Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter
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Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter

Jane Wong Yeang Chui

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Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter

Jane Wong Yeang Chui

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Using Martin Esslin's "invention" - the Theatre of the Absurd - to examine Pinter's works, Wong brings the complexities and intricacies of the plays to the forefront, provoking readers and audiences to reconsider and problematize more conventional studies of his plays.

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Abstract: Traditionally, Pinter’s works have been perceived as comedies of menace, and his characters often find themselves trapped in spaces where they are engaged in power struggles that highlight themes of freedom and oppression, loyalty and betrayal, and more immediately, how the so-called failure of communication underscores the futility of these struggles. Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter is first and foremost concerned with one of the most overlooked aspects in Pinter studies; it picks up the Camusian notion of futility, which Martin Esslin associates with The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), and goes back to examine the affirmative aspects of Camus’s idea of the Absurd man. This study relies on Camus’s concept of the Absurd to highlight the multi-dimensional implications of helplessness and despair in Pinter’s works, bringing to the foreground the positive and affirmative elements of the Absurd that has been generally neglected in the field of Pinter studies.
Wong, Jane Yeang Chui. Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. DOI: 10.1057/9781137343079.
What I believe to be true I must therefore preserve. What seems to me so obvious, even against me, I must support. And what constitutes the basis of that conflict, of that break between the world and my mind, but the awareness of it? If therefore I want to preserve it, I can through a constant awareness, ever revived, ever alert. This is what, for the moment, I must remember. At this moment the absurd, so obvious and yet so hard to win, returns a man’s life and finds its home there.
Albert Camus1
When Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, many in the literary community thought the Nobel committee’s choice could not have been more agreeable; others like Scottish poet Don Paterson were skeptical: “To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how crap the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world’s greatest living playwright. Because anyone can do that” (qtd in Higgins). What Paterson does not mention is that not everyone has been writing consistently for almost half a century, or as the Nobel committee puts it, “the continuity in [Pinter’s] work is remarkable, and his political themes can be seen as a development of the early . . . analyzing of threat and injustice” (qtd in Taylor “The foremost”). But it will not suffice to reduce Pinter’s earlier works to “threat and injustice,” especially since most of his plays, up to the early ’80s, were not overtly political in that they did not directly target institutional orders or government policies.2 With the exception of The Birthday Party (1957) and The Hothouse (1958), Pinter’s pre-80s plays deal mostly with sexual and familial politics. In early plays like The Room (1957), The Lover (1962), and The Homecoming (1964), he was mostly preoccupied with the idea of communication, or what some critics call the impossibility of communication.3 In the following decade, Pinter’s obsession with communication was replaced with more intimate and emotional themes. Between the late ’60s and ’70s, he turned his attention to the fragility of the human condition and produced some of the most lyrical plays to date: Landscape (1967), Silence (1968), Monologue (1974), and Betrayal (1978). All of these plays, written over a 20-year period, have nothing to do with political injustice at all; their central themes focus on relationships and the struggle of trying to sustain them in meaningful ways. This estrangement of man from language, his companions, his past, and his unforeseeable future contributes to what Martin Esslin terms “The Theatre of the Absurd,” a label that does not sit well with critics and writers such as Richard Eyre and David Hare even forty years after its inception in 1961. Generally, these individuals consider Esslin’s label to be a “portmanteau” term that conveniently lumps together playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, disregarding the unique qualities of the each dramatist’s works. At the celebration of Pinter’s seventieth birthday, Eyre expressed the general dislike for Esslin’s label as he recalls watching his first Pinter play: “And then I saw The Caretaker. I hadn’t been corrupted by reading about ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ or by critics’ passion for kenneling a writer in a category, and I was innocent of the writer’s supposed concerns with ‘status’ and ‘territory’” (vii). Eyre echoes Herman T. Schroll’s concern when he highlights the negative implications of the label, believing it to have done more harm than good: “Dramatic commentary, began as an aid to