Harold Pinter 1930-2008 - a Tale of Two Lives

By Karwowski, Michael | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Harold Pinter 1930-2008 - a Tale of Two Lives


Karwowski, Michael, Contemporary Review


THE death of Harold Pinter at the age of seventy-eight late last year brought an end to one of the most dramatic careers in world literature. In reality, though, Pinter-the-playwright had died more than a quarter of a century earlier, after which he was known more for his politics, particularly his virulent anti-Americanism, than for his continued writing, directing and acting.

Harold Pinter's life, therefore, rather neatly for such a precise playwright, can be divided into two separate parts, parts which have little or nothing in common, except nominally. The first lasted fifty-two years and encompassed his major plays, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, and The Homecoming in the late-1950s and early '60s, Old Times, No Man's Land and Betrayal in the '70s, and ended with his last major play, the one-act A Kind of Alaska, in 1982. The second part, lasting exactly half as long at twenty-six years, ironically encompassed his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 and increasingly violent anti-American rants.

The tragedy of this second, politicised career, which produced little, if anything, of lasting literary significance, can probably best be characterised by the conclusion to Pinter's speech in the University of Hamburg on being awarded the Shakespeare Prize of the Alfred Toepfer Foundation in 1970: 'When you can't write you feel you've been banished from yourself'. Again, in the early 1980s, he was quoted as saying: 'Something gnaws away, the desire to write something and the inability to do so'. Indeed, the extremity of many of Pinter's political pronouncements may at least partly be explained by this frustration at his literary impotence, a frustration undoubtedly compounded by the brilliance of much of his early work, which continues to be regularly produced throughout the world.

The great writer's exile from himself also helps to explain the fact that the Pinter of recent decades, enthusiastically endorsed by many so-called 'committed' critics and writers, had a tendency to re-interpret the early Harold Pinter in terms of his political propagandising. Yet there is no shortage of quotations from Pinter's early years specifically distancing him from partiality of this, or any other, kind. In Writing for Myself, for instance, first published in 1961, and used as the Introduction to Plays: Two, published by Faber and Faber, we have: 'No, I'm not committed as a writer, in the usual sense of the term, either religiously or politically ... I don't see any placards on myself, and I don't carry any banners'.

Many of these early pronouncements, in fact, can best be understood in terms of Pinter's description of the impact on him of his discovery of Samuel Beckett: 'I suddenly felt that what his writing was doing was walking through a mirror into the other side of the world, which was, in fact, the real world. What I seemed to be confronted with was a writer inhabiting his innermost self', i.e. a writer who hasn't been 'banished from himself', as Pinter seems to have felt when the inspiration for his plays had gone.

Any consideration of Harold Pinter needs to get this duality between Pinter-the-playwright and Pinter-the-propagandist straight from the outset because, as the quote above suggests, Harold Pinter, in common with any great artist, writes about reality and illusion. And any approach towards reality and away from illusion is incompatible with any kind of partiality, with the taking of sides, just as a research scientist cannot hope to arrive at any understanding of scientific reality if he is 'committed' or full of prejudices at the outset: 'Soviet Science', for instance, is an oxymoron, as is 'Socialist Realism' in Art. Detachment, or an open mind, is a precondition of Art, just as it is of Science, because both depend on the inspiration of the spirit of truth to arrive at the nature of reality, whether artistic, i.e. concerned with Man, or scientific, i.e. concerned with Matter, and the spirit of truth can only be apprehended by the detached or humble mind. …

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