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Pinter: Bare-Knuckled Citizen Playwright | The Nation

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Pinter: Bare-Knuckled Citizen Playwright

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Where they have crouched and crawled and prayed
I stand, the self-doomed, unafraid...
   --James Joyce,
The Holy Office

About the Author

Margaret Spillane
Margaret Spillane, a longtime Nation contributor, teaches performing arts criticism at Yale University.

Also by the Author

The contrarian poet refused to toe any party line.

Freud made the case through his art that no body type inherently possesses more capacity to compel than another.

Harold Pinter, the playwright, poet, actor, screenwriter, novelist, political agitator and 2005 Nobel laureate who died on December 24 after a long battle with cancer, viewed insubordination as the only course for people being told to step out of the way of organized thuggery, whether of the vigilante, military or legislative kind. Standing up bare-knuckled at age 15 in his East London neighborhood against a mob of bicycle-chain-wielding Mosleyite Jew-haters, Pinter displayed the same purposeful insolence that would characterize his entire half-century of artistic and political activism. At age 18, he filed a conscientious-objector claim during the Berlin Blockade, the first crisis of the newborn cold war, refused to bring a clergyman to support his moral claim, underwent two military tribunals and two civil court cases all alone to press his wildly unpopular stand--and eventually won. To the end of his life he was indifferent to being labeled a scold, a champagne socialist or a traitor.

Like his hero James Joyce, Pinter had no patience with the taxonomists of high and low culture. He fiercely embraced his home ground as the place where language was every bit as capable of lyrical evasions, elaborate deceits and subtle devastations as dialects of the boroughs that feature Royal Academies and National Galleries. In Pinter's working-class East London neighborhood, his imagination devoured the japes and oaths that salted his neighbors' conversations, and relished the juicy, vehement style of argument from his pals at the Hackney Downs Grammar School as they slagged or championed his earliest literary passions. "That language," he later said, "made me dizzy." Much of the guff of menacing braggarts and mewling appeasers in such early Pinter plays as The Homecoming springs directly from the people he'd pass on his walks up Springfield Park to Bethnal Green.

Pinter's Cockneys are not brushstrokes of local color but people who speak a complex and subtle language that negotiates degrees of advantage and subordination, calibrates opportunity, indicates who will be the enforcer and who will wear the manacles and blindfold. "I don't think compassion registers as a relevant virtue in relation to the writing of plays," Pinter declared. "I'd go so far as to say that a hard, clear understanding which throws a light on a state of affairs is what you're aiming at."

The power of silence deliberately written into the script--to speak volumes by implication, to allow room for the ambiguous suggestion of a stifled yawn or a crossed leg--has been hailed as Pinter's signature invention in contemporary theater. But Pinter inveighed against the scripting of silences in non-theatrical settings, to terrorize subjects into cooperation or hypnotize them into the fatal dream that all's right with the world. He would not negotiate with the terrorists in bespoke suits he saw perched on the upper rungs of a British torture-device company or enthroned in the West Wing of the White House. He would never let the fact of his being a dinner guest of the American ambassador to Turkey or the honoree of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm prevent him from saying words that might interfere with the digestion of the banquet foie gras.

Pinter's unmannerly truth-telling underwent an immense, permanent amplification in 1979, at the dawning of the Margaret Thatcher regime. In a moment of reflex anger at wildcat strikers at Britain's National Theatre, he impulsively threw his support to Thatcher. Weeks later he was appalled by his own "stupid, totally irresponsible and shameful act," then watched in horror as the Tories' heavy artillery took aim at fundamental liberties like freedom of the press and the rights of arrested citizens. Thatcher got set to dissolve labor unions, enact the anti-gay Clause 28 and expand the reach of the Official Secrets Act. For the next three decades, Pinter bared his teeth and used them to tear into the hind quarters of the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush I troika, to lacerate the pietistical sham of New Labor and the feel-your-pain opportunism of Clinton and to catalogue the enormous horrors of Abu Ghraib and Katrina by the smirking, indolent Bush II.

Three years ago, around the time he won the Nobel, Pinter announced he'd create no new work for the theater. He would devote his writerly energies to a task he declared as mandatory for all citizens: "to define the real truth of our lives and our societies." Now that he's gone, those twenty-nine plays he left will carry on that rude, turbulent, honorable work.

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