Harold Pinter On Playwriting

Adapted from: From Demolition Man

By John Lahr, The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2007

The author’s position is an odd one. The characters resist him; they are not easy to live with; they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent, you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind-man’s-bluff, hide-and-seek.

(Among people) I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but . . . it’s more like a quicksand. We are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened?

To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent, and dishonest. Where this takes place it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone’s happy. There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed. We walk out as we went in.

Meaning which is resolved, parceled, labelled and ready for export is dead . . . and meaningless.

You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we’re inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it’s out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said.

(“The Homecoming,” opening words:) “What have you done with the scissors?” I didn’t know who was saying it. I didn’t know who he was talking to. Now, the fellow he was talking to — if he had said, “oh, I’ve got them right here, Dad,” there would have been no play. But instead he says, “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” Once that’s said, there’s a spring of drama, which develops and follows its own course. I had no idea what the course was going to be. I hadn’t planned anything. In the back of mind, I think I knew there was another brother going to come back. I think I saw them quite early in a big house, with the doors being taken down, leading to a stairway. I saw them moving in that space.

It (“The Homecoming”) is all to do with me in some way or another. You’re not consciously looking back to . . . the values, the threats. Not at all . . . But it’s a world related to you, otherwise you wouldn’t write it.

I’m well aware that I have been described in some quarters as being “enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding.” Well, I do have my moods, like everyone else.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

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