Something To Do With the Sofa
The conversations of the critic Mel Gussow and the playwright Harold Pinter are weird mostly because Pinter is an actor, and accustomed to a certain kind of pretension. He was an actor even before he was a playwright, and he never really liked interviews. Gussow feels the need to pin him down on a number of things, and Pinter acts like a terse little ninja. His ejaculations, elicited by one of his greatest admirers in the theatrical world, contain nuggets of prose as self-centered and yet as enduring as any literature has to offer. - A.C.
Friday, August 13, 2010 at 9:41AM
MEL GUSSOW: Could you trace the genesis of Old Times?
HAROLD PINTER: I think I wrote it last winter. Yes, last winter. About a year ago. Well, there's nothing I can tell you about that because it was just a very odd thing really. It was one of those times when you think you're never going to write again. I was lying on the sofa reading the paper and something flashed in my mind. It wasn't anything to do with the paper.
MG: Something to do with the sofa?
HP: The sofa perhaps, but certainly not the paper. I rushed upstairs to my room. I live in a very tall house. I usually find great difficulty getting to the top. But, like lightning, I was up.
MG: What was the thought?
HP: I think it was the first couple of lines of the play. I don't know if they were actually the first lines. Two people talking about someone else. But then I really went at it. Incidentally, you did ask me for my "fourth." Actually what it is is reading. I read a great deal of poetry.
MG: What poets?
HP: Recently I rediscovered Pope. I haven't read him since school. Lines and verses are always on my mind. Donne. Gerard Manley Hopkins. "Margaret/ Are you grieving/ over Goldengrove/ unleaving." Modern poetry. Philip Larkin. Yeats and Eliot.
MG: Do you still write poetry — as poetry?
HP: Yes. I've written two poems in the last couple of years. Very short. I wrote one about six months ago, about seven lines, but I remember I did 13 drafts of it.
MG: How many drafts of plays do you usually write?
HP: About three. But that was as important to me as anything of mine - that poem. But you know any poem is — emotionally. I used to write a great deal of poetry a long time ago.
MG: It does seem to me, again about the last three plays, that they're more lyrical. Is that something you're aware of?
HP: Yes, I am aware of it. I think it's very dangerous territory.
MG: Why is it dangerous territory?
HP: You can fall on your arse very easily in attempting to express in, if you like, "lyrical" terms what is actually happening to people. You can over ... I did it, in Silence, but I cut it. I had a passage. It was very very interesting, actually. When I wrote it, I sent the play, as I always do, to Samuel Beckett, whose opinion, to put it mildly, I respect. And... I know him.
MG: Do you always send him your plays?
HP: I began, I think, with The Homecoming. Yes, I do always. And he writes the most succinct observations. He liked Silence very much. He wrote, I remember, one very short remark, something to the effect, 'Suggest you examine or reconsider speech, fourth speech, page five.' Or whatever it was. So I looked at this speech immediately, and thought, well, I don't see anything wrong with that. What do I have to reconsider? It seems to me perfectly in order. But I'll keep it in mind. I will bear this matter in mind. I wrote to him and said, thank you, but about this speech I'll listen to it in rehearsals, and see what I think of it. Rehearsals started, and I heard it, and I thought it was perfectly all right. Then, after about two week's rehearsal, Peter Hall came up to me — I hadn't been around for a few days — and said, 'There's one speech in this play that I do not think is working at all.' And that was that speech. Off I went and heard it properly again and realized that, of course, Beckett was totally right.
MG: Why wasn't it working?
HP: Well, because...it simply went over the top in lyricism. The trouble was that it was basically inaccurate and non-specific and, I think, that is the problem trying to use language in this way. It has to be absolutely specific. If it's at all generalized then it's nothing else but indulgence and it's illegitimate. This applies to the use of any kind of language in any kind of context, but particularly the kind of language you were referring to in these latest plays.
MG: Do you feel that you have to guard against emotion?
HP: I don't quite understand you.
MG: Do you not want to get carried away by something you don't control? Something you cannot do with the accuracy you demand? Silence. The idea of lyricism denotes to me a kind of emotion.
HP: What I'm interested in is emotion which is contained, and felt very, very deeply. Jesus, I really don't want to make a categorical statement about this. But, perhaps, it is ultimately inexpressible. Because I think we express our emotions in so many small ways, all over the place - or can't express them in any other way.
MG: This would seem to be a lesson to be learned from Beckett, who without demonstrating obvious emotion can be quite emotional.
HP: Yes, with such simplicity of means.
MG: I remember years ago when you wrote about how much Beckett meant to you, at the time you were referring to his novels. How do you feel about his plays?
HP: What can I say?
MG: Do you feel at all as pupil to master?
HP: No, not as pupil to master. I think he's the most remarkable writer in the world, that's what I feel. I don't feel pupil to master, for a start, because I don't see where I relate to him at all.
MG: Some people think you do, particularly in the last three plays.
HP: Well, let them say...this terrible business of categorizing. I don't feel that on just one letter alone, apart from anything else. I feel that his achievements, what he's been able to do in his life, in his writing, are so far beyond my own that I don't see any kind of comparison at all. I think he's a great writer. And I'm certainly not that in the way I understand the term, and I do understand the term. The term has a very clear meaning to me. I can tell you who I think are great writers very simply. They're so evident. They're obvious.
MG: Name some obvious.
HP: Well, Doestoevski. This is in my mind. Joyce, Proust. They haven't got their names for nothing. And Beckett. Silence.
MG: It is something to strive for, isn't it?
HP: I don't see it in those terms. I don't have that kind of ambition. I mean you can't strive to be a Great Writer.
MG: You can strive to be better.
