And so. Pinter. Has. Died. Without the trademark pause, there will now be a torrent of praise for the departed playwright. But in the fawning, the more interesting - and bleak - questions about Harold Pinter will be lost.
How did the world's leading literary prize, the Nobel, go to a man whose most recent works include this: "We blew the shit right back up their own ass/ And out their fucking ears./ It works. / We blew the shit out of them,/ They suffocated in their own shit!/ We blew them into fucking shit./ They are eating it./ Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth"?
And - more importantly - how did a young Jewish boy who grew up bravely fighting against gangs of Mosleyite fascists on the streets of the East End wind up as a patron of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic?
There are two arguments against Pinter - one literary, the other political - and they are both hard to make, because in amongst the screw-ups Pinter has some undeniable achievements. Harold Pinter has one literary accomplishment: he imported the surrealism of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Luis Bunel into the staid English theatre. As the critic Irving Wardle put it, in his first play 'The Birthday Party', Pinter showed "how a banal Blackpool boarding house could open up to the horrors of modern history." The play shows a man, Stanley, hiding out in a dank Blackpool boarding house, only for two torturers to track him down. His landlady, Meg, is oblivious to the violence smashing through her own home. At their best, his plays are like a nightmarish stress-dream: unbearably primal, raw expressions of menace and fear, whose meaning is always just beyond our grasp.
But with Samuel Beckett, you always know there is an elaborate existentialist philosophy underneath the darkness and chaos. With Pinter, if you turn on the light and switch off the atmospherics, you find... nothing, except a few commonplace insights: Torture is Bad and Resistance is Good. Pinter himself says "the most important line I've ever written" is when Meg's husband calls out, as Stanley is taken away, "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do." The playwright said of this unobjectionable, obvious platitude, "I've lived that line all my damn life. Never more than now." It's depressingly revealing: Pinter's staccato sinisterness does not illustrate a point; it distracts the audience from the fact his point is so banal.
Yet Pinter has been protected by an elderly critical establishment so invested in creating and building up his reputation that they cannot admit how feeble most of his plays now look. (I assume nobody at all takes the poetry seriously). When I saw 'The Homecoming' - a revoltingly misogynistic work - in the West End a few years ago, the audience kept laughing in all the wrong places. It literally looked ridiculous, yet it was given respectful - and in some cases fawning - write-ups.
But the more important case against Pinter is political. Ever since Pinter was a teenager, he was relentlessly contrarian, kicking out violently against anything that might trigger his rage that day. He claimed to be a man of the left, but a few wildcat strikes at the National Theatre were enough to make him vote for Margaret Thatcher. He had an extraordinarily patronizing attitude to the poor, illustrated in an anecdote in Michael Billington's biography. Pinter once bumped into the tramp he had used as a model for the central character in his play 'The Caretaker' on Chiswick roundabout. "We had a chat and I asked him how he was getting on. I didn't mention the play, because he wouldn't have known what a play was," he said. Pinter did not mention that he had made millions of pounds by using this man as an inspiration. No: instead he noted to himself, "I was very close to this old derelict's world, in a way." His reason for comparing himself to a homeless person? When he was a student at RADA, he would skive off (because it was "full of poofs and ponces") and wander the streets "like a tramp." Yes Harold, just like a tramp.
Pinter often fumed about tyranny, but equally fumed about people who resisted it. During the Second World War, Pinter called the British Army uniform "a shit-suit" (his talk was filled with faeces) and during the war against the Nazis he declared, "I am never going to put a shit-suit on for anyone." Just a few years later, Europe was being threatened to the East by a Stalinist tyranny that had already murdered 30 million people, and the Labour left - led by Nye Bevan - was (rightly) supporting the airlifts to occupied Berlin. But Pinter called this "ridiculous". When he was called up for army service, he became a conscientious objector, deriding the people backing free Berlin as "fools."
Yet Pinter cannot be dismissed as politically worthless: his is a story with many greys. Sometimes his fickle rage was directed against targets who really deserve it, and Pinter behaved with ramshackle heroism. In 1979, he traveled to Nicaragua to back the democratic, socialist Sandinistas against the US-backed fascist guerrillas who were besieging the country. In 1985, he spent five days in Turkey - as international President of PEN - where he met with dissidents, and spoke out against torture and state-backed murder. Not many Western intellectuals put themselves at risk like this.
The tragedy of Pinter's politics is that he took a desirable political value - hatred of war, or distrust for his own government - and absolutizes it. It is good to hate war, but to take this so far that you will not resist Hitler and Stalin is absurd. It is good to oppose the crimes of your own government - but to take this so far that you end up serving on the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic is bizarre.
When Serbian nationalism - stoked and stroked by Milosevic - began to ravage the Balkans in the 1990s, Pinter's response was simple and visceral: whatever the US and UK governments are for, I'm against. Blair and Clinton are condemning Milosevic? Right, sign me up for the defense. The Committee he sat on right up to Miolsevic's death - headed by Jared Israel, a friend of Milosevic - was not simply calling for the Serb to be given a fair trial, a demand all reasonable people supported. It called for Milosevic to be released on the grounds that he was not guilty. In fact, the website bragging Pinter's signature describes him as a "the strongest pillar of peace and stability in this region."
So when there was ethnic cleansing two days' drive from Auschwitz, Pinter's response was to defend the aggressor and attack the victims. While much of the left - good people like Peter Tatchell, Michael Foot and Susan Sontag - were calling for democratic countries to arm the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to defend the ethnic Albanians from racist murder, Pinter described the KLA as "a bandit organisation" that was "actually" responsible for the ethnic cleansing in the region. Watching the trial, Pinter said admiringly, "Milosevic is giving them a run for their money."
Human Rights Watch - and others who know something about the Balkans - responded to Pinter's position with horror. Its director, Richard Dicker, said at the time of the trial, "This is not victors' justice - this is justice for the victims of horrific crimes. Slobodan Milosvic was at the top of the chain of command of military and security forces that wrought mayhem in Kosovo in early 1999." Pinter repeatedly said the "real" crimes began after the NATO bombing campaign, but most of the crimes Milosevic was charged with were committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. To give just one example, in November 1994, Dzenana Soklovic, 31, and her seven year old son were walking in woods near Sarajevo. A bullet passed through Dzenana and hit her son in the head, killing him. The closest Pinter has ever come to condemning the man responsible is this grudging concession: "I am absolutely not saying that Milosevic might not be responsible for all sorts of atrocities but I believe what's been left out of public debate is that there was a civil war going on down there. Actually." I once tried to discuss his defence of Milosevic with him and he began to scream - literally scream - at me.
Goodbye. Harold. Pinter. You shouldn't. Have defended. Milosevic. (Stage directions: Off-stage, there are howls and screams of rage. We do not know if these are from ethnic Albanians murdered by Milosevic, or from Pinter himself.)
Johann hari is a writer for the Independent newspaper. To read more of his articles, click here.
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