What are Pinter Pauses? And other Pinteresque devices
Updated on 18 February 2021
While many of you are probably familiar with the work of Harold Pinter and have heard about Pinter Pauses before, you may have found yourself wondering, ‘Just what are Pinter Pauses exactly?’ We’ve compiled a detailed overview of everything you need to know about Pinter Pauses and other Pinteresque devices.
A Pinter Pause is a radical device that Pinter frequently incorporated into his plays. He felt that theatre neither accurately depicted the unpredictability of human discourse, nor the complexities found in carefully constructing an utterance. Often when we search for the right words, we pause. And sometimes, we have no comment at all, remaining completely silent. This is exactly what Pinter pursued in his plays – a rejection of perfection in favour of realism.
There are three different types of silences that can be categorised under Pinter Pauses and they are referred to as: an ellipsis, a pause, and silence. In a Pinter script, an ellipsis is denoted by three dots and was used by the playwright to indicate slight hesitation. A pause was a much longer hesitation used by Pinter to more accurately depict the careful construction of an utterance. Generally, during a pause, the character is in the middle of a deep thought process and the use of this device helped Pinter to create tension and an unsettling atmosphere. A full-on silence, also known as a pregnant pause, is a dead stop during which no word is uttered because the character has encountered a conflict so absurd that they have nothing to say, and they are left in a completely different mental state from where they started.
The use of Pinter Pauses is often likened to the original Surrealist movement. Where Surrealism sought to tap the subconscious and illustrate the randomness of our dreams through means of automatism, Pinter sought to tap the randomness of ‘the conversation‘ in order to paint, in an often exaggerated manner, the irrationality of human speech and its nuances. In doing so, he created a wealth of psychological drama filled with suspense, pathos, anxiety and tension that distanced him from other playwrights of his time.
Pinter summed up his concept of silence in this quote of his, which can be considered his Pinter Pause manifesto: ‘I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else's life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.‘ – Harold Pinter
Pinter adopted the silence device from one of his good friends, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, whom he met in the 1950s when he worked as an actor in Ireland. Becket was known to be a man of few words who would occasionally meet someone new and not utter a single word. The dialogues found in Beckett’s work were a precursor to Pinter’s three silences. Despite Beckett’s shy demeanour, the two enjoyed a strong friendship and Pinter famously referred to Beckett as the greatest writer of their time.
The term, Pinteresque, was coined to refer to the characteristics found in Pinter’s plays and in addition to his Pinter Pauses, other Pinteresque devices include a sense of place and minimalism. The sense of place device is inversely related to his minimalist characteristics and refers to the props found within the set design that give subtle hints to the setting without being explicit. Minimalism is used within the plot, which is, instead, focused on the struggle of lifting drama from occasionally mundane conversations.