Posted: March 18th, 2023
Politics of Violence in Pinter’s Late Plays
When Harold Pinter received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, he spoke quite directly about the subject of 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. (Pinter 2005).
It is worth noting, however, of Pinter’s address on this occasion was largely not about theatre at all: instead he spoke mainly of politics and violence. In some sense, Pinter’s address — coming near to the end of his life and his career — reflected the explicitly political turn that Pinter’s own dramatic career had taken in the 1980s, when his plays turned away from the domestic chamber dramas that had made him famous in the 1960s and began to address larger social issues. But there can sometimes seem to be a fundamental disconnection between Pinter’s drama and Pinter’s other writing. The response to the Iraq War in the 2005 Nobel address — or Pinter’s reaction to the first Iraq War in his 1991 poem “American Football” — both display an intense awareness of American politics, foreign policy, and violence. But neither is necessarily immune to the charge of “sermonising” which Pinter insists a drama must eschew: the 1991 poem is probably a good example of what Pinter means by “political satire” which must engage in “sermonising” while the 2005 Nobel address is apparently a sincere statement of belief. The question then remains of how to connect Pinter’s dramaturgy with his actual political beliefs: it is clear that Pinter conceived of much of his later dramatic work as political theatre, but to what extent can it be understood as (say) the kind of explicit and passionate commentary on American foreign policy that he offered in the Nobel address when America is never even mentioned? Instead, we must approach Pinter’s late work at art, and understand the way in which ideas about language, politics, and violence in the abstract are being used to create drama that is not a direct intervention in a specific political circumstance, but instead a larger exploration and inquiry into the world that makes such specific political circumstances possible.
I propose a dissertation to study the politics of violence in the later plays of Harold Pinter. The dissertation will, of course, take account of the whole of Pinter’s work, but it will focus mainly on seven more or less explicitly political dramas from the latter part of Pinter’s career. These are, chronologically, One for the Road (1984); Mountain Language (1988); New World Order (1991); Party Time (1991); Ashes to Ashes (1996); Celebration (2000); and Press Conference (2002). It will be noted that this selection is already varied: New World Order and Press Conference have titles that essentially announce their status as something close to political satire, while the explicitly political situations of One for the Road and Mountain Language are a far cry from the more elliptical strangeness of the much later Ashes to Ashes and Celebration, plays that have been interpreted by some as having no political content at all. The focus of this study, however, will be on political violence — and certainly discomforting depictions of violence (at least verbally) underlie all seven works. The goal is to interpret Pinter’s work both in terms of its real-world referents — to understand the actual political context of the two plays from the 1980s entails a deeper exploration, touched upon in Pinter’s Nobel address, of the playwright’s interest in the foreign policy of the Reagan administration in America, and its support for terrorist atrocities in the Central American nation of El Salvador.
However it is worth emphasizing that this study will not imply a one-to-one correspondence between real world political atrocities — about which Harold Pinter in his public life may or may not have taken recognizable political stances — and the “political” plays written by Pinter from the 1980s onward. Instead, recognizable themes will be explored in the political works, but also connected to Pinter’s handling of similar themes in utterly unrelated drama. The most salient example (as befits a playwright) is the question of language itself, and the uses to which it may be put. This is, in different ways, the explicit subject of Pinter’s work in Mountain Language, New World Order, and Press Conference. The first of these is a searing examination of political victimization through the suppression of language, the latter two more satirical works which could be summarized as explorations of the language of power and the power of language. These would seem to be a far cry from a non-political play written in the same period, such as Pinter’s oblique and elliptical 1982 medical drama A Kind of Alaska, except that it becomes evident that the same concerns — largely about the use of language in approaching the indescribable or the un-narratable experience — underlie the political and non-political works. So even as this dissertation aims to historicize Pinter’s political drama to a certain extent by investigating its real-world referents and Pinter’s explicit engagement outside of the drama with global political realities, it will also attempt to reclaim Pinter’s political drama for the more abstract and aestheticized mode in which his non-political drama is written.
