere, and utopia is the unrealizable desire to be present at events that are always “playing away.” There is, however, another utopian pathway that I want briefly to consider, one that will lead us back to the problem of the Real from the inside-out, as it were, from the standpoint of subjectivity. Brecht once remarked that the “smallest social unit is not the single person but two people” (197), and I would suggest that amid the ideologies of labor and alienation, a certain utopianism survives in the rudimentary impulse toward social relation. In this context, we can think about the twocharacter form of The Dumb Waiter as providing a bare-bones schematic rendering of sociality itself. Indeed, one need not look beyond the opening and closing tableaus to sense a fixation on the basic patterns and parameters of social life, and it is useful in this context to turn to another Jameson essay, “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan” (1977), in which he endeavors to rethink Lacanian psychoanalysis in Marxist terms. The framing structure of the play is the social dyad, a pattern whose psychoanalytic foundation is the mother-child relation. The problem of self and other dates from the highly charged first experiences in which the child begins to take itself as an object -- Lacan’s mirror stage -- and to understand the parental body as an “other,” a period in which the boundaries between self and other are still relatively fluid but where a dyadic/binary logic (inside/outside, etc.) predominates. This Imaginary order, in Lacan’s terminology, inaugurates an experience of the other simultaneously marked by aggression and desire/identification -- “a kind of situational experience of otherness as pure relationship, as struggle, violence, and antagonism, in which the child can occupy either term indifferently, or indeed, as in transitivism, both at once” (Jameson 1982, 356).
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Tellingly, as the play opens, Ben is immersed in a newspaper - an axis of separation but also desire -- and Gus rather desperately (and childishly) wants to disrupt Ben’s “adult” (i.e., privatized and individualistic) immersion. The newspaper thus marks the emergence of the Lacanian Symbolic order: the order of language and Law, society and reality, authority, deferral, and punishment. The Symbolic is the regime of the Other (as distinct from the dyadic other), a regime initiated by the Father -- a figure more important as a symbol or representation than as an actual person. The basic pattern of relation is henceforth triadic or triangular -- the Oedipal model -- rather than dyadic, but the triangularity of the Other is not limited to actual “third” persons, but rather flows from the compulsory deferrals, mediations, and absences that separate desire from its dyadic object and whose fundamental mode is simply language itself. Within this situation of alienation and deferral, the Imaginary register retains considerable power for the subject, wishing away as it does the estrangements of the Symbolic and returning the dilemma of the other to more manageable, dyadic terms. In this context, in his famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1971), Louis Althusser suggests that ideology is a representation of an “imaginary relationship” of the subject to his or her real conditions (155); that is, the social order is the more effectively able to produce and integrate the subject if the subject experiences that order as a binary other -- an interlocutor or intimate -- rather than an abstract Symbolic network. One function of ideology is to soften or personalize the social order, to convey to the subject an imaginary (false) sense of a relation between like-minded entities, in which one’s anxieties and grievances are assuaged by a society that appears as “a ‘subject’ which ‘addresses’ me personally” (Eagleton 1983, 172). Through a variety of institutions, practices, and representations, the subject is endlessly invited to take his or her place, as if at a cozy dinner party where one is always “expected” (see Althusser 163). Utopia, then, is a register of this sort of ideological operation, in which one’s alienation is compensated by an imaginary, generally regressive return to situations of comparative fullness and plenitude. In these terms, I would say that the fundamental utopian drive in The Dumb Waiter resides in the relationship between Gus and Ben. Across moments of comradeship, impatience, resentment, and aggression, Gus and Ben display the immediacy of “pure relationship,” in which the borders of self and other are fluid and permeable. Against the
