The mistake they make, most of them, is to attempt to determine and calculate, with the finest instruments, the source of the wound.
They seek out the gaps between the apparent and the void that hinges upon it with all due tautness. They turn to the wound with deference, a lance, and a needle and thread.
At the entrance of the lance the gap widens.
At the use of needle and thread the wound coagulates and atrophies in their hands.
Shakespeare writes of the open wound and, through him, we know it open and know it closed. We tell when it ceases to beat and tell it at its highest peak of fever.
In attempting to approach Shakespeare’s work in its entirety, you are called upon to grapple with a perspective in which the horizon alternately collapses and re-forms behind you, in which the mind is subject to an intense diversity of atmospheric.
Once the investigation has begun, however, there is no other way but to him.
One discovers a long corridor of postures; fluid and hardened at the quick; gross and godlike; putrescent and copulative; raddled; attentive; crippled and gargantuan; crumbling with the dropsy; heavy with elephantiasis; broody with government; severe; fanatical; paralytic; voluptuous; impassive; musclebound; lissom; virginal; unwashed; bewildered; humpbacked; icy and statuesque. All are contained in the wound which Shakespeare does not attempt to sew up or re-shape, whose pain he does not attempt to eradicate. He amputates, deadens, aggravates at will, within the limits of a particular piece, but he will not pronounce judgement or cure. Such comment as there is is so variously split up between characters and so contradictory in itself that no central point of opinion or inclining can be determined.
He himself is trapped in his own particular order, and is unable to go out at a distance to regulate and forestall abortion or lapses in vraisemblance. He can only rely on a “few well chosen words” to bring him through any doubtful patch.
He belongs, of course, ultimately, to a secret society, a conspiracy, of which there is only one member: himself. In that sense, and in a number of others too, he is a malefactor; a lunatic; a deserter, a conscientious objector; a guttersnipe; a social menace and an Anti-Christ.
He is also a beggar; a road-sweeper; a tinker; a hashish-drinker; a leper; a chicken-fancier; a paper-seller; a male nurse; a sun-worshipper and a gibbering idiot.
He is no less a traffic policeman; a rowing blue; a rear-gunner; a chartered accountant; a best man; a bus-conductor; a paid guide; a marriage-guidance counsellor; a church-goer; a stage carpenter; an umpire; an acrobat and a clerk of the court.
His tongue is guttural, Arabic, pepperish, composed, parsimonious, voluminous, rabid, diarrhoeic, transparent, laundered, dainty, mellifluous, consonantal, stammering, scabrous, naked, blade-edged, one-legged, piercing, hushed, clinical, dumb, convulsed, lewd, vicious, voracious, inane, Tibetan, monosyllabic, epileptic, raucous, ministerial, sudden, Sudanese, palpitating, thunderous, earthy, whimsical, acrimonious, wintry, malicious, fearsome, blighted, blistered, mouldy, tantalizing, juicy, innocent, lordly, gluttonous, irreverent, blasphemous, avaricious, autumnal, blasted, ecstatic, necromantic, gentle, venomous, somnambulistic, monotonous, uproarious, feverish, austere, demented, deathly, fractious, obsessed, ironic, palsied, morbid, sanctimonious, sacrilegious, calm, cunning, cannibalistic and authoritative.
He moves through all with a vehement and flexible control. He turns and bites his own tail. He defecates on his own carpet. He repeats the Bible sideways. He disdains the communication cord and the life-belt. He scratches his head with an iceberg. But the fabric never breaks. The tightrope is never at less than an even stretch. He aborts, he meanders, he loses his track, he overshoots his mark, he drops his glasses, he meets himself coming back, he digresses, he calumniates, he alters direction, he sinks in at the knees, he rolls over like a log, he forgets the drift, he drops someone flat, he exaggerates, oversimplifies, disrupts, falsifies, evades the issue, is carried home drunk; he dawdles, he dwindles, he trips over his own feet, he runs away with himself, he implicates others, he misses the point, he ends up at the same place, he falls back on geometry, he cheats, he squanders, he leaves it at that; he gets in his own way, he burns his fingers, he turns turtle, he stews in his own juice, he loses all hands; suffers fire, arsony, rape, loot, ravage, fraud, bondage, murder, interference, snobbery, lice, jealousy, snakebites, damp beds, falling arches, jugglery, quackery, mastoids, bunions, hailstones, bladder trouble, fainting fits, eye-strain, morning sickness, heat, dirt, riot, plague, suicide. He suffers, commits and survives them all.
