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October 29, 2007

The politics of Pinter's The Hothouse are those of the right, not the left - argues David Wootton

Posted by David Wootton

Harold Pinter's The Hothouse
directed by Ian Rickson
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory 11th July - 27th October 2007

I love Pinter, but I trust I love him for reasons different from those that make him popular with most of the people who go to see his early plays. Within a few seconds of a Pinter play beginning I have a thrilling sense of being in a familiar world. Pinter's early plays are sometimes called "comedies of menace", and it is the menace that delights me. Not, I hasten to add, because I ever enjoyed living in a world pervaded by menace (quite the opposite), or do so now, but because the mere appearance of such a world on the stage shows that you can both understand and survive it.

I take it that most people when they watch a Pinter play see a strange, alien, and unfamiliar world, while I feel immediately at home. But it is precisely because this world seems so normal to me that I can't quite grasp the conventional opinion that they are comedies. The director of this production certainly thinks the play is a comedy, and the audience were happy to slide off into laughter whenever they could. But often laughter seemed to me a quite inappropriate response.

The Hothouse was written in 1958, and not first performed until 1980. It is his third play, between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. It is set in an asylum - the drabness and hypocrisy of late fifties England are wonderfully conveyed in this production. According to the Evening Standard the play is set in Russia. This is nonsense. It is set in the England of our beloved National Health Service, and it is hard not to feel that there runs through the play a devastating attack on government monopolies, where perverse norms can easily establish themselves and remain hidden from the public eye.

I was reminded of my own experience of working in universities - it is easy (and entirely appropriate) to be horrified by what has been done to our universities over the last thirty years, but one needs to remember that the crass managerialism we suffer under now has replaced a world that was sometimes worse, a world of arbitrary patronage (in the mid-seventies there was still at least one Cambridge college at which it was a matter of pride that they had never advertised a fellowship), idleness, and, sometimes, incompetence. It is that world that is brought back to life in this production, and that world that the young Pinter was attacking. If this play has a politics it would, rather surprisingly, seem to be a politics of the right, not the left - although that may be the result of looking at it from a post-Thatcherite perspective. The argument is that England is all too like Soviet Russia, and that there is nothing protecting us from the worst forms of tyranny.

In The Hothouse I think you can see a playwright who is finding, but has not yet quite found, his style. From early in the play we puzzle over whether a rape (and perhaps even a murder) have been committed; at the end a veritable massacre takes place off stage. I think this is because Pinter thinks he needs some sort of objective correlative for the atmosphere of menace that he wants to portray. He wants to portray people who have murderous instincts, people who are engaged in destroying each other psychically, and so, almost in an excess of literalism, he gives us murders. But this is really quite unnecessary. In that respect the play is, I think, quite different from Martin McDonagh's wonderful The Pillowman that's a play about objective menace, and this one isn't, though Pinter doesn't quite realise it. Pinter's plot also, of course, helps him give the play some sort of structure. But here too the objective events are really superfluous.

In this respect the play seems to me flawed. But the acting is flawless (the actors have been doing it since July, so any rough edges are long gone), and the set design and lighting are stunning. It is a very nearly a perfect production. The applause at the end was a little bit muted, but it is hard, I think, to shout and holler with enthusiasm when you are just emerging from the sort of realistic nightmare that Pinter evokes. The play leaves you with a rather strange feeling of horror mingled with delight.

This is a great production of a play that one would admire more if one was not aware that Pinter was to do even better, notably in The Homecoming, to which this play seems to bear an intimate relation: perhaps both the female characters in these plays, with their stylised Christine Keeler-ish sexuality, were written with the brilliant actor Vivien Merchant (Pinter's late ex-wife) in mind.

If one may go so far as to compare Pinter to Shakespeare, this is his Titus Andronicus, his representation of a world abandoned by justice, in which the worst triumph and the best are but victims. It is a horrific and all too convincing picture of a world that some fortunate people, perhaps, feel they have never inhabited.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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