Commentary Magazine


English Imports on Broadway

I have been made weary and humble by my last visit to the theater. My mind, which I had always considered fairly well-tuned to the vagaries of dramatic literature, has finally been blanked after encountering a work of too profound a consequence for it to handle. For some three weeks, over long meditative stretches, I have let loose all the hounds of criticism at my disposal, have set them to sniffing about this particular play and have watched them yelp with failure after uncovering not even the wisp of some essential scent that might allow me a few paragraphs of cogent praise. This aesthetic rebuke would be hard enough were the play in question a sub rosa production of some brief, semi-deranged effulgence, heading, cometlike, for oblivion. However, this is not the case. The play, if you please, resides on Broadway and is currently festooned with every favor that popular judgment provides, including a decent-sized run. Weightier salutes have come from the likes of Harold Clurman, who has made grasping this play and understanding the times in which I live coextensive propositions, and from Richard Gilman, an admired friend, who has counseled that, with this work, I have witnessed a sort of Symbolist evolution into drama—i.e., a play that is about its own language. The only sophisticated ally I have in my bafflement is John Simon, the “acid test” of the Hudson Review. He, too, sees a naked emperor on parade, but since Simon very seldom sees anything else, I’m sure he’ll understand when I say that I find it cold comfort to be alone with him.

The cause of my difficulties is The Homecoming. For some eight years now its author, Harold Pinter, has grown in theatrical estimation until he has become a playwright whom many believe to be of major significance in the history of English drama. Even those who are skeptical about the worth of Osborne, Wesker, Arden, and other members of England’s social-dramatic reformation accord Pinter the status of a formidable writer. They see in the capricious behavior and contradictory thought processes of his characters comic intimations of evils and dilemmas that fester in the very roots of man’s existence. If pushed for specifics, Pinter and his votaries have a safe sanctuary in the Theater of the Absurd’s critical paraphernalia which equate style with subject and do not allow interpretations of works within their sway; rather, like an earthquake or a hiccup, the events on stage are their own justification—random phenomena from which an observer, like Pascal with the dark infinities of the night sky, is allowed to draw his own emotional conclusions—conclusions which may or may not have been intended by the creator. Thus, in a way, it would seem that to criticize Pinter is to criticize existence itself—an allowable but barren enterprise.

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Still, however, those objects I saw on the stage were not, after all, subatomic particles but human beings. They may be stylistic devices, but as long as these devices maintain their animal specifics, then one has a right to look for some purpose in their behavior. Pinter does not, like Beckett, deal in abstracts. His characters are not lost in universal wastelands or Unspecific Time. They are from definite places and they go on about everyday problems and things in a language that is really no more than well-edited common speech. In short, whether they like it or not, they owe a prior allegiance to the geography of human behavior before they can become self-sufficient data. Something must convince us that their inconsistent antics are more than lunatic meanderings or the results of a self-indulgent dramatic style.

The Homecoming, for example, presents us with a family that consists of a father, three sons, one uncle, and a daughter-in-law. The father is a brackish, snarling old fellow; one son is a vicious ponce, the second is a troglodyte with adenoidal speech who wishes to be a professional boxer, and the third is an extremely unverbal professor of philosophy; the uncle is a somewhat rattled old gentleman who suffers abuse from all quarters and is proud that he is considered a good chauffeur. As for the daughter-in-law, the professor’s wife, we shall come to her later.

For the better part of the first act, the play proceeds along the road of intra-familial insults, especially between Max, the father, and Lenny, his pimp offspring. Non-sequiturs of hate, bitterness, and invective float about the stage in pungent local dialects, and no mood or attitude is sustained, it seems, for longer than a minute. From a happy recollection comes a harsh obscenity; from an innocuous pleasantry, a hurting, vicious response; from a coarse, satyresque character, moral outrage over a mild sexual reference. Why all the anger, spleen, and psychological acrobatics among these lower-class Londoners? Ask not; they are what they are.

Into this oxymoronic world come the philosopher-son and his wife. It is his homecoming, an occasion to introduce the woman he has married to his father, uncle, and brothers. The couple fits immediately into the surroundings. While the philosopher sports a hostile, enigmatic smile, the lady allows herself to be mauled and petted by her in-laws. Her undoing is first brought on by the pimp of the family who then turns over the rough ends of seduction to his pugilist brother. All this while the rest of the household, academic husband included, look on. From the crossed-monologues which serve for conversation between this husband and wife, it is apparent that they are not in perfect marital harmony, but for the lady to go off upstairs in the gorilla-like arms of brother Joey right in the midst of tea, does seem like behavior that needs some accounting for.

Still, the philosopher keeps his smile intact, retaliates only by stealing his brother’s cheese sandwich, and, finally, when his wife decides to stay in the family house and work as one of Lenny’s whores, he leaves without fuss for his American university and the two children who are now motherless. The final curtain comes down on the woman tenderly fondling her new lover, while Max whines on about how he’s not too old to get his share from the family whore, the uncle lies stricken on the floor after a one-line revelation on how his brother’s wife had been upended in the back of his car by a mutual friend, and Lenny stands, with sardonic countenance, observing all.