The fabric never breaks. The wound is open. The wound is peopled.
On The Birthday Party
Letter to Peter Wood, director of The Birthday Party, written just before rehearsals started for the first production of the play in April 1958.
The first image of this play, the first thing that about a year ago was put on paper, was a kitchen, Meg, Stanley, corn flakes and sour milk. There they were, they sat, they stood, they bent, they turned, they were incontravertable, or perhaps I should say incontrovertible. Not long before Goldberg and McCann turned up. They had come with a purpose, a job in handy—to take Stanley away. This they did, Meg unknowing, Petey helpless, Stanley sucked in. Play over. That was the pure line and I couldn’t get away from it. I had no idea at the time what or why. The thing germinated and bred itself. It proceeded according to its own logic. What did I do? I followed the indications, I kept a sharp eye on the clues I found myself dropping. The writing arranged itself with no trouble into dramatic terms. The characters sounded in my earsy—it was apparent to me what one would say and what would be the other’s response, at any given point. It was apparent to me what they would not, could not, ever, say, whatever one might wish. I interfered with them only on the technical level. My task was not to damage their consistency at any timey—through any external notion of my own.
When the thing was well cooked I began to form certain conclusions. The point is, however, that by that time the play was now its own world. It was determined by its own original engendering image. My conclusions were only useful in that they were informed by the growth of the work itself. When I began to think analytically about it (as far as I can manage to do that, which isn’t very far) I did so by keeping in step with what was being suggested, by judging the whole caper through an accurate assessment of the happenings described, or what I concluded was an accurate assessment. I never held up the work in hand to another mirrory—I related it to nothing outside itself. Certainly to no other work of literature or to any consideration of public approbation should it reach a stage.
The play is itself. It is no other. It has its own life (whatever its merit in dramatic terms or accomplishment may be and despite the dissatisfaction others may experience with regard to it). I take it you would like me to insert a clarification or moral judgement or author’s angle on it, straight from the horse’s mouth. I appreciate your desire for this but I can’t do it.
I confused the issue by talking of what “I thought” of the characters. Who I would invite to tea, etc. That’s irrelevant. The play exists now apart from me, you or anybody. I believe that what happens on this stage will possess a potent dramatic image and a great deal of this will be visualy—I mean one will see the people, which will be a great aid to the expression of the thing, the getting across. The curtain goes up and comes down. Something has happened. Right? Cockeyed, brutish, absurd, with no comment. Where is the comment, the slant, the explanatory note? In the play. Everything to do with the play is in the play.
All right. You know what I think about Stanley. I think he has the right, whatever he does and is, to do and be just that and fuck the expense. That’s what I think. But that is not the point of the play. It is a conclusion I draw from it. Is that a point expressed in the play? Only by implication, agreed. I conclude what I conclude upon that implication. Stanley fights for his life, he doesn’t want to be drowned. Who does? But he is not articulate. The play in fact merely states that two men come down to take away another man and do so. Will the audience absorb the implications or will they not? Ask the barber.
