Friday, October 22, 2010

Pausing for Harold Pinter

Pinter remains to his credit, a permanent public nuisance, a questioner of accepted truths, both in life and art. In fact the two persistently inter-act.
—Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, 1996)

I never think of myself as wise. I think of myself as possessing a critical intelligence which I intend to allow to operate.
—Harold Pinter

We need people like Harold Pinter. The British playwright, actor and political activist was at heart a humanitarian, who never forgot his roots. Although he became a celebrated figure when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, he continued to speak about the menace that authority posed.

Mr. Pinter was born on October 10, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class neighbourhood in London's East End, the son of a tailor. His parents, he said, were “very solid, very respectable, Jewish, lower-middle-class people." When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, Harold, an only child, was forced to leave London for a provincial town in Cornwall, which he later said was a traumatic event. He lived with 26 other boys in a castle on the coast.

The feelings of loneliness and isolation from that time were to surface later in his plays. When he was 13, he returned to London, during the middle of the war. During the Blitz, his house was struck by a bomb.  He rushed inside to rescue a few valuable possessions: his cricket bat and a poem — “a paean of love” — he was writing to a girlfriend. "The condition of being bombed has never left me," Pinter later said.

Understandably so. And the war and its horrific destabilizing effects became one of the major influences of his work, particularly in his plays. In a New York Times article after his death, Mel Gussow and Ben Brantley write:
In more than 30 plays — written between 1957 and 2000 and including masterworks like “The Birthday Party,” “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal” — Mr. Pinter captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the 20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the prospect of imminent violence.

Along with another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett, his friend and mentor, Mr. Pinter became one of the few modern playwrights whose names instantly evoke a sensibility. The adjective Pinteresque has become part of the cultural vocabulary as a byword for strong and unspecified menace.


War's Destabilizing Effects: Harold Pinter at the Orange Tree Word International Screenwriters' Season at The British Library, 2004. Photo Credit: © Rune Hellestad/Corbis. Date photographed Feb. 11, 2004
The war had a profound influence on how he viewed conflict, and the political leaders who send young men (and now women) to war, often without thinking deeply about its destabilizing effects. In Harold Pinter, Michael Billington writes about Mr. Pinter's distrust of authority:
But Pinter's suspicion of authority was manifested in an even more famous incident in the autumn of 1948. Receiving his call-up papers for National Service, he registered as a conscientious objector, thereby risking imprisonment. He was summoned before a series of increasingly Kafkaesque military tribunals, in the end escaping with a fine. The whole incident epitomised Pinter's nonconformity, truculent independence and suspicion of the state.
"The Birthday Party," one of his first plays, opened in London's West End in 1958.The initial reviews were disappointing. But when Harold Hobson, the eminent theatre critic of the Times of London was persuaded to attend an afternoon performance, he was thrown by something unexpected:
"It breathes in the air,” Hobson wrote. “It cannot be seen, but it enters the room every time the door is opened.” He continued: “Though you go to the uttermost parts of the earth, and hide yourself in the most obscure lodgings in the least popular of towns, one day there is a possibility that two men will appear. They will be looking for you, and you cannot get away. And someone will be looking for them too. There is terror everywhere.” He concluded, “Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
Mr. Hobson is credited by Mr. Pinter for having saved his career as a playwright. This theme of commonplace terror continued to inform his work and his view of life and the importance of social justice and human dignity. In December 2001, Mr. Pinter was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He continued writing and working while receiving medical treatments.

In October 2005, it was announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Advised by his physician that it he should not travel, Mr. Pinter could not accept the award in person and make the customary speech. Thus, his discourse was pre-recorded, and shown on video on 7 December 2005, in Börssalen at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. The speech is called Art, Truth, & Politics

In an article from Books & Writers, we note the humanitarian side of Mr. Pinter:
Since the overthrow of Chile's President Allende in 1973, Pinter was active in human rights issues. His opinions were often controversial. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Pinter condemned Nato's intervention, and said it will "only aggravate the misery and the horror and devastate the country". In 2001 Pinter joined The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, which also included former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Milosevic was arrested by the U.N. war crimes tribunal. . . . In February 2005 Pinter announced in an interview that he has decided to abandon his career as a playwright and put all his energy into politics. "I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?"

Mr. Pinter was ambivalent about politics, but not about human-rights or justice: "Well, I don't intend to simply go away and write my plays and be a good boy. I intend to remain an independent and political intelligence in my own right," he said in The Guardian newspaper interview: Pinter: I won't be silenced (Aug 2001), in regards to the Nato bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999.

He remained critical about state abuses of power, notably where innocents get caught in the power plays of the Great Powers. His memories of childhood assuredly shaped his life.

But Mr. Pinter took such painful memories, shaped them and made them the world's to own. Such was not lost on the world. For example, when French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin presented Mr. Pinter with France's highest civil honour, the Légion d'honneur, at a ceremony at the French embassy in London, in 2007, he praised Pinter's poem "American Football" (1991): "'With its violence and its cruelty, it is for me one of the most accurate images of war, one of the most telling metaphors of the temptation of imperialism and violence.'"

Mr. de Villepin concluded: "The poet stands still and observes what doesn't deserve other men's attention. Poetry teaches us how to live and you, Harold Pinter, teach us how to live." He noted that Mr. Pinter received the award particularly "because in seeking to capture all the facets of the human spirit, [Pinter's] works respond to the aspirations of the French public, and its taste for an understanding of man and of what is truly universal".

Such is the highest compliment one can pay a writer. Harold Pinter died on December 24, 2008, in London, finally succumbing to cancer. His voice is clear, strong, remaining in his works. Mr. Pinter, the Nobel laureate, left us with a legacy: "I think it is the responsibility of a citizen of any country to say what he thinks." 
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Announcement of October 20, 2010

Dear Readers:

I have decided to reduce the number of blogs/essays that I post weekly—from five to three each week. The articles will appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week starting this week. Thus, the next article will appear on Friday Oct 22nd. It will be on Harold Pinter, Nobel laureate and playwright.
          I will continue to post musical blogs periodically as I have been doing the past two months. These changes are necessary so as to maintain the highly consistent standards that you have come to expect from this blog. I enjoy writing these essays, particularly since they bring up and discuss important issues that affect us all.
       I hope and trust that you keep reading this blog. And, if you have any time or thoughts to share, please drop me a short note.
 
Sincerely,
Perry J. Greenbaum

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