Friday, 28 September 2012

Harold Pinter: A Night Out

A Night Out is an early play by Harold Pinter. Like his other early plays, namely The Birthday Party and The Hothouse, it’s about the psychological destruction of a person.
I could have reviewed The Birthday Party, which is certainly more famous, but that play just looks too much like a Harold Pinter play. As I read the first volume of Pinter’s plays, it became clear to me that the author had a propensity for writing the same play over and over. Generally his early plays are about emotionally stunted individuals, often elderly couples, living in seedy rooms, confronted with something strange, ominous, or threatening. The Room, A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter belong to a group that a critic once defined as “comedy of menace.” They are variations on The Birthday Party, which, don’t get me wrong, is a great play. But in my mind they all sort of blend into the same text.

After these plays Pinter came wrote The Hothouse, a play definitely not set in a seedy room inhabited by old people who. The Hothouse is a satirical allegory of bureaucracy set in an unnamed institution that works for the government, an institution whose purpose is vague but full of foreboding. Pinter forgot the play and only came back to it in 1980. Still I think it changed Pinter a little bit, it was a transitional work for him because he stopped writing about elderly couples in seedy rooms.

His next play, A Night Out, produced in 1960, opens one night when Albert Stokes, a “young man of twenty-eight,” still living with his widowed mother, is searching for a tie to go out to a party. He asks his mother to help him, but she’s upset that he’s going out. She’s a good mother: she irons his clothes, she cooks his food, she counsels him. And Albert is clearly fed up of her. With a few quick strokes Pinter paints a protagonist being smothered by tyrannical motherly tenderness. This is a fascinating play. It’s not a matter of being better than his other plays, it just has a different tone, more ambition, it’s more grounded in realism. His previous plays had a homogenous tone from start to finish. This play is looser, messier; the sets change between apartment rooms to street scenes, from coffee stalls to crowded parties. It has fifteen characters (that’s almost the twice The Hothouse’s). All in all, it’s a livelier play. And it’s no less darker.

Although Pinter is often associated with the Theater of the Absurd, this play is very naturalistic. The dialogue has the rhythms and repetitions of ordinary speech (gone is the barrage of questions that Goldberg and McCann use as a torture instrument against Stanley in The Birthday Party); Pinter’s ability to make prosaic dialogue enchanting, however, is still present. The action is less mysterious and symbolic. It’s really a fine slice of life. Gone too is the absurdist humor, replaced with an encompassing sense of despair and powerlessness.

Albert, the protagonist of A Night Out, is a prisoner. And his life, at least for this night, is hell. First of all, he argues with his over-protective, suffocating mother, an old lady who uses her age and vulnerability to keep Albert in her thrall. Things get worse when Albert, already a touchy person, is accused at the party of groping a female coworker. The play ends with Albert taking out all his bottled up anger, resentment, and social deficiencies on a woman, a prostitute who invites him to her room and treats him like his mother does.

Pinter’s economy is commendable. As soon as the play starts, the conflict is set. His mother, watching him neatly dressed in his best suit, suspects he’s going out. She may have deliberately misplaced Albert’s tie; feigning innocent ignorance, she worries about his dinner getting cold and asks him to go and change a light bulb. Albert repeats again and again that he’s going out. There’s a cognitive disconnect between them because she continues to speak to him as if he’s not going out. Albert doesn’t want to change the light bulb in the cellar because he’ll get his suit dirty. His mother keeps at it:

Mother: Well, your dinner’ll be ready soon. You can look for it afterwards. Lay the table, there’s a good boy.
Albert: Why should I look for it afterwards? You know where it is now.
Mother: You’ve got five minutes. Go down to the cellar, Albert, get a bulb and put it in Grandma’s room, go on.