an understanding of the plays, finally lost its effectiveness as resulting theatrical fashions prevented direct reactions to the plays and scholarly interpretations become so abstract that their categories hindered new ideas” (8).4 Through several editions, Esslin consistently tells readers that his book aims to “provide an analysis and elucidation of the meaning and intention of some of [the plays],” and he is convinced that “as a trend the Theatre of the Absurd is important and significant” (16–17). The task of identifying this “important and significant” movement has a paradoxical effect; identification is possible only at the expense of collapsing the different aesthetic approaches of the playwrights into a generic category. Even as Esslin tries to isolate and distinguish a unique convention, he generalizes it, and as we will see, his presentation of the Absurd in The Theatre of the Absurd plays an integral role in the interpretation of Pinter’s plays.
For better or worse, Esslin’s label has made a considerable contribution to the understanding of some of the most esoteric plays written in the twentieth century, and it is able to do so because it defines a specific period in the history of theatre development. For critics and scholars, The Theatre of the Absurd provides a philosophical approach to the plays, but Yael Zarhy-Levo reminds us that labels can also prove to be problematic.5 The significance of the body of works included in Esslin’s book is different to each critic, depending on his/her interpretations of those works. Similarly, literary “[p]eriods can be fixed at different points of history depending on the historians’ conception of history,” and “philosophical concepts are associated with different groups of plays depending on the critic’s own philosophical orientation” (Theatre Critic 2). Under these conditions, the category “absurd” can obscure and delimit the interpretive strategies that are used to study the plays; as Eyre implied, books like The Theatre of the Absurd can instill preconceived ideas about the playwrights and affect our interpretation of their works. Notions of gloom and pessimism so often associated with Pinter’s works stem from prominent critics like Esslin, who can determine the acceptance of the plays, and later, the reputation of their creators; for this reason I would like to revisit the philosophical orientation implied by his usage of the term “absurd.”
In writing Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin attempted to study a group of playwrights in the late 1950s who worked against theatre conventions in a form of drama preoccupied with the devaluation of language and plot structures; he emphasized this new theatrical development as a response to the conditions in post-war Europe:
[the] hallmark of [the absurd theatre]. . . is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions . . . All this was shattered by the war (23).6
By reiterating this concept as a central idea throughout his book, Esslin gives the initial impression that the Absurd play is dark and devoid of hope, and perhaps should have been called the Theatre of Despair. But there is more to the “absurd” in Esslin’s Absurd theatre than disillusionment and despair.
If we understand “absurd” as ridiculous, discordant, and baffling, then the term is a fitting description for the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd. The works of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet, which inherited the legacy of the Dadaists from the preceding generation, are wholly different from the earlier well-made plays of Ibsen and Chekhov. Leonard Powlick’s essay, aptly entitled “‘ What the Hell is That All About?’: A Peek at Pinter’s Dramaturgy,” discusses the difficulty in “deciphering” the absurdist traits of Pinter’s works as he unabashedly admits that critics, scholars, theatre professionals, and serious theatergoers are at times no less bewildered than the average audience at a Pinter play:
“Hmmm,” we have said to ourselves . . . coming out of the theatre in which we have just seen No Man’s Land for the first time. “Very interesting.” We then would add a few stock phrases from our store of stock phrases labeled “Pinter,” and resolve to ourselves to reread the script first thing in the morning. (30–31)
Many Absurd plays lack conventional plots. At times their characters appear to give meaningless speeches that contradict their actions; time and chronology are often disjointed, and when the plays end, so many loose ends are left hanging that audiences balk at paying full price for a ticket to what they believe is half a play. These plays have no moral lessons to preach, no distinct stories to tell; they are simply: absurd. But Esslin tells us that he does not define “absurd” in these terms: “In common usage, ‘absurd’ may simply mean ‘ridiculous,’ but this is not the sense in which Camus uses the word, and in which it is used when we speak of Theatre of the Absurd” (23). He turns to Camus’s idea of the absurd to create a framework in which he categorizes the plays in his book.
For Camus, absurd existence is marked by a series of habits— rising in the morning, going to work, coming home, eating, sleeping—which ultimately end in death. Life is meaningless, and the absurdity of life lies in man’s intrinsic desire to continue living tomorrow even though tomorrow is another day closer to death. Camus describes this feeling of absurd existence as:
