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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 Vic Theatre in London by the National Theatre on 23 April 1975, and it later transferred to Wyndhams Theatre, July 1975 - January 1976, the Lyttelton Theatre April–May 1976, and New York October–December, returning to the Lyttelton, January–February 1977.
Hirst is an alcoholic upper-class litterateur who lives in a grand house presumed to be in Hampstead, 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.
Two men in their sixties stand in a drawing room. One, named Hirst, offers a drink to the other—a guest in his house—opening with the lines "As it is?" (that is, without ice) to which the guest replies, "As it is, yes please, absolutely as it is". Hirst toasts the other's health and they begin a night of heavy drinking (mainly Scotch). The guest soon refills his glass, toasts Hirsts' health, describes himself as a penetratingly perceptive man, and thanks Hirst for inviting him into his home, claiming not to want to stay long. The guest dominates the conversation with long-winded ramblings, speaking of the English language, experience, and the fact that he is a poet. He refills the glass of his host, who likewise replies "Oh, absolutely" when asked the question "As it is?"; the two men toast each other's health yet again.
The guest, who finally introduces himself as "Spooner", apparently met Hirst just this very night at a pub. Spooner reiterates his passion for poetry, describing the amateurs whom he mentors. The two men start reminiscing until Spooner asks about Hirst's wife, receives no reply, and then mentions his own. As the men are becoming more inebriated, Hirst suddenly rises and throws his glass. Spooner light-heartedly, even tauntingly, comments on Hirst's manliness and wife. Hirst merely comments "No man's land...does not move...or change...or grow old...remains...forever...icy...silent". He then collapses twice and finally crawls out of the room.
Spooner lights a cigarette when a man in his thirties enters, repeatedly asking what Spooner is drinking and then who he is. Spooner is silent except to say that he is a friend of the host. The younger man, who introduces himself as John "Jack" Foster, refers to Hirst as his father (though it becomes apparent later that this is not literally true). A man in his forties, called Briggs, also then enters and likewise asks who Spooner is, to which Foster jokes that Spooner's name is "Friend". Briggs immediately recognises Spooner as a pub employee, but Spooner claims to merely be a friend of the pub's landlord, and Foster and Briggs joke that he must be everyone's friend then. Briggs and Foster start bickering about how most people feel wary about Briggs and yet like (or love) Foster at first sight. Spooner finally introduces himself by name to the two younger men and describes his works as a painter.
At last, Hirst reenters, having been asleep, and tries to sift through the faint memories of a recent dream. Foster and Briggs have also started drinking and refill the older men's glasses. Hirst mentions an album of photographs he keeps, commenting on the appearances of the people in the album. He does not appear to remember Spooner's identity, though he recalls having seen him before. Foster states that Spooner has been claiming to be a friend, but Hirst insists that his true friends are kept safely in the album. Hirst begins drinking straight from the bottle, mutters incoherent statements, and continues to try to remember his dream—involving someone drowning—when Spooner abruptly says that he was the one drowning in Hirst's dream. Hirst drunkenly collapses and Briggs hauls him back to his feet. Spooner now rushes in to Hirst's aid, brushing away the two younger men. He claims to be better connected with Hirst because of their similar ages, and tells Hirst directly that he is his true friend, while scoffing at the other two.
The other two deduce that Spooner and Hirst just met at the pub. They become defensive and accusatory, asserting their obligation to protect Hirst against "men of evil". Spooner is silent and Briggs is briefly sent out by Hirst, who is otherwise rather quiet now. Foster laments on Hirst's impulsivity, his own past, and Hirst's alcoholism; he claims that Hirst's financial adviser is scheduled to come tomorrow morning and will be wanting breakfast. Briggs returns, reveals that Foster is Hirst's housekeeper, and (revealing himself to be Hirst's personal servant) lifts Hirst from his chair and guides him out of the room. Alone now with Spooner, Foster says, "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 flicks off the lights, causing a blackout.
