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Harold Pinter, February 1993
© Jill Furmanovsky

Harold Pinter: ‘I can’t be sacked, because I haven’t got a job’

Britain's most pompous playwright? Ranting champagne socialist? Blocked for 15 years? Wrong on all counts. Steve Grant visits Harold Pinter as his new play ’Moonlight' opens, and discovers a passionate and much-maligned genius

By Andrzej Lukowski
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To mark the September 2018 start of Jamie Lloyd’s West End Pinter at the Pinter season, we dig up Steve Grant’s February 1993 Time Out interview with the greatest British playwright of the twentieth century

Given the importance of territory in the works of Harold Pinter, it’s an unsettlingly tight fit as the two of us peruse the pictures in his toilet. There are just three, which provide a pleasing shorthand to the life and inspirations of our greatest living dramatist: a painting of Sir Len Hutton, Ashes hero and Pinter’s favourite cricketer; a photograph from the mid-‘60s when Pinter had ‘The Caretaker’ and ‘The Homecoming’ playing simultaneously at theatres across Broadway. And, most imposingly, smack over the seat, a poster: a commemorative poem by John Berger sitting underneath a photograph of one-time Socialist Chilean Defence Minister, Orlando Letelier, tortured, exiled and car-bombed in Washington DC in 1976.

Cricket. Theatre. Politics. ‘Look at that! Amazing!’ mutters HP as we survey the scene of the pencil-slim, pensive Letelier walking down some steps in Santiago, surrounded by heavily-armed military. ‘I'm never going to take it down as long as I live,’ and yes, you do feel a sense of the terror, menace and desolation lying at the heart of Pinter’s most powerful work in that juxtaposition of one man among many thugs.

The khazi in question is in the lavish mews house in Holland Park which adjoins the Pinter home and which functions as den, study and also a repository of his life and works. We have gazed lovingly at his full set of Wisden volumes going back to 1862 (‘though the first few are facsimiles, I’m afraid’), the bookshelves devoted to cricket books which Pinter notes are more numerous than a similarly impressive collection of poetry, his first creative love. There is the drinks tray, a sofa, the spacious writing desk complete with yellow pads for his writing, more books, and a fetching photograph of Lady Antonia Fraser (his wife). Outside there is a bookcase stacked with the latest Faber editions of Pinter’s works; downstairs, a fax machine and other instruments of mass communication for a man who currently has productions on or in preparation in New York, Osaka, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam and throughout the People’s Republic of China, where the Youth Theatre of Shanghai are touring with ‘The Lover’, a teasing sexual comedy first seen here in 1963.

Pinter is very much revitalised: as well as his production of David Maniers ‘Oleanna’, which moves to the Duke of York’s this week, his new play ‘Moonlight’ opened last week at the Almeida, the small north London theatre that has become synonymous, largely through director David Leveaux, with Pinter pieces old and new, from ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Betrayal’ to ‘Party Time’ and now ‘Moonlight’, a play which Pinter admits has been forced out of him in part by the recent spate of Pinterama, which he's acted in (‘No Man's Land’) and directed (‘The Caretaker’).

‘To say that I’ve been doing fuck all for 15 years is a slight exaggeration’

‘I want to put something on the record,’ Pinter declares in that famously rich voice which once belonged to a jobbing actor called ‘David Baron’ 44 years ago. ‘The record seems to imply that I haven’t written anything since 1978 [when ‘Betrayal’ was premiered at the National]. I looked it up the other day; I read that I’d been blocked for 15 years. I’ve actually written six short plays, but plays, including “A Kind of Alaska”, which won an award somewhere, and “One for the Road” which also … these things exist. I’ve also written seven film scripts which were important to me, including “The French Lieutenan’s Woman”, so that's seven and six, I make 13. It’s about time that was recorded. To say that I’ve been doing fuck all for 15 years is a slight exaggeration.’

Reading the cuttings is a normal occupation for any journalist interviewing a celebrity. Perusing the Pinter file is rather like being marked down for a kamikaze run or a raid on the Emperor’s bunker. The tantrums are well-documented: violent rows at the drop of a dictator’s name; an assault on an American ambassador’s ear; reducing friends and strangers to tears; denouncing the jackals of the press; celebrated fallings-out with loyal friends like Simon Gray and Sir Peter Hall. And yet the chance of a rare audience with a man who made us redefine our attitude to communication, gave an adjective to the dictionary, and jolted our belief in a playwright’s control over his creations, is worth the risk.

As it turns out, Pinter is ever the courteous host, even if the initial seating arrangements seem to resemble stage directions from ‘The Caretaker’. Pinter has never really forgiven the intrusions into his private life when his marriage to actress Vivien Merchant broke up spectacularly in 1975 after his affair with Lady Antonia. The latterday brickbats of ‘Champagne Socialist’ and ‘Angry Old Man’ haven't helped either, though some of the maturer critics have been perceptively tolerant of Pinter’s increasing political activity, an interest which dates from the overthrow of the Chilean Allende government in 1973. The Independent on Sunday’s Irving Wardle remarked that ‘it is easy to leap on to the barricades when you are 20, to ascend them with the creaking joints of late middle-age is an altogether more heroic act; it also means you are unlikely to climb down again in a hurry.’

