Modernism: Beckett's Influence on Pinter- The Modernist Son

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Samuel Beckett’s theatre of the absurd was a major influence for Harold Pinter’s work, through which the use of language and memory in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot transmits characteristics portrayed in Pinter’s Old Times (which came later in the modern era.) Pinter’s inspiration from Beckett is demonstrated through direct and indirect language, dramatic pauses and silences, as well as the ambiguous nature of the human condition, (which really is what literary modernism is all about). Beckett’s influence is established through Kate’s deliberate use of words as weapons, the nature of conversation within the world of Vladimir and Estragon, as well as the unreliability of memory throughout Waiting for Godot and Old Times. Old Times differs from Waiting for Godot, but the consistent questioning of human nature remains prominent within the worlds of Beckett and Pinter through the use of language and the ambiguous nature of memory among human beings. 

Characteristics of Theatre:

Characteristics found in Harold Pinter's work are inspired by the earlier work of Samuel Beckett, such that a major component of modernism is characters attempting to understand the human condition. Academic scholar William S. Haney discusses characteristics of Beckett’s world in his article, “Beckett Out Of His Mind”:


Beckett portrays the process by which awareness moves from the qualia of historically mediated experience to a state beyond linguistic and cultural boundaries. Beckett shows what it is like to be aware in a single moment, rather than drifting in the slipstream of a culturally meditated discursive pattern of thoughts. (40)

Haney highlights the issue of understanding the human condition within a single moment, such that ambiguity found in Waiting for Godot and Old Times resonates with the consistent lack of certainty of life as a whole. Keeping that in mind, individuals go through life completely unaware of their next moment, and this is no different for characters from literary prose. Beckett constructs a world where constant awareness contributes to consistent questioning of the human condition, and is further illustrated through Kate’s (Pinter) use of language as weapons. However, understanding the human condition within a single awareness pertains to the nature of Vladimir and Estragon’s (Beckett) conversations which juxtapose the lack of purpose in the world of the absurd. In relation to Beckett’s world, Haney highlights the issue of the human mind remaining in a state of constant thought and contemplation. Therefore, the human mind remains in constant thought and contemplation despite the lack of direct transmission of language between characters while maintaining constant awareness of reality; despite the frequent moments of silence. 

The Nature of Each Play:

Drawing from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon focus on the issue of waiting despite constant preoccupation through their frequent conversation. However, Old Times uses silences and pauses that encourages readers and audience members to challenge the power dynamic between Kate, Deeley, and Anna throughout the course of the text. The issue of power between Pinter’s characters corresponds with the danger of indirect language while power serves as a primary desire for characters within the world of the absurd. Haney portrays the world of the absurd, forcing characters to remain aware of reality within a single moment. Therefore, Beckett and Pinter establish singular awareness through the use of direct and indirect language and the power language possesses as a whole. 

The issue of uncertainty is a major component of Beckett’s theatrical style, as the world of the unknown is a major inspiration for Pinter’s work. Pinter suppresses not only the nature of reality but recollection of the past, as well in his work. Pinter is known for the "alienation effect", and Academic writer Zeeshan Ali provides further details of what this means:

Although Ali references Pinter’s The Homecoming in the article "The Theme of Alienation", the aforementioned literary device applies to the play Old Times. Ali highlights the use of language in comparison to narrative structure depicted through Pinter’s approach to the world of the absurd. Moreover, Ali provides a statement from Pinter:

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal nor between what is true and what is false… this creates an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and alienation. (34)

Words... as Weapons:

