Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Passings – Harold Pinter: Forgetting What Art Knows
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Canada)
There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false (Harold Pinter, 1958).
Like all truly first-rate writers, he mapped out his own country with its own distinctive topography. It was a place haunted by the shifting ambivalence of memory, flecked by uncertainty, reeking of sex and echoing with strange, mordant laughter. It was, in short, Pinterland and it will induce recognition in audiences for as long as plays are still put on in theatres (Billington, 2008).
Harold Pinter penned more than 30 plays, 20 screenplays, and as an actor he played a plethora of roles. He directed his own works and those of other playwrights at the highest level and won numerous distinctions (including a Knighthood which he turned down). Actors of the highest rank respected his direction immensely.
Upon learning of Pinter’s death I returned to his several of his plays and screenplays in an attempt to sort what strikes me as a vital disconnect between Pinter and his art at the time of his Nobel Prize (2005). In his acceptance speech he offered a powerful but fair criticism of the United States. He also did something almost unthinkable – he forgot the lessons of his own art. I have concluded, as I look back fondly on his work, and his political positions (with which I agree entirely), that Pinter’s art was sacrificed by him, unnecessarily in his Nobel speech, for something far inferior to it – politics. It was his belief that politics could somehow stand above art that allowed him to fail to learn the principle lesson of his art. We can however go on appreciating his art while not making the same mistake.
Pinter understood from a young age (it is among the primary lessons any thoughtful person learns from the experience of regimes of forced education and socialization), that each individual is in conflict with the universe. If we do not somehow learn that lesson by the end of adolescence we are done for as adults. For Pinter it began his suspicion of culture, his deep dislike of statism, and the ironic understanding of community (especially at the micro-level), which permeates his plays and screenplays.
The Room (his first play,1957), like many good plays, concerns the volatility and meanness of the human creature. It sets up a straightforward situation and then through its dialogue immerses the taken for granteds of the audience into doubt. It is not long into the play that one feels obliged to see how it may turn out. People are attracted to mystery and Pinter was a master craftsman of its experience. For middle class audiences who thought that theatre should entertain, Pinter was an acquired taste. The Room is a one act play where mystery becomes menace in the life of a withdrawn woman (Rose). We are pulled into the play by the writing – the dialogue is comically familiar yet strange all at once. The strangeness serves to produce a feeling of immanent threat – something is not right here – just like something is never right in human gatherings. The merely strange erupts into violence at the end as one character (Bert Hudd) beats another (a blind black man named Riley), into lifeless submission. We do not know if Bert has killed Riley because as we ponder this question Rose, who has suddenly become blind, speaks the final line of the play “I can’t see”. This line indicates a direction Pinter will often follow – looking into that which we do not wish to see no matter how brutal it may be.
The Room is (purposely) unsatisfying for those who require resolution from theatre. For the young Pinter theatre was like life. As each of us built our persona we enter into, and pass out of, shifting realities at several junctures never knowing precisely what is happening as the shoals of civilization merely punctuate a river of violence. His plays do not attempt to mirror society – they are one more part of its enigma. This is why The Room is ultimately a play about theatre and audiences. At the same time, like most of his work, it concerns the deeply disappointing character of humanity.
In The Birthday Party (his second play, 1958), Pinter pushed his audience over the edge (it closed after a few days). I liken reading it to taking a long look at a painting by Edward Hopper. In Hopper’s work the appearance of the most mundane and familiar tips over into a kind of neo-surrealism. Hopper views the world not as a realist (which he is often called), but as someone who does not trust the real, as someone who knows that the real lurks behind appearances which are themselves deceiving.
1. Edward Hopper. Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942)
Similarly Pinter is interested in what runs beneath the obvious surface of things, conversations, and events. He employed a precisely written dialogue to dissuade us of certainty. In The Birthday Party Stanley (a guest in a boarding house), becomes involved in something which leads two menacing figures (Goldberg and McCann), to visit him. The play hinges on the terrifying effect they have on him but we never learn what Stanley has done or why the men came to him. Pinter, favouring an active audience, leaves it for us to interpret.
After a night of drinking (the party) the two men lead Stanley away promising to look after him. These mysterious figures might well stand in for the Welfare State but could as well be operatives of Stalin’s Russia – as oppression and conformity are the story of human socio-political life. They may also simply be two individuals attempting to control another. Like Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, the play makes us uneasy by taping into deeply rooted fears in the human psyche. “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do” says a man called Petey as Stanley is taken away by Goldberg and McCann.
