Harold Pinter's pen betrays his normalcy
GIG HARBOR, WASHINGTON — Normalcy: It's a wallflower during the ball, but it almost always gets the last waltz.
Recent proof of this universal truth is reflected in the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to British playwright Harold Pinter. The master of menacing drama is revealed to be a fan of normalcy, of a most charming kind.
And therein lies a profound contradiction.
First, the work. Domination and submission are Mr. Pinter's themes. As The New York Times puts it, by depicting "the violence - emotional, physical, sexual or psychological - that human beings visit upon one another," Pinter portrays "the contagion of abuse in human experience." The Nobel announcement cites Pinter as an artist who "uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms."
While other artists address these themes, what makes Pinter singular is how he illuminates that precipice under the prattle - with signature pauses and silences - and uses language to convey the futility of communication. Making miscommunication even more chilling, and making what director Peter Hall calls "brisk, hostile repartee" more hostile, are the seemingly normal settings of his plays: living rooms and kitchens. Pinter himself says he writes about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." If you've attended a Pinter play, you've felt the weasel.
And yet, and yet: Writing for the Guardian the day he received news of the Nobel, Pinter sounded positively tickled with the "invasion" of friends "communicating" their congratulations "all day long." What a surprise: In all his oeuvre, true friends, if not altogether absent, would be fodder for domination.
Even more surprising, given the misogyny in his work, Pinter waxed lyrical about his wife, historian Lady Antonia Fraser. Describing their breakfast tableau, he writes, with a dramatist's specificity: "Antonia's act of passing the cranberry juice to me is an act of married love." Referring presumably to the cancer he's fighting, he ends: "I should say that, without her, I couldn't have coped over the last few years. I'm a very lucky man in every respect."
Indeed. What a paean to normalcy! Who knew that under the prattle lay not a precipice (nor a weasel), but love, gentleness, communion, and seemingly perfect communication. Who knew another kind of Pinter drama - "Harold (pause) Adores Antonia" - existed?
How unlike the tableau in "The Homecoming," one of his most famous plays. In it, a son brings his wife home to meet his father and brothers for the first time. Things turn ugly when the father and brothers proposition the wife. The variation on Pinter's themes this time is that while the son submits, the wife not only reacts as willing object but manipulates her new power to dominate the household.
Moral as well as artistic kudos are conferred on these dramas. One critic claims Pinter's "greatest moral concern" is "his compassion for the suffering individual and outrage at the violence done to him." But moral credit is too great a claim. In "The Homecoming," in all his "comedies of menace," where is the compassion, the outrage on behalf of that suffering individual? Why are women referred to in demeaning terms? If Pinter can be said to "force entry into oppression's closed rooms," he does so only to create more oppression. Where are his antagonists who beat it back?
By contrast, oppression clearly does not exist in Pinter's own kitchen. (If it did, the cranberry juice would fly.) The question becomes then: Why the contradiction? Where is the daylight in Pinter's work that shines in his life? Pinter may have found the daylight through the suffering of illness or old age, but one suspects he's reaped the joys of normalcy with Antonia for at least a quarter-century, which makes his plays' pathology ... optional.
One could argue, as French writer Gustave Flaubert did, that the artist can best examine life's dark side from the safe harbor of normalcy, but why not offer some evidence of that safe harbor in the work?
This contradiction is no academic point. One reason is Pinter's enormous influence in the theater. Drama is about "making choices": Our characters choose one action over another to get what they want; the director and actors make choices interpreting the text. Thanks largely to Pinter, pathology is seen as the "tougher," more "honest" choice, while normal behaviors are "sentimental." In this context, going with normal requires stifling our inner murderer. And then Pinter himself turns "sentimental" with a kitchen scene extolling married love? Theatrically, it doesn't "play."
More far-reaching is the moral model rewarded. The legitimate model is normalcy, the ultimate lesson Life teaches Art. That normalcy is debunked while moral kudos (and a Nobel) are conferred on those engaging in "the contagion of abuse" is an upside-down state of affairs - a state aptly captured by another Nobelist, poet Czeslaw Milosz:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons,
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.
Given the stakes - the seeming disintegration of the world - which moral model prevails is vital. Pinter himself says, "I think the world is going down the drain, if we're not very careful." Indeed; but how best to take care?
Taking a cue from Milosz, whose poem fittingly is titled "A Task": The task of citizens (and artists, too) is to shake the "lost" feeling, pronounce "pure and generous words," and beat back the weasel that roams in today's world everywhere. Antagonists, unite!
• Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and is working on a new play, "Prodigal."