Sunday, December 28, 2008

In Praise of Pauses

Christmas often gives us time to pause, so its sadly fitting that Harold Pinter, the laureate of the pause, died over the season. There are, of course, many, many obituaries of the man, and reminisces of him, and reminders of his work. The ever estimable Arts and Letters Daily collects them in one place. His Nobel speech was reprinted in part in the Independent and summed up that key contradiction: between a literary life that was deliberate in not nailing things down, and a political life that insisted it was necessary. We can leave the nailing to others, particularly at this time of year, but its the work of course, rather than the political views or the contradictions, that will last. In the land of Shakespeare its perhaps not that surprising that our latest Nobel laureate should be a playwright, yet its instructive to think how much his work hangs over our time - in perhaps a way that no playwright ever will again. I saw a fringe production of the "The Dumb Waiter" a few years ago at Edinburgh, and it was in every way brilliant; it also felt endlessly relevant - and, contradictorily, of its time. There's something about the setting of those early plays that only just remains in England, the echo of the fifties austerity, the provincial towns, the grimey bedsits and b&bs. Whereas post-war America (say, like you'd see in Miller's "All My Sons") has material wealth, in which it sets a sometime spiritual poverty, Britain even up to the seventies and eighties remains drab. Pinter, in his willingness to shine a light on that drabness, will always seem of his time, even if his themes, and his writing transcends it. An early play like "The Dumb Waiter" is set in a single room, always recognisable, I guess, in any age, but its prop - the dumb waiter of the title is something that had gone into memory thirty years ago. I came to Pinter more through those two fascinating works: his screenplay of "the French Lieutenant's Woman" and, particularly, "Betrayal", an adult drama in every way. I'm not a particularly regular theatre goer, and there are only a few writers for theatre whose words seem particularly vital, but Pinter was one of those. The pauses of legend, are, I think, the spaces that he left where we could hear the words echo. To understand, to reflect.

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