‘Ashes to Ashes’

Ashes to Ashes, the new Pinter play’s title, might as well be its critique. Also “dust to dust,” as the song sung by the play’s characters continues. Each new play Pinter writes is more dust on the heap of his oeuvre. Of course, he has it easier than Andersen’s emperor. Today not even a wee tot is brave enough to cry out that the emperor is naked; such an utterance might be politically incorrect or, worse yet, assumption of responsibility for an unpopular opinion. If the critics and scholars laud this hogwash, the hogwash must be art. And who would dare to boo – or even just not applaud – art?

In this 40-odd (in both senses) -minute playlet, all we get is much ado about nothing. Not even that much ado, but all the more nothing. In a university town near London (so the program says), Devlin and Rebecca seem to be husband and wife, though neither the play nor the program will tell. Devlin, a jealous type, is naggingly questioning Rebecca, a seeming looneytunes. She stares into the distance, makes weird statements, and, whenever Devlin tries to pin her down, switches to something else, usually even weirder.

There is quite a lot about a former lover of Rebecca’s who may have been a travel agent, a factory owner, or a brute snatching babies from their mothers on railway platforms. There is a bit about police sirens, which Rebecca loves and hates to have fade out of her hearing; Devlin reassures her there’ll always be more. There is an animated discussion about whether a pen that rolled off a table was innocent or not, and whether a pen has parents. (So help me!) Then a discussion of whether God is or isn’t sinking in quicksand.

Next, Rebecca tells about a vision she had in a Dorset house as she watched from a window a multitude being shepherded into the sea, where all drowned. Devlin points out that they never lived in Dorset. She points out that there is such a thing as “mental elephantiasis,” whereby a bit of gravy you spill becomes a sea of gravy in which you drown, or the spilt gravy may be a bundle. By many devious steps this leads to another vision, in which Rebecca becomes a woman trying to sneak a bundled-up baby past some men taking babies away from women being herded onto a train. Discovered, she yields up the baby. Arriving at “this place,” wherever that is, Rebecca declares to another woman that she never had a baby. Blackout.

In a 1966 interview at the University of Barcelona, Pinter explained that Rebecca is a woman haunted by the world’s atrocities, which she herself hasn’t experienced but that have somehow “become part of her own experience.” Maybe so, but the play sure manages to confuse the issue. You may even feel that Rebecca, mostly sitting in a chair and clearly mad, is driving Devlin, mostly pacing about and steadily drinking, equally mad. (The desperate stage business is the addition of Karel Reisz, the director.)

It is all non sequiturs, long pauses, repetitions, and obfuscation that could just as easily last 14 or 140 minutes. The actors, David Strathairn and especially Lindsay Duncan, are fine, but they can’t act the stage directions, which alone make some sense. Actually, even they don’t. Outside, as indicated, night is falling. Inside, “the lamplight intensifies, but does not illuminate the room.” How Pinteresque can lamplight get?

Still, charging $48 for 42 minutes of play – over a dollar a minute for Pinter’s two cents’ worth – strikes me as infernal cheek. Maybe audience awakenings that an unrobed emperor cannot elicit, robbed pockets will.

‘Ashes to Ashes’