The use of words as weapons is an essential tool for understanding Beckett and Pinter’s world, such that language juxtaposes uncertainty and creates dramatic effect within the narrative. Beckett presents the alienation effect within the world of Vladimir and Estragon, such that alienation between characters corresponds with Pinter’s theatre of menace. Zeeshan Ali’s article demonstrates the significance of conversation and the repetition of language throughout Pinter’s Old Times. Moreover, Ali’s article highlights the issue of Kate and Anna’s repetition of language, and its significance as a source of power for characters within a world consumed by the unknown. Old Times provides moments in which Kate and Deeley debate the nature of Kate’s previous relationship with Anna. Kate’s consistent use of emotional and meaningful language illustrates the manner in which uncertainty constructs a world of fear and suspicion in the mind of characters. Beckett and Pinter’s world of fear and suspicion is achieved through the repetition of spoken and unspoken words surrounding the same subject. Kate says to Deeley, “She was my only friend… If you have only one of something you can’t say it’s the best of something" (247). Kate’s response not only establishes her position of power over Deeley, but also demonstrates the ambiguity involving recollection of the past. Kate refuses to provide Deeley with significant information regarding the nature of her past relationship with Anna, such that Kate’s primary desire is to establish power and maintain control over those around her. Pinter uses words as weapons when Kate’s primary desire is manipulating and controlling those around her. Kate deliberately conceals the definitive nature of her past relationship with Anna, and this establishes her power over her husband. With respect to literary modernism, Pinter refrains from providing readers and audience members with definitive information regarding the nature of Kate and Anna’s past. Pinter’s deliberate suppression of memory directly relates to the theatre of the absurd, such that a major component of the world of the absurd is the prolonged issue of uncertainty and the unknown. Kate does not conceal the nature of her relationship with Anna in order to avoid discussing the relationship with her husband. Instead, Kate deliberately manipulates Deeley while using words as weapons to establish dominance in her relationship.

Conversation, to (pass) time:

Beckett's Waiting for Godot uses words and language similarly to Pinter's theatre of menace, yet quite different. Pinter uses words as weapons of manipulation, whereas Beckett's characters have endless conversations as a means of passing time while they "wait for Godot". The issue of consistent conversation between Vladimir and Estragon is a tool Beckett utilizes in order to suppress emptiness, which constantly exists within the world of the absurd. Estragon and Vladimir frequently share stories with one another as a means of combating a world consumed by alienation, such that Estragon and Vladimir primarily converse with one another in order to suppress the perceived lack of purpose in their lives. Language remains constant throughout Waiting for Godot, and corresponds with the nature of Estragon and Vladimir waiting. With that being said, the ambiguous nature of waiting resonates with real world constructs. Beckett’s characters continuously waiting resonates with real life human beings, as individuals live every day without knowing what will transpire in the immediate or distant future. Consequently, human beings live everyday with constant uncertainty; which is a primary aspect of Vladimir and Estragon’s lives. 

Waiting... but for what?

Beckett's Waiting for Godot emphasizes the issue of Vladimir and Estragon waiting, despite not knowing what to expect in the near or distant future. The aforementioned characters remain in the same location everyday, until Godot appears. However, the whole idea is that readers and audience members continue to wait with Vladimir and Estragon. Godot does not appear throughout the play, at any point. In order for Estragon and Vladimir to distract themselves from waiting, the two clowns (they literally attended clown college) frequently interact with each other which contributes to maintaining of sanity in moments that lack purpose. Nevertheless, Vladimir and Estragon insist upon waiting for Godot's arrival.

The arrival of Godot represents an answer to all of life’s problems for the two characters, such that the issue of Godot resolving the abundance of life’s uncertainty resonates with real world human beings. Human beings maintain the basic desire of waiting for positive moments in life, such that human beings experience the constant act of waiting without knowing when or what those moments will be. Estragon makes statements to Vladimir which appear unrelated their situation. Estragon says to Vladimir, “I remember the Holy land, Coloured they were.” (4) However, Estragon’s reference to the Holy Land and its aesthetic qualities demonstrates the significance of the two characters communicating with each other, regardless of the subject of conversation. Moreover, the frequent recollection of memory serves as a vital aspect of conversation between Estragon and Vladimir due to its ability to form a constant connection between them while anxiously waiting (for all of their problems to be solved).

