When Harold Pinter died in 2008, I wrote a short piece for The Nation about his legacy from an American playwright's point of view.
One of the issues that I addressed in this essay was Pinter's sharp political turn after 1975's No Man's Land. Early in his career, Pinter fiercely resisted the notion of fixing definite meanings -- let alone politics -- to his plays. I even quoted his 1970 speech accepting the German Shakespeare Prize (reprinted in the fourth volume of his Complete Works), which seems to attack not only that process of criticism but even the notion of collective political theatre which is Belarus Free Theatre's very reason for existence:
I am not concerned with making general statements. I am not interested in theater used simply as a means of self-expression on the part of the people engaged in it. I find in so much group theater, under the sweat and assault and noise, nothing but valueless generalizations, naïve and quite unfruitful.
What happened to Pinter's work after 1980 or so is also part of history. Many of his dramatic works became explicitly political. He took up writing poetry that was so corrosive in its political views that the verse not only corroded the target but in many ways ate away at itself.
Indeed, Pinter's speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature was one of the most political speech of any such address. Much of the attention of newspapers was on the playwright's full-scale (and in many ways, quite accurate) assault on U.S. foreign policy, but many involved in the theatre were looking carefully about what Pinter said about his art.
They were not to be disappointed. Pinter's speech said a lot about the distinctions he drew between a sort of general or artistic drama and political drama. About the former, Pinter stated:
Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
The playwright of 1970, then. But Pinter quickly draws a different line for what he calls "political theatre":
Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always work. And political satire, of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.
My argument (in The Nation and in general) is that Pinter never solved the "entirely different set of problems" in his political theatre. Plays like One for the Road and Mountain Language are smart, savage, and powerful -- but they do "sermonise" and they are not objective and one never feels that the characters are "breathing their own air," but rather that they are speaking with Pinter's breath.
Let me state here my own position, so that it's clear. As a playwright with strong political beliefs -- a slender sliver rightward of Pinter might be the best way to nutshell it -- I am in favor of politically-engaged theatre. It's necessary. For me, the questions are (a) how effective is political theatre as theatre? and (b) how effective is political theatre as engaged political intervention?
Unlike Pinter, I don't want to divide the two genres. I want One for the Road to be a dramatic work that's as skilled and sublime as The Homecoming. The playwright should, too. And when I measure them, that's my yardstick. But as a politically-engaged playwright, I'm also at looking how the plays I watch articulate a political worldview. I can admire the skill of a play and still find it wanting in common humanity or dislike it for expressing a political view I find insidious.
In essence, I want one theatre -- engaging on both a human and a political level, because both levels so intertwined. Humans may indeed have simple desires, but in their encounter with society, and then again back in inside ourselves as we collide with and conspire with society -- these simple desires play out in wildly dizzying complexity. I want complex human and progressive politics -- not agitprop and Lehrstücke. (A tall order, yes. But we can aspire to it, and achieve less than it, and still bring clarity and change to our lives and to our politics.)
This has been a long and winding path -- sorry 'bout that -- to examining Belarus Free Theatre's Being Harold Pinter -- which was read with such verve and technical polish by an engaged group of DC actors including organizer Leigh Jameson, Eric Messner, Matthew R. Wilson, Mark Krawcyzk, Ian Armstrong, Will Gartshore, Rana Kay and Marni Penning -- on January 17 at Theater J in Washington DC.
The piece was written by Vladimir Shcherban, but most of it is excerpts from Pinter -- from the Nobel speech and plays ranging widely over his career from the Homecoming to Mountain Language. The cleverness of Shcherban's adaption of Pinter is in its concision and strategic deployment of Pinter's work. The pieces moves elegantly but powerfully from the inside out -- touching first on the familial violence of The Homecoming to the searing sexual traumas of Ashes to Ashes to the Pinter's plays on torture and the state. Near the end of the play, Shcherban allows Belarusian activists to speak about their sufferings under government harassment before allowing Pinter some last words.
It was a powerful experience, even as a reading, and it left me with the following thoughts:
* Pinter's early work is sublime -- and in retrospect, can be read politically. Trusting writers speaking about their own work is a perilous game. Trusting writers reflecting back over a career with early statements that they must somehow walk back in light of later growth or change in position/situation is even more fraught with peril. And great writers like Pinter abhor being reduced to one meaning. (Think about those "multiple truths" that he points to in the Nobel speech.) But as I noted above Shcherban's skillful use of Pinter's early work to draw a cohesive picture of political violence rooted in the violence of family and sex is tremendous. Pinter's early work is clearly useful and inspires complex and human political thought -- even if there are other (competing/complementary/annihilating) truths working within these plays.
* Pinter's political plays pack more of a punch than I expected. Though I have not changed my own feelings about Pinter's political turn and its effect on his writing (its shaving down of operational truths within the plays), there is no doubt that in our own moment --a moment in which the perpetrators of torture in the U.S. government have openly admitted their actions and still walk our streets with impunity with no comprehensive investigation by the subsequent administration -- plays like One for the Road and Mountain Language should be the repertory of American theatres across the country. These plays clarify and advance a discussion which truly deserves the much-abused labels of "urgent" and "necessary."
* I found the reading of testimony by Belarusian activists less compelling than readings from Pinter. Well, duh. They are activists, not Nobel-winning playwrights. And the readers, to their credit, did a marvelous job, even improvising Slavic accents on the spot to differentiate the testimonies.
Indeed, that last observation may hold the key not only to why I found that part of the play less compelling -- but why the play as a whole (particularly in its own context in Belarus) -- is a wonderful and moving example of theatre that can satisfy artistically and move politics forward.
Hearing Pinter in English and hearing the voice of Belarusian activists in English was not the intention of the playwright. What a member of an audience in Belarus was likely to hear was a translation of Pinter into Belarusian and then the weaving of Belarusian voices into the mix. It would be a much more seamless experience, though I imagine much of Pinter's craft survived translation.
Yet the audacity of Shcherban and the Belarus Free Theatre in grabbing one of the most powerful playwrights in English -- his savagery, his humanity and his passion -- and making it their own is precisely the intention here. Not only is it brilliant, but it is also theater at its most political and most human. Being Harold Pinter hijacks Pinter and allies him with the condition of "being" in Belarus. And also the condition of "being" anywhere. That's why it's powerful work.
(Photo of Pinter taken from the Charter 97 website: http://charter97.org/en/news/2008/12/29/13512/)