HP: Always strive to be better. One curious element I find in what is called 'literary life' which I notice. I must say particularly in New York — there's an extraordinary competitiveness. But I must say quite honestly that it is something I have never felt remotely. I'm just not an ambitious person.
MG: What first set you to writing plays? Was there something specific that kicked off The Room, your very first play?
HP: Oh, yes. I know the image. I know what happened. I was at a party in a house and I was taken for some reason or other to be introduced to a man who lived on the top floor, or an upper floor, and went into his room. He was a slender, middle-aged man in his bare feet who was walking about the room. Very sociable and pleasant, and he was making bacon and eggs, and cut bread, and poured tea and gave it to this fellow who was reading a comic. And in the meantime he was talking to us - very, very quickly and lightly. We only had about five minutes but something like that remained. I told a friend I'd like to write a play, there's some play here. And then it all happened. I used to write a great deal of prose in the past, when I was young. And a lot of it, including a novel [The Dwarfs] was in dialogue.
MG: To go back, for a minute, what did Beckett say about Old Times?
HP: Well, he was...very much in favor of it. He did have one reservation, one speech. No, I'm not going to tell which one it was.
MG: Is it still in?
HP: It's in.
MG: Same reason?
HP: No, not the same reason. But I stuck with it. I've no alternative but to stick with it.
MG: Peter Hall didn't spot it?
HP: No. Mind you, it hasn't been an easy one. I must confess that.
MG: Does Beckett send you his plays?
HP: He isn't writing any. He sends me his books, but I never - I'm not in the same position at all. In other words, I don't send him back my notes. I'm very happy to have his. I wouldn't dream of it. Anyway, I have no notes, no notes at all.
MG: When did you first meet Beckett?
HP: From about the age of 19 I started to read him, the novels, and I was quite bowled over by those novels. When we did The Caretaker in Paris in 1961, Roger Blin was in it, and one day he said, 'Would you like to meet Beckett?' It was almost too much for me — the thought of such a thing. I had written to him. Eventually. You can imagine. It was 1949 when I started to read Beckett and I didn't manage to write to him until about 1959 — when I wrote him just a short note trying to say what I - something. And got an extremely nice letter back. So then I was in a position of meeting him. The longshot of it is that I came into this hotel and he was very vigorous and chatty and extremely affable and extremely friendly and we spent the whole night together. And that was really...very good. And since then, we've really seen quite a lot of one another.
MG: How do you feel about other playwrights?
HP: Well, my taste is quite catholic. I do enjoy a great deal of writers. I think...Edward Bond is a very good writer...I've always liked Edward Albee's work. I like Heathcote Williams. When you ask me that kind of question, there are people I could tell you but they suddenly slip my mind.
MG: Kafka's on your list with Joyce, Proust, and Doestoevski.
HP: Oh, yes. Definitely. I'd like to have had a drink with Kafka, too.
MG: What novelists?
HP: I don't read many modern novels. I do find my reading goes back to Nazi Germany. I read a lot about Nazi Germany. At the moment I'm reading a biography of Heidegger. It's not my field, but I take an interest. Before that, I read a biography of Wittgenstein, which just came out. Heidegger became a Nazi apologist. He was a Nazi. I think the whole period is probably the worst thing that ever happened.
MG: Reunion is the only time you've dealt even indirectly with the Holocaust?
MG: Would you ever write about it?
HP: I don't know. There's something in me that wants to do something about it. It's so difficult.
MG: Do you go to the movies often?
HP: Not often. You know American movies meant an awful lot to me. I was brought up on them. I had a very rich cinematic education, much more than the theatre. I never went to the theatre.
MG: What movies did you see?
HP: I'm talking about the 1940s. I saw all the American black and white gangster films, which were great.
MG: Your next project is writing a screenplay of Kafka's The Trial. Why The Trial at this time?
HP: I read The Trial when I was a lad of 18, in 1948. It's been with me ever since. I don't think anyone who reads The Trial - it ever leaves them, although it can be curiously distorted by time. Speaking to a number of people, who remember having read it when they were young, they look back and think it's a political book. They rather tend to think it's like Arthur Koestler. In my view, it isn't at all. I admire Koestler, but I wouldn't be interested in writing a screenplay of Darkness at Noon, because it's so specifically of its time and place. But The Trial is not that case at all. I find it very difficult to talk about, except that it has been with me for 40 years, and I've had a whale of a time over the last few months entering into Kafka's world. The nightmare of that world is precisely in its ordinariness. That is what is so frightening and strong.
MG: And you are certainly aware of Orson Welles' film.
HP: Yes. Orson Welles was a genius but I think his film was quite wrong because he made it into an incoherent nightmare of spasmodic half-adjusted lines, images, effects in fact. As I said, I don't think Kafka is at all about effect, effect, but about something that happens on Monday, and then on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday and then right through the week. This man in The Trial is arrested one morning in his bed by two people and he is then let out, he goes to his job, a case is taking place. There seems to be a kind of implacable but invisible force and he is finally executed. The important thing about it is that he fights like hell all the way along the line. It reminded me of the shot in John Ford's film The Grapes of Wrath, when the man is protecting his shack when the tractor comes up: 'If you go any further, I'll shoot your head off.' The fellow takes off his goggles and says, 'There's no point doing that because I'm going to knock your house down. I'm getting paid for that and if I don't do it there'll be another guy who will.' He says, 'I'll still knock your head off.' 'Then you'll have to shoot the other guy's head off. you've got to go to the bank in Oklahoma City, and you'll have to shoot all of them. Then you'll have to go to the bank in New York. How many people can you shoot?' He says, 'Get out of my damn way,' and he knocks the house down. One of the most terrible sequences in cinema, in a wonderful film. That's what Kafka's looking at: who do you shoot?