Harold Pinter

Book Review – Death etc. by Harold Pinter

Some time ago I had a discussion regarding Harold Pinter with my writing partner. We got talking about his 2005 Nobel Lecture. I explained how the playwright devoted half the speech to his vitriolic hatred of the leaders of the United States and Great Britain; the then on-going war in Iraq germinating much of this animosity. At times I believed Mr. Pinter became unhinged in his excoriation of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. My writing partner suggested that since he did suffer from terminal cancer at the time, he may not have felt any reason to restrain himself. Death etc. left me with the impression his remarks to the Swedish Academy reflected an ordinary conversation with Mr. Pinter.

Death etc contained a diverse sampling of the playwright’s later works. It included several poems, a number of speeches and some of his shorter dramas. As a fan of his plays, I enjoyed the diverse sampling of his writing.

I’ve read Pinter’s Collected Works volumes one through four. The latter ended at 1981. I liked that this book included his later dramas Mountain Language, The New World Order, One for the Road, Press Conference, and Ashes to Ashes.

The plays provided a solid sampling of Pinter’s unique gift for language. In One for the Road he included the expression, “Your soul shines out of your eyes.” (Location 492)

In my review of Betrayal I commented on Pinter’s minimalist use of language. The following passage from One for the Road made the wording in that play seem like something out of a thesaurus.

Nicolas: When did you meet your husband?

Gila: When I was eighteen.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: Why?

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I just met him.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I didn’t plan it.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

(Pause.)

Nicolas: (Continued.) Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I met him. (Location 529)

I mentioned in my opening that Mr. Pinter vocally criticized both the US and the UK for their roles in the Iraq War. His dissatisfaction with their respective policies towards that country began long before then. He expatiated on his anger in Death etc. Here’s an excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister” written five years prior to the conflict. He wrote:

Dear Prime Minister (Tony Blair):

We have been reminded often over the last few weeks of Saddam Hussein’s appalling record in the field of human rights. It is indeed appalling: brutal, pathological. But I thought you might be interested to scrutinize the record of your ally, the United States, in a somewhat wider context. I am not at all certain that your advisors will have kept you fully informed.

The United States has supported, subsidized, and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945. I refer to Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey and El Salvador, for example. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered by these regimes, but the money, the resources, the equipment (all kinds), the advice, the moral support, as it were, has come from successive US administrations. (Location 719)

I felt his observations would’ve had more resonance if he placed them against the appropriate back-drop of the Cold War. Nonetheless, I accept the old libertarian adage that, “Freedom is your freedom to disagree with me.” I also respect the author for the strength of his convictions.

While Mr. Pinter’s political views may offend some readers, his poetry will, no doubt, turn off others. I thought his verse rather cross and graphic. Here’s a stanza from 1997’s “Death.”

Did you wash the dead body

Did you close both its eyes

Did you bury the dead body

Did you leave it abandoned

Did you kiss the dead body (Location 1339)

The playwright also quoted this poem during his Nobel Lecture.

Mr. Pinter held strong left-of-center political positions. He also didn’t show reticence or restraint when he expressed them. For that reason, Death etc would best be enjoyed by hard-core Harold Pinter fans. I’d advise those with a modest interest in his plays read the four volume Collected Works.

In The Press Conference, Pinter wrote, “He that is lost is found.” (Location 704) That expression summarized his view of political philosophy. While I disagree with his harsh condemnation of the free world’s policies, individuals like Mr. Pinter show us that our leaders and existing orthodoxy should always be challenged.

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Drama Review – Betrayal by Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter deserves respect as the greatest English language playwright since William Shakespeare. Whereas The Bard crafted beautifully worded verbose passages, Mr. Pinter chose the opposite approach. He populated his plays with repetition of words, and short phrases separated by myriad pauses. This technique equated to genius. Mr. Pinter’s craft reached its apogee in 1978 when he published Betrayal.

Many playwrights either draw on aphorisms or choose esoteric expressions for their titles. Not Pinter. This play delivered exactly what I expected. As with many of Pinter’s works, the drama contained few characters. The story centered on an act of betrayal between good friends Robert and Jerry. It seems the latter engaged in an affair with his “oldest friend’s” wife, Emma, “for years.” (Location 305)  In addition to that betrayal, Jerry felt betrayed by Emma’s revelation to Robert that the two were lovers. Emma felt betrayed because Robert “had…other women for years.” (Location305) Even by the standards of a Harold Pinter play Betrayal was not a happy story.

Pinter, as usual, selected very unconventional characters to animate the drama. Here’s Robert’s reaction when Emma informed him of her affair with his friend.

I’ve always liked Jerry. To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should’ve had an affair with him myself.

(Silence.)

Tell me, are you looking forward to our trip to Torcello? (Location 898)

I really liked the way the playwright structured this work. It opened in the present as Jerry and Emma met for a drink. During the course of a conversation that seemed banal on the surface, it transitioned to their past affair. In the next scene Jerry discussed it with Robert. Each subsequent one regressed backwards in time. The play ended with the occasion when Jerry and Emma first felt attracted to one another.