Waiting... for Godot:

Vladimir and Estragon continuously chat and play games as a means of distracting themselves from the ambiguity of waiting, as to whether Godot will actually arrive. Keeping that in mind, Vladimir and Estragon refuse to leave the area in case they miss the arrival of Godot; serving as a resolution to the abundance of the problems in life. Estragon grows tired of anxiously waiting, whereby Estragon insists that he and Vladimir leave the area because Godot is not going to appear despite Vladimir’s frequent insistence. Despite being in the area Godot is expected to arrive, Estragon attempts to persuade Vladimir to leave and essentially move on. However, Vladimir denies Estragon's desperate request: "We can't. We're waiting for Godot." (6) The issue of waiting not only corresponds with the significance of conversation between Vladimir and Estragon, but the issue of waiting resonates with the fact that human life is a journey that involves constant waiting. Furthermore, the journey of life continues without definitive answers regarding the human condition. In saying that, the issue of waiting for Vladimir and Estragon involves a significant amount of seemingly random conversations which serves as a tool for avoiding complete suffering. The nature of Vladimir and Estragon’s seemingly random conversations resonates with real world conversations, as well. In relation to real world conversation much like Vladimir and Estragon, human beings frequently vocalize random and sudden thoughts which cross their mind. With respect to literary modernism, the issue of human beings transmitting thoughts into words serves a vital construct of social interaction; considering that a major purpose for conversation is to avoid complete silence. In relation to Vladimir and Estragon, the concept of complete silence refers to absolute and complete suffering. Therefore, Vladimir and Estragon’s consistent interaction is an inherent component for avoiding lack of purpose within a world of constant suffering.

Words as Weapons, but used to pass time:

Pinter's play Old Times not only uses words as weapons, but also uses conversation as a method of passing time. Throughout Old Times and Waiting for Godot, pauses and silences serve as major components of conversation with respect to the dramatic and narrative structure. With that in mind, academic writer Normand Berlin highlights the importance of silences and pauses in the article "The Traffic of Our Stage", through which Berlin's depiction of silences and pauses contributes to understanding the human condition. Berlin emphasizes that language operates as a tool used to pass time, such that the nature of silences and pauses represent danger for Estragon and Vladimir:

Working beautifully in their word competitions, they rhythmically force us, the audience, to hear time, and morality, and death. Listen. And more silence… and then long silence. Didi and Gogo try to talk their way through their dead lives, listen to their own dead words. The words and phrases return again… Beckett giving repetition a power that takes us to a world and moment in life, itself. (634) Beckett’s Waiting for Godot uses language as a means of passing time while Estragon and Vladimir wait, such that the consistent repetition of language serves as a fulfillment of combating the ambiguity of the human condition while conversation represents a state of happiness for Beckett’s two clowns. 

Berlin emphasizes that silence between Vladimir and Estragon is a dangerous weapon, due to its ability to obstruct happiness for the two characters. In Beckett’s world, silence eliminates distractions from the nature of the human condition. Drawing from Waiting for Godot, Estragon falls asleep during an early scene within the play, such that Beckett highlights the issue of social interaction as a necessary tool in maintaining human sanity. Shortly after Estragon falls asleep, Vladimir displays his inability to maintain composure during silences as this personifies genuine emptiness within Vladimir and Estragon’s world. Vladimir says, “Gogo… Gogo… GOGO! … I felt lonely.” (7) Through Vladimir’s inability to maintain composure during moments of silence, Beckett establishes the reality of the danger that is created for Estragon and Vladimir that results from lack of conversation. With respect of the nature of human beings, individuals constantly experience the act of waiting without definitive answers. Furthermore, the ambiguity of what human beings are waiting for becomes lost within their own thoughts and leads to a world of alienation similar to the world Beckett creates in Waiting for Godot. The world of complete alienation is the result of complete suffering, such that without consistent conversation for Estragon and Vladimir the two characters become lost within their own thoughts due to the inability to accept the universal ambiguity of the human condition. 

Pinter and the Uses of Pauses and Silences:

Drawing from Pinter's Old Times , the significance of pauses and silences is established through Kate's desire for power in her life. Keeping that in mind, Kate uses manipulation to control those around her. Writer Amiri Niloufar highlights Kate's use of of language to maintain power in the article, "The aesthetic values of silences" as such literary devices refer to the power struggles between Kate, Anna, and Deeley. Pinter deliberately uses pauses and silences as a means of control, considering the manipulation of language serves as Kate’s primary source of power. 