Audience reaction, it seems to me, might be one of threey—(a) They should have left him alone. (b) The silly bugger deserved it. (c) It’s all a load of crap. There is also, of course, (d) How fascinating, but what does it mean? To which I replyy—Meaning begins in the words, in the action, continues in your head and ends nowhere. There is no end to meaning. Meaning which is resolved, parcelled, labelled and ready for export is dead, impertinenty—and meaningless. I examine my own play and ask, what’s going on here? I notey—this seems to lead from that, I would conclude this, but the characters themselves do nothing but move through an occurrence, a morning, a night, a morning. This occurrence has, admittedly, any number of implications. Anyone is entitled to see the show. The dramatic progression and the implications implicit in it will either find a home in some part of their nut or not.
To put such words as we discussed into Stanley’s mouth would be an inexcusable imposition and falsity on my part. Stanley cannot perceive his only valid justificationy—which is, he is what he isy—therefore he certainly can never be articulate about it. He knows only to attempt to justify himself by dream, by pretence and by bluff, through fright. If he had cottoned on to the fact that he need only admit to himself what he actually is and is noty—then Goldberg and McCann would not have paid their visit, or if they had, the same course of events would have been by no means assured. Stanley would have been another man. The play would have been another play. A play with a “sensitive intellectual” articulate hero in its centre, able to examine himself in any way clearly, would also have been another play.
Stanley is the king of his castle and loses his kingdom because he assessed it and himself inaccurately. We all have to be very careful. The boot is itching to squash and very efficient.
Goldberg and McCann? Dying, rotting, scabrous, the decayed spiders, the flower of our society. They know their way around. Our mentors. Our ancestry. Them. Fuck ’em.
What would you, as they say? In the third act Stanley can do nothing but make a noise. What else? What else has he discovered? He has been reduced to the fact that he is nothing but a gerk in the throat. But does this sound signify anything? It might very well. I think it does. He is trying to go further. He is on the edge of utterance. But it’s a long, impossible edge and utterance, were he to succeed in falling into it, might very well prove to be only one cataclysmic, profound fart. You think I’m joking? Test me. In the rattle in his throat Stanley approximates nearer to the true nature of himself than ever before and certainly ever after. But it is late. Late in the day. He can go no further.
At that juncture, you will appreciate, he cannot be expected to suddenly recover the old gift of the gab and speak a set piece of self-analysis or self-realization, to point a tiny little moral. Nor could he earlier in the play for it would never occur to him to justify himself in that manner. Nor, for instance, could Petey in his last chat with Goldberg and McCann deliver the thought for today or the what we learn from these nasty experiences homily since, apart from anything else, we are not dealing with an articulate household and there is no Chorus in this play. In other words, I am afraid I do not find myself disposed to add a programme note to this piece.
None of what I have said means that I disclaim responsibility for my characters. On the contrary, I am responsible both for them and to them. The play dictated itself but I confess that I wrote ity—with intent, maliciously, purposefully, in command of its growth. Does this appear to contradict all I said earlier? Splendid. You may suggest that this “command” was not strict enough and not lucid enough but who supposes I’m striving for lucidity? I think the house is in pretty good order. We’ve agreed; the hierarchy, the Establishment, the arbiters, the socio-religious monsters arrive to effect alteration and censure upon a member of the club who has discarded responsibility (that word again) towards himself and others. (What is your opinion, by the way, of the act of suicide?) He does possess, however, for my money, a certain fibrey—he fights for his life. It doesn’t last long, this fight. His core being a quagmire of delusion, his mind a tenuous fusebox, he collapses under the weight of their accusationy—an accusation compounded of the shitstained strictures of centuries of “tradition.” Though nonconformist, he is neither hero nor exemplar of revolt. Nothing salutary for the audience to identify itself with. And yet, at the same time, I believe that a greater degree of identification will take place than might seem likely. A great deal, it seems to me, will depend on the actor. If he copes with Stanley’s loss of himself successfully, I believe a certain amount of poignancy will emanate. Couldn’t we all find ourselves in Stanley’s position at any given moment?
