I learned of Harold Pinter’s death from CNN over Christmas day dim sum at the very crowded Golden Unicorn in Chinatown. The setting was un-Pinteresque. Pinter was not interested in multi-cultural mélange; his characters were, if not English, of unknown origin, uprooted and opaque. He did not like crowded rooms, preferring spare and mostly empty spaces. He detested a racket.
Pinter deserves to be turned into an adjective, if only because his dramatic oeuvre, which spans more than forty years, remained remarkably constant. Every play Pinter wrote was based on the same fundamental understanding of drama: words on stage. A sworn enemy of noise, Pinter is commonly described as a dramatist of silence, although it’s never quite clear what that means. With silences, pauses, and double takes, Pinter created anamorphic distortions of the most ordinary words in the English language, making them strange and offensive.
As his contemporaries developed a theater of bodies, screams, and rituals, Pinter’s fascination with words on stage endured. To be sure, he did have an interest in the physical business of the stage. The lavatory that does not flush in the Dumb Waiter (1957) or moments of sudden violence perpetrated by Pinter’s signature intruders show how attuned Pinter was to the uses of the set, stage props, and bodies. But such moments never threatened to turn his plays into some kind of physical extravaganza. For Pinter, bodies were vehicles of speech. For this reason, Pinter moved seamlessly between radio and the stage and his plays can be enjoyed, if that is the word, on the page as much as in the theater. One could listen to them, read them, and still imagine as deeply that great violence, inherent in the world Pinter sought to expose, which animated and tortured every syllable.
Pinter saw a limited role for actors, but he did not dismiss them. He was an actor himself and appeared in significant parts in many plays and films, both his own work and that of others. Herein lies his difference from Samuel Beckett, his most significant predecessor. Beckett wrote his plays against the theater, burying actors in urns, mounds, and ashbins. For all his reduction, Pinter liked actors and did not want to turn them into mere puppets. As if to underscore this difference, Pinter played with relish the tyrannical director in Beckett’s Catastrophe, in the film version of that short play directed by David Mamet, using a patient John Gielgud like a lump of clay to be molded at will: every pose is dictated as if Gielgud had no will of his own. When it came to his own plays, however, Pinter let actors surprise him. He was a Beckett for actors.
Pinter’s words on stage, surrounded by silence and spoken by actors, are not conceived as dialogue. In his plays, questions are left unanswered, followed up by more questions, commentary, misunderstandings, and the exchanges that result from these non-dialogues trail off into uncharted territory. Pinter sometimes preferred monologues to dialogues, or had two monologues intersect temporarily only to emphasize how little there is to discuss. Mostly, his plays consist of one word after another. What sustains our interest is their strange sequence. Often Pinter starts with a single word and builds the play out of its consequences. Old Times (1971) opens with the enigmatic utterance by Kate: “(Reflectively.) Dark.” Which is then followed by a pause, leaving the word hanging in the air. Only after the pause does Deeley reply: “Fat or thin?” to which the answer is “Fuller than me. I think.” Soon it turns out that the couple is talking about a former housemate of Kate’s, about whom Kate hardly seems to remember anything. Every statement is immediately qualified: “I think.” “She was then?” Deeley replies. “I think so,” Kate answers, holding on to her doubt. Two innocent enough words, “dark” and “fuller” have promptly landed us in the uncertainties of Pinter land.
Pinter’s work follows the consequences of single words, but also of single actions. It is in this context that his intruders come into play: a door opens, a stranger enters the room, and nothing will ever be the same. What matters are not the intruders themselves, however, but the consequences of the intrusion. In Old Times, the darkish, and perhaps slightly fuller friend (the only other character in the play) soon enters and step by step undoes the world Deeley and Kate inhabit, including their memories of the past. Pinter’s plays start with ordinary words and actions, but soon enough everything becomes strange. The ordinary words become unreliable, develop new and often sinister meanings, and lead to even more unreliable and sinister words and actions. It all seems logical enough, but soon we find ourselves in a strange world and don’t quite know how we got there. Pinter’s predilection for unexpected causalities led him to Betrayal (1978), which tells the story of jealousy and betrayal in reverse chronology: we start at the end and then make our way backwards to discover the unlikely paths by which the past caused the present.
