Winners and Losers
Psychological Warfare in the Plays of Harold Pinter

by Ian Mackean
"I think what you're talking about began in The Dumb Waiter. Violence is really only an expression of the question of dominance and subservience, which is possibly a repeated theme in my plays. I wrote a short story a long time ago called The Examination, and my ideas of violence carried on from there. That short story dealt very explicitly the with two people in one room having a battle of an unspecified nature, in which the question was one of who was dominant at what point and how they were going to be dominant and what tools they would use to achieve dominance and how they would try to undermine the other person's dominance. A threat is constantly there: it's got to do with this question of being in the uppermost position, or attempting to be." [1]  

Dialogue between characters in Pinter's plays can often seem enigmatic, and its purpose obscure, but it becomes less so when we realise that as often as not a battle is taking place between the characters, and that identifiable strategies are being employed. In this essay I should like to consider some of those battles, particularly in The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times, and No Man's Land, in the light of the comment above made by Harold Pinter on his short story The Examination, about 'this question of dominance and subservience' being a repeated theme in his plays.

I will examine what seem to be the main characteristics of the battle depicted in The Examination, and I suggest that they represent a blueprint for some of the competitive strategies adopted by characters in Pinter's plays.

The Examination describes in detail one particular battle in which the narrator is defeated by his opponent, Kullus, but it is evident that the positions of dominance and subservience oscillate back and forth, and that an identical story could be written from Kullus's point of view.

The purpose of the battle seems to be to gain and maintain control of 'the situation' and of your opponent, and the first requirement is that your opponent should share your view of what 'the situation' is. While you are losing the battle you feel alarm, confusion, and anxiety, and part of the reason for wanting to dominate your opponent is to avoid such feelings.

I suffered anxiety with good cause . . . I was no longer certain whether Kullus participated in our examination [p. 65]

Once in a subservient role, however, you have the advantage of being able to observe your opponent closely without fear of losing your position.

. . . the time came when Kullus . . . pursued his courses at will . . . now I followed him in his courses without difficulty [p. 65]

The advantage thus gained should allow you to gradually work your way back to the dominant position.

The battle is too subtle and sophisticated for straightforward insistence, intimidation, or persuasion to be effective, and when words are used their importance lies not so much in their meaning as in what the opponent is implicitly 'doing' to the other when he uses them. Silence is a key factor, in fact it is the ultimate weapon. There are many types of silence, the most effective type being that which isolates the opponent, denying him access to your thoughts and feelings.

Kullus's silence . . . was compounded of numerous characteristics . . . and where I could not follow, I was no longer his dominant. [p. 62]

The main danger for the dominant competitor, emphasised repeatedly in The Examination by such expressions as, 'I think', 'what I took to be', 'I am convinced', 'I am certain', is the insecurity arising from self-doubt and self-deception. Also, the dominant opponent tends to interpret ambiguous evidence in a manner favourable to himself, leading to over-confidence, and over-reaching.

From a reading of The Examination I would suggest that the person wishing to gain and maintain a dominant position must:

1) Ensure that his opponent is playing the same game, accepting the same parameters of the situation as himself.

2) Be able to influence his opponent's behaviour.

3) Maintain control of the territory, including the objects and furniture in the room, and the features of the room.

4) Observe his opponent closely, and try to understand and predict his behaviour.

5) Cause his opponent to give away clues about how he is faring in the battle.

6) Cause his opponent to display his need for 'the situation'.

7) Cause the opponent to acknowledge that he (the dominant player) is dominant.

8) Conceal his own fears from the opponent's observation.

9) Make as few remarks and requests for verification as possible.

The subservient competitor, wishing to undermine his opponent's dominance and achieve dominance himself, can employed the following techniques.

1) Silence, especially that which is 'too deep for echo'. [p. 63]

2) Unpredictable behaviour.

3) Indifference; avoidance of expressions of desire or displeasure.

4) Isolating the opponent (through silence), refusing to confirm that he is involved in the same situation as the opponent.

5) Fooling the opponent by causing him to draw wrong conclusions from his observations.

6) Observing the opponent, learning to predict his behaviour, and identify his weak spots in order to use them to undermine his security, causing him to feel alarm, confusion, and anxiety.

Battles of this nature are seen in most scenes of The Caretaker and The Homecoming, and seem to be essential elements, though less instantly-discernible, in later plays such as Old Times and No Man's Land. Yet in spite of the essential similarity in the techniques of battle, Pinter uses them to explore a wide variety of characters and situations.

In The Caretaker Mick and Davies share the same view of 'the situation' throughout, so psychological warfare is possible, and Mick successfully dominates Davies by a masterly use of the techniques listed above. But against Aston, who seems to refuse to get actively caught up in battles, Mick is little better than impotent. Thus although Mick is the dominant personality of the three, if the battle in The Caretaker is over who will control the destiny of the room, then Aston wins.

