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Pinter Storms

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Harold Pinter, perhaps Britain's greatest modern playwright and the winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, presented his Nobel lecture two weeks ago. Despite his reputation as a master of dark, absurdist comedy, Pinter's speech can only be described as tragic.

The first tragedy of Pinter's speech was that he could not deliver it in person. His lecture was filmed in England and the video was then shown for the Swedish Academy at a ceremony on December 7.

Pinter's health has been rumored to be deteriorating, and to see this video--which can be downloaded on the Nobel Prize website--is to fully understand this. Pinter delivers the lecture to a camera while seated in a wheelchair. His voice is hoarse and his speech is labored--getting words out, to say nothing of breathing or swallowing, seem to be major tasks.

This is sad, not simply because it confirms fears about Mr. Pinter's health; but also because--as an earlier Theatre Talk has discussed--Pinter is not just a fine playwright, he is also a fine stage actor. He has a commanding stage presence and an equally commanding use of spoken English. Had Pinter's health allowed him to deliver this lecture in person before a live audience in Stockholm, there is no doubt that it would have been a performance to remember--despite the fact that the text of Pinter's lecture did not approach the power or subtlety of his plays.

This is the second tragedy of Pinter's Nobel lecture, that after seven minutes of talking about his work in an illuminating fashion, Pinter devotes the following 39 minutes to a rant against U.S. foreign policy.

To anyone familiar with Pinter's politics, this anti-Americanism is no surprise. His lecture titled Art, Truth, and Politics contains many of the same issues (Nicaragua, cluster bombs, Iraq) that Pinter has been speaking out against for years. Certainly many of the issues Pinter brings up deserve attention; however, Pinter sheds very little that is new or freshly persuasive about art, truth or politics.

What's sad is that Pinter has the creativity and courage to say something interesting about contemporary politics. In fact he did this with his last play, titled Press Conference. This is a short, biting piece that shows both the playwright's outrage as well as his dark sense of humor. Needing only a few minutes, Pinter exposes the doublespeak of the modern political press conference in a brisk, amusing, but still chilling fashion.

Since Pinter performed this monologue when it premiered, why not simply perform it again as his lecture? Or better yet, perform a new piece, written for the occasion. Performing a dramatic monologue--even if overtly political--would not only have been more powerful than simply delivering a straightforward diatribe, it would have been a reaffirmation of the the very art that the Nobel Committee was awarding.

If Pinter's health made such an endeavor impossible, the playwright would have done well to look at the Nobel lecture of a previous dramatist to win the legendary prize.

In 1997, Italian playwright Dario Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Fo and his work are no less political than Pinter--indeed, his most recent play, Peace Mom, is about antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. But in his 11-minute lecture to the Swedish Academy, Fo spoke of his teachers, where he came from, and also of previous playwrights--like Moli-re--who inspired him. Politics of course was the subtext of the whole speech, entitled Against Jesters Who Defame and Insult, which referred to a law passed in the year 1221 that allowed anyone to kill a Jester if what he said caused offensive.

By equating the modern farceur with the jesters of the middle ages, Po makes it clear that ideas have always been dangerous--and that those who aim to make entertainment that rattles those in power is truly a noble tradition. Art, truth and politics will always be in conflict. Dario Fo makes this point subtly and because of this, his Noble lecture is an extension of his art. Pinter's lecture is not. It's in opposition to his plays, and instead sounds like he's running for office.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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