Harold Pinter had both an arrogance and an intense anger towards most of those who hold power and whose main interest is in maintaining that power. This was evident in his actions – in the movement against the war in Iraq and in support of the Kurds, for example – and in his political plays, such as Mountain Language, and, above all, in the impressive way that he set out his political vision in his acceptance of the Nobel prize for literature.
He entitled this lecture ‘Art, truth and politics’. In it he made clear that driving his contempt for the majority of politicians was their contempt for the search for truth and the language that such a search produces and requires. The language of politicians, Pinter argued, ‘is a language which keeps thought at bay’. To maintain their power, ‘it is essential,’ he continued, ‘that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives.’
He turned his anger at the ‘vast tapestry of lies’ that consequently surrounds us into a fierce determination to unravel the stitching and reach the truth beneath it. His determination was infectious, inspiring and immensely practical. Red Pepper probably would not exist without it. In its difficult early days, he made our first editor Denise Searle and I feel that, however mad it seemed at the time (the mid 1990s, when neoliberal politics seemed the permanent order of the day), we had to make the magazine work – and that we could.
Financial support was the least of it, though he was generous when others dismissed the project as fantasy. He gave us ideas, opened his address book, even rallied his friends when New Labour tried (unsuccessfully) to ban us from the party conference. Occasionally he wrote, always with a forceful lucidity that demonstrated what it means to choose words that fire up thought rather than suffocate it.
We’ll miss the eagerness of his collaboration; and we’ll miss his powerful but restrained presence, whether at a party or bringing new energy to a somewhat bedraggled AGM. But we share a vision on which we are ever more determined to work.
He summed it up at the end of his Nobel lecture when he said:
‘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.’
Unafraid of the dark
I am in New York directing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler on Broadway and my family had just come over for Christmas. Sitting in our apartment on Christmas Eve I received the call informing me of Harold Pinter’s death. It was snowing outside. It was a call many of us had feared for a long time, but we were always surprised by the man’s tenacity and fight. My eight-year-old daughter Eden, who knew Harold, said ‘Let’s light a fire’, and as the first flames rose she said, ‘The spirit of Harold will always live on.’
I felt I was carrying Harold with me already in rehearsal on this play. It seemed particularly ‘Pinteresque’ with its heightened exploration of power and sex. Freud actually learnt Norwegian so he could read Ibsen’s plays in their original language, such was their psychological power for him. Joyce was obsessed by Ibsen and there is a famous letter he wrote to the playwright as a young man. You can feel how he drew from Ibsen’s wrought emotional landscapes in his playwriting in particular. Beckett was in turn obsessed by Joyce and found his own brilliant aesthetic ways of articulating the uncompromising and focused intensity of his mentor. And that legacy was finally inherited by Harold Pinter.
Joyce and Beckett were enormously inspiring figures to him, and this dynamic narrative is vital in our artistic landscape. Harold brought Joyce back to the London stage with his own production of Exiles in 1969, and I was fortunate enough in directing Harold in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape to contact the power of this lineage. I could see how Harold drew from the austerity and verbal power of his friend in a number of ways in his work – the extraordinary linguistic freedom of the early plays, as well as the poetic precision of those that followed. And with his death now I dwell upon how his spirit will live on and what is the meaning of the legacy.
There are three aspects of this legacy that I would like to focus upon: the influence of the art, his political perspective and Harold as a person.
The intensity and focus of Harold Pinter’s plays is extraordinary. He finds a way of charging up every word so that the experience of the plays in performance is like a live, vivid dream. My first ever theatre experience was seeing Max Wall in The Caretaker when I was 13. I remember how the rich fabric of his language transported me into a disturbing and compelling hinterland. I listened to Aston describe his experience of being incarcerated in an asylum and my unconscious was opened up as never before.
When I directed Harold and gave him a note that was useful, after he had tried it he would say, ‘You know Ian, I really felt that’, which for me emphasised the fact that at the centre of his work is feeling. The plays reverberate with an emotional intensity that in turn connects with his political perspective.
I believe Harold’s early life experiences of being an only child and then evacuated in the second world war connected him to a primal fear of abandonment, as well as a deep suspicion of anyone or any system that diminishes the self.
This perspective goes right through his plays and is why his work has such global reach, personally and politically. A Kurdish theatre group in north London performed Mountain Language and unwittingly incited a riot squad to break up their performance because their fake guns look too real. The police forbade them to speak to each other in their own language, in a grim echo of the play. Belarus Free Theatre made a show called Being Harold Pinter in which extracts from his plays were sewn together to articulate their own struggles with a totalitarian regime. And there are many, many more examples.
Each year at the Royal Court Theatre, Harold would come and speak with 20 playwrights from around the world on our international residency. He would engage with the specific political struggles they were facing in their countries, always curious, lucid, defiant. Attending those sessions, regardless of his health, was characteristic of the man.
Years before, when the young playwright Sarah Kane was hounded by tabloid and broadsheet journalists after her first play Blasted opened, Harold was quick to engage with and support her in her struggle. Each day his mailbox would be filled with correspondence from people all around the world and the time and care he would put into this aspect of his life was extraordinary.
He knew what a challenge running the Royal Court was, and was a great mentor to me. His courage as a person was inspiring and I was incredibly moved when, despite battling with ill health, he agreed to perform in his dear friend Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. I saw how deep engagement in writing he admired was restorative to him, yet at the same time he was unafraid to go to the dark places he needed to visit emotionally and psychologically to fully access the role. That bravery, under enormous pressure, was strangely uplifting to me.
Beckett, like Pinter, takes you to the abyss and makes you look deeply into it. Through that act of looking there is meaning, understanding and beauty. And that is part of Harold’s enormous legacy.
Ian Rickson ran the Royal Court Theatre between 1997 and 2006. He directed Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape in the Theatre Upstairs and for BBC4 in 2006. He also directed a revival of an early play of Pinter’s, The Hothouse, for the National Theatre in 2007