Aston wins a measure of victory over both Davies and Mick, and he achieves this by seeming not to actively participate in the battle for dominance. Whether consciously or not, he undermines his opponents as effectively as Kullus undermines the narrator of The Examination with those techniques I have listed, his passivity causing his opponents to undermine themselves by projecting their fears onto him.

Davies repeatedly tries to get Aston to respond to his view of the situation, and Aston repeatedly denies Davies the comfort of a relevant response. As a result Davies, with his almost obsessive fear of persecution, projects onto Aston, and the objects in, and features of, Aston's room, (for example the gas stove and window), the role of potential adversaries. Davies is unable to understand or predict the behaviour of Aston (or objects in the room, such as the gas stove), and as his anxiety grows so does his aggressive behaviour, until Aston, whose inclination is towards tolerance, finally has to reject him.

Aston's impenetrability, which effectively isolates the others, similarly undermines Mick's attempt to dominate him.

Mick's frustration with his inability to dominate his brother is mostly deflected onto Davies, but his climatic outburst represents his defeat by Aston. His ambition to turn the house into 'a palace' is undermined by Aston's refusal to accept the subservient role Mick has tried to impose upon him.

Mick: [After smashing the Buddha against the gas stove] (passionately) . . . he can do what he likes with it. I'm not bothered. I thought I was doing him a favour, letting him live here. He's got his own ideas. Let him have them. I'm going to chuck it in. [Act 111, (p. 83)]

There is a Zen-like quality, in my view, to Aston's equanimity and non-participation in the battle, which comes across clearly in the film of The Caretaker in which Pinter was closely involved. His Zen-like manner is reinforced by his admiration for the Buddha which he has in his room, and by Mick's smashing the Buddha, perhaps out of frustration at his inability to 'smash' his brother's equanimity, in frustration at his moment of defeat.

A roughly parallel process to that seen in The Caretaker takes place in The Homecoming, with Lenny in the place of Mick, Ruth in the place of Aston, and perhaps Max in the place of Davies. In the opening scenes Lenny clearly displays his dominance over his preliminary opponent, Max. Max tries to dominate Lenny by talking about horse racing, but Lenny, who has obviously observed his opponent well and found his weak spots, changes the subject and attacks Max on the territory of his domestic role. Max effectively though unconsciously acknowledges his subservience to Lenny when he calls himself a 'lousy father', and this opening skirmish prepares the way for Max's defeat at the end of the play. Since Jessie's death Lenny has evidently been the dominant male and Max has taken on a domestic, almost feminine role.

When Ruth arrives on the scene, however, Lenny is no more of a match for her than Davies was for Mick. Ruth has the upper hand right from their opening exchange.

Lenny: Good evening.

Ruth: Morning, I think.

Lenny: You're right there. [Act 1 (p.43)]

Lenny tries hard to establish a dominant position in relation to Ruth with his two stories of his aggressive behaviour towards women. He tries to shock her and undermine her confidence by boasting of his familiarity with an underworld of corruption and violence. His descriptions are exaggerated in order to contrast as strongly as possible with his assumptions about the character and language of the wife of a philosophy lecturer. But he has made false assumptions, failed to assess and predict his opponent's behaviour, given away clues about himself without extracting any from her, and is consequently toppled into a subservient role.

When the battle expands to include an object in the room, the glass, Ruth wins again, and she confirms her triumph by causing him to shout after her up the stairs, revealing that he is confused about what 'the situation' is between himself and Ruth, needs verification, and needs the situation more than she does.

The confrontation has, however, revealed to Ruth and Lenny that they have a lot in common, and in the next act they form an alliance. The next time they meet alone their conversation has a note of friendliness about it. Their relative positions having been established there is no more need for them to fight, and Ruth reveals to Lenny a side of her personality which she has to keep hidden from Teddy. This alliance prepares the way for the overthrow of Teddy.

Teddy, like Aston, is detached from the battle, although Teddy has consciously chosen not to participate, while Aston seemed incapable of making such a decision. One of the main attacks on Teddy's position comes in Act 2, when Lenny and Joey effectively mock and destroy the value of thinking in abstractions. Lenny attempts to provoke Teddy into philosophical thought and language, and even though Teddy refuses to rise to the bait they mock him while asserting that the practical, tangible, concrete aspect of life is all that is important.

Lenny: Take a table, but once you've taken it, what you going to do with it?