Niloufar’s article highlights Kate’s attempt at establishing power in Old Times:

For his play, Pinter chooses comedic language which uses pauses and silences to intensify the humor or deepen the horror of situations. These situations result from the afflictions of men and women in modern society… the theatre of silence, a theatre that despite lacking “elevating language” as it is traditionally conceived can be as impassive and effective as romantic drama in the treatment of dilemmas faced by men and women in the “modern world” (2)

Niloufar highlights the issue of silences and pauses, which demonstrates how such constructs are used to intensify drama within a narrative. Pinter’s Old Times provides a highly intensive narrative in which a ghost from Kate’s previous life before marrying Deeley returns and challenges Deeley for Kate’s affection. Furthermore, Kate’s primary source of control and power is established through the use of silences and pauses which increase dramatic intensity. However, Kate’s manipulation of language also forces audience members to question the nature of what transpires on stage. Pinter uses silences and pauses as a dangerous weapon, something which draws from Beckett’s world of the absurd. Moreover, Kate maintains power through indirect language as gestures and refraining from speaking to Anna or Deeley reminds audience members as well as readers, that Kate primarily holds the position of power and this does not completely change at any point. In relation to Niloufar’s argument, the discussion of old memories between Anna and Kate demonstrates the dichotomy between the use of language within Beckett and Pinter’s world. Furthermore, Pinter’s Old Times primarily emphasizes that words are used as weapons within the theatre of menace. Kate deliberately withholds information from Anna in order to establish control not only in her marriage, but all aspects of life around her. Within this passage Kate and Anna discuss old times, such that Kate maintains control over Anna through her refusal to directly acknowledge Anna. Kate and Deeley discuss cooking which appears unclear to Anna as Kate says, “I quite like those kind of things, doing it… oh you know, that sort of thing.” (259) Kate’s line ends with a dramatic pause, which demonstrates Pinter’s inspiration from Beckett. Kate’s manipulation of language allows for her ability to maintain control for a significant portion of Old Times, such that Kate’s use of spoken and unspoken language establishes her genuine desire for power and control.

Memory. Is it reliable?

Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Pinter’s Old Times holds a strong comparison through the issue of dynamic and unreliable memory. Furthermore, characters within Beckett and Pinter’s world resonate with the dynamic and subjective nature of memory. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) highlights the ambiguity of memory, despite an individual’s confidence in its accuracy. In relation to the unreliable memory exhibited by Beckett and Pinter’s characters, Tavris and Aronson write:

Memory: how disorientating it is to realize that a vivid memory one full of emotion and detail is indisputably wrong; how even being absolutely positively sure a memory is, does not actually mean that it is. (93)

Although the issue of uncertainty and memory plays a significant role in Estragon and Vladimir’s debate as to whether they are waiting for Godot in the correct place, Pinter’s Old Times strongly emphasizes the subjective nature of human memory. In many cases humans do not remember an event with complete accuracy, such that Tavris and Aronson’s concept of unreliable memory plays a significant role in the recollection of past events between Kate and Anna. 

Tavris and Aronson’s article highlights the nature of memory within Pinter’s Old Times, however Tavris and Aronson’s argument also pertains to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Furthermore, Tavris and Aronson’s argument serves as a significant comparison to Estragon and Vladimir’s inability to accurately recall events. Following the first encounter with Pozzo and Lucky, Vladimir insists that Pozzo and Lucky have changed. However, Estragon disagrees and claims he does not know Pozzo and Lucky so he cannot determine any changes despite Vladimir’s insistence. Vladimir says, “Yes you know them… We know them I tell you. You forget everything.” (39) Despite Vladimir’s insistence Estragon does not appear convinced as he asks, “Why didn’t they recognize us then?” (39) As a means of emphasizing the differences of opinions between Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett demonstrates that memory is unreliable through its dynamic nature as it consistently recreates events and changes an individual’s perception of that event. Moreover, the accuracy of memory operates distinctly for human beings as people do not recall the same events in the same fashion. In relation to Vladimir and Estragon, despite both characters encountering Pozzo and Lucky at the same time, the issue of dynamic memory illustrates that individuals will not recall the same event precisely the same way. With respect of Tavris and Aronson, the recollection of memory also relies on its significance. Therefore, Estragon’s encounter with Pozzo and Lucky is not an accurate memory b