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Pinter and Morality

ISSUE:  Autumn 1992

Viewers and critics have applied any number of adjectives to Pinter and his plays. Among the terms used, usually but not always by way of offering compliments, are “absurdist,” “existential,” “anti-humanistic,” and “amoral.” Each of these labels makes its own kind of sense, I think, but none of them, alone or in combination with others, says about Pinter’s plays what it seems to me ought finally to be said about the achievement of any writer who has written so much and whose work has been so widely valued. I should therefore like to look at the terms cited here and to go beyond them, with an eye to defining the view of morality or the moral life to be derived from a number of his most renowned plays. We instinctively make this effort when we read, teach, publish on Shakespeare or Shaw, and indeed such an attempt at coming to grips with a body of prominent work by a single author would appear essential to any eventual placing and understanding of what that author is about and thus of whether, how, and why his works should matter to us now and in the future. Presumably, without an attempt at placing a writer morally, we cannot in the end know what we are talking about when we discuss him or her. Without this effort we would seem confined to discussing this or that isolated characteristic of a drama. We would seem inevitably prevented from having a context within which to place that particular writer’s works. I sense a good deal of such floundering at present in the treatment of Pinter and his plays.

Is Pinter’s world—the world of his plays—absurd or absurdist? Yes, of course it is if we mean that events occur without evident explanation, or that we are confronted with hopelessness when we set about waiting for or looking for some kind of reasons sufficient to answer our questions. If we take lonesco as the archetypal absurdist, we can say that Pinter’s work is much like lonesco’s, and that it is also quite different. On the similar side, we experience blankness when we look for reasons. Why does the clock strike 13 or 15 in lonesco? Who are Goldberg and McCann, and why do they search out Stanley? lonesco and Pinter share the absurdist’s code in making us want to know and in refusing to entertain our need at all seriously. Indeed, both dramatists deliberately leave us puzzled and frustrated. On the different side, however, lonesco makes no sense at all except as an absurdist, whereas Pinter crafts a realist-rationalist’s moves consistently, only to change the subject, cast doubt on possible resolutions that may occur to us, and otherwise dampen our Holmesian quest. So: yes, Pinter and absurdism fit in some way that fails to get at what he is finally after.

Is he, then, an existentialist? Again the answer is partial and unsatisfying, rather like some weight-watching diets. Pinter is an existentialist if the term means one who focuses on choices made by the individual rather than on choices made by that individual with an eye to matching or defying any code like the Ten Commandments or the laws of the United Kingdom or the received tradition found in Emily Post or Dear Abby. Pinter’s characters would seem to be on their Sartrean own. Yet on the other hand, where Sartre typically insists that his characters should do or—more likely—should have done something else, and thus presents us with an implicit if theoretically denied standard for morality, Pinter offers nothing like so specifiable a standard, nor does he follow Sartre in playing up our responsibility to others for the choices we make. The reason why “existential” is not a comfortable fit for Pinter’s plays is that he so commonly and regularly upsets our attempts to find out and label his moral universe. It is simple for us to know what Sartre means by the bad faith of the trio in No Exit. My experience is that readers and viewers fall fairly silent when asked to be similarly precise about a Pinter play. Thus, if existentialism refers to Sartre’s brand thereof, Pinter seems to lie only partially within this labeled circle.

Does the term “anti-humanistic” better describe the plays in question? In a sense the term works. Like Sartre and Robbe-Grillet before him, Pinter seems anxious to avoid associations with long and respected traditions of literature, in his case those of tragedy, comedy, problem play. Lear and Oedipus should have chosen otherwise. Choices and circumstances bail out or redeem Beatrice and Benedick, John Tanner and Ann Whitefield, and most of Ayckbourn’s characters. We know where Nora and Torvald went wrong and what options the future may hold out to them, just as we know that we are left with the need to clean up the mess shown or implied at the end of Ghosts or The Wild Duck. That is, Ibsen shows us that we can and should change ourselves and our world in order to stop doing wrong and start doing right. Pinter, on the other hand, not only avoids such classic outcomes, but leaves us asking what this or that play is about. With Robbe-Grillet, we have sense enough to know that there’s no point in asking for meaning, while in Pinter we are compelled to look for answers. Why did Teddy and Ruth marry and become responsible and respectable parents and citizens, and why does Teddy make no fuss when Ruth and his family agree to separate Ruth from Teddy and the children and to set up a business and domicile of their own? What holds together that household in No Man’s Land? Can anyone find the past in Old Times, and thereafter specify its accurate importance to Kate, Anna, and Deeley? I think we can and must speculate about answers to these questions, and furthermore that Pinter wants us to do so even as he compels us to admit that he’s done a splendid job of preventing our coming up with anything like convincing answers. Because the plays raise such questions, those of the usual humanist inquirer, Pinter cannot in my opinion be simply regarded as anti-humanistic.

