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‘No Man’s Land’: Harold Pinter, William Hurt and the problem of freedom

By Barry Johnson
October 12, 2011
Featured, Theater

William Hurt and Tim True spar a bit in "No Man's Land" at Artists Rep/Photo: Owen Carey

As the title suggests, Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” is contested ground.

Critics and academics of various sorts have sorted through its characters and lines, seeking something “definitive,” but Pinter’s construction won’t sit still for an autopsy. The play is full of acute observation, acute longing and desire, lovely wordplay of the Beckett variety, fiction intentional and masquerading as the “truth,” wit dry and humor bawdy, cruelty and malaise, power and vulnerability, even philosophical investigation or possibly the parody of philosophical investigation, depending on your state of mind, perhaps. And depending on how it’s played — different productions emphasize some of those different parts. The same with critics.

Into this contested and ambiguous space, which perhaps we can all agree is at least melancholy if not profoundly sad, William Hurt has come to play the role of the poet Spooner in Artists Repertory Theatre’s production, which also stars Allen Nause, Tim True and Hurt’s son, Alex Hurt.

This is Hurt’s fourth run-out with ART (the previous time, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” was a co-production with the Sydney Theatre Company), and I think it’s his best. Maybe that’s because Spooner is so various in his parts and an active player can find enough quicksilver changes to keep himself occupied in amusing ways. Hurt is an active actor and I found his Spooner absorbing.

Maybe I also found him baffling. But Spooner shares that quality with Hurt.

The first Spooner in the original London production was John Gielgud.  In reheasal, his director Peter Hall (in his “Diaries,” as quoted in Michael Billington’s “The Life and Work of Harold Pinter”) was worried about the direction Gielgud was taking the character: “He’s over-experimenting: playing it humble, playing it conceited, playing it creepy, playing it arrogant. It is a search for the simple key. Whereas the truth is that Spooner is many things and changes his posture from second to second. So there isn’t a simple key.”

But Gielgud’s Spooner ended up getting fabulous reviews, and when you watch his performance in a BBC television version, you hear in his language all of those aspects Hall talked about. In fact, if you do happen to link to the video of that version, maybe you’ll be as mesmerized at first as I was: He speaks so beautifully.

Hurt doesn’t speak that well; honestly, I can’t think of anyone who does. Maybe Cate Blanchett? But how would even she fare in a comparison to Gielgud, if she were dropped into “No Man’s Land” (and I’d pay large sums to see that!)? With the barest facial expressions and fluctuations of his voice, Gielgud located the essential parts of Spooner, most of them anyway. Hurt has his way with the language, too, but it’s more expressive, wanders a wider range, though he loves the sudden blurt, the firehose of language that pours out until the breath that drives it is extinguished.

Having said that, Hurt’s speaking is relatively restrained in “No Man’s Land.” He’s in the parlour of a rich man’s house, after all. No need to raise one’s voice! No need to whisper conspiratorially.  But compared to Gielgud, he’s far more active physically, and that gives his Spooner yet more aspects.

Hurt’s Spooner can seem a little dangerous, for example, imposing, looming over Nause’s Hirst, the rich man in whose house he’s arrived for more drinks after drinks at a pub. I also liked the way he stands tall, back arched, looking downward to regard… a comment, a character, a sudden change in the emotional weather of the play. Arrogance? Not quite, though Spooner is a man of some self-regard when he’s not begging for a job, for a place in that comfortable house.

I’m focusing on Hurt here because Spooner is a singular character in the play.

Spooner: …The point I’m trying to make in case you‘ve missed it is that I am a free man.
Hirst: It’s been a long time since we’ve had a free man in this house.

Are we living in a tragedy or in a comedy? In modern times, our art has answered that we aren’t living in either. We aren’t the hero of our own story, tragic or otherwise, because we aren’t actually characters, we aren’t as integrated as those inventions, though we can make them up and even enact them sometimes. Modern art has argued that it’s simply a matter of context whether that line, that situation, that character is comic or tragic. And that instead, we are creatures living in a half-light, limited by the deficiencies of our heads, hearts and bodies.

“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you/Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,/The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed/With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,/And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama/And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—”

That’s T.S. Eliot in “East Coker,” and Eliot is frequently cited as an influence on “No Man’s Land” along with Beckett. No wonder modern art isn’t popular. We want heroes, villains and integrated characters, human success and failure, not the “darkness of God.”

Hirst is waiting for the darkness to come upon him. Maybe, in truth, it already has. He has spasms of memory and desire. His two manservants (played by True and Alex Hurt) are there to make his passage comfortable. But he is near the end.

Nause plays him brittle but flinty, tough, with occasional glimmers of the pathetic.  His counterpart in the original production was Ralph Richardson, who emphasized the fright and dismay at the core of Hirst. Nause is more intent on establishing his stubbornness. Maybe he needs to because Hurt’s Spooner is so vivid and imposing, without Gielgud’s projection of a bothersome gnat.

Allen Nause and William Hurt in ART's "No Man's Land"/Photo: Owen Carey

Whatever Spooner’s frailties, Hurt and director John Dillon take that line, “I am a free man,” seriously, I think, even though Spooner sometimes doesn’t.