A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. (Myth 6)
While there is hardly any trace of affirmation in Camus’s description of the absurd condition, his reading of the Sisyphus myth promises to redeem the seemingly hopelessness of the absurd life with five words: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (123). He asserts this possibility with an unlikely proclamation:
It is during that return [downhill] . . . that Sisyphus interests me . . . I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end . . . that is the hour of consciousness. Sisyphus, the proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent . . . All Sisyphus’s silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. (121–123)
Sisyphus is “stronger than his rock” not because he resigns himself to fate, but because he exercises a conscious contemplation of his fate. His attitude is made possible by his ability to make the best of his plight through scorn, revolt, and conscious reflection. Camus celebrates the confrontation of absurd existence in meaningful ways despite the “void” that awaits man at the grave; he compares Sisyphus to that other tragic Greek hero, the blind Oedipus, who even in the worst of times, announces to the world: “Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well” (qtd in 122). This is the undeniable redemptive strand to Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd, a quality that is mentioned in passing but not explicitly stressed until Chapter 5:
In expressing the tragic sense of loss at the disappearance of ultimate certainties the Theatre of the Absurd, by a strange paradox, is also a symptom of what probably comes nearest to being a genuine quest in our age: an effort, however timid and tentative, to sing, to laugh, to weep . . . if not in praise of God . . . at least in search of a dimension of the Ineffable [. . .] When it is no longer possible to accept complete closed systems of values and revelations of divine purpose, life must be faced in its ultimate stark reality. (400–1)
It is the confrontation of this endlessly mundane, trite, and sometimes threatening “stark reality” that the absurd man deserves to be crowned hero. On this account, Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter uses Camus’s interpretation of the Sisyphus myth as a strategy for contextualizing Pinter’s works to explore this paradoxical but also assertive strand of absurdism that has been overlooked in Pinter criticism.
To establish the notion of affirmation in Pinter’s plays, one is immediately confronted with the menace that lurks in the backdrop. Menace often appears in the form of the stranger–intruder figure who arrives to undermine the authority of the characters in a room. This setting is Pinter’s chief means of developing conflict in his plays: “The menace comes from the outside, from the intruder whose arrival unsettles the warm, comfortable world bounded by four walls, and any intrusion can be menacing, because the element of uncertainty and unpredictability the intruder brings with him is in itself menacing” (my emphasis) (Taylor Anger and After 236). Menace, also defined as threat, annoyance, disturbance, and nuisance in the OED, is almost always identified as the stranger–intruder figure in Pinter studies, but Taylor’s observation that “any intrusion can be menacing” promises new ways of approaching the idea of intrusion in Pinter criticism especially when there can be more than one intruder in any given play. In this case, the assumption that the intruder must necessarily be the villain figure becomes untenable and our understanding of what makes the intruder a menace demands reconsideration. The term “intrude” implies negative connotations and “intruders” in Pinter’s plays are ascribed a set of qualities that are contingent on social stereotypes: they are base, obnoxious, deceptive, scheming, and they often bear ill intentions. These ideas of the intruder create a dichotomy that distinguishes victim and victimizer, which leads to interpretations of the stranger–intruder as a necessarily oppressive figure.
I have tried to problematize this assumption in The Birthday Party, where Stan is typically perceived as a victim of an institutionalized world. We know little of Stan’s past: he was once a successful pianist but after an unsuccessful concert, he withdraws to a seaside boarding house run by a passive couple, Meg and Pete. The sudden arrival of McCann and Goldberg and their arrest of Stan and claims to “fix” him instantly distinguish th...

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Citation styles for Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter
APA 6 Citation
Chui, J. W. Y. (2013). Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter ([edition unavailable]). Palgrave Macmillan US. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Chui, Jane Wong Yeang. (2013) 2013. Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter. [Edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan US.
Harvard Citation
Chui, J. W. Y. (2013) Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan US. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Chui, Jane Wong Yeang. Affirming the Absurd in Harold Pinter. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.