Saturday, April 24, 2010

The End of Old Times


I have another Pinter ending question. Do you have any wisdom regarding the end of "Old Times"? I'm working on the Anna/Deeley scene you mentioned in another post. In the end are Anna and Kate one and the same person? Or are Kate's final monologues a description of her attempt to "kill" the Anna piece of her personality, a piece that she perhaps is frightened or ashamed of? Or has she discovered that her relationship with Anna is really the only fulfilling relationship she has had, despite her efforts since? All too pat for Pinter I think. Would love your insight.


I remember an audition notice for a university production of Old Times.  It said something like this:
Is it happening or are they imagining it?
Are they middle-aged or ageless?
Are they separate people or are they all part of the same mind?
And on and on.

Everything happening in Old Times is really happening. It's a straightforwardly realistic play. The transition between the first two scenes is not exactly in the form of the Nineteenth Century realists, but the first scene is akin to Nineteenth Century melodrama in which an old servant enters with a new servant and says: “There are a few things you need to know about the family”, after which exposition the main characters enter and the story of the play begins.
Pinter needs such a scene to set up what’s about to happen in Old Times but he can’t have a scene with Deeley and Kate just before Anna gets there because he doesn’t want to take all the time afterwards for a doorbell to ring and introductions to be made and small talk about what’s been going on while coats are being taken off and put into closets, all the while trying to build the tension between Deeley and Anna to the point where it actually becomes stageworthy. Written that way, the play will be as long as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and not as interesting.
And I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s observation that films are like life only with all the boring parts removed.
Ditto for plays.
So:  With Anna standing up center in dim light, her back to all, the play begins mid-scene with a comic/tense dramatizing of both Deeley’s uncommunicative relationship with Kate and his excruciating fears about her past with Anna—which in Pinter is all you need to know about the family-- followed by a smash cut to Anna gushing mid-visit with Deeley already wanting to strangle her and her cultural affectations.
It’s clever and efficient.
And real.

All the people are real.
Deeley is a self-satisfied man, confident in his job and in his marriage, though we chuckle at the blindness of such confidence and the hints that perhaps his confidence in just about everything is being shaken this evening.
He’s got a little of the working class street fighter in him still. Only now the street fighter is armed with an educated mind and great verbal capacity. 
From the beginning of the play, slumped in his chair, he is a man on guard, alert, readying himself for the  possibility of defensive attack; a man terrified that not only may he actually not be the center of the universe, but he may not even be necessary to the universe.

We’ve all experienced that moment when a chance remark or a casual statement makes us suddenly question what we have unconsciously believed was granite truth about central aspects of our lives:  a relationship, a significant past family experience, and so on. (A college friend told me about a family gathering at which an old old woman was introduced to him and she said, "Oh yes, you're Evelyn's boy" and then added, "uh, adopted son".  Something he was hearing for the first time.)
We recognize in ourselves Deeley's panic, the source of his fear, his extreme behavior—and with that comes the uneasy laughter of such recognition. 

Deeley’s terror and how he handles it are the source of the comedy and the drama of Old Times.

Kate is a person who long ago lost the need, if indeed she ever had it, to fight for control of any situation. She long ago learned not to confront others directly. The play offers evocative images of her:  A faun, folding herself away.  A Bronte not in passion, but in secrecy.  A balloon floating.  To Type A personalities like Deeley (and Anna), she may seem passive, but her head is on her shoulders, it is quite fixed.

You may see Kates sitting with friends who are chattering away, eager to give their opinions about everything, while Kate herself seems uninvolved, looking past them, perhaps watching birds in tree branches or children playing in the park, a slight smile playing on her lips that says, “If only you were where my mind is right now, you’d know everything you need to know”.

She lets people think what they want. It’s possible to think that she thinks you’re wonderful even if she’d rather never see you again. It’s pretty clear that Anna invested with intimacy and eros all the time that she and Kate lived together while Kate allowed it all to happen by not being fully involved and by never directly challenging Anna’s feelings nor questioning her behavior.

Kate is like a cat who sits curled on the sofa and lets you pet her and lets you think she has feelings for you (which, in reality, may be true) even as she looks off in the distance, and as she stands and stretches and then walks away.

There is humor in the unaggressive, nonconfrontational way she deals with aggressive confrontational Deeley and Anna.  We sense she has never fought, never confronted, and yet she has always done exactly as she wants; she has never compromised her spirit. In this respect, she and Ruth from The Homecoming are, if not sisters, perhaps cousins.

Princess Diana had the trick of lowering her head and lifting her eyes and looking away with a little smile. There were no harsh edges and yet she confronted the British monarchy in ways no one had ever done without having their head impaled on a pike outside the palace doors. I suggest any actress who wants to create a Kate study videos of Princess Diana.

It may be a bit hard on Anna to say she fakes who she is.  But she has certainly over the years created her adult affect. She’s the kind of person we imagine saying “Dahling” a lot.  Hot, smoldering, flowing lava engulfing everything in its smothering path. She gushes, fills a room with her enthusiasm—even when the enthusiasm is only over the memory of a shared bag lunch.
Part of the comedy of Act I is watching her engulf and neutralize Deeley’s deft sharp-edged vocal rapier thrusts with her thick honeyed lava voice. She’s one of the Pinter women who have learned to defeat male power games by subverting them rather than by engaging directly.
By Act II the gushing may slow to a simmer, but it moves and bubbles right near the surface. And beneath the surface she communicates to Deeley:  "I can play any game you want as fast as you change the rules and I'll win."  There is nothing confrontational about it. There is nothing bitchy or provocative about her behavior.  All of it is done with the manners and the external behavior of a well-behaved though slightly affected English woman who is visiting an old friend and her husband.

