Pinter's London: no man's land
Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve, was essentially a London writer. It's not just that he was born and bred here - my mother remembers seeing him play Macbeth at school in Hackney. But he also drew on an intimate sense of the city in a way that gave his plays an apparent fixity and also released them into a daring poetic space.
In one sense, Pinter's London is a map of social aspiration, possibly his own. The early plays, of the 1950s and 60s, travel out from the grimy east end and unglamorous fringes of the city to the placid suburbs where (in The Lover) life can only be relieved by pretend adultery. Later plays inhabit the dauntingly posh enclaves: literary Hampstead, glitzy restaurants. Who fits in and who is excluded - often viciously - is a recurring question, and place names have bite in a city where your postcode fixes you in a mesh of class and economic indicators.
What sets Pinter's work apart from other London playwrights? His dialogue can be brilliantly funny - incongruous and more pleasurable than is often acknowledged. But he doesn't much share the habit of mining mundane English place names for comic potential (in Ackybourn's The Norman Conquests, for example, guffaws are raised every time East Grinstead is proposed as a hot spot for an assignation). There's also a long, bustling tradition of London plays set in public, commercial places - the taverns of Falstaff's Eastcheap, the streets of Middleton's mercantile comedies, the parks and coffee houses of Restoration comedy. Samuel Adamson's Southwark Fair revisited this pattern in 2006, with strangers in the city making random connections and crossing wires around London's South Bank.
Pinter's plays, however, almost exclusively take place in private rooms: the outside world is constantly mentioned, but until it comes to seem almost phantasmagoric. Davies in The Caretaker insists on his trudging progress through north-west London, in which everything came to grief after he lost his papers in Sidcup. Since then he has been unmoored, a troubled shadow of a man who may have lived in Shoreditch, Aldgate, Putney or the Caledonian Road. The remembered 'lovely London' of Old Times functions as a manipulative nostalgia, as Anna and Deeley compete to define Kate's memories: 'Don't tell me you've forgotten our days at the Tate?'Spivvy Lenny in The Homecoming operates a scatter of demi-criminal schemes from girls in Greek Street to an unspecified survey of North Paddington, while his uncle traces the city from the confines of his cab: the town is a confusing blur of pinpricks compared to the clammy, irresistible notion of home.
The more the city is invoked, the less real it seems. In Pinter's late plays, the setting is often an unnamed totalitarian state, but the toxic chatter of Party Time or Celebration also draws on the contemptuous assurance of boomtime London. Its energy is shallow and greedy, disdainful of the wider world.
Pinter's city isn't lifted from the A-Z, of course - it's a topography of the imagination. Anna's youthful bohemia, Lenny's eye for a convenient bombsite, the publishing world in Betrayal: each, like Hirst's Hampstead mansion, is a theatrical no man's land. Each is a place for painful negotiation, somewhere to assert a fading identity. In Pinter's London plays, talismanic nuggets of the actual metropolitan world lose conviction, and the characters are left without maps, fixed only in the words they speak and their presence on stage.
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