A writer whose dream of a political theatre found a home here


Pinter's distinctive work was a profound response to the terrors of the 20th century, writes Fintan O'Toole

IN JUNE 1996, armed police surrounded a Kurdish community centre in Haringey, north London. As a helicopter hovered overhead, marksmen on the rooftops trained their rifles on the entrances and exits. Anyone emerging from the building was seized, handcuffed, and forbidden to communicate in Kurdish or Turkish.

After an hour, the police smashed down the doors and stormed inside. There they found props and scripts for Harold Pinter's play about torture and repression, Mountain Language. The armed and masked men whom worried residents had reported entering the building were the actors. Their guns were plastic imitations.

As Pinter remarked at the time, "The line between fiction and reality sometimes becomes very blurred."

It certainly became increasingly blurred in Pinter's own plays. For a long time, the dark, strange, apparently enclosed fictions of his theatre seemed utterly distant from public political realities. Their characters, as the audience experiences them, are inventing not just stories, but selves. They have no offstage lives. They are nothing more than what they say and do on stage. They have no interest in convincing us of their own reality, let alone of any particular proposition about the real world.

Yet, from the 1980s onwards, Pinter himself was an increasingly political figure, denouncing American interventions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq and elsewhere, attacking Margaret Thatcher's right-wing policies, excoriating Tony Blair's collusion with American power, and declaring his own allegiance to socialism.

How do we explain the apparent contradiction between the plays and their author? In part, the turn toward overt politics in Pinter's work was pure contrariness. In the early 1960s, when political plays were in fashion, he declared himself an apolitical writer. In 1966, Pinter told The Paris Review, "Ultimately politics do bore me, though I recognise that they are responsible for a good deal of suffering . . . I don't feel threatened by any political body or activity at all . . . I don't care about political structures . . ."

But in the 1980s, when political plays were out of fashion, Pinter emerged as the passionately committed writer he had been all along.

In both cases, the feeling of going against the grain, of working at an angle to majority opinion, was useful to him, and helped to preserve the individuality and distinctiveness that made the adjective Pinteresque a part of the language.

There was something deeper going on too. Like his spiritual mentor, Samuel Beckett, Pinter understood politics in a way that was deeply personal. It was not primarily about parties or movements. It was about humanity itself and its struggle to persist in a world which threatened to obliterate it. It was about the search for a language that recognised the evil in banality.

For the older generation of committed left-wing playwrights like Sean O'Casey, who in 1964 attacked him almost with his dying breath in the last article he ever wrote, Pinter's strange dialogue ("like the hammering of a woodpecker's beak against the trunk of a tree") and apparent refusal of public meanings seemed like decadence. In fact, that language - hovering between idiocy and poetry, horror and comedy - was a profound response to the terrors of the 20th century.

For all Pinter's apparent contradictions, as time went on nothing seemed more obvious than the fierce political sensibility, the intense hatred of cruelty and violence, that fuelled his work. For a Jew growing up in the embattled East End of London, where fascism and anti-Semitism were immediate presences, it could hardly have been otherwise. When I interviewed him for The Irish Times in 1994, he recalled, as an adolescent, being sharply aware of the Holocaust and seeing photographs and newsreels of the concentration camps.

"By the time the war ended I was 15½. I wasn't a child any more. And then immediately the war ended, on top of that, the fascists came out again in London, which again is not a fact that is generally acknowledged.

"So I ran into them straight away between the ages of 16 and 17. Once again the taunt 'Jewboy' came up and related itself to what had just happened in Europe."

It was perhaps because this personal connection to politics was so obvious, so potentially crude, that Pinter needed to keep it at such a distance for so long. As an artist, he needed his work to be able to speak for itself, to protect it from being overwhelmed by the large historical forces to which it alluded.

In a letter in 1958 to the director of his first major play, The Birthday Party (whose plot, involving the abduction of a man by two sinister outsiders, has obvious echoes of the Gestapo) he wrote that "Everything to do with the play is in the play". For all his later evolution into a public activist, this remained true of the work itself, whose hermetic, sealed-in quality gave it the unsettling, dream-like feel that haunted the imagination.

In maintaining this distance, Pinter solved the profound problem of creating an artistic response to the Holocaust (and, in his early play The Hothouse, to Soviet repression) that did not trivialise mass murder by making it neatly comprehensible. He dissected banality without ever being banal. He rooted political sadism and cruelty in ordinary lives, in the power games that people play in their sexual and domestic relationships. In doing so, Pinter kept open the possibility of a political theatre that neither sacrifices the essential strangeness of art to the demands of polemic nor seeks refuge from large responsibilities in the pure play of forms.

He found ways of representing violence and terror without merely reproducing them, and of acknowledging the loss of meaning in the late 20th century without becoming meaningless.

If his dedication to this hard task became too spiky, too awkward and too uncompromisingly passionate for the English mainstream, it is to the credit of Irish culture that he found a kind of theatrical second home here in his later years.

As an actor, his first professional job was touring Ireland with Anew McMaster's repertory company. As a playwright, he learned from one Irishman, Beckett, and profoundly influenced another, Martin McDonagh. His beloved wife Lady Antonia Fraser is a niece of Lord Longford, who had a long association with the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

It was fitting that the Gate, under Michael Colgan, became his champion at a time when he had gone out of fashion, staging four large festivals of his work in 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2005, the last of which marked Pinter's 75th birthday.

The opening night last August of his No Man's Land in the same theatre gave him a fitting final bow. It was a sign that Irish audiences, like those around the world, had learned not to flinch from his ruthlessly honest evocation of man's inhumanity to man.