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From Draft NOtices, November-December, 2005

Harold Pinter

Nobel Prize Winner is a Conscientious Objector and Fierce Counter-militarism Advocate

—Glen Motil

The Swedish Academy says playwright, poet, and polemicist Harold Pinter “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”

An East London boy, son of working-class Jewish immigrants, is sent away to rural England on a traumatic separation where he immerses himself in reading. The reason for his sojourn is to escape bombs falling from the sky; it is the Battle of Britain and the Nazis are terrorizing the civilian population of London. The boy returns to find a devastated urban landscape. This experience would forever impact and alter the consciousness of this boy named Harold Pinter.

When he turned 18 in 1948, as World War II was being mythologized as the so-called “Good War” and the Cold War age of nuclear horror was just beginning, young Harold simply said, “No.” He confirmed his stance as a conscientious objector to British conscription, was brought before a court twice and fined for refusing to perform military service. He cited his cursory but traumatizing knowledge of war as his reason for refusal. According to Peter Marks of the Washington Post, “Pinter told an interviewer in 2002 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, ‘I didn’t actually see anybody killed, but I saw where bombs had fallen and I was part of that world of bombs dropping.’” Because of this, Pinter acknowledges that “out of one’s consciousness and out of one’s recognition of other people’s reality” one begins to see and feel “what death means to other people.” This knowledge made it impossible for him to take part in what he viewed as barbarism. Less than a decade later, Pinter rose to international fame with his plays of absurdist bent — originally misunderstood and critically lambasted but ultimately widely embraced and hailed as genius.

One begins to get a sense of Pinter’s extraordinary talents and influence as a brilliant playwright by reading what other gifted writers say when describing his work. These voices were easy to find in major national newspapers last month after Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The New York Times writes that Pinter “uses spare and often menacing language to explore themes of powerlessness, domination and the faceless tyranny of the state” in a manner “so artful” that “his use of pauses and omissions . . . invoke discomfort, foreboding and miscommunication.” He “dispenses with the easy comforts of fluent speech and has his characters speak in non sequiturs and sentence fragments, interrupt one another, fail to listen, fail to understand.” The Los Angeles Times calls Pinter a “modernist playwright known for his searing explorations of power, menace and half-articulated truths” who is “recognized for his ability to distill the sense of uncertainty and dread that afflicts contemporary culture into small, intense scenes that vibrate with peril, mystery and dark irony.” The Washington Post introduces the laureate by making mention of his “works of brutal spareness, betrayal and conscience” that demonstrate “a modernist’s eye for cold, bleak realities and an absurdist’s ear for a new kind of language for the stage,” replete with “a love of short, startling silences, percolating with danger” and “hard-edged characters and the seemingly inconsequential chatter.” The Post quotes critic Penelope Gilliatt in a review of a famous Pinter play in which she writes that the drama is not in the plot, but rather “consists in the swaying of violent people as they gain minute advantages.”

Critic Ben Brantley, in an essay for the New York Times titled, “An Appraisal: Fear and Miscommunication in Pinterland,” calls Pinter the “greatest living practitioner of viral theater,” explaining that “great theater, the kind that changes the way you see and hear the world, acts like a virus. It creeps into the bloodstream, without your really knowing it, while you are watching a performance. Then it grows, it mutates, it seizes the senses. And often it won’t leave you for hours, even days, after the curtain has come down.” The Associated Press, in contrasting Pinter’s literary style with his outspoken views on geopolitics, writes that “deft silences are the trademark of Harold Pinter the playwright. But thunderous, sometimes obscene, rage is his style in politics.” Brantley says that a “shifting dialectic of oppressors and oppressed is what makes all Pinter plays, in a sense, political and tallies with his public role as a voluble critic of international repression, censorship and wars (like the invasion of Iraq) that he perceives as unjust.” Brantley observes that the “fascist, it appears, lurks just beneath everyone’s skin.” This is perhaps what the Swedish Academy itself meant when it states that “in a typical Pinter play, we meet people defending themselves against intrusion or their own impulses by entrenching themselves in a reduced and controlled existence.”

In Pinter’s poetry we find a close cousin to his aggressive — although ultimately pacifist-driven — polemical diatribes, which have become increasingly more common and vehement since the U.S. and Britain’s so-called “War on Terror” began. Many have written that the stands he takes are not ideologically driven as much as they are about his respect for all humanity and the fact that he experienced anti-Semitism as a boy, along with all those bombs falling from the sky. The numerous awards Pinter has won have allowed him to use his fame and the public platform to speak his truth to power and confront the hypocrisy of the idea that peace can be achieved through the means of militarism, torture, oppression, and war.

“We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East,’” he said recently at an award acceptance ceremony. In a speech to the House of Commons in October 2002, he said that “the ‘special relationship’ between the USA and the United Kingdom has, in the last twelve years, brought about the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia. All this in pursuit of the American and British ‘moral crusade’ to bring ‘peace and stability to the world.’” In reference to the depleted uranium used in the first Gulf War he conjures images of “babies . . . born with no brain, no eyes, no genitals” while the leaders of the two nations causing such misery are getting a “standing ovation.” “For what?” Pinter asks the pointed question directly. “Killing Iraqi children? Or Serbian children?”

In 2002, after presenting the thesis that “they” (the Anglo-American empire) “are determined, quite simply, to control the world and the world’s resources,” Pinter described what was taking place at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the first glimpse of the policy of total disregard for the rule of law that eventually and inevitably brought us the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal and the recently confirmed CIA American global mind-control gulag. In yet another House of Commons speech given in January 2003, Pinter suggests that “one of the more nauseating images of the year 2002 is that of our Prime Minister kneeling in the church on Christmas Day praying for peace on earth and good will towards all men, while simultaneously preparing to assist in the murder of thousands of totally innocent people in Iraq.” And this master of the psychology of theater posits a disturbing critique of the now-infamous Bush and Rumsfeld smirk and twinkle in the eye as they speak about things most horrific. “I believe,” Pinter says, “that not only is this contemplated act [the coming invasion and occupation of Iraq] criminal, malevolent and barbaric, it also contains within itself a palpable joy in destruction. Power, as has often been remarked, is the great aphrodisiac, and so, it would seem, is the death of others.”

I couldn’t be more thrilled with the Nobel committee’s choice of Pinter. This is not only because I have recently discovered his work by way of a timely interest in his mentor Samuel Beckett —1969 Nobel Literature winner —but also because of the stands for which he has become so well-known. I hope word of his own conscientious objection to military service becomes an often-told heroic tale that is mimicked by countless others. I hope he inspires in all of us the desire to create “viral art” that will infect the fascist body politic with feelings, thoughts and dreams of peace, love, compassion and hope. I hope he encourages others to use whatever forum they can to reach to the root of an issue and speak their truth to abusive power.

But most of all, I hope he allows us to find our courage and strength in those frightening, tension-filled, explosive, and potentially enlightening Pinteresque pauses in our own lives.

The full text of Harold Pinter’s speeches quoted above can be found on his Web site:

Sources: The New York Times, October 13 and 14, 2005; The Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2005; The Washington Post, October 13, 2005.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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