THE THEATRE OF WAR
Interview with Harold Pinter, by Mark Brown
Meeting Harold Pinter in his West London study is, on first impressions, to step into the world of any septuagenarian, intellectual Englishman. The shelves copiously supplied with plays, novels and poetry, the exhaustive collection of the cricket bible Wisden and the large impressionist painting of a cricket match suggest little of an undimmed and tenacious radicalism which makes the playwright a deeply-felt thorn in the flesh of the British establishment.
His excoriating, disquieting theatrical style has become embedded in the public consciousness, giving rise to the notion of the ‘Pinteresque’ in modern drama. Now, however, and with less flattering intent, his strident political views have been formalised in the language. David Aaronovitch, pro-war columnist on the Independent, recently alluded to a phenomenon which he called ‘Pinterism’, a political doctrine which he seemed unable to differentiate from the supposed ‘anti-Americanism’ of which opponents of the war in Afghanistan are routinely accused.
“In terms of the use of my name, whether as an adjective or a noun, I never think about it, that’s the truth,” says Pinter. “The way Aaronovitch used it, and what he meant by it, I thought was simply stupid. So I pay even less attention. This is the glib kind of journalism we have here; I find it almost beneath contempt. It’s in a tradition of English press mockery which I’ve run into so much that it’s like water off a duck’s back. In other words, I don’t give a shit.”
The dramatist talks about his media detractors with an engaging combination of contemptuous disregard and humour. He is well practised – the list of press attacks upon him is long.
The most recent cause célèbre came when an article in the Guardian transformed his opposition to the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague into support for the former Serbian dictator. Such manipulation is, for Pinter, “the usual illogic and distortion. I was actually quoted in the Guardian as saying, ‘Milosevic is innocent’, which I’ve never said. I haven’t said he’s guilty, and I haven’t said he’s innocent, but there it was in black and white. The Guardian had to apologise for that, of course.”
That famous case was not the only recent apology he has received from the press. The Guardian (again) had to issue an apologetic notice to both Pinter and the campaigning journalist John Pilger following an attack in its pages by the formerly radical columnist Christopher Hitchens. The Washington-based writer had asserted, as Pinter explains, “that Pilger and I had said that the Americans ‘had it (the September 11 attacks) coming to them’, when neither he nor I had said that”.
The truth of the dramatist’s opinions on both The Hague tribunal and the current global crisis is, as one might expect, somewhat more sophisticated than suggested in London’s leading liberal newspaper. Far from contending that Milosevic is innocent or should not go to trial, Pinter’s problem is with the nature of the processes at The Hague.
“Milosevic was abducted illegally,” he argues. “If you have a trial about to take place, which is supposed to be legal, and the man who is the subject of the trial is abducted illegally, then it renders the whole thing highly suspect in the first place.”
Nor is he opposed to the idea of an international tribunal. “I think the idea of an international court of criminal justice is a very good one, a real one, through the United Nations and by common consent throughout the world.” The problem, says Pinter, is that the United States opposes such a tribunal. “I’ve been very amused to find that there’s been a new law passed by Congress which says that should any American citizen ever be arraigned by such a court, the Americans have the right to send in the military,” he says. “Right into the court room, and take him out, and clearly shoot everyone in sight if anyone tries to get in the way. It’s shameless; they’re not hiding their light under a bushel these days.”
His ‘amusement’ at this situation says much about the man. He has been fighting against the powers that be for so long that nothing they do surprises him. During our conversation, he pauses occasionally to laugh at the explanations our rulers offer for world events and the justifications they put forward for their actions.
Where the September 11 atrocities in the US are concerned, he believes that, “The idea that it was an arbitrary and gratuitous act is ridiculous. It was an act of retaliation. So against what? If that is not examined, then doom really is round the corner.”
He argues that the US is guilty, from the Vietnam War to the military action and sanctions against Iraq, of “a use of power and force in so many countries which has resulted in the deaths of what really does amount to millions of people.” He believes, therefore, that it was “juvenile and ridiculous” to believe that the US would not eventually fall victim to a devastating revenge attack. This position, as both the Guardian and Hitchens now acknowledge, is an attempt to explain, rather than to justify, the events of September 11.
For many, however, even such explanation is beyond the pale. These are, after all, the days of moral absolutism in which George W Bush can proclaim: “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Any attempt to understand the crisis in terms other than “good versus evil” is seen by some as tantamount to treachery.
It is such an atmosphere, Pinter suspects, which led to the decision not to broadcast a recent interview he gave for the BBC’s Newsnight programme. Speaking after the attacks in the US, he gave his thoughts on the historical and political background to the events. He asked the programme’s producers to let him know when the piece would be broadcast, but no call came.
“I called them up and asked what had happened to the interview,” he explains, “and the chap said: ‘Oh, I don’t know, we’ve got such a backlog of stuff, there is so much going on. I’m sure it’ll come out.’ It’s never seen the light of day.”
The writer’s suspicions about the broadcast are entirely valid. Newsnight has confirmed to Scotland on Sunday that a space was not found in the schedule for the interview and that they do not intend to show it in future programmes.
Some will view the decision not to broadcast as suppression of a prominent voice of dissent. Many will consider it a worrying sign of a lack of journalistic courage on the part of the BBC following Director General Greg Dyke’s apology for the screening of the Question Time on which criticism of US foreign policy was aired during a discussion of the September 11 attacks.
Whatever Newsnight’s reasons for pulling the Pinter interview, the decision seems to say something profound about British culture. It is, surely, unimaginable that a French national TV network, for example, would treat one of its country’s leading cultural figures in such a way. If not journalistic cowardice, the incident would seem, at the very least, to reflect a peculiarly British disregard for the intellectual.
