December 26, 2008


Harold Pinter Does Not Deserve the Post Mortem White-Washing He Is About to Receive (Johann Hari, December 25, 2008, Independent)

[H]ow did a young Jewish boy who grew up bravely fighting against gangs of Mosleyite fascists on the streets of the East End wind up as a patron of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic?

There are two arguments against Pinter - one literary, the other political - and they are both hard to make, because in amongst the screw-ups Pinter has some undeniable achievements. Harold Pinter has one literary accomplishment: he imported the surrealism of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Luis Bunel into the staid English theatre. As the critic Irving Wardle put it, in his first play 'The Birthday Party', Pinter showed "how a banal Blackpool boarding house could open up to the horrors of modern history." The play shows a man, Stanley, hiding out in a dank Blackpool boarding house, only for two torturers to track him down. His landlady, Meg, is oblivious to the violence smashing through her own home. At their best, his plays are like a nightmarish stress-dream: unbearably primal, raw expressions of menace and fear, whose meaning is always just beyond our grasp.

But with Samuel Beckett, you always know there is an elaborate existentialist philosophy underneath the darkness and chaos. With Pinter, if you turn on the light and switch off the atmospherics, you find... nothing, except a few commonplace insights: Torture is Bad and Resistance is Good. Pinter himself says "the most important line I've ever written" is when Meg's husband calls out, as Stanley is taken away, "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do." The playwright said of this unobjectionable, obvious platitude, "I've lived that line all my damn life. Never more than now." It's depressingly revealing: Pinter's staccato sinisterness does not illustrate a point; it distracts the audience from the fact his point is so banal.

Yet Pinter has been protected by an elderly critical establishment so invested in creating and building up his reputation that they cannot admit how feeble most of his plays now look. (I assume nobody at all takes the poetry seriously). When I saw 'The Homecoming' - a revoltingly misogynistic work - in the West End a few years ago, the audience kept laughing in all the wrong places. It literally looked ridiculous, yet it was given respectful - and in some cases fawning - write-ups.

But the more important case against Pinter is political. Ever since Pinter was a teenager, he was relentlessly contrarian, kicking out violently against anything that might trigger his rage that day. He claimed to be a man of the left, but a few wildcat strikes at the National Theatre were enough to make him vote for Margaret Thatcher. He had an extraordinarily patronizing attitude to the poor, illustrated in an anecdote in Michael Billington's biography. Pinter once bumped into the tramp he had used as a model for the central character in his play 'The Caretaker' on Chiswick roundabout. "We had a chat and I asked him how he was getting on. I didn't mention the play, because he wouldn't have known what a play was," he said. Pinter did not mention that he had made millions of pounds by using this man as an inspiration. No: instead he noted to himself, "I was very close to this old derelict's world, in a way." His reason for comparing himself to a homeless person? When he was a student at RADA, he would skive off (because it was "full of poofs and ponces") and wander the streets "like a tramp." Yes Harold, just like a tramp.

Pinter often fumed about tyranny, but equally fumed about people who resisted it.

Any enemy of America was a friend of his. Do we really need to know any more?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 26, 2008 8:50 PM
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