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Teaching Harold Pinter

August 12, 2013

Every so often I get out of my eighteenth-century comfort zone when it comes to teaching.  Teaching Harold Pinter is uncomfortable but very satisfying.  I’ve a few indicative texts on my page – thus:

The delicious thing about old Pinter is that without having read a word of Michel Foucault, he grasped and illustrated the fact that language is hopelessly infected with inequitable power relations.  Like Foucault, Pinter was more interested in the “how” of power than the “who” or the “why”.  The dynamics of linguistic domination are constantly shifting.  Like Foucault, Pinter illustrated how subjectivity could be constructed or deconstructed, how “character” emerges from the play of language and how “intention” is an impossibly slippery concept.   Within a world of structural oppression, it makes no sense to try to discover who might be pulling the levers behind the curtain.  Precisely where Stanley is to be driven is irrelevant.  Patrick McGoohan, similarly innocent of Foucault, made the same point in the final episode of The Prisoner.  Folks have to internalize their own oppression.  That’ show it works.

I try to get people to watch the early sixties Caretaker, with its dream cast of Alan Bates, Robert Shaw and Donald Pleasance.  I also try to steer people towards the rarely acknowledged 1960s filmed version of The Birthday Party directed by William Friedkin, better known for directing The Exorcist and The French Connection (and The Night They Raided Minsky’s).  This version offers a rare chance to see Robert Shaw play a victim rather than a bully.  Shaw was of course, one of the most deliciously threatening film actors of all time, someone who could invest the most commonplace or polite utterance with an extraordinary sense of (barely) repressed violence.  I also like to steer people towards the 1970s television version of The Collection (directed by Michael Apted – who also directed The Squeeze – which is the ‘lost’ British gangster classic that comes in between Get Carter and the Long Good Friday), which offers some Laurence Olivier’s very best end of career acting on film.

Larry Olivier’s extended description of Malcolm McDowell as a “slum slug” is one of the most deliciously chewy things ever committed to television.  It can be watched and rewatched endlessly without ever getting dull.

When teaching Harold Pinter, there is the rare excitement of watching people realize that the dialogue become stranger and stranger the closer they are examined.  Initial reactions register distaste or boredom with the apparently colloquial carelessness of the exchanges.  Watching people hear the words and consider them in terms of their fascinating illogic emerges over time.  The non-sequiturs become more and more terrifying and students discover that they have entered a world in which just about anything might be said by anyone at any time.  And eventually, they come to the “correct” conclusion that Teddy is the nastiest character in The Homecoming,

But perhaps the best thing about chairing seminars on Harold Pinter is that on those many teaching occasions when you put a suggestion to the class, and all you get back is a tense and awkward silence, it feels somehow appropriate.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Teaching Pinter again today. Reblogging this.

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