Roger L. Simon

Harold Pinter passes: the death of a great artist who hated us

I will never forget the first time I saw a Harold Pinter play.  I was sixteen, spending the summer before my freshman year in college in London because I had the good fortune to have a high school friend who had a publisher father with a branch office there.  That father put us both to work that vacation, allegedly stacking books in the stockroom.  Actually – spoiled brats knowing we couldn’t be fired – we spent most of our time gambling on the greyhounds at Wembley or attending shows on the West End.  In those days you could stand in the back for about thirty-five cents.

It was 1960 – a great time in the London theater. Among the productions we saw that summer were Bernard Miles in Brecht’s Galileo at the Mermaid, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros starring Laurence Olivier and various productions at the Royal Court of John Osborne fame, not to mention several almost legendary Shakespeare performances at the National and the Aldywch with the likes of Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave. But standing out over all of them in my memory was Donald Pleasance in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

That was my introduction to Pinter – and I have been in awe of him as a playwright ever since.  (And impressed with his screenwriting as well.)  He took the Theater of the Absurd out of the metaphorical realms of Beckett and Ionesco and melded it with a reality that made it more immediate, somehow meshing with our daily lives. It also became more threatening and provocative as it became more real.  His gift for dialog dwarfed everyone writing in English until the arrival of Tom Stoppard and was in a sense more original than Stoppard’s (great as he is). Pinter’s list of brilliant plays and screenplays goes on and on from The Birthday Party and The Homecoming to The Servant and the superb adaptation of Hartley’s The Go-Between.

But overwhelming much of this were his (to me) increasingly bizarre political views. Nevertheless, there was never a question in my mind that his Nobel Prize for Literature was deserved, although I cringed when he received it because I knew he would seize the opportunity to make ugly and propagandistic statements.  Of course, I was right about that – you didn’t have to be Nostradamus.  Pinter attacked the US government as if it were the modern avatar of the Third Reich.  He used his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in the words of the Washington Post, to denounce the U.S. invasion of Iraq and to call British prime minister Tony Blair “a deluded idiot.”

“How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?” Mr. Pinter said of the invasion.

Many commentators were incensed. Christopher Hitchens lambasted Mr. Pinter’s selection as “the almost complete degradation of the Nobel racket,” and conservative critic Roger Kimball called it “not only ridiculous but repellent.”

Well, maybe.

In full disclosure, Roger Kimball is not only my publisher, he is my friend, but in this rare instance I disagree with him.  The award to Pinter was indeed repellent given the playwright’s pronouncements, but the award – though undoubtedly politically motivated to a significant degree – was not ridiculous, certainly not nearly as ridiculous as many Nobel literature prizes in recent years.

What we are facing here, I submit, is what we might call the Ezra Pound Perplex or, alternatively, the Leni Riefenstahl Dilemma?  Forget the Nobel Prize, which has indeed become a racket, assuming it was ever anything else.  Pinter’s death raises a more important question. What do we do with  great artists whose political ideas are anathema to us?  How do we regard their work?

I don’t think we have much choice but to take it on a case-by-case basis.  Riefenstahl is easy.  She put her immense cinematic talent (her gifts were larger, I think, than either Pound’s or Pinter’s) at the behest of the most heinous of genocidal dictators.  She deserves consignment to the Ninth Ring of Artistic Hell.  Of course, Pound was to some extent similar, enamored as he apparently was with Italian fascism.  But, perhaps because I always found his poetry too prolix for my taste (or intelligence), I remain somewhat agnostic on his confusing politics.  Nevertheless, they leave a distinct distaste in my mouth that has prevented me from delving into Pound further.

Pinter is many degrees different.  His politics, I think, was mostly governed by chic, veering as he did to the left in the 1980s to be part of the typical London theater crowd (cf. Vanessa Redgrave).  It’s not surprising really that his work was already declining at that point.  I would imagine that he was tremendously frustrated by that decline.  Pinter was a minimalist and it’s hard for minimalists to evolve without eradicating what they do.  So he became something of a crotchety old political man, attacking Thatcher, Blair or whoever else he could blame.  But does that invalidate his previous work?  Not for me. Art is a larger tent than that.  I will forgive Harold Pinter his political excrescences on his death.

(Pinter’s personal life – for those not aware of it – makes for some interesting reading.)

UPDATE: Roger Kimball logs in on PInter here.  He’s less charitable, but perhaps he’s right.

Roger L. Simon’s new book Blacklisting Myself: Memoir of a Hollywood Apostate in the Age of Terror will be published by Encounter Books in January.