In these first two plays Pinter announces himself as a writer who will use the theatre not to entertain (in the traditional sense), but to challenge. He also shows himself to be a precise writer who can play upon enigma and uncertainty and our love of mystery. He will also torment this love by constantly forcing us to operate without a full picture of events. Pinter was, like so many of his contemporaries (I think of Polish cinema master Krzysztof Kieslowski), uncertain himself about the past lives and future of the characters he penned. Pinter also introduces himself as a writer in these plays as an agnostic of the real. Plays are as real it seems as anything else. For the young Pinter theatre could capture the elusive nature of the truth and the false and language could show us the shiftiness of meaning. I think this aspect of Pinter’s work reaches a kind of culmination in Old Times.
In Old Times (1971), a couple (Deeley and Kate) encounter a woman who they have not seen for twenty years (Anna). The play is about how we employ memory creatively. Pinter’s point is that the past is only as certain as are those who control its telling. The past is continually reinvented and this happens at the individual level as much as at the level of socio-political history. In this play the writing has become more efficient than in his younger plays as he deftly shows how people remember events which never took place – or take place in a radically different manner in someone else’s memory. Pinter understood that memory was as much a weapon at the individual level as at the level of collective memory. It is not surprising that he moved on to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past for theatre (1971, 2000)
For me, Pinter’s plays dealt with fascinating issues of memory, the Real, meaning, language, and truth. Rereading a number of his plays is a visit to the theatre in a neo-Baudrillardian sense – one which values enigma and uncertainty. Indeed, Baudrillard’s caveat that the task of thought is to give back the world more than you are given – that is, to give back to a world that is given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible – by making it more enigmatic and more unintelligible, fits Pinter’s approach nicely. The human condition is not rendered quite as bleak as it is by Beckett but Pinter shows us to be disappointing creatures enveloped in uncertainties and petty conducts.
Pinter was involved in writing several important and interesting screenplays including The Servant (1963) which shows the ability of a strong individual to subvert a hierarchy in what is, more than a criticism of the British class system, a story about independence not unlike The Birthday Party. The Pumpkin Eater (1964) concerns the vagaries of existence as it follows the uncertain course of a woman who courses her way through a series of husbands. The Accident (1967), which won a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, concerns the struggles of a professor who falls in love with one of his students. It is a story about the unpredictability of life given that passion, one of our most human possessions, can emerge at any moment to challenge even the most routine and secure existence. The Go-Between (1971), winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, concerns an affair (Pinter had many of his own), between an upper class woman and a farmer. It is a film that deeply problematizes the past (described as a “foreign country”), and how our relationships with other people, especially as we come to maturity, so often lead to disenchantment. Pinter also turned Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon into a screenplay for Eli Kazan (1976). The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Betrayal (1983) saw Pinter nominated for the Oscar for best screenplay. Oscar tends to recognize but not reward critical “foreign” talent such as Pinter’s. In 2007 his last screenplay Sleuth (for Kenneth Branagh), explored the darker side of humanity one final time.
Clear-cut hero’s are as scarce in Pinter’s plays and screenplays as they are in life. He was extraordinarily adept at showing us how human society creates a harsh social existence set against the backdrop of human menace. Conversations in his works become minefields as people constantly (and often very subtly), attack each other or simply let each other down. Humanity in Pinter’s art tells us again and again that we remain in a primitive state. One can only wonder why, outside of his art, in his more political existence, he expected any more from public officials and world leaders? Are they not members of the same humanity that served as the models for the characters in his plays? Are not those plays, by his own reckoning, a reflection of what is, in Baudrillard’s terms “the monstrosity of the social”? Using Baudrillard’s terms we can say that Pinter’s writing is truly art in that it works like a mythic operator to expose the monstrosity of our lives and the social order. In the very best way his plays were themselves monstrous acts (see Baudrillard in Genosko, 2001:142).
