With a strange sense of personal loss, I just read an obituary for Harold Pinter, one of England’s preeminent modern playwrights, who died on Christmas Eve. More years ago than I care to count, I directed his one-act masterpiece, “The Dumbwaiter,” during a six-month project in London.
To find out how English actors and directors learn their craft, I signed up for a semester at Studio 68, a London school for theater professionals. Curiously, our imperious artistic director, Robert Henderson, an American, was also a personal friend of Pinter’s. He assigned me to direct Pinter’s one-act masterpiece, “The Dumbwaiter,” for a downtown production and cast two of his students in the two roles.
The absurdist story captures Pinter’s lifelong pacifism. In a claustrophobic bedroom two assassins wait to receive orders, delivered on a dumbwaiter, from their mysterious leader. The orders tell them whom they’re supposed to kill next. Henderson gave us one supreme commandment: “When the script says ‘pause,’ you pause; when it does not say 'pause,' you don’t pause.” He insisted that the commandment came from Pinter himself (almost as if delivered via dumbwaiter).
Pinter’s style, now dubbed “Pinter-esque,” features pregnant pauses but is also marked by monosyllabic and repetitious lines that an audience has to read between. The effect bypasses language to get into the minds of Pinter’s characters. Thus Pinter dialogue becomes the poor-man’s eloquence.
My two actors and I faced the challenge bravely. At first I hammered on Henderson’s demand about pausing, but soon the actors rebelled. It was hard enough, they said, to learn the peculiar lines. But learning the pauses was damn near impossible. Fortunately our production, pauses be damned, came off, even drawing a favorable review from our lone newspaper critic, who liked everything except the set.
So as a tribute to one of the last century’s most influential playwrights, I submit that his creation has been great enough to survive what we did to one of his gems.