Death of a dissident
An encomium for the late Harold Pinter. James Turley writes
Harold Pinter - who died on Christmas Eve aged 78 - will be primarily remembered for the impact his plays had on English-language theatre, which cannot be overstated. He began writing while working a variety of dead-end jobs, taking acting roles for repertory theatres and touring companies
He found early success in the late 1950s, a period which also saw the first productions of Edward Bond and Peter Shaffer, among others. As these writers reached maturity in the 1960s, the English stage changed - into a darker, more disturbing and subversive place.
Bond’s Saved, with its infamous on-stage fatal stoning of an infant, also mortally wounded the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship office in 1965. Shaffer’s later Equus (1973) dabbled in psychoanalysis, schizophrenic religion and male nudity.
Of the three, however, only Pinter had his name turned into an adjective. And ‘Pinteresque’ is the only word that can do justice to the unnerving, corrupted domesticity, the halting communication (with the long pauses in dialogue for which he became famous).
In early plays such as The birthday party (1958) and The caretaker (1959), Pinter puts ambiguous characters in a room and sees what happens. What happens inevitably is oppression. Power bleeds into the narrative space. His pithy formula for it was “the weasel in the cocktail cabinet”. It drew on absurdism without getting mired in its dogmatic nihilism, and could be both unsettling and devilishly funny.
The style of the texts - in which characters inevitably say more than they wish, attempting to control meaning with silences and ellipses only for those absences to speak anyway - was cut to measure for the early plays’ content, with their barely-hinted violence and moral depravity.
In The birthday party, something happens between acts two and three that renders a major character mute. The lack of explanation somehow unnerves more enduringly even than Bond’s baby-stoning.
But it was a style that proved adaptable, as he tackled more reflective themes through the late 1960s and 70s.
After running into a creative rut towards the end of that decade, Pinter turned to writing more overtly political plays, as well as engaging in public political activism. This political turn in his work generally resulted in very short, one-act plays such as Mountain language (1988), which pose as direct experiences of oppression. Like Pinter’s oft-lampooned political poetry, it suffers from the limits of his political vision far more severely than the weasel-and-cocktail-cabinet works.
The two meet most fruitfully in One for the road (1984), in which a charismatic but anxious English torturer interrogates a brutally beaten prisoner, along with his wife and son. The audience’s discomfort is heightened by references to the off-stage violence, hints of religious fanaticism and morbid humour.
Particularly in the last 10 years, he used his public profile to advocate a fierce liberal anti-imperialism, becoming one of the most consistently aggressive critics of American military adventures, as well as of Labour’s supine acquiescence in them. As a result, he became something of a pin-up for the anti-war movement, as well as the broader left-liberal layers who are not active in the movement but sympathise with its goals.
His Nobel lecture is remarkable, not for the precision of its political formulations (which, again, are rather juvenile and millenarian - the US administration is brutal and barbaric, and driven mad with power, with no respect for international law, and so on), but for bravely acknowledging a split internal to Pinter’s work. “Truth in drama is forever elusive”, and art turns on ambiguity and play between truth and untruth. But civic activity is different: “As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?”1
Ever the actor, Pinter gave us one last great performance by playing out this dichotomy before our eyes - receiving a prestigious prize for his subtle and singularly ambivalent literary achievements, he delivered a ‘citizen’s’ tirade as certain of its own truth as it is naive.
In reality, the split between the ambiguity of drama and the firm values of civil society is less about truth than faith. Pinter’s theatre is a world in which the rules are inaccessible to the players. Pinter’s political world, however, has an accessible rulebook, and it is called international law.
His Nobel lecture pines for International Criminal Court convictions; it fiddles around the legal definition of a ‘war crime’. Imperialism, for him as for its other liberal critics, is a matter of individual states dominating other individual states.
For Marxists, it is a system of relations, all of which are significant, resulting in hierarchical relations between states.
And so it is that Pinter’s menacing early plays are actually wiser to the machinations of political forces than Pinter, the activist. We are much the poorer for his loss - an energetic if misguided activist, and a giant of 20th century theatre.