October 20, 2005
Pinter’s Plays Give Voice to the Victims
Provocative, ambiguous, biting, subtle, Harold Pinter, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the major playwrights of the English language and the author of 29 plays and two dozen film scripts. He is also one of the most political of writers, with an overriding concern for social justice and an abhorrence of fascism, authoritarianism and brutality. His plays deal with power and powerlessness, dominance and subservience, resistance to authority, doublethink, hypocrisy and the perversion of language.
Pinter is a strong opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is critical of the Israeli government's attitude toward Palestinian refugees and has protested outside the Israeli Embassy against the solitary confinement of Mordechai Vanunu for revealing Israel's nuclear capability. In earlier times, he spoke out on U.S. policy in Central America and against NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.
His politics come out of the searing experiences of being a Jew in the period of World War II. Pinter was born in 1930 in Jewish East London, the son of a tailor, Jack Pinter, and Frances Moskowitz, whose parents immigrated to England from Poland and Odessa (Ukraine) at the turn of the century. Both grandfathers were in the garment trade; his father's side was Orthodox, his mother's secular. He celebrated his bar mitzvah, but then ended all connections with religion. He told biographer Michael Billington, "I felt both Jewish and not Jewish, which in a way remains the case." (Except where noted, the quotes in this article are from Billington's biography, "The Life and Work of Harold Pinter," [Faber and Faber, 1996].)
He has a curiously conflictive attitude toward his Jewishness. In an e-mail exchange, Pinter declined to be interviewed. I had sent him, by way of introducing my own political concerns, an article about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's support for the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He replied:
"Dear Ms. Komisar,
Thank you very much indeed for sending me your article about Kissinger. I thought it terrific. As you know we're very much on the same side.
I don't really want to discuss the Jewish influences on my work so I'll have to say no to that, but I send you my very best wishes and hope we'll meet some day.
Yours sincerely, Harold Pinter."
In fact, it appears that a Jewish consciousness forged in his youth was tied to a sense of outrage at injustice, which expanded to concerns about universal repression. Anti-Semitism was as rife in postwar London as before, and Pinter and his friends had confrontations with fascist gangs (once they were threatened by thugs with bike chains and broken milk bottles, but they escaped). He would say later, "We'd just fought for six bloody years to defeat, at the cost of millions of people, the Nazis, and yet the government allowed these groups of fascists to congregate in the East End of London and beat people up."
The experience led to a cynicism about politicians and the hypocrisy of government and deepened his abiding hatred of fascism.
He was quick to challenge anti-Semites. In the 1950s, he heard a man at a London bar declare, "Hitler didn't go far enough. That's the big problem." After a verbal altercation, Pinter hit him, and they ended up in a police station. Pinter later explained that he'd hit the man "because he wasn't just insulting me, he was insulting lots of other people. He was insulting people who were dead, people who had suffered.... My fury with him came from some part of my being which I didn't consciously analyze or think about."
In "The Room" (1956), there's an odd line when the landlord, Mr. Kidd, says, "I think my mum was a Jewess. Yes, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she was a Jewess. She didn't have many babies."
Asked by this writer in an e-mail what that meant, Pinter declined to say. When pressed on the point, he turned our correspondence over to his assistant.
In the play, the elderly Rose and her husband, Bert, live in solitary fashion in one room, which is visited by a young couple who lay claim to it. A mysterious blind, black occupant of the basement, who has been waiting to speak to Rose, arrives and tells her, "Your father wants you to come home."
Pinter says he is a messenger, a savior trying to release Rose from her imprisonment in the room and the restriction of life with Bert, inviting her to come back to her spiritual home. Is that Jewish?
Among his most prominent works, "The Homecoming" (1965) raises sensitive issues for Pinter, who decries reviewers' attempts to give it a Jewish interpretation, although it was inspired by the story of his boyhood friend, Morris Wernick, who secretly married a non-Jew in 1956 and immigrated to Canada without telling his father. As in the play, he returned with his family years later to tell his father the truth.
His frequent mix of the personal and political is evident in "Ashes to Ashes" (1996), a searing play wherein a faculty wife mixes personal and race memories. A lover who asserted power over her and the workers in his factory reminds her of the Nazis' brutalization of their captives. Pinter was inspired to write the play, which probes both political and personal fascism, by a biography of Albert Speer, who built and ran the Nazi slave labor system.
Rebecca and Devlin live in a comfortable country house in a university town outside London. Haunted by barbaric acts, she identifies with the victims of mistreatment and violence. She tells Devlin of an abusive lover who ordered her to kiss his fist and then choked her, and goes on to describe a surreal memory:
"An old man and a little boy were walking down the street with a suitcase, the woman was following with a baby in arms, the street was icy. When I got to the railroad station, other people were there, the man I'd given my heart to... I watched him walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers."
But is it a real experience or a historical memory? The play is an enigmatic cry of rage against the brutality of Nazism, a vision of personal distress wherein one is never sure where fantasy stops and reality begins.
The importance of Pinter recognized by the Nobel Committee has been to speak for the victims of repression of any era who could not speak for themselves.
Lucy Komisar, a New York-based journalist whose articles on international affairs have appeared in The Progressive, The Village Voice and The Toronto Star, is writing a book about offshore banks and corporate secrecy.