Two days recently spent in the Pinter Archive, at the British Library, have predictably enough turned up a few more gems. During this visit, I looked at a number of scrapbooks containing materials relating to Pinter’s political activism. Taking a broad view of the items Pinter collected over several decades makes it easier to spot the themes at work. For example, the items Pinter collated into scrapbook form through the 1980s seemed to me to have much to do with the subject of persecution and the curtailment of human freedoms. While this doesn’t abate as the scrapbooks move into the 90s, the dominant theme emerging in that next decade struck me as having more to do with the question of factual accuracy over fiction and untruth, freedom of expression, and censorship. All of these subjects are of course at play in a number of Pinter’s dramas and poems, and I see the scrapbooks as just another component of what I like to call the Pinter ‘machine.’
I found myself thinking about censorship and Pinter in an entirely new way when I discovered and juxtaposed two key items, one from the 80s and another from the 90s. The first was a letter dated 4 September 1975, from S. D. Meckled, a stranger to Pinter. Meckled gets in touch to inform Pinter that he spent some time imprisoned in a concentration camp in Chacabuco, Chile, in the aftermath of the coup d’etat which ousted Salvador Allende in 1973. (Indeed, the history of the West’s roll out of neoliberalism even featured concentration camps.) He and some inmates had endeavoured to put on Pinter’s 1957 play The Dumb Waiter, and after observing just one rehearsal the camp guards shut the enterprise down. (One can retrieve this missive by calling up the Political Correspondence scrapbook coded Add MS 88880/6/54 and looking through the folios under the heading ‘Misc’.)
In a different box of materials I found a clipping of a Guardian article Pinter kept from 9 June 1995. In it the Guardian’s Home Affairs Editor, Alan Travis, tells of a drama teacher who tried to put on Pinter’s and Victoria Station (1982), One for the Road (1984), and Mountain Language (1988) while teaching at Ashwell Prison, near Oakham, Leicestershire – this incident not in Chile but the UK. Pinter’s plays have a history of being produced in prisons and by inmates, and Travis reports that a prison official forbade this triple-bill on grounds of the plays’ verbal obscenities and apparent rape, torture and murder (of the child character, Nicky). All this, the story goes, inspired Ashwell’s drama teacher to resign. (This item bears the title ‘Pinter: too rude for convicts’ and appears under the code Add MS 00008/09/11, with no folio number). As part of his response to the plays being censored by the prison authorities, the drama teacher pointed out that in his experience foul language is not a foreign language to prisoners and that the rape, torture and death are in fact never shown in the play: they are suggested, and thus transpire off stage and out of sight.
The items I found in the Pinter Archive last week do what Pinter’s political dramas do insofar as they correct our understanding of a prison, defining that institution not as a place for rehabilitating humans but as a space and instrument for surgically breaking down and removing humanity, not a place which prepares convicts for getting back out in to the wider world but which rather destroys their capacity for living on the outside. Pinter of course gestured to how prisons are too much in the business of destroying human life when in his Nobel Lecture he referred to the violence and abuse that characterize prisons from America to Abu Ghraib. Contemporary plays such as Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988), Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s Guantanamo (2004), Tanika Gupta’s Gladiator Games (2005), and Roy Williams’s Category B (2009) engage with this reality in their own way and with an eye for detail I think Pinter would have approved of.
It’s interesting that Pinter’s dramas would manage to be censored in a world which no longer has a Lord Chamberlain’s Office; but the world of prisons is, I would imagine, a foreign country to most of us.
I’m ever fascinated by the many moments in Pinter’s dramas where characters seize power in order to either censor or to punish those who have transgressed or have actively contested the status quo. And how it’s often those who hold the balance of power, have the loudest voice, and enjoy the most visible platform who both do the censoring and are the first to claim they have been unfairly censored. Censorship is a very real contemporary problem in datafied societies and our new media environment. Even though it seems to have changed by taking on different forms, I do wonder how Pinter’s engagement with it three or more decades ago, in his dramas and activism, can help us to think critically about the fact and problem today.