In honoring British playwright Harold Pinter on Thursday, Nobel Prize judges have again chosen an artist of literary achievement and political contention.
The 75-year-old Pinter, the most influential British playwright of his generation, is also an unrelenting critic of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, and of the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“I think the world is going down the drain if we’re not very careful,” a frail but defiant Pinter, who has been treated for throat cancer in recent years, said to reporters outside his London home.
Pinter will receive $1.3 million for winning the Nobel, and can expect a boost in sales. His U.S. publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., announced Thursday that it will print another 25,000 copies of a new collection of political writings, “Death Etc.,” for a total of 31,000. A volume of his plays has been climbing quickly on Amazon.com.
‘Quite overwhelmed’On Thursday, leaning on a cane and sporting a bandaged head after a fall, Pinter told reporters that he felt “quite overwhelmed” by the honor. “I have no idea why they gave me the award. I respect their judgment. I am very grateful,” he said.
Pinter continues a long tradition of Nobel laureates who believe in taking sides and not settling for art for art’s sake.
Last year’s winner, Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek, once instructed her publishers to withhold the performance rights of her plays in Austrian theaters as long as the rightist Freedom Party was part of the government.
Germany’s Guenter Grass, who won in 1999, has been one of his country’s leading liberals and repeatedly questioned the reunification of East and West Germany. American John Steinbeck, winner in 1962, supported numerous Democrats. More famously, he immortalized the poverty of the Depression with his classic, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
British playwright David Hare cited Pinter’s political engagement in praising his Nobel win.
“Not only has Harold Pinter written some of the outstanding plays of his time, he has also blown fresh air into the musty attic of conventional English literature, by insisting that everything he does has a public and political dimension,” said Hare, whose own political works include the Iraq war drama “Stuff Happens.”
The brutal and the banalPinter, the son of a Jewish tailor, was born in 1930 and was a rebel from an early age, declaring himself a conscientious objector and refusing to do then-compulsory military service. He was influenced by anti-Semitism and by the wartime bombing of London, when he would at times open the back door and “find our garden in flames.”
He published poetry under the name “Harold Pinta” and emerged as a playwright with “The Birthday Party” (1957), in which the intruders Goldberg and McCann enter the retreat of Stanley, a young man who is hiding from childhood guilt and who tells them, “You stink of sin, you contaminate womankind.”
The play established Pinter’s dark, distinctive style that relished the juxtaposition of brutality and the banal and could stop hearts with the conversational pause. His characters’ internal fears and longings, their guilt and unruly sexual drives, are set against the neat lives they have constructed to survive, a grim game in which actions often contradict words.
Influenced by Samuel Beckett, Pinter once said of language, “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place.”
In “The Caretaker” (1959), which established him as a commercial and critical success, a manipulative old man threatens the fragile relationship of two brothers; “The Homecoming” (1964) explores the hidden rage and confused sexuality of an all-male household by inserting a woman.
Overtly political workOver time, his attention turned to the world at large. A vocal critic of the market economics of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s — he said his vote for her in 1979 was “idiotic, infantile” — his work became more overtly political.
“The New World Order,” billed as “a short satiric response to the Gulf War,” was a 10-minute play whose title derives from a phrase used by then-President George Bush. In 2003, Pinter published a volume of anti-war poetry about the current Iraq conflict. He later joined a group of celebrities calling for the impeachment of Blair, who sent British troops to Iraq.
Although a harsh critic of Britain, Pinter told the BBC in 2002 that he loved many things about it — the English countryside, cricket and “a fundamental decency in the country itself.”
In March 2005, Pinter announced his retirement as a playwright to concentrate on politics. But he created a radio play, “Voices,” that was recently broadcast on BBC radio to mark his 75th birthday, and said Thursday that he would continue writing poetry.
“And I’ll certainly remain deeply engaged in the question of political structures in this world,” he said.
The Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 by King Gustav III to advance the Swedish language and its literature, has handed out the literature prize since 1901. To date 102 men and women have received the prize, including France’s Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined the 1964 honor.