There was something oddly Beckettian about Harold Pinter's Nobel lecture, which was broadcast yesterday by More4, and which even now is blazing its way across the world's media. It was Beckettian in that Pinter sat in a wheelchair, with a rug over his knees and framed by an image of his younger self, delivering his sombre message: memories of Hamm in Beckett's Endgame came to mind. But if Pinter's frailty was occasionally visible, there was nothing ailing about his passionate and astonishing speech, which mixed moral vigour with forensic detail.
In fact, the speech was all the more powerful because it was delivered in a husky, throaty rasp. The facts are that Pinter, having recovered from cancer of the oesophagus, was earlier this year stricken by a condition in the mouth which affected his vocal chords. Then 10 days ago he was re-admitted to hospital with severe leg pains. But he briefly emerged on Sunday to record his Nobel speech, and the good news is that he should be back home early next week.
British author Harold Pinter is seen on as video scree as he gives a speech broadcast from England to Swedish spectators and media at the Swedish Royal Academy in Stockholm, Sweden. Pinter branded the war on Iraq 'an act of blatant state terrorism' and demanded the prosecutions of US President George W. Bush and Britain's Tony Blair. (AFP/PRESSENSBILD/Henrik Montgomery)
Although the speech obviously was a physical strain to deliver, it was impressively structured. It began with Pinter talking about his art - something he rarely does in public. In particular, he drew a clear distinction between the necessary ambivalence of art and the duty of the citizen to ask: "What is true? What is false?" Pinter even gave fascinating examples of the way in which his plays start with a line, a word or an image and then proceed on their journey into the unknown.
Warming to his theme, Pinter argued that while language is, for the dramatist, an ambiguous transaction, it is something that politicians distort for the sake of power. And, in making his point, Pinter deployed a variety of tactics: the charged pause, the tug at the glasses, the unremitting stare at the camera. I am told by Michael Kustow, who co-produced the lecture, that after a time he stopped giving Pinter any instructions. He simply allowed him to rely on his actor's instinct for knowing how to reinforce a line or heighten suspense.
Although the content of the speech was highly political, especially in its clinical dissection of post-war US foreign policy, it relied on Pinter's theatrical sense, in particular his ability to use irony, rhetoric and humour, to make its point. This was the speech of a man who knows what he wants to say but who also realises that the message is more effective if rabbinical fervour is combined with oratorical panache.
At one point, for instance, Pinter argued that "the United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second world war". He then proceeded to reel off examples. But the clincher came when Pinter, with deadpan irony, said: "It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest." In a few sharp sentences, Pinter pinned down the willed indifference of the media to publicly recorded events. He also showed how language is devalued by the constant appeal of US presidents to "the American people". This was argument by devastating example. As Pinter repeated the lulling mantra, he proved his point that "The words "the American people" provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance." Thus Pinter brilliantly used a rhetorical device to demolish political rhetoric.
But it was the black humour of the speech I liked best. At one point, Pinter offered himself as a speechwriter to President Bush - an offer unlikely, on this basis of this speech, to be quickly accepted. And Pinter proceeded to give us a parody of the Bush antithetical technique in which the good guys and the bad guys are thrown into stark contrast: "My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians." Pinter's poker face as he delivered this only reinforced its satirical power.
One columnist predicted, before the event, that we were due for a Pinter rant. But this was not a rant in the sense of a bombastic declaration. This was a man delivering an attack on American foreign policy, and Britain's subscription to it, with a controlled anger and a deadly irony. And, paradoxically, it reminded us why Pinter is such a formidable dramatist. He used every weapon in his theatrical technique to reinforce his message. And, by the end, it was as if Pinter himself had been physically recharged by the moral duty to express his innermost feelings.
Michael Billington is the Guardian's theatre critic.
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