Giving Us Pause

Nobel laureate Harold Pinter: The silences demarcate the warring lines on the battlefield of words.

Every playwright of stature has a single most famous line, and Harold Pinter's is undoubtedly (Pause.). The key moments of Pinter's drama, notated as carefully as key changes in chamber music, are those precious seconds of silence in which something important is intentionally left unsaid. The surrounding text may vary from the reddest fury to the tenderest expressions of love or the wooziest flights of surreal fancy, but sooner or later, the Pinter silence, marked off from the dialogue by that tiny italicized word, is sure to fall. As if confirming the inherent truth of his art, Pinter himself was afflicted with a momentary silence last week, on learning that he had been chosen as the recipient of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. There's something gloriously human—and authentically Pinteresque—in the idea that a master of language could tell the chairman of the Nobel committee, "I don't know what to say."

Words are the dialectical battleground of Pinter's works, sometimes treasured and hoarded like irreplaceable gems, sometimes scattered heedlessly like junk in a looted dime store. His people live by them, betray them, bicker over them, flay one another with them. A Pinter woman says "casserole" when she means "wife." A Pinter man, asked if he went "the whole hog," replies that you can sometimes be satisfied "without going any hog." At times, the words are the action; at others, they exist in a schizophrenic counterpoint to it, placid where the physical life is violent or fast and furious while the bodies onstage remain in utter stasis. The silences demarcate the map of this double battlefield, temporary truces in both the war over words and the war between words and actions.

These perennial clashes are the essence of Pinter's artistic identity, coming from a personal identity which is itself a sort of permanent conflict: English and Jewish, he is an actor who became a poet who became a playwright and screenwriter who became a stage director who became a prominent political figure; with the arguable exception of poetry, he has done outstanding work in all these fields. To examine his work in any of them is to discover more instances of his dualism. While his plays are celebrated for their terse, brutal contemporaneity, his best-known screenplays are steeped in a haunted, pre-modern past (The Servant, The Go-Between, The French Lieutenant's Woman). As a director he has delved in the works of both predecessors and disciples: Who else could have produced notable stagings of such antithetical works as Noel Coward's Hay Fever and David Mamet's Oleanna?

When the news of the Nobel award broke, many reporters mentioned Pinter's outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq, but this was no surprise to those who have followed Pinter's public outcries, both in his works and in active political statement, against torture, against the suppression of artists and journalists, against ethnic hatred and violence. The gratifying paradox is that his stance on these matters has carried weight globally precisely because of the powerful role that violence, torture, and degradation play in his works, from the time of his very earliest plays, like The Room and The Birthday Party. Pinter, the world can agree, is an artist who fully understands the human heart's potential for cruelty, and one of the rare ones who has been able to express it without exploitation. From the interrogation of Stanley in The Birthday Party and the tormenting of Davies in The Caretaker to the evocation of torture in One for the Road and gulags in Mountain Language, Pinter eschews all possibility of letting his audience revel in violence. It is there because it is in us; disconcertingly, he puts a human face on it so that we can see it in ourselves. At such moments the silences in Pinter test the extremes of human behavior: They are the silence of resistance, of terrified or complacent acquiescence, of outrage.

In this respect, Pinter's actor training and actor's instinct are the core of his philosophic vision. The ability to imagine oneself as someone else, which is the essence of all acting, becomes in his hands the terrifying possibility that all human beings possess, of becoming something that is within them but that they never perceive as part of themselves. The past 75 years, which have witnessed inconceiveable cruelties while at the same time making previously unimaginable progress in human healing and comfort, are perfectly expressed in Pinter's contradictory, obstinately convincing works, the products of an artist who, himself a paradoxical figure, has become a guide and a primary influence in his art without ever giving lip service to any shibboleths, dogmas, or ideals of the kind that have so often been proven false by the bitter experiences of his—of our—time.

 
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