Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Very Real Achievement of Harold Pinter

I’ve been trying to concentrate my main attentions on some other writing at the moment, but nearly a week later, I still feel somewhat provoked by a particularly nasty summing up of the career of Harold Pinter by John Doyle that appeared in the Globe and Mail on New Year’s Day. I’ll come to Doyle’s column in a moment, but I’ll begin with the sense of loss evoked in me by Pinter’s death.

Harold Pinter’s health had been in a precarious state for some time, so his death late in 2008 did not come as much of a surprise. Yet hearing the news of his passing nevertheless made me feel rather melancholy. Pinter was 78, so it was not as though death had taken someone at the height of his career, as it had with, say, Heath Ledger. And yet my melancholy was more than merely sentimental or nostalgic, the sort one feels for an old intellectual companion. Rather, it seemed to me that, notwithstanding his relatively advanced years, Pinter had left many things undone that, somehow, in my understanding, he should have done. Moreover it appears he was of the same mind. John Lahr tells us, in an excellent 2007 profile in the New Yorker, that, while visiting the hospital for a brain scan, Pinter told the lab technician: “You know what you’ll find in there? A lot of unwritten plays.”

Pinter had been blocked for several years from the late sixties through the early seventies, and again throughout most of the eighties. It seemed as if each block came after he had written himself through to achieving the finest possible expression of a certain sort of insight, the first block arriving after he had written The Homecoming (1964) and the second, after he had written Betrayal (1978). Blocked from writing his own plays, he turned himself mainly towards adapting the works of others, writing, for example, a first-rate screenplay of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981); to directing, particularly the plays of his close friend, Simon Gray; and back to his first career, acting, doing particularly fine work in two Beckett plays: the titular character in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court in October 2006 (a show that reportedly sold out its whole run in sixteen minutes, so it’s fortunate that Pinter was apparently extraordinary in the role), and in the quite perfect 2000 David Mamet-directed film of Beckett’s very short play, Catastrophe, in which he appeared with Rebecca Pidgeon, and in his last performance ever, a silent Sir John Gielgud.

Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe, directed by David Mamet, and starring Harold Pinter, Rebecca Pidgeon and John Gielgud.

So, Harold Pinter by no means wasted the time in which he was not writing his own plays. But it is John Doyle’s contention, more or less, that he wasted the time in which he WAS writing those plays. Here’s a taste of Doyle’s New Year’s Day tirade:

“Harold Pinter was overrated. Oh yes, he was. A small handful of plays, all derivative and slight. Beckett for Dummies, that's Pinter's oeuvre. And he was pretentious, an indulger in reflexive anti-Americanism, anti-this-and-that to the point where he was absurdly serving on the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic.”

Now I have no intention of defending Pinter as a great political thinker. He certainly said many things about the morally bankrupt insidious workings of capitalist imperialism that struck the nail squarely on the head. But then, even leaving aside Milosevic, he also voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, so it is not as though he represented any orderly critique in his person. What is not in doubt is that he was passionately engaged with politics; but, notwithstanding his local and occasional political insights, I would no more look to him (or, in a closely similar case, Neil Young) for a coherent political overview than I would look to other artists I admire for coherent religious views. I think, for example, of Bob Dylan’s born-again Christian period, which was followed by a flirtation with a Hasidic sect, or Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen’s hare-brained dalliances with Scientology before moving onto Buddhism, and so on: all these were weird ⎯ and from a certain point of view, I would insist, courageously weird ⎯ way stations on more profound spiritual quests, and stemmed from moments, I would say, when the essential mysticism of their outlooks was failing to find adequate expression in their creative work. The excesses into which Pinter’s political passions occasionally led him have a similar ⎯ and similarly forgivable ⎯ explanation. Truly creative brilliance cannot always contain itself in tidy packages. Unless we are narrow-minded philistines, we can hardly expect people both to be artistic geniuses and to show up for work in neat, well-pressed uniforms as well. Being a bit sloppy about politics is a different matter, perhaps; but I think the point still stands. So let’s leave Pinter’s political views to one side and concentrate instead on the work that Doyle sneeringly dimisses.