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menacing abstractness of the dumb waiter’s imperatives, Gus and Ben engage in a comparatively free flow of libidinal energies, and this, I would suggest, constitutes a powerful fantasy of sociality, a partial utopian (i.e., ideological) solution to the condition of alienated labor discussed above. Fittingly, the “actual” Authority/Father never appears in the play, but the sense of a social world governed by Law progressively permeates and infects the Gus/Ben dyad, beginning with their disagreements over the newspaper, which functions as a token and instrument of the social order. Here we should recall that the Lacanian model is tripartite -- Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. For Lacan, the Real seems to mean an arena outside signification, an order of pure immediacy known perhaps only in infancy, but an order that in some way continues to determine and orient experience, even though it can only be apprehended in mediated forms. For the subject, the Real persists as a promise or unreachable horizon, an end or destination outside language and desire, in which the compulsory deferrals of the Symbolic might finally be made good. With characteristic bravado, Jameson concludes that the Lacanian Real “is simply History itself” (1982, 384), which suggests a convergence between the textual model outlined above and the psychoanalytic model outlined here. The function of the work of art is the ideological (Imaginary) management of anxieties about the social (Symbolic) order, and symbolization/management of the subject’s radical disconnection from those global processes of time and historical change (the Real), which are textually unrepresentable and can be figured only as limitation, absence, or negation. History, one might say, is always elsewhere, and, if we look for its signs in The Dumb Waiter, we might begin by thinking of the unfulfilled desire implicit in Ben’s remark about the newspaper, “It’s down here in black and white” (114). Black-and-whiteness is an Imaginary, ideological overlay on the vanishing Real; it symbolizes a desire that the newspaper make good its promise of unifying reality, of providing a stable frame of reference that could somehow meaningfully correlate the old man run over by the lorry and the cat killed outside the toolshed. Yet actual History is intimated only indirectly, through ciphers and lacunae, and in this light, the play points us toward the opaque incongruousness of the dumb waiter itself. Given its anachronistic overtones, and its comparative meaninglessness in the
Return of the Referent
social world of 1960s, I think the dumb waiter marks a limit of historical desire, that is, desire to narrate the status of one’s work and activity in relation to a larger community and in relation to historical time. The dumb waiter, however, is something like historicism minus the human activity that gives substance to history: it is history as pure abstraction, as reification. It marks a historical desire that can realize itself only in terms of a relic of bygone class structure; yet here historical imagination can no longer “fill” the structure with human content, but can only envisage history as pure apparatus, as emblem or signifier. One can see how the crisis of the referent, with which we began, becomes an urgent political matter for the left-wing critics I have been discussing. Taken in a certain direction, the theoretical discourse of this crisis can be conjoined with political quietism; Eagleton links post-structuralism in particular with the melancholy aftermath of 1968: “Unable to break the structures of state power, post-structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language” (1983, 142). Against this tendency, the theoretical models outlined here are attempts to foreground social desire as the raw material of aesthetic production, and to show the complex ideological stratagems that enforce alienation from history, as well as testify to the persistence of historical desire. Against this backdrop, I want to end by opening a new question, one that has to do with the medium of theater. The various literary models discussed here necessarily bypass the theater's special way of symbolizing and deploying the Real -namely by physical bodies and objects. As we see in the newspaper, foodstuffs, and the dumb waiter itself, Pinter’s play lends the problem of the referent a particular urgency through its fixation on objects. It is telling, in this regard, that so many of the key items -toilet, kettle, burner, lorry, cat, etc. -- remain offstage, while onstage items, such as the newspaper and the dumb waiter, are in various ways signs of the inaccessibility or retreat of the historical Real. At the same time, Bert O. States has suggested that the theater physically displays the object-world in an estranging manner, by removing objects from the utilitarian sphere and entering them into an aesthetic arena. States argues that one of the social functions of drama is to “digest” a rapidly changing objective world by allowing audiences to re-perceive it in the theater’s intentional aesthetic space. He writes: “theater ingests the world of objects and signs only to bring images to
