Bob Dylan And Harold Pinter (Part III): Hearts Of Fire

By Larry Fyffe

Off to the Land of Blake, and Wordsworth’s Lakes, the young Bob Dylan flies.

There, an association with BBC-TV director Philip Saville acquaints Bob Dylan with the dramatic methods employed by playwright Harold Pinter – absurdist comedy, black humour, puns, poetic lower-class speech, and silent pauses mix with tragic events and memories of better times that arise out of realistic situations.

Saville directs Pinter’s TV play ‘Night Out’ with the playwright in the cast. A number of Pinter’s plays portray the betrayal of innocents by powerful religious and societal authorities who rave against the sex instinct though not against the horrors of war. The result is the creation of confusion, insecurity, alienation, and violence in people trying to cope with their mundane ‘kitchen sink’ lives.

Saville directs Evan Jones’ Pinteresque TV play “The Madhouse On Castle Street”. Philip adds a feature to it. Bob Dylan performs ‘Cuckoo Bird’, a symbolic song that the young singer/songwriter already knows – it’s about betrayal in that the cuckoo takes over the nests of other birds. Dylan never forgets such dramatic techniques; nor the anti-authoritarian content of Harold’s plays. Pinter later writes a screenplay for Joseph Conrad’s ‘Victory: An Island Tale’.

Dylan goes down to the figurative basement and sends up Pinter-like fragmented song narratives peppered with allusions to old folk songs:

Well, the cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies
I'm preaching the word of God, I'm putting out your eyes
(Bob Dylan: High Water)

A closed and desolate tomb-like room is the he setting of many of Harold Pinter’s plays; so too in the song lyrics below:

Light flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's really nothing, really nothing, to turn off
Just Louise, and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind
(Bob Dylan: Visions Of Johanna)

As in Pinter’s plays (ie,The Homecoming) so it be in songs presented from the presumptuous point of view of male writers – the biological nature of the female sex better prepares it’s members to cope with the existential angst engendered by modern society; indeed, Nietzschean ‘resentment’ can be turned into lots of cash through ‘high class’ prostitution.

And chastity too can bring in money like it does for Jack Astor’s widow, and the fictional sad-eyed lady – if the following lyrics be so interpreted:

With your pockets well protected at last
And your streetcar visions, which you place on the grass
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass
Who could they get to carry you
(Bob Dylan; Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

In the play ‘The Madhouse On Castle Street’, the following song is performed:

Hang me, oh hang me, I'll be dead and gone
Wouldn't mind the hanging, but the laying in the grave so long
Lord, Lord, I've been all around this world
(Bob Dylan: Hang Me, Oh Hang Me ~ traditional)

Akin to the motif that pops up in the song lyrics below:

At midnight all the agents, and superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do
Then they bring them down to the factory where the heart attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders, and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castle by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

Mustn’t forget the carol scene.

Back home, in the stage directions, Dylan lists those musicians and songsters that the singer/playwright wants in the grand choir loft to accompany his song-play entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’.

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