The problem with Pinteresque politics

The same qualities that made Harold Pinter one of the great dramatists – free association, non-sequiturs, jarring juxtapositions, unreliable recollections – also made him a bad political activist.

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Here, Sandy Starr argues that Harold Pinter’s writing style, so mesmerising on the stage, was intrinsically unsuited for radical activism. Further below, James Heartfield asks how this crackling playwright from the East End became a left-wing snob.

In 2005, the British playwright Harold Pinter, who died this month, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was awarded the prize supposedly because he ‘uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms’ (1). The judges’ wording prompted some to speculate that Pinter may have received the award because of his political opinions as well as his literary achievements: later in life, Pinter became as well known for his strident views as for his plays.

The Times (London) noted that ‘Pinter is just about the biggest and sharpest stick with which the Nobel committee can poke America in the eye’. Pinter himself said: ‘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, of course. Previous Nobel 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, however, is that precisely the qualities that allowed him to excel at the former rendered him deficient in the latter. The lifeblood of Pinter’s work was 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 consisted not of rational argument, but of free association, non-sequiturs, jarring juxtapositions, unreliable recollections, and of course the infamous pregnant pauses that have become a standing joke.

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

In the 2000s, Pinter’s conspiratorial anti-Americanism became especially galling. He argued at a liaison meeting in the UK parliament in 2002 that the Bush administration was ‘determined, quite simply, to control the world’; he frequently described the US 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 was 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 have affected Pinter’s standing as a playwright if it were not for the fact that his political obsessions 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 pushed 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 was a result of his heavy but skilful use of sinister insinuations, which led the audience’s imagination in a certain direction and then left 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. Following Betrayal, Pinter struggled to write another full-length play, and concentrated instead – as did his idol Samuel Beckett in later years – on 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 used his political ire to compensate for the exhaustion of his earlier modus operandi. While the later work had its merits, and Pinter’s dialogue still packed a punch, his clear agenda – to depict and decry political injustice – worked against the ambiguity that his classic work relied upon.

Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington once 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 was not so much an aberration from his writing as a use to which his writing was 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 Pinter’s art, which will unquestionably live on, it is better when they don’t.

PINTER’S SHORT CUTS
by James Heartfield

‘Landlord, a pint of ale, in my own pewter tankard, that you keep for me, behind the bar…’ Actor David Baron, in his favourite hostelry on the Tottenham Court Road, 1956. Forty-seven years later, the same man, hiding from reporters in a restaurant in Brighton, orders a glass of champagne, in his own cut-glass flute, that he has the proprietor keep for him, for those few times that he travels down from London. Did it tickle Harold Pinter, the jobbing actor, to ennoble himself Baron when he was on the stage? Years later, as a writer, Pinter’s words still carried the harsh beat of East London; he, however, left his wife for Lady Antonia Fraser, the very posh daughter of the seventh earl of Longford, to live in Hampstead.

Pinter’s drama was good, crackling, in fact. One man in a room, another enters: the room is different, the people change. A third enters, and everything is different again. Like the psychiatrist RD Laing, Pinter showed us how relationships between people kept offering up new and unexpected tensions and complexities. He did not write with the end in mind, but introduced his characters to each other, often named A, B and C before they were Kates or Deeleys, and let them react to each other. The early plays, The Room, The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, had an air of menace that made you wonder whether it was in your head. They were not much liked at first, but in time Pinter came to be known for what he was: a very good playwright, spare with words, tripping expectations, looking down on his players with callous indifference.

In Betrayal, Pinter told the story of adultery and separation backwards, so that it all starts with recrimination and bitterness, giving way to guilt, excitement, then flirtation and happy bliss. Years later, poor Joan Bakewell, having tried to live down the tagline she earned as a TV journalist, ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’, was found out to be Pinter’s lover, their affair forming the basis of Betrayal.

Many of the obituaries of Pinter effectively said: ‘Great playwright, shame about the politics.’ Pinter’s politics were far-left. Like Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, fierce opposition to American militarism put him on Mount Olympus looking down on those mere mortals, including many of the obituary-writers, who made the mistake of getting carried away with some shabby overseas adventure. His leftism, though, always had a bit of snobbery about it, best summed up by the 22 June Group he founded with Lady Antonia, Salman Rushdie and others, a kind of Hampstead People’s Front Against Thatcher. In 1992, Pinter introduced indigenous people’s champion Rigoberta Menchú (actually a Latin Rosa Klebb, who could quote passages of Stalin from memory) to an audience of well-heeled rebels – ‘isn’t she maaaarvellous’ – while the Latin America Solidarity Campaign sold copies of her authentic peasant dress at the back of the room.

Pinter took short cuts, and hating America was one. The poem he read on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, ‘The Dead’, was piss-poor, synthetic emotion, hatred for the Yankees standing in for a real motive force. For a better memorial, read his poem ‘The Message’:

Jill. Fred phoned. He can’t make tonight.
He said he’d call again, as soon as poss.
I said (on your behalf) OK, no sweat.
He said to tell you he was fine,
Only the crap, he said, you know, it sticks,
The crap you have to fight.
You’re sometimes nothing but a walking shithouse.

I was well acquainted with the pong myself,
I told him, and I counselled calm.
Don’t let the fuckers get you down,
Take the lid off the kettle a couple of minutes,
Go on the town, burn someone to death,
Find another tart, giver her some hammer,
Live while you’re young, until it palls,
Kick the first blind man you meet in the balls.

Anyway he’ll call again.

I’ll be back in time for tea.

Your loving mother.

Sandy Starr is communications officer at the Progress Educational Trust. An edited version of his article was first published on spiked in 2005. James Heartfield’s Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance, is published by Mute, 2008. You can visit his website here.

(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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Topics Politics