It may not be what you think.
Several months back, a colleague handed me a copy of the British journal The New Internationalist. The issue would interest me, she said, because it included a special section on U.S. prisons and because Harold Pinter had written an essay for it. (She knew I had long admired Pinter's plays.) I read the Pinter essay, finding to my surprise that it mentioned the stun belt and the restraint chair, two subjects I had reported on for The Progressive.
I wrote Pinter, requesting a couple of hours for an interview. He promptly agreed.
I first checked out a copy of The Caretaker from the library years ago, on the advice of a writing teacher. When I finished with that one, I returned and checked out all the Pinter plays on the shelves. I read them over the next few weeks, pausing to gasp at a particular music I soon realized was Pinter's own--simultaneously lyrical, hard-assed, implicitly brutal, and rhythmically dead-on.
His twenty-nine plays, which include The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Betrayal, Party Time, and One for the Road, have inspired the adjective "Pinteresque," which the Financial Times defined as "full of dark hints and pregnant suggestions, with the audience left uncertain as to what to conclude."
But Pinter might be reluctant to apply such a phrase to his own writing. "Once, many years ago, I found myself engaged uneasily in a public discussion on the theater," said Pinter on being awarded the 1970 German Shakespeare Prize. "Someone asked me what my work was 'about.' I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of enquiry: 'the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.' That was a great mistake. Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my own work. But for me the remark meant precisely nothing. Such are the dangers of speaking in public."
Pinter is also an actor, director, and screenwriter. Among his twenty-one screenplays are The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1969), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980), The Trial (1989), and The Tragedy of King Lear (2000).
Born in 1930, Pinter is also an outspoken human rights advocate. He has protested the NATO bombing of Serbia, the Gulf War and the bombing of Iraq since that time, the ill-treatment of U.S. prisoners, censorship, the U.S. role in Latin America, and the Turkish government's mistreatment of the Kurds. He has also demanded the release of Mordechai Vanunu--the Israeli citizen imprisoned for fourteen years because he told the British press that Israel had developed nuclear bombs.
I interviewed Pinter in his office in early December. Careful with his words, he often paused for a time before stating his opinion. He had an artist's caution about summing up or explaining his plays and an artist's enjoyment of craft talk. He expressed delight when demonstrating another actor's clever move. He was serious, but quick to laugh. And when talking about abuses of the state, he was passionate.
Just before I left, Pinter pulled two books from a high shelf and handed them to me. One was Celebration, his most recent play, which I had told him my library didn't own. The other was a book of screenplays which he said he was giving to me because I clearly admired The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Question: Early on, you didn't talk about some of your plays, like The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, or The Hothouse, as political. But more recently you've started to talk about them that way. Why?
Harold Pinter: Well, they were political. I was aware that they were political, too. But at that time, at whatever age I was--in my twenties--I was not a joiner. I had been a conscientious objector, you know, when I was eighteen. But I was a pretty independent young man, and I didn't want to get up on a soapbox. I wanted to let the plays speak for themselves, and if people didn't get it, to hell with it.
Q: Did you feel that if you got up on a soapbox it would take away from the art?
Pinter: Yeah, I thought it would, really. As I said, I thought the plays would speak for themselves. But they didn't.
Q: What was your experience like as a conscientious objector?
Pinter: I was quite resolute. This was 1948, I remind you. And I was simply not, absolutely not, going to join the army. Because I had seen the Cold War beginning before the hot war was over. I knew the atom bomb had been a warning to the Soviet Union. I had two tribunals and two trials. I was prepared to go to prison. I was eighteen. It was a civil offense, you know, not a criminal offense. I had the same magistrate at both trials, and he fined me twice. My father had to find the money, which was a lot of money at the time, but he did. But I took my toothbrush with me to court both times. I was prepared to go to prison.
And I haven't changed a bit, I have to say.
Q: And your family?
Pinter: They were very upset by it. My God, yes. I mean it was a disgrace. But they stood by me, nevertheless. You know, in those days, one did what one was told. This was national service; it was conscription. And that was that. You went into the army.
Q: What changed your way of approaching your plays?
Pinter: I changed myself. I became less and less reticent about saying what I felt, and therefore I was able to talk about the plays in a slightly different way, too.
I really did have a great jolt in 1973, when the Pinochet coup overthrew Allende. It really knocked me, as they say, for six. I was appalled and disgusted by it. And I knew how the CIA and the U.S. were behind the whole damn thing. And of course now, surprise, surprise, the documents come out confirming this.
So, anyway, in '73, that really jolted me into another kind of political life. Now what happened to my plays, I don't know. I've written plays which have nothing to do with politics, during the seventies, one or two. I've always had a number of lines going in my life. And I don't write plays, you know, to do with party politics.
You'll have to ask one of those professors how to define what I'm doing because it's difficult for me.
