The Politics of Harold Pinter

By Naomi Garner
2012, Vol. 4 No. 02 | pg. 1/4 |

The politics of Harold Pinter’s work are not derived from any ideological affinity with a specific political position, or indeed from any clearly defined ideological base or contemporary party politics. Pinter’s dramatic and poetic works do not scrutinise government politics or rail against those politics in a thinly veiled dramatic polemic. Pinter’s work is not the product of the “angry playwright” that the popular media chose to designate him as.1 From an early age Pinter himself was engaged in the politics of the world around him, at eighteen he registered as a conscientious objector displaying a disgust at Cold War politics and The Labour Party’s endorsement of American nuclear presence on British soil.2 As a citizen, Pinter became a member of an anti-apartheid organisation and was horrified at the events he saw taking place in Vietnam and South Africa.3 Later, Pinter, along with Arthur Miller, visited Turkey and publicly condemned the human rights’ abuses he witnessed there, he attended an anti-Thatcher discussion group and wrote numerous public condemnations of American and British foreign policy since the end of The Second World War, the most notable being his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Art, Truth and Politics.4 As a citizen, Pinter’s active political engagement is well-documented, with a general consensus held on his political stance, but as a playwright Pinter’s work is less easily categorised.

From the early days of The Room (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958), the inability to place Pinter alongside his contemporaries baffled critics and created spurious definitions of the nature of his work. Pinter’s disassociation with the mainstream, his lack of affinity with the “very, very strong young wave of political playwrights,”5 of Kitchen Sink dramas, or the absurdism of Beckett (with whom he didn’t see where he could “relate at all,”) left critics bereft of a sufficient basis on which to characterise his work.67 Subsequently, Pinter’s works were dubbed ‘comedies of menace,’ thought to be dealing in “unlocalised terror,” “unspeakable terror,” or an atmosphere that is “before all else, of terror.”89 His early plays, those “comedies of menace” through to the ‘memory plays,’ to the later, ‘overtly political’ plays, are not founded on a subscription to a specific political position, or concerned with general abstract notions of “terror,” but are a sustained and constant focus of Pinter’s own political concerns, borne of his own engagement with, and consciousness of, the world around him.

This engagement and direct awareness is manifested in the potential multi-representational allusions of Pinter’s dramatic works. From the McCarthyist interrogations of The Hothouse’s Gibbs and Cutts and the definitive McCarthyism of Interview, the IRA presence of The Birthday Party, the post-colonial immigration of The Room and The Caretaker, the human rights’ abuses of totalitarian regimes in Turkey of One for the Road, to the political bureaucracy of British and American foreign policy in Precisely, Pinter engages with the political concerns of the world around him. As Ronald Knowles remarks, “understanding Pinter involves understanding society as the twentieth century draws to a close.”10 However, it is Pinter’s engagement with the consequences of these activities of government and global politics that resonate more substantially and profoundly as central preoccupations of Pinter’s political engagement. As such, Pinter’s work begins in medias res, after the establishment of government policy or social philosophy, at the stage where this process has been distilled and localised to focus on how it affects the smallest unit of society, the individual.

Pinter’s politics are premised on power-structured relationships and, in particular, how social relations involving authority and power threaten the autonomy and importance of the individual. Pinter’s individuals, from The Caretaker’s Davies, to Party Time’s Jimmy, are established through the creation of individual identities that subvert generic classifications such as name, racial group or nationality. These broad classifications, which compromise individual identity, are undermined throughout Pinter’s work through establishing the importance of the voice of the individual. Through their involvement in political power struggles and relationships, Pinter’s individuals struggle to retain their sense of self. This preservation of the self is achieved through several means, including establishing their own sense of space, usually a room or a home, fiercely guarding private memories as retainers of individual experience, and preserving a voice, as the foundation of individual expression and resistance. Pinter’s power struggles occur at the level of charged dialogue, through to physical power, which are, respectively, weighted against the defence of the individual. His politics are those of a struggle between power and powerlessness, induced by an “instinctive moral rage”11 against any injustice which strives to erode the validity of the individual, as an individual.

Pinter’s exploration of the politics of the destruction of the individual centres on the uses and abuses of language.12 These explorations in language range from the bombardment of language through interrogation methods, which serve to distort meanings and significances in words, to the complete debasement of language by organised, official systems of rhetoric. Through this societal and global process, Pinter identifies and studies cases of the individual voice, from Aston’s broken voice of The Caretaker, to the voices of defence of the ‘memory plays’13, through to the voices of protest of Mountain Language and One for the Road. As Pinter’s scale of focus evolves from the social-scapes of the plays of Chapter One, to individual studies in Chapter Two, through to global power-structures in Chapter Three, so he moves from an exploratory role as a playwright, to a more assertive and questioning role as a citizen, in the search for Truth, amidst art and politics. Pinter’s later plays in particular are informed by his public, non-fiction statements, however, these serve to inform his dramatic and poetic works as critical co-ordinates and not as substitutes for the works themselves. Though there is an evolution in the contexts and approaches that Pinter adopts, from his exploratory outset to his return as citizen, the constant focus of his work remains on the preservation of the dignity of the individual in relation and resistance to these power-structures.

