The Playgoer: Dorfman on Pinter

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dorfman on Pinter

The Chilean author of Death and the Maiden reflects on an important mentor.

As I plunged into every one of his works in the years that followed, Pinter became irreplaceably, uniquely inspiring. He showed me how dramatic art can be lyrical without versifying, can be poetic merely by delving into the buried rhythms of everyday speech. He whispered to me that we often speak in order to hide, and perhaps avoid, what we are really feeling and thinking. He was not afraid of silence or letting his characters lapse into stuttering or inscrutability. He understood that if you push reality hard enough, it will end up exposing under its surface another dimension -- fantastic, absurd, delirious. He suggested that the worst hallucinations of fear are not immune to the pendulum of humor.

But all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about -- dare I say the word? -- politics.

From that very first play, I felt that Harold Pinter was unfolding a world that was deeply political. Not in the overt sense (as would happen later, beginning in the early '80s, in several of his dramas) that his creatures were affected by who governed them, whether this or that man controlled the army or gave orders to the police. No, these figments of Pinter's psyche, at least back in the '60s, did not care to dispute the public arena, were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse. They were, on the contrary, sad citizens of intimacy, obsessed only with their own survival.

And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

Two men waiting in a basement to kill somebody [The Dumbwaiter]. An old tramp laying claim to a derelict room [The Caretaker]. A birthday celebration interrupted by intruders [The Birthday Party]. A woman afraid of being evicted [The Room]. A son who comes home to his dysfunctional family accompanied by an enigmatic wife [The Homecoming]. Primal scenes of betrayal that could be transpiring anywhere on our planet, embodiments of a vast and disquieting landscape of dread, the precarious condition inhabited by most of contemporary humanity, the neglected narrative of the 20th century.

Full essay in today's Washington Post. A revealing look at why Pinter's writing transcended the language he used so well and attained such international appeal.

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