Nobel winner Harold Pinter has been hailed as Britain’s Beckett. But not by his old antagonist John Simon.
Harold Pinter has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature? I would have gladly accorded him the Nobel for Arrogance, the Nobel for Self-promotion, or the Nobel for Hypocrisy—spewing venom at the United States while basking in our dollars—if such Nobels existed. But the Nobel for Literature? I think not.
Pinter’s plays—the best known being Betrayal, The Homecoming, and The Caretaker—are labyrinths without issues, leading from the tediously strained to the preposterous. What accounts for this triumph of sham? The reasons are many, but two are obvious. One is poor education, which begets a public of dupes and charlatans; another, general loss of self-confidence, despite Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tale about the dubious fashion statement of a certain emperor. Instead of having the guts to say there is nothing to this “drama,” some try to score points by discovering virtues where none exist, or dumbly believe what the other dupes—sorry, Crrrritics!, as Beckett might have said—have trumpeted at them.
Consider what one of Pinter’s American champions, Austin E. Quigley, has written: “If one approaches the plays with a belief that truth, reality and communication ought to conform to certain norms, then the plays will remain tantalizingly enigmatic,” which I translate as “meaningless.” According to Quigley, they have to be understood as “moves in language games.” In other words, in our Orwellian era “truth” has been relativized into gamesmanship.
While other playwrights are famous for their words, Pinter is celebrated for his pauses. Though there is much pretentiousness in the way these pauses are explicitly written into his drama, they are, as pauses go, pretty good, managing to be, to quote Brewer’s Theater, “menacing, and loaded with hidden meanings.”
The trouble is that pauses can exist only between words, and, as words go, Pinter’s are vastly inferior … to his pauses.
“With Betrayal, Pinter has committed the strategic error of writing a comprehensible play,” I wrote in a review of that celebrated drama. “Never before in a full-length stage work had Pinter deviated into sense, and thus into manifest triviality, if not vacuity … Rightly was Noël Coward an early defender of Pinter’s: underneath the third-rate imitator of Beckett there always lurked a second-rate Coward clone.”
It is not that Pinter lacks all talent. He began as a good character actor, and you can catch him in several old British films. He is also an able stage director, and has done well by plays written by other authors. It is only when our thespian took pen in hand and put foot in mouth that he became a problem. But Pinter fancies himself to be no less a fiction writer and poet than dramatist. To give him his due, he is certainly an authentic cricket fan. Here is, in its entirety, his verse tribute to a famous cricketer, optimistically entitled “Poem”:
Short as “Poem” is, it thinks itself extended into infinity by the pauses after “prime” and the first “time.” But I ask: Is this poetry? Is it even cricket?
We must remember that while the Nobel has been awarded to some fine writers, it has also celebrated some already completely forgotten, e.g. Gabriela Mistral, or held up to justified ridicule, e.g. Pearl Buck. Only last year the Nobel went to Elfriede Jelinek, whose fictions are at least amusingly crazy, but who herself was sane enough to imply that she did not deserve it.
Still, the truth sometimes issues from the mouths of babes in the woods. Thus in a volume of tributes to our Nobel laureate on his 70th birthday, Harold Pinter: A Celebration , one admirer began a celebratory poem with, “The old bull surges on.” It was, of course, meant differently, but, invoking the privilege of Pinteresque ambiguity, I would suggest an alternative interpretation: the same old b.s. goes on and on.