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Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-2005
Harold Pinter

London: Faber and Faber, 2005
£12.99, 266 p., ISBN 0-371-23009-1

Reviewed by Marylin Mell

How can wonder be so fiercely shaken out from a mere handful of words?  Pinter’s recent collection, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-2005, documents a master’s wrestling with language, revealing how words can register simultaneous depth and austerity, teasing out profundity. Here is a snapshot of the evolution of Pinter, sketching how the young man who sat down to write his first play in just four days for the Bristol University drama department became one of the twentieth century’s most influential playwrights. Various Voices offers instruction to a range of prospective readers: it will introduce neophytes to bursts of polemics subdued by lyricism; it will provide theatre buffs tidbits about actors, plays, and post-1950 British theatre production lore; it will reveal to scholars how Pinter’s current political rage was earlier visible in his “comedy of menace” Various Voices encapsulates Pinter’s formative experiences: Jewish childhood in Hackney; teenage film club membership; Joseph Brearley’s casting him in youth productions as Macbeth and Romeo; attendance at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; early publication in Poetry London; touring Ireland with Anew McMaster’s famed Irish repertory troupe; theatre collaboration with Peter Hall; cagily battling those “unnecessary” critics; walking the boards and scribbling plays.

Various Voices was first issued as a collection of Pinter’s non-dramatic writing in 1998. Faber re-issued this collection in 2005, including more of Pinter’s poems, speeches, and anti-war statements. For instance, the essay “Arthur Miller’s Socks” has been added. Here Pinter claims that one of his life’s proudest moments was being tossed out of the American Embassy in Ankara for supporting Miller’s pronouncements that the Turk’s puerile treatment of its most radical writers was unacceptable to PEN. It does not include Pinter’s Nobel lecture “Art, Truth, & Politics” which was prerecorded and telecast from the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on December 7, 2005 and is readily available on the Internet. One of his most controversial poems, “American Football: A Reflection upon the Gulf War” (1991) appears twice. First, it is used as the starting point for his 1992 essay, “Blowing Up the Media.” Second, it appears by itself as part of the volume’s final collection of 10 poems. Some were offended by what they labeled its blunt obscenity, apparent even in the poem’s opening lines:

It works.
We blew the shit out of them [260]

Yet, he powerfully ends this meditation on violence with an intentionally off-putting sweetness:

Now I want you to come over here, and kiss me on the
mouth. [260]

This gesture, this rapid descent from a barrage of bombs to a sweet kiss, intimates how easily violence lapses into a need for tenderness—even if ironically rendered—and it is in this space that Pinter offers his sharpest edge. To be human is to be equally vulnerable to lust and sloth, pleasure and horror, peace and rage. His voice is, in turn, satiric, self-reflective, modest, overbearing, original, and ironically intrigues most at its point of exhaustion. One of the collections' best inclusions is the speech, “Writing for the Theatre,” he delivered at the National Student Drama Festival in 1962 in Bristol. Here he rants against theory, as he analyzes how a play is completed by its audience, and reflects upon the power of the “blank page” to horrify a writer. He announces “each play, was for me, ‘a different kind of failure’” [25]. In “On Being Awarded the German Shakespeare Prize in Hamburg” (1970), Pinter claims that to speak in public is twice as hard as writing a play. Perhaps, he suggests, this is why he once to his regret wryly summarized all of his plays as being “about” “the weasel under the cocktail table” [39]. Language, Pinter muses, can both dazzle and baffle. Yet, it is Pinter’s fascination with the inefficacy of language we absorb as readers. It is where words falter, in the very staging of their exhaustion, that what we most desire to say can be found. “There are two silences. One where no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed” [24]. As speech itself is ruptured, the volcanic underbelly of pent-up emotions and over rehearsed anxieties are dispelled. It seems fittingly tragic, rather than merely sentimental, when Pinter ends his elegy for his former agent Jimmy quoting Hotspur saying, that his death is, “for me, ‘a very limb lopp’d off’” [55].

Various Voices offers analysis on a mix of authors, including Shakespeare, Beckett, and Proust. In his 1950 essay, “A Note on Shakespeare,” Pinter reflects that “Shakespeare writes of the open wound and, through him, we know it open and closed” [5]. The playwright’s power is located in his refusal to turn away from the glare of pain, a refusal to eradicate it. The bard’s sense of the open wound—perhaps a phrase to be equated with how life cuts into the person—is dispersed among his characters. Its weight must be born by all, and Shakespeare’s greatness is seen as rooted in his insistence on the simultaneous validity of these warring vantage points. Pinter proclaims that Shakespeare “turns and bites his own tail. He defecates on his own carpet. He repeats the Bible sideways […] The fabric never breaks. The wound is open. The wound is peopled” [6-7].

