The Hero As The Victim in Harold Pinter's Plays

Selda Öndül

Ankara University

The main problem in Pinter's plays is "victimisation of the other". We can formulate the problem the other way around as "man's struggle to avoid victimisation by the other". Pinter's heroes are not the only characters who face this problem. So are Beckett's, Albee's, Shepard's and Genet' S. Man strives to find something (/anything) to cling to - to BEING in order to escape NON-BEING - in an age of loneliness, alienation, dehumanisation and estrangement. Beckett's, Albee's, Shepard's and Genet's characters rebel to be victimised by forces, the names/ faces/ identities of whom are many or long-forgotten. Albee's Jerry and Peter are both victimised by everything that surround them. Jerry is aware of this fact whereas Peter is not. Peter thinks that he himself manipulates the conditions until he meets Jerry. Jerry sees Peter as one of the others who victimise him and also as one of the poor victims who however also reinforces the way things is by his bourgeois way of living. At the same time, Jerry victimises Peter by making him kill himself. While Jerry gets rid of the rotten life, nothing will ever be the same for Peter. Peter has - for the first time - really touched someone. Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon are the two victims of the cosmic waiting who can only rebel against their fate by accepting the motionless act of waiting. They do not kill themselves but continue waiting. Whether Godot comes or not is not important any more, what is important is the mere act of waiting. Lucky and Pozzo, on the other hand, display a mirror-reflection of their relationship with Godot. "To be the victor one has to have a victim, or vice versa". Shepard's characters Austin and Lee struggle to establish an identity and to avoid nothingness. Genet's Claire and Solange find a way to escape the victimisation of the other by committing a crime - just like Genet himself. Although they commit a sham murder while playing, Solange kills someone. She kills Claire pretending to be Madam, who embodies the aristocratic attitude and abhors them, the maids. Thus, to escape the victimisation of the other; the other man, the society, the forces unnamed or unnamable, one has to victimise the other. Thus, hell becomes the other/s, in Sartre's terms.

The dramaturgy of almost all Pinter plays is based upon the problem of victimisation. However, neither he nor his contemporaries are innovators. One can name innumerable characters of grandeur who stand up against their fate of being victimised. They are persons of great will power who only let themselves victimise themselves. To recall a few we can name Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet, Phaidre, Emilia Galotti, Hernani, Nora, Oswald Alving, Miss Julie, Hedda, Hauptmann's characters, Treplev, Nina, Ivanov, Yerma, Adela, and the Bride. Oedipus stands against his fate, the order of the gods, violates the holy system that is his fate. When he reaches recognition he does not surrender; he punishes himself with his hands. The lovers, Romeo and Juliet do not give up loving. one another. They will love each other forever. They stand against the traditionalised hatred between their families. Phaidre will only obey the order of things by victimising herself for a goal higher. Emilia Galotti will never surrender to the rotten values of the aristocracy. She meets death with grandeur. It is the same for Hernani. He will not choose his love when his honour is at stake. Yerma, Adela and the Bride may all have wronged where the laws of society are concerned. Yet they do not hesitate to follow the laws of nature and meet their ends with honour. The "other" that victimises Julie, Hedda, Treplev, Nina, Nora, Oswald is the social conditions or their hereditary characteristics. They do not yield to these factors, however. They strive according to their codes of honour. Are all these characters named victors? They sure are, since they know the solution to the question: "To be or not to be", since they do not yield, since they know what it is to be human. Are they victims? They sure are. They are victims since they cannot live according to the laws that are forced on them.

Pinter sees man's age old strife. However, he also sees that time has passed. Now, man is in such a condition that he no longer can name his victimiser. Pinter's characters are like those of Beckett, the grandson of Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck's people are the victims of an environment governed by fear the source of which is unknown. While Hamlet fights against suspicion, his fellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, recreated by Stoppard try to find the logic of coincidence that draws the logic of the flux of life. In other words, Pinter inherits a history of characters the struggles of whom evolve from a nameable enemy in a cosmos in which fate is written and ruled by gods, environment, ancestors to an unnamable enemy, in a cosmos in which fate is written and ruled by coincidences. Pinter's characters fight against each other, to victimise each other to escape this particular victimisation. To escape victimisation they try to get hold of a space, of a person or both. Thus, they also try to escape the victimisation of the other. Frequently this "other" also occurs as the past, and/or as the self itself. The weapons they use in this process are the power of words and silences, memories, physical or verbal violence, and wit. The struggle of victimisation between the one/s inside and the one/s outside recalls the victimisation and succession rituals of the primordial times. More precisely, Pinter follows the patterns of some rituals in patterning his plays.