A place for everyone, and everyone in his place: space and identity in social politics

Pinter’s early works, beginning with The Room (1957) through to the production of The Homecoming (1964) establish an understanding of Pinter’s political preoccupations through an exploration of rooms, spaces and unwelcome guests. 14 Closed rooms that act as personal spaces of refuge and containers of the self, are indicative of the displacement of the individual in a hostile and exclusive society. Martin Esslin’s identification of Pinter’s basic situation as “a room, a room with a door; outside the door a cold, hostile world,”15 is a useful blueprint for configuring Pinter’s space socially and thematically. Pinter’s rooms have become a hallmark of his dramatic work; they are secluded and fiercely private spaces where the occupier can feel safe and distinct from the collectivism of the wider society. The habitation and ownership of a room affords a private and secure physical space but is also an important aspect in establishing a separate and contained identity. As such, it is variables of these spaces that are crucial to understanding certain aspect of Pinter’s characters:- for example, those characters who occupy a room within a house, such as The Room’s Rose and Bert, or Mick and Aston of The Caretaker, (1959) are broadly working class characters who struggle to maintain a small space within the confines of a larger house.16 Pinter’s depictions of middle-class characters, such as Edward and Flora of A Slight Ache, (1958) can be characterised by their habitation of rooms within a house of which they have full ownership.17 The responsibility of ownership creates a dichotomy between the enjoyment of a private home and the fear of losing that individual space. This dichotomy becomes greater as ownership becomes more established, since the greater the one’s investment is in the space, the more of the self there is to lose.

The rooms themselves become imbued with the power struggle that takes place between the competing individuals. The room of The Basement (1966) reflects the power shift between Stott and Law through the changes that occur in the furnishings of the room.18 A shift from a floor covering of an “Indian rug” to “marble tiles” 19 indicates Stott’s new ownership of the room, as he turns off a lamp, so Law’s power is dimmed. The furnishings of the room become steeped with a historical narrative that can be read as a text of the power struggle between Law and Stott. Although the furnishing are indicative of a shift in power, it is Law’s initial entry into the room which marks the beginning of the end of Stott’s tenancy. The intrusion of another into the private space of a Pinter character, from Goldberg and McCann’s forced entry into the seaside boarding house where Stanley is a fixed resident, to Rose’s fear of “these creeps come in, smelling up my room,”20 is a thematic basis for the destruction of the individual in these early works.

Trespassing on rooms and forced entry into space initiates a breach of the security that becomes crucial to the preservation of identity. It is not simply that an intruder has entered the room, but rather that the intruder has violated the identity of the unwitting host. Though this can be seen as prompting an existential crisis in the individual, this interpretation alone cannot be sustained given the relevance of the contextual reference points that mark the socially realistic aspects of the play. Rose takes pride in the fact that “we keep ourselves to ourselves…we’ve got our room. We don’t bother anyone else,”21 since her fear of unwelcome intrusion is so great that it becomes a barricade between herself and the suspected “foreigners”22 who also occupy the building. This fear of both physical intrusion and existential invasion is not simply pathological, but rather is the product of a society where the exclusion of the other is promoted. Such a society is one that passed the British Nationality Act in 1948, allowing subjects of the British Empire to take up residence and work in the U.K. and then annexed the aforementioned Act in 1971 in order to ensure a decline in the number of immigrants arriving in the U.K.23 Concern and fear about the level of the immigration of citizens from British colonies in the West Indies, aggravated by political discourse such as Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech (1968), made immigrants into “the objects of suspicion, prejudice and contempt.”24 Accordingly, the entry of “a blind Negro”25 into Rose’s secluded and guarded room provokes the reaction, “enough’s enough. You can take liberty too far, you know.”26 Here further indictment of the blind Negro, “what do you want? You force your way up here. You disturb my evening…what do you want?”27 could pass for the anti-immigration political rhetoric of the Right that is both contextually specific and has been applied elsewhere from the influx of Indian workers in the 1960’s to early 21st century Polish immigration.

