2 February, 2009Issue 8.2EuropeLiteratureNorth AmericaThe ArtsTheatreWriters

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On Harold Pinter

Jack Methven

Harold Pinter has crossed from living artist to dead artist. He is no longer a figure to be mocked in a throwaway aside in Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise (1965): “Harold Pinter—Blaise thinks he’s great, Garvin thinks he’s a theatrical conman.” Nor is he to be lionised wittily as in Trevor Griffiths’s The Party (1973): “I’ve decided to dedicate the remainder of my life to subtlety, sexuality, ambivalence and malice. Anything Pinter can’t quite say, I can’t quite say better, as it were.”

Pinter—the nightmarish voice of pantomimic political violence and the master of the alarming non sequitur—was the greatest creator of subtext the English theatre has seen. In everything he achieved, speech became symbol; writing between the lines was his art, both before and after the censor’s office necessitated it.

Britain has lost its lone world-class political writer and fighter. Pinter’s theatrical career, which spanned almost 50 years, was marked by a consistent, high-intensity dissection of the wrongs in our world. His fulminations against foul regimes and injustice on whatever point of the political spectrum theatrically dismantled the power politics of our relations. His metaphors opened chilly corridors down which lunatics empowered by a version of democracy stalked, their clichés ignoring all opposition to the party line. His choices of visual and theatrical metaphors were the choices of an artist, not a conman.

Though some might say Pinter stopped being “Pinter” some time before he died, claiming that works like Celebration (2000) and Press Conference (2002) pale in comparison to The Birthday Party (1958) and The Lover (1963), Pinter’s late works are still alarmingly good. Just like his older works, they cut to the problem of language as a tool to be misused in our relationships.

In The Birthday Party, Pinter named his two intruding Furies “Goldberg” and “McCann”. These symbols of a hectoring Jewishness and Irishness invade a down-at-heel British seaside B&B on the back of the Suez fiasco of 1956. I remember watching the TV production in which Pinter played Goldberg. Barrel-chested, grizzle-haired, and gravel-voiced, he terrified some poor sod, like a Middle Eastern Basil Fawlty turned nasty: “If you want to know the truth, Webber, you’re beginning to get on my breasts.”

Celebration fillets the behaviour of the wealthy with metaphorical and linguistic precision, while retaining the surreal malignancy and alarming theatricality of Pinter’s early work. In Celebration, monsters (city bankers) presume the world belongs to them. They caper on the stage, dancing, singing, swearing, swigging fizz and making homophobic gags about the choice of dish on the menu. A gentler voice—that of a waiter, a symbol Pinter returned to over and over in his career—seeks to remonstrate, to interest us in a world in which syntax (longer sense periods with complex ideas), and linguistic concerns (history and relationships) transcend the bankers’ coarse minds and coarse language. Pinter’s point is this: man’s inhumanity is not some abstract theatrical game, but the product of the constructed political systems around us; for “political systems” read also “family”, “gender”, “education”, “work”, or “democracy”.

What does the voice of “Pinter” do that other voices do not do, or have done only in his wake? It provides actors with latitude to act. Pinter trained as an actor and bucked the premise that plays by actors are hopelessly self-centred and theatrically uneven. His characters are observed creations, neither puppets nor impersonations.

My first opportunity to act Pinter came in an audition for Betrayal (1978) in my first year at university. In this play, we watch an adulterous affair play out in reverse, first against a backdrop socio-political signifiers from the 1970s, and then against the backdrop of signifiers from the 1960s. I liked the words I had to speak. The fact that I was suborning the silly idiot who had been having an affair with my wife made it all the more exciting. I was in charge: some not-too-subtle transference of erotic power had clearly taken place between these two men. My character loathed the ninny who had been screwing his wife all these years, and yet it was a handy excuse for him to strike up his own affair with smug glee. The language gave me all I needed to rub it in. The words were incredibly restrained but horribly potent. They spoke directly of a world in which people had money or not, had power or not, cared or did not, loved or did not; a world resulting from the socio-political reality of the 1970s with its long collapse of the Labour Party leading to the Thatcherist revolution of the 1980s.

No English teacher at school had mentioned this figure to us. The only modern dramatists permitted in the classroom reading-out-loud process were Shaw (Androcles and the Lion—yawn), Barrie (The Admirable Crichton—yikes), and Beckett, whom we were advised existed but should be read and contemplated privately. Pinter dominated the theatre of the second half of the 20th century, but the vocal patterns of the work go back much further: through Beckett, through Joyce, through Wilde and Shaw (who no longer has me yawning quite so much), and ultimately to Dean Swift, a man not afraid to say when something was shit and also keen to point out that shit gets shat.

Pinter knew exactly to whom he was indebted and what tradition of language he emerged from. His early praise of Beckett—”the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”—applies now. I hope there are young writers today who will want to use the theatre to “grind [our] nose[s] in the shit”, because our public life must be challenged by the scrupulous power of the artist. Listen again, when you next have the opportunity, to the toxic power of language misapplied, and to language made a weapon of deceit, sexual rapacity, and low inhumanity. Pinter exposed the self-centred horror of the modern political world and challenged us to question everything we took for granted. His crunching cadences and slickly filleted clichés will still frighten theatre-goers generations hence.

Jack Methven is a tutor in English Literature at Oriel College, Oxford, where he specialises in modern drama among other things.