In a 1955 letter Pinter tries to understand why his friend loathed an early Waiting for Godot production. Should a dramatist be required to answer the questions he asks? Pinter argues that a play is better judged on its ability to engage an audience. Pinter suggests that the play is about Godot not appearing, and its essence that “the tramps await him” [8]. Reacting to his friend’s resistance, and stirred by his own deep admiration for Samuel Beckett, Pinter intuits that the play is centered on absence and attendance. Every play, the budding playwright concludes, is centered on a dominant question. Here it equates to “what is to be said? All is to be said, nothing is to be said” [9]. Pinter claims that the year he spent writing the screenplay for Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was the best working year of his life. Perhaps, this is why he can summarize in a sentence Proust’s ambitious trilogy: “Marcel, in his forties, hears the hell of his childhood” [45]. The film project languished unmade, but the script was published as The Proust Screenplay in 1977, was later adapted for a BBC3 production, and finally helped to shape the National Theatre of London’s 2000 adaptation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Working with Joe Stephane and Barbara Bray, Pinter concluded that the script’s architecture should follow two simple principles: one principle of movement towards disillusion, based on narrative; the second, a movement “more intermittent, towards revelation, rising to where time that was lost is found, and fixed for ever in art” [44].

Various Voices is divided into 5 sections: I. Prose, II. Prose Fiction, III Poetry, IV. Politics, V. War. By far the most controversial of these sections is the poetry. At 74, Pinter declared he would write no more plays, but would focus on writing poems. Although many have scoffed at Pinter’s poetry, it surfaces as a genre essential to his writing self. Various Voices contains the poem, “New Year in the Midlands,” he published in Poetry London when he was 20; the collection ends with a re-printing of ten of the poems Faber published in War (2003.). Recently, the British scholar Linda Renton has lobbied for the pivotal importance of an early unpublished Pinter “prose poem,” “August Becomes,” which begins with this quotation from Andre Breton, “This summer the roses are blue; /  the wood is made of glass,” and then glosses it: “Seeing eyes contained in the anchor of the day, the weed in the sky and the heart, I walk holding dust in a glass bowl” ("Vision and Desire in Harold Pinter's Unpublished Poem 'August Becomes'," The Pinter Review, Collected Essays 1999 and 2000, 59-66).

Renton argues that here Pinter reveals his debt to how Surrealists saw the world. As a dramatist, Pinter’s occasional poems seem to please most easily. “It is Here,” a poem apparently dedicated to his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, successfully depicts how a man’s first fascination for his lover lingers: “What was the sound that came in on the dark? […] It was the breath we took when we first met” [169]. In “Chandeliers and Shadows,” a quote from the Duchess of Malfi leads him to reflect how the “eyes of a queen germinate in this brothel” [123]. Pinter employs here a signature move, a juxtaposition centered in irony, as he positions a queen in a brothel so we can watch her squirm. Invoking emotion by staging conflict occurs in the “Book of Mirrors.” The poem begins in confusion and nostalgia as the poet declares “My book is crammed with the dead / Youths of years” [123].  It ends approaching ironic resolution:

May they breathe sweet; the shapes
That ounced my glad weight
With ripe and century fingers,
That locked the skeleton years
With a gained grief [128]

Certainly, Pinter’s bursts of lyricism seem to have afforded more brilliant results in his plays. Yet, the poet in Pinter could not be suppressed, and so his poems reveal a writer who is constantly experimenting with emotion and its forms. Writing poetry seems to have afforded Pinter the playwright a chance to strike hot and cold at great speed.

In Section IV "Politics," Pinter unleashes his fury. In “The US Elephant Must Be Stopped” Pinter quotes the American President Lyndon Johnson on the Cyprus problem: “America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fellows continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good” [185].
Pinter calls out the US for its arrogance and contempt for international law. In “Oh, Superman” he rants against US involvement in Central America, especially Nicaragua. In “The US and El Salvador” Pinter queries why is it that over seventy-five thousand died in El Salvador in a decade and a half and no one seems to care [206]. Pinter’s antipathy for Tony Blair is expressed in “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister” published in The Guardian. Several essays record his outrage over the Iraqi war. In his March 2005 acceptance speech for the Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry, Pinter declares that no other poet has as eloquently articulated the tragedy, horror, or pity of war. Yet, he expresses his anger that nearly a hundred years after Owen’s death “the world has become more savage, more brutal, more pitiless” [247].

What we see in Various Voices is an exploration of Pinter’s passions. He can be sharp and sweet in quick step as demonstrated by his tribute to “Mac,” the famed Irish repertory troupe leader Anew McMaster. A cold Yeatsian eye measures the man who may have been his greatest drama coach. Mac, he admits, was never a good Hamlet, but his Othello was masterful. One Saint Patrick’s evening in Limerick, two thousand drunks stumbled into the theatre. For the first half, Pinter recalls, they barely listened. Pinter playing Iago that night was dumbstruck, but Mac bided his time. He knew that he would be able to silence the drunks when Othello has his fit. Pinter recalls, “he tore into the fit. He made the play his and the place his” [30]. As Mac spoke his lines, the theatre silenced and the patrons were pulled into sobriety.

Buried in these reminiscences is the youth who learned from Mac that theatre was a commercial enterprise where repeated failure to connect to audiences forecasts disaster. In this collection of poetry and prose, theatrical reviews and polemics, Harold Pinter constructs his geometry of drama. If as Pinter claims, every play is ultimately about characters being “subjected to alteration” [40], Various Voices is a must read for those curious to know what shaped this bard.


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