The essential dramatic opposition of the play comes from the necessity of polite warm dinner party conversation and behavior played against Deeley’s growing hostility as his fears intensify that Kate and Anna were lovers.

Except for that opening smash cut, the play happens in real time. During the intermission between acts some minutes pass.  It might be interesting to speculate about just how Anna gets from the living room to the bedroom during those minutes.  Does she wait til Deeley goes to the kitchen to make coffee and then just walk into the bedroom?  Or does Deeley, before he goes into the kitchen, snarkily suggest they wait in the bedroom for Kate to come out of the bath? Or…?

This evening is fraught with Deeley’s fear of the unknown and Anna’s stoking of his fear and Kate’s noncommittal permission for the two of them to spar over her.  It prohibits frankness. Direct verbal communication is dangerous (See the Homecoming and the Applying Shakespeare posts), so the actual words spoken may seem to bear little direct relationship to what is going on because what is going on is going on beneath the surface.  Everyone knows what’s really happening, what conflict is really taking place, but so long as no one verbalizes it, no one loses power. But they know this is a death struggle.  Who does/did Kate love more? And what implications for the future does the answer to that question have?
At no time during the entire play does either Deeley or Anna simply turn to Kate and ask her what she thinks, what her feelings are, what her feelings were. (Why?) They talk about her, as she remarks, as if she weren’t there.
The whole play hinges on Deeley’s not being able simply to come out with it:  Were you two lovers?

So long as the actors create this tense, fraught, prohibitive atmosphere—and its comic intensities--the play stays comprehensible, suspenseful and realistic.  It is in the absence of that taut atmosphere that actors and directors fall into strange, absurd, even expressionistic non-interpretations, which fuel Pinter’s reputation for writing plays that are bizarre and wacky and weird.

What is Old Times about?  And what is dramatized beneath this surface? Some thoughts:  

*The person you have shared your life with may turn out suddenly to be a stranger.  And you are a blind fool if you think you know someone fully.

*In intimate human relationships, sex and sexuality are powerful, mysterious forces—essential, but essentially unknowable.

*In intimate relations people use the fear that there are things we don’t know about the other in order to “win” the constant battle for who’s in control.

Very near the end of the play, Deeley finally comes close to saying right out what has been building the entire evening:

Deeley:  You say she was Bronte in secrecy but not in passion. What was she in passion?

Anna:  I feel that is your province.

Deeley:  You feel it’s my province?  Well, you’re damn right.  It is my province. I’m glad someone’s showing a bit of taste at last.  Of course it’s my bloody province. I’m her husband.

Finally (at what point precisely? And why then?) Kate stops the escalating ugliness cold. With the simple truth of the most touching, straightforward line in the whole play, Kate knocks down the houses of turmoil and power struggle that Deeley and Anna have created over the course of the evening:  She fell in love with you.  With this line and with her final aria, Kate diminishes all their sturm und drang about sex and sexuality with the great truth of Love.

Kate’s aria demonstrates that she’s an expert at communicating powerful truths in such a way as to make it impossible for others to challenge.  With her aria she makes herself devastatingly clear, and potently enough to bring the entire evening’s electric tensions to an end: 

Anna, there came a point when you were simply dead to me. And so you left.
Deeley, I met you later and fell in love with you. You resisted my sexual/social gamesmanship. You wanted to get married. And so we did. Now here we are.

There is nothing for Deeley or Anna to say.
Kate wins.
As I suggested previously about The Homecoming, I think Old Times implies nothing about the life of its characters beyond the final moment of the play.  In Old Times this last moment is a freeze frame. 
Story over.  Point made.  The end.


  1. As always, thank you for your insights. This blog is lighting a creative fire.

    Kate has an amazing way of directing the flow of all conversation, given that she is the prize of Deeley and Anna's competition. She keeps Anna talking about Sicily even after Deeley's forceful attempt to veer the conversation away ("...There's nothing more in Sicily to investigate"). She gets their attention and can momentarily stop their bickering even by saying things that have no apparent meaning ("Yes I quite like those kinds of things, doing it"). Then, the competition becomes being the first one to correctly decipher her code. She is the abacus on which they keep score, and she is also in control of their game.

    The one thing she seems to consider a foul in their match is when she is addressed as part of an opposing team. When Anna invites, "You are welcome to come to Sicily at any time, both of you, and be my guests," the reaction is "Kate and Deeley stare at her." Just that look, that image of both Kate and Deeley united in opposition against this silly false invitation, leads Anna to apologize for causing any trouble.

    Kate does nothing to stop this competition from occurring though, because she could have easily loaded the dice in Deeley's favor by simply telling him all about Anna before she came. Yet, she knows that Deeley has already won, because - like you said - here we are. Does she actively want to see them to compete? Is she trying to teach Deeley a lesson about being grateful for what they have?

    And then, that final freeze frame, so many questions arise about Deeley’s actions. Is he sobbing because he is grateful for having a specimen such as Kate? Or is he ashamed of how foolishly he has been acting? Or does he pity Anna (although, I do not think he cares enough for Anna in any capacity to be moved to tears by her)? Or is he flabbergasted by just how little he knew about Kate before tonight? When he curls up on her lap is he admitting his powerlessness or showing Anna that she is his?

    Each of your thoughts about what Old Times is really about brings up several possibilities for what the “correct” answer is about Kate’s motives and Deeley’s breakdown (in the sense of reserved British Pinter emotion, definitely a breakdown) at the end of the play. So many chances to play this truthfully in different ways, only one text. Now that’s a brilliant play.

  2. Mitchell, thanks so much for your generous and insightful comment. I am hoping that these posts of mine can start vibrant discussions about the issues and you have provided a brilliant example of how helpful we can all be to one another's thinking.