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Harold Pinter awarded Nobel Prize for literature
Exposing what lurks beneath "normal life"

By Alan Maass | November 11, 2005 | Page 9

THE MASTERS of war in Washington and London caught a small break last month after the announcement that British writer Harold Pinter had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Asked by reporters for his reaction, Pinter admitted, "I have no words at the moment."

As one of the most renowned playwrights of the last 50 years, not to mention a screenwriter, poet, actor and director, Pinter has always been able to find the right words in his art. But more recently, he's had many bitter and carefully chosen words to say--to any reporter who asks--in opposition to the crimes of the U.S. war machine and its junior partner Britain.

Pinter shook up the world of theater when his plays were first produced in the late 1950s. Works like The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and others are set in seemingly ordinary circumstances--but with conflicts, contradictions and turmoil lurking beneath the surface. Pinter's characters cope with everyday life, but with the threat of violence and betrayal hanging over them.

Much like the black-and-white noir films of 1950s Hollywood that commented on social contradictions in the U.S. without explicitly mentioning politics, Pinter's plays tore the façade off Cold War conservatism by dissecting and exposing dynamics of power and repression beneath the surface of "normal" life.

His later plays made it more obvious what he viewed as the source of the injustices he depicted--the way the ruling elite of society uses and abuses its class power.

In One for the Road, for example, a police interrogator questions a suspect, then the suspect's wife, then his 7-year-old child. Because the alleged crime is never made clear, the verbal abuse seems to be a natural product of a social structure defended by violence. In Party Time, British yuppies chatter away at a cocktail party, mindlessly avoiding a hinted-at police crackdown until they are confronted by a victim of torture--a symbol of the brutality that their comfortable lives depend on.

Pinter's writing had a powerful influence on theater--especially his use of language. In a Pinter play, every word, every gesture and every silence means something. The characters stutter and stop, speaking little or not at all--a perfect reflection of the themes of fear and repression.

Pinter also helped set the stage for a new generation of radical playwrights to open up the stuffy world of theater--writers like David Hare, Caryl Churchill and Trevor Griffiths.

Many of these playwrights explicitly associated their writing with the struggles of the 1960s and '70s, and their works were performed in popular venues, like union halls and bars. But their plays, like Pinter's, also forced their way into the fancy theaters seen as the preserve of the upper classes--showing that forms of art sometimes seen as elitist and removed from ordinary people's lives could be vehicles for important political statements.

Pinter became increasingly radical himself. He said that the U.S.-sponsored coup in 1973 against the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile--and the ensuring wave of terror that cost thousands of lives--had an important impact on him.

During the more conservative 1980s, he was a bitter opponent of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and a succession of war-hungry U.S. presidents. Pinter was one of the few to stick to his anti-imperialist principles during the U.S.-led NATO war on Yugoslavia, and he has been a committed opponent of every stage of George Bush's "war on terror."

In an awards speech this year, he said, "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.'"

So when he speaks at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden in December, expect Pinter to tear into the latest twists in George Bush and Tony Blair's "war on terror." As Pinter told a reporter, "I shall have words by the time I get to Stockholm."

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