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The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter

Its Basis in Ritual

Katherine H. Burkman

The drama of Harold Pinter evolves in an atmosphere of mystery in which the surfaces of life are realistically detailed but the patterns that underlie them remain obscure. Despite the vivid naturalism of his dialogue, his characters often behave more like figures in a dream than like persons with whom one can easily identify. Pinter has on one occasion admitted that, if pressed, he would define his art as realistic but would not describe what he does as realism. Here he points to what his audience has often sensed is distinctive in his style: its mixture of the real and surreal, its exact portrayal of life on the surface, and its powerful evocation of that life that lies beneath the surface.

Katherine H. Burkman rejects the contention of some Pinter critics that the playwright seeks to mystify and puzzle his audience. To the contrary, she argues, he is exploring experience at levels that are mysterious, and is a poetic rather than a problem-solving playwright. The poetic images of the play, moreover, are based in ritual; and just as the ancient Greeks attempted to understand the mysteries of life by drawing upon the most primitive of religious rites, so Pinter employs ritual in his drama for his own tragicomic purposes.

The author explores two distinct kinds of ritual that Pinter develops in counterpoint. His plays abound in those daily habitual activities that have become formalized as ritual and have tended to become empty of meaning, but these automatic activities are set in contrast with sacrificial rites that are loaded with meaning, and force the characters to a painful awareness of life from which their daily routines have served to protect them.

Pinter’s ritual counterpoint is one that reveals the writer’s keen awareness of the rhythms of modern life as well as his awareness of those profound rhythms of sacrificial destruction and renewal that have always informed the best of drama. The playwright explores the celebration that accompanies the most cruel rituals of life, and his plays become an initiation for us from which we may emerge with a clearer insight and some feeling of renewal. It is in Pinter’s highly individual treatment of ancient ritual rhythms that Burkman finds the major import of his compelling art.

Katherine H. Burkman is assistant professor of comparative literature at The Ohio State University.

1971   171 pp. This title is no longer available in a traditional print edition. Click here for free access to the book’s full text.