As for the practical question of the end of Act Two, where’s the difficulty? Stanley behaves strangely. Why? Because his alteration-diminution has set in, he is rendered offcock (not off cock), he has lost any adult comprehension and reverts to a childhood malice and mischief, as his first shelter. This is the beginning of his change, his fall. In the third act we see the next phase.
The play is a comedy because the whole state of affairs is absurd and inglorious. It is, however, as you know, a very serious piece of work.
A simple matter, don’t you think?
Note by Martin Esslin, editor of the Kenyon Review
The Birthday Party was Harold Pinter’s first full-length play. It opened its out-of-town try-out run at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge on 28 April 1958, came to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in London on 19 May and closed on 24 May, having, in that fairly large house, taken only a grand total of two hundred and sixty pounds, eleven shillings and eight pence for the whole week’s run.
Like all truly original and innovative works of art, the play bewildered and disconcerted its audience andy—as we can see from Harold Pinter’s letter to the director printed herey—its director and actors as well. The Birthday Party seemed to many members of its first audiences to start off as a thriller, a mystery play; but, then, it failed to keep its promise: it provided no solution to the mystery. What had Stanley, that amiable but weak young man, done to make him hide away in a sleazy seaside boarding-house, where he was being mothered by a possessive elderly landlady; and what brought the two sinister agents to seek him out: the archetypal Jewish swindler Goldberg and the equally archetypal Irish terrorist McCann? And why were these two arranging what they termed a birthday party for Stanley, during which they brainwashed and tormented him? And where did they take him away, having broken his glasses and thus having blinded him and reduced him to speechlessness, in a big black car?
All this was puzzling. It was clear that a major talent was at work: the brilliance and wit of the dialogue, the sharpness of its clinical observation of the quirks and idiocies of real speech, the subtle syncopation of its rhythms and the transition from its realism to wilder and wilder regions of surrealist free association clearly marked the author as a virtuoso of stage language. But what was he trying to say in the play?
Pinter himself, at the time, steadfastlyy—and rightly—refused to be tempted into self-explanation and commentary on himself. It is not for an artist to provide a critical child’s guide to his intentions. A work of art must speak for itself.
And, of course, some critics gradually succeeded in providing approaches to explanations, avenues towards an understanding of the play’s meaning: that it was an image of a mood rather than an attempt to tell a story; that it combined a number of equally viable allegorical meanings that worked precisely because they were all equally true; that the very lack of explanation was the main image of the play: a metaphor for the inexplicable uncertainties and mysteries of the human condition itself, with its transitions from one stage of existence to another, youth to age, life to death.
Now, almost a quarter of a century after The Birthday Party startled its audience, Harold Pinter has agreed to the publication of the letter he wrote to the director of its first production. It is an important document. It is also a very fine piece of expository prose.
Martin Esslin, 1981
On The Birthday Party
Letter to the Editor of The Play’s the Thing, October 1958
Thank you for your invitation to make a few observations in your magazine about writing for the stage, with reference to the rise and fall of my play, The Birthday Party. Your columns are more congenial to me than most since yours is an inter-university paper and the response given to The Birthday Party in Oxford and in Cambridge was most stimulating, involving a high degree of participation on the part of both audiences. My contact with universities in this field has in fact always proved worthwhile. The Room, my first play, was originally produced by Henry Woolf at the Bristol University Drama Department. Not only the integrity and clarity of Mr Woolf’s production but the enthusiasm of the whole group and the reception given the play there was highly encouraging and directly responsible for my further efforts in this medium. I have never been to a university myself. It would appear, however, that some communication takes place between my work and a university public. That is enough for me to recommend university life to others.