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life. In the image, a defamiliarized and desymbolized object is ‘uplifted to the view’” (37). In these terms, a key visible token of the Real is Ben’s revolver, which plays such an important role in the closing tableau. I think that one final ideology put in play by The Dumb Waiter is simply the ideology of ending, of closure, which is central to the ideological project of realism discussed earlier. Prop though it certainly is, Ben’s revolver is a reminder that History, however cognitively remote, is accessible to all of us as aging, disease, hunger, deprivation, violence, and pain. It is of course a task of ideology to manage anxieties about the body as a site where History impresses itself in direct ways, and the iconography of gangsters and killers -- as part of the cultural ideology of violence -- has its own functions in this regard. Such forms typically, indeed obsessively, deploy the Real of bodily violence, but manage anxieties about such violence via aesthetic strategies such as spectacle, eroticization, and closure. At a minimum, The Dumb Waiter refuses such conventional resolution, and leaves the referent -- the bullet, say -- suspended as a broken promise, an open problem. This is a long distance from the evident politics of later Pinter works such as One for the Road or Mountain Language, but as an ideological production, The Dumb Waiter has much to say about the political and aesthetic crises of its period. Varun Begley, College of William and Mary
Bibliography Primary Texts Pinter, Harold. The Dumb Waiter in Harold Pinter: Plays One. [1960] London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Secondary Texts Adorno, T.W. “On Popular Music” in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. eds Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan. Toronto and Buffalo: Toronto, 1997. (211-223)
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Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. ed. John Storey. Athens, Georgia: Georgia, 1998. (153-164) Barthes, Roland. “The Reality Effect” translated by Richard Howard in The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 19002000. ed. Dorothy J. Hale. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. (229234) Brecht, Bertolt. “A Short Organum for the Theater” in Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic. Translated and edited by John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1991. (179-205) _____. The Threepenny Opera. [1928] London: Methuen, 2005. Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia” in The Cultural Studies Reader. ed. Simon During. New York: Routledge, 1992. (271283) Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1983. _____. “Towards a Science of the Text” in Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader. eds Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. (296-327) Horkheimer, Max, and T.W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment translated by John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 2001. Jameson, Fredric. “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Problem of the Subject” in Literature and Psychoanalysis -- The Question of Reading: Otherwise. ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1982. (338-395) _____. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell, 1981. _____. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” in The Jameson Reader. eds Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. (123-148) States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. Berkeley, California, 1987.
“Disorder… in a Darkened Room:” the Juridico-Political Space of The Dumb Waiter Juliet Rufford Franz Kafka, from “Before the Law:” Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment...
Harold Pinter, from “Order” …And disorder feeds on the belly of order And order requires the blood of disorder And “freedom” and ordure and other disordures Need the odour of order to sweeten their murders…
1. The Image of the Room Since the earliest days of Pinter criticism, the image of the room has been key to readings of the plays that range from the Freudian to the Foucauldian. It was Pinter himself who first identified the status and function of the room as paramount to his dramatic situations, describing a recurring vision he had of two people in a room, who are revealed as the curtain goes up on the stage and about whom we sense an imminent danger (qtd in Tennyson). In what fast became an axiom of Pinter studies, the room was used to ground existentialist interpretations of the plays that made of architecture a “refuge from a certain ontological insecurity” (Chaudhuri 93-4). Martin Esslin -- then head of drama at the BBC -- produced the first critical analysis of this type in The Theater of the Absurd (1962) and extended his discussion of the significance of Pinter’s rooms in one of the first full-length studies of the playwright’s work: The Peopled Wound (1970). It
