Friday, 26 December 2008

Pinter falls silent

Harold Pinter has died. Michael Billington, biographer of Pinter, has a lengthy appreciation in The Guardian.

An interesting profile/interview several years ago with Stephen Moss of The Guardian discussed Pinter's refusal to discuss his plays:

"Everything to do with the play is in the play," he wrote in 1958, echoing Eliot. "Meaning which is resolved, parcelled, labelled and ready for export is dead, impertinent - and meaningless."

I do not feel qualified to offer a detailed interpretation of his plays. I saw Donald Pleasance revive the title role in The Caretaker, in the 1991 production. I have found some of his other plays something of a struggle, perhaps partly from seeing several in student productions of varying quality. While there has been an on-going and contested debate about Pinter's portrayal of women, I have often found that does a good deal to date his plays and other radical theatre of the 1950s and '60s. (To take another example, fifty years on, it becomes very difficult to read Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' as a radical counterblast).

There is as much initial discussion of Pinter's political activism as his literary contribution. Johann Hari offers a fierce polemic against Pinter's involvement in the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, which I think is convincing in concluding that:

The tragedy of Pinter’s politics is that he took a desirable political value – hatred of war, or distrust for his own government – and absolutizes it. It is good to hate war, but to take this so far that you will not resist Hitler and Stalin is absurd. It is good to oppose the crimes of your own government – but to take this so far that you end up serving on the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic is bizarre.

I found Hari convincing here, partly because his hostile piece also acknowledges both shades of grey and "undeniable achievments" in Pinter as activist as well as artist. (Indeed, Pinter's polemical worldview was too simplistic, and yet President George W Bush did rather too much to rehabilitate this through the wrong-headed simplicity of his own approach).

It is not to gainsay Pinter's fierce commitments to say that he was also more complex than many of the polemics for and against may acknowledge.

That Pinter voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was a petty, parochial response to a National Theatre strike, for which he had much time to repent and bitterly regret. But there is a strong strand of dispositional conservatism, and of loss, in his writing and worldview. His love of cricket was partly about this sense of Eden lost, captured in his (very) short poem about Len Hutton:

I saw Len Hutton in his prime

Another time

another time

With the focus of the last decade rather more on Pinter's public politics than his writing, he was often portrayed (and perhaps portrayed himself too) as a rather one-dimensional figure. His reputation, though, will depend on the plays, and their ambiguities.

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