Q: But you are also concerned with power and powerlessness. That's political, isn't it?
Pinter: Oh, well, of course it is. If you can say that an exploration of power and powerlessness is in itself political, I think that I wouldn't argue with that. I think it's true.
Q: What about The Homecoming and The Caretaker? Do you feel that they express some of these issues--power and powerlessness?
Pinter: I don't really see either of them as political, as such. Here is a very true story. Terence Rattigan was quite a celebrated English playwright, and he said to me, "I know what The Caretaker is about." And he said something about "God, the Holy Ghost, and mankind." And I said, "No. It's about two brothers and a caretaker." You know, it's just, that's what it is. Certainly, the caretaker figure, as it were, is homeless. So it's about someone who has nowhere to go. But it's about I think three really dispossessed characters anyway. I don't know how political it is.
Q: There's a real sense of economic risk, though, because if he loses that house he's . . .
Pinter: . . . gone. Yeah, he's down the drain. Oh, yeah, that's absolutely right.
The Homecoming is, I believe, a play about family. And about misogyny, certainly, very much so. There's a production at the Comédie-Française. I've already seen a run-through of it. I thought it was pretty good. There's one very interesting piece of staging in the opening of the second act. You know, when they've all had lunch, the whole family, after he's insulted her like nobody's business, and the men come in smoking cigars and then she comes in with the younger brother and coffee and the men sit down and she serves every single man with coffee. It all happens in absolute silence. It's so clear.
Except, I'm happy to say, she turns the tables on all of them. That's my view. The whole damn bunch of them--by the end. Ruth at the end of the play is a really free woman, and nobody knows what to do about her. They're all blown over. I truly believe it's a feminist play.
The last time it was done here, at the National Theater about three years ago, it wasn't an entirely successful production for various reasons. But it did have one wonderful moment at the very end. You remember, she's sitting there with Joey, his head on her lap. And the old man is kneeling beside her, saying, "Kiss me." And Lenny, you know, the brother, is standing at the back. I just say, "Lenny stands watching." And this fellow who played Lenny, he was a very clever actor, very talented. All he did--normally Lenny stands watching--that's how I've always seen it, watching, thinking, "What the hell do we do now with her? We can't control her, period." This Lenny, however, did this. [Pinter stands up and starts to shift from foot to foot, looking back over his shoulder, then forward at an invisible Ruth.] There's a door there. He's going to slip out in a minute, and he just, he just shifted. It was brilliant. You saw immediately that, really, he knew he had no power over her whatsoever.
Whereas, the last French production I saw--not this one, but about four years ago--I went on the stage after and met the actors and director and actually protested, said they'd gotten something totally wrong. And they didn't seem to understand it. Because, what happened in this case, she was sitting here [indicates where Ruth would sit] and this Lenny fellow came behind her and put his hands on her shoulders: a possession. And I said, "That's ridiculous. He doesn't possess her in any sense." They'd really misunderstood that.
Anyway, I still think Ruth is a free, independent woman, and I've always liked her. And I think she is also pretty vulnerable. Of course she is. But she can take them on. And reduce them.
Q: You've talked about having an antagonistic relationship with your audience, as an actor--hating the audience, or "fuck the audience." Does that give you some freedom as an author also?
Pinter: Yeah, it's rather tempting to feel that. One of the greatest theatrical nights of my life was the opening of The Homecoming in New York. There was the audience. This was 1967. I'm not sure they've changed very much, but it really was your mink coats and suits. Money. And when the lights went up on The Homecoming, they hated it immediately: "Jesus Christ, what the hell are we looking at here?" I was there, and the hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it.
The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything they'd got. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in their tuxedos were just horrified and the women, because the actors just went [he makes the sound of an explosion]. I thought it was a great night. And that was a real example of a contest between the play and the audience. There's no question that the play won on that occasion, although that is not always the case.
I don't want to overstate the point. I mean, sometimes, if audiences are intelligent and receptive, then, of course, I like them!
Q: I was wondering about some of the plays like Mountain Language or One for the Road.
Pinter: They are much more overt political statements, I think.
Q: So the imagination has less free rein in that kind of play, then?
Pinter: No, it doesn't. The only way I can write is to let the imagination go, you know. But for example in Mountain Language, and perhaps to a certain extent in One for the Road, also, and Party Time, I have a certain sort of horrified relish in some of the characters, whom I actually, at the same time, find totally detestable. But when I say "relish," I mean I relish writing where they are appalling and presenting them fully, I hope. I mean, certainly in One for the Road and Mountain Language, there are brutal, brutal, brutal forces. And you have to let those forces speak for themselves--no holds barred.
So, if you say, "Is the imagination constrained?" the answer is no because I try to inhabit those ghastly characters.
But I always did, you know, going back to The Birthday Party many, many years ago, there's one called Goldberg, who is a real shit of the first order. I relished writing him.
