Those famous pauses; the mystery-and-menace quotient; the edgy, comic tone; the musical everyday language; the characters' erratic behavior—acting in the plays of Harold Pinter is a challenge. (Americans have the additional unavoidable burden of the British accents.)
Pinter's plays require high-stakes objectives, loaded subtext, a comic sensibility (while never playing for laughs), a willingness to be hated by the audience, an in-the-moment flexibility and aliveness, and more. Yet, like Shakespeare, Pinter—also an actor—writes consummately actable plays.
Pinter's signature language is similar—in its rhythms and terse banalities—to David Mamet. For Lawrence Pressman, who is playing Goldberg in The Birthday Party (at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles), the rhythms—including the patterns of the text on the page—provide endless clues. "It's like a wonderful score that you then have to fill," Pressman said. "You can't start with your internal workings and not start with the text at the same time, because if you do, you'll suddenly get to the stage where you've got all these words and you don't know what they mean." He thinks of Pinter's text as being a mixture of Bach ("with this whole other world that you can't quite hear") and jazz ("totally in the moment").
Added Pressman's co-actor Robert Symonds, who plays Petey, "I think Pinter labored over each word and where it's placed. You need to be quite precise. You can't leave out syllables." Symonds played Goldberg in the American premiere of The Birthday Party at San Francisco's Actors Workshop in 1960.
"This is a very different world from O'Neill," Carey Perloff, artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, told me. She directed two Pinter one-acts, The Room (his earliest) and Celebration (his latest), currently receiving a sterling production there. "Pinter characters use language to skewer each other," explained Perloff. "American actors tend to use language confessionally rather than combatively. And nothing in Pinter is confessional. You have to know who you're sending every line to, and what its effect is going to be." Pinter wrote (in Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998) that in his plays, speech "is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."
According to Pressman—who was directed by the playwright himself in The Man in the Glass Booth in London and New York in the late '60s—Pinter said that if you merely emphasize certain words in any speech and don't worry about the meaning, you will find yourself using speech "as a weapon, a cover, a wooing device, a beating of a fist upon a door."
To justify that extreme use of language, you need a strong objective. Perloff wrote in Preview, A.C.T.'s subscriber newsletter, "There is nothing casual or low-key in a Pinter play. It is a violent act to walk into a room, to knock on a door. So you make strong choices about what the characters want: Haven? Comfort? Dominance? Power? The things they want are in explosive conflict with the things desired by other characters, which makes the actions enormous: I want to colonize you, destroy you, make love to you. There is no middle ground in Pinter. You're either predator or prey."
When I talked to Perloff, she elaborated: "It has to be clear what you want, what you're trying to do to someone else, and where the wound is. Very literally. These are always characters with wounds." She added that ultimately the objective for a Pinter character is to survive.
Andrew Robinson, who directed the Matrix's Birthday Party, amended that: "The other objective is connecting. These characters—certainly in The Birthday Party and The Homecoming [which Robinson has also directed]—are often in removed, alienated situations and are trying to connect. Whether they do or not is a whole other thing." For Robinson, it's useful to find a spine for each character similar to the spine of commedia or Restoration comedy character. In commedia, for example, such stock figures as Il Dottore, Arlecchino, etc., each have a powerful life objective, or spine.
The Space In-Between
Your objective (and other choices you make) will inevitably fuel your subtext. Pinter wrote, "There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of words is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it."
"If you don't have a subtext in Pinter, you're lost," said Robinson. "There's fear and terror and secrets in The Birthday Party. To give the dramatic sense of secrets you have to have secrets. 'I the actor am not going to tell you the audience and you the other actors what's going on in my life, what I'm playing.' Otherwise nothing is at stake."
And your subtext is a large part of what's going on during those obligatory "pauses" and "silences" that so confound actors. A frustrated Ralph Richardson once asked Pinter how many pauses make a silence, and Pinter responded, "Three or four."
"When you first begin to work on a Pinter script," wrote Perloff, "you won't know why the silence is there. So you simply have to honor that silence and hold it until it begins to fill. It's in those silences that you realize the depth of the characters' loneliness, their need for love."
I asked her if the pauses and silences always fell in the right places, and she said, "If the stakes are high and the language detonates the way it should, the pauses that are scripted are absolutely necessary, and you know them when you find them. Pinter is an actor and knows where the bottom drops out and where someone makes a radical left turn." Those moments are exactly where the pauses are.
"Harold says it can be a breath or an honest-to-goodness stop," reported Pressman. "It's an end of something, but out of that end comes a beginning of something else." He studies the pauses and silences as if they were speeches. "When a character gets to his real core, he has no choice but to go into silence or pause. To me, that's where the plays live," added Pressman.
"His plays are so actable," wrote Perloff in Preview, "because they're so incredibly, vividly moment to moment. A Pinter character only exists the moment he or she hits the stage. Just as, when a new person walks into your life, they only begin to exist for you at that moment."
Pressman agreed. "You must re-create the play from the ground up every time. You bring in that day's wound, that life's wound, every time. You can't go on automatic." He knows what each word of the script means to his character and, more personally, to himself, the actor behind the character, "but I don't lock myself into any of that. What makes it scary is, you must be creative every single time."
Sharp Turns and Limited Sight
Along with staying alive in the moment, the Pinter actor faces startling transitions. As Symonds described it, you go from point A to point B with nothing in between. "You have to accept that and learn how to do it," he said. Onstage life takes place at warp speed, so transitions from one emotion or attitude adjustment to the next get compacted.
Pinter told Perloff that actors need not carry the emotional freight from one moment to the next. "A bomb is dropped and detonates and you move on," said Perloff. "It's a very different kind of work from the way actors are taught in this country, where one thing invariably leads to the next. It's a more jagged, unpredictable landscape."
Jagged, unpredictable, as mysterious as life itself. In fact, said Perloff, "Pinter feels it's a kind of arrogance on the part of a playwright or director or actor to have an airtight story about where somebody comes from and what their motivations are, because we don't even know that about ourselves." Creating an elaborate backstory for your character may not be helpful in a Pinter play, Perloff suggested.
Many years ago, Pinter explained his work to Pressman this way: "Imagine there's a hotel room next door with people in it. You bore a hole in the wall and everything you see through that hole is my play. You can't see anything to the left or right. If a character moves away from the hole you're left with blackness for a while, or another character appears."
Robinson said it's helpful for actors to work from the outside as much as from the inside in creating their characters, and to have an affinity for paradox and ambiguity. A character could be lying and/or telling the truth at any given moment. "For every choice you make as the character, there's an opposite choice," said Robinson. "You're always going toward and against your objective at the same time. The danger is in getting hung up on the literalness of your questions and trying to establish a logic; Pinter will always defy you. Most of the time the questions are more valuable than the answers." BSW
"The Birthday Party" runs through Dec. 2 at the Matrix Theatre; (323) 852-1445. See review on page 12. "The Room/Celebration" runs through Oct. 14 at A.C.T.; (415) 749-2228.