Sacred Cows

Harold Pinter: from bad to verse

The playwright will not be remembered for his poetry

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When the playwright, cricketer and poet Harold Pinter died in 2008, the tributes were fulsome. The actor Michael Gambon, who appeared in several of his plays, described him as “our God”, and the politician Tony Benn, who shared Pinter’s anti American, anti-New Labour worldview, called him “a great playwright and a great figure on the political scene”.

One person whose thoughts on Pinter’s passing went unrecorded was the satirist Craig Brown, who specialised in mocking the writer’s more portentous utterances. Several years later, Brown remarked in an interview that “I saw [Pinter] at a party across a room, and he made a throttling gesture at me and the hostess said to him, ‘Do you want to punch him?’ and he said, ‘I wouldn’t dirty my fists.’”

Pinter 1, Brown 0, perhaps. But one of the most consistently enjoyable aspects of Brown’s career has been his dedication to pitch-perfect Pinter parodies. At a Private Eye event in 2010, Brown performed some of his work, nursery rhymes written in the taut, menacing style of the Nobel Prize-winner, like so:

Polly, put the kettle on.

Polly, put the kettle on.

Polly, put the kettle on.

Polly, put the kettle on.

Not here, Polly? How many more fucking times do I have to tell you to put that fucking kettle on!

It is, of course, reasonably easy to satirise any well-known playwright with a distinctive style. Anyone from Beckett to Wilde has been guyed and dolled, with varying degrees of affection, and Pinter’s friend Tom Stoppard — the two were united by a mutual love of cricket, rather than any shared political or social views — has gloried in writing wittily allusive works that delight in drawing on the entire history of English drama for their effect.

Yet Pinter’s spare, opaque drama lends itself more easily to parody than most. From his 1957 debut, The Birthday Party, to his final work for stage, 2000’s Celebration, his work contained a collection of tropes that both coined the term “Pinteresque” and, frequently, seemed to verge on self-parody.

To enter Pinterland is to be confronted by a collection of loquacious wrong ’uns, much given to Cockney argot and grandstanding statements of varying degrees of intelligibility. For the most part, the conversation is menacing, the threat of violence ever-present and the storylines limited in scope.

A mysterious woman causes ructions in a tight-knit East End family; two assassins await instructions in a basement; a birthday party in a seaside boarding house is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers. It would be unfair to level the accusation at Pinter’s work that — to quote Vladimir in Waiting for Godot — “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” But his plays are not, it must be said, heavy on exciting twists and edge-of-seat moments of jeopardy.

Whether one cares for Pinter’s early work or not is largely down to personal taste. The “comedies of menace” in which he specialised for the first decade of his career are revived less often than one might expect, but generally attract starry casts and big-name directors when they do. Watched individually, they often feel more akin to acting exercises than to cohesive drama, with big set-piece monologues that give an actor a chance to demonstrate their versatility, but little emotional or intellectual reward.

Pinter developed significantly as a playwright

Pinter developed significantly as a playwright in the Seventies and Eighties and produced his finest work in such “memory plays” as Old Times, No Man’s Land and his masterpiece Betrayal, which can stand alongside any other work of twentieth-century drama. Perhaps it was the shift from the working-class milieu of his earlier plays to the middle-class world of the literati that Pinter (happily married to the aristocratic Lady Antonia Fraser) now inhabited, but the drama felt suddenly as if it had come alive, featuring real characters and emotional stakes, rather than remaining ossified within a fantastical, Morrisseyesque world of rough, tough men and glacial women.

But then, alas, came the poetry. Pinter stated in 1970 that “Sometimes, in poems, I am only dimly conscious of the grounds of my activity, and the work proceeds to its own law and discipline, with me as a go-between, as it were. But as you say, if not conscious, so much the better.”

After he ceased writing drama in 2000, he not only continued to sublimate his urges into poetry, but, in a public forum in Turin in 2006, announced that he would continue to write verse, but not drama. The audience yelled “No!” in unison, which was taken to mean horror at the thought of this East End Prospero laying down his quill; in fact, it now seems likely that they were aghast at the idea of yet more poetry.

His death two years later put a stop to such deathless works as “American Football”, perhaps his best-known poem. It bears reprinting, to understand how deep the decline was:


It works.

We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass

And out their fucking ears.

It works.

We blew the shit out of them.

They suffocated in their own shit!


Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew them into fucking shit.

They are eating it.

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew their balls into shards of dust,

Into shards of fucking dust.

We did it.

Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

A case can be made for “American Football” being of a piece with Pinter’s career-long interest in state violence and oppression; it’s not so very far away from short, angry plays of his such as Mountain Language and One For The Road.

It isn’t very good

Yet the incontestable fact is also that it isn’t very good. Pinter might have been trying to invent a new genre — agitprop poetry — but he also suffered from not being naturally adept at it. In his private papers at the British Library is a long and apparently warm correspondence between him and Philip Larkin. One can only imagine Larkin’s reactions to such poetry.

Should we write Pinter off? Of course not. He was undeniably a major figure, if an overrated one, whose work does have a distinctive and, at its best, mesmeric quality. But its opacity and lack of humanity quickly becomes wearying. He once described his plays as being about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet”, and immediately regretted this moment of clarity. It is hard not to think that he may have been better off, late in life, shrugging and saying “How should I know?” Such candour would have made it altogether easier to warm to this brusque and difficult man.

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