Drama Post 2: The Pinter Box

For this post, I’d like to try to think my way through—or out of—what I’d like to call “the Pinter box.” Admittedly, before taking this drama class, I’d never read Harold Pinter. But the concept of the snappy dialogue that seemed to go nowhere—but actually headed somewhere—was intriguing. Because, in many cases, plot bores me. And, as a poet, this makes sense. I function on nuance, and a perpetuation of plot based on dialogic cues seems not just simple, but juvenile. So, Pinter made sense. Functioning on cadences and rhythms rather than pure logic, his movement is poetic. So, I wrote (and am writing) towards that. It very much helped me nuance my way through a love scene—showing the act of courting and relationship development without functioning on dialogic clichés. I could have one character be as forceful as I’d like, as long as she wasn’t remotely talking about courting the other character. At the time, this seemed quite freeing.

However, upon writing my death scene, I felt much more confined by this Pinter-esque “trick.” Or, at least it felt like a trick—witty dialogue that never quite answers what the other is talking about. But the requirement was a death scene. I had to have something happen. Someone had to die. And death is the most long-standing, impactful endings to plot. So, the Pinter-style that let me play now seemed to confine me, seemed to obstruct the way I looked at my characters. Characters suddenly begged to be more fleshed out, as their witticisms appeared to create too much of a likeness between them. The rhythms of previous scenes now seemed false. And maybe that’s because I knew what I wanted to happen, knew who was going to die, and was writing towards that. And maybe writing like Pinter asks a writer to chase rhythms rather than plot. But, sidestepping the argument of organic writing vs prompted writing, how does Pinter get stuff done? How does he move plot without seemingly moving it, without the audience questioning the artifice if and when plot does progress?

I don’t know if I can actually answer any of those questions, but looking over my Pinter notes from class, I’ve written the phrase “Comedy of Menace,” a phrase often attributed to Pinter’s work. Under it are theoretical ways for how it’s achieved: “ambiguity through non-answers,” “ambiguity achieves menace because of rhythms,” and lastly, “plays function like games.” Looking through other notes on the page, it seems like his plays might feel like games not because of just the ambiguity in non-answers or circular dialogues, but because what is accruing are rhythms. In this sense, the rhythm of a dialogue may have more characterization than an actual character. What might be getting done is less about an individual character’s arc, and more about the play as a whole. This “ambiguity” that litters my notes may only seem ambiguous because I am so used to tying dialogue to the character that says it, rather than the context that creates it. Perhaps this is the box I’ve been feeling. The Pinter box.

So, perhaps the approach to the love scene was easier because I wasn’t looking to create two individual characters, but one relationship, built on quirk and rhythms. The death scene, on the other hand, felt like it needed to be tied to character, as the elimination of a character is important—rather, I’ve been culturally taught it is important. The death scene is a grand gesture because it defines the climax by ending it. We care little for much resolution after a death scene, at least in most American media, as death is the period to the long sentence, paragraph, short story, novel. And because the death scene is a sort of resolution for us. It defines spaces. It defines decisions made prior to it, and suggests those after it.

Perhaps viewing death differently—not tying it to the individual, rather the context—would open up this Pinter box. Perhaps riding the rhythms of the scene will suggest who will die much more accurately than an assessment of characters would necessitate. In this sense, though the comedy is created through seemingly illogical dialogue, the menace is our inclination to derive meaning from every word. The death of the word, then, must be linked to the death of the character. I don’t mean a specific character, rather our/my understanding of his/her importance as a singular being. So, after this death, the life of the play must be in existence beyond character, focusing more on what created these entities to begin with. And though we use words to communicate the final product of this creation, Pinter may argue that our rhythmic deliveries of those communications are more honest than any depiction of the world. Perhaps characters are meant to lie, and rhythms don’t need to.

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