BY JOHN STEPPLING
Pinter, in younger years. [print_link]. Although his plays were not overtly political, in his private life he never hid his leftist sympathies, which became more deeply entrenched and vocal with the passing of time.
The death of Harold Pinter leaves a gaping hole in the cultural consciousness of the west, and maybe of the world. There will be many obits for Pinter, many quite lengthy, and many very scholarly.
I will, then, simply write a more personal response to the writer who most shaped my artistic and moral outlook. I remember first reading his early plays, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, and The Caretaker. More than Beckett or Genet, or Brecht, the other playwrights in my personal pantheon of the theatre, Pinter somehow seemed to deliver a direct jolt to the frontal lobes, to be wired into my synapses in a way no one else did. I was stunned and somehow overwhelmed by these works. I am still, now thirty some years later, evaluating the effect.
I think The Homecoming may be his greatest play, in the sense that King Lear was Shakespeare’s greatest. Im not sure its his best play, or even the one I find most useful. But I think its his *greatest*. My favorite is The Caretaker, a play Im sure I’ve read about twenty times in full. Ben Brantlee’s overview, circa 2005 (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D05E7DF1639F937A25753C1A9639C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2) describes quite well the effect Pinter had on the audience, and my only complaint is that Pinter was not just about power….or, rather, he redefined the meaning of power.
Pinter was a metaphysician. He dealt with the unseen forces that deformed our lives, and rendered us all psychically injured. His autopsies of language managed to capture the tragic sensibility for modern lives — a sort of followup to his mentor Beckett. The dialogue has been simplistically written about in ways that invariably include a discussion of his *pauses*. This is to miss the point to some degree. His dialogue is better examined for what isnt there, and in a sense this is true of his entire plays as well. He removed anything that was trite or sentimental or expected. The form was being reclaimed — by which I mean that Pinter was somehow giving the modern condition a taste of Sophocles, and of Shakespeare. He did this by his refusal, by not allowing the tension (and tragedy) of human relations to be relieved in any way. I find him, in this sense, to be a bit like Fassbinder.
I think his most underrated play to be No Man’s Land. A play not easy to stage properly. In this piece the dynamics of his early plays is extended and pushed about as far as their logic allows. It is a very unnerving play to watch. One might also watch some of his better screenplays, the Losey films Accident, and The Servant, and the rarely screened The Pumpkin Eater. Pinter was also a Freudian, in the sense Norman O. Brown or Marcuse saw Freud. Because of his grasp of our basic desires and their origins, he could not help but be a highly political playwright. He was not, of course, a polemicist, but rather the metaphysical writer of politics. The Pumpkin Eater is a very psychoanalytic screenplay, but also deeply political. At first glance this may seem an odd description, but go and rent it, and watch it, and ponder its implications. He also wrote with a firm grasp of class. The Caretaker cannot be viewed without internalizing the savagery of class domination. He wrote of our inherent sadism and masochism, as well as the social framework that encouraged it.
Donald Pleasance and Alan Bates in The Caretaker (1963)
His Nobel speech is something worth viewing again, too. I showed it to a class at the film school. Afterwards a student came up to me at the break and said, ‘you know, his conviction and the authority he possesses are hard to argue with’. I thought this was a wonderful comment. That authority is in the plays, too.
“A breed of men has secretly grown up that hungers for the compulsion and restriction imposed by the absurd persistance of domination.*—Adorno, Minima Moralia
Adorno points out that the objective social framework, as he puts it, aides and abets these men. Pinter knew this too. In his genius he instinctively found the form to express this compulsion of self loathing. Like Thomas Bernhard, Pinter saw the institutional stupidity of modern life. He wrote of a society bent on self destruction, and he analysed it in its most minute expressions.
Our relations are poisoned. Our lives are poisoned.
The world is not the same now. Pinter was for me the single most inspirational voice I found, and I returned to his work again and again for several decades. I will continue to do so.
John Steppling, Trondheim Norway. John Steppling is CJO’s Senior Editor for Politics and Art. He confounded VOXPOP, Cyrano’s Journal’s cinema and stage criticism blog with Guy Zimmerman.
Pinter also was one of the great moral voices speaking for human justice and freedom the English-speaking world has seen in recent times. This is most evident in his final testament, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 2005.
From his Nobel acceptance speech:
What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days – conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead? Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what’s called the ‘international community’. This criminal outrage is being committed by a country, which declares itself to be ‘the leader of the free world’. Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally – a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man’s land from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You’re either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading – as a last resort – all other justifications having failed to justify themselves – as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.
We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’.
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? More than enough, I would have thought….
When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.
Pinter’s death is a sad holiday present for us all, unless it be that his words and his message be recalled to mind, and enter the popular consciousness as a trumpet call for civilized justice and an end to militarism and tyranny.