His screenplays also share with his plays a concern for memory which is an excellent device for taking us out of the Real. “We are our memory” (Borges) and Pinter shows us that, as far as Truthful memory is concerned, we have none. Memory is the stuff of the “real” and therefore involves many fictions. Again Pinter’s art, including his more political plays, highlights how we never know the real but merely the appearances behind which it hides.
c) Political Plays
One for the Road (1984) often alludes to violence which we do not see on stage including rape as sexual torture and the murder of a young man. To his credit, while exposing totalitarianism Pinter did not resort to preaching. This play was written at a time (the Thatcher government in the UK, Reagan in the U.S.) when the West was publicly critical but privately passive concerning abuses in these states. Pinter was outraged by the hypocrisy of Reagan and Thatcher in particular. One for the Road is also a powerful psychological drama about a torturer who craves admiration. The torturer is very much tortured by his need for love. Once again, in pointing to problems at a societal level, Pinter reveals a clear awareness that the real problem lay in the weakness of people. Because Pinter did not supply the play with specific geographic details as it portrays the brutish violence of the state police’s interrogation of a family as something that could happen anywhere. The closest artistic corollary to this play is Max Beckmann’s painting The Night which deals with the same subject (in this case “on stage”):
2. Max Beckmann. The Night (1918)
Mountain Language (1988) is a one-act play inspired by a trip Pinter made to Turkey with Arthur Miller (for the International writers group PEN). It was widely read as a work concerning the abuses endured by the Kurdish people including the banning of their language. Pinter preferred it to be read in a broader light aimed at anywhere that such abuses are taking place and he pointed out that many languages have been banned (Irish, Estonian, Welsh, Urdu etc.) Pinter, a master of discourse, pointed to the power of language at the time when the Thatcher government sought to ban the broadcast of the voice of Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein. Pinter himself pointed out that one does not have to leave Britain to find restrictions on speech. The play was supplied with an impressive irony when, in 1996, a group of Kurdish actors were reviving the play in London. Police arrived (with helicopters) to arrest the actors who carried “prop” weapons. When the actors attempted to explain to the police what was happening they were told to not speak in their mother tongue by some of the officers – the subject of the play!
III. Pinter’s Politics
Duplicity was one of Pinter’s central concerns as a writer and it underwrote much of his public criticism of political elites. Pinter was no fool – he understood real-politic and he knew why the Americans were in the middle east just as he knew why tin-pot dictators rule by fear and torture. He could not, however, resist the desire to point out the hypocrisy of American statesmen and the dictatorships they have continually propped up. On some days Harold Pinter was Britain’s answer to America’s Noam Chomsky. Yet, like many who held hope in Tony Blair, Pinter was deeply perplexed by Blair’s embarrassing support for America’s invasion of Iraq. He called Blair “a war criminal” and pointed out the obvious fact that under Blair, Britain was “pathetic and supine" against the United States… “a bleating little lamb tagging behind on a lead". It seemed so obvious at the time but no one was saying it in the British mainstream press (unless they were quoting Pinter).
Some of his most powerful writing was spoken by his lips when he received his 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature. After noting that everyone knew about the abuses in former Eastern Europe, he tells us (before listing several), that the crimes of the U.S. of the same period are only superficially recorded. Then he dropped his own literary neutron bomb:
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis. I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.' It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.
I do not find Pinter’s political opinions objectionable in the least [he also raged against NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the 1990s, and against the US and UK invasions of Iraq in 2003, he called Bush (like Blair) a “mass murderer” and war criminal and added that Blair was “an idiot”. He spoke against torture, in favour of global disarmament, and against American interference in Central and South America] – these were a perfectly sane responses from a learned person to life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Pinter had no time for hypocrisy and public life and politics have become rife with it. Since the media were doing such a poor job of pointing this out (the source of their very corruption), Pinter took the task upon himself.
The Harold Pinter I look back on was characterized for most of his life by two key things: 1) He was a harsh and fair judge of the human condition (he understood that memory is selective, and you could count on people to be as hard on each other as you could count on them being disappointing), and 2) He held perfectly understandable political viewpoints with which I happen to agree. Later in his life a third element appeared (it came out in full glory in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) – the artist who failed to learn the most important lessons of his art.
The Nobel Speech
I found Pinter’s politicization of the acceptance of the Nobel prize to be very understandable. The Nobel is considered by most to be the highest award in the world and I am not going to blame Pinter for using such a platform to lambaste the heavy-handed politicians terrorizing the New World Order. But there is a significant difference between pointing out the ineptitude of politicians and turning on the principle lesson’s of one’s own art – which Pinter also did. This is how he began his Nobel Speech:
In 1958 I wrote the following: 'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.' I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false? Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavor. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realizing that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
Later in the speech he said:
Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since 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. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed (Pinter, 2005).