I complimented Mr. Pinter’s minimalist use of language. Here’s an exceptional example of it.

Emma: (Pause) It’s just…an empty home.

Jerry: It’s not a home.

(Pause.)

I know. I know what you wanted…but it could never…actually be a home. You have a home. I have a home. With curtains, et cetera. And children. Two children in two homes. There are no children here, so it’s not the same kind of home. (Location 586)

Home appeared seven times in the above 57 word passage. I admire the way Pinter managed to include it so many times in such short succession without it coming across as contrived.

Here’s another phenomenal example of repetition. In this one, Robert explains his awareness of Jerry’s and Emma’s infidelity.

Robert: No she didn’t. She didn’t tell me about you and her last night. She told me about you and her four years ago.

(Pause.)

So she didn’t have to tell me again last night. Because I knew. And she knew I knew because she told me herself four years ago. (Location 2057)

I only had one criticism of Betrayal. I didn’t understand Robert’s behavior. From my reading of the text, the character didn’t possess any emotions. I can’t believe someone would react so dispassionately to a wife’s relationship with a close friend. Because of his inability to express feelings, I wondered what attracted the other women to him; and, for that matter, his wife.

But, that’s how I interpreted Robert on the page. I’ve never watched Betrayal performed. It’s possible an experienced director would understand him differently.

For his lifetime of work Harold Pinter received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m a huge fan and I’ve enjoyed many of his plays. If he never wrote anything else, he could have earned the Swedish Academy’s honor for Betrayal alone.

Drama Review – Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter

When I read the list of characters in Ashes to Ashes I felt flattered. The great Harold Pinter imitated me. He also crafted a play encompassing only two characters. Unfortunately for yours truly, all the similarities between the two of us end there. Works such as Ashes to Ashes show why Pinter earned the Nobel Prize in literature; becoming the only British playwright to be so honored. (Shaw and his hero Beckett were Irish.) And this play isn’t even his best. It still bears the hallmarks of an outstanding Pinter drama.

I remember a lyric David Gilmour included in Pink Floyd’s “Sorrow”: “There’s silence that speaks so much louder than words.” I’m wondering if he read Pinter at the time he wrote it. Pinter wouldn’t be Pinter without including pauses throughout the text. They’re one of the very few stage directions he included in his work. He used them rather liberally as in this exchange.

Rebecca: Oh yes. I kissed his fist. The knuckles. And then he’d open his hand and give me the palm of his hand…to kiss…which I kissed.
(Pause)
And then I would speak.
Devlin: What did you say? You said what? What did you say?
(Pause)
Rebecca: I said “put your hand round my throat.” I murmured it through his hand, as I was kissing it, but he heard my voice, he heard it through his hand, he felt my voice in his hand, he heard it there.
(Silence) (Page 5)

And this is the beginning of the play.

WOW! What a method to draw attention to great dialog. The interesting thing is that the pauses and silences are just as important to the text as the dialog. Pinter used them in a way comparable to how a composer would use a rest in music.

Ashes to Ashes atypically included a line that stood out to me.

Devlin: A man who doesn’t give a shit.
A man with a rigid sense of duty.
(Pause)
There’s no contradiction between those last two statements. Believe me.
(Pause)
Do you follow the drift of my argument? (Page 47)

I don’t, but this gave me something to work on if I chose to do explications du texte again.

Another section that showed Pinter’s genius occurred when Rebecca discussed a divorced couple she knew. Devlin asked her questions that she ducked. Pinter could’ve easily resorted to his pauses and silences to convey that. Instead, he used clever dialog with the pauses added at critical times in the conversation.

Rebecca: (…) He says he misses the kids.
(Pause)
Devlin: Does he miss his wife?
Rebecca: He says he’s given the other one up. He says it was never serious, you know, it was only sex.
Devlin: Ah.
(Pause)
And Kim?
(Pause)
And Kim?
Rebecca: She’ll never have him back. Never. She says she’ll never share a bed with him again. Never. Ever.
Devlin: Why not?
Rebecca: Never ever.
Devlin: Buy why not?
Rebecca: Of course I saw Kim and the kids. I had tea with them. Why did you ask? Did you think I didn’t see them? (Page 61)


Dialog like that shows why people like Harold Pinter win Nobel Prizes and people like me can only admire them. I think I’m going to leave the writing plays with only two characters to him.

The Royal Court Theater first performed Ashes to Ashes in 1996. The strength of Pinter’s writing at this stage of his career impressed me. While an outstanding play in its own right, Ashes to Ashes doesn’t compare with the quality of Pinter’s earlier works. With the exception of Shakespeare’s plays, The Birthday Party and Betrayal were the best dramatic works written in the English language. The man’s talent was quantum. Ashes to Ashes would serve as a good introduction to his plays.