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Saturday 21 September 2019

Unflagging in his principles and unrivalled in his genius

Emer O’Kelly

Harold Pinter was awkward and cussed, a word he would have understood very well because he had spent several years in Ireland in his youth. It was the cussedness of massive intellect and a profound sense of outrage. It was the cussedness of being Jewish in the east end of London at a time when to be English and Jewish meant you were safe, while knowing that millions of your co-religionists were being marched into the inferno of Hitler's death camps.

It was the cussedness of forgetting your manners; never for silly social or drunken reasons, but from a passionate unyielding principle: that liberalism must be as dangerous and subversive as it is profoundly energising and generous.

And he chose the written word spoken as human poetry to give voice to his profound and unremitting dedication to the principles of human freedom.

He was born in 1930, and died on Christmas Eve, his spirit as unbroken and awkward as ever it had been and his legacy now cast in stone with what he has left us, that body of extraordinary work that grovels under the cocktail cabinet and sears into the soul to make us slide down in our seats, silently begging him to stop writing about us: writing in a voice that calls to each of us, telling us with that dark smile and those penetrating eyes, that he knows what we're about and, above all, he knows what we fear most.

He was the most human of writers, and at times the funniest of writers. He made each of us Everyman, and he identified Everyman for each of us as our inner self.

And of course, he did it by bending all the rules of theatre, by turning English writing for the stage on its head, his characters speaking in a language of politely refined menace about something entirely trivial, while the inner voices spoke of danger, violence, terror and destruction, a turmoil of soul and body that could destroy worlds and devastate lives.

I have always thought that his writing fell into two clearly-defined periods, the plays that sprang from his East End boyhood and his doomed marriage to the actor Vivienne Merchant, and the latter period after he began his affair with, and later married, the writer and historian Lady Antonia Fraser.

Harold Pinter's characters are always sophisticated in the real meaning of the world: they know exactly what they are about. But since the mid-Seventies, the plays are characterised by casts of the worldly wise, artists, art dealers, sophisticated world travellers, university teachers.

And the elegance of the settings and the characters somehow makes the plays even more piercing in their often vicious impaling of society on its own pretensions, failures, and cruelties.

But as well as being an excoriating critic of what he saw as wrong with society, Harold Pinter was also one of the most charming men I ever met, and could be one of the most assuming.

He was known to be difficult: it was a trademark to arrive everywhere with a complaint. The car had been late, the wine was the wrong temperature, the hotel room was inadequate. The complaints all said the same thing "I am Harold Pinter, after all".

But after the initial complaint he relaxed; there was no sense, ever, that he felt himself above his company.

He could even be courteous to idiots in the pursuit of a train of thought and a conversation.

He could make you walk on air; he did that to me shortly after we met for the first time. It was during the 1997 Pinter season at the Gate Theatre, when he played Harold in The Collection.

It was the first time I had seen him act, and I told him so. It was the satisfying completion of my Pinter canon of direction and writing, as it were.

A few nights later, in the crowded bar, he caught my eye and raised his glass to me. My review of the play had appeared in the interim. The great man made his way through the crowd, put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Thank you for your wonderful notice; I really appreciated it."

I had always regarded him as one of the giants of twentieth century theatre; now I added the adulation of a besotted schoolgirl to my feelings. He did that to you.

He was a committed campaigner for human rights: nobody dared mention a holiday in Turkey in front of Pinter. It would merit a lecture of explosive rage about that country's government's human rights record.

A particular incident appears in his biography and in his great friend Arthur Miller's autobiography. At a conference together in Moscow, they were invited to the American Embassy for dinner. Pinter admitted to his biographer that he used the occasion to tell the Ambassador's wife exactly what he thought of American foreign policy. Arthur, he said, immediately supported him, and they were thrown out.

Miller recalled it differently: he agreed fully with Harold's views, he wrote, but really thought that there was a time and place for everything, and insulting your hostess wasn't either. But he nonetheless felt that he had to leave with Harold to show solidarity. Two geniuses, two versions, two very different men.

But just as Miller was the giant (along with O'Neill) of twentieth century American theatre, and suffered for his liberalism (he had his passport taken away), Pinter was undoubtedly Britain's towering giant of the same period, a unique genius.

But as a citizen of a more tolerant land than the United States, he never lacked acclaim, although he refused honours, twice turning down a knighthood.

Honour for Harold Pinter was the honour of theatre, and the honour paid to him for his human rights campaigning. And when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature two years ago, he used the occasion to speak of justice in the world as well as of literature.

On the latter, he made a point of saying that principle should never stop you being entertaining. He lived his life and wrote his plays that way: he never talked down, and he was never boring. It's hard to believe that the legacy is now closed; he may have been ill for several years, but Harold Pinter's pen never flagged: his prime continued to the end.

We've lost a giant.

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