Wednesday, January 07, 2009

welcome to our tiny club

I see that in addition to John Simon and myself, Johann Hari is not overly impressed by the work of Harold Pinter - welcome to our tiny club!

Although the bit about Pinter being a supporter of Milosevic is news to me.

There are two arguments against Pinter - one literary, the other political - and they are both hard to make, because in amongst the screw-ups Pinter has some undeniable achievements. Harold Pinter has one literary accomplishment: he imported the surrealism of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Luis Bunel into the staid English theatre. As the critic Irving Wardle put it, in his first play 'The Birthday Party', Pinter showed "how a banal Blackpool boarding house could open up to the horrors of modern history." The play shows a man, Stanley, hiding out in a dank Blackpool boarding house, only for two torturers to track him down. His landlady, Meg, is oblivious to the violence smashing through her own home. At their best, his plays are like a nightmarish stress-dream: unbearably primal, raw expressions of menace and fear, whose meaning is always just beyond our grasp.

But with Samuel Beckett, you always know there is an elaborate existentialist philosophy underneath the darkness and chaos. With Pinter, if you turn on the light and switch off the atmospherics, you find... nothing, except a few commonplace insights: Torture is Bad and Resistance is Good. Pinter himself says "the most important line I've ever written" is when Meg's husband calls out, as Stanley is taken away, "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do." The playwright said of this unobjectionable, obvious platitude, "I've lived that line all my damn life. Never more than now." It's depressingly revealing: Pinter's staccato sinisterness does not illustrate a point; it distracts the audience from the fact his point is so banal.

Yet Pinter has been protected by an elderly critical establishment so invested in creating and building up his reputation that they cannot admit how feeble most of his plays now look. (I assume nobody at all takes the poetry seriously). When I saw 'The Homecoming' - a revoltingly misogynistic work - in the West End a few years ago, the audience kept laughing in all the wrong places. It literally looked ridiculous, yet it was given respectful - and in some cases fawning - write-ups.

More at the Huffington Post