Well, then, can we use “amoral,” that old familiar critical standby term, that nomenclatural dodge, to describe this writer and his plays? The problem with this label, applied to Pinter or to anyone or anything else human, is that it would appear to make no sense at all. I can of course understand that someone might wish to make the point that Pinter does not conform to the morality or to the moral point of view on display in Agamemnon, or Measure for Measure, or The Master Builder, or The Flies, or any other work. But I think it is in the long run impossible for any writer or for any work really to be amoral, that is, without or beside the point of morality. For this reason, I must necessarily rule out the use of “amoral” as appropriate to anyone’s actions, whether in life or in art. Rather than merely ignore the whole notion of morality, then, we have to bear down and find out the particular way in which particular persons suggest moral questions or imply a moral frame, different as those questions or that frame may be from our own. Going through this workout may have the advantage of forcing us not to use “amoral” to describe others and ourselves. My basic premise is that morality of some sort is inevitably in human beings and their works. Morality comes with the human territory.


So much for what Pinter and his works are not, and about what they are only in a limited sense. I should like now to consider what most people do see in Pinter’s plays that would steer one away from moral considerations, to think about Pinter’s dramatic universe in comparison to that of other modern playwrights, and finally to suggest what I mean in Pinter’s case when I say that he must be implying morality of some sort.

For one thing, viewers and readers find Pinter’s characters stupid or brutal or pointlessly motivated in what they do. Meg and Petey are nearly moronic, if arguably good-hearted; Goldberg and McCann are cruel for no discernible reason. Stanley is presented as a victim, although we are unable to say what has made him into such a type. Moreover, we cannot prove that Goldberg and McCann were even looking for Stanley in particular, apart from what he may have done or what prompts their quest. A complementary quality inherent in most Pinter plays is that of menace. It may be embodied in Goldberg and McCann or just be present in the dialogue or the physical arrangement—as in The Dumbwaiter, but it hovers and inheres and is most effective in keeping audiences on their chair-edges.

Allied with these unaccountable qualities is the dialogue typical of Pinter. The non sequitur may be the best-known Pinter speech pattern. Discussion of Kate’s casserole in Old Times and Lenny and Ruth’s water-glass conversation in The Homecoming are cases in point. Typically, audiences don’t know what such moments may eventually come to signify. The result is that we laugh and shudder, or at least tighten up a bit, at the same time. We sense that we may be manipulated for some reason or for no reason, and we are therefore uneasy. But, on the other hand, we do not want to think ourselves inattentive to something that may be coming along later in the play, and we certainly don’t want to think ourselves lacking in awareness of the comic dimensions of the seemingly purposeless: so we laugh and wonder what’s going on; we laugh and wonder what we’re laughing at.

This uncertainty, carefully crafted, is only one reason for our finding Pinter’s work unpleasant or discomforting. I suspect we may be thinking that he’s mocking us when he forces us to laugh at what we fail to comprehend, although seeming inappropriateness of cause to effect is perhaps the commonest source of laughter, whether friendly or unfriendly. We also tend often to find Pinter implausible or mystifying, just as we find his work absurdist. That he can be so frightening, so incomprehensible, and also so funny is unsettling, and may account in part for our thinking him amoral.

Incidentally, one charge against Pinter is that he is not really a top-notch writer and won’t be until he can move us. I take it that this means we demand to be moved in certain ways, and especially to laugh and cry or feel compassion where we are accustomed to behaving in these ways. However, it seems to me impossible to deny that Pinter moves us. It’s just that he commonly moves us in a manner that we don’t understand or like very much. Our hearts are most unlikely to open or to bleed for Pinter’s characters. But feelings of tenderness and empathy are hardly the only expressions of emotion. If we can guffaw and become frightened, we are decidedly being moved. And, in fact, in some instances (as in Betrayal and Old Times) we can be moved to more conventional forms of pity.