Before comparing and contrasting the Pinter plays and the ancient rituals considering both the pattern and the meaning we need to remember what victim has meant for man. For Plato, it is a gift presented to the gods. For Theophrastus it is a gift of praise, of thankfulness, and of request. Edward Burnet Tylor verbalises it as a gift presented to the metaphysical one to escape his wrath, his hostility and to guarantee his grace/ mercy. At first, man used to give presents to the natural forces to gain their sympathy. Then, gods became aloof to man. However, man felt himself as a part of them. He continued to give presents to them, which became increasingly valuable. Man himself became the gifts. Man giving presents to gods was transformed into ritualistic acts by which man believed he himself could manipulate certain changes in nature. Thus; victimisation meant to be a direct manipulation. The relationship between the metaphysical and person became one of "if you give to me I will give to you" as Durkheim puts it. At the beginning, man gave his body, or parts of his body, or the other's body or parts of the other's body. He used to tear his heart or the other's and presented it to the holy ones, to make the crops grow, the seasons change, to gather the strength of nature for his tribe. However notions change. The tribe while worshipping the holy one also turns it into an icon, into the totem and eat the substitute of it. They believe that this particular act will make them and their fields fertile, strong and long-living. Freud interprets Oedipus murdering his father as the first killing of the totem. These ceremonies, in anthropological terms, rituals, are ceremonies of victimisation. Both in pagan and in monotheistic religions the rituals of victimisation have an important place. These rituals, in other words, structure of manners and traditions based on the archetype as Metin And says, according to Radcliffe-Brown form and smooth the relationships between the individuals in society. Metin And formulates what Durkheim says while explaining the functions of rituals and explains that rituals prepare the individual for social life. Marc Auge claims that rituals help constitute sympathy and empathy between the individuals of a society. Combs-Schilling states that rituals also link the generations to one another.

The rituals of victimisation executed for millions of years -- we have written sources about the Mayas, Incas, Hittites, Sumers, the ancient Greeks and Turks and about many tribes all over the world, and also the four holy books - show us that the victim is holy and his/her victimisation brings vitality, holiness, peace to the community and to the soil. Thus, victimisation rituals have had a religious and social importance.

The victimisation rituals have a close link to the death/kenosis-rebirth/plerosis rituals. The killing of the victim, bribing the holy powers, brings vitality to the soil. The old dies, the new is born in death-rebirth rituals. The winter is expelled and the summer is welcomed. Earth is purified. Thus, it will give more crops. At first, it was also believed that if those rituals had not taken place, crops would not have grown. Now, those rituals are enacted to welcome the summer, the birth of nature. The tribal man believed that by magic he could postpone the winter or quicken the arrival of summer. He held ceremonies to have rains, to have the sun shining, to have the animals reproduce. When he realised that that there are natural cycles he believed in religions. However, he continued with his cyclic rituals to help the metaphysical powers. Thus, he began to imitate the natural cycles. The rituals of seasonal changes and the abduction are of such characteristics. In "the Anatolian Arab play" there are three principal roles: The Arab, the Husband and the Bride. The Arab's hands and face are painted in black. The husband is an old man with a long white beard. The Bride is a man in woman's clothes. At first the Arab is the one who leads the other two. The Arab abducts the Bride. The husband gets angry. The two men fight. The husband is killed. The Bride cries. The husband is brought back to life. Likewise the death and the resurrection of the fertility god (Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysos) are performed in all parts of Anatolia as well as in Europe. This ritual is enacted to express the dying and reviving god. In this way the primitive man explained the decay and growth of vegetation. The replacement of the old by the new is narrated by James Frazer in "The King of the Wood".

