Monday, December 6, 2010

Douglas Messerli | "The Smell of Olives" (on Harold Pinter's The Collection)

the smell of olives

by Douglas Messerli

Harold Pinter (screenplay, based on his stage drama), Michael Apted (director) The Collection / 1976 (TV movie)

Harold Pinter's brilliant short play of 1961, The Collection, is a work about two couples, Stella (Helen Mirren) and James (Alan Bates), married for two years, and Harry (Laurence Olivier) and Bill (Malcolm McDowell), living together for a number of years. Both pairs are clearly dissatisfied with their relationships or, at least, interested in sexually exploring alternatives—but fearful, also, of destroying the commitments they have made. Although James runs his wife's dress business, it is clear that she is the designer. Bill, as Harry tells both James and the audience, has been picked up in the slums, and is obviously a completely dependent upon his older lover.

     The play begins with a late night/early morning telephone ring to the Belgravia house of Harry and Bill by a caller who refuses to divulge his name, a man seeking Bill. This call, in turn, sets off a series of calls and, soon after, visits by James to the house in search of Bill, who, he has been told by his wife, sexually molested her in her hotel room during a meeting of clothes manufacturers in Leeds.

     We never discover whether or not such an encounter actually occurred; both Bill and Stella change their stories several times in the course of the play. But it hardly matters, for the true energy of this play occurs not in the discovery of any "truth," but in the opportunity for new encounters—for James it might almost be described as stalking—with other beings, and the danger that their interchanges represent.

     If indeed Bill and Stella met in Leeds, even to simply talk about sexual possibilities, as Bill insists late in the play, there is a parallel pattern in James' visits to Bill. Both of these rendezvouses are highly sexually charged and physically threatening. Yet both also began and end in a war of words. Despite his position as intruder, Bill invites himself to drinks, demanding olives—in a typically brilliant Pinteresque non sequitur—and a place to sit, while gradually insinuating himself into James' life, going even so far as to query him about Harry and his supposed allergic reaction to rabbits (those animals which so prolifically fuck).

     It all ends, quite absurdly, with Bill lying prone on the floor, James standing over him in an overtly sexual position while the "conquered" man alternately denies and confirms James' imaginative recounting of the "rape" of his wife. Although Bill denies nearly everything, in the very last moments of their encounter when James reports that he called his wife while Bill was still sitting on the bed, Bill corrects him, "Not sitting, lying," hinting that there was truth in most everything the seemingly jealous husband has reported.

     Although nothing is spoken about James' visit to Bill, Harry certainly suspects something, and tension arises as he attacks his lover the next morning over endlessly reading and re-reading the newspaper, demanding he given it up only to insist that he has no desire for it, the kind of Pinter-like maneuver performed by those wanting to vent a problem when they cannot openly do so. Possession of the newspaper becomes a substitute for the possession of the truth and, ultimately, of their sexual rights and physical control of the other.

     Meanwhile tensions are also mounting between James and Stella, played out in a meaningless discussion of biscuits--which James argues will make his wife fat--and his desire for olives, which she also doesn't have in the house, hinting to James that she has never cared about his likes or dislikes. James carries the game somewhat further by admitting that he has already visited her Leeds "lover," admitting that he enjoyed their company and found him quite attractive, although lying about his being quite forthcoming. James focuses on his respect for Bill and the fact the he too is an opera man, just as James himself is, although he always kept it a secret--hinting perhaps that he has hidden his homosexual interests. (Aren't all male opera connoisseurs gay? Certainly they might been presumed to be in the 1960s.) James concludes, "It looks as though, by accidently, you have opened up a whole new world for me."

     The second visit by James to Bill actually seems like an arranged "date" between the two, since James has prepared a cheese board and put out a bowl of olives. As the two verbally spar, the conversation turns to a discussion of each other's bodies which ends in a shared stare in the mirror, and a witty repartee in which the offered olives are denied by James, despite his insistence that he be served them on his previous visit:

james: I don't like them.
bill: Don't like olives?
What on earth have you got against olives?
james: I detest them.
bill: Really?
james: It's the smell I hate.*


It doesn't take a Freudian psychologist to make one realize that they are not talking about the fruit of the Olea europaea, and that James, although clearly attracted to the other man, has some reservations when it comes to acting out what he feels.