On that topic, it’s worth noting that even where Doyle wants to praise Pinter, on the matter of his adaptations, he ensures that the backlash lands squarely on the original works:

“The frailty and smallness of Pinter’s alleged originality as a writer is underlined by his gift for dramatizing, for film or television, the work of others. Given someone else's material, he was great at whittling it down, finding the essential narrative…”

And from here, Doyle goes on to praise Pinter’s adaptations of The French Lieutenant’s Woman ⎯ although he is scathing about the Fowles novel, which is, in my view, a masterpiece ⎯ and of the Aiden Higgins novel, Langrishe, Go Down, for BBC television. In short, as far as Doyle is concerned, Pinter was fine so long as he was streamlining unnecessarily complex works to make digestible ninety-minute to two-hour screenplays, but the only reason someone would praise the original plays is intellectual pretentiousness.

Now, it is not so much Doyle’s egregious lack of grace or taste in speaking of the recently dead that rankles me (there have certainly been cases, such as the death of Jerry Falwell, that had me speaking with contempt of the life and exulting at its passing), but rather the sense that what he says in the column is, to my mind, effectively a supercilious attempt to plaster over the open questions and lacunae that Pinter’s work had left purposely open.

By “lacunae,” I don’t mean to refer to those works that Pinter never wrote. It’s true enough that Pinter’s output was not enormous, although he wrote a sufficient number of plays to fill four volumes in the Methuen edition, with another two volumes devoted, respectively, to his poetry and non-dramatic prose, and to his screenplays. Beckett, whom Doyle wants to use as a club to beat Pinter, left a body of work that was no larger, really: the plays fit into one volume, the fiction wouldn’t need more than another two at most. But the real question has to do with whether Pinter saw or showed us anything really original in his work. I think he did, but I have to acknowledge that Doyle is probably speaking for many people in responding so truculently as he does.

To be blunt, Doyle’s assessment of Pinter is, in my experience, typical of that of many middle-brow people who speak about the work: the provocation of the confusion Pinter creates is somehow affronting rather than enticing, and so they leap to the conclusion that the playwright is practicing some sort of imposture. My use of the term “middle-brow” surely sounds like I’m tossing off a rather cheap insult, but I consider it a reasonably fair description of someone who earns his living as a television critic. I absolutely am not such as snob as to suggest that television is invariably aimed at the intellectually lowest common denominator in our society (although it sometimes is); but I think it is no more than stating the obvious to say that it is very seldom that one encounters the richest and most demanding artistic and intellectual experiences our culture has to offer on television. Could there be anyone who seriously disagrees with that statement? Notwithstanding many fine things to be found from time to time on television, the medium, especially with all the time and commercial considerations constraining it, will only allow for so much density or extension of thought. Naturally, I watch television fairly regularly; but I think I would go mad if I had to devote the majority of my waking hours to taking it seriously, as Doyle does. This is not to say that Doyle is a shallow or incompetent advocate for what is on the television; on the contrary, I think he is in possession of a rich band of critical insight that happens to correspond to what television programming offers when it is good; but the limitations of his mental energy become apparent when we see him face to face with work that is far too difficult to be confined to the small screen.

So here lies the nub of the problem: Pinter demands a great deal of mental work to comprehend ⎯ to a sometimes almost maddening degree. By mental work, I do not necessarily mean education; and I certainly don’t mean recourse to any specialized knowledge. What I primarily mean is the mental work associated with creative imagination. Like many modernists, Pinter consciously places much of the onus for completing his work with the viewer.

Think, for example, of the convention in the plastic arts, whereby certain subjects are repeated again and again. One of the most enduring subjects is that of “mother and child.” Now in the hands of an artist such as Raphael, the subject assumes explicitly religious dimensions: we see the Madonna with the Christ-child, and minute attention is given to achieving an optimal equilibrium between realism and symbology.

However, in the hands of a twentieth-century artist such as Henry Moore, we are looking at a greatly pared down rendering of the same subject.

