Harold Pinter

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Mar 21 06:41:50 MST 2001

The Progressive, March 18, 2001

Harold Pinter interviewed by Anne-Marie Cusac

Several months back, a colleague handed me a copy of the British journal
The New Internationalist. The issue would interest me, she said, because it
included a special section on U.S. prisons and because Harold Pinter had
written an essay for it. (She knew I had long admired Pinter's plays.) I
read the Pinter essay, finding to my surprise that it mentioned the stun
belt and the restraint chair, two subjects I had reported on for The

I wrote Pinter, requesting a couple of hours for an interview. He promptly

I first checked out a copy of The Caretaker from the library years ago, on
the advice of a writing teacher. When I finished with that one, I returned
and checked out all the Pinter plays on the shelves. I read them over the
next few weeks, pausing to gasp at a particular music I soon realized was
Pinter's own--simultaneously lyrical, hard-assed, implicitly brutal, and
rhythmically dead-on.

His twenty-nine plays, which include The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The
Homecoming, Betrayal, Party Time, and One for the Road, have inspired the
adjective "Pinteresque," which the Financial Times defined as "full of dark
hints and pregnant suggestions, with the audience left uncertain as to what
to conclude."

But Pinter might be reluctant to apply such a phrase to his own writing.
"Once, many years ago, I found myself engaged uneasily in a public
discussion on the theater," said Pinter on being awarded the 1970 German
Shakespeare Prize. "Someone asked me what my work was 'about.' I replied
with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of enquiry: 'the
weasel under the cocktail cabinet.' That was a great mistake. Over the
years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has
now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly
relevant and meaningful observation about my own work. But for me the
remark meant precisely nothing. Such are the dangers of speaking in public."

Pinter is also an actor, director, and screenwriter. Among his twenty-one
screenplays are The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1969), The French
Lieutenant's Woman (1980), The Trial (1989), and The Tragedy of King Lear

Born in 1930, Pinter is also an outspoken human rights advocate. He has
protested the NATO bombing of Serbia, the Gulf War and the bombing of Iraq
since that time, the ill-treatment of U.S. prisoners, censorship, the U.S.
role in Latin America, and the Turkish government's mistreatment of the
Kurds. He has also demanded the release of Mordechai Vanunu--the Israeli
citizen imprisoned for fourteen years because he told the British press
that Israel had developed nuclear bombs.

I interviewed Pinter in his office in early December. Careful with his
words, he often paused for a time before stating his opinion. He had an
artist's caution about summing up or explaining his plays and an artist's
enjoyment of craft talk. He expressed delight when demonstrating another
actor's clever move. He was serious, but quick to laugh. And when talking
about abuses of the state, he was passionate.

Just before I left, Pinter pulled two books from a high shelf and handed
them to me. One was Celebration, his most recent play, which I had told him
my library didn't own. The other was a book of screenplays which he said he
was giving to me because I clearly admired The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Q: Early on, you didn't talk about some of your plays, like The Birthday
Party, The Dumb Waiter, or The Hothouse, as political. But more recently
you've started to talk about them that way. Why?

Harold Pinter: Well, they were political. I was aware that they were
political, too. But at that time, at whatever age I was--in my twenties--I
was not a joiner. I had been a conscientious objector, you know, when I was
eighteen. But I was a pretty independent young man, and I didn't want to
get up on a soapbox. I wanted to let the plays speak for themselves, and if
people didn't get it, to hell with it.

Q: Did you feel that if you got up on a soapbox it would take away from the

Pinter: Yeah, I thought it would, really. As I said, I thought the plays
would speak for themselves. But they didn't.

Q: What was your experience like as a conscientious objector?

Pinter: I was quite resolute. This was 1948, I remind you. And I was simply
not, absolutely not, going to join the army. Because I had seen the Cold
War beginning before the hot war was over. I knew the atom bomb had been a
warning to the Soviet Union. I had two tribunals and two trials. I was
prepared to go to prison. I was eighteen. It was a civil offense, you know,
not a criminal offense. I had the same magistrate at both trials, and he
fined me twice. My father had to find the money, which was a lot of money
at the time, but he did. But I took my toothbrush with me to court both
times. I was prepared to go to prison.

And I haven't changed a bit, I have to say.

Full interview: http://www.progressive.org/intv0301.html

Louis Proyect
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