Harold Pinter: Independent and critical to the last
The World Socialist Web Site has commented several times on playwright Harold Pinter, who died last week aged 78. He was a courageous and consistent voice of opposition to the military policies of British and American imperialism. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 2005, to his credit, not a single party leader in Britain congratulated him on it. Pinter's opposition to their criminal policies in Iraq and the Balkans was deeply embarrassing to them. He had long been recognised, in the words of the Nobel citation, as "the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century." The actor Michael Gambon, currently appearing in a West End revival of No Man's Land, has gone further, calling Pinter "the iron rod of English theatre." A new adjective, "Pinteresque", was coined to describe his groundbreaking writing for the theatre. His outstanding body of theatrical work was only one facet of his work, which also embraced writing screenplays, directing, acting, and writing occasional verse. What is remarkable about Pinter's life and career is that his later political positions were of a part with the earlier work, which established his reputation. The Nobel citation noted that his opposition to imperialist war and his dedication to democratic rights and freedom of speech had developed from his early analysis of "threat and injustice." Fiercely independent and critical thinking marked all of his writing. Much of the grounding for this can be found in Pinter's childhood. He was born in 1930 in Hackney, northeast London. His grandparents were Ashkenazim Jews who had fled persecution in Poland and the Ukraine. His father Jack, a quiet determined man, was a ladies' tailor. His mother Frances was a more extroverted and generous figure. Pinter was a much-loved only child. His evacuation to Cornwall in 1939, separating him from this warm and loving environment, was a difficult experience, although he returned to London during the Blitz. Many critics have pointed to his experiences of isolation, tension, violence and fear during this period as a formative influence on his imagination. Pinter himself spoke often of his experiences of anti-Semitism in this predominantly Jewish area. During the 1930s, and again after the Second World War, the area was a recruiting ground for fascists, and there was bitter resistance from migrant workers, leading often to violence. Pinter was also struck by the anti-Communism under the post-war Labour government. Such experiences shaped the development of a group of Pinter's friends at Hackney Downs Grammar School who remained close throughout his life. One in particular, the actor Henry Woolf, was an important supporter, collaborator and interpreter of his work. Pinter read widely, and there was a real intellectual ferment in their discussions. He was also inspired by teacher Joe Brearley, who encouraged his passion for poetry and the theatre. Pinter was determined to become an actor. He was good enough to get a grant to RADA, but he found it class-bound and hated it. He left. There were other indications of his emerging independence of thought. In the autumn of 1948 he was conscripted for National Service. He registered as a conscientious objector and refused to wear what he called the "shit-suit". He was arrested twice, and went through a series of military tribunals at which his objections were misrepresented and distorted. He expected to be imprisoned, taking his toothbrush to one tribunal. He was fined. After a second spell at drama school he worked with two classical repertory companies, touring with Anew McMaster's Shakespearean Irish company and appearing with Donald Wolfit's company in Hammersmith. From these two rather grand actor-managers he learned a great deal. He was a fine actor, who continued to work in films and in revivals of his own plays. Donald Pleasence described him as "by far the...
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