One additional trait that I want to specify is the toughness on view in Pinter’s work. He is eminently anti-sentimental, anti-nostalgic. Old Times is probably the clearest example of this stance. Another sure signal of his position is the titling of a number of his dramas. Titles like The Homecoming, Old Times, and The Birthday Party automatically start up the violin background in the halls of our memories, and obviously make use of such inevitability to bring on the confusion and laughter and mystification. One emotion he will not settle for is nostalgia. Our supposed homecomings, birthday parties, and old times are virtually certain to clash with what Pinter dramatizes under those titles.

What, then, are we to say about Pinter and about his place in the line of dramatists from Ibsen to the present? I believe that a look at Ibsen and Shaw provides a useful insight into what makes Pinter tick and thus eventually into Pinter’s relationship with morality.

Ibsen famously rocked the traditional boat of drama by arranging for the curtain to fall on Nora’s door-slamming and on the Alvings’ confrontation at dawn. Uproar, shock, embarrassment attended upon such moments because audiences knew perfectly well that they were being struck in their collective and individual morality. When all the screaming and outrage diminished, reasonable people could and did see that Ibsen was out to make them face something that they preferred not to notice or admit. Ibsen’s implicit morality assaulted what he knew to be the moral foundation of his audience. He dramatized the problems, dropped the curtain, and left viewers with the need to cope with what they had been forced to realize. He did not tell them what to do; he merely showed them what they were in the habit of doing and by implication asked them whether they were content with the status quo or saw the urgency of changing things. Nobody could or can doubt Ibsen’s morality: he was for change, and the change should be for the better.

Of course here is the nub of the morality discussion. Anyone talking about or acting on moral terms means that we should act in some ways and should avoid acting in other ways. The reasoning behind admonishing us may be religious or theological, or it may be merely that underlying the so-called social contract. That is, we may advise others to do as God wants them to do, or we may rely upon the conviction that all good persons have always agreed upon the betterness of this or that behavior and the worseness of that other.

In England the dominant Ibsenian realist was clearly Shaw. He was by no means like Ibsen temperamentally, but he was decidedly like Ibsen in knowing what he wanted, and his conviction (unlike Ibsen’s) was that humans are perfectly capable of achieving what he thought good for them. Thus he wrote comedy for the most part, rather than Ibsen’s brand of dour problem play. However, the point here is that Shaw and Ibsen both knew what was wrong and that we ought to strive for what is right. About these matters they were sure of themselves. John and Ann could and would marry and produce children superior to themselves. Shaw knew what was wrong with English politics and politicians, and was just as confident in recommending against it and them as was Caesar in putting Cleopatra to school so that she would become an able and good ruler. Shaw found no reason, apparently, to doubt that Vivie Warren was in for a splendid life as a spinsterish accountant, and laughed at any suggestion that Higgins and Eliza might have developed anything more than a frantically amusing relationship designed to establish Shaw’s theories of politics, phonetics, and the superiority of the unattached life. In the same way, Undershaft’s reasoning is finer and pragmatically better than that of Christianity, and Saint Joan, whatever Catholicism may suppose, is the first Protestant. About the moral position being recommended in these Shaw plays there can be no doubt, no matter how we may receive them.

Whatever may be Pinter’s moral stance, it is plain that he cannot be Ibsen’s or Shaw’s sort of modernist. Realism in that sense is impossible for him, very likely because he lives in the later 20th century rather than at the turn of the century. What characterizes Pinter, in addition to what we have already spelled out, is either fundamental doubt that we can know anything for sure beyond the tips of our fingers, or an absolute certainty that such is our human condition. That is, he may be either an atheist or an agnostic with respect to the question of truth, or what one can know beyond the sensible. If this intransigence makes him very much like Robbe-Grillet and other phenomenologists, it nonetheless fails to divorce him entirely from Ibsen and Shaw in their modernism, and it certainly leaves him in the moral realm.

