Don’t let them tell you what to do!

Playwright Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. At the awards ceremony for the prize, Pinter delivered a lecture titled Art, Truth & Politics via telecast from his hospital bed.

He begins the lecture by describing one of his core beliefs as a young writer:

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.

Pinter as a mature writer, however, finds that this notion of truth is not enough:

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

I believe this distinction between an artist’s search for truth versus that of the citizen may be considered seriously through reflections on Pinter’s plays and his Nobel speech. Further in his lecture, Pinter clarifies the fundamentally slippery nature of truth in art:

So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.

But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

This commitment to the search for an inherently ambiguous truth is what draws me to Pinter’s work. The struggle for truth is expressed through his use of oblique language and moments of silence that barely conceal the socially-shattering violent and sexual undercurrents domesticity belies and  how this domestic tension, borne of the struggle to resist normalization, inevitably culminates in the failure of reason and language.

For example, in The Birthday Party, Stanley, a seemingly down-on-his-luck pianist in a rundown boarding house, is nagged by Meg, the older woman who runs the boarding house with her listless husband Petey and with whom Stanley may or may not have an intimate relationship. She exhorts him, in a manner inappropriate to a mere boarder, to be a more socially integrated part of the household and her life. He’s similarly egged on by Lulu, the voluptuous 20-something neighbor, to get out more and later harassed by the gangsters McCann and Goldberg who seem to know about him and his past.

The Birthday Party / Northwestern University /  W    ikimedia Commons

The Birthday Party / Northwestern University / Wikimedia Commons

The language of English politeness gradually breaks down as it transforms from social niceties to verbal assault, as first used by Stanley against Meg, and then by Goldberg and McCann against Stanley. By the play’s end, Stanley is left speechless following a nervous breakdown during the “birthday party”, able to only grunt as he’s being reclaimed by Goldberg and McCann and hauled away to some sinister fate.

The Birthday Party is full of inexplicable exchanges and shifting truths, as characters deploy multiple names, origins, identities, and innuendo, not to outwit each other but to muddy the waters of how they relate to each other with protective ambiguity. Bob Bows, a critic for the Denver Post, astutely points out that “in the silence between the characters and their words, Pinter opens the door to another world, cogent and familiar: the part we hide from ourselves.” The dialogue reminds me of the limited vocabulary and claustrophobia that can emerge within the confines of an intimate relationship and how our words and silences, if left untended, may slowly engulf us.

Pinter’s plays ripple with violence, often culminating in nightmarish (and oddly humorous)  bacchanals. The juxtaposition of comedy and menace in The Birthday Party is best exemplified by a scene near the end of the play where Goldberg demands McCann blow puffs of air into his mouth as a sort of shamanistic infusion of life energy, after a lengthy monologue about his father and his studious loyalty to hard work and organization. The surreal moment passes without comment or footnote, unexplained yet undeniable.

Explanations are scant in Pinter’s plays. The factual truth of characters’ pasts, origins, and relationships is concealed, to both the audience and the author. Pinter in his Nobel lecture describes how he wrote most of his plays starting with an image or a line and working his way out from there, using the dialogue to reveal, even to himself, who these characters are and what is to occur on stage.

Consider The Homecoming, a play about the return of an American academic, Teddy, to his North London family with his wife Ruth. It quickly becomes apparent that Teddy’s family is deeply involved with a criminal underworld tied to a boxing ring. The play escalates from menacing pleasantries (a Pinter specialty) upon Teddy’s arrival to the family aggressively claiming Ruth for themselves with her unexpected consent. The precise reasons why Ruth would leave her children and her husband Teddy to become a prostitute and surrogate mother for Teddy’s father and brothers, or even why Teddy left North London for America in the first place, or even why Ruth seems so familiar with a milieu and social class she ostensibly has never been in are all left ambiguous.

What’s exhilarating about The Homecoming is how the characters’ actions are both rationally inexplicable and emotionally coherent. Even the most shocking, violent, erotic, and taboo turn of events in Pinter’s plays can erupt from a seemingly banal, polite conversation. It is clear in Pinter’s worlds how a society with so much pervasive domestic tension cloaked under manners and expectations could wind up going to war.

Indeed, Pinter’s lifelong disgust of war becomes more evident as he began writing plays set in prisons or bureaucratic frontlines where, like the home, cruelties and tortures are carefully obfuscated and hidden yet present in language and the depths of relationships.

in Mountain Language, the difference between emotional and bureaucratic truth is made even more explicit. Prison guards coerce their captives to speak in their language, the language of the capital, which they deploy in complicated linguistic gymnastics to formalize their cruelty. Meanwhile, the mountain language of the prisoners is reserved for expressing psychic traumas and grief. The truth of pain and violence is explicitly confined into a language the captors cannot understand.

Pinter’s work is intentionally confrontational. His plays force audiences to abandon the impulse to speculate and to just see the actions unfolding before them. Rather than unsee emotions and passions in favor of their logical origins, Pinter’s plays force us to be emotionally present by surfacing “the part we hide from ourselves” onto the stage. This approach itself is a challenge to a regime that seeks to define truth and our sense of self for us.

Pinter further expands on this theme in his Nobel lecture:

To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

Which he then contrasts to the life and work of a writer:

A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection--unless you lie--in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

The task of determining what to say and how to say it sometimes leaves me stymied. I find myself confronting in my own work the failures of language to express how I feel.

I believe that part of this challenge of expression is rooted in my troubled relationship with desires that I habitually deny or hide from myself. To acknowledge these feelings of anger and violence, lust and gluttony, envy, domination, and fear feels like a betrayal of my project of defining myself before I am defined by others. Yet, to hide from these feelings, as Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor argue in On Kindness, is a form of unkindness because it obscures us from ourselves and confines us. Likewise, refusing to see what is dark and inexplicable in others is a form of unkindness too. Without the kindness of seeing ourselves and others in full, can we ever accord ourselves our due dignity?

Maybe this multiplicity of truth pursued by writers like Pinter, the results of their practice of sitting and seeing the scope of humanity in full, is the core of human dignity and the ultimate consequence of genuine kindness. Embracing the multiplicity of truth may also be a form of resistance to coercive force. 

Goldberg and McCann at the end of The Birthday Party insist to a blubbering Stanley in a barrage of promises that they will essentially be, as Goldberg puts it “the hub of his wheel” from now on. It appears that whatever Stanley was trying to discreetly escape, he was incapable of running away from it fast enough. As Stanley is being carried away by Goldberg and McCann, Petey calls out to him, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!”, a suitable rallying cry for our age.

Pinter winds up dedicating the majority of his Nobel lecture to an indictment of the US and the UK for their crimes in Iraq and the US overall for its relentless bullying of other nations and support of cruel dictators throughout its 20th century history. The simmer of the early 2000s rather than abating has instead approached a rolling boil. For that reason, I believe that Pinter’s closing exhortations still serve as a terribly urgent benediction to our collective conscience to guide us as artists and citizens:

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us--the dignity of man.