When it comes to politics, can we have a Pinteresque silence?

The same qualities that make Harold Pinter a great dramatist also make him a bad activist.

Sandy Starr

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Outspoken British playwright Harold Pinter has won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2005, supposedly because he ‘uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms’ (1). This has prompted some to speculate that he may have received the award because of his political opinions as well as his literary achievements.

The Times (London) notes that ‘Pinter is just about the biggest and sharpest stick with which the Nobel committee can poke America in the eye’, and Pinter himself says ‘I suspected that they must have taken my political activities into consideration since my political engagement is very much part of my work’. The Nobel Prize in Literature, to say nothing of Nobel Prizes in general, has always been politically loaded: previous awardees include Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill in 1953, and Soviet dissidents Boris Pasternak in 1958 and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1970 (2).

The problem with giving Pinter equal recognition for his contributions to literature and politics is that precisely the qualities that allow him to excel at the former render him deficient in the latter. The lifeblood of Pinter’s work is his inability, and by extension the inability of his characters, to form a coherent view of the world – and a coherent view of the world is a prerequisite for engaging in politics. The truth conveyed in Pinter’s best plays is not political, but poetic. His writing consists not of rational argument, but of free association, non-sequiturs, jarring juxtapositions, unreliable recollections, and of course the infamous pregnant pauses that have now become a standing joke.

It is easy to mock Pinter’s left-wing credentials, as many do, by contrasting them with his gentility – his passion for cricket and his marriage to the aristocrat and historian Lady Antonia Fraser. But it’s the incoherence of his views that is the real problem. His boorish, expletive-laden interventions on the issues of the day mean that even when he assumes a stance that you broadly sympathise with – such as opposing the bombing of Yugoslavia or upholding the principle of free speech – you end up wishing he would stay off your side.

Pinter’s conspiratorial anti-Americanism is especially galling – he argued at a liaison meeting in parliament in 2002 that the Bush administration is ‘determined, quite simply, to control the world’, and he frequently describes the USA as something akin to a hybrid of Nazi Germany and Caligulan Rome (3). The war on Iraq represented the mainstreaming of his position, with kneejerk, conspiratorial tirades against the US and UK governments becoming the common currency of the anti-war movement. Like the rest of today’s anti-war movement, Pinter’s opposition to Western imperialism is undermined by his constant appeal to the Western-dominated institutions of international law: the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the framework of human rights.

None of this would affect Pinter’s standing as a playwright if it were not for the fact that his political obsessions have undermined the integrity of his work. It is worth recalling that, while the UK Guardian’s comparison of Pinter’s achievements to those of John Bunyan and John Milton is pushing it somewhat, Pinter in his prime was a refreshing and innovative force in theatre (4).

Following his early dalliances with absurdist farce (The Hothouse, The Dumb Waiter), Pinter perfected a framework for his plays – crudely summarised, individuals with a mysterious past who may or may not have known each other previously engage in threatening exchanges and conflicting reminiscences in an enclosed space – that was extremely effective. His use of dialogue (and indeed, the lack of it) to convey meaning obliquely opened up new possibilities in characterisation and performance.

The sense of menace that is commonly associated with Pinter is a result of his heavy but skilful use of sinister insinuations, which lead the audience’s imagination in a certain direction and then leave it to complete the journey by itself. In his breakthrough 1958 play The Birthday Party, you don’t know what it is that the mysterious visitors Goldberg and McCann do to boarding-house resident Stanley between acts two and three, rendering him mute thereafter. Nor do you want to know; it seems too horrible to contemplate, and besides, if such things were spelled out then the play would be deprived of its purpose.

Pinter’s style, rich with unspoken tension and black humour, reached its apotheosis with the sublime No Man’s Land in 1974. His next play, 1978’s Betrayal, was a bold change of direction – a thinly-veiled autobiographical account of his affair with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell and the effect it had on his marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant. The play may have seemed more naturalistic than his previous work, but it was still formally innovative in that the story was told backwards, tracing the consequences of the affair back to the husband’s first infidelities.

But if Betrayal marked a change of direction, it also marked an impasse, and it was difficult to see how Pinter’s theatrical work could be further developed. His initial reaction was to dig out his play The Hothouse, written in 1958 but not performed until 1980. Since he wrote Betrayal nearly three decades ago, Pinter has struggled to write another full-length play, and has concentrated instead – as did his idol Samuel Beckett in later years – to writing short, fragmentary pieces.

In these playlets, from 1984’s One for the Road (torturer interrogates members of a family) to 1999’s Celebration (diners with political connections behave like arseholes in an expensive restaurant), Pinter has used his political ire to compensate for the exhaustion of his earlier modus operandi. While the later work has its merits, and Pinter’s dialogue still packs a punch, his clear agenda – to depict and decry political injustice – works against the ambiguity that his classic work relied upon.

Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington has responded to critics of Pinter’s politics by attacking the notion that ‘writers should keep out of politics’ and that Pinter’s later work is ‘an unfortunate aberration’ (5). I wouldn’t begrudge any writer the right to express his opinion, but in Pinter’s case, expressing his opinion is not so much an aberration from his writing as a use to which his writing is intrinsically unsuited.

Upon receiving the Nobel Prize, Pinter explained that ‘I am both deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics, and sometimes those two meet and sometimes they don’t’ (6). For this follower of politics and admirer of his art, it’s better when they don’t.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The Nobel Prize in Literature 2005, on the Nobel Foundation website

(2) ‘Pause for thought’, The Times, 14 October 2005; ‘They said you’ve a call from the Nobel committee. I said, why?’, Harold Pinter, Guardian, 14 October 2005. See The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953, The Nobel Prize in Literature 1958, The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970, on the Nobel Foundation website

(3) House of Commons Speech, Harold Pinter, October 2002

(4) In praise of… Harold Pinter, Guardian, 14 October 2005

(5) A gulf in appreciation, Michael Billington, Guardian, 14 October 2005

(6) Luminaries applaud Pinter’s Nobel, BBC News, 13 October 2005

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