This short exchange contains a lot of information. See her establishing schedules for him (“You’ve got five minutes”), her calling him a good boy, treating him like a child, and showing dependence on him. It becomes obvious she has him under her thumb. As the play progresses the reader also realizes that because of her over-bearing personality, Albert has trouble connecting with other people. There are several scenes that show how she controls Albert and humiliates him with subtle innocence. This is when he’s preparing to leave:

Mother: Albert! Wait a minute. Where’s your handkerchief?
Albert: What handkerchief?
Mother: You haven’t got a handkerchief in your breast pocket.
Albert: That doesn’t matter, does it?
Mother: Doesn’t matter? I should say it does matter. Just a minute. Here you are. A nice clean one. You mustn’t let me down, you know. You’ve got to be properly dressed. Your father was always properly dressed. You’d never see him out without a handkerchief in his breast pocket. He always looked like a gentleman.

Poor Albert is always failing to reach the standards she’s imposed for him. Before when Albert said he was going out, she feigned surprise even though he had reminded her that she knew: “I told you last week,” he says. “I told you this morning too.” In a subtle scene that shows how Albert prefers to placate his mother rather than facing her, he back-pedals on his words. “I’m just going to Mr. King’s,” he says. Mr. King is Albert’s boss. His mother considers Mr. King a respectable man. In a sense he’s not really going out, he’s just attending a party given by a person that, in his mother’s scale of values, is good, and therefore safe.

The mother is a great character, by the way. Although Pinter’s style is often noted for its sparseness of dialogue (punctuated by many pauses), there are also powerful monologues in his plays. Albert’s mother gives a good one packed with accusations and emotional blackmail that chip away at his dignity but come wrapped in the deceitful language of tenderness. It’s an ironic speech because she repeats expressions like “I won’t even ask any questions,” “I’m not saying any more,” “Yes, I don’t say anything, do I?” over a speech that last three pages! One gets a feeling of how much of this Albert must listen every day, all day.

But in spite of her concerns that Albert isn’t leading a ‘clean life,’ that he’s ‘messing about with girls,’ Albert does go out. However she hangs over him like a malaise throughout the play; when he meets up with his friends, he feigns a headache to go back home, but he’s persuaded to come along. Albert doesn’t have many friends, apart from Seeley. People from the office also have a low opinion of Albert, physically and intellectually. His gloominess is a topic of conversation. This is part of a conversation Seeley is having with another guy from the office, while waiting for Albert:

Kedge: Of course, he don’t let much slip, does he, old Albert?
Seeley: No, not much.
Kedge: He’s a bit deep, isn’t he?
Seeley: Yes, he’s a bit deep.
Kedge: Secretive.
Seeley: What do you mean, secretive? What are you talking about?
Kedge: I was just saying he was secretive.
Seeley: What are you talking about? What do you mean, he’s secretive?
Kedge: You said yourself he was deep.
Seeley: I said he was deep. I didn’t say he was secretive!

Seeley is a friend to Albert. When he gets in trouble at the office for allegedly groping a woman, Seeley is the only one who defends him. The humiliation he feels at the party is a variation of the humiliation gets at home. His female co-workers pick on him and, realizing that he gets nervous talking about woman, ask him about his sex life. Then there’s Gidney. Gidney is a loud-mouth who likes to blow his own horn, especially about his intelligence and physique, a man who fancies himself a professional cricket player just because he belongs to the firm’s team. “I was saying, with my qualifications I could go anywhere. I could go anywhere and be anything,” he tells Albert. Like Albert’s mother, Gidney enjoys belittling him.

Then comes the incident. As Mr. King is giving a speech about Mr. Ryan, the old man retiring from the firm, Eileen, one of the office girls, screams in panic:

Gidney: What is it?
Adlib: What’s happened? Eileen, what’s the matter?
Eileen: Someone’s touched me!
Joyce: Touched you?
Eileen: Someone touched me! Someone–!
Betty: What did he do?
Kedge: Touched you? What did he do?
Joyce: What did he do, Eileen?
Eileen: He… he… he took a liberty!
Kedge: Go on! Who did?

