Saturday, December 27, 2008

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

The renowned British playwright and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter died Tuesday. He was the author of more than thirty plays, including The Homecoming, Betrayal, and The Caretaker. His work focused very intensely on power relations in the personal as well as social and political spheres; his use of the pause, a notable feature of his style, was incredibly effective. Pinter was also a screenwriter (most notably for The French Lieutenant's Woman and Betrayal), actor, director, poet, and political activist and served as a vice president in PEN. His political activism started young: he declared himself a pacifist in 1948 at age 18 and refused to serve.

Arifa Akbar quotes actor Michael Gambon (Gosford Park, The Singing Detective, Angels in America) in his obituary of Pinter:

"He was a great, great playwright, and a great lover of actors. He was very supportive when we performed Betrayal. I remember one scene wasn't working well and he'd come to rehearsals every second day. He watched the run-through and said, 'The scene doesn't work because the table's in the wrong position.' He has a real instinct for theatre. It was refreshing to be in his plays. There was two miles of subtext under your feet and his dialogue was brilliant," he said.

Gambon, who is currently starring in Pinter's No Man's Land on the West End stage, said he admired Pinter's spirit in the face of illness. "He came over to Dublin for the opening. It nearly killed him, he was in a terrible state, but he didn't give up. That was three months ago. Then, he came to the Duke of York Theatre for the London opening and he went to the party afterwards and sat there," he added.

Jonathan Heawood, director of Pen, the campaigning international writer's association, said Pinter had been vice-president of the group, and showed his support until the end.

"One of the many memorable things he did for Pen in the early Eighties was when he and Arthur Miller went on a joint mission to Turkey. At that time, he was concerned about the state of writers and journalists' freedoms. They were being tortured. So two of the world's greatest writers got on a plane together and they were met by a young Orhan Pamuk, who would become a fellow Nobel Prize winner. He escorted them in their trip. That spirit continued right till the end.

"He turned out to a demonstration outside the Turkish embassy last year," added Mr Heawood. "Everyone was so surprised to see this figure with a walking stick coming out of a taxi on his own. Right until February this year when he turned up to see a performance by a theatre group from Belarus."

In his Nobel Acceptance Speech in three years ago (available here, he spoke not only about his creative work but also used the occasion to speak truth to power.

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

A good chunk of Pinter's speech examines some of the crimes perpetrated by the US over the last two decades without pulling any punches. This is the sort of confrontation we rarely hear in the US except at lectures given by the leftists like Noam Chomsky (which are never attended by anyone but leftists or undercover police). Here are the concluding words of his speech:

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimeter and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

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 upon us all. 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.

The whole speech isn't very long, and it's definitely worth a read.

Mel Gussow and Ben Brantley, Z Magazine: here and The New Times: here
Arifa Akbar, The Independent/UK: here
Michael Billington, The Guardian: here
Neda Ulaby National Public Radio: here.

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