The remarkable difference in reaction to The Birthday Party on the part of the London daily paper critics and the audiences in Oxford and Cambridge constitutes for me one of the most interesting features of the progress of the play. (There was, of course, no audience in London; the abstention counselled by nine or eleven critics was heeded sufficiently to bring about the abrupt closure.) There is no glib deduction to be made from this wide divergence in reception. I tend to believe, however, that even where unfavourable, the response of the public in Oxford and Cambridge gave evidence of an active and willing intelligence brought into the theatre, not merely, as is usual, that brought by isolated individuals, but that of an audience alive. The weeks in these towns were exciting for the actors, the producer, the management, and for me. The week in London, following these, was a most curious kind of a week altogether. The simple answer to this state of affairs might be too simple. Perhaps it has something to do with the subtleties and distinctions of climate obtaining in different areas of the country? Impossible to say.
You have asked me if I acknowledge or refute the influence of Ionesco. At the time of writing The Birthday Party I knew only The New Tenant of Ionesco, and so can hardly consider myself working under his influence. It is, I suggest, legitimate to hold that a writer writing in Southend and a writer writing in Inverness may be found to have something in common without their having had an intimate knowledge of each other’s work. This occurs, I think, more often than those obsessed by that most facile of things, the category, would care to recognize.
You have asked me to discuss the lines I myself am working on. I think I proceed from one or two simple assumptions in writing for the stage. Given a man in a room and he will sooner or later receive a visitor. A visitor entering the room will enter with intent. If two people inhabit the room the visitor will not be the same man for both. A man in a room who receives a visit is likely to be illuminated or horrified by it. The visitor himself might as easily be horrified or illuminated. The man may leave with the visitor or he may leave alone. The visitor may leave alone or stay in the room alone when the man is gone. Or they may both stay together in the room. Whatever the outcome in terms of movement, the original condition, in which a man sat alone in a room, will have been subjected to alteration. A man in a room and no one entering lives in expectation of a visit. He will be illuminated or horrified by the absence of a visitor. But however much it is expected, the entrance, when it comes, is unexpected and almost always unwelcome. (He himself, of course, might go out of the door, knock and come in and be his own visitor. It has happened before.)
Not by any means everyone can be moved from his delusion. Where this is going to occur it will occur shockingly. It may induce paralysis. From paralysis to paralysis. Or from delusion to delusion. For if the intention of the visitor is to strip the man of his delusion, and if this is successful, he may then clothe the man in one of his own, on the principle that delusions are adjustable and can be worn by anybody. You can wear mine. I can wear yours. All you have to do is give me time for a fitting. On the other hand, given these ingredients of man and visitor, something quite different might take place; what could be called a liberation. A great deal will depend, of course, on what kind of man the visitor is, on his personality, so to speak. What is certain is that an adjustment of some magnitude will be necessary, either to a condition beneficial to the mind and disposition of the person concerned, or to one detrimental.
When I speak of a visitor I do not mean “A Visitor,” an avenging angel, a messenger of Death, Doom, heaven or the milky way. A character will certainly reflect inherited attitudes and attributes. By inference or implication his allegiances may be located. This does not necessarily mean that he is a direct representation of any particular “force.” When a character cannot be comfortably defined or understood in terms of the familiar the tendency is to perch him on a symbolic shelf, out of harm’s way. Once there, he can be talked about but need not be lived with. To postulate that what is unfamiliar bears no direct relation to experience is to forget that what is unfamiliar is not necessarily unrecognizable. While much of what is recognizable certainly remains unrecognized, this does not make it any the less recognizable at a given time and under certain given conditions.
We all have our function. The visitor will have his. There is no guarantee, however, that he will possess a visiting card, with detailed information as to his last place of residence, last job, next job, number of dependants, etc. Nor, for the comfort of all, an identity card, nor a label on his chest. The desire for verification is understandable but cannot always be satisfied. There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false. The assumption that to verify what has happened and what is happening presents few problems I take to be inaccurate. A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.