Eileen looks at Albert, who doesn’t understand what’s going on, and the crowd instantly turns against him, accusing him without evidence. Gidney demands that Albert apologize. Taking Eileen’s side immediately he just uses the situation to place himself in a position of power over Albert, who chooses to leave instead of prolonging the conflict. Gidney follows him outside, demanding an apology to Eileen:

Albert: Gidney, why don’t you… why don’t you get back to the party?
Gidney: I was telling you, Albert–
Albert: Stokes.
Gidney: I was telling you, Albert, that if you’re going to behave like a boy of ten in mixed company–
Albert: I told you my name’s Stokes!
Gidney: Don’t be childish, Albert.

Again Albert is likened to a child. Ironically, Albert shows more maturity in trying to avoid a scene by leaving, even if that means losing face, whereas Gidney continues to provoke him into a fight. When Gidney accuses him of being a ‘mother’s boy’ Albert flips and a short scuffle ensues, with Seeley trying to break the two apart.

As I read the play for the third time, I realized that the hostility against Albert is just because he seems strange. It’s like his meek, introspective personality compels others to treat him with contempt and aggressiveness. He’s overtly vulnerable, making himself a target. This, anyway, is a topic frequently explored by Pinter. His protagonists, one way or another, are always victims of hostile forces that seek to destroy them, physically or mentally, or both.

The play reaches its climax when a woman picks up Albert in the street and takes him to her flat. But her obsessive behavior also drives Albert crazy: she worries about the noise of his footsteps, about the ash he’s leaving on the carpet, about his rude language, about his fidgeting with objects. Suddenly all the abuse, humiliation and control Albert has endured throughout the night (throughout his life) spills out in a violent but pathetic outburst; pathetic because rather than freeing himself, he just perpetuates the cycle of emotional abuse; he achieves nothing more than humiliating a woman and frightening her with a story that he killed his own mother. The sexual menace is always present, but more than sex it’s the power over her that drives him on.

Thinking now, after my third reading of the play, the ending of A Night Out is similar to The Birthday Party, in two ways. First, both plays deal with protagonists who can’t overcome the external forces that control them, whether they be the mysterious duo of Goldberg and McCann or Albert’s mother. In The Birthday Party, Stanely, driven mad by these two men, attempts to rape Lulu, a woman who liked him. Albert terrifies a woman to make himself feel powerful. Secondly, Stanley is led away by the two men, whose purposes are suspiciously sinister; Albert returns home for his mother to continue belittling him. Stanley and Albert are both captives. Albert changes from prey to predator, but in the end he never stops being a prey.

However I wasn’t thinking of The Birthday Party when I reread this play, but of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Comparisons between the two authors are inevitable. They’re contemporaries whose careers started practically at the same time. Both playwrights belong to the Theater of the Absurd. Both plays in question are about ordinary, complacent men, wrested out of their ordinary lives; who clash head-on with the irrationality of human relationships; who come out defeated in power struggles with other people. Pinter, more than Albee, is a poet of the downtrodden, of the emotionally stunted. From the darkest corners of the human soul, where despair resides, he takes out images and words that chronicle with brutal honesty modern man’s losing battle with society, others and his own self.


  1. I was actually thinking of your commentary of The Zoo Story as I was reading this.

    Slightly disturbed misfits are so interesting when in the hands of capable writers. They are usually so much more interesting then the ever popular over the top psychotic killer. It sounds like Pinter has crafted a compelling character here by using subtlety and intelligence.

  2. Brian, yes, this is an excellent character study of a disturbed individual who's pushed over the edge one day. It's short but dense. I re-read it all the time.

    Have you read Pinter?

  3. No, I have not read Pinter. I say that sheepishly as you cover all these authors that sound fantastic that I have not yet read! As I often say, so many books, so little time!

  4. I liked this review very much. I'm not familiar with Plays1, but now I definitely want to read it.

    I read Plays4 and other plays by Pinter. I keep going back to Victoria Station and The Room. I like how Pinter describes people's discomfort and fears, and their ultimate inability to truly communicate.

    1. Stefania, thanks for stopping by. Pinter was a playwright who on my first encounter with him left me ambivalent, I recognize the talent and I admire bits here and there, but I had a hard time finding a play I liked as a whole. Still I'm not giving up, I'm very curious to read his later plays, especially his more political ones.