Pinter: First draft of a legacy, politics included

Harold Pinter died on December 24, 2008, a little more than five years ago. While half a decade on feels like an appropriate time to attempt a first draft of a legacy, it feels too early in his case because he remains with us, not as the ghost of a grand old man departed, but rather as a vibrant playwright in his prime. The theatre world is giddy with Pinter revivals. On Broadway, the most desirable ticket last fall was to Pinter’s “Betrayal”, the backwards-moving story of infidelity in literary London, starring real life married couple Daniel Craig (lately James Bond) and Rachel Weisz, Mr. Craig’s real wife. Also playing was “No Man’s Land” (in repertory with Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”) starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, two legendary British theatrical stalwarts who gained popular fame as leading antagonists in the X-Men comic book film franchise.

I did not attend either production, mainly because I had seen and read both plays a number of times. But what is most significant about them is that they arrived with all the hype and promotion of a Hollywood blockbuster. You have reached a particular status as a playwright when your work is advertised on glossy postcards featuring movie stars. One can imagine the tourists standing in line talking about those famous “Pinter pauses” as if they were any other must-see attraction this side of Shubert Alley. There’s a kind of middlebrow cynicism in producing a play like “Betrayal” with James Bond and his actual wife. Audience members who simply want to see Mr. Craig, but perhaps don’t want to admit it, can do so, all the while convincing themselves that they are participating in high culture. “No Man’s Land” was well received by the critics, but the reviews of “Betrayal” were middling to poor. Those critical opinions did not impact the play’s box office appeal. Pinter has become critic proof. Pinter, once a challenging, obscure, occasionally maddening provocateur, is now a brand.

It’s an odd turn of events for a writer who was once considered experimental and whose work is radically at odds with the traditional, audience pleasing “well made” play. Pinter grew to prominence in the sixties and seventies as a writer of absurdist existential works which eliminated traditional plots, characters with explainable motivations, and clear resolutions. Instead, his plays dwelt in poetry, densely imagistic dialogue, non-linear stories, characters with obscure, undefined motives, and unreliable memories. But unlike the first generation of absurdist writers (Beckett, Ionesco) who often used cosmic, abstract locations indicating a post-apocalyptic world, Pinter set his plays in drawing rooms, boarding houses, and seedy flats; the shabby ends of London, mostly. These recognizable locations were made obscure and strange. It was all quite revolutionary, and he influenced a generation of playwrights who followed.

Much of Pinter’s revolution is lost today because he has become so commonplace. Indeed, establishment. Perhaps it’s impossible to look back and see Pinter as he was seen when he first emerged, shaking away convention. Perhaps we should be pleased that his project has been successful, and for those of us who enjoy his work, delight in his public approval. On the other hand, such popular, widespread recognition obscures the hard edge that remains central to his project. After all, just what are those famous pauses? They are the moments when words fail, when the terror of life, the inability of two people to communicate, rob us of speech. Those pauses and silences are moments when we are forced to confront the abyss.

What is starkly missing from Pinter’s late popular fame is any serious consideration of the controversial political views which brought him a different kind of attention late in life, and contributed to his finally winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. Pinter was a relentless critic of the United States, the war in Iraq, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Israel. He once described Israeli soldiers as “thugs” and made comparisons between the Israeli government and that of Saddam Hussein. His attacks on the United States were not limited to America’s reaction to 9/11, but rather condemned decades of U.S. foreign policy. He was deeply critical of not only the second Iraq War, which had little international support, but also of the the first one to drive Hussein out of Kuwait, which had widespread approval around the world.

Even casual students of Pinter cannot help but notice the paradox. A writer of subtle, nuanced, occasionally obscure plays which are always open to interpretation, espouses political views which are clear, direct, without nuance, and amount to an all-out assault on America, Britain and Israel as being nefarious forces in the world. This dissonant juxtaposition was most clearly articulated in Pinter’s widely discussed Nobel acceptance speech, “Art, Truth & Politics”, one of his most revealing pieces of writing.

The speech focuses on the search for truth. Pinter draws a distinction between truth in drama and truth in politics. Believing that “Truth in drama is forever elusive”, he provides a uniquely revealing insight into his methodology as playwright. “Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image….What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche.” Pinter describes a meditative, incantatory process where the characters are slowly, even mystically revealed to him: “language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.” As he writes, the play comes into focus.