This doesn’t mean that Pinter doesn't have to answer for his actions occasionally; one close associate who wished to remain anonymous talks of ‘a tendency with so many politicos to care more about mankind as a whole than the feelings of people in particular’, while his undoubted wealth and some of his more emotional statements as leader of the ill-conceived June 20 group do give some ammo to his snipers. But it’s also unheard of for the people of Germany, Peru or Eastern Europe to question the actions of Giinter Grass, Mario Vargas Llosa or Pinter’s close friend Vaclav Havel just because they are writers.

Pinter: ‘The attacks represent a well-established tradition of mockery of the artist in this country. I was going to say “intellectual”, but I’m not that, I’m just a working writer; but any writer who pops his head over the trenches and dares to speak in this country is really placed outside the pale. I suppose it stems from the fact that a writer is supposed to be some kind of entertainer; it’s true in the United States too. But this has never been the case in Europe or Latin America. All that I can say is that if they have contempt for me it is as nothing to the contempt I have for them, and I really mean that. Not because they are insulting me, but because they are insulting standards of truth and seriousness which I believe should [be] obtain[ed] in any civilised society.

‘I’ll continue to say whatever I like’

‘There was a time when I was attacked by everyone in sight and I’ve survived that. So there’s no way I can go under. I did a programme on Channel 4, “Opinions”, on American foreign policy and I was accused of “ranting” , of being “a "ranting emotional playwright”. the usual accusation the press deliver to someone they wish to discredit. But I got a record number of letters from people who said, “We feel the same way as you do, but we can’t say it as a bus conductor or a factory worker because if we do we’ll be ostracised or even sacked: But I can’t be sacked, you see, because I haven’t got a job. Therefore, I’ll continue to say whatever I like.’

The change in Pinter’s image is undoubtedly marked; when the first production of ‘No Man’s Land appeared in 1975 I wrote about a cool and ‘unpolitical’ writer at a time when there was much tub-thumping from younger Turks; the critic John Barber could pronounce at the same time that ‘Man as social being has . . . [no] place in Pinter.’

And yet Pinter now describes his early plays, ‘The Dumb Waiter’, ‘The Birthday Party’ and ‘The Hothouse’, plays in which he developed a comedy of menace in which language was used as a weapon of aggression, evasion and even torture, as ‘political’. ‘My early work was nothing to do with existentialism. It took me a long time to find out what that meant. I think I’ve got a rough idea now, but it’s too late! But I was brought up in a pretty violent world; not only was the war itself violent, and then I gradually started to know what was happening to the Jews in Europe, but after the war — and few people know this — the fascists came out of prison, many people came back, and there was a virulent attack, a revival of fascism in 1945 in England. Oswald Mosley came out of prison and off they went again. And I was living in Hackney, and Dalston Junction and Ridley Road market were rough places. And the police did nothing, and the Labour government of the time believed in freedom of expression. It was all very ironic. And I used to get into an awful lot of aggravation down there.’

Pinter’s youth and athleticism saved him from bother, but it’s easy to see the jackboot behind the patter of stage stereotypes like Goldberg and McCann in ‘The Birthday Party’; the Kafka-esque knock on the door which lies at the root of his work, as much as the obsession with time and memory which derives partly from the influence of his mentor, Beckett, whose novels Pinter was devouring as an adolescent in 1947.

‘I think that every pause is different’

But while Pinter sees ‘Moonlight’ as political play which. nevertheless offers glimpses of a world in which its characters exist, his approach to David Mamet’s controversial two-hander. on. the subject of ‘political correctness’ is intriguingly unpolernical. This piece, which climaxes with an act of violence perpetrated by a teacher on a female student, has had varied reactions during its run at the Royal Court. ‘I see it as much as a father-daughter situation as much as anything else, you know, the skein of sexual tension that seems to exist between fathers and daughters; not merely the social constraints, but an element of sexual tension that exists naturally.

‘The three of us, David Suchet and Lia Williams have tried so hard to avoid hysteria and to find out where they are both human. And that’s why a lot of women do find the figure of this girl is by no means a grotesque monster or a cripple, but a normal young woman who is complicated and serious and vulnerable and pretty ruthless when she gets going. We have tried to find the wholeness of this girl and I believe she is one person, not two.

‘I find it striking how the male reaction at the climax has sometimes been total fury and delight – because they are actually cheering a woman almost being kicked to death. I want to get the arguments as clear as possible. And after all, what she’s doing is a truly revolutionary thing, challenging a value system that no matter how liberal is based on a male system of values. But I don’t see it as a polemic and never have. It’s a much more complex thing, it’s a drama about two people locked in a room. After one particularly red-hot run-through, late in rehearsals and they were both panting, I said, “There is only one thing that you can do now and that is get married!” That’s all there is to it; because you’re so engaged with the characters you can’t get out of their damn way, you remain locked into them for hours afterwards.’

