By Whitney Eggers, Production Dramaturg
One of the most noted attributes of Harold Pinter’s dramaturgy is the (in)famous “Pinter Pause.” Enshrined in theatrical terminology, along with the related word “Pinteresque,” the Pinter Pause became a symbol for the silence-ridden, subtly sexy mood that pervades Pinter’s work. It represents everything that brings audiences to love Pinter—and some actors to loathe him. Pinter’s production history overflows with legends of directors who treated his pauses with perhaps unnecessary reverence. For the 1965 original production of The Homecoming, director Peter Hall held an hours-long ‘dot and pause rehearsal;’ more recently, directors have been rumored to simply shout “PAUSE!” at every five-letter P-word. Such well-meaning rigor often leads to performances that feel like a poorly timed drive down a city block: actors zoom through the language only to slam on the brakes at a pause, wait patiently a moment, then pick up again at the green light. Though he came to detest such consequences of writing “pause” (“Oh, no. These pauses and silences! I’ve been appalled,” he once groaned in an interview), Pinter himself added to the legendary problem. In rehearsals for The Collection, he gave the following note to actor Michael Holdern: “Michael, I wrote dot, dot, dot, and you’re giving me dot, dot.”
Part of the trouble may be a simple misunderstanding. Since he’s frequently lumped into the equivocal category of “Theater of the Absurd,” Pinter’s pauses are often mistaken for the type that punctuate Beckett’s work, in which pauses are used for comic timing, dramatic structure, and to communicate man’s essential inability to communicate. But Pinter’s sense of pause and silence, though undeniably influenced by Beckett, aims for a completely different effect. Rather than demonstrate an inability to communicate, the pauses explicitly indicate the success of communication. “One thing [The Homecoming] is not about,” said Paul Rogers, who originated the role of Max, “is noncommunication. These characters know only too bloody well how to communicate.” In Pinter’s work, pauses can mark the register of a blow, bring attention to what goes unsaid, chart the processing of what’s been said, indicate a radical shift in dynamic—essentially, they convey everything but a lack of communication. Invested with meaning, rather than blank silence, the Pinter Pause focuses a laser on the complex process of human interaction, the careful choosing of words for absolute precision. Pinter himself once said, “I think that we communicate all too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid.”
Pinter’s appreciation for the power of silence dates back to his Hackney youth. Part of an extremely close-knit group of friends, Pinter recalls a remarkable punishment handed down to him after breaking the male code of friendship:
I had a group of friends… [a]nd I… how can I put this?...I took one of my friend’s girlfriends for a walk down to the River Lea one summer evening which I shouldn’t have done, you know. This was found out, naturally, and I was invited one day by two men—I know this sounds like The Birthday Party, but I happened to know these people, they were very close friends—and they said, ‘We’re going for a walk, Harold.’ We got on a bus… silence… dead silence… got to Victoria Park, which is a big park on the way to Bethnal Green in East London. They walked me in silence right into the middle of the park, turned and left me there. I saw them walk away and I felt absolutely desolated. I can’t think of a more powerful chastisement really. They had no need to say anything and didn’t.
In Pinter’s own experience, as in his plays, power, intimidation, and violence stem not from verbal confrontation, but from the utter devastation of staring into silence.