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November 15, 2005

Harold Pinter and the Incredible Emptiness of Meaning

Posted by Jeremy Black

Harold Pinter's extreme, hectoring, anti-Americanism can - at best - be seen as un-nuanced and crude. Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - contrasts the skill that many playwrights bring to the depiction of personal relationships with the crude two-dimensionalism of many of the same playwrights accounts of public affairs.

Recently awarded a Nobel Prize, Harold Pinter has long sought to bridge the worlds of the arts and politics. Involved with Amnesty International and other comparable causes, he has a long-standing concern about human rights and the pressure on them arising from political oppression, and this is reflected in some of his writings, including his plays One for the Road (1983), Mountain Language (1988) and Party Time (1992). Whether these are the highpoint of his drama is a matter of opinion. They do not have the fame of plays such as The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and Old Times (1971), nor their somewhat claustrophobic intensity. More recently, Pinter has become an active critic of American policy, presenting it as determined by a quest to control the Earth and its resources. Thus, Pinter bitterly criticised both the Kosovo campaign in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He has said that he may address the state of the world in his Nobel acceptance speech this December.

Political engagement by artists has a long tradition, and is all-too-often immature. The most prominent example during the last century was the naÔve praise of first Soviet and then Chinese Communism, although there were also examples of right-wing literati being fascinated by Fascism. The welcome collapse of the latter, however, accentuated the leftward character of the literary response and it has characterised not only explicit comments on politics, but also the development of theoretical approaches and paradigms, such as post-colonialism. We have the unedifying spectacle of artistic subsidy junkies, supported in a world of public theatre, broadcasting and sponsorship of the arts, who criticise the values of their compatriots both directly and through a heavily-biased depiction of the wider world. This bias is all too apparent in particulars (the army of the righteous who condemned the invasion of 2003 had been less numerous in the case of the Iraqi attacks on Iran and Kuwait, in 1980 and 1990 respectively), as well as in generalities.

Most striking is the contrast between the skill that writers can bring to the depiction of personal relationships and the crude two-dimensionalism of many of the accounts of public affairs.

To take the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was clearly maladroit in conception and implementation, but that does not demonstrate the supposed desire to control the Earth and its resources that Pinter and others discern. Instead, there is a hysterical reiteration of claims without any awareness of the difficulties of assessing policy (or indeed of staging a conspiracy). This does not appear to be a matter of the illnesses sometimes attendant on age, as the clarity of Pinter's diatribe is scarcely new.

It might be easy to ignore or laugh at such work, indeed its citation can lead to the latter, but individuals such as Pinter are influential. They help create a climate of opinion within which international relations and the pursuit of national interest are subsumed within a tendentious account of objectives and methods. The clarion call of folly is all too potent.

Pinter of course is writing within an established tradition. To turn back to the 1970s and 1980s, for example, individual writers took a clear political position. Influenced by Brecht, Howard Brenton probed the nature of power in plays such as The Churchill Play (1974) and The Weapons of Happiness (1976), and caused controversy with his criticism of government policy in Northern Ireland in The Romans in Britain (1980). Edward Bond attacked from a Revolutionary Socialist perspective in his play The Worlds (1979). In Bingo (1973), Bond had also attacked the nation's cultural icon by presenting Shakespeare as colluding in agrarian exploitation and committing suicide in self-disgust. David Hare's powerful play Plenty (1978), which was subsequently made into a film, was a striking account of disillusionment with life in Britain, and this was matched by Howard Barker's The Hang of the Gaol (1978). Such works contributed to the "placing" of Thatcherism in terms of a demonology that hit at sensible public debate.

There has been far less criticism aimed at the left, and, when it occurs, it tends to be for allegedly borrowing Conservative or right-wing clothes. Thus, Mick Martin's play The Life and Times of Young Bob Scallion (2003) presented Tommy Marchbank, a Bradford crook, willing to turn to pimping, smuggling, extortion and, if necessary, murder, who, having welcomed Thatcherite individualism, becomes a Labour parliamentary candidate in 1997, accurately parroting New Labour-speak and dispensing with his long-term mistress to fit in with Tony Blair's desire for a "squeaky-clean" image.

Amusing, but all-too-typical in the remorseless criticism of the "system". Maybe continuous assault from the arts is an aspect of their role, but the preference for diatribe over realism in the portrayal of society, and the political and economic system, is more than mischievous.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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"Satirical" shows are no better. Likewise, they have a biased even-handedness: they tend to criticize Conservative governments for not being left-wing enough ... and Labour governments for not being left-wing enough. An obvious example would be Rory Bremner's shows: Bremner is an able enough imitator of voices and mannerisms, but his material has become strident, partisan, and deeply unpleasant. However, I suspect Bremner is as much victim as anything here, and has been corrupted by the two Johns, who certainly come across as joyless narrow-minded ideologues. I think Bremner is now stuck in the current mould for good, which is a shame for him, because to prosper in the entertainment world long-term I think you have to make people feel good. They may take a kind of short-term pleasure from envy and hatred, but in the long run it turns them off.

Posted by: Steve at November 15, 2005 02:42 PM
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Harold Pinter's refusal of military service in 1949 stands a testimony of his weakness as a human being and is shameful abandonment of his Jewish heritage.....

Shame on you Mr. Pinter and your audacity to put your voice and "weight" to any matter that involves men spilling their blood in defence of principles that you find offensive.

Shame on the spineless expedience that would have gotten you a towel, bar of soap and a push to the Hitler's crematoriums.

Posted by: Jeff Indeck at December 7, 2005 10:10 PM
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To Harold Pinter
All you can see is what is on TV and what you hear. You don't know what is going on in Iraq exept for the fact that some people are dieing and that's all you care about. Well here's a news flash, people die in war. All you do is sit on your ass and enjoy your freedom to speak and your nice cozy living space, but you don't think of the Iraqis who never get to enjoy freedom. Yes, it is a hard transaction, but since when is it ever easy. Look at all the countries that are now free. They all had to fight for that freedom. So open your eyes and stop being selfish. You may be some nobel prize guy and some writer, but I'm only 15 years old and wiser then you. Shame on you.

Posted by: Justin at December 8, 2005 04:04 AM
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Harold Pinter's acceptance speech was shown on UK TV, hidden away at about 1am in the morning - I stayed up to watch it and am very glad I did.

Neither left or right wing - but a blistering attack of the abuse of power, brilliantly delivered.

It is the US's misfortune to be the major power in the world today. When Britain ruled the waves as they say, the British administration abused power just as roundly as did the Ottamans, the Austrians, the Romans etc etc...

It is not shameless or an act of cowardice to challenge a powerful administration when abuses occur - it is a citizens duty to do so - that is all H P was doing and doing rather well in my view.

Posted by: Lesley Boulton at December 9, 2005 08:38 PM
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Pinter's acceptance speech of Noble Prize is a great critique of the UA foreign policy. But there is one thing that has upset me: why did he place Saddam or Osama as opponent to Bush? They could be all one or could be on the same side of the fence! After all they were all together during the jihad against USSR in Osama and Alqaeda case and against Iran in Saddamís case! Now either they have changed their roles or they are fighting when they failed to divide their war booty! Isn't it? However, his speech is true reflection of the world consciences. Another point: Pinter was very generous when he failed to mention the military dictators of Pakistan, such as Gen. Ziaul Haq and now Gen. Parvaiz Musharraf, both darlings of the US Pentagon. All people of Pakistan are not pro-fundamentalism, there is a majority that believes in democracy. One of the elected prime minister of Pakistan was hanged by a US sponsored military dictator.

Posted by: Saqlain Imam at December 11, 2005 07:14 PM
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