Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter: An Appreciation

"Pinter remains to his credit, a permanent public nuisance, a questioner of accepted truths, both in life and art. In fact the two persistently inter-act." - From The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, by MICHAEL BILLINGTON (1996)

The theatrical stage has lost one of its most senimal voices as Harold Pinter, praised as the most influential British playwright of his generation and a longtime voice of political protest, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.

Pinter's distinctive contributions to the playwriting and the theatrical stage was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. "Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles," the Nobel Academy said when it announced Pinter's award. "With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution."

The Nobel Prize gave Pinter a global platform which he seized enthusiastically to denounce U.S. President George W. Bush and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Pinter fulminated against what he saw as the overweening arrogance of American power, and belittled Blair as seeming like a "deluded idiot" in support of Bush's war in Iraq.

"The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law," Pinter said in his Nobel lecture, which he recorded rather than traveling to Stockholm. "How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand?" he asked, in a hoarse voice.

He went on to propose a speech he wrote that the U.S. president could deliver. It sounded like a rant from one of his gangster thug characters. It ends abruptly: "You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it."

An ardent pacifist who supported liberal causes, Pinter was an prominent, outspoken critic of both the Vietnam war and the first Persian Gulf war, and in the 1970s, he criticized the United States for its role in the overthrow of Chile's Socialist President Salvador Allende and denounced governments around the world that stifled freedom of speech and artistic expression.

In his Nobel lecture, Pinter accused the United States of supporting "every right-wing military dictatorship in the world" after World War II. "The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them," he said. The United States, he added, "also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain."

"There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false," Pinter wrote in 1958. "I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?"

Pinter wrote 32 plays,including The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, and Betrayal, twenty-one screenplays including The Servant, The Quiller Memorandum, The Go-Between and The French Lieutenant's Woman, and directed twenty-seven theatre productions, including James Joyce's Exiles and David Mamet's Oleanna He admitted, and said he deeply regretted, voting for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.

His most prolific period was between 1957 and 1965, as Pinter relished the juxtaposition of brutality and the banal and turned the conversational pause into an emotional minefield. His best-known works revolve around recurring themes: an isolated character, an unexpected "intruder," a power struggle that threatens to turn violent. Words are a negotiating tool, a weapon or a coverup. At times the audience is not certain what to think or whom to believe.

His characters' internal fears and longings, their guilt and difficult sexual drives are set against the neat lives they have constructed in order to try to survive. Usually enclosed in one room, they organize their lives as a sort of grim game and their actions often contradict their words. Gradually, the layers are peeled back to reveal the characters' nakedness. The protection promised by the room usually disappears and the language begins to disintegrate.

Pinter once said of language, "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place. When true silence falls we are left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."


Pinter's influence was felt in the United States in the plays of Sam Shepard and David Mamet (whom he mentored) and throughout British literature.

"With his earliest work, he stood alone in British theater up against the bewilderment and incomprehension of critics, the audience and writers too," said British playwright Tom Stoppard when the Nobel Prize was announced. "Not only has Harold Pinter written some of the outstanding plays of his time, he has also blown fresh air into the musty attic of conventional English literature, by insisting that everything he does has a public and political dimension," added British playwright David Hare, who also writes politically charged dramas.

The working-class milieu of plays like "The Birthday Party" and "The Homecoming" reflected Pinter's early life as the son of a Jewish tailor from London's East End. He began his career in the provinces as an actor.

In his first major play, "The Birthday Party" (1958), intruders enter the retreat of Stanley, a young man who is hiding from childhood guilt. He becomes violent, telling them, "You stink of sin, you contaminate womankind."

In "Silence and Landscape," Pinter moved from exploring the dark underbelly of human life to showing the simultaneous levels of fantasy and reality that equally occupy the individual.

And in "The Caretaker," a manipulative old man threatens the fragile relationship of two brothers while "The Homecoming" explores the hidden rage and confused sexuality of an all-male household by inserting a woman.

During the late 1980s, his work became more overtly political; he said he had a responsibility to pursue his role as "a citizen of the world in which I live, (and) insist upon taking responsibility."

When I think of Pinter, I think of those long Pinterian pauses of silence, which implicitly suggested something subterranian is going on his characters' interior lives. He instinctively knew that silence can be a very powerful dramatic device, and that it could generate visceral emotional power on the stage.

Rest in peace, Harold. You've left a powerful legacy in your works. You will be deeply missed.

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