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October 25, 2005

Pinter's Nobel Prize and the MET

Roy Meachum

Shock more than surprise was my first reaction. British playwright Harold Pinter as this year's Nobel laureate for literature? Unbelievable.

Tad James and his colleagues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre must have felt much the same way. Word came from the Swedish Academy just as the company was launching its production of Pinter's "Betrayal," about which I have observations later in this commentary.

At the peak of his celebrity, some 40 years or so ago, the sometime actor turned writer enjoyed no more acclaim among the general public than Samuel Beckett, for example. Mr. Beckett's best-known work, "Waiting for Godot," was said by some to be influenced by his fellow Irishman, James Joyce.

In turn, while his devoted followers insist that the newest Nobel Laureate's works owe nothing to any earlier writer - "sui generis" is the preferred phrase - I hear soundings of "Godot" in every Pinter play I've seen, including the current "Betrayal."

Not incidentally, Sam Beckett also received the Swedish Academy's plaudits and prize along with fellow playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill. I also think the Nobel went to people from other cultures, who composed for theatre in different languages.

Killing time while anticipating the arrival of a presence that many assume might be God Himself, Mr. Beckett's hoboes, Estragon and Vladimir, tend to end their sentences in a vacuum, expected and receiving little reaction. That's Pinter's technique.

My first Pinter play was "The Birthday Party," which I reviewed, more or less; the qualification is necessary because I returned to the Washington Theatre Club's 1967 production more than once, trying to figure out what the playwright meant.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the limits of theatre were being vastly expanded during that era epitomized generally by hippies and flower children and smoking grass. Edward Albee's "Tiny Alice" snuggled tidily into the genre that deliberately misled, nothing was ever as it seemed.

But Harold Pinter brought a raw emotionalism and sexuality barely concealed among his bitten out dialogue and heavy, heavy silences. He was the first playwright I knew that, trusting to no one else, stuck into his text a demand for silence, and not infrequently.

Sitting in the audience during the period when America was first becoming "Pinter-ized" there was an almost uncontrollable impulse to shout out words, bridge the empty gap between players. For all his debt to Mr. Beckett, Mr. Pinter went far beyond the man he richly acclaimed, on the record, for his genius.

Both are successors, of course, to William Shakespeare but on his left side; they disdain his celebration of their mother tongue. They seem both to be dedicated to the proposition language is a shovel, for digging and covering up, as you wish.

Where the younger Nobel laureate went his elder one decidedly better, at least in terms of the dramatic, was the way the London-born, non-Christian Mr. Pinter created sexual tension so tense as to be near-pornographic.

The plot of his "The Homecoming" reaches resolution only when the woman abandons her marriage to become the mother/courtesan for her husband's father and brothers. Reaching toward that climax seemed to bring Olney Theatre temperatures soaring towards overheating even with the air-conditioning going full blast.

Every Pinter work I've seen generates tension that demands dramatic resolution, but not in the manner of traditional theatricality. Something more than twists and technicalities are involved.

"Betrayal" carries less of that tension than any of those plays I saw long ago, but director Gené Fouché and her very splendid cast are not to blame. The fault, dear readers, belongs to Mr. Pinter who chose to begin his story at the end and descend through scenes to how it began.

The most interesting aspect of the recent evening I spent in the depths of the city's former top hotel was regarding the ease actors Julie Herber, Andrew Lloyd Baughman and Tad Janes brought to the Pinteresque lines; they seemed even comfortable with their British accents, no mean feat for Americans. Hooray! (The show will run over the next several weekends.)

If "Betrayal" is your introduction to Mr. Pinter's craftsmanship you might walk out into the night wondering what the Nobel shouting is about. The script is no big deal.

Having known his work over several decades, I was shocked, as I said, the Swedish Academy had selected for the world's highest literary honor a playwright that always seemed to me more intent on effects than causes. He managed ever to obscure motives, leaving the audience always choices.

Moreover, I had difficulty in the first blush of summoning up "a body of work," the important criterion that had brought the Swedish Academy's recognition and the laurel leafs. Not to mention the sizeable financial reward.

After some days of looking about, I might still be perplexed if I hadn't realized some time back the Nobel committees hand out prizes for reasons other than those announced.

Being in Egypt at the time, I paid particular attention when the Norwegian branch chose to bestow the peace prize on Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter, I understood immediately the golden statues were meant to encourage further exploration into ways to solve the Middle East crises. They failed.

In the same mode, I strongly suspect the non-belligerent Scandinavians honor Harold Pinter as literature's foremost critic of the occupation of Iraq. His plays, poetry and other pieces serve as a convenience to facilitate their statement. Of course, I have little personal quarrel with their reasoning, if that's what it is.

Drinking in the chipped dialogue the other evening was a trip to my much younger self; rarely a bad proposition.

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