I am sure that readers of your magazine fully acknowledge the double, treble, quadruple life lived under the term life. A play is not an essay, nor can a playwright under any exhortation damage the consistency of his characters by injecting a remedy or apology for their actions into the third act, simply because we have been brought up to expect, rain or sunshine, the third act “resolution.” 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. In Oxford and Cambridge with The Birthday Party I felt this was not the case. The audience was active and involved. This activity and involvement was to me most gratifying.
Writing for the Theatre
A speech made by Harold Pinter at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962
I’m not a theorist. I’m not an authoritative or reliable commentator on the dramatic scene, the social scene, any scene. I write plays, when I can manage it, and that’s all. That’s the sum of it. So I’m speaking with some reluctance, knowing that there are at least twenty-four possible aspects of any single statement, depending on where you’re standing at the time or on what the weather’s like. A categorical statement, I find, will never stay where it is and be finite. It will immediately be subject to modification by the other twenty-three possibilities of it. No statement I make, therefore, should be interpreted as final and definitive. One or two of them may sound final and definitive, they may even be almost final and definitive, but I won’t regard them as such tomorrow and I wouldn’t like you to do so today.
I’ve had two full-length plays produced in London. The first ran a week and the second ran a year. Of course, there are differences between the two plays. In The Birthday Party I employed a certain amount of dashes in the text, between phrases. In The Caretaker I cut out the dashes and used dots instead. So that instead of, say: “Look, dash, who, dash, I, dash, dash, dash,” the text would read: “Look, dot, dot, dot, who, dot, dot, dot, I, dot, dot, dot, dot.” So it’s possible to deduce from this that dots are more popular than dashes and that’s why The Caretaker had a longer run than The Birthday Party. The fact that in neither case could you hear the dots and dashes in performance is beside the point. You can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot from a dash a mile off, even if they can hear neither.
It took me quite a while to grow used to the fact that critical and public response in the theatre follows a very erratic temperature chart. And the danger for a writer is where he becomes easy prey for the old bugs of apprehension and expectation in this connection. But I think Dusseldorf cleared the air for me. In Dusseldorf about two years ago I took, as is the Continental custom, a bow with a German cast of The Caretaker at the end of the play on the first night. I was at once booed violently by what must have been the finest collection of booers in the world. I thought they were using megaphones, but it was pure mouth. The cast was as dogged as the audience, however, and we took thirty-four curtain calls, all to boos. By the thirty-fourth there were only two people left in the house, still booing. I was strangely warmed by all this, and now, whenever I sense a tremor of the old apprehension or expectation, I remember Dusseldorf, and am cured.
The theatre is a large, energetic, public activity. Writing is, for me, a completely private activity, a poem or a play, no difference. These facts are not easy to reconcile. The professional theatre, whatever the virtues it undoubtedly possesses, is a world of false climaxes, calculated tensions, some hysteria, and a good deal of inefficiency. And the alarms of this world which I suppose I work in become steadily more widespread and intrusive. But basically my position has remained the same. What I write has no obligation to anything other than to itself. My responsibility is not to audiences, critics, producers, directors, actors or to my fellow men in general, but to the play in hand, simply. I warned you about definitive statements but it looks as though I’ve just made one.
I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. The context has always been, for me, concrete and particular, and the characters concrete also. I’ve never started a play from any kind of abstract idea or theory . . . Apart from any other consideration, 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? If one can speak of the difficulty of knowing what in fact took place yesterday, one can I think treat the present in the same way. What’s happening now? We won’t know until tomorrow or in six months’ time, and we won’t know then, we’ll have forgotten, or our imagination will have attributed quite false characteristics to today. A moment is sucked away and distorted, often even at the time of its birth. We will all interpret a common experience quite differently, though we prefer to subscribe to the view that there’s a shared common ground, a known ground. I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but that it’s more like a quicksand. Because “reality” is quite a strong firm word we tend to think, or to hope, that the state to which it refers is equally firm, settled and unequivocal. It doesn’t seem to be, and in my opinion, it’s no worse or better for that. [. . .]