I feel sad for the man who wrote and then uttered those lines as I would for a man who sacrificed his life to a cause. Did the man who understood the weakness of the human condition so well, who understood the fictive nature of the real as he did in his work, think that life was somehow different from the art he used to describe it? Apparently, by 2005, he had come to do so.
In the end Pinter could not bear to be without a faith in politicians despite the fact that they were from the same weak and disappointing humanity that he understood so well in his art. What remains incomprehensible to me is how someone who understood, since childhood, human weakness so well, could suddenly expect politicians to act in some superhuman manner. The world of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair is the very same menacing (Pinteresque!) world he set out on the stage. The overwhelming lesson of leaders like Bush and Blair et. al. is that Pinter’s art was correct in its assessment of humanity and that it is our destiny to live out the tragedy of our weakness. This is an intolerable world to live in for us as it is for the characters in his plays. When art is as monstrous as Pinter’s – when it so devastatingly exposes the monstrosity of the human and the social – it helps us to understand not only the collective, but the individual based reasons why the world is as it is.
To turn against the most important lessons of his art as a segueway for criticizing America was a massive disconnect in Pinter’s thinking. It is, I regret to say, a disease which runs through British society at epidemic levels and has done so for some time. Pinter, like so many of his fellow Britons, was, in his Nobel Prize speech, exposed as a victim of faith in politics. He failed to learn the lesson of his plays just as all those around the world who are today heaping faith on Barak Obama to detoxify a poisoned politics are also doing. This is where the British and Americans most resemble each other.
The fact that the mainstream press’s obituaries repeatedly refer to Pinter as “provocative” merely points to the immature culture of a fourth estate who’s vision remains steeped in 19th morality and 20th century corporate limitations. He could only receive the criticism of the press as a compliment – one he earned for doing the job the press are not allowed to do. This is why journalists often publicly criticized him but in their private lives admired him very deeply.
Pinter was an exceptional writer and student of humankind. Humanity was in his writing a strange and hostile species as likely to destroy the social as to make it stronger. His monstrous art exposed the monstrous nature of the social and the individuals who build its relationships and its institutions. His art was brilliant and frighteningly incisive and it made no attempt to mirror life – simply parallel it. Perhaps, as his Nobel speech shows, it even came to frighten him in the end. Perhaps Pinter lacked the courage to believe in the lessons of his own heart and it made him look to politics for a shred of hope.
As we look back on Pinter many people are declaring him to be the best playwright since Beckett and strong cases are being made. Some are searching for elements of his work that distinguish it from Beckett’s. I suggest that Beckett, while he found the world of his own plays intolerable, remained firm to their lessons as Pinter ultimately could not with his own. What separates Pinter from Beckett is an inability to thrive to the end hip-deep in a kind of knowing despair. There is in Beckett a kind of negativity that is pushed so far that a sense of liberation emerges. Beckett possessed an indifference strong enough to face up to the indifference of the universe to things human. That is precisely what separated Pinter from Beckett and allowed him to miss the most important lesson of his own work. Pinter suffered an enormous revenge from his belief that politics could somehow be expected to be better than the humans which make it in his 2005 Nobel speech. Like god, the Real can be a powerful force is you believe in it.
Whatever he may have done to distance himself from the lessons of his art, those of us who love great writing, and penetrating theatre, will remain in Harold Pinter’s debt. What was precious in Pinter was his understanding of the role of the playwright as a kind of counter-cultural surveillance operative against the state, culture, and community. His death leaves an enormous rift in the theatre – one that the work he left will have to bridge for many years until we meet another of his kind.
Harold Pinter: October 10, 1930 – December 24, 2008
Gerry Coulter is the founding editor of IJBS.
Jean Baudrillard (2001). The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: SAGE. Edited by Gary Genosko.
Michael Billington (2008). Obituary: Harold Pinter in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2008/dec/25/pinter-theatre
Harold Pinter (1960). The Birthday Party and Other Plays [The Room and The Dumb Waiter]. London: Methuen.
Harold Pinter (1971). Old Times. Grove Press, New York.
Harold Pinter (1984) One For The Road. London: Methuen.
Harold Pinter (1988). Mountain Language. London: Methuen.
Harold Pinter. “Art, Truth, and Politics” (full text of his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature): http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/dec/08/theatre.nobelprize
Stephen Hale (2003). Shortcut: Harold Pinter’s Screenplays and the Artistic Process. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.