Finally, the Nobel Committee for Literature got something right: Harold Pinter.
But for all the wrong reasons. The Nobel citation applauds Pinter, who was named a laureate last Thursday, for “forc[ing] entry in oppression’s closed rooms,” as though he were the author of a journalistic exposé about Abu Ghraib. The Los Angeles Times quoted Edward Albee as saying, “He’s a splendid writer and a good political activist.” The same article quoted David Hare, who suggested that the award vindicated Pinter for his “bold and brave political stand against the policies of the British and American governments.”
The truth is that about five or six of Pinter’s plays are works of great genius, but the leftist politics that he has embraced over the last two decades has nothing to do with them.
Many scholars have attempted to claim Pinter as a political writer ever since the 1980s, and those voices will likely become even more insistent now. But Pinter’s best work is important for other reasons. It’s difficult to even talk about his contribution to theater today, because the style of his early plays—with their mannered pauses and silences—is so much a part of the zeitgeist that it is more often a subject of parody than reverence. But from the Birthday Party in 1958 to Betrayal in 1978, Pinter’s plays, like those of Eugene Ionesco and Pinter’s mentor Samuel Beckett, changed the way we expect the theater to work. For one thing, there is setting: Pinter brought Beckett’s apocalyptic optimism into working-class English interiors—seedy boarding houses and abandoned tenements and dark, damp backrooms. But for all of this, he is no kitchen sink realist. His language is both elliptical and strange. Like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Pinter’s dialogue rarely does anything as pedestrian as telling a story or revealing a detail about a character’s inner life. Instead, it spatters all over the other characters. It is representative language that often belies its subject—as in The Birthday Party (1958) when McCann and Goldberg do a kind of music hall duet, which is both about helping Stanley and about their intent to torture him. You practically expect them to break into soft-shoe.
Most significant is that Pinter never really made a distinction on stage between the real and the unreal, the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. He charged his plays with a bleak sense of modernity and modern relationships, with disaffected and sometimes demented characters scrambling toward humanity. (He once said he was interested in writing about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.”) In a Pinteresque world, the characters may arrive at a feeble revelation, but just as often, they lurch blindly into apocalypse, never knowing how they arrived there. Sometimes, as in The Room, Pinter’s first play, his characters are literally blind as well as figuratively so.
Those praising Pinter’s plays have long characterized his work as “menacing,” and centered on how they use language to “miscommunicate.” But what is shattering in a Pinter play is subtler and more mysterious: It is the way he maneuvers his characters, little by little, into psychological endgames. In The Homecoming (1965), Teddy, the aloof professor—a figure who turns up a lot in Pinter—arrives with his wife, Ruth, at the London house where his sullen and antic working-class family looms. Ruth seduces the family—or, really, stuns them with the force of her femininity—and suddenly, midway through the play, the characters take on new identities, as if they are playing a game of musical chairs. There is a sense that, as in a macabre fairy tale, Ruth has awakened these four trolls from a slumber—or has put a curse on them so they will now fall asleep. In the hands of a lesser playwright, these character shifts would resolve themselves in a literal-minded ending; in Pinter’s hands they expose the charade that is our public persona, while showing how tenaciously we cling to such charades.
Even in the most formally conventional phase of his career, Pinter remained interested in individual self-delusion, although he traded his violent style in for deft playfulness and his working-class settings for those of tony literary Londoners. His most commercial work, the stylish Betrayal (1978), turns on the unraveling of an affair. Last week the media repeated that Betrayal “moves backwards,” as though it were a Hollywood film. But actually, Betrayal is more interesting: It swings both backward and forward to give the short and long view of how an affair both wrecks and salvages the lives of its characters.
But by the mid-1980s, Pinter seemed to become less interested in limning “mere” personal oppression for an interest in the connection between totalitarianism and personal oppression.
In the past Pinter has made plays of politically themed material, because he wants us to see how social catastrophes haunt us as much as transform us. Consider The Birthday Party: The action takes place on the night of a young British punk’s birthday in a boarding house he lives in. Two men come to visit, wreak havoc, and eventually beat him up and take him away. But this play is not a protest against the brutality of torture. It is best thought of as a farce, a commedia dell’arte about the confusion between self-delusion and truth. That is what hurls it out of the world of domestic realism.
Pinter’s politics today lack this complexity. They rail against Bush, the Iraq War, and Tony Blair. Most of his work over the last two decades reflects this didacticism. (One exception is Ashes to Ashes.) Only 20 minutes long, Mountain Language (1988), is set in a nameless prison and deals with prisoners and torturers. There is no ambiguity in either the language or the situation. There is certainly no comedy. When an old woman tells her son, a prisoner of war, “the baby is waiting for you,” she means exactly (and only) that. Similarly, a recent poem reads: “The bombs go off / The legs go off / The heads go off/ The arms go off/ The feet go off/ The light goes out/ The heads go off/ The legs go off/ The lust is up/ The dead are dirt/ The lights go out/ The dead are dust/ A man bows down before another man/ And sucks his lust.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that last spring Pinter announced he was going to stop writing plays. His most enduring and ambitious work, with its mood of disturbing clarity and terror, is well behind him.
Would the Nobel committee have recognized Pinter’s genius if he hadn’t traded his career for sermonizing? The committee has a history of giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to writers—particularly playwrights—who are also political activists, as if it were compensating for the irrelevance of literature with the force of politics. Political writing offers playwrights—especially at a time when the theater is so marginalized—a consoling sense of immediacy. But it rarely produces great theater; not, at any rate, the kind that Pinter created almost half a century ago, in the days when he told students, “I do happen to have strong political views but they simply do not come into my work, as far as I can see.”