Pinter: good playwright, bad politician

Harold Pinter's Nobel speech highlighted the chasm between his literary insights and childish worldview.

Sandy Starr

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‘Art, truth and politics’, the lecture given by playwright Harold Pinter for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature 2005, contained everything one has come to expect from the man: a reflection on the obliqueness of his art; an attack on the iniquity of political language; a lengthy tirade against US foreign policy; a paean to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas; a demand that George W Bush and Tony Blair be tried for war crimes in light of the invasion of Iraq; and a truly abysmal poem.

But before addressing the content of Pinter’s speech, it’s worth commenting on its presentation. Pinter began his career as an actor and he still has a considerable stage presence. Although he was too ill to appear in person at the Swedish Royal Academy in Stockholm, and had to prerecord his speech looking frail in a wheelchair, his steely glare and gravelly voice made for a hypnotic 45 minutes. It either speaks well of Pinter or ill of today’s TV that his speech made for more captivating viewing than we are generally accustomed to these days.

The speech borrowed liberally (often word-for-word) from earlier presentations and pieces by Pinter, all of which can be found in the latest published collection of his writing, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-2005. He began by discussing his plays, and the instinctive method with which he writes them. Rather than proceeding from clear intentions, he disavows his authority over the work, and is constantly surprised by what he finds his characters saying and doing. He illustrated his writing method with fascinating accounts of the composition of The Homecoming (1964) and Old Times (1970).

That was the good bit. Then he then moved on to politics.

As I have argued before, the same qualities that allow Pinter to excel as a playwright make him deficient as a political commentator (see When it comes to politics, can we have a Pinteresque silence?). While his speech highlighted this fact, it also suggested that he is aware of the problem. Of political theatre, he argued: ‘Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice.’

Sadly, the speech epitomised all of his political shortcomings. His preoccupation with language, and how it comes to obscure rather than illuminate meaning, serves him well in his artistic endeavours. But transplanted to current affairs, it manifests itself in the patronising view that language is deliberately and successfully manipulated by politicians so as to dupe us all – that ‘what surrounds us…is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed’.

Reserving most of his ire for America, Pinter gave us a litany of US aggression around the world since the Second World War. He dedicated much of his speech to the Sandinistas, whom he and much of the British left came to romanticise and burden with inflated expectations back in the 1980s, but then unhelpfully conflated the confident US imperialism of that era with the recent and more incoherent US hostilities in Iraq. Rather than present any special insight into these differing circumstances, Pinter attributed all of them to America’s ‘clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good’.

His headline-grabbing demand that Bush and Blair be tried for war crimes expressed all of the most reactionary tendencies of today’s anti-war left, combining its one-dimensional anti-Americanism with its constant appeal and deference to sources of higher authority. In his tirade, Pinter appealed to the authority of international law in general, and to the Geneva Convention, the United Nations and the ‘International Criminal Court of Justice’ (seemingly conflating the International Criminal Court with the United Nations’ International Court of Justice) in particular.

The demand that our leaders be arraigned for war crimes may have some merit as a rhetorical flourish (if these people justify their actions in terms of international law and human rights, then let them be hoist on their own petards). But it has an unfortunate tendency to backfire on the rhetorician. Independent columnist Johann Hari only needs to write a piece entitled ‘Pinter does not deserve the Nobel Prize’ – pointing out that Pinter is a member of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic – for all Pinter’s lofty talk of war crimes and International Courts to seem inconsistent at best, and opportunistic at worst.

If Pinter is a master of language in his art, he is a slave to language in his politics. He deploys language effectively to convey horror and injustice, but is unable to put it to more coherent use. On American invasions of other states, he used the lyrical turn of phrase ‘you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom’. Describing the treatment of hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay, he said: ‘No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood.’ (3) I thought for a moment that he was going to repeat his 2002 disquisition on the effects of depleted uranium, in which he said: ‘Radiation levels in Iraq are appallingly high. Babies are born with no brain, no eyes, no genitals. Where they do have ears, mouths or rectums, all that issues from these orifices is blood.’ (4)

Such a relentless emphasis on the visceral does no favours to Pinter’s causes. Even where the sentiment is admirable, the effect can all too easily veer off into bad poetry by way of unintentional comedy. Such sensationalist accounts of human horror are all too easily deployed by governments and non-governmental organisations alike, to erect a moral high ground while obscuring the bothersome details of local situations and the full consequences of intervening in them. In this respect, Pinter conforms rather more to the political establishment he rails against than he might like to think.

Towards the end of his speech, Pinter read one of his embarrassingly trite recent poems, ‘Death’ (1997). Rallying his poetic sensibility around a political cause results in repetitive platitudes: ‘Where was the dead body found?/Who found the dead body?/Was the dead body dead when found?/How was the dead body found?‘ and so on for seven stanzas (5).

While Pinter’s desire to use his Nobel laureateship as a platform for his political views is understandable, his talents would be better invested in his creative writing. Because as he put it in his speech: ‘There never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many.’ When it comes to getting at the Truth with a capital ‘T’, Pinter – to borrow a metaphor from his beloved cricket – is on a losing wicket.

(1) Art, truth and politics, Harold Pinter, 7 December 2005

(2) ‘Pinter does not deserve the Nobel Prize’, Johann Hari, Independent, 6 December 2005

(3) Art, truth and politics, Harold Pinter, 7 December 2005

(4) Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-2005, Harold Pinter, Faber and Faber, 2005, p242, 262

(5) Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-2005, Harold Pinter, Faber and Faber, 2005, p262

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