14 October 2005

Political Pinter

I expect I'll have more to say about Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize, because I have admired his plays for a long time, but for now I just want to make a quick note about his politics. Pinter is an aggressively political man, though, and his controversial statements have made it relatively easy for some of the more ignorant and illiterate denizens of the American right wing to proclaim that Pinter won the Nobel for his political views. Pinter himself seems to think this could be true. And it could be. But it's irrelevant, because even if Pinter were a neo-Nazi, the fact is, he's one of the two or three most influential and enduring playwrights alive.

There are no irrefutable, objective ways to judge a writer's worth, and there will always be dissenters, because tastes vary. But the tests of time and influence are useful ones -- a writer who influences the work of other writers, and whose own work survives for multiple generations, has made a valuable contribution to literature, regardless of what any one person thinks of that writer's work. (I have an almost physical aversion to the plays of Arthur Miller, for instance. I think they're idiotic, manipulative, awkward, sentimental, tedious ... well, I could go on. But it would be absurd to deny that Miller was one of the major American playwrights of the twentieth century, one whose work had a profound influence on writers, actors, directors.)

Pinter's great contribution has been to show that the linguistic minimalism that Beckett took to its farthest extremes could be applied to the traditional domestic drama, and this melding of two seemingly contradictory modes of writing created a wealth of new visions for theatrical art. For know-nothings like Roger Kimball and Stephen Schwartz, it is inconceivable that a flagrantly left-wing writer could actually be any good. According to Schwartz "Pinter has produced no significant work for the stage in 40 years", which is simply wrong. Pinter's early plays were lightning bolts, but his later work includes such masterpieces as Betrayal, Moonlight, and Ashes to Ashes -- three of the most significant plays to be written in English in the past few decades. Betrayal alone would be enough to solidify any writer's reputation.

Pinter's political views fuel his work, but he has, for the most part, restricted his polemical impulses to his hideous poetry. It would be wrong to ignore Pinter's politics, but it is equally wrong to suggest that the only people who can appreciate his plays are those who agree with his politics, while those who disagree must pretend he is not a significant writer.

For more on this subject, see Alicublog. (via About Last Night)


  1. Yes, I do wish he would stick to plays and leave the poetry alone...

  2. I look forward to hearing more, Matt. Even I (radical Soft Skull-ite that I am, allegedly) have found Pinter's recent diatribes a little over the top, but, while not quite as crucial to 20th century literature as Beckett, Pinter's an eminently worthy honoree. It was really Dario Fo who was the strange choice. Of course, were Brecht alive today, I'd be very upset about Pinter, but, amongst the avilable options, Pinter was a great call.

    One thing I've not really noticed talk of here in the U.S. at least, is that Pinter has probably written more screenplays than any Nobel laureate.

    The other thing that must needs be said: if there were ever any doubt as to who is the greatest American publisher in the second half of the 20th century (Barney Rosset), the Pinter selection will now rightly dispel it.

  3. Funny you should say that, Richard, as I'm going to write some about Pinter's films next week (need to watch my old VHS of The Servant this weekend). I entirely agree about Rosset, too.

    Dario Fo was a bizarre choice. I mean, I like the little bits of his work I'm familiar with, but... Jelinek, too, was a strange choice, because if you want to highlight an Austrian, well, Peter Handke may not be the most politically appealing choice, but he's made a far greater contribution to world literature.

  4. It's the dialog that people remember but it's the structure that makes a play work and Pinter at his best is rock-solid. I think that may be more noticable in the screenplays where words are less important than action.

    Rick Bowes