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hardly needs saying, then, that the image at the center of this analysis of The Dumb Waiter is not a new one. However, it is used to provoke fresh argument about the politics of Pinter’s early work. The enduring popularity of Esslin’s work on Pinter has meant that other approaches have sometimes been overshadowed. Whilst restating the significance of space in Pinter’s work, I want to take issue with some of Esslin’s pronouncements and draw attention to an alternative body of Pinter criticism, including arguments as diverse as the rediscovered voices of the New Left and some politicized strains of postmodernism. Together, these approaches reveal the political as a space of contestation and constant re-definition. They also posit spatiality as central to understandings of the political. Before offering a close reading of The Dumb Waiter, I shall also sketch out the curiously spatial thought of Giorgio Agamben informing my interpretation. This preamble will allow us to reassess the play’s historical and critical contexts and consider the productive tensions, points of rupture and continuity that exist between the Britain of Pinter’s early career and that of recent years. Throughout successive editions of his monograph on Pinter, Esslin stood by his initial view of the dramatist as an existentialist in the Heideggerian mode, noting the correspondence of Pinter’s dramatic starting point: “man’s confrontation with himself and the nature of his own being” to Heidegger’s conception of anxiety as the fundamental condition of Being-towards-death (1970, 35).1 But it was French philosophy and not German that was informing the creative and intellectual life of 1950s Britain as John Stokes has pointed out (30). In particular, the ways in which Jean-Paul Sartre was reworking Heidegger’s ideas may account for the co-existence of “outer” and “inner,” social struggle and psychological turmoil in Pinter’s work of this period, and Stokes provides evidence of Pinter’s familiarity with Sartre in written projects dating from his work on the novel The Dwarfs in the fifties to the plays of the following decade (42). Sartre’s conviction that literature and drama provide real insight into social conditions (and, perhaps, the tools to assist in their passing) was what enabled the Encore critics to see more in Pinter’s work than the sub-Beckettian Absurdism hurled at him by his detractors. For them, Pinter’s insistence that “there are two things (individuals and society) both exist and the one makes the other” (Billington 89-90) echoed Sartre’s belief that besides the subjective
… in a Darkened Room”
aspect of existence there is also the subject’s relationship to social structures (Sartre 220). While Kenneth Tynan used the minutelyfocused inner lives of Pinter’s characters as ammunition against a playwright antipathetic to the bold political strokes of Osborne, Arden and Wesker, challenging Pinter to say why his characters never seemed interested in “politics or general ideas” (1960), it was the Marxist Raymond Williams who called for a broader understanding of political art (10-12). Williams’ claim for the political value of art that was “committed” in the Sartrean sense of the term was that it might trouble the correlation between characters located, like Pinter’s, at the extreme edge of their existence and notions of selfhood that severed personal anguish from the social frameworks that could, in part, explain such difficulty (7). The cluster of plays Pinter wrote between 1957 and 1958 shares with the theater of Samuel Beckett a focus on interiority, and yet, each one off-sets the individual’s quest for existential adjustment against the non-transcendent, material grounding of reality in a complex network of power relationships. Esslin, too, distinguished Pinter’s world-view from the more quietist strains of existentialism influencing Beckett and Ionesco by arguing that in Pinter’s plays fear is “never just a philosophical abstraction” but is traceable to the playwright’s experience of antiSemitism in London’s post-war East End and to his awareness of real, historical phenomena -- notably, World War Two and the Holocaust (1970, 35). But Esslin’s disinclination to expand on the question of Pinter’s politics results in a skewed perspective on the early plays. By side-stepping Sartre, in which there is an impressive, if ultimately flawed, attempt to reconcile existentialism and Marxism, Esslin avoided having to sustain a debate about the convergences between existentialism and politics in the work of a man whose refusal of party politics stems from a deep distrust of politicians and not a shying away from the issues. Despite eventually conceding the engagé quality of Pinter’s “post-Holocaust, postnuclear” work, Esslin’s impression of the room as predominantly a metaphysical rather than geo- or even bio-political space remained unchanged (1993, 29). Critics who were keen to probe the plays’ intensely private surfaces for their hidden political aspect often did so by looking at the spatial codes involved. John Russell Taylor’s Anger and After (1962)
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grouped Pinter’s first few plays with other works of social realism instantly recognizable by their “kitchen sink” settings. In the early 1970s, Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador argued that: the room itself denotes the nature and the reason for the conflict… It is not only the circumscribed acting area, providing the aesthetic rules, not only the correlative of who is dominant but also, as the scene is shifted from one person’s habitation to the other’s, the externalization of the ironic reversal of parts (195-96).
