Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter, 1930-2008

Acclaimed playwright, political activist, and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter died yesterday at age 78.

His best-known plays include The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming. He also wrote screenplays.

He is survived by his second wife, novelist and historian Antonia Fraser, six adult stepchildren from Fraser's previous marriage, and estranged son Daniel, by his first wife, actress Vivien Merchant.

It’s often said that Pinter's plays became overtly political in his later years—some critics even made the observation as a reproach—but an interest in power, thus politics, is central to even his early dramas of family life.

His work portrays, with vivid understatement, how one strong-willed individual is able to control the behavior of multiple others simply by conjuring some vague, outside menace, in response to which, otherwise capable adults willingly put themselves in his thrall.

Furthermore, no matter how brutish the tyrant is, the weak though not altogether powerless dependents show the utmost care in preserving his delicate ego, bending over backwards so as not to offend their supposed protector. Clearly, assholes maintain control because others acquiesce, often simply to preserve the pretence of their own “niceness.”

The artful pauses in Pinter’s plays are the direct result of the characters’ inability or unwillingness to address situations bluntly and realistically. The underlying tension is both erotic and violent, and if and when it erupts to the play’s surface, the effect is all the more disturbing.

Pinter inspired all the playwrights who matter to me, from Joe Orton in England to David Mamet in the US to Martin McDonagh in Ireland—in style if not altogether in the issues that interest them. I have greatly admired Pinter’s style and achievement for decades.

I never met the man. My personal connection to Pinter is through one of his late plays, One for the Road, in which I played a small role at its 1986 US premiere in Charleston, SC, as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Amnesty International, which Pinter actively supported.

The play centers on Nicolas, a petty functionary in an unidentified authoritarian state, whose cheerfulness and can-do attitude chillingly contrast with the fact that he is torturing a family—a father (ironically named Victor, the role I played), a mother, and their child—though the word “torture” is not once uttered in the play.

Nicolas sees himself as the defender of the good (“Everyone else knows the voice of God speaks through me. You’re not a religious man, I take it?”). Therefore, the word “torture” cannot apply to him, however much he practices its substance.

Pinter saw the theatre as a phenomenon for both social engagement and aesthetic experimentation. He brought Samuel Beckett’s stark surrealism into suburban sitting rooms—inventing a minutely detailed style of observing and portraying human behavior. His presence will be missed, but his legacy lives on in the best of contemporary drama.

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