With the world lurching into economic depression, the 2008 holiday season already ranked low in the joy department. And for us in the theater, Christmas Day—when people customarily exchange gifts, eat enormous meals, and give at least a passing thought to peace on earth and goodwill toward men—was edged in black at both ends. In the early morning, while kids snuck downstairs to see what Santa had brought, the news of Harold Pinter’s death the evening before was flashing around the world; later that afternoon, with the lethargy induced by Christmas dinner starting to set in, came the announcement of Eartha Kitt’s passing. Between them, the two events made a customary day of hope and new beginnings a further reminder of the sobering future we face.
Twin icons of modern culture, startlingly mismatched in true modernist fashion, these two remarkable figures, the playwright and the performer, hover in our memories, marking the end of a year and an era now definitively gone. Did they know each other, or have any feeling for each other’s work? Unlikely. Yet their unexpected juxtaposition reveals hidden connections. Both, for instance, connect to London’s Criterion Theatre, where Pinter’s production of Simon Gray’s Butley opened in 1971, not long after Kitt had illuminated the same stage as the wealthy American who rescues a British landmark from destruction in Henry James’s comedy The High Bid.
That the sexily purring nightclub vocalist could embody a Jamesian heiress as readily as she later played Batman’s Catwoman was no more startling, in itself, than that the great specialist in close-mouthed, elliptical dialogue should become an articulate director, not only for his friend and contemporary Gray, but for writers as varied as Joyce, Coward, and Mamet. The largest element Pinter and Kitt had in common was that both meant more than the stereotypes by which the wider world knew them. This is true to some degree for all artists: The world’s habit is to oversimplify. But our hucksterizing era has been exceptionally forceful in reducing artists to their marketable quality. It “brands” them: How perfect that that word, which once meant stigmatized, now means labeled for sale.
Both Pinter’s “comedy of menace” and Kitt’s “sex kitten” persona were highly marketable brands, but anyone who looked deeper could see that their creators could not be so easily labeled. You didn’t have to know that Pinter had gained experience as an actor, or that he had aspired to poetry with T.S. Eliot as his model, to see both the verbal exactitude and the canny grasp of theatrical effect in his plays. You didn’t have to be told that Kitt had been mentored in dance by Katherine Dunham, or that she had taught herself to sing in seven languages, to perceive that every number she performed was sculpted with a precision and commitment far beyond a mere desire to tickle male audiences’ sexual fantasies. Manifestly, more was going on in both artists. Their initial popularity may have come from the label each waved, but they owed the decades-long survival of their powerful iconographic status to their constant drive to challenge and deepen their art.
That drive came, in part, from their outsiders’ anger. Kitt’s all-conquering sensuality, like Pinter’s brilliant verbal gamesmanship, constituted a victory over an establishment to which neither could ever wholly belong. The Jewish tailor’s son who made himself an expert on that gentlemanly sport, cricket, shared that awareness with the South Carolina sharecropper’s daughter whose first stardom, on Broadway, came with a song (“Monotonous”) in which she simultaneously celebrated and ridiculed the notion of wealth beyond dreams. While Kitt evolved a style that edged her come-hither persona with hints of both danger and self-mockery, Pinter (whose early work likewise included sketches contributed to musical revues) found the eerie, poetic repetitions and dislocated emotions of his plays bubbling up, with increasing frequency, into shocking outbursts of rage.
And, for both, the anger ultimately took on political form. The pivotal moment came mid-career for Kitt, when, invited to the White House with a group of prominent American women to discuss the growing problem of urban juvenile delinquency, she told Lady Bird Johnson bluntly, though not rudely, that the Vietnam War was the cause. That was true, but the truth is not what presidents’ wives expect to hear at public functions, and the consequences brought Kitt a decade of what amounted to exile, during which she sang and acted in Europe and scandalized the politically correct by performing at segregated resorts in South Africa, where she again showed her grasp of practical issues by selling her autographs to raise funds to build township schools for the children whose parents could enter the places where she sang only as hired help. The sex kitten’s slink had more than maneuverability to it.
Honored in his own country, Pinter spoke his mind with more impunity—also with mounting asperity, as Bush-era America stepped up the violence of its international bullying. Magically, his gemlike late plays transformed his anger into resonant, non-didactic art. Kitt’s final Broadway musical, The Wild Party, invited her to deliver, at its climax, an apocalyptic condemnation of the surrounding corruption; she did it with the sword-edged smile of one who knows her integrity will survive the melee. Pinter’s last major play, Celebration (2000), presents a survivor, too: a young waiter—oblivious to the hypocrisy, spite, and viciousness of the wealthy restaurant patrons he serves—whose inner life, which periodically erupts into the action, is a jumbled, surreal dream of all the great artists and political figures of the 20th century, all allegedly friends of his late grandfather’s. Pinter, whose grandfather was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, gives this character the last word, in a line that tells us there is no last word: “And I’d like to make one further interjection.”
For artists such as these, who leave their work on record behind them, the silence that ensues is only a pause.