Joey: Chop it up for fire wood. [Act 11 (p. 68)]

Ruth's following speech, 'Don't be so sure though . . . ' (which seems rather out of character) actually seems to support Teddy, in that she proves that objects and actions have significant meanings. Perhaps the halting way in which she delivers the speech is an indication that this way of thinking is something which Teddy has tried to persuade her to accept, when she doesn't really believe in it, but she certainly draws attention to herself, in the context of the whole family, as a sex object, and Teddy feels threatened by this; (he stands, and says nothing). Perhaps the speech is meant to be out of character, to show that Ruth herself is out of character in her life with Teddy.

In the final tableau of The Homecoming Ruth sits like a queen on a throne, Lenny stands beside her like a chief courtier, Joey kneels like a humble servant, and Max stalks about angrily, then begs for mercy, like a deposed king. Teddy exits, unperturbed, like a messenger. The balance of dominance and subservience is quite clear, but the terms 'winners' and 'losers' do not quite seem appropriate. Ruth has won mastery over the others, but she has been placed in that position by them, rather than striven for it herself. Max, Lenny, and Joey have voluntarily relinquished whatever power they may have had for the sake of the benefits they imagine they will receive from Ruth. Power struggles of the type seen in The Examination have taken place during the play, but the final the impression we are left with is that events have taken place according to some law of necessity which operates when all involved are motivated by self-interest and make decisions on the basis of mercenary values.

With Old Times the setting shifts up from the lower to the middle classes, and the warfare becomes correspondingly more subtle and refined. Nevertheless the techniques observed in The Examination are identifiable beneath the sophisticated surface of the dialogue.

In some ways the battles in Old Times are closer to the outline drawn up from The Examination than those in Pinter's earlier plays. This is because the contestants, Deeley and Anna, are very evenly matched, so instead of one character demolishing the other as Mick demolished Davies, or Ruth demolished Lenny, the battle is more subtle and refined. In the 'duologue' between Deeley and Anna [Act 1 (p.38-41)] a strenuous battle is going on below the veneer of sociable small-talk. Deeley boasts of his travel, Anna encourages him, then turns the tables by criticising him for leaving Kate alone for long periods, and uses the opening this creates in his defences to suggest that she could come up and stay with Kate. Deeley retaliates by switching the conversation to Anna's home, implying that that is where she should stay, and hinting that she might not be getting satisfaction from her husband, 'Captain steer a straight course?' Anna's manipulation of Deeley follows the same pattern as the episode in The Caretaker when Mick encourages Davies to criticise Aston, then turns the tables by attacking him for criticising his brother.

The main battle in Old Times is about who is closer to Kate, Deeley or Anna. From Anna's arrival in Act 1 Kate says virtually nothing until just before the end of the act. She is silent, but she is listening, and observing, and preparing for her well-aimed attack on both of them at the play's climax.

Anna's claim on Kate centres upon a relationship based on the common ground of domesticity, interest in the arts, and innocent girlish fun.

Deeley: . . . innocent girls, innocent secretaries . . . [Act 1 (p.18)]

At least, they like to present their relationship as innocent. Anna frequently refers to their activities late at night, cooking giggling and chatting [Act 1 (p.17)], staying up reading Yeats [Act 1 (p.22)], playing records [Act 1 (p.26)]. But at the same time there is something distinctly sexual in their relationship. The references to sharing Kate's underwear, and her habit of telling Kate the events of the evening while wearing her underwear, and Anna's intimate knowledge of Kate's bathing habits all speak of a mutual unspoken innocent titillation. Nowhere is it suggested that they actually had a lesbian relationship, but the suggestions is that mutual excitement seems to have been an important part of their relationship.

At the same time, similarly displaying an attitude to sexuality which we may not be able to take at fact value, Deeley, when talking of his relationship with Kate, speaks of sex in a grandiose poetic way.

Our naked bodies met, hers cool, warm, highly agreeable . . . I touched her profoundly all over. [Act 1 (p.31)].

But his accounts of his encounters with Anna take on a blatantly crude and lecherous tone, as he describes looking up her skirt.

Deeley is clearly fascinated by the hints of homosexual attraction between Kate and Anna. This is evident from his obvious interest in their sharing of underwear, and his story of lesbian usherettes in the cinema. (Hence Old Times depicts a triangular relationship, with a homosexual suggestions, which anticipates Betrayal.)

What all this adds up to is that, however they may present themselves on the surface, both Deeley and Anna 'fancy' Kate in a crude lecherous unpleasant way. Beneath the surface of the dialogue, especially between Deeley and Anna, is a powerful undercurrent of 'dirty thoughts' aimed at Kate, and this is why Kate retaliates with 'dirt' at the end. Kate may or may not have been guilty of encouraging or participating in this clandestine activity, (the suggestion is that she was), but she is less able, or less willing to accept it than the other two, and she feels she has been robbed of her innocence, first by the sexual undertones creeping into her relationship with Anna, and secondly when this enjoyable innocent secret pleasure was spoiled by the arrival of Deeley.