     Meanwhile, Harry pays a visit to Stella, asking her if she knows Bill Lloyd. She doesn't and has never heard the name, she insists. But as the two continue in conversation, she claiming that her husband has made up a fantastic story, she does admit knowing that Bill was in Leeds even though she never met him. James has been overworked and seems quite mentally ill, she insists. Harry suggests that she might take James on a trip to the South of France to cure him. He leaves, presumably satisfied that the relationship between Stella and Bill has been all made up.
     Back at the meeting with Bill and James, since James has expressed his abhorrence of olives, Bill suggests he have cheese, having a "splendid cheese knife."


james: Is it sharp?

bill: Try it. Hold the blade, it won't cut you. Not if you handle it properly

(moving closer). Not if you grasp it firmly up to the hilt.


     James temporary moves of the seduction. Only a few minutes, however, he has picked up another cheese knife, challenging Bill to a duel a Bill again plays "the sissy," refusing to act out the phallic challenge that James has offered up, and puts down his cheese knife. But James picks it up, not only now, as Bill points out, having two knives, but claiming to have another in his hip pocket.

     Bill wonders, what does he do? "Swallow them."

     James' comeback is hilariously campy: "Do you?"

     This time, however, James impetuously propels his words, for the first time in the play, into action: tossing the cheese knife into the air and cutting Bill's hand, producing, perhaps, something tangible in the way of a small scar, which Bill has proven not to have in the first visit, despite talk of James' wife's attempt to keep off her assailant by mildly scratching him.

    In a world only of talk, finally something has happened, someone has at least been palpably touched. Harry, observing this scene behind the doorway—having returned from his conversation with Stella—knows quite clearly what the sword play means. He has clearly watched the older and younger attractive interloper playing with knives in Roman Polanski's 1962 film, Knife in the Water. Pouring his guest another drink he tells him that James that he has met with his wife and she has admitted that she has made the whole story up. "Women are most strange...if I were you I'd go home and hit over the head a saucepan or something." and lashes out in an emotional outburst of hate against the "slum-boy slug" he has brought into his proper home:


There's nothing wrong with slugs, in their place, but he's
a slum slug, there's nothing wrong with slum slugs in their
place, but this one won't keep his place, he crawls all over
the walls of nice houses, leaving slime, don't you boy?


    The older Harry is clearly fighting to keep his young lover the only way he knows how. Like James he dominates the passive Bill, but unlike James his is only a world of words, and he can only wonder when action may again breakout. Ultimately, of course, James must also retreat, as the civilized British society insists. They all return to talk, meaningless politeness. The talk utterly defeats any acts of love. Love, after all, in this world has less to do with action, than accretion, is something held together through time and repetition. As Harry says to Stella about James: "I found him in a slum, you know, by accident"—as if he were an object he discovered in a shop to be brought home to add to his collection.

    Yet behind their language looms terror. James returns home to reassure himself that his wife did indeed do nothing but talk to Bill that night in Leads. "You didn't do anything, did you?" he almost pleads. "That's the truth, isn't it?" Her silent look, "neither confirming nor denying," "her face friendly and sympathetic," with, in the television version I saw, an ever so slight smile upon her lips, tells us nothing. As Pinter knows, silence is so dangerous.

     We cannot know "truth" in this world of linguistic games. Did Stella make up the story simply to make her inattentive husband jealous? Was James truly attracted to the homosexual he discovered who had supposedly had sex with his wife, or was simply out to make sure the "fag" got what was coming to him? He could as well be repelled and attracted both, unable to act on his own desires, which explains his wife's dissatisfaction. Perhaps only Harry's motivations are apparent, his attack on his lover merely meant to keep him in his place, beside him in his bed. He is forced to clean up the mess Bill makes behind him, smoothing over the labyrinth of lies and ineffective actions that he collects around him in his relationships with others.

     Although this version of Pinter's remarkable play seems a little busy in its fruitless attempts to leave the drawing room of the playwright’s purposely claustrophobic setting, the sets themselves perhaps a bit overwrought in their attempt to create a sense of stylish realism, one couldn't ask for a better cast.


*Olives are a slang term for a man’s balls.

Los Angeles, December 27, 2008

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2008).


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