Where Ibsen and Shaw were iconoclasts of their world, and knew what the morally better life should be, Pinter, I suggest, is an iconoclast of both the world that they assaulted and the one that supposes itself to have learned their lessons and profited from them. I suggest that Pinter’s force is in no small part traceable to the fact that his audience is much the same one that Ibsen assaulted. We can be and often are scandalized in our bourgeois roots by what Pinter does to us, and this despite our frequent (not universal) assumptions that we have learned from the modernist masters and have lost all the old illusions. I suggest that Pinter is masterful at playing on our sitcom softness, our hypocrisy, and our assumption that, since the time of Ibsen and Shaw, we have known what’s good or bad, what’s what morally speaking. Again, some examples from the work of these three playwrights will demonstrate this point.

In retrospect it is obvious that Ibsen had a discernible mindset and a program. At least in his renowned middle period, he regularly exposed what he saw as weaknesses in the culture of Western Europe. In his attacks upon the institution of marriage, upon democracy and freedom of the press, upon the abstract virtue of duty per se, he clearly assumed that when the audience’s wrath subsided, they would understand that he was not the immoral wretch he was consistently accused of being, but someone who wanted to get rid of pretense and human wastefulness of human potential, in favor of something better, morally speaking. He left it to us to agree that he was right about what he saw as wrong and to find some remedy. We have by no means grappled successfully with all of the issues stated and implied by his plays, but the attention given over the past century to liberal individualistic development, to love rather than duty as the foundation of marriage (or of “relationships”), to honesty in public and private life alike—all of these emphases show that Ibsen has had remarkable influence, though by no means total success at cleaning things up from his perspective. The point, however, is that we could figure out what was under attack and that we were being called upon to do something about fixing things or acquiescing in them.

Shaw also knew what he liked and disliked, and he let us know in terms often amusing and sometimes annoying. Political systems had to get better if society was to be improved, marriage was essential in our present state of civilization if the race was to be satisfactorily sustained and strengthened (but not for any other reason, seemingly), strong economy and full employment outweighed anyone’s objections to whatever might be the basis of these fruits, personal growth and development rooted in intellect and imagination were superior to arguments in favor of submerging the individual for the group’s welfare. Shaw was Ibsen with a comic flair and boundless optimism, for the most part. A long time after the fact, Ibsen seems the sounder writer in his declining to spell out the ways to achieve morally better ends. But even so, the point about Shaw is still that he was sure of himself and of others, individuals and institutions alike, and did not hesitate to preach his meliorism.


What strikes me about Pinter’s plays is that they sometimes arouse resentment precisely because they assault the same sets of values that Ibsen and Shaw worked on. The Homecoming derives from someone who knows full well that we all think and feel fondly about returns home—which is to say that we have a fixed notion of such events, whether or not that notion conforms to our personal experience of homecomings. Pinter thus puts us into a reliable frame of mind, wherein we probably expect certain experiences, and then he gives us the gang of thugs and psychological bullies on view in his play. To the extent that we may be shocked or offended (not merely puzzled), we can safely say that we remain the same audience that Ibsen and Shaw went after. Pinter had done this same thing to us in The Birthday Party, where the characters themselves mock rituals denoted by the title of the play. In one way or another, persons leaving this play may be heard to mutter variations on the question, “Is nothing sacred?” Or look at Old Times as another instance of our dismay at how things turn out. Nobody knows better than Pinter how we select and reinvent the past. He delights in compelling Deeley and Anna to alternate in singing bits from popular tunes of the Twenties and Thirties, because he knows that we’re out there in the theatre humming and singing along in our hearts. Such a trick goes hand-in-hand with the attempts of all three of the characters to get straight what in fact did happen in their lives. Because they cannot remember for sure, or because they have created the past deliberately or unintentionally, they cannot ascertain what in fact happened. And because they cannot do this, they do not know who they are. To paraphrase Lambert Strether, If you haven’t had your past, what have you had? Unless we know who we have been, we cannot know who we are. Ignorance of who they are is more than enough to account for the despondency and tears on which the curtain falls. But surely the nostalgia and self-delusion responsible for such a state of affairs is akin to the self-delusion that Ibsen and Shaw jumped on nearly a century ago. We seem to have learned little. Much the same point emerges from Betrayal. By writing and presenting events backwards, Pinter allows himself and us to examine love, marriage, adultery, friendship, commitment from the other end, so to speak. Clearly we (like the audiences addressed by Ibsen and Shaw) regard these virtues and attitudes and relationships in set ways. Usually, Pinter supposes, we make much of them and take them seriously: that is our official morality. What he gives us is an opportunity to observe that these familiar issues come to very little in the long run—and it is the long run that his method allows us to entertain. Thus, the involvement of Jerry, Emma, and Robert with themselves and others would be thought of, in the abstract, as importantly affecting their own lives and the moral fabric of their society. Abstractly, we might well observe that the title refers to what they have done, out of stray passion, to two marriages, two kinds of friendship, and parental commitment—these at least. What Pinter shows us, however, is that their behavior is easily and commonly blown out of proportion and dignified beyond its paltry significance. By showing us the aftermath first and then working back to the start of an adulterous affair, Pinter suggests that much of what we assume about grand passion and the glory of love is as phony and small as the “memories” shared in Old Times. The play appears to be asking questions about the true worth of our oldest values, or the values to which we give at least lip-service. In other words, he deflates our received ideas in much the same manner employed by Ibsen and Shaw in a day that we tend to think of as long ago and far away, well before the dawn of our own sophisticated time.

