Playwright Harold Pinter died Dec. 24 in London at the age of 78. In 2005, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the Nobel Committee lauded Pinter for "forc[ing] entry in oppression's closed rooms." Rachel Shteir said that by focusing on his strident politics, rather than on his plays, the committee was doing Pinter a great disservice. Shteir's piece is reprinted below.
Finally, the Nobel Committee for Literature got something right: Harold Pinter.
But for all the wrong reasons. The Nobel citation applauds Pinter, who was named a laureate last Thursday, for "forc[ing] entry in oppression's closed rooms," as though he were the author of a journalistic exposé about Abu Ghraib. The Los Angeles Times quoted Edward Albee as saying, "He's a splendid writer and a good political activist." The same article quoted David Hare, who suggested that the award vindicated Pinter for his "bold and brave political stand against the policies of the British and American governments."
The truth is that about five or six of Pinter's plays are works of great genius, but the leftist politics that he has embraced over the last two decades has nothing to do with them.
Many scholars have attempted to claim Pinter as a political writer ever since the 1980s, and those voices will likely become even more insistent now. But Pinter's best work is important for other reasons. It's difficult to even talk about his contribution to theater today, because the style of his early plays—with their mannered pauses and silences—is so much a part of the zeitgeist that it is more often a subject of parody than reverence. But from the Birthday Party in 1958 to Betrayal in 1978, Pinter's plays, like those of Eugene Ionesco and Pinter's mentor Samuel Beckett, changed the way we expect the theater to work. For one thing, there is setting: Pinter brought Beckett's apocalyptic optimism into working-class English interiors—seedy boarding houses and abandoned tenements and dark, damp backrooms. But for all of this, he is no kitchen sink realist. His language is both elliptical and strange. Like Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, Pinter's dialogue rarely does anything as pedestrian as telling a story or revealing a detail about a character's inner life. Instead, it spatters all over the other characters. It is representative language that often belies its subject—as in The Birthday Party (1958) when McCann and Goldberg do a kind of music hall duet, which is both about helping Stanley and about their intent to torture him. You practically expect them to break into soft-shoe.
Most significant is that Pinter never really made a distinction on stage between the real and the unreal, the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. He charged his plays with a bleak sense of modernity and modern relationships, with disaffected and sometimes demented characters scrambling toward humanity. (He once said he was interested in writing about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.") In a Pinteresque world, the characters may arrive at a feeble revelation, but just as often, they lurch blindly into apocalypse, never knowing how they arrived there. Sometimes, as in The Room, Pinter's first play, his characters are literally blind as well as figuratively so.
Those praising Pinter's plays have long characterized his work as "menacing," and centered on how they use language to "miscommunicate." But what is shattering in a Pinter play is subtler and more mysterious: It is the way he maneuvers his characters, little by little, into psychological endgames. In The Homecoming (1965), Teddy, the aloof professor—a figure who turns up a lot in Pinter—arrives with his wife, Ruth, at the London house where his sullen and antic working-class family looms. Ruth seduces the family—or, really, stuns them with the force of her femininity—and suddenly, midway through the play, the characters take on new identities, as if they are playing a game of musical chairs. There is a sense that, as in a macabre fairy tale, Ruth has awakened these four trolls from a slumber—or has put a curse on them so they will now fall asleep. In the hands of a lesser playwright, these character shifts would resolve themselves in a literal-minded ending; in Pinter's hands they expose the charade that is our public persona, while showing how tenaciously we cling to such charades.