The Eloquent Silence of Harold Pinter
by Kevin Nance
MARCH 22, 2008
Harold Pinter's characters are most articulate when they say nothing at all. The English playwright and Nobel laureate, who died on December 24, 2008 at the age of 78, was famous, if not entirely understood, for his assiduous, consistently thoughtful and lifelong deployment of the pause. From his very first play, The Room, written half a century ago, Pinter insisted upon the meaning, in fact the pregnancy, of the lapse between one utterance and the next. His flat, often deliberately commonplace lines, spoken by equally commonplace characters, were turbo-charged by the pauses that often preceded and followed them. Far from dead spots in the conversation, the pauses were like furrows in which seeds of thought were planted, germinated, and produced a bumper crop of dramatic fruit.
That fruit was almost universally seen to be of the poisoned variety, and often it was. The quality most commonly ascribed to the plays, and specifically to the silences — which came to be labeled “Pinteresque” — is “sinister.” But to pigeonhole Pinter as exclusively a connoisseur of menace, and his pauses as mere crucibles of dread, is to reduce this most influential and arguably the greatest playwright of the 20th century to a one-note purveyor of melodrama.
In fact, Pinter used the pause in a multitude of ways, to denote the full range of human expression. Sometimes the pause is there to give a character a moment to mull over what has just been said, either by himself or someone else. More often, the pause expresses the act of cogitation, with the pauser puzzling through what’s to be said next, and how. Pinter's people, it's fair to say, tend to choose their words carefully, and lay full claim to the time and space in which to do it.
These vocal time-outs can be simply ruminative, as a character works through some moment of confusion or indecision, or coolly adversarial, in the manner of a game of chess. This is Pinter’s signature edginess, of course, but it can also take on a cat-and-mouse quality, and it's this playful aspect of his work that has tended to receive short shrift by audiences and critics. In fact, the plays are frequently and absurdly comedic, with the pauses doubling as key components of a carefully constructed armature of comic timing. Pinter's Kafkaesque pairs of bad guys — Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party, for instance — often take on the rhythms of a circular, well-worn vaudeville act as they circle their prey.
Goldberg: Sit down.
Goldberg sighs, and sits at the table right.
Goldberg: Ask him to sit down.
McCann: Yes, Nat. (McCann moves to Stanley.) Do you mind sitting down?
Stanley: Yes, I do mind.
McCann: Yes now, but — it'd be better if you did.
Stanley: Why don't you sit down?
McCann: No, not me — you.
Stanley. No thanks.
McCann: He won't sit down.
Goldberg: Well, ask him.
McCann. I've asked him.
Goldberg: Ask him again.
McCann (to Stanley): Sit down.
McCann: You'd be more comfortable.
Stanley. So would you.
McCann: All right. If you will I will.
Stanley: You first.
Why this extraordinary reliance, if not overdependence, on the pause? It has to do in part with Pinter's principled slipperiness as to content, theme, and in some cases even dramatic situation. It's always been extremely difficult to say what Pinter's plays are “about,” which is exactly as he intended. "I don't conceptualize in any way," he once told the Paris Review, and in fact most of the plays defy interpretation, easy or otherwise. Even his most accessible play, Betrayal, which was made into a film starring Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons and is usually played as a simple study of infidelity, has layers that elude most acting ensembles — especially, in my experience, those composed of Americans, who tend to plow through Pinter's indicated pauses as if they were affectations, and therefore optional, rather than the script's real treasure troves.
Which brings us somewhere close to the heart of what Pinter's pauses are: an expression and byproduct of his Englishness. The reason many American actors have so much trouble with Pinter's lines is that they, like us Yanks in general, distrust silence as a conveyor of meaning. When a typical American stage actor stops talking, communication is interrupted if not stopped altogether, or so he assumes. For his counterpart in Britain, especially in a Pinter play, the opposite is true. At the same time, somewhat counterintuitively, the American’s impulse is to say what's on his mind immediately, whether it’s fully formed there or not, whereas Pinter's Brits are by nature reticent, given to concision, and therefore to thinking before speaking. Actions may speak louder than words, but in Pinter's world, words are actions — as are the silences in which they grow, preparing to spring forth fully formed, armed and dangerous.
BIOGRAPHY OF HAROLD PINTER