Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter had a lot in common. Both changed the way plays are written and perceived, both were Nobel prize winners and both had a passion for cricket. That last link is a crucial factor in a new play by Shomit Dutta, Stumped, which will be streamed live from Lord’s.
Produced by the Original Theatre Company, it will star Stephen Tompkinson as Beckett and Andrew Lancel as Pinter, and is described by Dutta as “a caprice, a shared dream”. Imagine Waiting for Godot crossed with The Dumb Waiter in a cricketing context and you get the general idea.
Dutta is a multifaceted figure who has written an original play about the Trojan war and translated Greek drama, he teaches classics at a London school and is a former captain of the cricket team, the Gaieties, that was Pinter’s pride and joy. All the same, I wonder what prompted him to make a play out of two of the most iconic figures in modern drama.
“The idea originally came from a fellow Gaieties member, Inigo Thomas, who suggested I write a sketch to coincide with a Beckett festival in Enniskillen. But during lockdown in 2020 I decided to turn the sketch into a full-length play, partly inspired by Aristophanes’ The Frogs. In that play, Aristophanes brings to life two of his favourite playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripides, but where he takes the underworld as his setting, I chose a more neutral space. Pinter’s plays are largely set indoors and Beckett’s in a dystopian landscape so an idyllic cricket ground, where both men are initially waiting to bat, seemed like a nice compromise.”
While Beckett and Pinter were friends, I suggest they were very different in temperament and technique. Beckett’s plays are bleaker, more abstract, ultimately more image-based than Pinter’s. “I wouldn’t disagree,” says Dutta. “Where Pinter’s characters are pugilistic, Beckett’s often seem nostalgic. Pinter’s characters contest the space between them whereas Beckett’s speak more in isolation – think of Lucky in Godot or the Mouth in Not I – and are often uttering into a void. Stalemate seems a word that applies to Beckett whereas with Pinter there is the possibility of escape. As soon as I say that, I think of exceptions: look at the end of No Man’s Land, one of my favourite plays, where the characters seem frozen in time. But I hope my play will bring out the crucial distinctions between the two writers.”
Dutta had the advantage of knowing Pinter through the Gaieties, for whom the dramatist was at various times player, match-manager and chairman. What are his memories of the writer? “The first non-cricketing remark I made to Harold was that, since he was wearing a winter coat in May, he looked a bit like Davies in The Caretaker. I don’t think he took too kindly to that. But, when it came to the Gaieties, Harold tried to instil a bloody-mindedness and make it clear how deeply he felt about the club, about cricket and about winning. At the same time, he wasn’t a castigator and the Gaieties has always been characterised by a total independence of thought.”
What is fascinating is the umbilical link between theatre and cricket. Why is it that not just Beckett and Pinter but legions of dramatists and actors have a passion for the game? “I suppose,” says Dutta, “that cricket and drama both work through metaphor. Drama is not mimetic like the 19th-century novel and cricket similarly gives you something that is and is not reality. The beginning of an innings is a birth and the end of one – as I know to my cost as a batsman – is very much like a death. The weather in cricket is a determining factor and is rather like those mysterious forces you find in Greek tragedy. A batsman or a bowler also has to be equally capable of defence or attack like a character in a play – especially in Pinter where words can be a shifting source of evasion or aggression.”
While Dutta is driven by a love for cricket and the classics – and he rejoices in the fact that state-school students are being encouraged to do Latin GCSE – he is also working on a number of original plays. “I’ve got a project about a meeting between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde that took place during Wilde’s first US tour. I’m also co-writing something about the meeting of two magicians, Jasper Maskelyne and a German with the stage name Kalanag, whose talents for deception were deployed by their respective armies in the second world war.” When I point out that he seems preoccupied by oppositional males Dutta counters that he has already written a play about Helen of Troy and is working on a Jacobean-style drama about the painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
But now, his focus is on Beckett and Pinter and I wonder what he hopes Stumped will achieve. “There are,” he says, “two potential audiences: cricket-lovers and those whose prime interest is in theatre. What they will get is a conflict between two characters who are playwrights, in a situation that can shift quickly from attack to defence. I see Beckett as a man with a foil and Pinter as a man with a sabre.”
That takes me back to The Frogs where there is a contest to decide whether Aeschylus or Euripides is the weightier playwright. It will be fascinating to see whether Dutta’s Aristophanic play sparks a similar debate about two indisputable titans of modern drama.