Similarly, Irving Wardle found that Pinter had to be understood “in territorial terms or not at all” (40). Esslin’s analysis is also at its best when it addresses questions of space and the threat to personal security. Especially pertinent is his observation that the room-doorsuspense pattern in The Dumb Waiter is a clever variation of the situation in The Room, in which Rose, “looking at her door, was clearly a victim-to-be” (1970, 70). Notwithstanding the recent drive to tackle the question of Pinter’s politics head on -- an endeavor that has come about in response to the overtly political plays of the 1980s and the playwright’s involvement in political activism -- there is little consensus about the degree to which the early plays might be considered political or about what sort of politics might be said to be at work within them. Susan Hollis Merritt’s “The Outsider in Pinter and Havel” uses Hans Mayer’s attempt to draw a historical passage leading “from the intentional to the existential outsider” as a means to clarify and expound on Pinter’s political insights (65). Her essay traces structures of feeling encompassing self-alienation and global social alienation from the work of the 1950s to that of the early 1990s. By contrast, Austin Quigley’s “Pinter, Politics and Postmodernism (I)” argues that Pinter’s early dramatic technique is one of “scrutinising the local context” at such close range that any useful generalization about socio-political values is difficult to abstract (9). Quigley, therefore, prefers to locate the political in the fluid sets of family bonds and social contracts that are found in the plays’ microcontexts. Varun Begley’s essay (printed elsewhere in this volume) and my own also have very different frames of reference. Amongst other things, Begley is interested in the plurality of perceptions, “formal and
… in a Darkened Room”
tonal determinants,” that challenge the hegemony of mim0003sis and the supposed “straight-forward” relationship of representation to reality. And, although I accept his point about the unruliness of the play’s object-world and of “factual” detail that, in a more conventionally realist play, would function as “reality effects,” I tend to see more direct social reference and a greater expression of “historical/political desire” in The Dumb Waiter than he does. What our two arguments share, I think, is a wider focus on sites of crisis and control, whether these are understood as the processes of standardization and reification that Begley addresses in relation to ideologies of labor and sociality -- or, indeed, in relation to his theme of modernism versus realism -- or whether they are seen as part of the biopolitical paradigm that has become the “hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we live” (Agamben 2000, 37). 2. The Architecture of Disorder Reading The Dumb Waiter as the dramatic embodiment of Michel Foucault’s ideas on disciplinary power and governmentality, Charles Grimes assigns political weight to the play by highlighting the architecture of its mise-en-scène (which includes its own panopticon in the form of the mechanical dumbwaiter) and by considering its action as analogous to the operations of surveillance, regulation and self-regulation within a carceral society (50). Grimes uses Foucault’s theorization of how totalizing structures manage criminal and noncriminal populations to propose an interpretation in which Gus and Ben are subjected to the punitive measures of the prison. Begley notes how the symbolism of criminality in The Dumb Waiter is invariably connected to some aspect or institution of the legitimate world. But, whereas in Begley’s scheme, symbolisms of crime and symbolisms of labor meet to expose “contradictions in the ideologies of both,” Grimes’ exploration of discipline in The Dumb Waiter reveals how criminal and non-criminal populations alike are part of a system of power built on the “replaceability” of its subjects (56). Against the grain of Pinter scholarship, Grimes does not distinguish the two assassins from law-abiding members of society -- presumably because the logic of Foucault’s theory of discipline would render such a distinction useless.
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There is no firm evidence in the play-text that the men are part of some criminal subculture, and much is gained from leaving questions of legitimacy and criminality open. I wish to retain Grimes’ perception that there is a wider societal significance to Gus and Ben’s position and build on this to re-consider the juridico-political space of the play. By looking at The Dumb Waiter’s peculiar emphasis on machinery/the machinery of power alongside Agamben’s writings on sovereign power and “bare life” in the state of exception, I shall ask how The Dumb Waiter might reverberate for us today.2 Agamben’s work on biopolitics and juridico-political theory -a philosophical project he describes as the completion or correction of the Foucauldian thesis (1998, 9) -- seeks to expose the consequences of removing legal restraints to the operation of power that would normally apply in democratic states. Originally declared in response to a factual situation like danger to public safety, the state of exception -by which the law is suspended and the sovereign is free to rule without checks to its power -- is now simply “willed” and the emergency produced as a consequence of the sovereign decision (Agamben 1998, 170). Agamben sees generalization of the state of exception as the dominant form of government in contemporary politics and, paradoxically, one of the normal practices of democratic states. In his view, it is this (and not the totalization of structures of modern power) that has turned the political body into Foucault’s virtual criminal body, because continual suspension of the law transforms a population of legal subjects into legal “objects,” noncitizens that exist at the mercy of a pure de facto rule (2005, 3). If the mundane spaces of the everyday -- whether public or private -- act as safe-havens for the self-conception of the individual and as the loci of social values, this terrain can quite suddenly become a “vast and extraordinary space of exception, in which the norm and its transgression are decided in the moment” (Minca 387).3 Certainly, the most domestic of Pinter’s rooms is potentially a place of abuse and suffering; hence, a perfectly ordinary space like the basement kitchen in The Dumb Waiter is a useful image with which to think through the political relevance of his early work. The Dumb Waiter shares with The Room, The Birthday Party and The Hothouse a stress on the architecture of disorder that Pinter would link directly to instances of state torture and repression in his later work.