Thus far Pinter would seem to be doing the same old job of iconoclasm. There are of course differences, which we may now address. For one thing, Pinter strikes me as one who hits us in more fundamental ways than do Ibsen and Shaw. They strike at our institutions and at our involvement in those institutions. Pinter gets at our human nature itself. His plays implicitly ask the question: what’s left to be moral about, since we cannot trust the intellect, the memory, the beauty of love, family ties, marriage, friendship, social contract, and in view of our seeming inability to know our present, past, or future?

Well, Pinter certainly doesn’t go for any long-range values or abstractions. Instead, he gives up on mind and stresses appetite or will. What he dramatizes is a conviction that we do in fact live for now and take what we need or want in order to satisfy this or that appetite. He shows that we will likely lie to ourselves or to others if we try to go beyond that admittedly primitive level to one of altruism, virtue for its own sake, etc. Or we may even hurt ourselves and others and suffer pain by misremembering or by presuming to follow principles or ideals. Moreover, even one who does speak for mind and principle (one like Teddy in The Homecoming) is likely pursuing a need or an appetite for what he regards as real.

The characters of Teddy and Lenny in The Homecoming may come as close as anything in Pinter to demonstrating the moral stance in these plays. Teddy, the philosopher, tells Lenny and the rest of the family that they wouldn’t understand Teddy’s philosophical publications because the family are incapable of getting outside the immediate and of seeing the world objectively. Importantly, Teddy remarks that he and the others are alike in some ways, but that he is different from them in being able to transcend that which he is simultaneously involved with. In fact, he says, he refuses to immerse himself in the world as the family do. He considers this a matter not of intelligence but of attitude. Salvation, he implies, lies in distancing oneself. He trusts the mind to reach conclusions somehow superior to appetite.

Lenny, on the decided other hand, would appear to speak for everyone else on stage in asking the kind of question that Pinter’s plays always raise:

Well, look at it this way. How can the unknown merit reverence? In other words, how can you revere that of which you’re ignorant? At the same time, it would be ridiculous to propose that what we know merits reverence. What we know merits any one of a number of things, but it stands to reason reverence isn’t one of them. In other words, apart from the known and the unknown, what else is there?

This passage gets at the heart of Pinter’s moral position, not because we need identify Lenny with Pinter, but because what Lenny says so plainly echoes what we see and may infer from other Pinter plays. Pinter does not so much prescribe as describe. This, then, is how he divides good from bad, authentic from inauthentic. The result is conclusiveness on a pretty primitive level, but it is assuredly conclusive. It is also perhaps no less painful in the pursuing—both because of and in spite of its stark reductionism, and it is certainly a moral vision—that is, one which emerges from a view of what is better or worse, morally, for human beings. In this view people are basically animals and the right (moral) thing to do is to accept this premise and its consequences, whatever the cost. In short, just get on with meeting our needs, rather than think and fret about consequences, since he finds no foundation for sweating of principles.

Pinter makes us uneasy, I think, because he gets us in the guts, where he implies we live. Ibsen and Shaw are softer, being concerned as well with mind. The tone and flavor of Pinter’s work suggest that of course we are free to deny the accuracy of his vision if we can do so convincingly and can suggest something more plausible in the way of morality. Can we do so?


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