Charles McNulty on the erudition of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett
|Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, with Jonathan Pryce, left, and Alan Cox. Photograph: Helen Warner / March 8, 2012|
Sometimes you can't put your finger on what you've been missing until you encounter it again. After seeing two fine revivals of plays by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter — "Waiting for Godot" at the Mark Taper Forum and the British production of "The Caretaker" at San Francisco's Curran Theatre, respectively — I suddenly realized how ravenous I was for language in the theater with poetic density and grit.Also at A Piece of Monologue:
Beckett, 20th century playwriting's No. 1 game-changer, and Pinter, his most original disciple, were writers steeped in literature. Their education and training didn't come courtesy of an M.F.A. program, with its cramped curriculum divorcing the stage from the other arts. They were carving paths for themselves as wide-ranging men of letters, to use a phrase that has sadly gone the way of "bibliophile" and "public intellectual."
Of course great artists such as Beckett and Pinter are anomalous. (Nobel laureates still haven't gone into mass production.) Yet there's something to be learned from the example of two writers whose spectacular destinies can be glimpsed in their literary beginnings.
Beckett, a brilliant student of Romance languages, had a formative association with James Joyce, wrote a penetrating essay on Proust early in his career, and was as conversant with Dante as he was with the major philosophical currents of his day. Remarkably, he wound up having as profound an impact on the novel as he had on drama. (Only Chekhov, who revolutionized the short story while transforming the future of playwriting, can match this legacy among modern authors.)
Pinter, a young devourer of Dostoevski, Kafka and Joyce, was an actor and director as well as a playwright and screenwriter, but his identity as a poet preceded his dramatic work and he confined himself to poetry (and political rabble-rousing) in the last years of his life. Although Julian Sands' recent one-man tribute to Pinter at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble didn't convince me that Pinter's standing as a poet matches his standing as a playwright, the tensile strength of his dialogue, with nary an extraneous work, is inseparable from his lifelong poetic labors. [Read More]