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The Mistiness of the Past

by Susan Hollis Merritt

Critics have observed that time, particularly memory of past time, is central to Pinter’s work. Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington has remarked that “Memory is almost the key to Pinter’s whole work as an artist.” In Harold Pinter Billington observes that “the omnipresent power of memory is the defining theme of [Pinter’s] plays”:

Pinter’s characters live as much in the past as in the present, and are haunted by a recollection, however fallible, manipulative or imaginary, of some lost and vanished world in which everything was secure, certain, fixed. […] Memory is what gives his work its strong emotional undertow. It also, in an age of historical amnesia, motivates a lot of his political thinking.

Dubbed by critics one of Pinter’s “memory plays,” Old Times focuses on how the past encroaches on what happens in the present and affects what may happen in the future. “Thematically,” Martin Esslin pointed out, Pinter explored “the operation of memory: the way in which the passage of time changes our perception of what the past was like and what we were like—who we were—in that past.” Dramatic complications arise from his characters’ disparate, conflicting, and fallible memories of romantic love and sex, often deployed as weapons in battles waged on the shifting turf, the “quicksand,” of time.

Sir Peter Hall, the first director of Old Times in London and New York, has written: “I believe that Pinter is essentially a poetic dramatist. He and Beckett have brought metaphor back to the theatre, where Eliot and Auden failed.” Pinter’s eclectic “poetic” imagery relating to time and memory forms confluences, like rivers joining together, intersecting and (to shift the metaphor to a photographic/cinematic one) supplying him with filters for his own life experiences (biographical sources documented in Billington’s Harold Pinter and in Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter). Such confluences alsom inspired innovative and cinematic uses of time in his plays: flashbacks, flashforwards, freezes, tableaux vivants, montages, jump cuts, voice overs, echoes, and various amalgams of these dramatic techniques.

In Pinter’s “memory plays” one hears reverberations of the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets (1935):

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in
time future,
And time future contained in
time past.

Pinter echoed Eliot’s imagery during his “conversation” with Mel Gussow about Old Times, in December 1971, when he and Peter Hall worked in rehearsals with a new cast, as they readied the play for its first New York production. Agreeing that “the past” had become “much more of an artistic concern” for him by then, Pinter observed: “I think I’m more conscious of a kind of everpresent quality in life. […] I certainly feel more and more that the past is not past, that it never was past. It’s present. […] I know the future is simply going to be the same thing. It’ll never end. You carry all the states with you until the end.” Embarking on “the most difficult task” of his life, Pinter would spend the next year, in collaboration with film director Joseph Losey, adapting Marcel Proust’s massive novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) into The Proust Screenplay (1972); later he and director Di Trevis adapted his screenplay to the stage as Remembrance of Things Past (2000). As Billington noted, Proust’s “ideas about time, memory and the importance of art in many ways coincided with [Pinter’s] own.”

“What interests me a great deal is the mistiness of the past,” Pinter told Gussow, echoing also the imagery of John Webster, who was, along with William Shakespeare and Cyril Tourneur, one of Pinter’s favorite Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights. Characters’ “misty” reminiscences about the past (“old times”)—“The memory of all that” (a line from George and Ira Gershwin’s popular romantic tune “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” sung by Deeley during his second act dueling duet with Anna)—are ultimately unverifiable in Pinter’s plays, just as memories often are in life. The past becomes embattled territory, as memories of “time past” take place in “time present.” As Kate, Deeley, and Anna “remember” old times, their vying reconstructions of the past occupy present time and space on stage. Pinter told Gussow, “It happens. It all happens.”

Anna’s and Kate’s “shared” past experiences—whatever they may have been— encroach on Kate’s present life with Deeley, even though Anna’s and Deeley’s pasts may or may not ever have intersected. In a cinematic jump cut, when Anna suddenly “appears” as her “figure” turns and enters the action, she becomes the “intruder” (recalling Pinter’s earlier “comedies of menace”). Her entrance marks a cataclysmic moment in Kate’s and Deeley’s marriage. Like an earthquake, Anna’s visit figuratively exposes faults, weaknesses in their relationship. But she also serves as a catalyst for possible future change.

Pinter considered Old Times “structurally the most satisfying work” he had done by that time. At the end Deeley (re)enacts in the present the scene that Anna describes in Act One, imaged in the play’s initial tableau: the man “slumped” in the armchair 20 years earlier. As he sobs, Deeley is experiencing his comeuppance; he has become “odd man out.” His final heartbreak results from recognizing catastrophic fault lines in his marriage to Kate, its past and current instability; its foundation in a past “reality” not at all what he has assumed all these years, but rather “a quicksand” in which they have been sinking, drowning, suffocating, and out of which Kate may pull only herself at the play’s end. When the “Lights” come “up full sharply,” that “Very bright” light provides a final moment of reckoning and recognition. That “highly ambiguous” denouement leaves important matters unresolved for Pinter’s audiences. We must contemplate that final tableau “sharply”—in Pinter’s words (to Gussow), “as clearly as possible, and without a kind of falsity which is sentimentality.” In “light” of our misty “memory of all that”—our own “old times,” we may find dramatic “truths” about our own lives and relationships in times present and future.

Susan Hollis Merritt is the author of Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and The Plays of Harold Pinter and the Bibliographical Editor of The Pinter Review.

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