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I saw The Collection a long time ago in New York and I remember loving the play. I had already read The Lover when I was in college, but I didn’t understand it. Well, I’ve had enough relationships since then to understand it now. There are some plays you just shouldn’t do until you’ve been out in the world. These are probably two of them.
These two pieces are early Pinter, written in the early 1960s, but they already contain all of Pinter’s great, mature themes. Foremost is his knowledge of the manner in which all of our personal relationships are continually negotiated, every second of the day. Pinter’s characters are always seeking control, negotiating power—this is his great preoccupation, I think—and he does it here with tremendous economy, intelligence and surprise. These two plays ask questions that are ultimately irresolvable, even though all the relationships change on a fundamental level.
The Lover is about a young married couple who live in a suburb outside of London. He goes to work in the City every day and she stays home. The surprise comes in the very first scene. Getting ready to go to work, he asks his wife if her lover is coming today. She says, “Mmm.” And he leaves. And that’s the beginning of the set of puzzles in that play. The Collection is about two more couples, one married for two years, and the other, which was quite surprising for the time, a gay couple. They are clearly a couple—it’s never mentioned, but the intent is clear—an older, wealthier man and a younger guy from the other side of the tracks. The mystery of the play is a story that is told about a hotel room in Leeds. It motivates all of the action and the dynamics of all the relationships. I think it’s an extraordinary piece.
The manner in which Pinter depicts role-playing in both plays strikes me as extremely Sixties, the very beginnings of the sexual revolution. The characters— straight as well as gay—have a closeted attitude toward their own desires. We’ve kept it in the Sixties, but it’s not the mod Sixties or the swinging counterculture. It’s really about what’s going on with the characters.
The thing that makes Pinter such a modern master, in my mind, is the way he uses language. He creates a specific rhythm using language and silences, and it becomes the music of the play as well as the content—a score that a truly skillful actor can play, hinting at what lies beneath the spoken word. In my opinion, there is a direct line from Oscar Wilde to Noël Coward to Harold Pinter. All three writers have the same brilliant economy with language. In Wilde, everyone says the opposite of what you’d expect; in Coward, the deepest feelings receive the most casual language; in Pinter, the silence becomes pregnant with meaning. It’s funny but serious, smart, mysterious, surprising, ambiguous. There is real danger in these plays as well, and I’m looking forward to making sure that’s there.
I hope to see you at the theatre.