Harold Pinter: Prize Fighter

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Theatre critic Mark Brown welcomes an unexpected Nobel Prize laureate.

When it was announced on 13 October that Harold Pinter, who recently turned 75, was to be the 2005 Nobel laureate for literature, there was surprise (not least on the part of Pinter himself) followed by celebrations and recriminations, according to one's cultural and political tastes. Deliciously, it also cast a shadow over Margaret Thatcher's eightieth birthday party, which was held on the same day.

The formerly radical, now reactionary and pro-imperialist journalist Christopher Hitchens continued his journey from high ground to cesspit by announcing that the Nobel committee had instigated the 'almost complete degradation' of its own awards by giving the prize to the 'hysterically anti-American' Pinter. By contrast, a host of leading literary figures, from Vaclav Havel to Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard, came out to congratulate the committee on an excellent decision.

Even Tessa Jowell (minister at the ludicrously philistine three in one Department of Culture, Media and Sport) had to choke on the Blair government's embarrassment at Pinter's consistent and uncompromising rage against the Afghan and Iraq wars. Pretending to be 'delighted' by the award, she proclaimed the writer to be 'a colossal figure in British literature'.

Any announcement that Pinter has received a major honour (such as the Wilfred Owen prize for poetry, awarded to him last year for his powerful anti-war poems) is inevitably and immediately divisive. The author is not, and has never been, a consensual figure. Both artistically and politically, his refusal to compromise has won him fiercely loyal friends and bitterly opposed enemies. One gets the impression that he enjoys both.

Pinter insists that his artistic vision and his political commitment are 'inseparable'. It is an interesting statement. His theatre work has never been didactic or polemical. Even his most explicitly political plays, such as One for the Road (1984) and Mountain Language (1988), contain the terrifying ambiguities, both in words and movements, which have always played such an important role in his drama.

Yet the opinion that Pinter's early plays were 'less political' than his more recent works for the stage has always seemed to me to be misguided. In his first staged play, The Birthday Party (1958), we see the banal existence of boarding house lodger Stanley ripped apart by a disturbingly arbitrary form of psychological torture. It is, in many ways, a Kafkaesque play of politics.

The perpetrators, Goldberg (who is Jewish) and McCann (an Irishman), appear to represent some other power - whether it is political or religious (or both) is unclear. What is clear is that Pinter had rejected the Jewish faith into which he was born, and had some experience of Catholicism in Ireland, where he toured as a young actor.

Throughout his theatre, the complexities of human relations, and of memories within families, between lovers and so on, have always carried profound political implications.

More broadly, in plays such as The Homecoming (1965), which is arguably his finest drama, and No Man's Land (1975), there are implications for our very understanding of human existence, death and ourselves. In that regard, Pinter's theatre relates closely to the plays of his friend and mentor, Samuel Beckett.

That politics have, in an often deeply subtle and nuanced fashion, always played a significant role in his theatre should come as no surprise.

As a young man, Pinter had to be bailed out of a jail term for his refusal to wear the 'shit suit', as he called army uniform, during post-war national service. He and his friends in Hackney had numerous run-ins with fascists, and Pinter famously punched an anti-Semitic loudmouth who was spouting racism in a bar.

The author's antipathy towards official politics, and towards joining movements and organisations, during the early part of his career is often misunderstood as being evidence that he was somehow apolitical at that time, only coming to politics later in his life. Yet, in an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1966, we find his anti-imperialism fully formed, and his means of expressing it typically excoriating and indignant.

Speaking about a television programme in which politicians had discussed the Vietnam War, he said, 'I wanted very much to burst through the screen with a flame-thrower, and burn their eyes out and their balls off and then inquire from them how they would assess this action from a political point of view.' These are, of course, hardly the words of a man who has no engagement in politics.

In 1985 Pinter went to Turkey alongside his friend, the late American playwright Arthur Miller, on a human rights mission on behalf of International PEN. During the trip Pinter caused considerable trouble for the Turkish state with his blunt questions about its dubious legal processes, torture of suspected political opponents and oppression of the Kurdish people.

This personal history, combined with his unswerving dedication to the movement against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, makes Pinter's Nobel Prize a deeply felt affront to the right wing, including New Labour. The Blair government will be thinking carefully about how it acknowledges the accolade officially.

Normally a British Nobel laureate would be whisked round to 10 Downing Street before you could say, 'Mr Wilson, this is John Lennon,' but Blair knows that Pinter is not a man to drop his principles in favour of social niceties.

For socialists, however, the author's success should be a cause of unalloyed celebration. The Nobel committee appears to have understood not only that Pinter is the greatest living playwright in the English language, but that the combination of his political humanism with his highly original imagination has created works which will enthral people for centuries to come.