Stage Raw: Harold Pinter Dies on Christmas Eve

Stage Raw: Harold Pinter Dies on Christmas Eve


 The most fitting obituary for the second greatest dramatist of the 20th century (behind Samuel Beckett, whom Pinter emulated) would be to say almost nothing, or perhaps something cryptic, or trivial, that's mere ice on a lake of dread. Because the man from Hackney, who died Christmas Eve after a years-long fight with cancer, transformed the way characters speak on the stage, and his influence spilled over into film. If you remember the thugs in Pulp Fiction nattering on about the quality of a good hamburger while they're preparing for a hit - that's Harold Pinter's direct influence. Before Harold Pinter, characters pretty much said what they meant. From Harold Pinter on, the central meaning of most plays flowed in the currents of subtext, the unspoken. And for plays like Pinter's The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, or even Old Times, which marked his characters ascension from the working class, what was unspoken was brutish. If, in Beckett's universe, we're insects crawling around in the muck, struggling to fathom the unfathomable, spouting hard-wired cliches in old age that haven't changed since childhood, brushing teeth every morning that rest loosely in bleeding gums, combing hair that's falling out, dabbing ointment of hemorrhoids, and all the while clinging to some precarious belief that Godot is coming to save the day, Pinter localized that hell to a kind of penitentiary. His men are all either hit men of some sort, or being driven mad from trying to escape the clutches of the corrupt. And so little of this is spoken in any of his plays. Watching his plays is like watching the motion of lilies on a swamp, knowing that their movements, or enigmatic disappearances, are really from the force of the crocodiles beneath the surface. Pinter's world is one of paranoia and betrayal. Yet he would not succumb to Beckettian ennui. So much of his energy and efforts were motivated by the most profound morality, and the indignation it aroused. He loathed the policies the United States government almost as much as loved the plays of Samuel Beckett. He was howling about our government's meddling in Latin America a generation before Iraq -- when we finally woke up to our government's methods of torture in other lands that were the crocodiles swimming low, almost unseen, in the marshes of our prosperity. Pinter said it all from a wheelchair when he accepted the Nobel Prize, and of course many were offended. Even in England. His blend of metaphysics and politics paved the way for Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond and David Hare. But it won't be Pinter's  politics that changed the world, even if he was right. It will be his plays. Maybe the pen is mightier than the sword, but that really depends on who's holding the pen, and who's holding the sword. When Pinter held the pen, the world shook a little.  
--Steven Leigh Morris          

The New York Times obit was co-written by Ben Brantley and the late Mel Gussow. For other insights, visit The Guardian, which also includes Michael Billington's obit,  and Pinter's own website

At your fingertips: the coming weekend's Comprehensive Theater Listings; last week's New Theater Reviews; and last week's Stage Feature on three plays about erotica.

This blog returns Friday, January 2. Happy holidays, and see you next year. -- SLM

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