Ever so nice to have something wonderful to write about in this horrible world. And that’s very much the case here. For when this famous for being famous prize is announced it’s almost invariably provided an occasion for head-scratching. “Who won? What have they written? I’ve never heard of them” is the rule. Harold Pinter is a quite massive exception.
The Nobel academy said Pinter’s work “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”.
the BBC noted in its coverage — making special mention of Pinter’s “left-wing” politics, and its possible factoring into the award being granted.
Pinter told reporters: “I’ve been writing plays for about fifty years and I’m also pretty politically engaged. And I’m not at all sure to what extent that fact, that fact had anything to do with this award.
“I am both deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics and sometimes those two meet and sometimes they don’t. It’s all going to be very interesting.”
And indeed it will, for anyone who has been paying close attention to Pinter’s statements in recent years — meaning they’ve been reading them on the internet, as the U.S. “mainstream” has been loathe to make note of them at all.
It is obvious from the very beginning of his career that Harold Pinter has an understanding of the meaning, purpose and above all power of language that few writers possess. He sees life plain, and hard. Not surprisng as it proceeds from the outsider’s perspective of a Jewish tailor’s son from Hackney. Yet this Jewish tailor’s son from Hackney didn’t “transcend” the social circumstances of his birth — he took on the entire culture that surrounded it. Pinter began his career as an actor, catching on quite eary to the fact that the cadences of the upper classes were weapons of power. And through his master of language he quickly beat the British upper classes at ther own game.
Linguistic power games figure early on in his work. The Birthday Party begins as a sinister jape out of a Hitchcock thriller only to quickly evolve into something primal about power and its application. From the obscure trio of The Caretaker (where two brothers spar for the ownership of a tramp) to the seemingly familiar (at least at first) family dynamic of The Homecoming, Pinter rained cold showers on the alleged “brotherhood of man” — especially in its Renoir-pimped “Everyone has his reasons” form. For Pinter knows there is only one reason: Power. Yet this facing of the terrible truth hasn’t left him a cyncical man. Nor does he encourage cynicism in others. Quite the contrary. As recent years have shown he has taken advantage of every occasion imaginable to speak out against injustice. And his later plays (rarely performed in the U.S.) speak of injustice consistently. Particularly the injustice of torture.
“George W Bush is always protesting that he has the fate of the world in mind and bangs on about the ‘freedom-loving peoples’ he’s seeking to protect. I’d love to meet a freedom-hating people.”
notes Pinter in a timely 2001 interview
“”Thanks to Amnesty, much more has emerged about torture since I wrote the play [One for the Road], not least the state of affairs in the American penal system. It’s par for the course for young men who go into prison at 18 for dope-smoking to be systematically raped. There’s also the stun-gun by which the guard is able to give the prisoner a remote-control shock, leaving him to lose all control of his bodily functions and writhe on the floor in agony for 20 minutes. I regard that as torture. I also regard as torture the restraint-chair to which prisoners are strapped if they make any complaint and in which they’re held for 24 hours. That’s apart from the solitary cell in which light is on for 23 hours in totally arid conditions. I believe one can legitimately call the American penal system these days a series of gulags.
“One should also remember these prisons are big business: they are profit-making enterprises which local communities think are wonderful since they provide steady employment. But it’s clear that torture does pretty well all over the place… Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia. One should also remember that the US is the biggest exporter of torture-weapons in the world, though the UK is not far behind in the league table. We never stopped, even under Robin Cook’s supposedly ethical foreign policy.”
Could anyone have predicted that Harold Pinter would become the moral center of our times? Probably not. But to me it was apparent from the start that he wasn’t kidding. Sure mixing Kafka with Noel Coward is fun, but there’s something real behind it as is obvious from the restaurant scene in The Servant.
Tony (James Fox) and his would-be fiance Susan (Wendy Craig) are the ostensible center of attention, and seem to be having quite a pleasant time. But there are cut-aways to other couples for compare/contrast purposes, and the air crackles with menace. Pinter has an acting role here, revealing to his female companion that a friend whose wit they’ve long enjoyed is now in jail. A couple of clergymen (Patrick MacGee and Alun Owen — who in a year’s time would gain cultural immortality as the author of A Hard Day’s Night) gossip like the pair of half-drunk gay biddies they actually are. And there’s a lesbian couple as well (“You spoke to her. I saw her lips move!”) In short it’s the upper crust with its hair down — a perfect prelude to a scenario in which master (Fox) and servant ( the devestating Dirk Bogarde) change places in power terms, to the detriment of both.
Michael Billington, who is working on a biography of Pinter, has been most eloquent on the specificity of his contribution to the cinema. But television shouldn’t be forgotten, as many of his early plays were first performed there. And one of his very best works The Collection was mounted most successfully as a telepay. A perfectly crafted piece about sexaul politics among two couples — one gay the other straight (or at least straight esque) it starrted Laurence Oliver, Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. “He’s a slum boy you see,” Oliver explains to Bates of his lover McDowell — who Bates has been told has had a casual dalliance with his wife, Mirren. “I happned to be in a slum, one day and there he was,” says Sir Larry in his ripest tones, cutting through the air like a rapier. For Pinter it’s rapier-ripeness or nothing. And for us, in the reality-based community, it’s so good to have someone like Harold Pinter on our side.
And with that I give him the last word via a speech he gave to the House of Commons on Tuesday 21st January 2003
“One of the more nauseating images of the year 2002 is that of our Prime Minister kneeling in the church on Christmas Day praying for peace on earth and good will towards all men while simultaneously preparing to assist in the murder of thousands of totally innocent people in Iraq.
I’ve been taken to task recently by the American Ambassador to Britain for calling the US Administration a blood thirsty wild animal. All I can say is: take a look at Donald Rumsfeld’s face and the case is made.
I believe that not only is this contemplated act criminal, malevolent and barbaric, it also contains within itself a palpable joy in destruction. Power, as has often been remarked, is the great aphrodisiac, and so, it would seem, is the death of others.
The Americans have the ostensible support of the ‘international community’ through various sure-fire modes of intimidation; bullying, bribery, blackmail and bullshit. The ‘international community’ becomes a degraded entity bludgeoned into the service of a brutal military force out of control. The most despicable position is that of course of this country which pretends to stand shoulder to shoulder with its great ally while in fact being more of a whipped dog than anyone else. We are demeaned, undermined and dishonoured by our government’s contemptible subservience to the United States.
The planned war can only bring about the collapse of what remains of the Iraqi infrastructure, widespread death, mutilation and disease, an estimated one million refugees and escalation of violence throughout the world, but it will still masquerade as a ‘moral crusade’, a ‘just war’, a war waged by ‘freedom loving democracies’, to bring ‘democracy’ to Iraq.
The stink of the hypocrisy is suffocating.
This is in reality a simple tale of invasion of sovereign territory, military occupation and control of oil.
We have a clear obligation, which is to resist.”