In this sacred grove (of Nemi), in the sanctuary of Diana, there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer: and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger, or a craftier (person) (Frazer 1).
Mythologies are full of succession stories. The killing of the divine king is the most impressing. Frazer writes:
  Primitive peoples ... believe that their safety and even that of the world is bound up with the life of one of these god-men or human incarnations of the divinity. Naturally, therefore, they take the utmost care of his life, out of a regard for their own. But no amount of care and precaution will prevent the man-god for growing old and feeble and at last dying. His worshippers have to lay their account with this sad necessity and to meet it as best they can. The danger is a formidable one; for if the course of nature is dependent on the man-god's life, what catastrophes may not be expected from the gradual enfeeblement of his powers and their final extinction in death? There is only one way of averting these dangers. The man-god must be killed as son as he shows symptoms that his powers are beginning to fail, and his soul must be transferred to a vigorous successor before it has been seriously impaired by the threatened decay (Frazer 309).
Some peoples, however, appear to have thought it unsafe to wait for even the slightest symptom of decay and have preferred to kill the king while he was still in the full vigour of life. Accordingly, they have fixed a term beyond which he might not reign, at the close of which he must die, the term fixed upon being short enough to exclude the probability of his degeneration physically in the interval (Frazer 319).

In all these cases we see divine kings. The fertility of man, of the cattle and of the soil depend on the strength of these kings. Before they age or lose their vitality they are killed so that their vigour can be transmitted to their successors. It is believed that if they are left to age their sickness will be transmitted to man, to the soil and to the cattle.

These men are kings, holy beings. Yet, their existence is due to their communities, due to their physical strength. In this sense, they are victims. They are the objects of, the victim of divine powers, beliefs, traditions. They are the victims of an infinite cycle. They are the victims of an unchangeable fate. They can only find temporary peace, comfort, a sense of belonging, a temporary life. They are appointed with a holy mission. When their time is over they are doomed to be thrown out of life. To guarantee the welfare of their people they have to accept victimisation. This is their fate.

Pinter, in 10 of his plays - The Room, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, The Caretaker, Tea Party, The Homecoming, The Basement, No Man's Land, and Betrayal - uses the idea of victimisation and succession rituals to reflect the cosmic suffering of human beings in an age in which a deep problematic of dehumanisation is experienced. He turns the archetype upside down. In this short study only 4 plays (A Slight Ache, Tea Party, The Homecoming, The Basement) will be taken into consideration.

Now we will see how Pinter turns the victimisation and succession rituals in an age in which there are no high values, ideals after which man fights. We will also see how Pinter looks at these archetypes, standing on the individual's side. In this context, there is not a big change in fact. Yet the biggest change is that holiness has eroded. Thus, people fight only for themselves, only for survival. Like Beckett's, Shepard's, and Genet's characters. There is no place for Oedipus, Hamlet, Hernani, Nora, Treplev any more. Man strives to breathe, just to survive.