In 1961 Pinter declared that he was “not committed as a writer.” This remained true even for the plays written during the turn to the right with Thatcher, Reagan, and the first Bush. He would not have his plays commit themselves to a particular political position or intervention. Yet his plays gradually expanded their range from individuals and small groups to society at large and hence they addressed more directly forms of group violence, history, and, politics. They did so by means of the same use of chain reactions, the same theater of words on stage. Though sometimes deceptively familiar and ordinary, his characters remained ungrounded, born of uncertain origins. Surprisingly, this theater of hints and insinuations turned out to be a potent vehicle for political drama. Whether these hints concern the suppression of an unnamed “mountain language” in the play of that name (1988), which was inspired by a trip to the Kurdish area of Turkey, or the Holocaust in Ashes to Ashes (1996), nothing had to be spelled out. We all know atrocities—we all know the word “atrocity,” what it hides and reveals, which is precisely how it is used in Ashes to Ashes—so that we ourselves can supply the details, the history, and the images. Pinter knew that he was writing in an era saturated with accounts of genocide and state-sponsored violence. His plays could use those accounts simply by leaving some gaps for audiences to fill in. All he needed to do is use a keyword or an iconic image as trigger; a train station (Ashes to Ashes) or casual talk that someone has disappeared (in Tea Party) was enough, and we would imagine the rest. Call it a belief in the omnipresence of catastrophe.
Audiences did not always thank him for this belief. From the beginning, his plays were panned as well as admired. Their refusal to spell things out, their restraint and also their brevity, left people unsettled and unsatisfied. In 1999 I participated in a post-performance discussion of Ashes to Ashes. The audience was angry. They had paid up to fifty dollars (still a relatively high price for off-Broadway at the time) for a play that ran a little over 40 minutes: more than a dollar per minute. I overheard an audience member murmur that peep show booths in Times Square cost less. I like to think that Pinter enjoyed this competition, reminiscent perhaps of Shakespeare’s rivalry with the more immediately gratifying bear baiting. But savvier producers presented his plays in double bills. This was done for Pinter’s last play, Celebration (1999), which was nicely paired with his very first, The Room (1957), when it was performed in New York in 2005. These two plays seemed fitting bookends for a playwright who had declared his career as a dramatist at an end due to his ill health.
Pinter’s retirement did not last. A new Pinter soon emerged: Pinter the pamphleteer. Pinter had always been politically engaged, a frequent participant in demonstrations and protests. It was this Pinter who thrust himself onto the international stage on the occasion of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2005. Unable to come to Stockholm due to illness, Pinter recorded the speech. An old man in a wheel chair, facing the camera unblinkingly, speaking urgently about the difference between drama, where truth is always elusive, and politics, where truth must be told. What followed was an indictment of fifty years of foreign policy by the United States and its willing accomplice, the United Kingdom. He ended with the call for Tony Blair to be indicted by an international court. Like Zola, Pinter took all of his cultural capital and put it in the service of politics.
The most significant consequence of this last act was not so much the cacophony of critique (and applause) that followed, but what it did to another recent Nobel laureate, J. M. Coetzee. In his own acceptance speech two years earlier, Coetzee had performed one of his meta-fictional conceits. After Pinter’s coup de théâtre, he clearly had second thoughts and put them in his novel, Diary of a Bad Year (2007). The fictional author, who resembles Coetzee in most things except that he has not received the Nobel Prize, writes a series of hard-hitting essays on the topics that Pinter focused on in his Nobel Prize speech, including the war on terror, Tony Blair, and Guantanamo Bay. And then, Coetzee adds a short section on Pinter himself:
Harold Pinter, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature, is too ill to travel to Stockholm for the ceremony. But in a recorded lecture he makes what can fairly be called a savage attack on Tony Blair for his part in the war in Iraq, calling for him to be put on trial as a war criminal.
When one speaks in one’s own person—that is, not through one’s art—to denounce some politician or other, using the rhetoric of the agora, one embarks on a contest which one is likely to lose because it takes place on ground where one’s opponent is far more practised and adept. ‘Of course Mr Pinter is entitled to his point of view,’ it will be replied. ‘After all, he enjoys the freedoms of a democratic society, freedoms which we are this moment endeavouring to protect against extremists.’
So it takes some gumption to speak as Pinter has spoken. Who knows, perhaps Pinter sees quite clearly that he will be slickly refuted, disparaged, even ridiculed. Despite which he fires the first shot and steels himself for the reply. What he has done may be foolhardy but it is not cowardly. And there come times when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak.
Perhaps this will be another legacy of Pinter, another meaning of Pinteresque: not to keep silent, not to hint and insinuate but, against all odds, to speak clearly and simply against the day.