. . . There is a considerable body of people just now who are asking for some kind of clear and sensible engagement to be evidently disclosed in contemporary plays. They want the playwright to be a prophet. There is certainly a good deal of prophecy indulged in by playwrights these days, in their plays and out of them. Warnings, sermons, admonitions, ideological exhortations, moral judgements, defined problems with built-in solutions; all can camp under the banner of prophecy. The attitude behind this sort of thing might be summed up in one phrase: ‘I’m telling you!’
It takes all sorts of playwrights to make a world, and as far as I’m concerned “X” can follow any course he chooses without my acting as his censor. To propagate a phoney war between hypothetical schools of playwrights doesn’t seem to me a very productive pastime and it certainly isn’t my intention. But I can’t but feel that we have a marked tendency to stress, so glibly, our empty preferences. The preference for “Life” with a capital L, which is held up to be very different to life with a small l, I mean the life we in fact live. The preference for goodwill, for charity, for benevolence, how facile they’ve become, these deliverances.
If I were to state any moral precept it might be: beware of the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his worthiness, his usefulness; his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliche.
This kind of writer clearly trusts words absolutely. I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others, the bulk of it a stale dead terminology; ideas endlessly repeated and permutated, become platitudinous, trite, meaningless. Given this nausea, it’s very easy to be overcome by it and step back into paralysis. I imagine most writers know something of this kind of paralysis. But if it is possible to confront this nausea, to follow it to its hilt, to move through it and out of it, then it is possible to say that something has occurred, that something has even been achieved.
Language, under these conditions, is a highly ambiguous business. So often, below the word spoken, is the thing known and unspoken. My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore. 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.
Given characters who possess a momentum of their own, my job is not to impose upon them, not to subject them to a false articulation, by which I mean forcing a character to speak where he could not speak, making him speak in a way he could not speak, or making him speak of what he could never speak. The relationship between author and characters should be a highly respectful one, both ways. And if it’s possible to talk of gaining a kind of freedom from writing, it doesn’t come by leading one’s characters into fixed and calculated postures, but by allowing them to carry their own can, by giving them legitimate elbowroom. This can be extremely painful. It’s much easier, much less pain, not to let them live.
I’d like to make quite clear at the same time that I don’t regard my own characters as uncontrolled or anarchic. They’re not. The function of selection and arrangement is mine. I do all the donkeywork, in fact, and I think I can say I pay meticulous attention to the shape of things, from the shape of a sentence to the overall structure of the play. This shaping is of the first importance. But I think a double thing happens. You arrange and you listen, following the clues you leave for yourself, through the characters. And sometimes a balance is found, where image can freely engender image and where at the same time you are able to keep your sights on the place where the characters are silent and in hiding. It is in the silence that they are most evident to me.
There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.
We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase: “failure of communication” . . . and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.
I am not suggesting that no character in a play can ever say what he in fact means. Not at all. I have found that there invariably does come a moment when this happens, when he says something, perhaps, which he has never said before. And where this happens, what he says is irrevocable, and can never be taken back.
A blank page is both an exciting and a frightening thing. It’s what you start from. There follow two further periods in the progress of a play. The rehearsal period and the performance. A dramatist will absorb a great many things of value from an active and intense experience in the theatre, throughout these two periods. But finally he is again left looking at the blank page. In that page is something or nothing. You don’t know until you’ve cornered it. And there’s no guarantee that you will know then. But it always remains a chance worth taking.
I’ve written nine plays, for various media, and at the moment I haven’t the slightest idea how I’ve managed to do it. Each play was, for me, “a different kind of failure.” And that fact, I suppose, sent me on to write the next one.
And if I find writing plays an extremely difficult task, while still understanding it as a kind of celebration, how much more difficult it is to attempt to rationalize the process, and how much more abortive, as I think I’ve clearly demonstrated to you this morning.
Samuel Beckett says, at the beginning of his novel The Unnamable, “The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter.”