Published: 08 December 2005
It is a matter for great regret that Harold Pinter was not well enough to travel to Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize in person. It is sad for the prize committee whose choice he was: the absence of any laureate diminishes the occasion. It was sad for his home country, which has the opportunity all too rarely to bask in the glory reflected from a Nobel prize winner in any category, but especially, perhaps, the prize for literature. Above all, it was sad for Pinter himself who, scourge of the establishment that he is, would surely have relished the distinctive and distinguished public forum the week of the Nobel prize ceremony affords.
Pinter, though, is not a man who easily allows himself to be deterred. His prize lecture, recorded in advance, was broadcast here and in Sweden yesterday evening, at the time when he would, under happier circumstances, have delivered it in person. To his immense credit - and to our delight - he was as eloquent, impassioned and outspoken as ever. He may be physically debilitated by illness, but his crusading zeal is in fine fettle.
He gave us an insight into his art, a glimpse - honest and true - of the creative process that gave rise to his plays. And he segued, via political theatre, into the politics of our day and the "lies" that embroiled us in the "bandit act" that was the invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair's Britain he dismissed as "pathetic and supine".
In a ruthlessly coherent indictment of US foreign policy since the Second World War, Pinter accused successive presidents of supporting, and in many cases engendering, "every right-wing military dictatorship in the world". He called for an audit of the lives lost to US power. "How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?"
By no means everyone will accept Pinter's black and white analysis. But he is not a man for greys. He is, and will remain, a figure of controversy.
Assessments of his stature as dramatist and poet diverge. There are those who judge his literary achievements as overrated, who simply fail to see the point. Others - we count ourselves among them - regard him as perhaps the most perceptive dramatic chronicler of our times. There are those, too, who believe - still - that art is for its own sake and that "true" artists inhabit an ethereal world that floats far above the issues of the day. For such critics, social or political activism diminishes the artist. We could not disagree more.
Pinter, as he depicted himself in his prize lecture, is a citizen-artist - and he is indeed, in the full sense of both words. Manifesto and testament at once, this was a Nobel speech for our times.