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Robert Gordon – Harold Pinter: Theatre of Power review

An essential guide to the stage writing of a Twentieth Century great.

Harold Pinter - Theatre of Power

Harold Pinter: Theatre of Power is part of a series entitled Michigan Modern Dramatists from The University of Michigan Press. Author Robert Gordon, who is Professor of Drama as well as Director of the Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s, University of London, has written an engaging, thorough academic tome analysing Pinter’s writing for the stage (his radio plays and screenplays don’t get much of an airing here, just passing mentions). He’s well-placed to write this work: the depth of his knowledge on the subject is astounding, and when reading the confident prose, never in doubt.

The introduction serves to put to bed the often-misunderstood ‘Pinter pause’, and Gordon also picks out the major themes, dividing these into Pinter’s ideas on territory, power, sex and gender politics, and the relationship between time and memory. The book then moves into chapters dealing with Pinter’s plays in chronological order.

The chapter examining Pinter’s first-performed play, The Room, examines the common theme of territory. The ‘knock at the door’ – as Gordon relates, an element of Pinter’s storytelling inspired by his memories of the Gestapo – is more fully expounded in connection with The Birthday Party (the play that baffled audiences and critics alike [Harold Hobson a notable exception] and only came to be appreciated later). Gordon draws attention to the neat inversion of the establishment figures presented as McCann and Goldberg – an Irishman and a Jew. Pinter’s own Jewish ancestry colours his depictions of characters, and it’s interesting to see as the book evolves that Pinter, who becomes part of the theatre establishment, remained critical of the societal establishment and anything that outraged his political sensibilities.  Gordon traces this carefully up to one of Pinter’s final public appearances, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, in which he spoke strongly against Bush and Blair over the Iraq War.

Gordon often reminds us that Pinter was ahead of his time; thus he highlights the shocking casual racism in The Caretaker that the audience is invited to condemn. The Collection presented gay relationships as equal to straight relationships as early as 1962. The emptiness of macho-posturing is exposed in The Homecoming, a play Gordon neatly summarises as a “Darwinian battle to control the household”, and one that challenged the ingrained but unrealistic Judeo-Christian view of what comprises a family unit. He is perceptive in the change in style of Pinter’s writing after The Homecoming, in which the play form becomes even shorter and denser, with pieces such as Silence and Old Times. Betrayal (1978) is singled out as Pinter’s most autobiographical piece, about an affair between two married people: and its genesis is surprising to learn.

Harold Pinter: Theatre of Power is an essential guide to any student of Pinter’s work. It is presented with many excerpts from the plays which Gordon puts into clear context. You may not agree with everything he says, but part of the power of Pinter’s writing is the obliqueness of his characters and the ambiguity of interpretation – yet Gordon’s conclusions will stimulate thought and debate. Beyond an academic remit, the book will also appeal to any reader with a keen interest in theatre history and the unique style of Pinter. Budding playwrights and theatre practitioners in general will pick up plenty of useful nuggets of information here too, not only on what made Pinter tick, but on what makes his drama work, why it’s timeless, and why it remains important.

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