Playwrights tend to start out political and end up personal. This is certainly the trajectory of Eugene O’Neill and arguably that of Arthur Miller, who died earlier this year. Harold Pinter has followed nearly the opposite course. His early work brought the continental absurdist tradition to Britain, reminted it in terms that drew on British performance traditions (particularly comedy) and made it his own. Those of us who started writing in the generation following Pinter rejected his elliptical style and what we saw as the negative apoliticism of absurdism (nothing means anything, nothing can be done). So it was a surprise, when in later life, Pinter became a vocal, prominent and uncompromising voice of political dissent.
The above paragraph is the conventional view, and there is a lot to it. But it underestimates two things: first, the continuing influence of Pinter’s most famous attribute, his dialogue; and then, what he did with it.
Harold Pinter changed how dialogue was written in the British theatre as definitively as Cezanne changed how paintings were painted in France. Even at his most superficially banal, the music of his speech (including the famous pauses) draws attention to how language is used more effectively than any other dramatist. (There is a short play – Last to Go – written almost entirely in phatic speech, those banalities and platitudes we use to keep conversation going.)
Before Pinter, what was said between the words of English plays tended to be suppressed emotions – what individuals denied about themselves. From Pinter onwards, what happened in the pauses was about cruelty and violence and menace – what the 1950s denied about itself. When (rather precociously) I directed The Caretaker at school, the only explanatory quotation in the programme was: ‘What are my plays about? The weasel under the cocktail cabinet.’
Pinter’s early plays – set in seaside boarding houses and decaying London tenements, among the semi-criminal classes and what would later be called the underclass – seemed like a British version of absurdism, but now that absurdism has gone, look more like social commentary. Certainly, The Homecoming, in which a woman allows herself to be set up as a prostitute by her brother’s family, appears much more shocking at a time when audiences seem uneasy with metaphor and expect to take things more literally (as does Caryl Churchill’s early 1980s play Cloud Nine, which includes a plotline about adult-child sexuality).
In his Jewish Chronicle tribute, Michael Kustow claims Pinter’s Jewishness as the link between his exposure of weasel words in his plays and weasel politicians in his polemic. The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming and No Man’s Land are all about outsiders with ambivalent relationships with worlds that appear to exclude them. Pinter the politician has been mocked and berated by the commentary classes for the forthrightness of his views (in the last week, by Christopher Hitchens) with a virulence that implies that as a playwright he is not entitled to possess or express them. The Nobel Prize goes to a playwright, a polemicist and a person, conscious that they are all the same.David Edgar’s latest play, Playing with Fire, has just finished a run at the National Theatre
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