Lately, as part of my research for the Pinter Histories and Legacies project, I’ve been leafing through Pinter’s scrapbooks in the British Library. Two weeks ago I ran into some materials on various productions of Pinter’s play One for the Road, from 1984. This caught my attention because most of my work on Pinter has focused on his shift after the 1970s into a more explicitly political register. In one scrapbook, I was struck most by three press clippings of reviews of the play’s premiere, which ran at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Studio and was directed by Pinter. One theatre critic speaks of how the claim the performance made upon his body threw the contemporary landscape of theatre into relief: ‘Pinter’s insight into the mind of the sadistic interrogator and Alan Bates’s playing’, he pinpoints, ‘made One for the Road an experience that left my nerve-ends tingling, and made most of the rest of the week’s viewing seem flabby by comparison.’ (Barry Took, The Listener August 1985, no page) Another reviewer reflects upon how the nature of the play’s affect justifies the playwright’s choice to leave out ‘any social or political context’. To this he adds ‘that this is one of those cases where the material facts, the concrete human suffering, must be more powerful than any metaphysical resonance that the play could also generate.’ (Peter Lennon, The Listener 18 July 1985, p. 31) A third reviewer juxtaposes Pinter’s representation of political reality with what was at the time circulating as mainstream media fare: According to him, ‘Pinter is so good at menace it was almost a relief when the real life horrors came on Newsnight.’ (Mail on Sunday July 28 1985) These three responses to One for the Road offer us a way to appraise Pinter’s play, but also his political writing in general, from three vantages: how the writing might be said to operate decidedly upon the body of spectators; how the play becomes political by circumventing historical context to instead explore the mechanics of politically-inspired violence and the experience of it; and how Pinter’s representation of political reality differs from the mainstream media’s.
These three foci happen to form several cornerstones of a book on Pinter I wrote, and which Palgrave Macmillan published this month. Entitled The Late Harold Pinter, this book engages with Pinter’s political dramas, verse and activism, and is the first book-length study of Pinter’s overtly political activity. With chapters on political drama, poetry, and speeches, this study charts a consistent tension between aesthetics and politics through Pinter’s later career, defines the politics of the work in terms of a pronounced sensory dimension and capacity to affect audiences and considers Pinter’s engagement with political reality and history against other mainstream discourses. It also draws upon materials from the Pinter Archive, so my experience in that world comes directly to bear upon the work I’m doing for the Pinter histories and Legacies project.
Rather than focus on the content, I thought I’d relate a little of the story behind my book: how it came about and evolved. As I researched Pinter, I noticed a fair number of tensions and dualities in the writer’s body of work. One tension in particular is how Pinter’s dramas avail themselves to all manner of symbolic and conceptual readings while they also manipulate and even frustrate our usual habits of making meaning and investing in the play world. I found immediately that a good number of folks were talking about how Pinter’s writing and productions affect readers and spectators: what they seem to make the body and mind do in the face of the stage, and in turn what they make possible. Given this discussion in the context of Pinter scholarship, it seemed intuitive to set about surveying the history of affect theory, through the disciplines of Philosophy and Psychology. As I advanced in this, affect struck me as a fine way to look critically at how Pinter’s plays resist us applying (perhaps imposing) familiar models of interpretation, and in this also a fine way to suggest other ways we might make meaning with Pinter’s work.
In the mix I was attending all the productions of Pinter’s plays I could. I noticed that his political output seemed to also have a capacity for affecting readers and spectators. Not unlike the so-called comedies of menace and memory plays, plays such as One for the Road, Mountain Language (1988) and even much shorter works such as The New World Order (1991) struck me as disposed to mediate the audience’s desire and capacity for resorting to habitual behavior and common sense, by which I mean received wisdom and taken-for-granted thinking. It’s not that these plays have the same affect as earlier works but rather that they also have a significant capacity to affect, and affect seems to be a significant component of their aesthetic make-up. Without claiming that all of Pinter’s works affect us in the same way, my project became interested to loosen the perceived boundary between both the familiar periods said to form Pinter’s lengthy career and the various media he worked in. Ultimately, what I’ve come up with is an argument for how the political works both draw upon earlier practices and styles and enable us to revisit that past output with fresh eyes. Relatedly, where Pinter’s expressly political work and particularly his political activity beyond the theatre have been often set against the artistic output, my book seeks to demonstrate how the citizen relies upon the artist, and could never have existed without him.
Because the book attained this kind of focus, it sent me into the Pinter Archive and even put me in touch with a number of persons with whom Pinter worked and even some who attended productions. The Pinter Archive illustrates that it can enable human connections, and these are part of and just as important as the intellectual ones. For me, this is Pinter’s capacity to affect made plain in yet another way. I think of this as one important feature of Pinter’s legacy.
Now that The Late Harold Pinter is off my desk and out in the world it’s certainly a boon to be able to carry on Pinter-related work under the banner of this AHRC-funded project. I’m elated to be back in the Pinter Archive where a good deal of my book’s insights began and were affirmed. But it’s better yet to find myself presently discovering Pinter anew, and also wondering what human connections he’ll indirectly enable in the coming two years.