Several working-class straight men are sharing a flat in London, all leading what seem like tedious and despairing lives. Suddenly, a man who used to be one of them comes home to visit, and brings his new and attractive wife. It feels like she's the first woman they've encountered in years. One of them offers to pour her a glass of scotch.
SHE: Rocks? What would you know about rocks?
HE: We have rocks, but they're frozen stiff in the fridge.
This joke is all I remember of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, but it's enough. The whole play is right there. As soon as you recognise that rocks = testicles, you've got the big payoff, but as in both fireworks and sex, the significance of the big explosion relies on the little explosions all around it. (Perhaps I should just call them plosions, as they are really both ex- and im-.)
I don't have Pinter's texts with me at home in Sydney, and have scarcely looked at them for a decade. Today, reading of his death, I marvel at how much of it is still in my head, remembered the way one remembers great passages of poetry. Yet most of Pinter is not poetic. Poetry requires at least the pretense of a subject, an observing and experiencing consciousness; in Pinter, there are always at least two people in the room, and his subject is not their consciousness but the tightly-stretched cord of mutual dependence that stretches between them, throbbing.
The Pinter play that sticks with me best is Old Times. A married couple are visited by a third woman, a very close friend of the wife from the years before she met him. Was it a lesbian relationship? Pinter uses that uncertainty to unfold deeper ones, so that by the end the question seems trivial and reductive, like reducing Buddhism to the question of whether to eat meat.
Here's the opening, also from my memory. The couple at home in the livingroom, sitting apart:
HE: Fat or thin?
SHE: Fuller than me I think.
HE: She was then?
SHE: I think so.
HE: She may not be now.
Again, it's all there. The other woman's place in the wife's memories, her husband's relentless curiosity about those years, his desire to conquer and own them. Failing that, his need to build the wall between then and now, to defend his turf.
The other woman turns out to be lively, extroverted, and powerful, quite the opposite of the wife, so it's this woman who tells most of the stories about their time together ("Queueing all night -- the rain! -- do you remember?") But finally, near the end, the wife turns to her and says: "But I remember you. I remember you dead." From this unfolds a soliloquy in which she remembers sitting naked by the dead woman, watching her decompose, feeling "that by dying alone and dirty you had acted with proper decorum."
I haven't spoiled the ending, because there isn't one. After all, the "dead" woman is there, in front of us, looking not just alive but lively. The sense that this play makes lies outside the play's events, in the cords that form the triangle without which none of these people could exist at all.
I'm not usually very interested in love triangles, but Old Times is the play I would most want to direct if I ever went back to directing. It is Pinter at his best, and at his least political. If you feel like reading a play to remember him, read it.