… in a Darkened Room”
In The Dumb Waiter, as in the “darkened room” of Pinter’s 1996 poem “Order” (from which the epigraph above is taken), a seemingly innocuous space is transformed into a zone of undecidability in which anything is possible. The linguistic slippage that Pinter creates between the words “order,” “odour,” “ordure” and “disorder” mimics the unfolding and enfolding of the violent totalitarian impulse within what is clearly a democratic context (1998, 162). Given that democracy is incompatible with systematic suspension of the law, the “freedom-loving” state that calls a permanent state of exception is transformed into an anomic space similar to that of Pinter’s poem, in which what is at stake is a “force of law without law” (Agamben 2005, 39). Turning to Kafka for help in describing the juridico-political aporia of the present, and claiming that Kafka’s “most proper gesture consists not… in having maintained a law that no longer has any meaning, but in having shown that it ceases to be law and blurs at all points with life,” Agamben argues that the new world order is based not on law but on orders that carry the “force-of-law” (2005, 63). For Pinter, too, Kafka was a writer imbued with a rare sense of the dynamic between violence and the law. The picture Pinter gives us in “Order,” of a space of abandonment in which any one of us can be subjected to the murderous whims of the law, is the logical next step to Kafka’s image of the separation of the law’s applicability from its formal essence in the parable “Before the Law” (also quoted above).4 The following interpretation of The Dumb Waiter is of a play that exists in similar relationship to Kafka’s tales and anticipates much of Pinter’s later poetry and plays. 3. From Secret State to State of Exception From the start, there was much in the political climate of post-war Britain to justify a reading of The Dumb Waiter in terms of suspension of the law and politically or racially motivated killing. Pinter’s interest in the secret state and the capture of life by sovereign power would surely have come to light in 1958 had The Hothouse been produced at the time of its composition.5 These were formative years for a man whose concerns have long been recognized as the dehumanizing processes of total power, the hypocrisy of democratic rule and the
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potentially murderous capabilities of powerful bodies. While the major liberal democracies of Britain and America pointed at the abuses of Stalinist Russia, Pinter’s own brush with despotism had come in the form of the British military tribunal that trapped him in a “Kafkaesque cycle” of trial, imprisonment and compulsory reattendance of the army medical examination that was the preliminary to conscription (Billington 24). In addition to Britain’s growing reliance on managerial rule, the Cold War period saw the deepening and extension of an official network comprising permanent government and the secret state (Dorril & Ramsay x-xi), including private vigilante operations masterminded by the Inner Policy Club, which were used to provide deniability for the security services and the Ministry of Defence (Murray 112-113). Colin Challen and Mike Hughes uncover the ways in which Britain was developing “robust” security methods, bribery, propaganda and covert operations that went as far as the occasional assassination (34-5). Although the means by which the authorities deal with dissidents has been the subject of Pinter’s theatrical output from The Birthday Party to Party Time, Esslin is not the only critic to have expressed bewilderment over Pinter’s dramatic settings. In his opinion, it was difficult to reconcile Pinter’s use of idiomatic English and English place names with the thought that “no such round-ups, disappearances or tortures and quick deaths are likely in this milieu” (2000, 213). It is worth hanging onto a sense of dirty politics in The Dumb Waiter’s real-life backdrop although the use of illegal techniques, for which governments can be held accountable, is less urgent an issue than the legalization without question of extreme measures. It is in this context that I want to consider the name Wilson for the play’s enigmatic, absent boss and to begin to tease out the model of power that I see at work in The Dumb Waiter. It is widely known that American president Woodrow Wilson’s name became a by-word for hypocrisy.6 Pinter parodies Wilson’s rhetoric of morally-sanctioned regime change in his 1991 sketch The New World Order, in which a duo of professional torturers -- modeled partly on Gus and Ben -boast that they are “keeping the world clean for democracy” (1993, 423). But it is the precise political means by which Wilson took personal control over US internal affairs and asserted the superiority of American principles abroad that is of greatest interest.7 In