Pinter's 4 plays can be categorised under 2 topics according to the archetypes of victimisation and succession rituals: 1) The one/s outside throwing the one/s inside out: A Slight Ache, The Basement; 2) The one/s outside coming in and usurping the one/s inside: Tea Party, The Homecoming. In A Slight Ache1 the match-seller who has been standing at the back gate is invited into the house of Edward and Flora, supposedly a married couple. As they talk about themselves and compare him to people whom they knew in the past, the match-seller does not utter a single word. During those monologues Edward's slight ache in his eyes gets worse, he loses his strength, his low self esteem manifests itself. His term is obviously ending. On the other hand, Flora is rejuvenated sexually. At the end of the play, Edward and the match-seller switch roles. Flora thrusts the match-seller's tray at Edward and sends him to the back gate and then invites the match-seller into the house to lunch. This switch of roles implies that the match-seller will be thrown out of the house when his term comes to an end. The match-seller, however, unlike the newcomer, the new master to the sanctuary does not practise any kind of violence. He only helps Edward and Flora to bring out what is buried in their personalities. The plot of The Basement is quite simple as that of A Slight Ache. Law welcomes his friend, Stott (and then Jane) to his room on a rainy day. After a series of clashes mostly manifested through games, the play ends with Law about to enter the room (Jane is behind him). Stott welcomes him with exactly the same words Law uttered at the beginning of the play. Thus, all that have been lived will be lived again. In The Homecoming, the oldest son of the family, Teddy comes to visit his family the members of which are all males: Max, the father, an ex-butcher; his brother Sam, a chauffeur; his sons Lenny a pimp and Joey, a part-time boxer. Teddy has been living in America for six years where he teaches philosophy at a university. His family does not know that he married Ruth or that they have three sons. In the two-act play relationships change. At the end of the play the family asks Ruth to stay in the house as the mother, maid and whore who should support herself financially by part-time prostitution. Ruth accepts. Teddy leaves for America. It is proved that this is Ruth's homecoming. She has not only replaced the dead mother but also has usurped all the men in the household, and betrayed her husband. The house will be her sanctuary. Robert Disson in Tea Party is an industrial tycoon. The day before he is married he employs Wendy Dodd as his secretary. The same day he learns that his best man Disley, an eye specialist, will not be able to come to his wedding ceremony. Thus, Disley will not be able to make the eulogy for Disson either. When he tells Diana and his brother-in-law Willy, whom he meets the day before his wedding, that Disley will not come, Diana suggests that Willy make it. Disson reluctantly accepts. In the wedding ceremony, however the eulogy for Disson turns out to be the eulogy for the bride. Right after the wedding ceremony Disson develops an eye problem. He also begins to suspect that Diana, Willie and Wendy are plotting against him. Moreover, he feels that his twin sons (Tom and John) by a former marriage are greatly influenced by Diana and Willie. The more he doubts the more his eyes hurt. He undergoes fits of blindness. He loses his physical strength and industrial kingdom as he offers Willie to be his second-in-command. In other words, Disson gradually deteriorates. At the tea party held to celebrate his and Diana's first anniversary he figuratively turns into a rock. When the play ends he is like a living corpse. He is totally usurped. Again the reason for Disson's, the industrial king's deterioration stems from his low self esteem, his insecurity. The outsiders in search for a secure shelter are the means to bring this out.

Pinter sees man in a continuous struggle of dominance and subservience. The ones who are able to dominate find a temporary peace on earth just like their ancestors of the ancient times. To escape nihilism, to find a meaning in life although not permanent, some are victimised. However, this victim is not holy any more. He has no function of uniting, bringing life to the manhood, or has the power of changing the way of things. One victimises the other just to find the grounds to live, to breathe. Thus, victimisation does not have deeper meanings. Yet, the victor is always doomed to be victimised as it is in the ancient rituals. This is the way of life, existence...


And, Metin. Drama at the Crossroads: Turkish Performing Arts Link Past and Present, East and West. Istanbul: The Isis Press,1991.

And, Metin. Geleneksel Tirk Tiyatrosu: Köylü ve Halk Tiyatrosu Gelenekieri. Istanbul: Inkilap Kitabevi, 1985.

And, Metin. Oyun ve Baga: Türk Kültürrunde Oyun Kavrami. Istanbul: Is Bankasi Yayinlan.

Burkman, Katherine H.. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1971.

Campbell, Joseph. Dogu Mitolojisi. Ccv.: Kudret Emiroglu. Ankara: Imge Kitabevi. 1993.

Erginer, Gürbüz. Kurbanin Kikenleri ve Anadolu 'da Kanh Kurban Rit£iellen. (YKY'dan yayina hazirlantyor)

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough; The Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged Edition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1963.

Pinter, Harold. Complete Works: One (The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, A Night Out, The Black and white, The Examination) New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1978.

Pinter, Harold. Complete Works: Three (The Homecoming, Landscape, Silence, The Basement, Revue Sketches: Night That's All, That's Your Trouble, Interview, Applicant, Dialogue For Three, Tea Part') New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1978.