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Remembering Harold Pinter


Several of the obituaries for Harold Pinter, the Nobel prize winning playwright who died on Christmas Eve, see the puzzle of his life as centered on the question of how so happy a person could remain so consistently angry.  The sense of anger, or perhaps sullenness is the better word, arises mainly from the diffidence of his theatrical persona and the independence of his best characters even, as it were, from himself, and of course his increasingly assertive left-wing politics.  The image works, despite its limitations, because as he suffered in recent years from a gaunting cancer he remained active and in public view, becoming something of a spectral figure.  And of course many who were not fans of theatrical work (from the hugely controversial Birthday Party, to the critically acclaimed Caretaker, and then further forays into drama and film) mainly knew him through his forceful opposition to Bush and Blair and their Iraqi policies and the larger entanglements of American empire.

But Pinter, and this is true I think of all deeply intellectual figures, cannot be reduced to the terms provocateur or leftist.  In this case, to be sure, simple reductions are wholly inadequate to the task given his very methods of work:  one of his most abiding theatrical legacies is his insistence that dramatic characters are inevitably impenetrable – they owe us no “back story,” nor are their utterances ever finally comprehensible, any more than are our interactions in the real world of performed conversation.  And so Pinter set characters loose who even he could not predict or control, an exercise that often meant his productions were themselves angering as audiences struggled to talk sense into the unfolding stories. As the Economist put it, “his characters rose up randomly… and then began to play taunting games with him.  They resisted him, went their own way.  There was no true or false in them.  No certainty, no verifiable past…  Accordingly, in his plays, questions went unanswered.  Remarks were not risen to.”

So what does all this say about the ends of communication?  For Pinter they are not connected to metaphysical reflection or understanding (this was Beckett’s domain; it is somehow fitting that Pinter’s last performance was in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, played from a wheelchair), but simple self defense, a cover for the emptiness underneath (Pinter: “cover for nakedness”), a response to loneliness where silence often does just as well as words.  And so this is both a dramatic device (the trait that makes a play Pinteresque) and a potentially angering paradox:  “Despite the contentment of his life he felt exposed to all the winds, naked and shelterless.  Only lies would protect him, and as a writer he refused to lie.  That was politicians’ work, criminal Bush or supine Blair, or the work of his critics” (Economist).  Meanwhile, the audience steps into Pinter’s worlds as if into a subway conversation; as Cox puts it, “The strangers don’t give you any idea of their backgrounds, and it’s up to the eavesdropper to decide what their relationships are, who’s telling the truth, and what they’re talking about.”

The boundaries that lie between speaking and silence are policed by timing, and Pinter once said he learned the value of a good pause from watching Jack Benny performing at the Palladium in the early 1950’s.  One eulogist recalls the “legendary note” Pinter once sent to the actor Michael Hordern:  “Michael, I wrote dot, dot, dot, and you’re giving me dot, dot.”  As Siegel notes:  “It made perfect sense to Hordern.”  The shifting boundaries of communication, which in turn provide traces of the shifting relations of power in a relationship, can devolve into cruelty or competition where both players vie for one-up status even as all the rest disintegrates around them.  As his biographer, Michael Billington, put it, “Pinter has always been obsessed with the way we use language to mask primal urges.  The difference in the later plays is not simply that they move into the political arena, but they counterpoint the smokescreen of language with shocking and disturbing images of torture, punishment, and death.”  At the same time, and this because Pinter was himself an actor and knew how to write for them, the written texts always seemed vastly simpler on paper than in performance – and this is not because simple language suggests symbolic meaning (Pinter always resisted readings of his work that found symbolic power in this or that gesture) but because the dance of pauses and stutters and speaking end up enacting scenes of apparently endless complexity.

For scholars of communication who attend to his work, then, Pinter poses interesting puzzles and even at their most cryptic his plays bump up against the possibilities and limits of language.  One such riddle, illuminated in an essay Dirk Visser, is that while most Pinter critics see his plays as revealing the failures of communication, Pinter himself refused to endorse such a reading, which he said misapprehended his efforts.  And as one moves through his pieces, the realization that language is not finally representational of reality slowly emerges (or, in some cases, with the first line), nor even instrumental (where speakers say certain things to achieve certain outcomes).  Pinter helps one see how language can both stabilize and unmoor meaning, even in the same instant (this is the subject of an interesting analysis of Pinter’s drama written by Marc Silverstein), and his work both reflects and straddles the transition from modernism to postmodernism he was helping to write into existence (a point elaborated by Varun Begley).

His politics were similarly complicated, I think, a view that runs contrary to the propagandists who simply read him as a leftist traitor, and a fascist at that.  His attacks on Bush/Blair were often paired with his defense of Milosevic in the press as implying a sort of left-wing fascism where established liberal power is always wrong.  But his intervention in the Milosevic trial was not to defend the war criminal but to argue for a fair and defensible due process, and this insistence on the truth of a thing was at the heart of his compelling Nobel address.  Critics saw his hyperbole as itself a laughable performative contradiction (here he is, talking about the truth, when he hopelessly exaggerates himself).  I saw a long interview done with Charlie Rose, replayed at Pinter’s death, where Rose’s impulse was to save Pinter from this contradiction, and from himself:  (Paraphrasing Rose) “Surely your criticism is not of all the people in America and Britain, but only made against particular leaders.”  “Surely you do not want to oversimplify things.”  Pinter agreed he was not accusing everyone of war crimes but also refused to offer broader absolution, since his criticism was of a culture that allowed and enabled lies as much as of leaders who perpetuated them without consequence.  Bantering with Rose, that is to say, he refused to take the bait, and the intentional contradictions persisted.  His Nobel speech (which was videotaped for delivery because he could not travel to Stockholm and is thus available for view online) starts with this compelling paragraph:

In 1958 I wrote the following:  “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 or false.”  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?

