A Thematic Survey of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land

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The classification of Pinter as a member of the group called the ‘angry young men’ has only a chronological validity. He emerged at about the same time as Osborne, Wesker, Kops, Alun Owen and John Arden, to mention only the best-known of mat group of young dramatists who were born around 1930 and who came to the forefront after 1956. These were the dramatists who replaced the middle-class idiom, which had dominated the British stage, with regional and lower-class vernaculars of various kinds and thereby, initially, shocked many of the older critics and theatre-goers. Yet, apart from this superficial family resemblance, each of these dramatists pursued totally different aims and showed different basic attitudes. While some of the members of this group failed to fulfil their early promise for various reasons, Pinter has remained in the forefront of contemporary dramatists and has steadily consolidated his position. He has made a genuine contribution to contemporary drama, to its style, idiom, subject-matter, and flavour.

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Pinter’s some of early plays are trial runs; his revue sketches are no more than exercises in the technique of dialogue; some of the radio and television plays were tailored to the needs of the media and their mass audiences. A Slight Ache, A Night Out. and Night School are highly efficient and amusing examples of professional craftsmanship; Tea Party was written for a specific project involving a vast international audience; yet other television plays, notably The Collection, The Lover, and Basement do achieve at least some degree of that higher level of communication. His major claims must, however, rest on his best work for the stage: The Dumb Waiter among his first efforts; and his impressive list of full-length plays: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times, No Man’s Land, Betrayal; and the short lyrical pieces, Landscape, Silence, and A Kind of Alaska.

The play under discussion here, No Man’s Land, is in two acts and is set in a room in the comfortable London home of Hirst, a successful writer in his sixties. On a summer night, Hirst has invited another elderly man Spooner, also in his sixties, to come in and have a drink. Spooner is evidently in impoverished circumstances, though he talks boastfully about his past and is also at the same time extremely inquisitive about Hirst’s circumstances. Hirst is already drunk, but he is continuing to drink.

Spooner, who claims to be a poet, talks a good deal about his inner strength which, he says, is derived from his detachment from human emotion. For instance, he says, “I have never been loved. From this I derive my strength.” He also claims to be a free man because of this detachment from human emotions. To this Hirst replies, “It’s a long time since we had a free man in this house.” From this remark it appears that Hirst considers himself not a free man and that there are others in this house. Spooner now boasts of having been a friend and guide to poets in the past and of having kept open house for them in a country cottage where he lived in great happiness with a gracious wife. Hirst thereupon says that he too used to offer his generosity to visitors on the lawn at his cottage. Thus for both men a country cottage with tea on the lawn is an image of a lost golden past, an age of innocence now gone. Yet when Spooner probes Hirst’s claim that Hirst was once married and asks him to describe his wife, Hirst merely replies, “What wife?” In fact, Hirst becomes so angry at Spooner’s question that he throws his glass at him.

Having gained something like an entry into Hirst’s inner life, Spooner now offers himself to Hirst as a friend. Hirst’s reply contains the first reference to the play’s title, “No. No man’s land does not move or change or grow old remains for ever icy silent.” After having spoken these words, Hirst falls to the floor and finally crawls out of the room on his feet and hands. Spooner thereupon says, “I have known this before. The exit through the door, by way of belly and floor.”

Now, as in so many of Pinter’s earlier plays, we experience the terror aroused by the appearance of a new and mysterious character. This character is a young man in his thirties. His name is Foster. Foster is soon joined by Briggs who is older than Foster. Briggs recognizes Spooner as the man who collects the beer-mugs from the tables in a pub. Spooner protests, saying that he does that humble job merely because the owner of that pub is his friend. Having been exposed as no better than a tramp, Spooner invites die two men who are harassing him to visit him in the country where they would receive a warm welcome from his gracious wife and his two daughters. Hirst now reappears, and begins drinking with the three other men already there. Hirst asks who this man Spooner is. Hirst has evidently forgotten that it was he himself who had brought Spooner into the house. Hirst begins to talk about people whom he knew in the past and whose faces he has preserved in an album of photographs. Suddenly Hirst has become very talkative. He now recalls a recent dream about a waterfall in which someone was drowning, and asks who that someone could be. Spooner replies, “It was I drowning in your dream.” Hirst thereupon falls to the floor. When Hirst regains consciousness, Briggs harshly leads him out of the room. Foster also leaves, turning out the light, so that Spooner alone remains behind in total darkness.

