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Pinter in Progression

Three Plays by Harold Pinter: Night School, Landscape, and Silence at the Loeb March 7-10

By Merrick Garland

NIGHT SCHOOL, LANDSCAPE and Silence are three very disturbing plays, and it is to the credit of their director and excellent casts that each play is progressively more disturbing than the last.

According to director Sarah Stearns, the three performances are the product of a "correlated effort...to progressively dissolve the naturalistic structures" of theater until the bare bones of words and set are left. In addition to successfully presenting that progression, however, the plays present a second, more important one: a progression toward the complete isolation of human beings from each other.

Night School, originally written for television, has a relatively simple plot. A young man, Walter, returns from prison and is welcomed by his three doting aunts. Hesitantly they tell him, to his shock and anger, that his old room has been rented out to a pretty, young school teacher, Sally Gibbs, who is so industrious that she also attends night school.

Prowling into Sally's room, Walter finds a picture of her in a night-club outfit, suggesting that her "night school" is really a bar. He immediately asks an acquaintance to try to find out more, and soon finds himself growing attracted to Sally. Just as it seems they may fall in love, she learns that he has found her picture, and leaves the house forever.

In terms of plot and set, the play is largely conventional. More important, the play is a bit too Pinteresque to be good Pinter. It is as if he had merely rearranged bits of other plays to create a "well made" Pinter play. The aunts are the image of the Birthday Party's Meg. Sally's ambiguous character (school teacher or whore?) is reminiscent of The Homecoming's Ruth. And even the theme of the struggle for a room of one's own is an old favorite (The Room).

YET, WHEN COUPLED with the other two plays, Night School assumes a new importance. The struggle for the room no longer is the key theme. Now the key is the isolation of Walter. He had his chance "to connect" with another, to love Sally, yet that chance is ripped away when she leaves. The program's common theme of isolation is here first in its clearest, yet ultimately least satisfying form.

The inadequacies of Night School, however, are the fault of Pinter, not of the Loeb's cast, which is largely distinguished. Cynthia Whitman, playing the ambiguous character of Sally, is a standout, as are Katherine Wenger and Darcy Pulliam, the two doting aunts who together have some of the funniest lines in all of Pinter's works.

Night School is followed by Landscape. The scene now, the kitchen of a country house, with a woman and man sitting at the opposite ends of a long table. The script reads: "Duff refers normally to Beth, but does not appear to hear her voice. Beth never looks at Duff and does not appear to hear his voice."

Duff and Beth each recite a soliloquy, inter-cut with that of the other. Duff's is a vulgar one, talking mostly of events of the past few days, but often reminiscing about the past, and occasionally addressing Beth: "Do you like me to talk to you? Mmmm, I think you do." Beth's soliloquy is lyrically sensual, consisting totally of her memories (fantasies?) of a sandy beach where she lay with her lover in the distant past.

From Duff we slowly learn that he and Beth are married, and once worked as domestic servants for a man named Sykes, who has died and left them the house in which they sit. Yet, much is unclear: was Beth's lover Sykes, Duff, or another--or was he just a fantasy? And why do the couple no longer speak to each other? All that is clear is that their lives now consist mainly of memories, of images revived from their past.

MOST IMPORTANT is their isolation from each other. Duff's words hold the supreme irony: "We're together, that's what matters." In Landscape we watch Pinter portray the inability of humans to communicate with each other, not in a play with "whole" characters possessing relatively clear motives who at least talk to each other--as in Night School--but in two monologues, delivered by people whose past is for us largely an inseparable mixture of fact and fantasy, and whose motives are unknown.

Silence, the last play and one traditionally performed with Landscape, opens with two men and a woman seated in chairs. Again we are presented with a series of inter-cut prose-poems, telling of past events. The woman speaks of relationships with two men, and each man talks of his relationships with an unknown woman.

The ambiguity is greater now. Is each simply describing his or her relationship with the other, so that we see the same relationship from three points of view, or are these three unrelated individuals? Moreover, the play is not bound in a present that remembers the past, but rather mingles past, present and future together, interspersing flashbacks with reminiscences.

With Silence, the dissolution of naturalistic play structures is complete. In Night School we had a "plot" a conventional set and recognizable characters. In Landscape, at least we knew Duff and Beth were married, and knew a little of their past. With his Landscape set, Franco Colavecchia did what Pinter did with words, creating the impression of a country kitchen with only the barest of sets: a table, two chairs, side walls and a hanging wall fragment at the rear.

But in Silence we know nothing. We are cast into an ethereal world of past, present, and future, with only Colavecchia's dark and almost frightening black back-drop as a set.

MOREOVER, THE PROGRESS of human isolation is now complete as well. In Night School, though he loses Sally, Walter remains "connected," if only to his aunts. In Landscape, at least Duff and Beth are physically in the same room. Now, in Silence, each sits in a chair in his own separate area (distinguished by three wooden "floors"), totally isolated from the others, except in flashbacks depicting past relationships.

The casts of Landscape and Silence are each excellent, the more so considering the difficulty of the plays. Following Samuel Beckett, Pinter has stripped away all that is unnecessary, so that every word--and more importantly every silence--is crucial. Indeed, the high quality of these plays is best found in the intensity of their silences.

Still, the greatest plaudits must go to the director, Sarah Stearns for bringing these three plays together, for in so doing she has made theater a dynamic event, progressing in two dimensions at once. The Loeb production lets us watch Pinter push his theme of human separation to the limit, and at the same time successfully strip the medium conveying that theme to its barest essentials.

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