Pinter’s birthday party prize
By Penny Cole
Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize for Literature is a timely recognition on his 75th birthday of one the world's most significant living playwrights and a noted campaigner for the oppressed.
The phrase Pinteresque has entered the English language to denote a particular kind of dislocated, alienated speech which has been connected with the Theatre of the Absurd but which, if you concentrate hard, is actually like an overheard conversation in ordinary speech. There is a perpetual menace in his plays where the sort of banal speech that might come naturally to a reader of the Daily Mail is revealed as a blind, behind which can lurk the hidden thoughts, selfish desires and evil intent of the potential torturer or dictator.
Pinter was born in Hackney to a Jewish family and attended the famous Hackney Downs Secondary which with its inspirational teachers fired his love of literature and passion for cricket. The school was run into the ground in the 1990s by a combination of government cuts and the incompetence and chaos of New Labour-controlled Hackney Council.
Although he began his working life as an actor, Pinter had already begun writing as a teenager. His first plays dissect not only the oppression of the individual - oppression that pervades society and encompasses the family, bourgeois norms, and the ignorance that oppresses the working class but also state repression.
The Hothouse is set in a psychological research centre, and had its roots in a personal experience when as a poor student he went to London's Maudesley hospital as a paid guinea pig and was, without warning, given a massive electric shock. He never forgot the feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness.
The patients and political prisoners are subject not only to oppressive treatment but also casual abuse by the staff and in particular by the fearsome Roote, an ex-army officer who runs the establishment. In fact the patients are invisible and it is the staff who are the focus of the play. Pinter himself, returning to his original role as an actor, was a terrifying Roote in a revival of the play in the 1990s.
His breakthrough to world-wide fame came with The Birthday Party, though it was initially a flop at its first performance in 1958. The play takes place in a boarding house where the landlord marks a bleak birthday, transformed into a terrifying episode by the arrival of two menacing figures from his past.
He is too much an individual to be a man of party, but he is of the party of the oppressed at all times. Speaking of The Birthday Party he said: "In contemporary drama so often we have a villain society and the hero the individual. And a lot of people have said that about The Birthday Party. Well it isn't like that. These two things - the man in relation to society - both exist and one makes the other. Society wouldn't be there without the man, but they're both dependent on one another and there's no question of hero and villain."
In the 1990s his plays grew more overtly political and ever shorter. Yet they were so compressed and intense that they were almost unbearable to watch, focusing on torture and the nature of the torturer.
Through the international writers’ organisation PEN, Pinter worked tirelessly for the freedom of writers facing political repression, both in developing countries and in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Pinter’s vocal and active opposition to Blair, Bush and their war on Iraq underlines his view that there can be no separation between art and politics – or the artist and politics. The Nobel Prize recognizes that his work has a continuing relevance and resonance in today’s world.