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Now depending on one’s mythopoeic faculty, a great deal might be made out of these events, but to do so entails much more effort than the author himself has gone to. If we are to take The Homecoming as something of a parable, then I would recall how the most successful of modern parabolists, Kafka, while also basing his style on the method of self-contradiction—the assertation that at the same time and place A is and is not A—never left hold of the common notion of reality nor allowed existential anomalies to degenerate into mere caprices, unbuttressed by the very firm and specific narrative of his work. On the contrary, however nightmarish the situation, it always had enough artistic probability on its side to make it seem unexceptional and, therefore, truly terrifying. Pinter’s disjoining of reality, on the other hand, is more of the funhouse variety than of The Castle.

And if The Homecoming is not a parable? If it is no more and no less than the sum of itself? Well, then we are free to like or not like each moment of the play in isolation—in the same way as we have license to tune in and out on a haphazard cocktail-party conversation. Further, if there is no personality or point of view authorizing the utterances onstage, then indeed we are left simply with language, with syntactical flourish, and though there may some day be a theater that contents itself with the dramatic clash of subordinate clause and participial phrase, the logician will be more at home in it than the poet.

The company that performs The Homecoming proves how effective sheer technique can be. English actors have always played well off language, trusting to the author for cohesiveness and justification of the attitudes the words lead them into. Even when these author’s supports are not there, this very sensual verbal play can make it seem as though they are, and so one goes away from The Homecoming certain that Paul Rogers, Ian Holm, John Norminton, Terrance Rigby, Michael Craig, and Vivien Merchant have given very fine performances of something or other, and one wants very much to believe that all those coruscations of mood and person served some noble purpose.

But after all the tricks have been played, after the melodramatic codas to each act have been concluded, after the snippets of action have been juggled about, after all the sanguine acquiescence in the grotesque—after all of this, one is still left with the feeling that, in Harold Pinter, we have a writer who puts together loose fragments of highly actable scenes and then hopes that some part of life will conform to them. Art is just not that simple, and neither, Mr. Clurman, are the times we live in.

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Another English export that has succeeded this season is Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy. Unlike The Homecoming, Shaffer’s work is an entirely commonplace piece of theater—not particularly good, not particularly bad—and it is of interest mainly through serving notice, especially in the companion piece, White Lies, that the genteel days of English drama are not quite over. In this curtain-raiser, a fortune-teller and a young rock-and-roll singer discuss love and loneliness, image and reality, with the sort of restrained frankness that used to mark those romantic dramas of the 30′s and 40′s before the class struggle and continental philosophy settled over the British mind. Gone, of course, are the Oxonian accents—the woman is an Austrian Jew and the boy employs a horrible patois for show business purposes—but the sensibilities still belong to those who have enough leisure to pick about all the subtleties of an old affair or a new love.

The title piece is also old-fashioned in a workmanlike way. Its premise is that in the dark, human beings are an amusing lot. The play begins in total blackness, out of which comes the sound of voices. Then, when the lights go up, and we, the audience, can see, it is the play’s characters who, from now on, will be blind. Thus, from a blown fuse, author, director, and actors proceed to demonstrate how many jokes, pratfalls, and tickling misconceptions can be deduced. I must give them credit for ingenuity: they did manage to keep the play pumping along a good thirty minutes after I felt all the possible turns had been exhausted. One wonders what they might be capable of doing should they come up with a farce that has more than one comic idea in it.

What pleased me most about the play, however, was the reunion it afforded me with the old stock characters of English farce. There again was the well-intentioned, bumbling young man and the vacuous debutante the play’s events will mercifully keep him from marrying; there, too, the sputtering, Old Guard father and the sweet little spinster neighbor who takes to tippling at the gin bottle while believing, in the dark, that it is a particularly tart lemon squash. Also on hand: the prissy aesthete (jazzed up a little into an outright queen with a Midlands accent), the comic foreigner with the funny way of speaking, and, finally, the sophisticated, fun-loving mistress, wise in the ways of the world, who gets young Decentchap out of his dull future and, in this case, back to his sculpture. This gallant little band used to travel across the Atlantic for a visit at least once every season; but in the last years, though still holding forth in their home country, they have been denied visas. American producers have heard that a revolution has taken place in English drama and are not anxious to be thought behind the times by serving up some ancien régime farce; perhaps, too, English theatrical officials consider this group a subversive and counterrevolutionary embarrassment, to be kept from the eyes of foreigners who are being told that a new Elizabethan Age is coming to the boards of the English playhouse. Whatever has caused that absence, I am glad that this company of conceits has been able to reach some accord with the new times, for there may be more of the stuff of theater in these worn, ragtail characters than in all the deep mystery of Harold Pinter, although Black Comedy is a long way from proving this point.

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