One almost feels to follow this simple statement of fact with a Pinteresque wisecrack. “I expected as much” or “Was the body badly decomposed?” But Pravda wouldn’t dream of it.
Harold Pinter, praised as the most influential British playwright of his generation and a longtime voice of political protest, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.
Pinter, whose distinctive contribution to the stage was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, died on Wednesday, according to his second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser.
“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.
“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.
Weakened by cancer and bandaged from a fall on a slippery pavement, Pinter seemed a vulnerable old man when he emerged from his London home to speak about the Nobel Award.
Though he had been looking forward to giving a Nobel lecture _ “the longest speech I will ever have made” _ he first canceled plans to attend the awards, then announced he would skip the lecture as well on his doctor’s advice.
Pinter wrote 32 plays; one novel, The Dwarfs, in 1990; and put his hand to 22 screenplays including The Quiller Memorandum (1965) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1980). He admitted, and said he deeply regretted, voting for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.
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.
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.”
(All Together Now:) Don’t hold back, dear. Tell us what you really think !
Oh what a lovely angry voice, now stilled but reverberating nonetheless. It was obvious from his earliest revue sketches that Pinter didn’t suffer fools gladly, to put it mildly. And why should he? As the wikipedia notes he was
born on 10 October 1930, in the London Borough of Hackney, to “very respectable, Jewish, lower middle class,” native English parents of Eastern-European ancestry; his father, Jack Pinter (1902–1997), was a “ladies’ tailor” and his mother, Frances (née Moskowitz; 1904–1992), “kept what is called an immaculate house” and was “a wonderful cook”
“Immaculate” and “respectable” as his parents may have been there was no reason to expect that Harold would have ever gotten out of Hackney had he not taken drama classes in school. There he discovered a talent for playing upper class “toffs” which he did under the name “David Baron” (Baron being his paternal grandmother’s maiden name.)
This scene from The Servant shows part of what he learned. The other part was his discovery that language is power — and power relations rule the world. Being that his plays were entirely about power relations Pinter was a political writer from the word “go” — long before he formally abandoned fictional forms to speak out agains injustice as he does here in this address protesting NATO’s nefarious activities in Bosnia.
Pinter’s literary “voice” is so specific as to be indelible — like Noel Coward plotting world domination. But he didn’t want to overtake the world — just encourage it to be a better place. And he did so by showing Man At His Worst — on screen as well as stage. His collaborations with Joseph Losey, The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between were enormous critical and commercial hits. They had hoped to make the film version of the novel by the most famous of Middle-class Jews to (like Pinter) forge his passport and escape to Le Beau Monde. But while their A la recheche du temps perdu never made it to the screen Pinter’s script has been adapted to the stage. And as one might expect, it’s not bad.
While Pinter-Losey was a smashing partnership, Pinter-Spiegel didn’t work out quite as well (albeit another instance of a lower middle-class Jewish escapee teaming with soulmate.) Though both The Last Tycoon and Betrayal are not without their good points, I much prefer the thoroughly commercial spy thriller The Quiller Memorandum (filled with some of his wittiest dialogue exchanges), The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader’s exquisite sexual horror show) and his highly underrated rewrite of Sleuth filled with “strange twilight urges only hinte at in Anthony Schaffer’s orginal (itself a pilffering from Pinter.)
The same homoerotic menace figures in one of his greatest early plays The Collection, starring Alan Bates, Helen Mirren , Malcolm McDowell and in what I consider to be one of the very greatest performances of his life, Laurence Olivier is up on You Tube
Here’s his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It runs nearly 50 minutes. Do yourself a favor and take the time to savor it.
We shall not see his like again.