"The Hothouse" (1958) Harold Pinter's fifth play, was not produced until 1980. Largely farce and black comedy, it takes place in a mental institution where the staff cares so little about patients that they are only known by numbers. Patient No. 6457 has recently died, and Patient No. 6459 gives birth; the father is probably a staff member. We never meet any of the patients in this full-length play. Roote is the boss, and Gibbs is his second-in-command. Miss Cutts is the only female character.
As usual there are funny bits, almost like vaudeville gags, and mainly Absurdist dialogue. Roote is an insensitive supervisor, and the seven characters act robotically with very little humanity on display. When we listen to some of the dialogue by the minders of the mentally disturbed, we wonder if the tables haven't been turned.
Roote's morality and statements about staff members having affairs with patients is strange to say the least. "I don't mind the men dipping their wicks on occasion. It can't be avoided...It does no harm to either party...Never ride barebacked and always send in a report."
Gibbs and Cutts "torture" attendant Lamb with electrodes and ask a series of inane, farcical questions. Almost everything in the play is weird and off the wall. Who runs the nut house? Why, of course, the real nut cases. The play shows Pinter's fascination with words, the frequent nonsense and meaninglessness of words.
In one scene Roote keeps throwing whiskey in the face of the character Lush. Roote feels he is going to be murdered, and the play takes a sinister turn; again, the introduction of menace a la Theater of the Absurd. The play ends on a very grim, frightening note.
As the play progresses, it becomes less successful as a dramatic work. Pinter pulls out all the stops and doesn't quite knit it together. It gets too sensational without getting very meaningful. We need not ask of it, as a Theater of the Absurd piece, to be sensible, but we would like it to be significant. Black comedy, but a lot of shock for its own sake. Shock your audience but do it for a point or a purpose. Like Kafka it has a nightmare quality and a loss of contact with reality. It is not one of Pinter's better works, manipulative not deeply felt or successfully executed.