16 June 2005

[Pause] for reflection on Harold Pinter

"The Life and Work of Harold Pinter" by Michael Billington

This is a thoughtful and admirably complete survey of Pinter's life and career so far, even if it betrays the signs of being an "authorized" biography. I say so far because the author makes it very plain that Pinter is far from a spent force, either creatively or politically.

Given the boring and almost ritualistic bollocking (a very Pinteresque word) he receives in the British press every time Pinter signs a petition or attends a protest, the book comes on like a stern corrective, exposing the thoughtless double standard for what it is. Far from being a relatively recent fashionable pose taken by a celebrity intellectual, Billington makes clear that Pinter's political outspokenness is an organic consequence of his work in the theatre, which was essentially political from the start. Pinter's plays have followed a slow arc since the late fifties from the domestic to the more specifically political, but the overriding concern has been the same - the potential for language to conceal rather than to reveal meaning, even to corrupt our need to hope that transparency between people is attainable. Hope for Pinter lies in the potential for resistance to this process through imaginative identification with the sufferings of others.

If I have a criticism, it is the author's tendency to overstatement in sometimes irritating contrast to his subject's famous economy. Also, that equivalence between personal intimate action and political reality comes a little too easy. I mean what does the phrase "sexual Fascism" (p. 377) mean? I suspect that a victim of actual political Fascism might find that glib metaphor offensive. Such phrases, which appear here and there in the book, are an example of the verbal laziness that Pinter himself spends so much time fighting. However, thanks are due to this author for constant emphasis on the actual performance of Pinter's texts, whether written for the screen or the theatre. Billington's comment and analysis of the performances are always insightful and interesting.

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