The audience had been queuing for an hour in order to hear Harold Pinter speak at Edinburgh. This was 2002; the Iraq invasion was in progress and phrases like “freedom-loving people” and “axis of evil” were the common currency of the day.
Pinter had just recovered from major surgery for cancer of the oesophagus, and written a poem—Cancer Cells—to celebrate, his first published poem in decades. We expected him to speak about his fight with cancer, which he did, eloquently and movingly. And then he moved on to the matter of the US war in Iraq, and made his strong opposition perfectly clear. Pinter likened Tony Blair’s plans to bomb Iraq to an act of “premeditated murder”. He spoke of the war as an exercise in power, he spoke of the silence and acceptance that greeted the ritualised killing of people outside the “Western world” and he said: “I could be a bit of a pain in the arse. Since I’ve come out of my cancer, I must say I intend to be even more of a pain in the arse.”
In the three years since his Edinburgh comeback, Pinter has kept that promise. He has heckled Bush and Blair, campaigned against the war, and written cheerfully obscene poetry slamming the US army’s tactics in Iraq.
This record has helped many see the 2005 Nobel, awarded to Pinter last week, as one of the most politically charged decisions in the history of the literature Prize. The Nobel announcement was delayed by a week; there was speculation that the Academy was considering Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who’s in trouble for speaking out against the Armenian genocide. (Turkey officially refuses to accept that the mass killings of Armenians occurred on the scale on which Pamuk and other observers point to, and refuses to call those murders genocide.) There is now much speculation, as one commentator put it, that this year’s Prize is a rebuke to America, an anti-US Nobel.
To see the Prize simply as a politically correct decision would be to overlook Pinter’s work. That would be naïve: I cannot see how you could possibly look at this century in theatre—and film—and ignore Harold Pinter’s contribution. (He would probably be amused to know that in Calcutta theatre troupes, a standard stage direction was: “Aaro Pinteresque deen, dada!”, meaning that more Pinteresque pauses were necessary.)
His first two plays, The Room and The Birthday Party , were ahead of their time. Their themes would eventually become familiar, much-imitated cliches of the stage—the damage that families inflict on each other, the struggle for power in everyday domestic life, the power of obsession, violence and the erotic, all of this presented by a man who had a gift for listening to the silences that lie between the lines. The Birthday Party ran for just a week, initially, before being taken off, and Pinter tells of how he met an usher on his way to one of the last performances. She asked who he was; he said he was the author. “Oh, are you?” she said. “Oh, you poor darling.”
The late Samuel Beckett, who greeted his Nobel Prize with dismay rather than Pinter’s expletive-laden exclamation of delight, had rather less trouble than those early audiences in recognising his younger colleague’s talent. He and Pinter met often; I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Edward Albee, Beckett and Pinter spent a long evening in a pub discussing the Marquis de Sade—the three great chroniclers of the absurdities of modern times on the life of the sensualist who took the pursuit of pleasure to lengths beyond the absurd. Pinter sent Beckett his plays, in typescript, and Beckett reserved a special place in his library for Pinter’s dedication copies.
Pinter’s plays, from The Room to Ashes to Ashes and Remembrances of Things Past are still performed today. If you’ve seen the film versions of The Comfort of Strangers, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Trial or The Last Tycoon , to name just a few of his adaptations, you know that he is also one of the greatest screenplay writers of our time.
What I’m looking at is not the work, or the man, but at his signature: Harold Pinter, scrawled in a bold, unwavering hand right across the page, the letters large and uncompromising. That signature, the mark of the author, the political protestor, the man who refuses to back down, is scrawled all across the 20th century.