This article contains plot twists.
Harold Pinter’s The Lover was a script first publically showcased as a television play in March 1963[i] before it went on for a theatre run a few months later starting from September that year. As a model of how Pinter plays on words and the natural duel meaning found explicitly within the English language, it develops on several ideas that would reoccur throughout his work. However, there is one key aspect behind the script of the play – one that works particularly well in its television version – and that is the role of the characters creating false realities for ulterior, often complex purposes through their deliberately ambiguous use of language.
In his essay on Writing For The Theatre, incidentally written during the period of writing that produced The Lover, Pinter suggested of the reaction to his plays that “We will all interpret a common experience quite differently, though we prefer to subscribe to the view that there’s a shared common ground, a known ground. I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but that it’s more like quicksand. (2005/1962, p.22). This surmises the point in hand admirably in that Pinter not only accepts that this use of communication can be “quicksand” but also that there’s a dramatic potential in putting people within its vacuum; allowing them to squirm and react in whatever way is fitting.
The play follows an affluent suburban couple[ii] who at first appear to be in some form of open relationship. The scenario opens with the man, Richard[iii], just heading out to work. He is asking his wife, Sarah[iv], about the plans for her day though in a completely socially unsettling way. It is made clear from the outset that Sarah is meeting a lover in the afternoon; not only this but that their rendezvous is at the house and with prior agreement from her husband. The play follows this set-up as it unfolds into something more typical in early 1960s middle-class culture: that of role-playing to spice up married love-life. However, in the first half of the play, whilst this aspect remains a mystery[v], the language around this scenario works as a far more intriguing reflection on real life than in the latter half. This is for a number of receptive reasons.
In the aforementioned essay, Pinter suggests one of his most basic premises:
We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase: ‘failure of communication’… and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. (2005/1962, p.25).
Pinter hits upon what makes the initial, odd conversations in The Lover seem so powerful but also so recognisable; that of the fear to actually ask what is spiking one’s curiosity whilst actually asking it anyway through continual evasion of the subject in hand. In this case[vi] it is sex, or more accurately, the adulterous sexual activity of a loved one. This doesn’t necessarily manifest in real life through the literal cheating of a spouse or partner but can manifest simply in the casual jealousy that often creeps into relationships naturally over time. Take as an example, the opening exchange between Richard and Sarah:
Pinter creates a dynamic where there is a both a lack of communication but also a very earnest transfer of information between two characters. Sarah never gives a definite “Yes” but simply a positive “Mmm”; an ambiguous answer that ultimately means yes but designed to give the fluctuating hope of a negative response too. Richard also partakes in this farce, feigning curiosity about whether they will be going out or heading to the exhibition; both answers implying that the wife prefers to stay in and have sex with another man. This is a perfect reflection of reality in that the truthful information of the situation can be gleaned, not from honest, straight-forward endeavour but from enough information to form reality from an outline of potentials. Pinter’s characters often fill out the gaps for each other even if never revealing such knowledge.
There is not a “failure to communicate” here at all but a very conscious, deliberate communication in spite of its evasive surface. This, of course, is by design as it is this reality (a false one) which is proving a stimulant for the couple’s sex life but, as a reflection on reality, it actually portrays a startlingly accurate recreation of deceptive language leading to an ultimate truth. Pinter portrays this throughout his work[vii] but perhaps most powerfully in his poem, Ghost (1983) and, compared to the final exchange between the couple, they work as a pair in ultimately showcasing the unavoidable reality of words:
I felt soft fingers at my throat
It seemed someone was strangling me
The lips were hard as they were sweet
It seemed someone was kissing me
My vital bones about to crack
I gaped into another’s eyes
I saw it was a face I knew
A face as sweet as it was grim
It did not smile it did not weep
Its eyes were wide and white its skin
I did not smile I did not weep
I raised my hand and touched its cheek. (2005/1983).
[i] Directed by Joan Kemp-Welch as a one off television play.
[ii] Affluent as the actual script describes the couple as living in Windsor though the television version only hints at their wealth through the size of the house and the husband’s job in the city, symbolised by his bowler hat.
[iii] Alan Badel in the television version
[iv] Vivian Merchant in the television version.
[v] That Richard is in fact the lover, coming home from work to his “whore” who is in fact his wife.
[vi] Like in many of Pinter’s plays, especially The Homecoming.
[vii] The most startling expression of this comes in his play, Betrayal, especially in its adapted film version where a conversation between Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley results in the obvious realisation of a physical affair between the latter’s wife with the former though does so only through discussing the highs and lows of the publishing industry. This was, of course, channeling his famous affair with Joan Bakewell, ironically whilst married to Merchant who plays Sarah in The Lover.