Context for the dissertation’s examination of Pinter’s political plays will be provided in a number of ways. Biographical and intellectual material about Pinter himself and related to the work will be supplied by Billington’s biography and others; by Pinter’s own non-dramatic writings and interviews; and by the holdings of the Pinter archive at the British Library. Theoretical underpinnings for the examination of Pinter’s politics will be provided by Foucault, Althusser, Gramsci, and Grimes. A necessary examination of Pinter’s Jewishness will be added, with an additional examination of his largely anti-Israel political stance and his capacious sympathy for the victims of U.S. military aggression in the Middle East: Pinter will be understood in the context of Jewishness in the wake of fascism and the Holocaust — an issue that becomes crucial in approaching a play like Ashes to Ashes, which appears to engage in fairly unmistakable evocation of motifs from the Shoah — and thus a critic of Israel from that perspective. In addition Pinter’s own politics will be contextualized within a larger history of the British left and its engagement with popular culture — this will include well-known figures like George Orwell (whose engagement with violence in 1984 seems strongly to prefigure a number of trends in Pinter’s political drama from Mountain Language onward) but also Pinter’s theatrical contemporaries, including glances at Edward Bond, Joe Orton, David Edgar, Howard Brenton, David Hare, Caryl Churchill, and John McGrath among others. To offer one example, perhaps a minor one but also a telling one, the subject of Pinter’s handling of violence and politics in his own work is greatly illuminated by examining the story of Pinter’s rift with the American playwright David Mamet in 1993, in the course of directing Mamet’s political play Oleanna at London’s Royal Court Theatre: Pinter apparently enraged the American by opting to stage, without authorization, Mamet’s original ending which entails one character extracting from the other a Stalinoid-seeming forced confession in writing. This ending is absent in the published and filmed versions of Mamet’s play, which instead rings down the final curtain on an act of violence, held in suspension for the audience to contemplate, and argue about as they leave the theatre. Pinter’s choice here as a director is useful to contemplate when we examine the torsions of language as well as violence in his own political work — and the way in which he navigates the political writing of a playwright whose politics could not be further from Pinter’s own. (Mamet is a self-confessed neo-conservative and fan of George W. Bush.) Likewise, Pinter’s remarks in his Nobel speech about capital punishment as a form of state-sanctioned violence take on an added dimension when we realize that in 1996 he directed the London revival of the American stage classic Twelve Angry Men, precisely for its dimensions as a play about how this state-sanctioned violence operates in America. In other words, resources from Pinter’s full life in the theatre, and as a man of letters, will be brought to bear upon the examination of the themes of violence and politics in his work.
A brief precis of the proposed dissertation (subject to change) follows this proposal.
The Politics of Violence in Harold Pinter’s Late Plays
Aims of the Study:
1- Prove how the playwright, through images of political violence, manifests the reality of modern politics and how man is ended up as a victim in modern societies.
2- Investigate Pinter’s repressive regimes that tie social exclusion to political violence, utilizing a dynamic, not known in our current political climate, of delegitimizing oppositional ideas.
3- Demonstrate Pinter’s concern with the historical consequences of fascism, and his principled opposition to Americanism and U.S. military actions in the Middle East.
4- Illuminate the dramatic, theatrical and linguistic artistry of Pinter in manipulating such themes as political violence and oppression.
Scope of the Study:
The study discusses the dramatic representation of political violence in Pinter’s recent plays in relation to the modern politics and the playwright’s political stances and attitudes towards the leading governments. By examining the “Pinteresque discourse,” the study meticulously scrutinizes the violence manifestations justified by political claims and institutions. Thus, it draws theoretically on such figures as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Charles Grimes.
2- Language, Truth and Politics
2.1 Violence, Terrorism, and the Ideological State Apparatus
2.2 Discourse and Power
3- Harold Pinter and the Absurd
3.1 Under the Shadow of Beckett
3.2 Break from the Absurd / Pinter and his Theatrical Contemporaries
4- The Political World of Harold Pinter
4.1 Anti-Americanism / The Political Context 1980-2005
4.2 Anti-Authoritarianism / The Political Context of Post-Fascism and the Shoah
5- Matrices of Violence
5.1 Violence under Ideological Cover:
Ashes to Ashes.
5.2 Political Violence: Victimization through Suppression of Language:
5.3 Political Oppression:
5.4 Threat and Injustice:
The New World Order
5.5 Government Brutality under the Disguise of National Consensus:
One for the Road
5.6 Language of Power and Power of Language:
Celebration and Press Conference
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