From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- ellipsis, Harold Pinter, pause, silence
- "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place. When true silence falls we are left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." --Samuel Beckett
Harold Pinter is famous for his "Pinter pause" which presents a subtly elliptical dialogue; often the primary things characters should address is replaced by ellipsis or dashes. The following exchange between Aston and Davies in The Caretaker is typical of Pinter:
- ASTON. More or less exactly what you...
- DAVIES. That's it ... that's what I'm getting at is ... I mean, what sort of jobs ... (Pause.)
- ASTON. Well, there's things like the stairs ... and the ... the bells ...
- DAVIES. But it'd be a matter ... wouldn't it ... it'd be a matter of a broom ... isn't it?
The "Pinter pause"
One of the "two silences"–when Pinter's stage directions indicate pause and silence when his characters are not speaking at all–has become a "trademark" of Pinter's dialogue called the "Pinter pause": "During the 1960s, Pinter became famous–nay, notorious–for his trademark: 'The Pinter pause' " (Filichia). Actors and directors often find Pinter's "pauses and silences" to be daunting elements of performing his plays, leading to much discussion of them in theatrical and dramatic criticism, and actors who have worked with Pinter in rehearsals have "reported that he regretted ever starting to write 'Pause' as a stage direction, because it often leads to portentous overacting" (Jacobson). Speaking about their experiences of working with Pinter in rehearsing director Carey Perloff's 1989 double bill of The Birthday Party and Mountain Language (for Classic Stage Company), American actors David Strathairn and Peter Riegert agreed with Jean Stapleton that "Pinter's comments … 'freed' the cast from feeling reverential about his pauses," and, while Strathairn "believes pauses can be overdone," he also "thinks Pinter's are distinctive: 'The natural ones always seem to be right where he wrote them. His pause or beat comes naturally in the rhythm of the conversation. [As an actor, you] find yourself pausing in mid-sentence, thinking about what you just said or are going to say.…' " Perloff said: "He didn't want them weighted that much. … He kept laughing that everybody made such a big deal about it.' He wanted them honored, she said, but not as 'these long, heavy, psychological pauses, where people look at each other filled with pregnant meaning' " (Jacobson).
More recently, in an article elliptically headlined "Cut the Pauses … Says Pinter", a London Sunday Times television program announcement for Harry Burton's documentary film Working With Pinter, Olivia Cole observes that he "made brooding silence into an art form, but after 50 years Harold Pinter has said directors should be free to cut his trademark pauses if they want.…" In Working With Pinter (shown on British television's More 4 in February 2007), Cole writes, Pinter "says he has been misunderstood. He maintains that while others detected disturbing undertones, he merely intended basic stage directions" in writing "pause" and "silence". She quotes Pinter's remarks from Working With Pinter:
- "These damn silences and pauses are all to do with what's going on … and if they don't make any sense, then I always say cut them. I think they've been taken much too far these silences and pauses in my plays. I've really been extremely depressed when I've seen productions in which a silence happens because it says silence or a pause happens because it says pause. And it's totally artificial and meaningless.
- When I myself act in my own plays, which I have occasionally, I've cut half of them, actually.
Exemplifying the frequency and relative duration of pauses in Pinter's plays, Cole observes that "Pinter wrote 140 pauses into his work Betrayal, 149 into The Caretaker and 224 into The Homecoming. The longest are typically 10 seconds."
Pinter's having encouraged actors to "cut" his pauses and silences–with the important qualification "if they don't make any sense" (elided in Cole's headline)–has "bemused directors", according to Cole, who quotes Pinter's longtime friend and director Sir Peter Hall as saying "that it would be a 'failure' for a director or actor to ignore the pauses":
- "A pause in Pinter is as important as a line. They are all there for a reason. Three dots is a hesitation, a pause is a fairly mundane crisis and a silence is some sort of crisis.
- Beckett started it and Harold took it over to express that which is inexpressible in a very original and particular way, and made them something which is his.…
Cole concludes that Sir Peter added, however, that, in Working With Pinter, Pinter "was right to criticise productions in which actors were fetishising their pauses".
Quoting J. Barry Lewis, the director of a recent production of Betrayal, by Palm Beach Dramaworks, Lisa Cohen observes that Pinter has "even entered popular culture with what is called 'the Pinter pause,' a term that describes … those silent moments 'filled with unspoken dialogue' that occur throughout his plays".