Gone are the explicitly religious connotations; gone too is any sense of historical moment, of fashion, of specific identity, or even any reference to a specific narrative. Instead, the viewer is invited to engage with the many meanings that are implicit in the sculpture, to build these outward into external contexts, and then to allow these to collapse once again into an unmediated encounter with form and texture. The work of art encourages many interpretations, but it will not support any of them conclusively, because the lacunae and questions are left open. It is profoundly suggestive, but resolutely indeterminate. In short, as I suggested, it forces the viewer to do a great share ⎯ perhaps the lion’s share ⎯ of creative work. It offers the rough equivalent of playing a game of hockey oneself rather than merely watching it on the television.

Now, it is a hallmark of modernist and postmodernist art that its works are always derivative. The Modern period was, to that point, unique in the extremity of its self-consciousness about its place in history, so naturally, its most important and deeply affecting works of art always evince some self-consciousness about their models and predecessors. Beckett, for example, shows consciousness about his indebtedness to Kafka, to vaudeville, to medieval religious drama, and, certainly, to his mentor, James Joyce. Pinter may indeed have derived something from Beckett, along with (again) Kafka, John Osborne, Eugene O’Neill, Terence Rattigan, film noir and Sigmund Freud; but in that respect, he is exactly like every other great modernist artist. The modernist artist who does not make intelligent use of his or her predecessors, nor to some extent, self-confessedly derive his or her work from theirs (if it were even possible to avoid such a thing), is seemingly not worth our attention. Or, at least, I cannot think of one. Indeed, I defy you to name any artist who is so completely original a creature.

The point with respect to Pinter, then, is that while his work is, naturally, derivative, he altered the dramatic conventions that had come to him in particular ways that caused the individual spectator more work in the effort at comprehension, and thereby called a deeper and broader field of meaning into play as the context for that comprehension. In his greatest plays, a group in which I would include The Birthday Party (1957) The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1964), No Man’s Land (1975) Betrayal (1978), One for the Road (1984), and Moonlight (1993), Pinter offers us human relations stripped not only of all the comforting distractions that the ordinary material world provides, but of the desperately cherished notion that life is, at bottom, somehow rational. The effect, if one allows oneself to play along, is vertiginous: by turns frightening and hilarious, these plays show us human beings engaged in competitive games and efforts to assert their identity in contexts in which their understanding of truth is always deeply uncertain, and their understanding of their own identities is at best mere bravado. In other words, Pinter’s characters try to look and act assured despite their repressed recognition that, as Pinter put it in his Nobel speech: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” My mentor, Ronald Bryden, in his review of the original production of The Homecoming for a newspaper (either The Observer or The New Statesman, I forget which) memorably compared the action of the play to the activities of a group of apes engaged in a tribal power struggle, albeit these primates were using language instead of physical violence to assert their supremacy. This was a brilliantly penetrating insight, because Pinter’s interest in the essential patterns of human actions ⎯ as opposed to their apparent intentions and meanings ⎯ does tend to draw our attention to what is primal in human identity, in both the individual and cultural sense. Pinter’s dramas show us as Freud, in his most visionary moments, such as in Civilization and Its Discontents, saw us: as animals that struggle to belong within the excessively elaborate culture we have made for ourselves as a species.

Of course, to reduce the significance of his oeuvre to a few sentences in that way does nothing like justice to the range and complexity of Pinter’s work, but I hope it offers a corrective to the supercilious notion that Pinter was engaged in some sort of intellectual imposture or cheap con job. I believe that Pinter adumbrated the dark side of our own self-understanding, and it is to our great loss that he was not able, because of those times when he felt blocked, and because of the limitations of poor health and, finally, death, to go even further with this project.

A scene from Peter Hall's film of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming


stumbleine said...

Thanks for bringing our attention to this article! I cannot imagine writing such a review in "honour" of a hardworking playwright's passing.

I was introduced to Pinter when I was in high school and was immediately drawn into his writing. More than most works I'd read, I could easily imagine how one could bring his words off the page. Even then I found his writing hilarious, touching, and real.


laura said...

Now *that's* a proper eulogy.