Ultimately Pinter-esque: The Sound of Silence

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape | Photo: Jcourtesy of the Royal Court Theater

There are few writers of any era whose singular voice – Dickensian, Proustian, Orwellian or Kafkaesque – has given birth to an adjective all its own. Harold Pinter, who died on December 24 at the age of 78 after a long fight with cancer, was one of these, a man whose stature as the most influential British playwright of his generation was recognized with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.

The term “Pinteresque” for writing that is spare and ironic, a constructive malaise of pauses and omissions where both insight and creative illogic explode out of the gaps,  has for some 40 years been part of the vocabulary with which we talk about language.

‘’Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles,” said the Swedish Academy in the citation accompanying the award. “With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution.”

Weakened by his illness, diagnosed in 2001, Pinter was unable to attend the ceremony and delivered his acceptance speech in a recorded video.

Pinter’s early plays were first seen as a variation of the theater of the absurd, but as his dramatic personality developed over time, his style evolved into what has been called a “comedy of menace” where, the Nobel Committee said, “the writer allows us to eavesdrop on the play of domination and submission hidden in the most mundane of conversations.”

Over his long and varied career, Harold Pinter, 75, wrote 32 stage plays, 21 screenplays, four volumes of poetry and a novel. He directed theatrical productions, acted on stage and screen and won numerous awards. In later years, he also became an increasingly vocal critic of the abuses of power, particularly of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Middle East and of the market economics of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain.

Pinter used his Nobel address to attack US foreign policy in searing, unforgiving terms. He said the United States had not only lied to justify waging war, but had “supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War.

“The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have talked about them.”  He described it as “a clinical manipulation of power worldwide, while masquerading as a force for universal good.”

Pinter had not expected the award, nor had he been on the list of guesses that had included the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the Syrian poet Adonis and the American writer Joyce Carol Oates.  In an e-mail to the Associated Press he wrote that he was “very surprised” when the call came from the chair of the Nobel Committee. “I remained silent,” he wrote, “and then said, ‘I’m speechless.”

Pinter’s place in modern theater has long been established, having begun in 1957 with The Room and The Birthday Party, the play that brought him the attention of the London theater world.  His early plays – with small casts in confining settings that force veiled and turbulent emotions to erupt in uncontrollable ways – established the direction of much of his later work.

In The Birthday Party, a young man staying at a seaside boarding house hiding from the pain of his own past is intruded upon and abducted by two strangers; The Caretaker (1961) describes a power struggle between two brothers and a tramp they take into their household who subsequently takes over their lives.

Playwright and critic Sheridan Morley sees The Caretaker, in retrospect, as a kind of milestone.  “It is even arguable now that the modern British theater began not with John Osborne in 1956, but with Pinter four years later,” he wrote in the International Herald Tribune in 2000. “Osborne always looked back toward a lost world of prewar certainties. What separates Pinter from his contemporaries is precisely the lack of a past. The three men in The Caretaker have, although they deny it frequently, come from nowhere and are going back there soon.”

Justifiably seen as heir to Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett, “Pinter creates worlds at once profoundly comic and tragic, in which meaning is never fixed, memory lies and people are inevitably betrayed not just by one another but also by their own minds,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times in October, But while Beckett set most of his plays in poetic realms of sterility and devastation — the ‘’Lear’’-like blasted heath of Waiting for Godot, — Pinter firmly places cosmic anxiety in the everyday world.”

His settings are part of what makes Pinter’s plays so unnerving and immediate, and makes our own lives begin to feel like one of his scripts.

“To try conversation in the immediate aftermath of a Pinter play is not, you discover, a good idea,” wrote Brantley. “You find yourself crippled by an odd feeling that Pinter has written not only your dialogue but also that of the people you are talking to. ‘Why did he say that?’ you think.

“And then again, ‘Why did I say that?’ A crippling self-consciousness stretches the silences between sentences, and some ineffable metronome seems to be dictating the rhythms of speech.”

Pinter was fascinated in fact as much by the communication that takes place between words as in them, by what is not said as much as what is. ‘’The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” he once wrote. “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, and anguished or mocking smokescreen which keeps the other in its true place…, a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.’’

The link between art and politics became, for Pinter, if anything, tighter over the years, as did his outspoken belief in the artist as citizen committed to the necessary search for truth. He is widely quoted for asserting early in his career that “a thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false.”  These assertions still apply to “the exploration of reality through art,” he said in his Nobel address. But while he stood by them as a writer, he was adamant: “as a citizen I cannot.”

“I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves on all of us. It is in fact mandatory.

“If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision, we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.”

Pinter is survived by his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, a distinguished historian who also writes crime novels, with heroine Jemima Shore, that have been adapted into a television series for the BBC.

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