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The late Harold Pinter and I

by Dave Riley

Way back in 1968, flushed with a mission to transform Australian theatre I was involved in a production of one of Harold Pinter's plays, The Dumb Waiter. I was at the time the president of the La Trobe University theatre group and this was the the fourth production I was involved in that year.

While I was 'producing' Pinter I was involved in theatre at the local mental hospital. So I was a busy bee.(No wonder my university studies collapsed that year).

Directing the Pinter play was Ian McDonald (pictured right) now a minister in the NSW Labor government; and Louis Nowra who later became a succesful playwright(pictured below left) was its 'designer'. The boorish university activist character in Nowra's play, Cosi, is based on McDonald.

Aside from the two actors -- whose names I've completely forgotten -- in our team was the late Rod Foster who died in a house fire in the 1980s. (At La Trobe the Rod Foster Memorial Wetland is named after him.) And Steve Butyn, now a Victorian high school principal.

But for a moment we were all very Pinteresque -- and we did a very good job of it too.

We were so proud of our effort that we took it on tour.

When you get into the nitty gritty of doing a play you so densely work through the material and the subtleties of every line of dialogue and most especially when doing Pinter, every pause.

How long is a Pinter pause? (Now that's a question!)

At the time Pinter was playwright Number #1 in anyone's almanac and if you caught the Pinter bug it was your entree to the exciting world of the British ' kitchen sink' drama -- a genre that revolutionised theatre dialogue and subject matter from the 1950s.

In Pinter's case what may seem natural dialogue was rooted in an inspired rendering of the prose rhythms in the works of Samuel Beckett who along with Franz Kafka was Pinter's major influence.

But I think Pinter always injected more meaning into his discourses and carried his plots a long way away from the chronic existentialist nihilism & angst that always seem to overburden Beckett's plays and novels.

Not that Pinter was Beckett lite. The Kafka connection gave his plots a horrifying absurdity that was soon enough labeled as "comedies of menace". Yes, they are funny plays.

If you read through his plays -- or better still, sit through performances of them -- it's a fascinating journey from subjective menace -- the threat posed by other human beings -- to a broader political context, as unlike so many writers Pinter became more overtly political as he matured and aged as a playwright.

When asked once about how political his plays were, he replied that they were all political. I think he's correct, because his major theme is oppression -- a relentless and unacknowledged oppression that warped and scarred all his characters whether they were performing the role of oppressor or oppressed.

Of course if you haven't actually experienced Pinter then you are missing all this. As an option, his plays (and poems) read extremely well. It's also hard to convey how much of a craftsman he was , how really skilled his writing, and how solid were his plays. I'm sure today every would-be playwright spends some time trying to write like Pinter so that they can capture some of his technique.

But it was the conviction in his work I guess that bore it up so much. He was one of the 20th century's greatest playwrights and his influence has permeated most significantly in film -- a medium he often wrote for.

A man with such stature, a British national treasure -- never tolerated the world as he found it. From the nuclear arms race to apartheid, Thatcherism and the Iraq invasion, Pinter would never shut up. His 2005 Nobel laureate address, Art, Truth & Politics was a bold protest against the Iraq war that spitefully denounced a brutality & cynicism that the playwright could never tolerate:
Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory [of the artist] since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. 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.

As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al-Qaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11, 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.
It may be a long time since The Dumb Waiter closed its run in suburban Bundoora. But it is real nice to know that someone like its author, Harold Pinter, spent a lot of his time while alive doing his damdest to articulate the argument for our side of politics.

The Dumb Waiter sampler
  • "He might not come. He might just send a message. He doesn't always come."
  • "…you come into a place when it's still dark, you come into a room you've never seen before, you sleep all day, you do your job, and then you go away in the night again.
  • "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!
  • "BEN: If there's a knock on the door you don't answer it. GUS: If there's a knock on the door I don't answer it."

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