By contrast to the elusive, mysterious truth of drama, Pinter has an opposite notion of political truth. “As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?” He seeks hard, unbending answers, concluding, “the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives.” As a citizen Pinter believes that the truth must be uncovered. And what is his truth? “The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War”, and is “without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless….”

Pinter spends a large portion of his speech cataloging what he sees as America’s continuous history of war, state terrorism, violence, oppression, and a host of other nefarious ills. In this paranoid vision of America, individuals and political eras account for almost nothing. He speaks as if the country was controlled by a hidden dictatorial hand (perhaps corporate interests or some unseen military cabal), which continuously carries out an unbroken, methodical series of horrors.

He offers a narrowly selective analysis of American foreign policy, focusing primarily on Cold War policies in South America, especially Nicaragua, and the recent second war in Iraq. It’s never clear what these two very different areas of the world, with interventions separated by decades, implemented by an entirely different set of political leaders, have in common except for Pinter’s strenuous objection to America’s action in each case. Entirely absent from his one-sided and decontextualized attack is any consideration as to why the United States acted the way it did. Instead of thoughtful, pointed criticism about excesses in American foreign policy, he sees pure unending malevolence. As to America domestically, his judgment is equally severe, “2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.” Oppressive abroad and at home, there is no room in Pinter’s political imagination, it would seem, for anything good about America. And his attacks were not limited to the Nobel speech. He made them repeatedly in speeches and writings during his final years of life.

Pinter, of course, is entitled to his views, and undoubtedly has his defenders, but to me his analysis is lacking ad absurdum. He offers caricature, if not a kind of reverse propaganda aimed at defaming and discrediting everything about America. I feel obliged, here, to note that America, like any large and powerful country with complex interests around the world, has made its mistakes and will continue to do so. But to read Pinter’s assault on America, one cannot help but ask: has America done nothing good worthy of discussing? In Pinter’s truth, the answer is apparently no. There is no room for balance or reason or rational considerations.

What are we to make of this? Is it spent political rage, the equivalent of a brilliant man throwing an intellectual temper tantrum? And how should I, a great admirer of his plays and of his dramatic force, reconcile the brilliant playwright and the strident, deeply unfair accuser? His Nobel speech ultimately provides no answers. Some would argue that Pinter is simply another celebrity writer whose unsophisticated views get airing by virtue of his fame; rock stars who know nothing about politics often opine on the subject, and Pinter is no different.

That answer is not satisfactory. Politics has always been a central part of his works, especially in plays like “Mountain Language”, “One for the Road”, and “Ashes to Ashes” (which is the closest he came to writing a Holocaust play). In order to properly understand Pinter as a writer, we must understand the role of politics in his work and life. An attempt at this understanding has been severely lacking in public discussions.

The most impressive synthesis of Pinter the writer and Pinter the citizen came from the Belarus Free Theatre and their play “Being Harold Pinter”. Belarus has been called the last genuine dictatorship in Europe, rife with oppression and persecution, and a secret police which operates as a holdover from the Soviet era. The government maintains strict censorship over the arts. The Belarus Free Theatre emerged as an independent company that performed in small, cramped spaces with no sets, no costumes, and no advertising. According to one company member quoted in the press, sometimes they simply performed in the woods. They operated outside the official, state-sanctioned arts programs. Small independent theatre, for them, was one of the only spaces beyond the reach of the government where opposition voices could be heard. Members of the Belarus Free Theatre faced intimidation and harassment. Fear of arrest and detention was constant. According to their stories, it was not uncommon for oppositionist citizens in Belarus to simply disappear.

The Belarus Free Theatre was invited to New York to perform at the Under the Radar Festival, a leading festival of international performances hosted by the Public Theater and other partners. Members of the company had to sneak out of Belarus in small groups in order to evade arrest. I saw “Being Harold Pinter” during its New York run at La Mama, the venerable East Village playhouse for radically experimental works. The lobby was filled with leaflets and other pieces of information about artistic and political oppression in Belarus, fundraising letters, and materials on how we, the audience members, could help members of the company. The play itself was in Belarusian with English super-titles projected onto screens set up around the stage. The staging could not have been simpler. No set. Basic black and white costumes and simple props—a marshmallow on a stick become a torturers instrument to terrifying effect.