Act II opens on the next morning. Spooner is locked in the room. Briggs serves him a sumptuous breakfast which had been prepared for Hirst’s financial adviser who had failed to turn up. When asked by Spooner who the cook is in the house, Briggs confirms that he and Foster are the only servants, “We share all burdens.” Briggs then tells a long story of how he had met Foster when standing at a street corner and how Foster in a car, had asked him the way to a street which was part of a one-way system so complex that once one enters a street of that kind one is trapped there forever. When Spooner has finished his breakfast, Hirst briskly enters the room. Hirst now behaves as if Spooner were one of his oldest friends. Hurst orders Briggs to leave them alone, where-upon Briggs leaves. There follows a long account of reminiscences about Hirst’s and Spooner’s time at Oxford University and their amorous adventures before the war.

Hirst, it appears, had developed a love-affair with Spooner’s wife, Emily. Spooner retorts by revealing a number of occasions on which he had deceived Hirst. When Spooner also questions Hirst’s literary abilities, Hirst feels greatly annoyed. And as he begins to pour whisky down his throat, Hirst begins again to speak about the faces in his album of photographs. Briggs harshly interrupts Hirst’s reminiscences, and it becomes increasingly clear that Hirst is a prisoner in his own house. Foster appears and orders Hirst to go on his morning walk. Hirst feebly refuses. Spooner here sees an opening for himself. He offers to help Hirst with his literary work and says, “Let me live with you and be your Secretary.” But Hirst pays no heed to him, and says, “Let us change the subject.” At this point Briggs and Foster finally impose their will on Hirst In a strange poetic passage it is said mat it is now winter and that this winter will last forever. This idea is repeated in a kind of incantation, as in a religious ritual. Hirst is, as it were, entombed in the no man’s land between life and death. Once more Hirst recalls the dream about someone who was drowned. And Spooner, who has been silent throughout the whole ritual passage, agrees, saying, “You are in no man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent” Hirst says, “I’ll drink to that.” Hirst drinks and the play come to an end.

Superficially, this play gives reverberations of some of Pinter’s basic situations. Like Davies, at the end of The Caretaker, Spooner’s hopes of gaining a foothold in a new home are defeated. As in Old Times a duel of wits is conducted in terms of a spurious reminiscence topping another. Briggs and Foster is a couple of brutal gangsters like Ben and Gus of The Dumb Waiter, like Goldberg and McCann of The Birthday Party, or like Lenny and Joey in The Homecoming. But, on a closer examination, we find that the plot and the characters serve a wholly different purpose in No Man’s Land. So the skeleton of the aforesaid characters has been only given new flesh and blood in this play.

It can thus safely be said that, No Man’s Land deals with a social situation, that of a successful and rich aging literary figure who lives with his servants, being dependent on them, and gradually becomes their slave. This situation is aggravated by the suggestion that the master is a homosexual dependent on his servants hot only for domestic service but also for erotic services. There are suggestions that Foster was procured for Hirst by Briggs. Brigg’s long speech which describes how Foster asked him the way into the one-way system of a street, from which, once one enters it, there is no escape, has its bearing on this aspect of the plot Hirst, Briggs, and Foster have become, as they clearly state, a family. Inside that family there may be tension, even hatred and cruelty but it is a family still, a family or a team. Incidentally, the names of all the four characters in the play are those of famous international cricket players. Pinter has himself confirmed this fact. There is thus the tension of a cricket match in the play; and cricket is a game of subtle positioning and indirect approaches; and a game dependent on immense stamina and team spirit. Hirst, Foster, and Briggs have to defend themselves against a powerful and subtle intruder, namely Spooner.

In this play the past of country houses, wives and daughters, and tea in the afternoon is clearly an attempt by Hirst to construct an image of an alternative lifestyle and by Spooner to find a common ground with the man whose friendship he seeks. It is when, in the duel of reminiscences, Spooner is carried away into asserting his superiority over Hirst, that Hirst realizes that Spooner, if taken into the household, would become as domineering as Briggs and Foster. And that is the reason why Hirst rejects him.

In another way No Man’s Land also projects and explores the fear of old age. Hirst’s situation is that of an old successful writer whose marriage has failed, or who has never been married, and who is condemned to a lonely old age, the prisoner of his domestic servants, with liquor as his only comfort. Spooner also has grown old, his marriage too having failed or having never taken place; but he is unsuccessful and poor. Spooner is a free man longing for the bondage of a home, while Hirst is the prisoner of his domestic situation, trying to break out into freedom but unable to muster the courage to break his bonds. Throughout a man’s life there remains at least the possibility of choice as long as some of youth’s flexibility is available. But there comes a point, with the coming of old age, when that possibility disappears. Then life freezes into the endless winter of the “No Man’s Land” between life and death.

Thus, Harold Pintar has confined his truly personal writing to work for which he feels a real creative need. In other words, he has not felt compelled to write stage-plays merely for the sake of a livelihood, because he has been able to earn enough money by his skill as an actor and director and also by his ability to adapt other writers’ novels for the screen. He has always shown a complete devotion to the demands of his work and has been able to maintain his integrity as a writer.

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