The Aspect of Memory in Harold Pinter’s 'Old Times'

Term Paper, 2007

27 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Memory in Night

3. Memory in Landscape

4. Memory in Silence

5. Memory in Old Times

6. Conclusion

I’m convinced that what happens in my plays could happen anywhere, at any time, in any place, although the events may seem unfamiliar at first glance. If you press me for a definition, I’d say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism. (Harold Pinter in “Writing for Myself”)

1. Introduction

It is widely accepted that memories reconstruct the past: We need individual memories in order to experience biographical continuity. Without the episodic (or autobiographical) memory, it would be impossible for us to link our individual past to ourselves.[1] The strong connexion between memory and the past is a very prominent topic in contemporary British fiction[2] and the significance of memory is discussed in many literary works. One of these works is Harold Pinter’s play Old Times.

Together with the plays Landscape and Silence and the sketch Night, these works have often been referred to as ‘memory plays’ because they „focus on the past”[3]. In all these plays, Pinter extensively investigates the possibilities of recreating the past as well as the problematic function of memory.

In his speech made in 1962, Pinter talks about „the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past [...] (not) merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning.”[4] He then explains his interest in and his fascination with memory in more detail:

If one can speak of the difficulty of knowing what in fact took place yesterday, one can I think treat the present in the same way. What’s happening now? We don’t know until tomorrow or in six months’ time, and we won’t know then, we’ll have forgotten, or our imagination will have attributed quite false characteristics to today. A moment is sucked away and distorted, often even at the time of its birth. We will all interpret a common experience quite differently, though we prefer to subscribe to the view that there’s a shared common ground, a known ground. I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but that it’s more like quicksand. Because ‘reality’ is quite a strong firm word we tend to think, or to hope, that the state to which it refers is equally firm, settled and unequivocal. It doesn’t seem to be, and in my opinion, it’s no worse or better for that.[5]

Pinter’s memory plays portray the past’s influence on the present and reveal reality as a mere (re-)construction based on assumptions. Our presumed knowledge of the past and even of the present moment is an illusion grounded on deceptive quicksand.

Yet, with Pinter, we always have to bear in mind that his plays are highly condensed, enigmatic or even cryptic works, which are difficult to grasp. According to Trussler, there is a lot of myth-making about Pinter and his plays. Or, as he puts it: “More rubbish has been written about Harold Pinter than all his contemporaries put together.”[6] A short extract from a speech Pinter gave on being awarded the German Shakespeare Prize in Hamburg might give us a clue to his ‘myth-making’:

Once many years ago, I found myself engaged uneasily in a public discussion on theatre. Someone asked me what was my work ‘about’. I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of enquiry: ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’. This was a great mistake. Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my own work. But for me the remark meant precisely nothing.[7]

When we deal with Pinter, we need to consider that he is “not concerned with making general statements.”[8] For him, “there are at least twenty-four possible aspects of any single statement, depending on where you’re standing at the time or on what the weather’s like. He continues:

A categorical statement, I find, will never stay where it is and be finite. It will immediately be subject to modification by the other twenty-three possibilities of it. No statement I make, therefore, should be interpreted as final and definitive. One or two of them may sound final and definite, they may even be almost final and definitive, but I won’t regard them as such tomorrow, and I wouldn’t like you to do so today.[9]

As a result, Pinter neither provides us with a morale, nor does he feel obliged to provide a thematic summary. He says of himself that he can sum up none of his plays and is not able to describe them “except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.”[10] Given the fact that even the author himself has difficulties to summarize his works, it is even more difficult for the viewer, especially as Pinter does not write “with an audience in mind”[11].

Though he is convinced “that what happens in (his) plays could happen anywhere, at any time, in any place, although the events may seem unfamiliar at first glance,”[12] the action in Pinter’s plays is always ambiguous and the plot a framework of contradictions, multi-layered statements and silences. So, what is Pinter writing about? He only gives us one clue: It is “not (about) the weasel under the cabinet.[13]

This paper aims to answer the question above. In the following, I will look at the sketch Night first. Then I want to concentrate on the topic of memory in the plays Landscape and Silence. In the main part, I will discuss the significance of memory in Old Times. As we will see, Pinter demonstrates that memory operates on a variety of levels. In all plays, memory is unreliable and can be reshaped according to one’s present needs. It can be a means of comfort and security, as in Night. It can separate people by providing them with the possibility to live in the past and to avoid confrontation in the present, as in Landscape and Silence. In Old Times, the function of memory is clearly the most complex. Here, it is used as a weapon in a battle for positions in which impression management rules the battlefield.

2. Memory in Night

I can’t remember. [...]

Don’t you remember? [...]

You must remember that. (Night, p.55)

Night was first presented in 1969. The sketch shows a conversation over coffee between two characters designated ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’, who are both in their forties. During the conversation, the characters’ memories diverge. They both agree on having met at a party given by the Doughtys. Afterwards, the Man accompanied the Woman back home and on the way, they made love. Apart from this, however, their individual memories strongly vary from each other. Even though they both claim to “remember walking,” (Night, p. 55) the two have conflicting memories about this first walk together. While the Man insists on stopping on a bridge, the Woman talks about having embraced against railings in a field.

