Thursday, 25 December 2008
The Cruel Reticence of Harold Pinter
Sad news of the death of Harold Pinter this afternoon. When artists die it feels as if the world stops for a second and takes a moment to realign. The knowledge that nothing more will come from their imagination, I suppose.
Pinter was truly original. I remember at University him being compared unfavourably with Beckett. The latter, we were boldly told by one academic, would have books published about him for centuries to come; whereas Pinter? A footnote, if that. The comparison and the put down were both unfair. Beckett's struggle was with the air; but whatever the altitude, if the joke is thin, the audience can always disengage. Pinter's plays wrestle with the earth, it's hard for the audience not to get muddied by the experience.
Where he stands masterfully alone as a playwright is in his perfect use of empathic communion - his understanding of our need to talk, regardless of whether we have anything to say. In the world of his plays dialogue is neither about efficient communication nor poetic re imagining. It's simply territorial, an assertion to others that we exist and proof to ourselves that we have not gone mad. In this context the choice to speak openly, to repeat a phrase, to remain silent, or to control your intervention in exchange becomes as poised as a martial art.
Behind it all is the torture of missed connection, of loneliness and a burning desire for a more complex understanding of our capacity for intimacy. It's optimistic to dream of fulfilment and I feel this basic human yearning whenever I see his plays in production.
I never felt Pinter was violent or threatening, just deeply, deeply disappointed to the point of barely suppressed rage. In this spirit he produced a language that smashed through the banal to a new understanding of our dysfunctional social state. He both mirrored and parodied through the cruel reticence of his characters.
In the real world, though, he was a great, unambiguous and angry moral voice, booming loud and clear in opposition to militarism and speaking always in support of those he felt could not be heard. As a wonderful orator his great gift is to make us see the visceral power of words, not as metaphors, but as flashes of lightning, capable, if used sparingly in the correct context, of harnessing and redistributing power - at an anti war rally, a family reunion or a birthday party.