Article Title

Radical Mimesis: The "Pinter Problem" Revisited


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

When Goldberg grills Stanley in The Birthday Party about whether "the number 849" is "possible or necessary,"1 or Gus challenges Ben in The Dumbwaiter about whether one should say "light the kettle" instead of "light the gas" (I, 141), or Lenny battles with Ruth in The Homecoming over whether he will "relieve" her of her water glass (III, 49), the objects of the characters' discourse-a number, a figure of speech, a glass-hardly seem to warrant the intense interest the characters invest in them. One might try to explain the objects' significance by positing details of the characters' biographies that Pinter fails to make explicit. Perhaps Lenny's mother used to beat him severely for leaving dirty glasses around the house; perhaps Gus is compiling an English language guide for foreign chefs in his spare time; perhaps Goldberg and Stanley once collaborated on a treatise about mathematical logic. I set to one side the question of whether this kind of exercise might ever be helpful as a rehearsal strategy. As a critical strategy, however, it is patently absurd. An obvious problem is that since such speculations lack textual support, one could generate an indefinite number of equally plausible ( or implausible) alternatives. Recognizing this problem, very few critics indulge in such flagrant flights of invention ( though more restrained forms of "filling in " are not uncommon).2 Nonetheless, some critics feel a need for more information than the texts supply to explain the action and so portray Pinter's plays as ineluctably enigmatic, a portrayal that, depending on the critic's sensibility, may be a compliment or a complaint.

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