Certainly Newsnight could not have been taken aback by the criticisms of US foreign policy which the playwright made in the interview. His opposition to American and British interventions throughout the world is both long-established and unequivocal. He is, for example, a prominent supporter of Glasgow Kelvin MP George Galloway’s campaign for an end to sanctions and bombing in Iraq, a campaign he feels is of even greater significance in the new global circumstances.
Alluding to the reported figures of over a million Iraqi dead, including more than 500,000 children, over the last decade, Pinter argues: “The facts of the matter cannot be denied. They’ve been attested to by everyone in sight, including two UN inspectors, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who have resigned out of disgust.” Of the US/British Iraq policy he says: “What they’ve been doing is barbaric. So if Bush and Blair are fighting for civilisation, it’s a barbaric civilisation.”
Like Galloway, he is equally scathing where the war in Afghanistan is concerned. “There seems to me no question that the bombing of Afghanistan is not for the reason stated,” he asserts, “which is to find bin Laden, because they’re not going to do that. They’re just going to f**k up Afghanistan even more, whatever happens.” He believes that the conflict gives the US “a real foot in Central Asia, and the Caspian oil ground, which is enormous. They’re looking for power in that territory, power in oil. Once they get that, they really will be running the world in no uncertain terms, which, let’s face it, they’re almost doing now.”
Like so much of his conversation, Pinter’s views on the Afghan war reflect a political and moral certainty which is entirely at odds with the halting, wildly erratic discourse of most of the characters in his plays. Nevertheless, there is a glass sharpness to his own language which is akin to that of his creations.
By his own admission, he feels more comfortable discussing major world issues than deconstructing his plays. Like many dramatists, he seems to believe that his stage works should speak for themselves.
“I find it very difficult to analyse my own work, in any reference really,” he acknowledges. He is, nevertheless, willing to share his thoughts on my suggestion that the unsettling language of his sinisterly domestic plays has profound political implications. “I know what you mean about the use of violence and power in my plays. I’m sure that is so,” he says. “In the broadest sense, there are political reverberations. I do believe my earlier plays were quite strongly political, like The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Hothouse. They’ve gone through various modes of operation, and of discovery and exploration.”
As for No Man’s Land, the 1975 play which he is directing in a new production at the National Theatre, he sees a more existentialist basis to the enigmatic, darkly hilarious dialogue. Centred on two men in their sixties, originally played by Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud, its creator discusses it in terms reminiscent of the plays of Beckett, whose influence on Pinter is undoubted.
“I don’t think No Man’s Land is a political play,” he says. “I’m directing it now, and finding it anew with the actors, and enjoying it. I think it’s certainly about a lot of things, but I find it a comedy about death, in which one man prefers to die and another refuses to die.”
This said, he takes it almost as read that the use of threatening language and the dramatic volte-face gives the play an additional, social dimension. “Naturally, it’s also about the ways in which power relations shift quite drastically and radically from one moment to the next in our lives. I feel I could actually join that reference to the political life in which we live every day, but I wouldn’t want to strain it in relation to No Man’s Land. But I think that a lot of my work, one way or another, is political. I don’t see how it could be avoided really.”
Pinter’s theatre, like Beckett’s, is notoriously difficult to pin down. Whilst more specifically set than most of the Irishman’s dramas, the English playwright’s works have an abstract, universal quality which tends to trouble and fixate audiences. While critics stretch the evaluative lexicon in their attempts to describe the peculiar power of his theatre, he distinguishes his plays from those of more directly political playwrights in the most modest terms.
“I’ve never written a play about political parties,” he notes. Taking the example of David Hare, he adds: “I think some of his investigations into those states of affairs are very fruitful actually. But I can’t do that, so I just get on and come on to what happens to our lives from a range of perspectives.”
Hare isn’t the only modern playwright for whom Pinter expresses admiration. Young Scottish writer Gregory Burke’s maiden work Gagarin Way, which took this year’s Edinburgh Fringe by storm and which returns to the National Theatre early next month, impressed him. He praises its linguistic pointedness, but expresses some doubts about its physical element.
“I was very interested to see Gagarin Way,” he says. “I thought it was very good. But I had mixed feelings about the actual killing of the man. It was logical and I saw that and respected that. But, at the same time, I wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t killed him. In a way, I’m not sure the point of the play is the killing of the man.”
Although he is too modest to say so, there is a profound compliment in Pinter’s plaudit for Burke’s drama, an implicit recognition of a certain similarity between the searing language of the Scottish writer’s work and his own. Ask him to speak further on the fundamental influence of such defamiliarising words in the theatre, however, and one finds oneself back in the political terrain which is his natural habitat.
“In terms of language, there’s the old saying that ‘you can’t beat life’, that you can’t rival it in the theatre,” he suggests. “When Pinochet was here under house arrest, Mrs Thatcher went to see him for tea. She was reported as saying: ‘General, I want to thank you for bringing democracy to Chile.’ If you look at that sentence, it is actually grotesque. Pinochet didn’t bring democracy to Chile, he overthrew democracy and went on to torture and kill 3,000 to 4,000 people. He created a hell in that country, which she calls democracy and by democracy she means it was very good for business.”
No matter how terrifying the language of his drama, it is clear that Pinter considers the establishment, which is the subject of his enduring and undiminished rage, to be the author of the most appalling vernacular of all. “We have a use of language which is very frightening, because it’s actually turning reality upside down,” he observes, expressing his disgust that weapons such as daisy cutters and cluster bombs, “both of which tear people apart”, should be “regarded as symbols of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’.”
For those in positions of power in this country and in the United States, to be so attacked by Britain’s greatest living playwright is a departure from the script. We should not be surprised, however. If we want to see a startlingly subversive break from temperate social norms we need only look to Harold Pinter’s plays.
This interview was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 25 November 2001
© Mark Brown