Harold Pinter's Pen Betrays His Normalcy

By Seaquist, Carla | The Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

Harold Pinter's Pen Betrays His Normalcy


Seaquist, Carla, The Christian Science Monitor


Normalcy: It's a wallflower during the ball, but it almost always gets the last waltz.

Recent proof of this universal truth is reflected in the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to British playwright Harold Pinter. The master of menacing drama is revealed to be a fan of normalcy, of a most charming kind.

And therein lies a profound contradiction.

First, the work. Domination and submission are Mr. Pinter's themes. As The New York Times puts it, by depicting "the violence - emotional, physical, sexual or psychological - that human beings visit upon one another," Pinter portrays "the contagion of abuse in human experience." The Nobel announcement cites Pinter as an artist who "uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms."

While other artists address these themes, what makes Pinter singular is how he illuminates that precipice under the prattle - with signature pauses and silences - and uses language to convey the futility of communication. Making miscommunication even more chilling, and making what director Peter Hall calls "brisk, hostile repartee" more hostile, are the seemingly normal settings of his plays: living rooms and kitchens. Pinter himself says he writes about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." If you've attended a Pinter play, you've felt the weasel.

And yet, and yet: Writing for the Guardian the day he received news of the Nobel, Pinter sounded positively tickled with the "invasion" of friends "communicating" their congratulations "all day long." What a surprise: In all his oeuvre, true friends, if not altogether absent, would be fodder for domination.

Even more surprising, given the misogyny in his work, Pinter waxed lyrical about his wife, historian Lady Antonia Fraser. Describing their breakfast tableau, he writes, with a dramatist's specificity: "Antonia's act of passing the cranberry juice to me is an act of married love." Referring presumably to the cancer he's fighting, he ends: "I should say that, without her, I couldn't have coped over the last few years. I'm a very lucky man in every respect."

Indeed. What a paean to normalcy! Who knew that under the prattle lay not a precipice (nor a weasel), but love, gentleness, communion, and seemingly perfect communication. Who knew another kind of Pinter drama - "Harold (pause) Adores Antonia" - existed?

How unlike the tableau in "The Homecoming," one of his most famous plays. In it, a son brings his wife home to meet his father and brothers for the first time. Things turn ugly when the father and brothers proposition the wife. The variation on Pinter's themes this time is that while the son submits, the wife not only reacts as willing object but manipulates her new power to dominate the household.

Moral as well as artistic kudos are conferred on these dramas. One critic claims Pinter's "greatest moral concern" is "his compassion for the suffering individual and outrage at the violence done to him. …

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