Mamet is one playwright who can be truly be described as ‘American Pinter-esque’, but though Pinter has known him for two decades he doesn’t care to explore their creative similarities. Did Mamet’s pauses differ from Pinter’s? He chuckles. ‘Well, he certainly comes to a dead halt in his own inimitable way. I think that every pause is different anyway, in any play, different from that which follows it and that which precedes it’ — not surprising for a director who once told an actor he was playing ‘two dots when the text said three’! Actually Mamet sent Pinter ‘Glengarry Glen Ross', asking him to find out ‘what was wrong with it’. Pinter decided it was fine, took it round to the National and was rewarded with a dedication in the published version.

‘I believe the United States is a truly monstrous force in the world’

It’s fascinating how Pinter can talk warmly of American friends, and joke about ‘venturing into’ New York to look at rehearsals for a production of ‘No Man’s Land’ featuring Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards, and then launch into an eloquent, furious denunciation of American foreign policy. ‘I believe the United States is a truly monstrous force in the world, now off the leash for obvious reasons. Take the US missile attack on Baghdad – ostensibly a retort to the assassination attempt on Bush but actually telling the American people that Clinton could really kick ass. One person who was killed over there happens to be a friend of someone I know; she was a celebrated artist in her own right, the curator of a museum. And she’s dead, and so is her husband, plenty of other people too. And the morning after Clinton was walking out of church saying he felt good about this and so would the American people, and what he’s talking is murder, which he feels good about. The fact of death and Clinton’s attitude towards that death are miles apart.’

The two words Pinter uses most in his political vein are ‘disgust’ and ‘nauseous’; be it Turkey (which inspired his short but powerful play about linguistic persecution, ‘Mountain Language’), Nicaragua, Angola, Argentina or South Africa, he sees the Yankee dollar and gun at the heart of the tragedy. ‘Nicaragua was that knows on course to being a truly democratic society, a very rare thing indeed. The US organised an economic blockade, a terrorist group that killed 30,000 people and the people overwhelmed by death and hunger voted the Sandinistas out of power. So a society which was humane, dignified and vital now has a situation where infant mortality has risen by 70 percent, where there is over 60 percent unemployment, and education and health services are in ruins – a triumph for President Clinton and the World Bank!’ What saying, disgusts him most is ‘that we have been educated by the Western press since the last war to believe in the good and the bad – we are good, the others are bad. We contribute to those lies because everything we do is supposed to be in the name of freedom and democracy… I do think we have an obligation to see through the crap that we’re fed.’

Pinter says that family relationships and death are at the heart of his new play, ‘Moonlight’, which reads like a compendium of earlier Pinter, the sculptured iciness of ‘No Man’s Land’, the cockney swagger of ‘The Homecoming’, the ribaldry of ‘The Caretaker’, and carries strange echoes of other works like Miller’s ‘Death of A Salesman’, Beckett's ‘Happy Days’ and even ‘The Tempest’. ‘When I was acting in “No Man’s Land” every night, saying those words every night, and however nerve-racking an event acting is, it’s also enjoyable if you get it right, I was stimulated by the act of saying these words and getting a few laughs. And one day while I was still acting at night, I started to scribble away and so something in me was released by saying all these damned words. I saw it with another eye altogether, so that it was a mysterious process – actually, it’s very difficult to describe, the process of acting in your own play. You stumble across things you didn’t know existed. I’ve been accused in the past of being pretentious in saying I don’t know everything about my plays, but it’s not pretension, it’s a fact and if there’s an artist that knows everything about his own plays then I take my hat off to him.

‘This is the first time I’ve spoken about “Moonlight”, but I’m excited by it and by the production and by Ian Holm’s return to the stage. There was one odd thing; I’d started to write at the desk and I looked over there at this huge pile of papers on those shelves, and I suddenly thought to myself: somewhere under there are some pages which I wrote years ago and I think I’m touching on the same bloody thing here. And I was like some mad composer throwing things about and I finally came is across these pages on this yellow pad, which I’d kept since 1977. And I was writing the the same thing here; it was a man dying; a man saying, “Where are they?” One thing that’s happened to me since 1977 is that my mother died last year, she was 88. But I’m not at all last sure the play comes from that fact. Obviously as you’re older you think about death more; you have it on your body; but there’s so much death about. This is a strong element in my political nausea.’

Pinter says that the ‘energy you expend in writing gives you more energy. I feel quickened by it.’ Certainly he’s not all gloom; the joys of cricket calm this man, so much so that I suggest if ‘the past is a mist’, as the dying man in ‘Moonlight’ avers, then cricket, with its emphasis on holding the ‘moment’ by the use of statistics, is a thrice-blessed activity. Pinter shows me the fixture list for his own team, the Gaieties, for which he manages, captains and participates. ‘Get this right: won 9, drawn 9, lost 0. And this is a high-quality fixture list with Oxted and Sidcup left. We’ve got two fellows opening for us, Falkus and Smith, they made 264 in two hours 20 minutes for the first wicket. Make what you will of that, but I reckon they could open for England.’ Messrs Atherton and Fletcher have been warned.

Pinter at the Pinter is at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Until Feb 23 2019

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