Why the World Needs Playwrights
Author: Simon Stander
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 10/20/2005
The jury for The Nobel Prize in Literature has had a tendency from time to time to favour the avant-garde and the outspoken, though there have been such strange exceptions as Winston Churchill who along with Kipling, Galsworthy, Bertrand Russell and William Golding have kept the English flag flying (though out of the last twenty prize-winners, nine have been writers in the English language). Harold Pinter is the first English playwright to receive the prize, and, indeed, playwrights do not figure as large as might be thought in the hundred years of prize giving. Apart from recent hybrids (playwright-poet-novelists) of Jelinek and Gao Xingjian, the list reads only Dario Fo, Samuel Becket, Wole Soyinka, Eugene O’Neill, Luigi Pirandello, George Bernard Shaw, Jacinta Benavente, Hauptmann, Maeterlinck, Jose Echegaray and Eizaguirre.
To the extent that Pinter might be regarded as belonging to the theatre of the absurd he is in good company with Fo, Pirandello and Becket. (See this article ). Some might query whether he is the greatest living playwright, however, in England. Other contenders would be Sir David Hare or Sir Tom Stoppard. In the case of David Hare he has in the context of his writing been every bit as contentious and politically outspoken as Pinter (though Hare accepted his knighthood and Pinter did not): “A Map of the World”, “Via Dolorosa”, “The Permanent Way”, “Plenty”, and “Stuff Happens” being a few examples. In this small selection of a prolific output, he has taken on the Israel-Palestinian crisis, world poverty, Donald Rumsfeld and privatisation under the Labour government.
Stoppard also has been equally contentious though more from the right than the left. “Jumpers and Travesties,” among his early work, attack leftist thinkers and he returned to the pre-communist revolutionary circles of Herzen in his latest mammoth trilogy. His TV play “Professional Foul” explored problems of human rights but in the context of being anti-communist in the Cold war of the 1970s. More recently he has been in the forefront of promoting YALCO, a Greek multinational dishware manufacturer. The company, founded in a town called Drama in northern Greece, is sponsoring the theatre in the UK given the shortfalls from Blair’s government for subsidised theatre.
However, Pinter does deserve recognition as an outstanding and original playwright. Standing against state power, which has been a feature of Pinter’s public activity in recent years, has always served writers well when under consideration for the Nobel, as Newsday noted on the day of the announcement:
The Nobel committee has a penchant for rewarding writers who stand against power, notably in rewarding the literature prize to Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1970. There was a similar gesture last year in honouring Elfriede Jelinek. She has castigated her native Austria, as the Nobel citation said, “depicting it as a realm of death in her phantasmagorical novel, ‘Die Kinder der Toten.'” Guenter Grass, the 1999 winner, annoyed German authorities with his critiques of “barbaric” capitalism and by describing German immigration policy as racist. The 1991 laureate, Nadine Gordimer, was a relentless critic of South African apartheid. Wole Soyinka, the 1986 laureate, was a caustic critic of Nigeria’s military regime. Naguib Mahfouz, honored in 1988, had his first novel, “The Children of Gebelawi,” banned as blasphemous in his native Egypt.
The same article went on to quote Guenther Grass: “What is undertaken out of love for one’s country can be taken as soiling one’s nest.” When he spoke out in recent years, Pinter was not soiling the nest he loved. He was a conscientious objector, an old-fashioned Labourite who mistakenly once voted for Thatcher, a great patriot who loved the English countryside and cricket and he married into the Establishment. Language, Pinter once said, is used to cover our nakedness. His language was sparse because too much is normally hidden from view. More should be exposed and opened up for critical assessment. Revealing the world is the job of the playwright and the Nobel jury deserves our thanks in recognising that.
Bio: Simon Stander is the editor-in-chief of the Peace & Conflict Monitor