Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pinter Wins Nobel

Harold Pinter (pictured at left in his play One for the Road, on the right, with Lloyd Hutchinson, photo by Sara Krulwich, New York Times), one of the most prolific and influential dramatists in English-language literature, received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature. The London native was cited for a lifetime of writing that "uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms." In essence, the citation aptly characterizes Pinter's chief style, a clipped, repetitious, often pause-ridden series of verbal exchanges, (sometimes shading into lyricism especially in some of the later works) between his dramatis personae, that initially appear banal or innocuous on the surface but which usually portend his great theme, which was the lurking evil and horror that lie both outside the rooms in which his plays are set, and also lurk within the characters themselves.

His dramatic successes are numerous: they include his famous early plays The Birthday Party (1957), which was a critical failure at its initial opening but which was later acclaimed as one of the signal plays of the mid-20th century, The Dumb Waiter (1957), and The Caretaker (1960); plays from the early and mid-1960s, including The Tea Party (1962), The Homecoming (1964), Landscape (1967), Silence (1968), and Old Times (1970); and Betrayal (1978), which was made into a noteworthy film, and which inaugurated a string of plays dealing more overtly with political and social themes, including A Kind of Alaska (1982), One for the Road (1984), The New World Order (1991), Party Time (1991), Ashes to Ashes (1996), and Celebration (1999).

Pinter's work shows the influence of English dramaturgy, and in particular the plays of the Anglo-Irish Anglophone and Francophone absurdist writer Samuel Beckett (Nobel Laureate in 1969), who befriended Pinter while he was still alive. It also bears the strong effect of his having grown up as the son of a Jewish tailor in working-class pre and post-war London, amidst the atmosphere of everyday, pedestrian speech and routine, and of living through the Second World War; he experienced anti-Semitism directly as a young person, and witnessed firsthand the effects of the fascist state in the destruction caused by the aerial raids on Britain's cities, as well as the tragedies both of country's killed and wounded citizens and soldiers, but also of the millions who died in the death camps. Violence, evil and death recur frequently in his work, sometimes by allusion, implication and assertion, at other times, as in The Birthday Party or Ashes to Ashes, more directly in the plot. Pinter's experiences led him to conscientious objection, and later to open activism on behalf of peace. He has remained a vocal activist and critic of war, imperialism, social and economic conservative schemes (especially as enacted by the Thatcher woman), and as recently as a few years ago, issued blistering denunciations of the W administration's march towards war in Iraq.

One other very important aspect of Pinter's long and distinguished career has been his screenwriting, which is not usually honored or even noted by authorities like the Swedish Academy. He has written a number of important screenplays, both original and adaptations, from the 1950s to very recently. They include scripts for the films The Quiller Memorandum, The Last Tycoon, Langrishe Go Down, The Go-Between, Reunion, The French Lieutenant's Woman (I love Meryl Streep in this film), The Heat of the Day, The Comfort of Strangers, and The Trial. Even more remarkably, he wrote several of the screenplays for the noted director Joseph Losey (The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between) as he was also writing his stylistically different and distinctive plays.

Several years ago he suffered from throat cancer, and vowed to cease writing in order to devote his energies to peace. Perhaps this august award will persuade him to resume his playwriting, or work in other genres, as he's also an accomplished poet and fiction writer (The Dwarfs, a fascinating little novel from the late 1950s, I believe, is a book I read many years ago). Congratulations, Harold Pinter!

Update: On RadarOnline, the wretched old bat John Simon dissents from the praise chorus and dilates nastily on Pinter's Nobel win. In his own words: "Harold Pinter has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature? I would have gladly accorded him the Nobel for Arrogance, the Nobel for Self-promotion, or the Nobel for Hypocrisy—spewing venom at the United States while basking in our dollars—if such Nobels existed." But wait--the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize, not the United States. And theaters, directors and actors across the country--and in many parts of the world--are free to choose the plays they want to stage, and of their own volition they choose Pinter. And why shouldn't a brilliant playwright be proud and promote herself or himself? Simon patronizingly praises Pinter's acting and directing, but those plays...well, they just don't meet Simon's critical standards. I guess Pinter should be glad he's not going as far as he did with John Ashbery back in the early 1960s, when he noted an appraisal of that author's revolutionary The Tennis Court Oath was "garbage" ça change, plus ça reste.


  1. I've seen at least two other folks who, while agreeing to Pinter's deservedness for his plays, think the Prize was given as a way to needle the US for it's continuing war (Dubya's Big Adventure in Iraq). A grudging, "Yeah well okay maybe he deserved it for his work but they're REALLY doing this to get back at us!" Sheesh....I guess the Nobel committee is now 'against us' (since you're either with us or...) If Roth had won, these same folks would have said it was because the committe read PLOT AGAINST AMERICA as "really" being anti-Bush (well.....)and not for the total body of his work

  2. I'm not surprised. I sort of recall people claiming that Saramago's, Grass's and Fo's Nobel Prizes also had an anti-US edge, because the former is a diehard Communist, the second has been harshly critical of the US for years, and the third has launched blistering critiques of the US's close ally, Silvio Berlusconi. Well...yes. The Swedish Academy has an ideological stance that's more recently been left-leaning, since 1995 they've honored a moderate-conservative like J.M. Coetzee, and in past years, have supported critics of Communism like Joseph Brodsky and the extreme right-wing Solzhenitsyn. Bellow's racism may have passed under their radar, or perhaps it didn't. They also have honored supposedly "apolitical" writers like the grotesquely self-absorbed Canetti, Szymborska and Heaney. The Peace Prize this year seemed like a more transparent backslap of W, but then again, wasn't ElBaradei proved right? Where are those WMDs? Was this war necessary? And shouldn't people PRAISE Pinter and every other person of influence who spoke out against it?