Harold Pinter

Nearly half a century after Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to another British playwright who was as influential in his way as Becket. This was Harold Pinter, who came into prominence in 1958 with The Birthday Party, and who continued to produce interesting and important plays over the next half century, though nothing perhaps quite rivaled that powerful critique of all-controlling and pervasive authority. I saw it in the sixties, in one of those exciting British Council tours that covered a range of good British drama, in days too when well established names came on Council tours. The figure I remember was Mona Washbourne, who was brilliant as the landlady who tries to protect her strange and vulnerable lodger.

This odd young man, Stanley, had washed up in her boarding house, with no prior history that she could find out about. She is surprised to find he is of interest to two sinister men who give out gradually that they are officials, sent to check up on him. They demand papers and a history and get less and less tolerant as it transpires that Stanley has no records and no plans. She hopes to settle the tensions by having them at the birthday party she plans to give Stanley, along with a young lady she hopes will be of romantic interest to him, but the event is far from fun.

After forced joviality and heightening tension, party games turning frightening, and Stanley loses his cool. He reveals dangerous depths of violence, so that they take him away. The landlady has come close to having been killed, though whether that was Stanley acting or those who manipulated him is not quite clear. However she has no option, the next day, but to pretend that nothing untoward has happened, and to get on with her life, back now to the companionship only of her stolid and silent husband – who had however briefly come to life in urging Stanley, as he is taken away, not to allow his oppressors to tell him what to do.

Many years after I had first seen it, one of our English Consultants offered to produce the play in the period in which I looked after Cultural Affairs at the British Council. He got the Representative Rex Baker, and his Deputy John Keleher, to play the bullying officials, which quite uncharacteristically they seemed to enjoy. David Woolger, the most cultured and creative Council expert we had, played Stanley, though I felt he was too nice to convey the menace within this apparently helpless character, and which I had found chilling in the earlier production.

David did however turn up trumps in the evening of Pinter short plays that we put on later, directed by the brilliant Belgian Rudi Corens who had come to advise the Town Hall on developing a National Theatre. He found it an impossible place to work in, despite which he found reasons to stay on in Sri Lanka for a decade. The most impressive of the Pinter plays David performed in was One for the Road, about the questioning of a dissident couple. David as the interrogator torturing the young man, relishing the sexual violence against his wife, was quite terrifying. The moment when the audience realizes that he has probably had the little son killed was electric.

This was the period when Pinter was unremittingly political in his writings, dealing with real life situations around the world to highlight human rights abuses. He wrote for instance about the women who grieved for their missing loved ones, basing his play on the situation in Turkey, but conveying a message that was relevant to us too, at the time of the disappearances that took place at the time of the JVP problems of the eighties, disappearances that have still not been resolved in the official figures on record with the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Pinter was not a popular figure in England in those days, since his views on domestic politics were similarly radical, and hostile to the governing Thatcherite dispensation. His contribution was however recognized during the nineties, and by the time he died he was seen as the most important playwright of his generation. This was interesting, given that he had been overshadowed earlier by the Angry Young Men generation of John Osborne. Oddly enough, Osborne moved firmly to the right in his politics as he grew older, while Pinter continued to campaign for social justice both in Britain and elsewhere.

He was consistent in his approach, being as critical about the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia as about the invasion of Iraq. Though Jewish, he maintained the high traditions of humanism that had distinguished that race when they were oppressed, and stood out against the transformation of the Israeli state into one that ignored Palestinian aspirations and the principles on which Israel had initially been established.  His speech in accepting the Nobel Prize in 2005 was seen as anti-American, but he noted his recognition that many Americans were ‘shamed and angered by their government’s actions’.

I should however note that, while I see Pinter’s early work too as predominantly political, and the later writings seem proof of his basic concerns, it can be argued that he was initially at least more interested in human interactions and the power plays that individuals engage in. The bullying in The Birthday Party then may be seen as arising primarily from individual psychologies, and this is borne out in the other great success amongst Pinter’s early works, The Caretaker.

Though there is a strong element of social distinction in that play, certainly the distortions in relationships caused by personal oddities there cannot be gainsaid. And in a later period Pinter also wrote much about memory and the transformations wrought by individuals on themselves – as in another play, A Kind of Alaska, that Woolger brought to life along with the talented unaging American actress Jeritza McCarter.

But in the end neither of those plays I think can compare with the menace in The Birthday Party that so clearly springs from formal but shady authority. In that regard Pinter stands out in the last part of the century as the most politically engaged writer in Britain, and he certainly makes us reflect on the excesses to which power is prone. And, as commentators have pointed out, the title of his play about torture, the very English approach of the interrogator Nicolas who readily uses the English phrase ‘One for the Road’, suggests that Pinter wants his audience to realize that abuse can occur as much at home as elsewhere.