How are humans free in modern art? As artists, maybe? Spooner says, almost by way of introduction to Hirst and the audience, “I am a poet. I am interested in where I am eternally present and active.”  Billington points out that “No Man’s Land” is a play with opposites and parallels, and the eternally present and active is the opposite of no man’s land, which “does not move or change or grow old. It remains forever icy, silent,” in Hirst’s first formulation of it. Of course, Hirst is a literary man himself, we are told.  Apparently, poets don’t automatically become free.

But Spooner is — to cajole, insult, importune, remember and misremember, observe and create, even sit all night locked in a dark room: “I’ve known this before.” He’ll do or say almost anything to find his ticket into the first class compartment that Hirst and his zealous servants occupy. At the same time, he exists under the same condition as Hirst, with darkness approaching, a death-haunted primate. He just chooses to keep things lively (as Hurt said at one point in “The Big Chill”).

Hirst: Tonight, my friend, you find me in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run.
Spooner: A metaphor. Things are looking up.

Which is both sad and hilarious, as Pinter very well knows, Hurt and Dillon, too.

Is there some salvation for Spooner in his freedom? The modernists pretty much closed the door on that possibility. To find salvation, TS Eliot had to look beyond the human condition to the sacred for salvation. And Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” offers none. Or does it?

For me, this production escapes the No Exit of man’s fate with a little post-modern gesture. At the end of the Gielgud/Richardson production, things end in stasis and worse, a promise not to unsettle that stasis. The four characters end the play as they do in Sartre’s “No Exit,” looking at each other, awaiting… more of the same. That’s not how ART’s production ends. (And here, I suppose, a SPOILER ALERT is in order, because you may not want the surprise revealed. Skip the rest of this paragraph, in that case!) There’s an escape, the fox dodges the hounds, the noose is slipped, a tip of the hat, maybe even a twinkle and then an exit and a return to the creative present, however uncomfortable.

When it happened, it shocked me. When did Coyote show up in this play? If modernist subversion leads to this stasis, is it possible to subvert subversion itself and escape, for the moment anyway, scot-free? By trickery and an eye for the main chance, the trickery of creation? Pinter might object.

Pinter in the fall  of 1974, when he was writing “No Man’s Land,” was an unhappy man, according to Billington’s biography. The previous year he’d seen his “Old Times” turned into a sex farce by Luchino Visconti in Rome and worried over a film version of “The Last Tycoon,” Fitzgerald’s last and unfinished novel. Worse, his marriage to actor Vivien Merchant was falling apart. Billington sees some of Pinter’s personal desperation in “No Man’s Land.” By the time that  Peter Hall started rehearsing the play with Gielgud and Richardson, though, Pinter had fallen head over heels for Lady Antonia Fraser. From that relationship, another Pinter emerged (almost Picasso like).

Billington quotes Fraser: “It would be gratifying to claim that had some influence over Harold, but I think what happened was that he had an unhappy, complicated personal life which gave way to a happy, uncomplicated personal life, and a side of Harold which had always been there was somehow released. I think you can see that in his work after “No Man’s Land” which was a very bleak play.” She is referring to the series of political causes Pinter took up and his continuing work in theater and films, in which those concerns were integrated. And he left the icy and the silent behind.

Hirst: …I saw a body drowning, but I am mistaken, there is nothing there.
Spooner: No. No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.
Hirst: I’ll drink to that.

Pinter didn’t drink to that toast, ultimately. And neither does this production.


1. A quick summary of the play? Spooner and Hirst have met in a bar and retired to Hirst’s house for more drinks as the play opens. Spooner is a poverty-stricken poet with a certain gift for language of a certain type and a hustler of sorts trying to insinuate himself into the good graces of Hirst, who is a wealthy literary figure. Hirst is served and guarded by two servants, Foster and Briggs, who attempt to repel the new invader, Spooner. Hirst collapses a few times, Spooner is locked in the parlor overnight, and when morning dawns, he continues his attempt to curry Hirst’s favor and avoid a beating at the hands of Foster and Briggs. That’s about it, though the play contains several wonderfully comic set-pieces and certain amount of bawdy humor.

2. Marty Hughley wrote a preview of the Artists Rep production, which is a useful starting point, and he has reviewed the show.

3. I thought both True and Alex Hurt helped balance the play. True was a counter-weight to Hurt, who can seem pretty imposing onstage physically, and Hurt’s fast-talking, pseudo-hip  Foster widened the “musical” range of the voices. Both have funny bits to perform and both took full advantage, meaning that the play really was a true ensemble, even though William Hurt tends to warp the space-time continuum as all big stars do.

4. Freedom is a theme that was operating throughout the big openings this weekend, in “Gem of the Ocean” at Portland Playhouse and even “Petrouchka” at Oregon Ballet Theatre, and I hope to deal with those in subsequent posts. Was my reading of these productions affected by the Occupy Portland demonstrations? Is freedom in the air? I don’t think so, but…

5. As my colleague Bob Hicks has pointed out, Hurt’s performance isn’t always understandable. Sometimes he mumbles and slurs words. That’s in service to the music of the play, maybe, but it can be a problem for those who are trying to follow the lines closely.

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