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No Man's Land is a play by Harold Pinter written in 1974 and first produced and published in 1975. Its original production was at the Old Vicmarker Theatre in London by the National Theatremarker on 23 April 1975, and it later transferred to Wyndhams Theatremarker, July 1975 - January 1976, the Lyttelton Theatremarker April-May 1976, and New York October-December, returning to the Lyttelton, January-February 1977.

Setting

"A large room in a house in North West Londonmarker" on a summer night.

Characters

  • Hirst, a man in his sixties
  • Spooner, a man in his sixties
  • Foster, a man in his thirties
  • Briggs, a man in his forties


Hirst is an alcoholic upper-class litterateur who lives in a grand house presumed to be in Hampsteadmarker, with Foster and Briggs, respectively his purported amanuensis and man servant (or apparent bodyguard), who may be lovers. Spooner, a "failed, down-at-heel poet" whom Hirst has "picked up in a Hampstead pub" and invited home for a drink, becomes Hirst's house guest for the night; claiming to be a fellow poet, through a contest of at least-partly fantastic reminiscences, he appears to have known Hirst at university and to have shared mutual male and female acquaintances and relationships. The four characters are named after cricket players .

Plot synopsis

The first act opens with Hirst's offering a drink to Spooner: "As it is?" – that is, straight or neat – and Spooner's reply: "As it is, yes please, absolutely as it is" (15). During the first act, Spooner claims to be a fellow poet and to have known his more illustrious literary host and mutual acquaintances and relationships in the past. Toward the end of act one, Hirst's keepers (quasi-body guards) "vagabond cock" Foster and Briggs seek to fend off the self-insinuating Spooner, leading Hirst "out of the room (52) and away from him. The act ends with a "Blackout" – visually demonstrating Foster's taunt: "Listen. You know what it's like when you're in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I'll show you. It's like this. ... He turns the light out" (53).

During Act Two, in his increasingly-inebriated state, Hirst may mistake or feign recognition of Spooner as an Oxbridge classmate from the 1930s, an apparently-false impression which Spooner nevertheless encourages (68–78), leading both of them into a series of increasingly-questionable reminiscences, which Hirst finally and abruptly undercuts: "This is outrageous! Who are you? What are you doing in my house?" going on to accuse Spooner of being an impostor: "You are clearly a lout. The Charles Wetherby I knew was a gentleman. I see a figure reduced. I am sorry for you. Where is the moral ardour that sustained you once? Gone down the hatch." – allusively and both wistfully and comically combining the clichés "Gone with the wind" and "Down the hatch," after which, Briggs "enters, pours whisky and soda, gives it to" Hirst, who "looks at it" and then says, "Down the hatch. Right down the hatch. (He drinks.)" (78). Hirst proclaims, "Let us change the subject. Pause. For the last time." (91), but immediately asks, "What have I said?" That leads the characters to debate what Hirst's phrase for the last time precisely "means" (91–94), leaving all of them, according to Spooner, "in no man's land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent." Following the illustrative "Silence", Hirst utters the play's final words and provides its final action: "I'll drink to that" (95): "He drinks," paralleling the opening words of the first act ("As it comes?"), and the play ends, ambiguously, with a "SLOW FADE" of lights (95).

Production history

The London première of No Man's Land, directed by Peter Hall, opened at the Old Vic Theatremarker (then home to the National Theatremarker), on 24 April 1975, starring John Gielgud as Spooner and Ralph Richardson as Hirst and with Michael Feast as Foster and Terence Rigby as Briggs. It transferred to Wyndham's Theatremarker, in London's West Endmarker, on 15 July 2005 (Baker and Ross xxxiii). This production transferred to Broadwaymarker, in New York Citymarker, from October through December 1976, with Richardson nominated for the 1977 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for his performance as Hirst. Peter Hall's production returned to the National Theatre (NT), playing at the Lyttelton Theatremarker, from January through February 1977. The original production with Richardson and Gielgud was filmed for the National Theatre Archivemarker and has been shown on British television as part of Pinter at the BBC on BBC Four.

A major revival at the Almeida Theatremarker, London, directed by David Leveaux, opened in February 1993, and starred Paul Eddington as Spooner and Harold Pinter as Hirst; Douglas Hodge played Foster and Gawn Grainger played Briggs.

In the Broadwaymarker revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company directed by David Jones, which opened on 27 February 1994 at the Criterion Centre Stage Right Theatre, in New York Citymarker, with Jason Robards as Hirst, Christopher Plummer (nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play) as Spooner, Tom Wood as Foster, and John Seitz as Briggs.



In 2001, another major revival at the NTmarker was directed by Harold Pinter, with Corin Redgrave as Hirst, John Wood as Spooner, Danny Dyer as Foster, and Andy de la Tour as Briggs.

In the summer of 2008, a new production directed by Rupert Goold premièred at the Gate Theatremarker, in Dublinmarker, with Michael Gambon (Hirst), David Bradley (Spooner), David Walliams (Foster), and Nick Dunning (Briggs). Goold's production transferred to the Duke of York's Theatremarker, in the West Endmarker, Londonmarker, opening on 7 October 2008 and closing on 3 January 2009, the week after Pinter's death (24 December 2008).