It is Pinter’s emphasis on the control and manipulation of political rhetoric, rather than contextually specific detail- that affords the plays this universality that the contemporary discourse of Look Back in Anger (1956) could not sustain.28 Pinter is able to successfully incorporate rhetoric such as “they come in here and stink the place out. After a handout,”29 into dramatic dialogue itself, which prevents the plays from becoming straightforwardly didactic. However, it is this same characteristic that have been used to identify these early plays as non-political, but rather dramatisations of existential crises.30

Early reviews of The Birthday Party ignore any political aspect, be it the numerous and frequent allusions to Ireland, through references to “the Black and Tans,” “bold Fenian men”31 and potentially, “the organisation,”32 to the very act of the forced interrogation of a young man by two threatening strangers in his own home. Instead The Birthday Party is summarised as a play about, “a former concert pianist who, for some obscure reason, is afraid of two commercial travellers who put up at the boarding house at which he is staying.” Though the specifics of the reason for Stanley’s interrogation are not divulged, Pinter is suggestive enough in detail to invoke IRA involvement as a potential context, without excluding other contexts, such as the Gestapo, from which, according to Pinter himself, came the idea of the initial knock on Stanley’s door.33

Similarly, A Slight Ache can be examined in terms of its colonial undercurrent, which is suggestive of a potential source of Edward’s character. He expresses that, “Africa’s always been my happy hunting ground”34 and his dialogue is composed of diction and allusions such as “schooner,” “territory,”35 and “Belgian Congo”36 which are indicative of a specific background.37 Edward’s association between humans and animals, continually referring to the Matchseller as an unpleasant smelling “bullock,”38 and ordering his wife to, “get back to your trough,”39 are reminiscent of Iago’s characterisation of Othello as “an old black ram.” This kind of discourse is similarly observed by Chinua Achebe in his criticism of Heart of Darkness, where, additionally, the African characters, like the Matchseller, are not endowed with human expressions, or even a language.40

Although a lack of dialogue is indicative of a lack of voice, it is the very silence of the Matchseller that is so problematic to Edward. Edward’s language in particular is indicative of his particular identity, his parodic middle-class diction and terribly polite conversation with his wife Flora contribute to the semblance of civility which masks their tendencies to cruelty and violence. The initial discussion of the plays, of the various, torturous ways to kill the wasp are indicative of the violence beneath the civil façade to which they both aspire. The overwhelming silence of the Matchseller exemplifies Pinter’s claim that “one way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”41 It is therefore the Matchseller’s silence that forces Edward to relinquish his armour of language, and reveals him as weak. Once Edward is unable to maintain his cloak of language his nakedness is exposed and he unable to maintain either his dominance or his residence. Though it is Flora, who, witnessing Edward’s weakness, that rejects him from the house and replaces him with the Matchseller, it is the Matchseller’s silence that has defeated Edward’s façade of power and civility. The Matchseller himself functions as unidentified Other, the ambiguous, non-specific “they” of The Room, the unsubstantiated “Blacks” of The Caretaker. His particular identity in relation to Edward and Flora is irrelevant, they are suspicious and resistant to him since his an Other, and therefore a threat. Unlike the blind Negro of The Room, the Matchseller’s entry into Edward and Flora’s home is invited since Edward refuses to confront him outside of his domain, stating “we’ll invite him in here. In my study. Then we’ll…get to the bottom of it.”42 It is the security of the private home that serves to strengthen Edward’s sense of self-power, but also serves to weaken the Matchseller’s sense of self, since he becomes subject to someone else’s space. In this sense, private space is not simply a mark of individuality and personal security but also as a method of exclusion and hostile isolation.

In these early plays, exclusion and isolation are not limited to literal private spaces but extend beyond rooms and into the domain of a wider society with its own implied spaces and structures. A Night Out (1959) marks Pinter’s first excursion from the confines of rooms into a public space.43 The play charts the emergence of Albert from his mother’s home, a space dominated by her presence, to public, more ambiguous spaces where his identity becomes more ambiguous. The mother’s home is premised on particular spaces being attributed to specific people, notably “Grandma’s room,”44 and his father’s house, though these people are in fact dead and have been for some time. As such, Albert’s self-identity and independence become stifled by the presence of the dead who, according to his mother, are still living, “in this house.”45

His mother’s insistence that he look “like a gentleman,” and lead a “clean life,”46 in order to ensure that he is respectable, serves to establish an identity for him in the mould of his father’s home. Once Albert leaves this space which forges his images as a “gentleman,” his character and identity are not protected by his mother’s wall, and he is consequently subject to characters defamations, including being unjustly accused of accosting a young girl at the party at his employer’s home. An ensuing fight leaves his clothing “all crumpled,” causing him to look like a “disgrace,”47 and, subsequently, act like a disgrace by violently threatening his mother. Since the party-goers and his mother identify him as a “disgrace,” he establishes himself as such and readily assumes this role since he has no secure space to assert his own identity. Albert is led to the room of a young girl, a prostitute masquerading as “respectable mother…with a child at boarding school”48- the first room in which he feels dominant and able to re-establish himself outside of his mother’s home. Since Albert is disgraced he chooses to assert his identity and dominance by demeaning the girl, only then can he return home, cast off his suit and tie and no longer be subject to his mother’s dominance. It is the freedom granted by the girl’s room that allows Albert to establish himself outside of his mother’s haunted and oppressive walls.

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