Craven: Pinter On Art and Politics

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(HOST) The recent inauguration of our new President-and the convening of fresh legislatures in Montpelier and Washington reminded filmmaker and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven about recently departed British playwright Harold Pinter – and Pinter’s ideas about truth in art – and politics.

(CRAVEN) When Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter died last month, the world lost its reigning playwright.  Positioned in a lineage that includes T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett, Pinter also inspired part-time Cabot writer David Mamet, with his dislocated characters inhabiting fractured lives in spare modern landscapes-characters who, like Mamet’s, speak in non-sequiturs and tough staccato cadences that cut like a knife.

Pinter’s Nobel Prize and two Academy Award nominations earned him a prominence that he used to illuminate his own struggles over the contrasts between truth in art – and of all things – politics. 

In Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize speech he recalled a comment he’d made back in 1958 that – quote – "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."

Then Pinter went on to explain how his thinking had changed. He said: Quote –  "I believe that these assertions 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?"

"Truth in drama is forever elusive," he said. "You never quite find it but the search is compulsive. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art.  There are many."

Then, Pinter continued. "Political language," he said, "as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this (aesthetic) territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power. To maintain that power it is essential that people live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives." Then Pinter recalled politicians’ claims that Saddam Hussein possessed "dangerous weapons of mass destruction" and was linked to Al Quaeda and the atrocity of September 11th. "We were assured that this was true," Pinter said. "It was not true."

At the time, many were offended by Pinter’s comments and his words about Iraq now seem almost dated and polemical.  But the playwright had been outraged and upset when the U.S. backed the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1973 and from that time on, he was often an outspoken and angry critic.

With his dark, menacing, and power-hungry characters, noted for what the New York Times called their "slipperiness of memory," Harold Pinter reflected a pervasive and undeniable theme of the 20th century.

As we now move into a new political era, I find myself wondering about Pinter’s legacy and how playwrights of the future will explore what is true and what is false in the culture of tomorrow.

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