Critical reception and interpretation

In reviewing the London première, on 24 April 1975, Michael Billington, of The Guardian, observes that the play is "about precisely what its title suggests":
the sense of being caught in some mysterious limbo between life and death, between a world of brute reality and one of fluid uncertainty.
... the play is a masterly summation of all the themes that have long obsessed Pinter: the fallibility of memory, the co-existence in one man of brute strength and sensitivity, the ultimate unknowability of women, the notion that all human contact is a battle between who and whom.
...
It is in no sense a dry, mannerist work but a living, theatrical experience full of rich comedy in which one speech constantly undercuts another.


Over a decade after having written The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (London: Faber, 1996), the first edition of his authorised biography of Pinter, Billington discusses his critical perspective on the play in his videotaped discussion for Pinter at the BBC, broadcast on BBC Four television from 26 October through 9 November 2002." After admitting that No Man's Land is a "haunting weird play" that he himself "can never fully understand – Who can? – but it works on you", he reviews the genesis of the play's first line ("As it is?"), which came to Pinter in taxicab while riding home from dinner out alone, and the thematic significance of the titular metaphorical phrase no man's land, and finds "something of Pinter" in both of the main characters, each one a writer whom Pinter may have to some degree feared becoming: one "with all the trappings of success but [who] is inured by fame, wealth, comfort" (Hirst); the other, "the struggling, marginal, the pin-striped writer" who "does not make it" (Spooner); though when Billington put his theory to Pinter, Pinter said (jokingly), "Well, yes, maybe; but I've never had two man servants named Foster and Briggs."

In reviewing Goold's revival of the play at the Duke of York's Theatremarker in 2008, Billington points out that "Hirst, a litterateur haunted by dreams and memories, is, as he tells Spooner, 'in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run'. But, while his servants conspire to lead Hirst to oblivion, Spooner attempts a chivalric rescue-act, dragging him towards the light of the living. The assumption is that his bid fails, as all four characters are finally marooned in a no-man's land 'which remains forever, icy and silent'."

In this play replete with echoes of T. S. Eliot, Spooner may appear to have failed in his apparent efforts to ingratiate himself with and perhaps even to "rescue" Hirst from "drowning" himself in drink. But Spooner still remains in the house at the end of the play, "in no man's land," along with Hirst (and Foster and Briggs), and the play ends in an impasse much like that of Pinter's 1960 play The Caretaker, to which critics compare No Man's Land.

As various other critics do, Michael Coveney is still asking: "Yes, but what does it all mean? Kenneth Tynan railed against the 'gratuitous obscurity' of Harold Pinter's poetic 1975 play when it was first produced by Peter Hall at the National starring John Gielgud as the supplicant versifier Spooner and Ralph Richardson as his host Hirst, patron and supporter of the arts. But the play is always gloriously enjoyable as an off-kilter vaudeville of friendship and dependency." In the The Guardian, Billington concludes that "This is a compelling revival much aided by Neil Austin's lighting and Adam Cork's subliminal sound," observing: "when audience and cast finally joined in applauding Pinter, [who was] seated in a box, I felt it was in recognition of an eerily disturbing play that transports us into a world somewhere between reality and dream."

Both Billington and Paul Taylor (in The Independent) give the production 4 out of 5 stars, while Charles Spencer, reviewing the production in The Daily Telegraph, like other critics making inevitable comparisons with the original production, rates it as "equally fine, with Michael Gambon and David Bradley rising magnificently to the benchmark set by their illustrious predecessors," but points out that he too does not feel that he fully understands it: "Even after three decades I cannot claim fully to understand this haunting drama that proves by turns funny, scary, and resonantly poetic, but I have no doubt that it is one of the handful of indisputable modern classics that Pinter has written, and a piece that will haunt and tantalise the memory of all who see it."

In another feature on Goold's 2008 revival, following the responses of "three Pinter virgins" who did not understood or enjoy it ("Matilda Egere-Cooper, urban music journalist: 'Obscure and exhausting' "; "David Knott, political lobbyist: 'Don't expect to feel uplifted...' "; and "Susie Rushton, editor and columnist: 'Where's the joke?' "), the Independent's critic, Paul Taylor, reiterates his praise of No Man's Land, concluding:

Notes

References

  • Baker, William, and John C. Ross, comps. Harold Pinter: A Bibliographical History. London: British Librarymarker, 2005. ISBN 9780712348850. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2005. ISBN 9781584561569. Print.


  • Billington, Michael. Harold Pinter. 2nd rev. ed. 1996. London: Faber, 2007. ISBN 9780571234769. Print. (Rev. and updated ed. of The Life and Work of Harold Pinter [London: Faber, 1996].)


  • Pinter, Harold. No Man's Land. London: Eyre Methuen, 1975. ISBN 0413342204 (10). ISBN 9780413342201 (13). New York: Grove, 1975. ISBN 080210102X (10). ISBN 9780802101020 (13). Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. ISBN 0571160883 (10). ISBN 9780571160884 (13). Print. (Parenthetical page references are to the Grove Press ed.)


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