Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Either the Audience Wins or You Do: Harold Pinter, Audience Pleasure, and Other Musings

One of the most unnerving things about poetry readings for me, as a young poet, was my relative success with them. I had been reading with writers like Judy Grahn and Susan Griffin, among others, and as much as I admired Judy (for example), her spellbinding performances of her work, and the strangely (or at least astonishingly) warm reception for my own, still left me profoundly unsettled. It seemed way too easy to please people. And once one had figured out how to do this, the effects were eerily reproducible. I could imagine taking this show out on the road, and to a small extent I did, reading by invitation at a number of universities. But I wasn't happy with this process for a multiplicity of reasons, only one of which was that it felt uncomfortably like shtick.

All this must be why I'm still somewhat ill at ease when a poem is described as a "crowdpleaser," as one was during our discussion of humor and poetry in the new Jacket, edited by Pam Brown. It's not that pleasing a crowd is an embarrassing or shameful thing, one to be devoutly avoided; in fact I hope to please many of them, as the years go by, and have fun at it to boot. Perhaps I still just find the "public like a frog" aspects daunting (to quote Emily). But producing such pleasure will probably go best for me if I can interrogate it a bit, find out more about how it operates and satisfy myself that I'm not settling for anyone's smug preconceptions and self-satisfactions, especially my own.

An entire galaxy of concerns, maybe too many for one blog post. But these constellations may explain my perverse pleasure in some delicious comments a few months ago by Harold Pinter on Charlie Rose. I'm not usually a fan of the show's giddy hail-fellow-well-met attitude, but when I saw that it was Pinter for the hour I set up a tape and later went back and scribbled down this partial transcript, including my own descriptions of Pinter's body language as he spoke.

Charlie Rose: Harold Pinter began his career as an actor, using the name David Baron, and has performed often on the stage. In October 2006, despite his age and his battle with cancer, he made a triumphant return in Samuel Beckett's one-man play, Krapp's Last Tape.

[clip from Pinter's performance in the play]

Rose: I don't know how you could write what you write and not have a very realistic sense of who you are and what you have done and what talent you have. Is it just modesty?

Harold Pinter: I can't make any such judgment about my work. One thing I really do know about my work is that it makes me laugh. I really do get a lot of laughs out of it. And when I hear other actors saying the lines, I join in their own relish.

Rose: You would rather write a line that generates a laugh than some piercing insight?

Pinter: Well, I believe in two things. One is: get a laugh, if it's a natural laugh. And the other is: stop it.

Rose: By moving to the next...

Pinter: By shutting the audience up. I've always found the audience... a contest between myself and the audience, and I've enjoyed that contest. There's only one winner.

Rose: Either the audience wins or you do.

Pinter: It has to be me.

Rose: There have been times onstage in which you can feel the contest.

Pinter: Very much so. I had a most memorable, unforgettable night in New York many years ago with The Homecoming. When the lights went up on the first night, the opening night, the audience hated it. They saw the set, they saw the actors dressed in an unappealing way, and they detested it. And there was a tremendous [pumps fist for emphasis] contest that night in which the actors detested the audience as much as the audience detested them, and finally the actors won [punches the air]. And the audience, you know [mimics bow tie at his neck], their bow ties and their mink coats, slumped in their seats, defeated [wildly gleeful look in his eye].

Rose: And was that performance that night better than it had been?

Pinter: Yeah, it was a great performance.

Rose: Because they rose to the occasion.

Pinter: They certainly did.

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