Monday, December 29, 2008

Pinter and Rattigan ...

Dave Lull sent me a copy of an article by Theodore Dalrymple that appeared in the New Criterion in 2000 called "Reticence or insincerity, Rattigan or Pinter." The article can no longer be linked to in its entirelty (though it is available for purchase). Here, though, are some excerpts:

Rattigan is pleading for tolerance within a certain code of behavior. He is not suggesting that the standards by which the major [in Separate Tables] was judged were in themselves wrong—that it is right for a man to manufacture a completely fake persona for himself, tell lies about his past, and touch up women in cinemas. But he is asking for the constant exercise of judgment rather than the mechanical application of rules, and his tolerance emerges not from abstract ideas, being neither ideological nor strident, but from genuine understanding of and sympathy for human weakness.

In Rattigan, the ability of his characters to respond to others with genuine and intense emotion is intimately connected with their reticence.

... in all of Rattigan’s best plays—The Deep Blue Sea, The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy—there are conflicts between passion and good sense, between what is good for the individual and what is good for the collectivity, between duty and inclination. These conflicts are presented both entertainingly and truthfully, so that one ends with an understanding that civilization depends upon an endless interplay of incompatible desiderata, and that even the good life cannot be lived without unhappiness.

In Rattigan, people do not say all that they think for reasons of social inhibition, in Pinter, both because they lack the words and because communication is in any case impossible. There is no doubt, of course, that many people—more than there used to be, thanks to modern educational methods —are inarticulate or that many people cannot stick to the point. If you listen to bar-room conversations, it becomes clear that they do not always progress like Socratic dialogues. Verbosity and incoherence are by no means opposites: and intelligent conversation is at least as much a matter of omission as of inclusion. But the characters in Pinter’s plays are inarticulate for a deeper reason; life for them lacks meaning because one moment is unconnected with another and because lack of meaning is inherent in all existence. In other words, there is simply no possibility of meaning. His characters are creatures of desire but no intellect; and therefore if disputes arise among them, they are mere struggles for power. When there are events—for example, the arrival on the stage of two thugs in The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first full-length play—they are completely arbitrary and without explanation. This arbitrariness is ontological; for Pinter admits that he has no explanation for the events he himself has put into his plays.

For Pinter, the choice is between Mr. Pecksniff and Elmer Gantry on the one hand and the kind of moral nihilism exhibited in his work on the other. But even if these were the only two possibilities in the world—which is quite clearly not the case —I would prefer Pecksniff to the nihilist; for if hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, at least it recognizes that there is a difference between the two.

There is something even more profoundly terrible in Pinter’s work: a sustained attack on the power of the human intellect to impose order on experience or to make sense of existence.

There is only one way to describe Pinter’s philosophical outlook: that of a poseur. I refer not to the internal contradiction in his speech [at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol]. (If we can’t know the truth about any moment, how can we possibly say that any recollection of it is false?) Since we all commit errors of logic from time to time, Pinter may be forgiven on this count. What he cannot be forgiven for, in my opinion, is the brazenness of his insincerity. It is quite clear that he doesn’t believe a word of what he says, and his reason for saying it must therefore be more concerned with self-advertisement and self-promotion than with a search for the truth. Pinter does not in the least believe it is impossible to know truths about the past. While many of his plays concern uncertainties about the events gone by—about the impossibility of knowing, for example, whether X really did commit adultery with Y—he exhibits no uncertainty about other aspects of the past. I doubt that he has ever been quite so sceptical about his royalty checks.

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