By Lydia Stryk
I almost met Harold Pinter several years ago.
An actor I was visiting in the National Theatre canteen was on rehearsal
break from a Pinter play which Pinter was directing. I could easily
have asked to meet the man. I longed to meet him. No doubt, because
he was a kind man, he would not have refused a worshipful playwright
a moment of his time, however American she may have been.
But what would I have said? The scenario, as
I imagine it--had I asked and received that moment with Pinter--goes
like this: I enter the room, he turns to face me. My eyes grow large,
and rejecting his outstretched hand, I fall on to his breast, sink down
onto my knees in an act of penance, and begin to sob--burning convulsive
sobs without end.
There were no words, and they are no easier to
come by today, knowing he is gone forever.
It's funny to discover, in tribute after tribute,
that a large number of those who love Pinter love The Caretaker
best. Turns out, we're all alike. But then, it's no surprise. Not only
is it the greatest contemporary metaphorical play--that smashed Buddha--but
it also contains one of the great comic roles of all times in the homeless
tramp, Davies. If you saw Michael Gambon in the role you died and went
to heaven that night like I did.
This beloved play that asks (among boundless
questions) just what we expect from those upon whom we extend our compassion,
just who we think we are to insist on gratitude in this bloody unjust
world, also prefigures the sad reality that nothing Pinter did for the
theater world has been paid back with thanks. I don't mean the thanks
of fame and honors. He had those aplenty. But the reward of our learning
and heeding. He took care that the theater should be a place of metaphor.
He took care of the poetry. He took care of the discomfort. And mostly
he presided over the mystery--understanding that what is mysterious
is meaning and that nothing less than meaning belonged in the theater.
Without these things, the theater, like the setting
of that fierce play of his, will be left a vacant building filled with
And in this way and many others, but in this
way most tragically, his watchful presence is irreplaceable.
Ed. Note: A version of this article originally
appeared in The Brooklyn Rail.