The play was a “mash up” with excerpts from different Pinter plays, and it included extensive material from his Nobel speech. The material was cut together in a kind of postmodern collage, interspersed with writings from Belarusian political prisoners. The theme of the play was power and violence and how some used it to subjugate others. What was so unusual and enlightening about the texts selected by the company is that they did not only draw from Pinter’s political works. They included material from his domestic dramas as well. These scenes were performed, however, as if they were scenes of oppression and domination. The argument made in “Being Harold Pinter” is that the brutal enforcement of will has been the secret subject of Pinter’s writing from the beginning. As was well put in one review by Ben Brantley, “You start to realize the extent to which the domestic violence in Pinter’s early works was a prophecy of the more explicit political violence in the later plays.” The Belarus Free Theatre, through their presentation, argues that the root of political and governmental violence is found in the most basic of human interactions, of one party, be it a husband, a father, a son, trying to control another. They explicated the connection between Pinter the dramatist and Pinter the citizen.

For the Belarus Free Theatre, given their personal stories, there is an urgency and poignancy to the work beyond what is presented on stage. There is always a danger that even the most well intentioned political theatre can become didactic, or worse, propaganda. Politics, even of the noblest kind, and art, do not always mix. But in addition to everything else, “Being Harold Pinter” was what all plays must be: powerful, engaging, and fully utilizing the live format. It was extraordinary theatre. Still, even “Being Harold Pinter” avoided the more incendiary aspects of Pinter’s rhetoric. Perhaps coming from a real dictatorship in Belarus, the members of the Company looked a skeptical eye towards his harsh comments on America.

So what is one left with? Art, Truth and Politics indeed. In the end, this struggle with Pinter is very personal to me, as I have had a relationship with his writing since I was thirteen years old. In November of last year, I flew to London for the production of one of my own plays. During the long overnight flight, I remembered back to my discovery of Pinter in the eighth grade. I was in the library supposed to be studying for a science test, but I wandered off to a far-flung corridor of the building and the found the drama section. Words fail, to a degree, in my attempt to explain why I was so taken with what I had found. It is an appropriate moment for a famous Pinter pause. In the weeks that followed I borrowed book after book, not just Pinter, but many others. That discovery was what led me to want to write plays, and over the years I dreamed of having a play done in London, in Pinter’s city, in the theatre capitol of the world. Nineteen years later, as I sat on that plane realizing this dream, I remembered, especially, how many of Pinter’s experimental one-acts—“The Lover”, “The Basement”, “A Kind of Alaska”, which I directed in a student production during my senior year of high school—encouraged and guided my own baby steps into playwriting. And in those early days as a thirteen year old aspiring playwright, I also read “Betrayal”, a strange story with muted dialogue—no big emotional outbursts or confrontations, just suppressed speech and indirect revelations. It was heady stuff then as it is now.

What Pinter tells us, unequivocally, is that Pinter the playwright and Pinter the citizen are one and the same. They cannot be separated. They are both committed to the same goal, to uncover the truth. Although truth in drama can never be found, truth as citizens, political truth, can be, and this discovery, according to Pinter, can be achieved by the writer. Pinter has found his truth but it is not mine. To me his truth is troubling. Legitimate criticism is always welcome and worthwhile. What Pinter has given us is distributing for a man of his stature. As someone who has admired him for decades, seen his plays, read his books, watched his films, studied his dramaturgy, has been inspired and enlightened by him, but at the same time has recoiled at his political views, there is a near incomprehensible challenge of untangling to be done.

I hope that future productions of his work will not confine themselves to blockbusters with high tickets and big stars. Those are always welcome for their own unique benefits, but it is time for a reevaluation of his life and work—of his plays, of his politics, and of the interaction between the two. Let future productions be guided by the experimentation of the Belarus Free Theatre, and find their own way through his complicated oeuvre. Let future critics and scholars not leave his politics to the side—he told us not to—but rather offer fresh assessments without being slaves to the established interpretations of the past. I do believe that five years on, half a decade later, is an appropriate time to begin considering a great man’s legacy, but such a consideration should be mindful of the contradictions and challenging aspects of who he was and what he did. I offer this essay as a step in that direction.

About the Author
Judah Skoff, one of the Jewish Week's 36 Under 36, is a lawyer and writer. He was a Berrie Leadership Fellow and a Fellow at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. His plays have been performed in New York, London and at numerous theatres across the United States. His awards include the National Playwriting Competition, the New Jersey Playwright's Contest, and two Governor's Awards in the Arts. He graduated from Brown University and cum laude from Boston University School of Law where he was named Edward S. Hennessey Scholar and Paul J. Liacos Scholar. The views expressed are strictly his own.