No single reason to whisper!

by Claudia Siefen-Leitich

“For god’s sake!”, exclaims Susan when Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) the servant intrudes on an intimate moment. “Restrict him to his quarters”,  she adds after the servant leaves. “Can’t he live outside?” -“No he can’t”, replies Tony (James Fox) brusquely.

Something begins to crack – sexual tension has already altered the so much established order of things. Things don’t get any better when Barrett’s alleged sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) moves in and seduces Tony, who will then find her in bed with Barrett. Disconcerted, Tony fires him on the spot only to accept him back a while later – not as his servant any longer. After having first upset and then demolished the social and sexual divisions Tony and Susan hid behind, Barrett now seems to be the master of the house.

“I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. The context has always been, for me, concrete and particular, and the characters concrete also. I’ve never started a play with any kind of abstract idea or theory. Apart from any other consideration, we are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened?”

-Harold Pinter

So we have with The Servant (1963) a consequent imitative realism: the use of distancing devices or defamiliarization effects of the Brechtian Epic Theater, as well as the use of a similar comedy of distance on the part of Harold Pinter. We’re talking about the subject of realism and non-realism from the point of view of the theater’s ability to create not only the illusion of reality, but also the reality of illusion onstage (the reality, that is, of the unreal, or of the illusion-making capacity, illusion-projecting essence, or illusion-embracing tendency of the human mind) —as well as something in between the two. Brecht was primarily a social realist whose real objection to the theater of realism and naturalism was the psychologization of the human character, not its rendering of the surface of reality. Brecht created a drama that evolved into a mock-epic theater and faux-historical chronicle with his direct presentation of characters and episodic plotting, something we also find also in the forms of narrative cinema. It also involved a certain theatrical sensibility and vocabulary, grounded on the used language, its rhythm and pauses.

“Language, under these conditions, is a highly ambiguous business. So often, below the word spoken, is the thing known and unspoken. My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration, but which it is compulsory to explore.”


One could identify in the avant-garde a thematic preoccupation with the modern city and all its technologies, with the exhilaration of speed, energy, and rapid developments as well with the urban potential for physical, social, and emotional dislocation. That felt dislocation, of course, is nothing less than the fuel and spirit to create interesting and “real life” characters, either in the stage or the cinema. We meet here issues of class, emerging in a more or less enraged response to a postwar climate – when notions of a “truly classless British society” were promoted with a straight face by many of its leaders. “He may be a servant but he’s still a human being”, Tony says.

Back in 1963, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and when representing homosexuality on screen was forbidden, Tony and Barrett’s relationship must have seemed “peculiar”: today it is clearly charged with homoerotic attraction. But let us keep in mind that Harold Pinter’s film adaptation is the one of a 1948 novelette written by the British playwright and travel writer Robin Maugham, a nephew of Somerset Maugham. And the book had risen to the challenge of its literary contemporaries. Everyone adored Woodhouse’s “Jeeves and Wooster”. Readers understood how Jeeves had the upper hand. But Jeeves was entirely benign and discreet. He knew his place. So with Pinter they are not exactly having an affair, but more of a class action that sees Barrett manipulating Tony’s sexuality for his own perfidious ends. He knows his place but it is also a game whose rules and goals remain obscure to the audience. The light-blond Tony stares helpless as the dark Barrett follows his pure impulses. Moral corruption is part of the world Losey portrays, and a lucid, cold detachment prevails. “You have a dirty secret, you shall be caught”, Barrett whispers to his master, and even then there’s not one single reason to whisper. Bogarde’s performance accompanies his every ruthless move with a vicious grin. Sex and power seem to outflow. And violence its only the result.

So can we still say that theater is seeking a different area of activity than cinema within its most “real” (representational or documentary) approach of the arts? Does theater frequently try to explore the ways of imitating the fantastic or visionary capability of the film form? Nevertheless, both forms highly depend on the written word, the script or screenplay. The written word needs the courage to deal and develop the trivial, and its banalities. The best stories in screenwriting seem to be made from the most banal material, and these banalities create a very own dynamic and rich, full story. The character is still the key to the complete story, and so you can say that stories are only as good as the characters within them. But these characters differ in their appreciation by the audience, depending whether they watch the actors on screen or if they have them right in front on a stage, in flesh and blood. Also the possibility of interacting with the audience changes the planned characters. While the audience simply has to accept everything that happens within the story and the characters on screen, there is a certain tickle left with the acceptance of the characters on stage. As a member of the audience in a theater there is a sort of interaction possible: the possibility of even talking to an actor during his work and maybe receive a response, whatever that could mean , changes the acceptance of a complete story.

“If I were to state any moral precept it might be: beware of the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliche.”


But as theater is no longer only linked to the traditional objectivity and its bondage to continuous time and space, cinema gets richer and more vital in adopting exactly those two criteria. Within a formal self-consciousness, the avant-garde becomes an element in the imagination- that we call art- and can also be identified as an inspiring disorder for the purpose of creating, a somehow visionary chaos into the work of art itself. This chaos of realism and naturalism found it in the social-problem play seems based on conventional motivations and of course, moral designs. In The Servant we can say with no exaggeration that we see and hear the patriarchal relationship between God and the individual soul as it has been replaced by the more modern adversarial relationship between man and his own psychology.

In The Servant, Losey shows menservants as they were, indispensable to Britain’s upper classes in earlier decades of that country’s social history. They were essentially male nannies, quiet men whose tasks were to protect the interests of a gentleman, service his household needs with fixed devotion and most importantly, suggest no evidence of an independent will. But they were also largely obsolete by the latter half of the twentieth century, existing exclusively as a hangover from feudal traditions that were dead before the newly privileged were born. Tony (James Fox), being a freshly minted member of Britain’s slowly vanishing aristocracy, doesn’t seem to be aware of this. He sees the employment of a manservant as a positive necessity, a way of observing the forms so essential to his status. And Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) looks to be the best candidate for the job who’s ever drawn a breath. He’s well mannered and exudes competence from every pore. And most important, the man can cook.

The world is revealed, by the location inside the house, and by the actors and their personal use of the interieur, to be pure illusion and also symbolic. Just looking at the mirrors we find located all over the house, like with Alice in Wonderland: are they maybe hiding deeper truths? Deforming mirrors and oblique reflections litter Tony’s apartment, something that will soon turn into his trap.

After Barrett’s redecoration, Tony’s “chairs had been covered in a gay yellow chintz”. Tony is asked by his friend if he is at heart a roving bachelor or a “gay wolf”: “Moderately gay”, is how Tony replies. The word did not yet mean “homosexual” but was in the process of transition. It is all maybe buried within the psyche and concealed behind a mirror, a mirror that needs to be cleaned on and on again, a radical new drama proposed to explore. Barrett will continue to be the man’s servant. He will continue to cook the meals, to fix the drinks, answer the doorbell and lock up at night. Yes, he has attained an enduring power over Tony, but it is a limited power. A power achieved only by performing his duties and by pleasing his employer.

“I am not suggesting that no character in a play can ever say what he in fact means. Not at all. I have found that there invariably does come a moment when this happens, when he says something, perhaps, which he has never said before. And where this happens, what he says is irrevocable, and can never be taken back.”


Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998, published by Faber.