Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pinter, Coward, The Homecoming and Game of Bingo

In the New York Review of Books Daniel Mendelsohn has a review of the new publication of Noel Coward's Letters:

In a letter from the 1960s addressed to Arnold Wesker, the young author of plays about working-class life such as The Kitchen, with whom Coward was to become unexpectedly close in an almost paternal way, the Master indignantly defended the value of the theater as he saw it:

I, who have earned my living all my life by my creative talents, cannot ever agree with your rather high-flown contempt for "commercial art." In my experience, which is not inconsiderable, the ordinary run of human beings, regardless of social distinctions, infinitely prefer paying for their amusements and entertainments than having them handed out to them for nothing.... There is nothing disgraceful or contemptible in writing a successful play which a vast number of people are eager and willing to buy tickets for.... Personally I would rather play Bingo every night for a year than pay a return visit to Waiting for Godot.... This is not to say that I think all your cultural activities will inevitably bore the public, but, judging by the purple and black brochure you sent me, quite a number of them are bound to.

You mustn't be cross with me for holding these very definite views because, if you analyse them, you may find that they are based on common sense rather than cynicism.



The pride that resonates in that first sentence—the artisan's, as
it were, rather than the artist's; certainly middle- rather than upper-class—is hard to miss.

And yet, a fascinating 1965 exchange shows Coward reaching across the generations to the young Harold Pinter after reading
The Homecoming—twice. "You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in," the sixty-five-year-old icon of sophistication wrote, "except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second." Here again, the bottom line was entertainment; and after all, there may have been more of a connection between Coward and Pinter than meets the eye. As Day reminds us in his comment on this
exchange, Coward was the man who insisted that "suggestion is always more interesting than statement"; and a line from his own
Shadow Play (1935) brings Pinter's work powerfully to mind: "Small talk, a lot of small talk with other thoughts going on behind."




Pinter's The Homecoming is on Broadway right now in a very well- received revival.

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