Q: And in The Homecoming there are some like that.
Pinter: That's right. [He chuckles.]
Q: What do you enjoy about those characters?
Pinter: Well, I suppose, looking at their truth, finding what they really are, and not attempting to in any sense apologize for them, and certainly not to explain them--just to present them. And also to realize how finally impotent they are.
Incidentally, there is going to be a festival of my plays at the Lincoln Center next July, and I'm going to act the part of Nicholas in One for the Road. I will enjoy doing that as an actor, although I detest the character. He's a murderer. But I will enjoy just giving full value to his own ghastly richness.
Q: You've also written about conflict with your characters as a writer. What do you mean?
Pinter: When I said that, I think I was talking about if I attempt to stop them, they resist it. I think it is not fanciful or silly to say that the characters do start to possess their own life.
Q: Are you ever tempted not to write the character the way it wants to be written?
Pinter: No, not really. You do have a leash, finally, as a writer. You're holding a dog. You let the dog run about. But you finally can pull him back. Finally, I'm in control. But the great excitement is to see what happens if you let the whole thing go. And the dog or the character really runs about, bites everyone in sight, jumps up trees, falls into lakes, gets wet, and you let that happen. That's the excitement of writing plays--to allow the thing to be free but still hold the final leash.
Q: This appears on your web site. "In 1958, I wrote the following: 'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.' " But then you make the note, "I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen, I must ask: What is true? What is false?" Do these two ways of seeing and experiencing ever come into conflict for you?
Pinter: I don't think they do. It's slightly odd. When you are writing a work of fiction, you're inhabiting a very different kind of world from the world we actually live in every day of the week. It's simply different, the world of imagination. You can't make those determinations--about truth and lies--in what we loosely call a work of art. You've got to be open and explore. You've got to let the world find itself, speak for itself. Whereas, in the actual, practical, concrete world in which we live, it's very easy, from my point of view, to see a distinction between what is true and what is false. Most of what we're told is false. And the truth is, on the whole, hidden and has to be excavated and presented and confronted, all along the line.
But I think that even now what I'm saying is perhaps a little too hard and fast. There are, of course, correspondences between art and life, as there should be. There have to be. Otherwise, what does art mean? But it's very complex, the world of our imagination, and human life is very, very complex. Political issues don't seem to me to be at all complex.
Q: What do you mean by, "Mostly what we're told is false?"
Pinter: Well, in the so-called democracies in which we livethe word I believe is meaningless, the word "democracy."
Q: Meaningless in the way it plays out?
Pinter: In the way it is played out, yes.
Q: So, as an idea . . .
Pinter: No, no. [He laughs.] It's an awfully good idea. I think we are mostly told lies. Or, where we are not told lies, we are told a lot of bullshit. The actual propaganda of our democracies is palpably hypocritical. Who are they kidding? The trouble is, they do manage to kid an awful lot of people. That's a terrible thing.
My dear father, who died at the age of ninety-six, was a great guy. He was a very vigorous man. But nevertheless, I do remember him saying, "But it says so in the papers. I'm saying that because it said so in the paper." And I believe the complicity is a fact--the complicity between government, business, and media, which few people care to contemplate. I think that the structures of power essentially treat people with contempt because that's the way they survive. But they say the opposite. They say, "We love you." It's the Orwellian thing: "We're taking the greatest care of you."
Even while they're torturing them, they're saying, "We love you. Please trust us and rely upon us." And what appalls me is, "We're looking after your best interests by torturing you."
You know T. S. Eliot said something about, "Don't expect serenity from old men." Well, you certainly won't get it from me, because I have become more and more disgusted by that kind of lie.
Q: What kind of torture are you talking about?
Pinter: All kinds of torture, including the torture you've written about, and so have I, in American prisons. I'm not really saying that the United States would assert that they are looking after the best interests of the two million people in prison. But they would say they are looking after the best interests of society. And they're not. They're not by a very long way. They're doing something quite different. They are suppressing a great body of people, you know, thousands upon thousands for obviously very minor offenses--very small drug offenses and so on. The proportion of black prisoners is extraordinary, and recently with the whole question of Florida, the number of black voters who are actually disenfranchised in a number of ways is quite eloquent, I think, as to what's going on in your country.
Mind you, I don't have much to say about my own country.
Q: Yeah, we'll get to your own country. But actually, I think to have someone like you from Britain writing in The New Internationalist about U.S. prisons might surprise even our readers. I'm wondering how you got involved in that issue.
Pinter: I gradually knew more and more about it as I made investigations. I do have friends in America, one or two who do, believe me, keep me well up-to-date and well informed. They're pretty beleaguered, I have to say.
Q: Leftwingers, you mean?