… in a Darkened Room”
persuading Congress to grant him supreme authority over the nation at any time that he considered there to be a threat to security, Wilson practised a form of politics first defined by the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, in 1921, as power over sovereign decision (Agamben 2005, 32). This form of governance, which Agamben believes to have reached its maximum worldwide deployment in today’s states of exception, sees the decline of rule by law and a concomitant triumph of the administration of the absence of order (2005, 87). 4. The Spatial Ontology of the State of Exception Like Foucault, Agamben sees modernity as characterized by a radical tendency to gain control over life, although he grants biopolitics a much longer genealogy. Reworking as “bare life” the first term in the zo0003 / bios opposition, by which Aristotle distinguished biological existence (zo0003) from the qualified life of citizens living within the political realm (bios), Agamben revivifies a figure from ancient Roman culture known as the homo sacer (Agamben 1998, 8). This is the figure of the outcast or exception, who has been stripped of juridical protection and political rights and whose “bare life” is expendable because it is merely the remainder to the destroyed political bios. In another movement away from Foucault, Agamben tells us that the state of exception actually produces this figure and that, together with the process by which the exception has become the norm, the realm of politically unqualified life (which was originally situated at the margins of the political order) has started to merge with the political realm. In this new space, “bare life” becomes the inner, hidden norm of the political and is distributed throughout it as the “inassimilable remnant” (P0004onowska Ziarek 90). State of Exception takes as its starting point the Schmittian statement that the sovereign is “the one to whom the juridical order grants the power of proclaiming a state of exception and, therefore, of suspending the order’s own validity” in order to probe the relationship between sovereignty and life introduced in Homo Sacer (Agamben 2005, 1). Agamben pays particular attention to the implicit topology of the paradox of sovereignty, that is, to the mechanism by which sovereign power, possessing the legal means to suspend the juridical order, places itself (legally) outside of the law. Using Schmitt’s insight
Juliet Rufford
that “normal” juridico-political order is senseless without territorial grounding (and without the meaning granted by such grounding), Agamben alternates the terms “state” of exception with “space” or “zone” of exception and reaffirms the occupation of territory as a foundational gesture, involving not only the taking of land but above all the capture of a space in which the juridico-political order can validate itself (2005, 35). Indeed, it is important to think of the state of exception as simultaneously a space and a performance (Gregory 407): the ground on which sovereign power constitutes and extends itself and a dividing practice that affects a passage between law and violence (Dillon 56). Although the state of exception is “essentially unlocalizable,” definite spatio-temporal limits can be assigned to it from time to time (Agamaben 1998, 19). Taking that most notorious example of a prolonged state of exception -- Hitler’s continual suspension of the Weimar constitution to rule over Nazi Germany -- Agamben theorizes the camp as the space opened up when the state of exception begins to become the rule and gains a permanent spatial form (1998, 20; 16869). The philosopher cites a football stadium in Bari, used by Italian police to detain illegal Albanian immigrants in 1991, and the zones d’attentes inside French international airports as instances of an expanded definition of the camp, explaining that we are “virtually in the presence of a camp every time such a structure is created, independent of the kinds of crime that are committed there and whatever its denomination and specific topography” (1998, 174). As a kind of legal no man’s land in which “public law” blurs with “political fact” (Agamben 2005, 1), the camp gives rise to new forms of domination and provides the opportunity for politics to become biopolitics. In this optic, the state or zone of exception is a void or blank in which a vexed relationship between law and lawlessness allows order to mutate into disorder. 5. Before the Law: the Legal No Man’s Land of The