Kate's outburst at the end of the play seems to be a retaliation against the way Deeley and Anna have, both during the course of the play, and in the past, concealed their lecherousness beneath a phoney veneer of sophistication and worldliness, and also against the way she feels she has been dirtied by their sexual desires. Anna is 'dead' because with the arrival of Deeley their relationship had died, and dirty because after switching her affections and sexuality to Deeley, (What a relief it was to have a different body in my room, a male body [Act 11 (p.72)] she finds her flirtation with homosexuality disgusting.

In the final scene the battle between Deeley and Anna about who is the more worldly, the more knowledgeable, and who knows Kate best, is undercut and demolished by the formerly silent Kate.

At the end of both The Homecoming and Old Times we are left with the feeling that although one character has scored a victory over the others, ultimately everyone has lost. This is because the relationships involved are exposed as being primarily selfish, fraught with sexual lust and desire for power, and lacking in love. The same thing emerges from the final scene of Betrayal, which reveals that the whole affair between Jerry and Emma began in a moment of drunken excess.

The contrast in the styles of fighting in the plays resembles the contrast between different sports, The Caretaker being like a boxing match, and Old Times being like a game of badminton. The nature of the game varies according to the social milieu, but the central activity is always the same:

Max: . . . You've got to learn how to defend yourself, and you've got to learn how to attack. [The Homecoming, Act 1 (p.33)]

In No Man's Land the characters play a different game, perhaps cricket, a dignified gentlemanly game, with no women allowed. In the faster sections, such as the fast-moving dialogue in Act 11(p.71-77) however, the atmosphere is more that of Ping-Pong. This section seems to be deliberately structured like a sporting competition, with the pauses representing a point scored by one contestant or the other. (Hirst's 'That's my point,' might perhaps be deliberately ambiguous).

Hirst 'serves' with, 'You did say you had a good war, didn't you?' Then the ball is knocked back and forth and Hirst wins the point by referring to his superiority, having been in Military Intelligence. After the pause Hirst serves again, but Spooner throws him off his guard by mentioning 'Stella'. The following pause represents Spooner's point. Hirst wins the next point at the pause on page 73, Spooner wins the next at the pause on page 74, and so on.

We do not know whether the characters and events they speak of are real. Hirst and Spooner behave like total strangers in Act 1, and like old acquaintances in Act 2. Presumably for Pinter's purposes this does not matter. When competing in a sport we are unlikely to know anything about our opponents, but this doesn't matter to the game. The competitors need to compete within the rules and parameters of the game, their personal lives being irrelevant.

The competition between Hirst and Spooner disintegrates when Spooner starts 'playing dirty'. The subject matter degenerates from the war and Military Intelligence to Arabella Hinscott's predilection for 'consuming the male member'. The gentlemanly atmosphere of a cricket match has been maintained by the restrained manner and cultivated diction of the conversation, but within those parameters Spooner succeeds in offending Hirst until Hirst has to abandon the game.

But in spite of his victory, Spooner does not succeed in attaching himself to Hirst. The pattern of relationships in The Homecoming and Old Times was fluid and responsive to change, but Hirst is fixed in his organisation, part dog, part master, he has 'changed the subject for the last time'. The outcome is reminiscent of The Caretaker, with Spooner, a solitary wanderer like Davies, unable to gain admission into a household guarded by two tough guys.

Throughout the play Spooner has had not only to compete with Hirst at their 'gentlemanly game', but also to compete with Foster and Briggs who are doing their best to 'stop the match'.

In No Man's Land a battle certainly takes place, but it seems less fierce than those in his in previous plays. Perhaps this is because the characters are ageing. They both seem to be beyond the struggle for position, sexual relationships, and emotional attachments which motivate the younger characters of the earlier plays.

[1] From: 'Harold Pinter: an interview'. (With Lawrence M Benskey). From Writers at Work: the Paris Review Interviews, third series, edited by George Plimpton 1967

The Examination (1960) In: 'Harold Pinter. Poems and Prose 1949 - 1977'. London: Eyre Methuen. 1978

The Caretaker (1960) In: 'Pinter Plays: Two'. London: Eyre Methuen.1977
The Homecoming (1965) In: 'Pinter Plays: Three'. London: Eyre Methuen.1978
Old Times. London: Eyre Methuen.1971
No Man's Land. London: Eyre Methuen.1975
Betrayal. London: Eyre Methuen.1978

The Caretaker (aka The Guest). Dir Clive Donner. Caretaker Films 1963

Further reading
Knowles, Ronald. The Birthday Party and The Caretaker: Text and Performance. Macmillan Education. 1988

© Ian Mackean, January 2001

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