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Psychological Warfare in the Plays of Harold Pinter

Psychological Warfare in the Plays of Harold Pinter

Dialogue between characters in Pinter’s plays can often seem enigmatic, and its purpose obscure, but it becomes less so when we realise that as often as not a battle is taking place between the characters, and that identifiable strategies are being employed. I would like to consider some of those battles, particularly in The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times, and No Man’s Land, in the light of Pinter’s short story The Examination, which depicts an archetypal Pinter battle.

The Examination

From a reading of The Examination I suggest that the person wishing to gain and maintain a dominant position must:

1) Ensure that his opponent is playing the same game, accepting the same parameters of the situation as himself.

2) Be able to influence his opponent’s behaviour.

3) Maintain control of the territory, including the objects and furniture in the room, and the features of the room.

4) Observe his opponent closely, and try to understand and predict his behaviour.

5) Cause his opponent to give away clues about how he is faring in the battle.

6) Cause his opponent to display his need for ‘the situation’.

7) Cause the opponent to acknowledge that he (the dominant player) is dominant.

8) Conceal his own fears from the opponent’s observation.

9) Make as few remarks and requests for verification as possible.

The subservient partner, wishing to undermine his opponent’s dominance and achieve dominance himself, can employed the following techniques.

1) Silence, especially that which is ‘too deep for echo’. [p. 63]

2) Unpredictable behaviour.

3) Indifference; avoidance of expressions of desire or displeasure.

4) Isolating the opponent (through silence), refusing to confirm that he is involved in the same situation as the opponent.

5) Fooling the opponent by causing him to draw wrong conclusions from his observations.

6) Observing the opponent, learning to predict his behaviour, and identify his weak spots in order to use them to undermine his security, causing him to feel alarm, confusion, and anxiety.

The Caretaker

In The Caretaker Mick and Davies share the same view of ‘the situation’ throughout, so psychological warfare is possible, and Mick successfully dominates Davies by a masterly use of the techniques listed above. But against Aston, who seems to refuse to get actively caught up in battles, Mick is little better than impotent. Thus although Mick is the dominant personality of the three, if the battle in The Caretaker is over who will control the destiny of the room, then Aston wins.

Aston wins a measure of victory over both Davies and Mick, and he achieves this by seeming not to actively participate in the battle for dominance. Whether consciously or not, he undermines his opponents as effectively as Kullus undermines the narrator of The Examination with those techniques I have listed, his passivity causing his opponents to undermine themselves by projecting their fears onto him.

Davies repeatedly tries to get Aston to respond to his view of the situation, and Aston repeatedly denies Davies the comfort of a relevant response. As a result Davies, with his almost obsessive fear of persecution, projects onto Aston, and the objects in, and features of, Aston’s room, (for example the gas stove and window), the role of potential adversaries. Davies is unable to understand or predict the behaviour of Aston (or objects in the room, such as the gas stove), and as his anxiety grows so does his aggressive behaviour, until Aston, whose inclination is towards tolerance, finally has to reject him.

Mick’s frustration with his inability to dominate his brother is mostly deflected onto Davies, but his climatic outburst represents his defeat by Aston. His ambition to turn the house into ‘a palace’ is undermined by Aston’s refusal to accept the subservient role Mick has tried to impose upon him.

The Homecoming

A roughly parallel process to that seen in The Caretaker takes place in The Homecoming. In the opening scenes Lenny clearly displays his dominance over his preliminary opponent, Max. Max tries to dominate Lenny by talking about horse racing, but Lenny, who has obviously observed his opponent well and found his weak spots, changes the subject and attacks Max on the territory of his domestic role.

When Ruth arrives on the scene, however, Lenny is no more of a match for her than Davies was for Mick. Ruth has the upper hand right from their opening exchange.

Lenny tries hard to establish a dominant position in relation to Ruth with his two stories of his aggressive behaviour towards women. He tries to shock her and undermine her confidence by boasting of his familiarity with an underworld of corruption and violence. His descriptions are exaggerated in order to contrast as strongly as possible with his assumptions about the character and language of the wife of a philosophy lecturer. But he has made false assumptions, failed to assess and predict his opponent’s behaviour, given away clues about himself without extracting any from her, and is consequently toppled into a subservient role.

In the final tableau of The Homecoming Ruth sits like a queen on a throne, Lenny stands beside her like a chief courtier, Joey kneels like a humble servant, and Max stalks about angrily, then begs for mercy, like a deposed king. Teddy exits, unperturbed, like a messenger. The balance of dominance and subservience is quite clear, but the terms ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ do not quite seem appropriate. Ruth has won mastery over the others, but she has been placed in that position by them, rather than striven for it herself.

Old Times

In some ways the battles in Old Times are closer to the outline drawn up from The Examination than those in Pinter’s earlier plays. This is because the contestants, Deeley and Anna, are very evenly matched, so instead of one character demolishing the other as Mick demolished Davies, or Ruth demolished Lenny, the battle is more subtle and refined. In the ‘duologue’ between Deeley and Anna [Act 1 (p.38-41)] a strenuous battle is going on below the veneer of sociable small-talk. Deeley boasts of his travel, Anna encourages him, then turns the tables by criticising him for leaving Kate alone for long periods, and uses the opening this creates in his defences to suggest that she could come up and stay with Kate.

The main battle in Old Times is about who is closer to Kate, Deeley or Anna. From Anna’s arrival in Act 1 Kate says virtually nothing until just before the end of the act. She is silent, but she is listening, and observing, and preparing for her well-aimed attack on both of them at the play’s climax.

Kate’s outburst at the end of the play seems to be a retaliation against the way Deeley and Anna have, both during the course of the play, and in the past, concealed their lecherousness beneath a phoney veneer of sophistication and worldliness, and also against the way she feels she has been dirtied by their sexual desires. Anna is ‘dead’ because with the arrival of Deeley their relationship had died, and dirty because after switching her affections and sexuality to Deeley, (What a relief it was to have a different body in my room, a male body [Act 2 (p.72)] she finds her flirtation with homosexuality disgusting.

In the final scene the battle between Deeley and Anna about who is the more worldly, the more knowledgeable, and who knows Kate best, is undercut and demolished by the formerly silent Kate.

No Man’s Land

In No Man’s Land the characters play a different game, perhaps cricket, a dignified gentlemanly game, with no women allowed. In the faster sections, such as the fast-moving dialogue in Act 2 (p.71-77) however, the atmosphere is more that of Ping-Pong. This section seems to be deliberately structured like a sporting competition, with the pauses representing a point scored by one contestant or the other. (Hirst’s ‘That’s my point,’ might perhaps be deliberately ambiguous).

Hirst ‘serves’ with, ‘You did say you had a good war, didn’t you?’ Then the ball is knocked back and forth and Hirst wins the point by referring to his superiority, having been in Military Intelligence. After the pause Hirst serves again, but Spooner throws him off his guard by mentioning ‘Stella’. The following pause represents Spooner’s point. Hirst wins the next point at the pause on page 73, Spooner wins the next at the pause on page 74, and so on.

The competition between Hirst and Spooner disintegrates when Spooner starts ‘playing dirty’. The subject matter degenerates from the war and Military Intelligence to Arabella Hinscott’s predilection for ‘consuming the male member’. The gentlemanly atmosphere of a cricket match has been maintained by the restrained manner and cultivated diction of the conversation, but within those parameters Spooner succeeds in offending Hirst until Hirst has to abandon the game.

Throughout the play Spooner has had not only to compete with Hirst at their ‘gentlemanly game’, but also to compete with Foster and Briggs who are doing their best to ‘stop the match’.

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