The next morning, Spooner stands from his chair and attempts to leave, but the door is locked. Briggs soon unlocks the door, enters, and draws the curtains, asking if Spooner is hungry. Since the financial adviser did not show up, Briggs offers Spooner the adviser’s breakfast. As Spooner eats and sips champagne, Briggs begins telling of how he met Foster, which was on a street corner, while giving him extremely convoluted directions. Spooner again references poetry and is simply ignored when he asks why the door was locked. He abruptly claims that he has a meeting to attend at noon and must be off. Briggs mentions that both Foster and Hirst are poets—the latter a successful and distinguished one. Spooner seems to have already vaguely known that Hirst was a man of letters.
Hirst himself bursts in, and is delighted to see Spooner, who he thinks (or pretends) is an old friend named "Charles Wetherby" he has not seen in years. He speaks as though the two were Oxbridge classmates in the 1930s, which Spooner finally plays along with. Hirst and Spooner discuss scandalous romantic encounters they both had with the same women, leading to a series of increasingly questionable reminiscences, until finally Hirst is accused of having had an affair with Spooner's own wife. All the while, Briggs looks on and is called a variety of incorrect names by Hirst. Hirst next begins ranting about once-known faces in his photo album and when he asks Briggs for the champagne bottle, Briggs refuses, but Spooner delivers it to him.
Spooner says that Foster, who now reappears, should have pursued his dream of being a poet, instead of working for Hirst. Spooner shows great interest in seeing Hirst’s photo album, but both Briggs and Foster discourage this. All four are now drinking champagne, and Foster, for his own pride and dignity's sake, abruptly asserts that he desired to work in this house of his own volition, where he feels privileged to be needed as a secretary, housekeeper, and amanuensis by as famous a writer as Hirst. Suddenly, Spooner asks strongly, even desperately, that Hirst consider hiring him as well, verbosely praising himself for his virtues and work ethic. After all this, Hirst merely replies "Let’s change the subject for the last time," and after a pause worriedly asks "What have I said?" Foster repeats what Hirst just said and explains definitively that it means he will never be able to change the subject ever again. Hirst thinks back to his youth, when he mistakenly thought he saw a drowned body in a lake. Spooner now comments, "No. You are in no man's land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent." Hirst responds "I’ll drink to that!" and the lights fade slowly to black.
The London première of No Man's Land, directed by Peter Hall, opened at the Old Vic Theatre (then home to the National Theatre), on 24 April 1975, starring John Gielgud as Spooner and Ralph Richardson as Hirst and with Michael Kitchen as Foster and Terence Rigby as Briggs. It transferred to Wyndham's Theatre, in London's West End, on 15 July 2005 (Baker and Ross xxxiii). This production transferred to Broadway, in New York City, 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 Theatre, from January through February 1977. The original production with Richardson and Gielgud was filmed for the National Theatre Archive and has been shown on British television as part of Pinter at the BBC on BBC Four.
A major revival at the Almeida Theatre, 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 Broadway 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 City, 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 the summer of 2008, a new production directed by Rupert Goold premièred at the Gate Theatre, in Dublin, with Michael Gambon (Hirst), David Bradley (Spooner), David Walliams (Foster), and Nick Dunning (Briggs). Goold's production transferred to the Duke of York's Theatre, in the West End, London, opening on 7 October 2008 and closing on 3 January 2009, the week after Pinter's death (24 December 2008).
A new production directed by Sean Mathias opened at Berkeley Rep in August 2013, with Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. It opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, in repertory with Waiting for Godot, on 24 November 2013 (previews began on 31 October 2013). It closed on 30 March 2014.
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 Theatre 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 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 understand 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:
Like many classic Pinter plays, "No Man's Land" is about the reaction to an intruder who threatens the status quo ante. The subtlety that gradually emerges in this play, though, is that Spooner, the seedy Prufrockian failed poet, is the alter ego of his host, the moneyed litterateur, Hirst, and that his predatory intrusion also represents an abortive attempt to reconnect Hirst to life and to his creativity and to save him from the bitter stalemate of old age. Mysterious, bleakly beautiful and very funny, "No Man's Land" demonstrates that though it may take a little while to latch on to the laws of Pinterland, it is well worth the effort.