The Playgoer: the Pinter backlash

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Monday, October 24, 2005

the Pinter backlash

Dramaturg/Professor Rachel Shteir continues what seems to be an actual theatre beat at Slate (perhaps an encouraging internet milestone). But, based on her Pinter and August Wilson pieces, I hope her beat does not exclusively consist on beating up on great playwrights! I suspect there may be some pressure to do so (whether from her or Slate itself) as a kind of shock-jock journalism for eggheads. Let's face it, Slate may be smart, but it's no academic journal. It's a business, and, what's more, it's in the media business. So I can imagine they and Shteir don't mind standing out as the one column sticking it to these lofty giants while everyone else genuflects. Just a theory. (After all, it's working!)

Incidentally, Shteir's blunt Wilson critique--published three days after the playwright's death--has stirred up not a little outrage in academic circles, according to my sources. As I said in my own, somewhat more measured, reaction here, I am all for a lively debate over Wilson's oeuvre. But Shteir's stabs varied from the inaccurate to the downright myopic, and impervious to her own apparent biases. (Talking about "audience" in terms of white audiences only, for instance. And ignoring Wilson's aim for a less realism-bound, less psychological, and more political and poetic dramaturgy.)

With her Pinter piece (with the grabbing headline "Nobel Fool"!), Shteir makes the case for recognizing Pinter's plays, not his politics. This is buttressed by dismissing his later, more explicitly "political" work and claiming his best work was somehow apolitical, or at least extra-political(?). A pretty clichéd view, and quite contestable. What I mind more is the suggestion that politics should not enter into the Nobel:

Would the Nobel committee have recognized Pinter's genius if he hadn't traded his career for sermonizing? The committee has a history of giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to writers, particularly playwrights, who are also political activists, as if it were compensating for the irrelevance of literature with the force of politics. Political writing offers playwrights, especially at a time when the theater is so marginalized, a consoling sense of immediacy. But it rarely produces great theater.
I'll let you pause over that last statement. (Shall we email Shteir a list reminding her of, say, 100 great plays that are in some way "political"?)

Moreover, I think this characterization, reflects an Acentrismirism. In Europe, the artist is still expected to be an homme engagé. They consider taking part in the greater global conversation a good thing, something to be valued in the artist, only adding to the portfolio (not substituting for their art). We--liberals and conservatives alike, it seems--still like our artists above the fray, untainted by politics and call it meddling when they protest. This is what rightists like Laura Inghram like to call "Shut up and sing!" If Pinter's extreme leftism and anti-Americanism bother Shteir personally, fine. But she could say so. Just don't tell me we in the theatre are now cowering to this and turning our backs on an important heritage of activist, engaged political drama.


Alison Croggon said...

Bravo, Playgoer! Absolutely. The other point is that the Arnoldian call for art to be "above" politics is itself political, almost always concealing a conservative agenda. (The pejorative appellation "political" only applies, somehow, to dissenting art, never to the equally political art that actually supports the State or the status quo). Arnold himself equated the highest good with the State, and approved the violent supression of Irish and Indian rebels because to rebel against the State, in his view, amounted to blasphemy, and this is deeply linked to his notion of art as atemporal and sublime.



Anonymous said...

Your impassioned piece makes we now want to read these Rachel Schteir's essays. While it may be poor judgment on her part (ok, or maybe just plain tackiness) to rip a dead man's work apart while his body's not yet six feet under, it does not mean that her analysis of a given writer's body of work is fueled by nefarious (i.e., Evil Right-Wing) motives.

The plays Pinter have written following his Long Slumber through most of the 70s and 80s have been downright embarrassing in terms of their quality of thought, their line-by-line writing and their dramatic urgency. I agree wholeheartedly with Schteir if what she argues is that Pinter's early work, such as "The Birthday Party" is infinitely more rewarding-- and infinitely more dangerous politically and in every other way-- than "Mountain Language" or "Moonlight." For me, there is a vast difference between the literally politically and the dynamically political. Is it possible Schteir is being less literal about her definitions than you think she might be?

Again, without reading her essay on Wilson, it's hard to know exactly what her argument against his inclusion on a Great Dramatist list is. But I do know this: he's not on my list, either. He is, at best, a talented middle-of-the road writer whose structural lack of ingenuity alone denies him, in my opinion, the Great label.

Academic orthodoxy is a dangerous thing. Mostly, academics like to endorse work which can be quantified, labelled and thematically reduced and explicated neatly. This is why, in my opinion, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller routinely place higher in these ludicrous Great Lists than do the enthusiastically messy, and far, far greater talents, such as Tennessee Williams, Len Jenkin or even Albert Innaurato. "The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie" alone is a greater play than all of Miller's output combined.

In my observation, the academic march to canonize the seriously unworthy at the expense of the elusive, quicksilver genius doesn't stop at more or less straightforward narrative drama, either. Vastly overrated dramatists such as Elfriede Jelinek (a fine, fine novelist and a really crap playwright); Sarah Kane (oh what a lot of fuss made in Europe about very, very little; the decadence of an early death really turns 'em on); Mac Wellman (see above: Len Jenkin is MUCH more eloquent at Wellman's game than is Wellman); Paula Vogel (basically Wendy Wasserstein dressed up as Suzan-Lori Parks); Neil LaBute (amazing what a couple of truly great movies can do for a drawer full of unproduced plays); the list goes on and on and on. Howard Barker belongs on the list of the Vastly Overrated only because his work subsequent to "Hated Nightfall" has been unworthy of even a Brown playwriting M.F.A.'s most egregriously self-indulgent Vogel ripoff (hard to ripoff a ripoff successfully)-- but "Victory" among other Barker works is so magnificent that you want to forgive his slide into the warm and fuzzy embrace of academia's a-hole.

Wow. Didn't mean to run on and on. The important thing is, we're all entitled to our passionate opinions. Rachel Schteir-- or anyone else-- who disagrees with us doesn't deserve to be tarred with abuse-- from either the right or the left.

Peace to all.

Anonymous said...

Goodness! I should have proofed my previous post. Many apologies for grammatical (and other) lapses.