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No Man's Land is an absurdist 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.
A man in his sixties named Hirst begins a night of heavy drinking (mainly Scotch) in his drawing room with an anonymous peer who he only just met at a pub. Hirst's overly talkative guest, calling himself a poet, long-windedly explains how he is a penetratingly perceptive man, until he finally introduces himself by the name "Spooner". As the men are becoming more inebriated, Hirst suddenly rises and throws his glass, while Spooner suddenly taunts Hirst about his masculinity and wife. Hirst merely comments "No man's land...does not move...or change...or grow old...remains...forever...icy...silent", before collapsing twice and finally crawling out of the room.
A young man enters and suspiciously questions Spooner, who now becomes relatively silent, about his identity. The younger man introduces himself as John "Jack" Foster before the entrance of a man in his forties, Briggs, who also unsuccessfully questions Spooner and then bickers with Foster.
At last, Hirst reenters, having slept, and struggles to remember a recent dream. Foster and Briggs have also started drinking, and they 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 completely remember Spooner's identity, insisting 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 Spooner now rushes in to Hirst's aid, brushing away the two younger men and claiming to be Hirst's true friend. The younger pair becomes defensive and accusatory, asserting their obligation to protect Hirst against "men of evil". Foster laments openly on Hirst's impulsivity, his own past, and Hirst's alcoholism. The situation gradually reveals that Foster is Hirst's apprentice and housekeeper, and Briggs is Hirst's personal servant. All exit except for Spooner and Foster, the latter of whom 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 mysteriously locked. Briggs soon enters to deliver Spooner food and champagne, rambling on about how he met Foster and ignoring Spooner's desire to know why the door was locked. Spooner abruptly thinks of an excuse to leave; however, Briggs mentions that both Foster and Hirst are poets—the latter a successful and distinguished one, which Spooner seems vaguely to have known already.
Hirst himself bursts in, and is delighted to see Spooner, who he oddly mistakes for (or pretends) is an old friend 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 then bizarrely 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, Hirst calls Briggs a variety of incorrect names and then launches into a rant about once-known faces in his photo album.
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 desperately that Hirst consider hiring him as well, verbosely praising his own work ethic and other virtues. 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 explains definitively that Hirst's statement means that he (Hirst) 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 Feast as Foster and Terence Rigby as Briggs. It transferred to Wyndham's Theatre, in London's West End, on 15 July 1975 (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.
First produced at the Old Vic, Waterloo by the National Theatre, 23 April 1975 transferred to Wyndhams Theatre July 1975 – January 1976 Lyttleton Theatre April -May 1976 – New York (see foreign) October – December 1976 Lytt[el]ton Theatre January -February 1977.
Couldn't get to the revival of Pinter's classic but need to save face with your friends? Mark Espiner rounds up the reviews.
The Nobel Laureate's No Man's Land has earned rave reviews. But what do three Pinter virgins – and our critic – make of it?