Pinter: Yeah, yeah. Beleaguered, lonely, but they are there, you know. So I've been kept up on the developments, and I've read a lot about what's happened in American prisons in the last ten or twenty years. But I also, of course, have read the Amnesty report from two years ago, with the stun belt, the restraint chairs. And then I made a number of speeches here about it. Because I think it's not just a U.S. domestic affair with nothing to do with anybody else. Not at all. Since the U.S. makes so many pronouncements about the world it sees before it, I think I am entitled to make pronouncements about what actually is taking place in the United States.
Q: Do you have any qualms about making statements about the U.S.?
Pinter: I don't have any qualms. People don't like it--here they don't like it.
Pinter: Oh, I'm notorious.
Q: They don't like it here?
Pinter: No, no, no, because I have become, I have to tell you . . . I used the word "notorious." I don't have to be romantic about it. The fact is, I am quite unpopular. Because you have to get the special relationship between Britain and the United States. Everything the United States does is good, et cetera, et cetera. Well, I don't take that view at all.
I thought that the Gulf War was a disgrace. And I thought the NATO bombing of Serbia was another disgrace, to put it mildly.
I was asked to make a speech during the bombing of Serbia at the Institute of Jungian Psychiatrists. And I said to the fellow who asked me, the president of the organization, "Why do you want me to make a speech?" He knew where I stood. He said, "Well, I think they'll be interested."
In short, I did write a speech. It was all about what had happened, in my view, why it was happening, what it was doing, what it was representing, and with specific reference to the terms "humanitarian intervention," "humanitarian values," "civilized values." And then I gave a long account of the U.S. penal system--the restraint chair, the stun belts, the stun guns, the death penalty. And I have to tell you--there were 250 people packed into the place--nobody said, "This isn't relevant." I was attacked on a number of other grounds, but not on that ground, because they all saw.
It was simply that you use the term "humanitarian intervention" while you have two million people in your own prisons, who you treat in the main with absolute contempt. And then the same state says, "We are now acting from a humanistic point of view." I think the rhetoric is serious crap.
So I'm always looking for those schisms between language and action, what you say and what you do. This is where I find constant sources of curiosity and disgust.
Q: OK, now about your country: Do you feel that the Labor Party has betrayed its radical promise?
Pinter: Yeah, absolutely, all along the line. I feel it very, very strongly. I mean, this country is now being really sold down the river, quite apart from what's happening in foreign policy.
Q: What do you mean?
Pinter: The privatization of this country, it's difficult to digest. Our railways are privatized now. Since they've been privatized, and in the last eighteen months, there have been two appalling accidents. I mean, unbelievable. Two crashes, which have killed roughly sixty people. And this is to do with safety measures which are not taken because they say they can't afford it. There's no profit in safety. It's the same as factories. Safety provisions are simply not taken because they cost money, and who cares anyway? The railways are in the most appalling state. It's a total scandal in this country.
Water, here, has also been privatized. And it really is the case that in many parts of the country when there's a drought, which there was here last year, people were paying more, desperately, for their water. Their water rates went up, you understand. And the water trickled through. There was no proper provisional care for the distribution of water, which is rather important, whereas the directors of these companies walked away with millions of pounds. And the same applies to the Railtrack. These directors, after having fucked the whole system up through negligence and indifference, they go away with twenty-seven million pounds. And they play golf.
This is what this government has actually developed from the Thatcher years. Because this government is interested only in big business. It makes all the noises about the money it's spending on this, that, or the other thing. All public services are a shambles here. They're falling apart. So I think politics in this country has been a bum steer for many years.
Q: Did anything happen to you early on that changed your life?
Pinter: I don't know. I don't know really. How the hell can I say what changed my life or affected my life?
Perhaps all I can tell you is that at the age of thirteen I fell madly in love. I was quite precocious, and I fell in love with a girl who lived on my street. And it wasn't her fault, but I became very unhappy. I mean, we had a certain kind of relationship, very young. But I think the fact that she was inevitably going to go on to others and wasn't going to be mine forever . . .
I was writing a lot of poetry to do with precisely that. My father was a tailor, you know. He used to get up very, very early in the morning to go to work. And one day, he came down and found me. This was about six-thirty in the morning, or something like that. And there I was, sitting at the kitchen table, writing, I think I was almost in tears. And he said, "What are you doing?" quite gruff. And I said, "I don't know, Dad. I don't know what I'm doing." He took what I was writing and looked at it. Then he gave it back to me and just patted me on the head and went to work. He never referred to it again. He didn't say, "Oh, put that rubbish away," or anything like that. He just knew that I was going through the anguish of love. And I always loved him for that.
Q: Who are some of your heroes? Do you have them?
Pinter: [Laughs.] James Joyce. Yeah. I love Ulysses. Johann Sebastian Bach. And one or two others.
Q: Is it for their art?
Pinter: Yeah. And their independence. Nobody knows much about Bach, but my God, he just did what he did with music. It's like nobody else's.