What was so angering for many was Pinter’s suggestion that the American leadership (and Blair too) had committed war crimes that had first to be recognized and tallied and then perpetrators held to account:

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile.  The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.  Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries.  Did they take place?  And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy?  The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy.  But you wouldn’t know it.  It never happened.  Nothing ever happened.  Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening.  It didn’t matter.  It was of no interest.  The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them.  You have to hand it to America.  It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good.  It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

The argument is offensive to many (when the Nobel was announced, the conservative critic Roger Kimball said it was “not only ridiculous but repellent”), though for a playwright most attentive to the power of the obscuring mask and the underlying and sometimes savage operations of power they obscure, it is all of a piece.  McNulty:  “But for all his vehemence and posturing, Pinter was too gifted with words and too astute a critic to be dismissed as an ideological crank.  He was also too deft a psychologist, understanding what the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott meant when he wrote that ‘being weak is as aggressive as the attack of the strong on the weak’ and that the repressive denial of personal aggressiveness is perhaps even more dangerous than ranting and raving.”

As the tributes poured in, the tensions between the simultaneous arrogance (a writer refuses to lie) and the humility (he felt exposed to all the winds, naked and shelterless) in this arise again and again.  The London theatre critic John Peter gets at this when he passingly noted how Pinter “doesn’t like being asked how he is.”  And then, in back to back sentences:  “A big man, with a big heart, and one who had the rare virtue of being able to laugh at himself.  Harold could be difficult, oh yes.”  David Wheeler (at the ART in Cambridge, Massachusetts):  “What I enjoyed [of my personal meeting with him] was the humility of it, and his refusal to accept the adulation of us mere mortals.”  Michael Billington:  “Pinter’s politics were driven by a deep-seated moral disgust… But Harold’s anger was balanced by a rare appetite for life and an exceptional generosity to those he trusted.”  Ireland’s Sunday Independent:  “Pinter was awkward and cussed… It was the cussedness of massive intellect and a profound sense of outrage.”

Others were more unequivocal.  David Hare:  “Yesterday when you talked about Britain’s greatest living playwright, everyone knew who you meant.  Today they don’t.  That’s all I can say.”  Joe Penhall:  Pinter was “my alpha and beta…  I will miss him and mourn him like there’s no tomorrow.”  Frank Gillen (editor of the Pinter Review):  “He created a body of work that will be performed as long as there is theater.”  Sir Michael Gambon:  “He was our God, Harold Pinter, for actors.”

Pinter’s self-selected eulogy conveys, I think, the complication – a passage from No Man’s Land – “And so I say to you, tender the dead as you would yourself be tendered, now, in what you would describe as your life.”  Gentle.  Charitable.  But also a little mocking.  A little difficult.  And finally, inconclusive.

SOURCES:  Beyond Pinter’s own voluminous work, of course – Marc Silverstein, Harold Pinter and the Language of Cultural Power (Bucknell UP, 1993); Varun Begley, Harold Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism (U Toronto P, 2005); “Harold Pinter,” Economist, 3 January 2009, pg. 69; Ed Siegel, “Harold Pinter, Dramatist of Life’s Menace, Dies,” Boston Globe, 26 December 2008, pg. A1; John Peter, “Pinter:  A Difficult But (Pause) Lovely Man Who Knew How to Apologise,” Sunday Times (London), 28 December 2008, pgs. 2-3; Gordon Cox and Timothy Gray, “Harold Pinter, 1930-2008,” Daily Variety, 29 December 2008, pg. 2; Charles McNulty, “Stilled Voices, Sardonic, Sexy:  Harold Pinter Conveyed a World of Perplexing Menace with a Vocabulary All His Own,” Los Angeles Times, 27 December 2008, pg. E1; Dirk Visser, “Communicating Torture: The Dramatic Language of Harold Pinter,” Neophilologus 80 (1996): 327-340; Matt Schudel, “Harold Pinter, 78,” Washington Post, 26 December 2008, pg. B5; Michael Billington, “Harold Pinter 1930-2008,” Guardian (London), 27 December 2008, pg. 15; Esther Addley, “Harold Pinter 1930-2008,” Guardian (London), 27 December 2008, pg. 14; Frank Gillen, “Farewell to an Artist, Friend,” St. Petersburg Times (Florida), 4 January 2009, pg. 4E; “Unflagging in His Principles and Unrivalled in His Genius,” Sunday Independent (Ireland), 28 December 2008; Dominic Dromgoole, “In the Shadow of a Giant,” Sunday Times (London), 28 December 2008, pgs. 1-2; Mel Gussow and Ben Brantley, “Harold Pinter, Whose Silences Redefined Drama, Dies at 78,” New York Times, 26 December 2008, pg. A1.

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