When Pinter should have paused for effect

Special to The Times

HAROLD PINTER, perhaps Britain’s greatest modern playwright and winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature, presented his Nobel lecture last month. Despite his reputation as a master of dark, absurdist comedy, Pinter’s speech -- which has since been widely reprinted -- can only be described as tragic.

The first tragedy of Pinter’s speech was that he could not deliver it in person. Pinter has been battling throat cancer for some time. A week before the award presentation, doctors refused to give him permission to travel to Sweden, so he recorded the lecture in a London television studio. The video was shown for the Swedish Academy at a ceremony on Dec. 7.

The day before the ceremony, Pinter was admitted to the hospital. Rumors about his deteriorating health have only increased since the playwright was awarded the Nobel Prize on Oct. 13. Thanks to makeup, Pinter looks better on camera than he did back in October, when he wore bandages on his face and walked with a cane while speaking to reporters outside his London home; but the video (which can be downloaded on the Nobel Prize website) forces one to acknowledge the severity of Pinter’s illness. He delivers the lecture to a camera while seated in a wheelchair. His voice is hoarse and his speech is labored. Getting words out, to say nothing of breathing or swallowing, seems to be a major task.


This is sad, not simply because it confirms fears about Mr. Pinter’s health, but also because Harold Pinter is not just a fine playwright, he is also a fine stage actor. He has a commanding stage presence and an equally commanding use of spoken English. Had Pinter’s health allowed him to deliver this lecture in person in Stockholm, there is no doubt that it would have been a performance to remember -- even though the text of Pinter’s lecture did not approach the power or subtlety of his plays.

This is the second tragedy of Pinter’s Nobel lecture: that after seven minutes of talking about his work in an illuminating fashion, Pinter devotes the following 39 minutes to a rant against U.S. foreign policy.

To anyone familiar with Pinter’s politics, this anti-Americanism is no surprise. Indeed, he hinted back in October that he might use the Nobel podium to “address the state of the world,” and his lecture titled “Art, Truth, and Politics” contains many of the same issues (U.S. policy in Nicaragua, the use of cluster bombs, the war in Iraq) that Pinter has been speaking out against for years.

If there was any surprise in his speech it is that he was more dismissive of his native Great Britain, which he describes as “pathetic and supine,” than the United States, which he has previously compared to Nazi Germany. Pinter’s disdain for Tony Blair was not a surprise (he once called the prime minister a “deluded idiot”); however, the lecture’s one coup de theatre was when the playwright called on the International Criminal Court to arraign Mr. Blair. Pinter then added: “We can let the Court have his address if they’re interested. It is Number 10 Downing Street, London.”

This might have made for a real theatrical moment had Pinter delivered it in front of a live audience -- if nothing else it would have been a bona-fide laugh line. But as recorded on video, the gag felt rehearsed and labored, sort of like a candidate reciting an old joke that he’s been using for months on the campaign trail.

Certainly, many of the points Pinter makes are accurate and deserve attention, but the scope of his lecture feels limited. Interestingly, the two nations he rails against -- while guilty of spinning language to obscure the truth -- have not officially silenced, imprisoned or fined those who have spoke out against their foreign policies, while, at the same time Pinter was recording his lecture, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who was widely believed to be the front runner for this year’s literary Nobel, was preparing to be tried by his own government for speaking out against atrocities that took place 90 years ago. Pinter does not address this, nor does he ever widen his view of the world’s forces of oppression beyond the U.S. and Tony Blair. Because of this, his lecture offers little that is new or freshly persuasive about art, truth or politics.


WHAT’S sad is that, unlike many writers and artists whose political expressions are best forgotten (1920 Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, 1948 laureate T.S. Eliot, for example), Pinter has shown creativity and courage in work that says interesting things about modern-day politics. Much of his writing from the past two decades has been at least somewhat political, but the best example is his last published dramatic work, “Press Conference,” a short, biting piece that shows the playwright’s outrage as well as his dark sense of humor.

The Nobel committee wrote that Pinter’s plays uncover “the precipice under everyday prattle,” and “Press Conference” does just this. Needing only a few minutes, Pinter exposes the doublespeak of the modern political forum in a brisk, amusing but still chilling fashion.

Since Pinter performed this sketch when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2002, why not simply perform it again as his lecture? Or better yet, perform a new theatrical piece, written for the occasion. Performing a dramatic monologue -- even if overtly political -- would not only have been more powerful than simply delivering a diatribe, it would have been a reaffirmation of the very art that the Nobel committee was awarding.

If Pinter’s health made such an endeavor impossible, the playwright would have done well to look at the Nobel lecture of the previous dramatist to win the legendary prize, Italian playwright Dario Fo in 1997.

Fo and his work are no less political than Pinter -- indeed, his most recent play, “Peace Mom,” is about antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. But in his 11-minute lecture to the Swedish Academy, Fo spoke of his wife, where he came from, and also of previous playwrights -- like Moliere -- who inspired him. It was lighthearted and even zany, but politics was the subtext of the whole speech. The lecture was entitled “Against Jesters Who Defame and Insult,” which referred to a law passed in 1221 that allowed anyone to kill a jester if what he said caused offense.

By equating the modern farceur with the jesters of the middle ages, Fo made it clear that ideas have always been dangerous -- and that artists who entertain by rattling those in power continue a noble tradition. Art, truth and politics will always be in conflict. Fo made this point using laughter, and because of this, his Noble lecture was an extension of his art. Pinter’s lecture is not. His Nobel speech stands in opposition to his plays, the best of which exhibited the power of few words and silence.



Taylor is a regular contributor to The Times. This article is adapted from a commentary he gave on KCRW-FM’s “Theatre Talk” segment. Contact him at