Without being able to understand how the Woman could possibly not recall “The first time. [Their] first walk,” (Night, p.56) the man excuses this failure with forgetfulness: “It was years ago. You’ve forgotten.” (Night, p.56) Yet, the Woman has not forgotten, but remembers things differently. She recalls romantic memories. “You took my face in your hands, standing by the railings. You were very gentle, you were very caring. You cared.” (Night, p. 56). The Man’s memories on the other hand are much more sexual: “I put my hands under your sweater, I undid your brassiere, I felt your breasts.” (Night, p. 59) Confronted with this version of their first encounter, the Woman recoils: “Another night perhaps. Another girl.” (Night, p. 59) She does not want to spoil her idyllic memory, which comforts her. The Man is stunned and probably even aggrieved. In a reproachful tone he inquires: “You don’t remember my fingers on your skin?” (Night, p. 59) “You don’t remember my hands on your skin?” (Night, p. 60) His questions remain unanswered. Instead, the Woman completely rejects his version of the past: “But my back was against the railings. I felt the railings … behind be. You were facing me. […] My coat was closed. It was cold.” (Night, p. 60) The Man gives it a last try. He claims having undone her coat, but is cut short again: “It was very late. Chilly.” (Night, p. 60)

However, as Dukore points out, these details are unimportant.[14] Realising that they cannot agree on one version of the past, the Man sticks to his own: “And then we left the bridge and we walked down the towpath and we came to a rubbish dump.” (Night, p. 60) Without referring to this - in her opinion wrong memory - the Woman continues his story: “And you had me and you told me that you had fallen in love with me, and you said you would take care of me always, and you told me my voice and my eyes, my thighs, my breasts, were incomparable, and that you would adore me always.” (Night, p. 60) What matters is that he had her, that he loved her and that he said he would always adore her. At this point, the Man and the Woman agree again. “Yes, I did,” answers the man.

It seems as if both characters remember what they want to remember. Memory turns out to be unreliable, it can be changed according to one’s present needs. The present is thus determined by memories which may or may not be true, but which have a certain function in the present. The past is important only to the extent that it forms the basis for the individual memories. The couple can come to a mutual agreement without actually having agreed on their first walk together: “And then we had children and we sat and talked and you remembered women on bridges and towpaths and rubbish dumps.” – “And you remembered your bottom against railings and men holding your hands and men looking into your eyes.” (Night, p.61)

In the end, “the Man and the Woman join in marital contentment, as [...] they put aside their differences.”[15] They each acknowledge the fact that they have different memories of the same event and that they shared moments with other lovers. “And they said I will adore you always,” (Night, p.61) the Woman reminisces. Without contradicting her, the Man answers conciliatorily: “Saying I will adore you always.” (Night, p.61).

Thus, memory in Night functions as a means of comfort and security. Each character recalls what he chooses to recall, yet there is no competition for power in the relationship[16]. The past is constructed as it is needed in the present, and as both characters accept that their emotional needs differ from each other, they are able to put aside their disagreement. In contrast to Night, the memories in subsequent works “do not blend, instead they clash, creating psychological competition in which the stakes are identity, security, and power.”[17]

3. Memory in Landscape

Two woman looked at me, turned and stared. No.

I was walking, they were still. I turned. (Landscape, p.10)

There wasn’t a soul at the beach. [...] I have been

mistaken. Perhaps the beach was empty.

Perhaps there was no-one there. (Landscape, p.13)

In Landscape, the situation is different. Here, the two characters, Beth, in her late forties, and Duff, in his early fifties, are separated from each other because their memory creates a distance between them, which they fail to overcome.

The play begins with Beth’s recollections of a day spent with her lover on the beach and later in a hotel bar, and of one day when she was washing the dishes and standing outside in the early morning mist. While Beth’s memories are of a much further distant time, Duff is involved with more recent events. While Beth talks about cuddling and embracing, he talks about the rainy day before, when he had to shelter under a tree because of the downfall, and how he was involved in a fight over beer in a pub afterwards. While Beth recalls romantic memories, Duff interrupts her with an abrupt: “The dog’s gone. I didn’t tell you.” (Landscape, p.10) Cahn comments: “Her memories and hopes reflect a spirit of love and romance that clashes poetically with his earthier desires.”[18] The clash of the romantic female view with the coarse male view also finds expression in the language: While Beth remembers “his fingers, lightly, touching, lightly, touching, the back of [her] neck,” (Landscape, p.13) Duff explains: “There was a lot of shit all over the place. […] Dogshit, duckshit ... all kinds of shit ... all over the paths.” (Landscape, p.12) “The two individuals function on different planes. The comedy is that they must live together and try to nourish each other. The tragedy is that they are incapable of doing so.”[19]


[1] See Gymnich. In: Erll, Gymnich, Nünning (2003): p.37.

[2] See Birke. In: Erll, Gymnich, Nünning (2003): p.143.

[3] Dukore (1982): p.85.

[4] Pinter (1996, Plays One): p.ix.

[5] Pinter (1996, Plays One): p.x.

[6] Trussler (1973): p. 13.

[7] Pinter (1996, Plays Three): p.v.

[8] Pinter (1996, Plays Three): p.ix.

[9] Pinter (1996, Plays One): p.viii.

[10] Pinter (1996, Plays Three): p.ix.

[11] Pinter (1996, Plays Two): p.ix.

[12] Pinter (1996, Plays Two): p.ix.

[13] Pinter (1996, Plays Three): p.ix.

[14] See Dukore (1982): p.89.

[15] Cahn (1994): p.90.

[16] See Cahn (1994): p.90.

[17] Cahn (1994): p.90.

[18] Cahn (1994): p.91.

[19] Cahn (1994): p.93.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


The Aspect of Memory in Harold Pinter’s 'Old Times'
University of Mannheim  (Anglistisches Seminar)
New British Drama
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ISBN (Book)
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Aspect, Memory, Harold, Pinter’s, Times
Quote paper
Lydia Prexl (Author), 2007, The Aspect of Memory in Harold Pinter’s 'Old Times', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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