The Birhday Party

Drama Review – Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter

When I read the list of characters in Ashes to Ashes I felt flattered. The great Harold Pinter imitated me. He also crafted a play encompassing only two characters. Unfortunately for yours truly, all the similarities between the two of us end there. Works such as Ashes to Ashes show why Pinter earned the Nobel Prize in literature; becoming the only British playwright to be so honored. (Shaw and his hero Beckett were Irish.) And this play isn’t even his best. It still bears the hallmarks of an outstanding Pinter drama.

I remember a lyric David Gilmour included in Pink Floyd’s “Sorrow”: “There’s silence that speaks so much louder than words.” I’m wondering if he read Pinter at the time he wrote it. Pinter wouldn’t be Pinter without including pauses throughout the text. They’re one of the very few stage directions he included in his work. He used them rather liberally as in this exchange.

Rebecca: Oh yes. I kissed his fist. The knuckles. And then he’d open his hand and give me the palm of his hand…to kiss…which I kissed.
And then I would speak.
Devlin: What did you say? You said what? What did you say?
Rebecca: I said “put your hand round my throat.” I murmured it through his hand, as I was kissing it, but he heard my voice, he heard it through his hand, he felt my voice in his hand, he heard it there.
(Silence) (Page 5)

And this is the beginning of the play.

WOW! What a method to draw attention to great dialog. The interesting thing is that the pauses and silences are just as important to the text as the dialog. Pinter used them in a way comparable to how a composer would use a rest in music.

Ashes to Ashes atypically included a line that stood out to me.

Devlin: A man who doesn’t give a shit.
A man with a rigid sense of duty.
There’s no contradiction between those last two statements. Believe me.
Do you follow the drift of my argument? (Page 47)

I don’t, but this gave me something to work on if I chose to do explications du texte again.

Another section that showed Pinter’s genius occurred when Rebecca discussed a divorced couple she knew. Devlin asked her questions that she ducked. Pinter could’ve easily resorted to his pauses and silences to convey that. Instead, he used clever dialog with the pauses added at critical times in the conversation.

Rebecca: (…) He says he misses the kids.
Devlin: Does he miss his wife?
Rebecca: He says he’s given the other one up. He says it was never serious, you know, it was only sex.
Devlin: Ah.
And Kim?
And Kim?
Rebecca: She’ll never have him back. Never. She says she’ll never share a bed with him again. Never. Ever.
Devlin: Why not?
Rebecca: Never ever.
Devlin: Buy why not?
Rebecca: Of course I saw Kim and the kids. I had tea with them. Why did you ask? Did you think I didn’t see them? (Page 61)

Dialog like that shows why people like Harold Pinter win Nobel Prizes and people like me can only admire them. I think I’m going to leave the writing plays with only two characters to him.

The Royal Court Theater first performed Ashes to Ashes in 1996. The strength of Pinter’s writing at this stage of his career impressed me. While an outstanding play in its own right, Ashes to Ashes doesn’t compare with the quality of Pinter’s earlier works. With the exception of Shakespeare’s plays, The Birthday Party and Betrayal were the best dramatic works written in the English language. The man’s talent was quantum. Ashes to Ashes would serve as a good introduction to his plays.